The Sunset Campaign

by Starscribe

First published

Sunset Shimmer dreamed of bringing her knowledge back to Equestria, but not as an invader. If she wants Equestria to survive, she's going to have to help the humans save it—without helping them become its new rulers.

Sunset Shimmer's plan to escape the Steel Tower failed—but she is still returning home. Instead of a victorious pony, come back to gloat to her previous teacher about the secrets she had uncovered, she is an adviser to one of the most dangerous men alive: Tesla.

But it isn't a simple invasion; Equestria is under attack by demonic forces, and the Steel Tower has been invited to help. But there's another faction of humans in Equestria, one that is still at war, and one who Sunset suspects are plotting terrible things...

She isn't alone. One of her human friends, now trapped as a cybernetic bat pony, is sent on a covert mission of her own. Equestria may depend on them in ways they never could've realized.

Updates Thursdays.

This story is meant as a companion to Harmony Defended, and to take the place of the long-anticipated revision. I decided it would be better to write something new than to overhaul something that was so long in itself. This story will probably spoil various elements of that one, though the reverse will largely not be true. If all of this seems confusing, you should probably start with my first story in this series, My Little Apprentice. As that story was written in Season 4, this one will not necessarily incorporate the canon of future seasons of Friendship is Magic.

The Sunset Campaign was sponsored by Two Bit on my Patreon, who is generously sponsoring me to clean up my tangled web of previous stories. Sparktail and Two Bit did the editing, and Zutcha did the cover.

Chapter 1: Turing Complete

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Sunset Shimmer came through the portal last, with the other members of the Technocratic Order. They would be arriving in this new world at the end of the group, once the legionaries and the knights had secured the other side.

She didn’t exactly have clear memories of her trip across last time. She had drifted in a space her mind did not clearly comprehend, felt incredible pain, and then arrived in the Builders’ world. The process of travel had transformed her into one of them—at least, by the time she woke up. There was some part of her that wished the reverse would be true of her arrival in Equestria. Maybe she and all the other humans would be ponies when they arrived, and the war would turn out to be entirely fictitious.

She walked out of the other side of the portal, down a flat metal ramp and into scorching sunshine—and she did it on two legs.

Still, Sunset slowed as she made her way down, eyes scanning a familiar horizon. She’d never been here, but she recognized Canterlot in the distance, and the many other mountains in the Canterhorn range. There was no deception here—Tesla hadn’t promised her lies in order to trick her into cooperating. I’m home.

“Keep moving,” grunted an annoyed voice from behind her—one of the many technocrats in identical robes. She hurried on, muttering an apology for blocking the way.

Then she realized where she was standing. A city of sorts—or the start of one, with a great invisible line down the center.

The half nearer to her was the more familiar—with the various Builder bodies wearing either legionary’s armor, the thicker powered-armor of the knights, or the robes of technocrats. There were stretched canvas tents, folding equipment, and legionaries busy setting up camp. Many of them stood with their rifles at the ready, not quite aiming at the other half.

She expected ponies over there—this would be a joint military camp, right? The Equestrian army would be assembling, and they’d go to war against some new enemy together. But the ones on the other side of the line didn’t look like Builders or like ponies.

It was their imperfections that stood out first. After so long among the Builders with their perfect bodies, it was strange to see irregularity again. Faces that weren’t perfectly symmetrical, balding heads and the wrinkles of aging. Like the ponies that she had spent her whole life around, only they weren’t. They were still shaped like Builders—two legs, two arms, predator’s faces and tiny eyes. Taller than she was, taller than—she immediately looked down, worried that she’d lost her companion.

But if the trip across had done anything, it seemed that it had persuaded Jackie to move even closer to her, standing right beside her leg with wings spread in obvious agitation. She still wasn’t very good at hiding her feelings, even now.

“Jackie, what the hell are those?” She nodded across the way, to a gray-eyed woman in a black and white uniform. She seemed to be directing the other faction of Builders, because she spoke with a voice of confident command.

“Those?” Jackie seemed confused by the question at first, at least until she followed Sunset’s eyes. Then she started laughing. Well, laughing over the radio. Their whole conversation had been silent so far. “My god, I can’t believe you can’t tell. Those are real humans, Sunset. The kind that I used to be. The kind with real blood and real sex and all the other great things that come from being alive. Sweat and piss and sleep and… the whole package.”

Sunset’s eyebrows went up. “Those are the things you’re using to sell it.”

The bat pony relaxed, one of her self-satisfied grins returning. “It might not sound that great from here, but think about how satisfying it is to finally get some sleep after a long day. Nothing we do quite captures that feeling, does it? All the imperfections make being alive worth it, you know?”

“You, attaché,” said an unfriendly voice. “Tesla is waiting for you.” He pointed in the direction of their camp, somewhere deep into the identical tents. “Find him quickly. Transport to the native capital is waiting, and he wants you on it. Haul ass.”

Sunset Shimmer wasn’t exactly happy to have one of the soldiers talking to her this way so soon after returning home. She needed time to soak it in, and she wasn’t a soldier! But the word capital stuck in her mind, and instantly any annoyance melted away. The soldier could be as crude as he wanted if she got to see Canterlot again.

“Not you,” he said, sticking out a hand to stop Jackie as she made to follow. “The native model is supposed to stay behind. I had explicit instructions.”

Jackie didn’t argue—apparently she had the same idea of their odds of winning that as Sunset did. “Bring me back a postcard,” she said, her voice flat.

“You’ll get to see it, I’m sure,” she responded over the radio again. “I’ll try to bring back information on what the hell is going on.”

Sunset left. Unlike all the old ways of finding someone, she had the transponder system, which told her exactly where Tesla was waiting. She jogged straight there, without feeling even a hint of tiredness. Even outside the Infinite Realm these bodies had advantages.

There was a vehicle waiting for them—a hexacopter, larger than any other single craft she’d seen since stepping out of the portal. It looked a little like it had come through in different segments, then been assembled here. There was a row of inward-facing seats against each wall, most of which were occupied by legionaries. Except for the back seats, where technocrats in white robes marked with a single red symbol carried heavy-looking packs.

“Here, Natasha,” said Tesla near the front, gesturing at the space beside him. “I have questions.”

Sunset winced as she heard the fake name, but she couldn’t exactly argue with the logic. If one of the soldiers walking around Equestria had a pony name, particularly one that had been known by as many as had known her, their little trick would be discovered.

She reached up, squeezing her necklace with two fingers, and heard a voice from within. “Your world is amazing, Sunset.”

“Just wait until you see Canterlot.”

Sunset nodded to Tesla, hurrying over to take the seat beside him. The door slammed closed behind her, and all the propellers started to spin. She had the feeling it was loud enough that it would’ve hurt, except that her ears just washed it out, making it seem as though the voices of the soldiers and technocrats were at ordinary volume. “I’m going to need information.”

Tesla answered on a private radio channel, and she immediately switched to it herself. “The capital was just attacked, Natasha. You can’t see the fires from this distance, but you should be able to once we get closer.”

“Canterlot? No way. We’re near the center of the continent.” Because that protected us so well before.

Tesla reached into midair, plucking a few images from nothing and tossing them to her. They stuck in the air as though they were still in the Infinite Realm. They were video files, and each one played when she looked at it.

She watched from inside the throne room as a massive dragon ripped through the ceiling, shattering centuries of priceless stained glass as it went, before the camera was crushed by rubble and went black. There were several more angles, including one running through the garden beside a group of Royal Guards, staring up at the sky as an airship dropped firebombs.

The longest video by far was marked simply “Richard,” and seemed to be taken directly beside Celestia. It was so strange to view the princess from an angle over her head, but there was no mistaking it. She watched out someone else’s eyes as they fought beside the princess of the sun.

Richard was a mighty warrior, up there with Flash Magnus and Leo the Bold.

Tesla’s expression grew satisfied, but he didn’t rush her as she watched. He didn’t say anything until she finished the last video. “As I said, your capital was attacked. I require information about the ones attacking it. They are the ones we will be opposing during this campaign, and it is my responsibility to ensure that our troops are prepared to meet them.”

“We better hope there aren’t very many of these.” Sunset scrubbed backward through the footage, until she found a clear image of the dragon. She’d been through Builder school now—she knew the Datamancy required to select only the dragon, removing the background. She highlighted the runes on his body, even though they were already glowing.

“Stars and stones,” Sunset swore, once she’d finished copying over all of them. “Uruz… shash… Hagalaz…” She shivered, and might’ve had to fight back her stomach if she could still get sick. Even looking at magic this dark would’ve caused discomfort in the past. But she felt nothing now. Of course I don’t.

“Yes yes, I’m sure it’s impressive.” Tesla waved an annoyed hand through the air. “But you need to focus. Explain this to me. Thoroughly.”

The sound of rotors outside seemed to stretch, from a shrill whine to a dull, constant hum.

“You just… I thought Datamancy couldn’t bend time outside of the Realm?” Her mouth didn’t move as she spoke, though. Neither did her hands, though she wanted them to.

“Perception can be altered,” he explained, his voice sounding as though he were trying to be patient with a child. “Your body cannot move and most field models are not designed with the heat dissipation in mind to continue for long. But the trip is not long and I intend to be informed when we land.”

Sunset explained. Tesla wanted to know everything, but at first she ran up against the limits of her own education several times. Dragons were rare and dangerous creatures, and not much was known about them in Equestria outside of the dates of their migrations and their roles in past wars.

But she could be more useful explaining the dark magic. “This spell made him basically unkillable,” she finished, after what felt like hours of grilling. “But it wouldn’t have lasted much longer. Another hour, maybe two, and he would’ve died. It’s strange… dragons live so much longer than ponies, it’s hard to imagine why this one would’ve been willing to die. The glory of killing Celestia, but… he wouldn’t be around to enjoy it for long. I don’t understand the strategy of it either. They weren’t going to capture Canterlot with three ships. What happened to those?”

Tesla replaced her dragon image with another sequence, though this one was from far away and turned jagged on the edges from digital zoom. “Two were destroyed, this one got away. An Equestrian airship followed it.”

Sunset tried to get a good look at which of the Solar Fleet’s ships had followed, hoping to get a better idea of their chances, but no luck. If anything, Tesla seemed eager to show her as little as possible, because he banished all those images and replaced them with a few more. Like before, these were taken from the video.

“What about these creatures? I take it these are more common than the dragons?”

“Yes.” Sunset spent what felt like several more hours explaining griffons and goblins to Tesla, though at least she could provide more satisfying information on their culture and capabilities.

By the time she finished and the sound of the rotors went back to high-pitched whining, Sunset was panting and it felt like waves of heat were rising from every breath. She twitched, and this time her hands responded. She held one out, feeling hot air blow past her fingers.

“I’m… out of breath,” she said, and was a little surprised by the fear she felt. “I thought we didn’t get that way.”

“We don’t,” Tesla said. “Time is only a matter of perception, Sunset. Think quickly, move slowly. Your brain, like all computers, produces heat, and more of it when calculating more quickly.” He seemed completely unaffected, though he had been thinking just as quickly as she was. How could he do that? But even as he spoke, he seemed to abruptly lose interest, turning to stare off at nothing.

Sunset didn’t need to know the first thing about the Infinite Realm to know something more important than her had just taken his attention. So she relaxed, using a bit of basic Datamancy to make the reverse wall vanish and give her a view of the outside.

Her timing could not have been more perfect. There through the steel was Canterlot, almost exactly as she remembered it.

The fires were new, along with the cursory damage to a few buildings. If she had wondered whether or not the footage she saw was real, she no longer had to—the roof of the throne room was indeed caved in, with a huge pile of rubble rolling over the gardens. She thought she could make out the repair work already underway, though it was hard to be sure from this distance. It might just be ponies there to gawk.

Sunset gripped the necklace again with two fingers, hoping that Twilight was looking. “That’s Canterlot. Except for the attack, I mean. Where I grew up.”

They were circling above the city, passing over many of the taller buildings and gawking pony faces beneath. She hoped the pegasus ponies had enough good sense to stay away from them—if they chased, they might get sucked into the propellers.

But she saw no sign of followers getting close—there were royal guards in the distance, but they seemed to be keeping the crowds back.

“It’s beautiful,” Twilight replied, her voice awed. But then, she didn’t exactly have lots of memories to compare against. “It’s like one of those old German cities. Medieval buildings upgraded over the years. That’s a lot of ponies down there.”

“Everyone,” Sunset thought back. “Except us, I guess. And a few ambassadors. But something must’ve gone wrong with them, or else we wouldn’t have been attacked. I wonder what would change with the dragons since I left.”

But she didn’t hear Twilight’s reply, because Tesla shook her by the shoulder. From his annoyed expression, he’d been trying to talk to her for at least a few seconds now, and she hadn’t heard him.

“Child, come back.”

She blinked, let go of her necklace, and her eyes focused on him. “Sorry, I was—”

“I don’t care.” He waved a hand. “It’s expected that everyone in my organization will be connected. We each have many sources of information and must manage them all. But don’t forget we’re going into a warzone. If I were one of the dirtborn, I would’ve had cyberflux in your arm already and you’d be scrap metal. If you’re having trouble, write a program to get your attention when anything happens around you. Plenty of my scribes use them, and they’re far more experienced than you are.”

Sunset had already tried to apologize. All she could do was nod, feeling her face flush.

The wall on the other side of the hexacopter was still transparent, so she could see the grassy field, and the ancient statues. There were soldiers gathered outside, shuffling around with relieved expressions.

“Since you weren’t listening, let me begin again. There’s been a change of plans.” They landed with a rough thump, almost dislodging her from her seat. The magnetic restraints kept her in place until a few seconds later, when everyone else already seated started moving.

“You saw the footage—you know that our great king requires medical attention. Unfortunately, he’s become possessed of… some rather absurd notions, and wishes for… someone else to perform the repairs, someone not associated with any order.” At that moment, one of the scribes in white robes sloughed off his pack, letting it down on the steel deck in front of her with a thump. He looked even more annoyed than Tesla.

“The royal maintenance program,” he said, offering a little glowing wafer. Sunset recognized it as one of the latest variety, the holographic disks that stored data permanently by etching glass. “I’m not happy about this, Tesla.”

“Neither am I,” he said, nodding towards her. “Go on, take them both. There is an adorable little zoo animal in pretend armor waiting outside to take you to the king’s temporary quarters. You will go there, and you will repair his body. I suggest you master what that crystal contains on the way.”

Sunset took the crystal first, flicking it over in her hands before hiding it away in a pocket. There was no need to plug it into any access ports—merely being in proximity was enough for her to sense its contents.

Her eyes widened as she realized what she was feeling—a space that dwarfed the one on her necklace. It was as big as Celestia’s whole school for gifted unicorns, filled to the brim with classes and machines and programs for fixing damaged bodies.

Sunset Shimmer had not previously understood how the Builders’ immortal bodies worked, but she soon would.

The one in white robes—whom she now recognized as a medic—cleared his throat in annoyance, hefting the pack in one hand. Not just a pack, but a field-surgical reassembly apparatus, precisely 110.3 kilos and equipped to take any body short of someone who’d been hit by a nuke and return them to working order.

Sunset took it in one hand, feeling the enormous strain. Her arm took it easily, but the sudden imbalance nearly made her fall over onto her face. Only Tesla catching her other arm with both of his prevented that. Instead of falling all the way, she fell so that her head was inches away from his.

The engineer held her in his vice-like fingers, and his voice came in over private radio. “Do not forget our conversations. While in Richard’s presence, your life hangs in the balance. Don’t think for one second he would spare you. Ask him about the way he punishes the digital smugglers if you don’t believe me.”

Then he helped her rise, and smiled a smile as friendly as any human could. “Go on then, Natasha. Our noble king needs you.”

Activity swirled outside the hexacopter—Sunset couldn’t possibly follow all of it, so she didn’t even try. Each group of people had their own false-color highlights, illuminating their roles and suggesting what parts of the ground she should avoid. As a result Sunset probably looked like an expert dancer, dodging out of the way of legionaries as they emerged with crates of gear, or stepping back just in time to avoid a stretcher with a soldier covered by white cloth resting on it.

With a shrug of her shoulders, Sunset pulled the pack into place. Her arms could lift its enormous weight on their own, but considering it weighed almost as much as her whole body, that weight would be better distributed.

Her own target lit up in gold, and not just because he was wearing bright gold Solar Guard armor. She stopped in front of him, grinning politely. “Spear Point! I think you’re supposed to take me to the king. You… are waiting for me, aren’t you?”

“They told you my name?” the guard asked, raising an eyebrow. He hadn’t taken off his helmet, and watched the activity around the helicopter with unveiled suspicion.

Horesefeathers. They hadn’t, obviously, but she knew him well. Living in the castle meant that she had plenty of time to get to know most of the regulars. “Yeah,” she lied lamely. “Sure did.” Then she stuck out her hand. “I’m, uh, Natasha. I’ll be the king’s doctor by the time we get upstairs.”

At least, she certainly hoped so. She was learning as quickly as she could, watching the lectures and mentally completing review problems. She was panting scorching hot air again, probably burning through her power supply. But just like the storage medium didn’t need to be wired for it to be in use, Sunset’s own body would remain charged so long as she stayed near Steel Tower machines. And she was learning why even as she spoke to him.

“You’re weird,” Spear Point said, staring up at her hand. It was much closer to his head level than it was to hoof level. By the time she realized that, he was already turning away. “But that’s none of my business. Come with me. Canterlot Castle can be confusing to newcomers, and that’s without the wreckage of an attack.”

She followed him into the west wing, stooping a little as they entered. But mostly that was for the pack high on her shoulders—Canterlot Castle was built to accommodate Alicorns, and she had no worries about being able to fit inside it.

As she had expected, the castle was on the edge of tearing itself apart. Soldiers ran up and down the halls, escorting diplomats and ushering work crews and trying to make sense of what had just happened. They passed a crowd of court supplicants, muttering in angry voices about the delay to their petitions to the crown.

But in some ways, it was exactly the castle she had left behind. Her return would not be quite as triumphant as she expected.

Would Celestia recognize me? Did she ask the builders about me? Part of her feared she would—but then some other part didn’t mind that so much. Maybe she wanted to be punished for what she’d done, so long as she could be a pony again at the end of it.

But she didn’t see any sign of any princesses during her walk. Just lots of diplomats, and ponies who stared at her as though she were a dragon herself.

Eventually they came to a door with a single human outside and a pair of pony guards. He stood at rigid attention, holding his rifle in both hands as though he were expecting an inspection. His body was bulkier than hers, made more so by the thick armor he wore under his cloak.

Stars and stones, I recognize him! She’d seen this knight once before, searching for his stolen sword. He looked older now, braver. His body was scorched in places, but he didn’t seem to care.

“Your king is inside,” said Spear Point. “As we agreed, this room has no windows, no other entrances. You will not be disturbed. His clothing is being repaired by the royal seamstress as we speak.”

“That’s… great,” Sunset muttered. “That’s real great, thank you Spear Point.” She walked past him, went for the door, but the armored knight blocked her.

“I know you,” he said, eyes narrowing. “What are you doing here, Sunset?”

Of course he does. Unlike ponies, Builders’ memories were perfect. He would remember her as clearly as she knew him. Sunset tensed briefly at the use of her name, something that Spear Point would certainly remember too—but he hadn’t reacted. He moved back against the wall, and if anything he looked bored.

He doesn’t speak English, stupid.

“I was sent as a… doctor?” She tapped her backpack with one hand, using English too. “Ask the king, ask Tesla. I’m the one they called.” For some reason. I only know as much as I figured out on the way up here.

Through that door was the ruler of all mankind—the one who had stolen Jackie’s life away. The one that had saved his species from extinction. He was more of a lion than a pony, a predator of the greatest danger. And if he discovered what Sunset had done to his people, she would be his next victim.

Sir Charles Gray shook his head, annoyed. But he stepped out of the way. “If you try to do anything to harm our king, you will be dead before you finish,” he said. “You have my word on it.”

“I’m a doctor,” she said again. “Well, I am now. Kinda? Look, I don’t want to be here either. I’m just doing what Tesla told me to.”

She reached for the handle again, but this time the knight didn’t stop her. She pushed it open, and stepped into the small room.

There was only a single candle inside, and a bed that wasn’t quite large enough for the one resting on it. This room looked like it might’ve been used to house a griffon, based on the scratching post and smell of meat eaten long ago. That smell didn’t bother her anymore, somehow.

A figure sat beside the candle, facing away from her in the gloom. Even across the room, she could see the terrible damage to his body. The skin of his arms had melted away in places, revealing the musculature beneath.

If you were organic, you would be begging for death with injuries like that. But for their bodies, pain was only another kind of information. It could be switched off, and would be whenever it got inconvenient.

“Are you the one I asked for?”

“Yeah,” Sunset squeaked. “I mean, I think so? Tesla sent me, and he didn’t seem happy about it. I’m not going to be as good a doctor as his.”

“That might be,” the king said. Then he turned around.

Sunset felt herself stiffen, as she was struck with the same impression she’d felt once before. She had seen the statue erected to honor this man, on the grounds of a school. But looking into his eyes—this man was to the other Builders like an Alicorn was to a pony.

His green eyes looked into hers, weighed down with the wisdom of terrible suffering. He was easily the largest human she’d ever seen, seven feet tall with arms thicker than her neck. His beard had been burned off in places, and the skin beneath had turned black.

“I saw what you did,” Sunset found herself saying. She set the pack down on the ground at her feet. Shut up shut up shut up. But just like with Princess Celestia, she couldn’t shut up. “When you fought alongside Celestia. You saved her life.”

He chuckled, resting one hand on the sword sitting next to him on the huge bed. Strange colors danced along its edges, like the flames of dragonfire frozen in place forever. Sunset had seen melted armor and swords in museums, relics of the last war with dragons. The king’s sword was only scorched. “I think we saved each other. Call it a cooperative effort.”

“Why?” Sunset Shimmer advanced on him, having to look up into his face even though he was sitting down. “You’re a predator. With the princess gone, you could’ve expanded your kingdom. You wouldn’t have had to hurt her, even. You would be innocent when you took Equestria for yourself.”

King Richard tensed visibly at her words, clutching one hand into a fist. “I suppose I did wonder if you were the one I asked for. That’s an effective demonstration, thank you.”

“Why?” she asked again, advancing on him. “Why didn’t you?”

King Richard reached to one side, lifting the sword, turning it over and running one melted finger along the blade. “Strength alone is not reason to act, Equestrian. There have been many with power over the years. Many act because they can, not because they should. Why do you think I rule mankind?”

She spluttered—none of her ideas of an answer seemed like wise things to say.

“Because I rule them best. I am the reason that humanity survives. It was my watchful eye that discovered the corruption in the UEF. I developed the technique that made mankind immune to unwitting corruption, to decay itself.”

He leaned towards her, eyes burning. “Tell me another man or woman could do what I have done.” A transmission appeared before her—and unlike the simple videos she’d been sending back and forth with Tesla’s scribes, this one didn’t wait for her approval. She was swallowed by a memory.

She saw a Builder city before the end of their world, spectacular glass skyscrapers and a sky full of flying vehicles. Green parks and avenues of trees, millions of people.

Then she saw something terrible appear in the central transit station, something her pony instincts recognized much better than her education among the Builders.

It was a hole in the universe, ripped by the worst outsiders dark magic could call. Tentacles of the abyss tore their way through a Builder train-station, turning everything they touched into mindless slaves or willing soldiers.

Then she saw Richard’s army, led by their armored king. They were immune to the Outsiders’ touch as only Alicorns could be, and they contained it. She watched the brutal siege in seconds, as thousands of the king’s men fought and died beside him. Until the sun rose on a scarred city, with streets filled with the dead. And the human authorizes locked King Richard in irons.

The vision ended, and Sunset was left with her mouth hanging open. She had no response to the king’s anger now.

That seemed to satisfy him. “Perhaps now you are wise enough to wonder: why wouldn’t I prefer to summon one of my skilled doctors? They would treat my wounds more effectively than you could. This is true.” He leaned close to her again. “But I can sense the corruption, Sunset Shimmer. My sensors suggest nothing, but my soul shudders. Tesla and I knew we had created a humanity immune to the Outsider’s unwitting influence. That does not mean they can’t give themselves willingly.”

“You know who I am,” she finally stammered. “Where I came from. You think I wouldn’t—”

“That’s right,” he said. “I think very highly of the Equestrians I have known. They wouldn’t have sold themselves to our enemies—no, not the dragons, not the goblins and the griffons. The ones who strangle joy and bring the night that never ends. Am I wrong?”

“No.” At least this time she didn’t have to think about it. “I wouldn’t do that. I’m not Princess Luna. I won’t ever be like her.”

Richard laughed again, apparently relaxing. “I wouldn’t say that too loudly. She’s just down the hall, I think. Marshaling the army.”

Before sunset could make more of a fool of herself, the king nodded towards her pack. “Perhaps we can continue this conversation after you treat me. I’ll be appearing beside Celestia in a few minutes, and I think Equestrians would be better off seeing a king that doesn’t look like he was just barbequed.”

She nodded hastily, and finally went to work. The pack opened at her touch, revealing all the tools she would need to complete her assigned task. She began to work, cutting away the damaged flesh and control circuits and replacing them one at a time. What would’ve been a struggle even for her unicorn magic her hands could do easily, as precise as any tools she’d ever seen in the hooves of the finest craftsponies.

“I don’t know what Tesla will have you do,” King Richard said, his voice unaffected by his position. “I could take you for myself, but that would spoil your usefulness. I don’t believe we will get another opportunity like this.”

“You’re the king,” she said, matter-of-factly. “Just throw whoever you think is bad into the dungeon.”

This time his laughter seemed genuinely amused. “Isn’t there still a class on legal theory for all our new converts?” He didn’t wait for her answer. “No, I can’t. Due process demands evidence for a crime. When you have a minute pull up a history database and search for the Magna Carta. I suppose Equestria may never have needed to limit the power of its monarchs, if you only ever had perfect, immortal rulers. Earth’s history is more… colorful.”

“Finished, um… Your Highness. At least, I think so. I’m new at this…”

He rolled over, staring up at her. “Humanity will not sacrifice its soul to survive, Sunset. Even against the Outsiders. We will survive because we refuse to do that. Our principles, our ethics will be why in a thousand years this war is just a memory, and we have spread to the distant stars.”

But if you do, where does that leave us?

“I have a feeling about you, Sunset Shimmer,” said King Richard, when the job was finished and she had put his broken body back together again. “I think you have sensed what troubles me, or you will soon. When you do, I want to know.” He reached into nowhere, removing an invisible sphere of data. A program, wrapped in a protocol so secure she’d seen it only once before. Around the knight’s digital sword.

He tossed it to her, and Sunset caught it in one hand.

“Do not run that program until you discover something you want me to know. It’s an exploit that’s been lurking in our mesh-relay subroutines since… god, I don’t even know. But the thing about a zero-day is that we only really get one use. Do not contact me in any other way—no petitions, no hints that you might be my eyes. Understand?”

Sunset Shimmer nodded, tucking the little program away into her necklace. It wasn’t very large—Twilight wouldn’t mind. It was the one place she could think of that would be so uninteresting to Tesla that he wouldn’t check.

She was no longer worried about Richard taking over Equestria. “I think I changed my mind about him, Twilight. I think he might be a good king.”

Chapter 2: Block Cipher

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Jackie was bored.

Even as she realized this, there was something in her that rebelled at the thought. Here she was, among the first human travelers to an alien universe. She was one of the first to have befriended one of the aliens, and even had one of their bodies. How could she be bored?

All around her, two camps were rising. Across an invisible gulf were the people she had wanted to rejoin for her whole life—the people to whom she was probably just a vanishing statistic in the casualties of war. But she wouldn’t be allowed to wander from the Steel Tower, not just because of what they probably thought she would reveal, but also because the real humans wanted nothing to do with her.

But there was one direction the legionaries and UEF marines didn’t watch—back towards the pony settlement.

That was the one element Jackie could explore at her leisure. So long as she didn’t let any of them look at her too closely in her modified Technocratic Order robes, she would probably look just like they did. Thanks to Sunset Shimmer their language wasn’t much trouble for her either.

So she wandered, away from the synthetic people and their synthetic camp.

This was the alien part of the alien world. There was no sense staying cooped up in a human city when there were so many more interesting things so close.

As it turned out, the natives were just as active in their own way. Carts full of wood were arriving from down a dirt road, pulled by ponies all the way.

They looked just as Sunset’s illusions had made her expect, with a few distinct varieties and possibly an informal caste system to go with it. And Jackie knew more about it than almost every human in the camp.

She kept glancing over her shoulder, looking to see if any of the Technocratic Order or its legionaries would come to drag her back. But so far, none of them had. She wandered closer to the ponies.

There were soldiers here too, though she hadn’t noticed them at first. She’d thought they were actors, or maybe serving a ceremonial role. They wore gold armor, and carried spears and shields. No guns in sight. But they were big and strong compared to the other ponies, and the natives clearly looked at them with respect. This isn’t the pony army, is it? No wonder they got invaded.

Some part of her wondered if maybe she should do something about it. She knew what the Steel Tower was like—the real invasion would be theirs, taking away the lives and magic from all these natives, turning them into robots like herself. Empty, soulless husks.

“Excuse me,” said a voice from beside her, surprising her enough that she spread her wings and jumped a little. Whoever it was spoke in the Equestrian language, not one of the many butchered flavors of English.

Jackie turned, and her eyes widened as she saw the one who’d spoken. A pegasus, with a gray coat and blue eyes. Real, feathery wings, and… lots of other things. Well I guess that solves that. Yes, they can be hot. If her old self had heard that thought, she might’ve puked.

How is this worse than the furry servers? Or anywhere else I’ve been? I’m just a damn robot anyway.

“Hey,” she said, straightening and trying to look more confident than she felt. “Know anywhere to get a good drink around here? I’d love to buy you something.”

The pegasus choked back a sound that wasn’t quite a laugh, shaking her head. “I, uh… I’ve never met you before, Miss…”

“Jackie,” she said, advancing towards her. She wasn’t quite as tall as the pegasus—probably something to do with being a bat—but she thought she probably looked okay by comparison. If only she wasn’t wearing such a bulky robe. “And hey, problem solved. What’s your name?”

“On duty,” she said, raising an eyebrow. “I was going to ask you how you got through the security perimeter, Miss ‘Jackie.’ But I’m getting the feeling that you might not be from around here either.”

“I’m not.” She flicked her tail towards the camp. “I’m pony designation 0x001. We are the Borg, lower your shields and… you sure you don’t want a drink?”

“More now than I was.” The guardspony reached out with a wing, but it was only to pull Jackie’s hood down, staring into her eyes. “Damn, that’s impressive. You’re a robot. That disguise is almost as convincing as…” She trailed off.

“It’s not a disguise!” she argued, raising her voice a little in her frustration. “It’s the only body I have, and it’s quite frustrating.” She held up one hoof. “Look at this. You know there aren’t any claws hidden in this. No retractable fingers, nothing. It’s just… flat. What you see is what you get. I don’t know who designed this, but it’s a joke.”

The guard shook her head. “Well, Miss Jackie, I’m the new official liaison to Normandy. My name is Amber Sands—which you’ll only be using in an official capacity. I’m supposed to introduce myself to the powers on both sides and make myself available for their needs.”

“I’ve got a few needs,” Jackie said at once, before she could realize how silly it sounded.

Amber ignored her. “I probably don’t need to remind you that you aren’t allowed to leave the designated boundary for Normandy without signing out at the barracks and in the company of an official escort. You’re two meters across the boundary right now.”

“Oh.” Jackie glanced over her shoulder, and there was indeed a bright red line now surrounding the camp. Whatever it represented, its official existence had only just been recognized. “That wasn’t there before.”

“Maybe you didn’t know,” Amber said, gesturing again. “So I’m telling you. Either go back to your side or sign out at the guard barracks. Which will… be built by tomorrow, I’m pretty sure. It’s mostly just a guard tent now.”

Jackie beamed at her. “Alright, Amber. I’m sure we’ll talk again real soon.” She turned and left, before she could make any more of a fool of herself. I wonder if I could sneak into town without getting caught. I guess I’d have to worry about that guard catching me.

If they kept her here for much longer, they’d probably have to put a leash on her. Or I could figure out how to make these wings fly for real. Stranger things had happened.

“What do you mean I can’t have one?” Sunset Shimmer probably sounded a little childish as she asked. But she was so suddenly upset that she didn’t really care. A few centimeters through the glass was an end to all her struggles with her body—everything she needed to have her magic back, and to be alive again, and everything else. She couldn’t feel the magic radiating from them, even though she could read the powerful runes with ease.

This was Imperial magic, magic that could make her a pony again. It was within reach, just through a thin layer of glass. And on the other side of the counter was a mad demigod, who clearly knew why she wanted what he had made.

“Sorry there, uh… Natasha.” He snapped something onto the counter before her, practically beaming at her. “But if you look right here, you’ll see you aren’t on the list. You can talk to your superiors about that, because it’s not my decision to make.”

She spun around, glaring back through the doorway at Tesla. He was wearing one of the damn bracelets right now, she could see the metal on his wrist. He stared down at it as though it were a spider perched on his arm, ready to bite at any moment. No, there was none of the mockery with him. Tesla understood magic in a way that most of the Steel Tower did not. It wasn’t superstition to him. “That’s what I’m trying to do.” She stepped back outside. “Tesla, go on. Tell him to give it to me. Put me on the list.”

He shook his head, though his reply didn’t come out loud. “We both know what would happen if I let you put that on, native. Don’t try to suggest otherwise.”

Sunset folded her arms, not caring if she looked a little childish as she did so. “I could still help you, Tesla. I could still give you all the information you need. I want my magic back.”

He shrugged one shoulder. “The instant you become one of them, you again become useless to me. Think of what you were able to do a few hours ago—I could assign someone I trusted to care for the king, instead of a stranger. You were able to master and perform complex surgery in a few minutes. On the flight over, we covered all the sociopolitical factors of significance.” He leaned closer to her, resting a peremptory hand on her shoulder.

“Do not think of your desire to be returned to your previous body as a state that will exist in perpetuity. It is true that we cannot give you one now, but that is only a matter of time. When this war is over, there is no reason we couldn’t use your own designs to finish producing one. Perhaps there will be improvements by then—maybe even a way you could have your ‘magic’ without sacrificing any of the advantages of digital existence.”

Sunset Shimmer glowered at him, storming back into the bracelet room. “Come on, Discord. I know your face. I know your statue. Weren’t you all about breaking rules before? Growing wheat in the dead of winter, the dead coming back to life, all that…”

The human figure with his patchy suit did not physically resemble the old statue in any way Sunset could’ve quantified. But the look in his eyes—there was no mistaking it. She really wanted to get her hooves on a history book, see what else had changed since she left. There were several significant things—a new Alicorn, treaties, so much that didn’t make sense. But she hadn’t had the time to sneak off to the library, not yet.

There’s one in Ponyville. I can read up on everything there.

“Chaos isn’t breaking rules, Natasha. If that was the case, then very quickly the broken rule would be the new requirement and the old way would be the interesting change. Chaos is about unpredictability, about change, growth, and life. Maybe the change you need isn’t in this room?” He grinned at her. “Go on now, you’re holding up the line. I only want the officers.”

One thing that didn’t happen as she left Canterlot behind was a meeting with Princess Celestia. They were never even in the same room together, though her name was constantly referenced and Tesla had plenty of questions about her. Sunset mostly lurked with the legionaries and other soldiers, searching for an opportunity to sneak off that never came.

Eventually the hexacopter returned, and it was back to Normandy in a more formal way. “We’re going to have a conversation, you and your creation and I,” Tesla said, as they soared back over an Equestria that seemed relatively unscathed for the attack the night before. “I have discovered information of interest, and I do not think I’ll keep her at the camp.”

“You mean Jackie? Whatever it is, I could go with her. She doesn’t know Equestria any better than you do.”

Tesla shrugged. “Sorry, Natasha. Afraid I need you here. You can send a fork with her if you like—that’s more generous than I should be, but I understand your concern.”

Sunset Shimmer shivered visibly, clutching at her necklace. She had enough experience with forks to last a lifetime. “Maybe not. Where are you sending her, anyway? You know she’s not a warrior. She’s a hacker, and not even as good as any of the ones who work for you. We got caught.”

They landed with a thump. The walls slid open, revealing a Normandy that had grown tremendously in the day since Sunset had left. Their side was packed with tents, each one machine-identical to the ones beside it. Unlike the ramshackle affair on the other side, with dozens of buildings scattered more in loose groups than in anything that made efficient sense. Because real people did it, not machines. Organic Builders, that’s so weird.

“I am aware of her limitations. I think you’ll agree the mission is within her abilities. I only need your help… motivating her. She’s your friend—how can we pay her?”

“You, uh…” Sunset didn’t say anything until they’d unloaded, and the crowd of soldiers and technicians around them cleared enough for her to see Tesla’s face. Still they spoke only over the private radio, just like so many others here. Come to think of it, the only sound she could hear from their side of the camp was machinery—all the voices and conversation were from the other half. I want to meet them.

But she couldn’t tell Tesla that. He’d probably just say something insensitive about how useless and weak organics were. And maybe he would be right, but those Builders are much closer to ponies than these. They’re imperfect, mortal. If she were going to learn useful lessons to take back to ponies, maybe she should be looking to them instead.

“You pay ponies?”

“Did you think there were slaves in Richard’s court?” Tesla’s eyebrows went up. “Every soul here works because he chooses to. Conscripts are really only useful for dying, and drones are cheaper to mass produce. Bodies are so precious and rare than anyone who doesn’t want to assist is better off sent back into the Infinite Realm, so whatever apparatus they’re using can be given to someone who will use it better. But I will not threaten her, either. You gave her the body, it isn’t mine to take away. So how do we make her work?”

Sunset Shimmer wasn’t sure about the answer. But then—most of what she thought she knew about the world was turning out to be untrue. There were multiple Alicorns, the Builders hadn’t come to conquer Equestria, and there were still organic Builders living alongside those that had overcome their physical limitations.

But there was one thing she could think of. “You have me tell her instead of you,” Sunset began. “Because she bucking hates you, and she’ll probably refuse anything you try and make her do out of spite. Even if I’m there saying it’s a good idea.”

“Okay.” Tesla didn’t seem bothered by this information, or even to be listening that closely. Sunset guessed that there were thousands of information feeds all around him, following him through the air. Tesla was one of those who was so good with their robotic body that they could interact with invisible objects—perform Datamancy—without any visible signs. Except for a little inattention. “Would that be enough?”

“No,” she continued. “The thing Jackie wants most from you is to leave. If you really want her to do something for you, then promise her she can keep the body when she’s done. So long as you aren’t asking for something evil, I’m sure she’ll do it.”

“Evil,” he said, shaking his head in disbelief. “How we clawed our way out of the dirt, I’ll never know. Fine. Resources like that might’ve been impossible to promise a few months ago, but this is Equestria now. The soil is rich, the mines are vast.” He reached into the air, and a little cube of compacted data appeared in his fingers. He tossed it to her, and Sunset caught it. “These are the mission parameters. It should probably go without saying, but I forbid you from telling anyone but her about it. She should know the… severity… of the consequences if she shares that information as well. Anything she needs before she goes, she tells you, you tell me, and I’ll see that she gets it.”

He turned away, apparently angled for some random, distant point in the camp.

“Wait, what about me?” Sunset called after him, though her voice didn’t actually have to get any louder thanks to the radio. “Shouldn’t I be getting an assignment too? Advisor stuff, or…”

“That’s your first assignment,” Tesla said. “When she is gone, we will discuss. An advisor that requires my advice on how to accomplish even basic tasks in the service of the Tower is not terribly useful to me.”

His implications were clear enough, and Sunset didn’t try to follow. She muttered a quiet curse, then started wandering through the camp.

She began unpacking the data cube as she walked, distracting that part of her subconscious with the information it contained. Perhaps it shouldn’t have surprised her that there was actually something interesting inside. The Builders had been in contact with Equestria after all, and the last representative they sent had not made a good impression.

The Steel Tower were barbarians. Jackie tried to find the cantina in their little war camp, but of course it didn’t exist. She tried to find the karaoke bar, the cafe, and so many other things. But these too didn’t exist. Their camp was a dreary, spartan mess of exactly four dozen identical tents, each one with ten charging pods. For all the humanity the legionaries seemed to have, they might as well be a force of war drones sent to subjugate every person in Equestria.

But as the hours passed, Jackie’s boredom finally prompted a little curiosity. First to try and get into places she shouldn’t—but that quickly lost any appeal once she discovered that: A) nobody cared where she went with a body like hers, and B) it would just be boring weapons and vehicles anyway, and she had no use for any of that.

But a few more hours, and she finally decided to ask someone what everyone was doing with their time.

She found herself the most important-looking figure she could—a knight in white robes and silvery armor, who also happened to be the only person she’d seen so far with any kind of personal effects. A collapsible guitar wasn’t exactly proof that he had a soul, but it was more than she’d seen so far.

“Hey, you! Sir Rock-and-Roll, I want to talk to you!”

Jackie had removed her Technocratic Order robes by then—mostly because once they were off, it was easier for all the Tower people to realize that she was one of them so they would stop suggesting that she’d gotten lost in their camp.

“Sir Bradley,” he corrected, adjusting the box under him until it was something like a chair, then strumming a chord on his guitar. It almost sounded in tune. “What can I do for you, strangest citizen I’ve seen today?”

“Well, you didn’t ask me to get back to the fence, so that’s an improvement over the way the legionaries talk to me.”

He shrugged, though already this was the most casual conversation she’d ever had with a knight. And he wasn’t even trying to lock her up. “That’s because they didn’t look at your ident.” He gestured in the air, and her tag appeared above her.

Jacqueline Kessler, Technocratic Order Special Assignment, Do Not Interfere.

“Oh.” She blushed, pawing at the ground. “Right. Guess that makes sense. Anyway, I have a question for you, Sir Bradley. What the hell is everyone doing? There’s no way every random soldier and technician works for twenty-three hours, charges for thirty minutes, then does it over again. I’m out of the loop here—where does the good shit happen?”

Sir Bradley mouthed the words ‘good shit’ with apparent amusement. “For a Technocratic Order assignment, you don’t seem to have much experience outside the Infinite Realm. I’m guessing this is your first assignment?”

She nodded in annoyance, shifting uneasily on her hooves. She didn’t want to give him any detail that might prompt curiosity about just why that might be. Once he found out he was talking to a hacker, that would probably be the end of friendly contact.

But either Bradley didn’t look her up, or he didn’t care, because his expression remained friendly. “Normandy has three Realm nodes active all the time, maybe… ten million people in all? It looks like everyone works all the time because we’re using these bodies on shifts. Whole squads rotate out at the same time, so it seems like everyone is always coordinated and trained to work together. The only ones who aren’t hot-bunking are the other knights and a few top brass in the Order. I’m guessing… you’re one of those, since you didn’t know any of this.”

Yeah,Jackie admitted, her tone a little distracted. It was so obvious she should’ve looked for it sooner—she should’ve expected that was where everyone would go. Steel Tower people weren’t mindless robots, despite what she might sometimes curse. And all it took was a little focus and she could bring up the three nodes and the augmented reality map of various locations around her.

Three nodes did not present a lot of variety to the intrepid explorer—the realms were not infinite here. She read the tags in an instant—one was a standard pre-war simulation of Earth, one was a hyperconnected university sim, and one belonged to the most popular fantasy sim, the descendant of that same simulation that had been such a powerful influence that the Steel Tower had a king and medieval-style guild.

“Thanks for your help, Sir Bradley,” she said, relaxing at last. “I think I’m going to… see what people are up to.”

He shrugged. “Find a charging pod while you do it. Don’t sleep on the ground at your size, or else somebody might run you over.”

Jackie opened her mouth to say something smug about how her body was field-nuclear and didn’t need charging, but then she realized that would be stupid to say and so she just nodded her thanks. It was the most respectful she’d been to a knight of the realm in a long time—but considering she was out in the real world now, she didn’t see the need to make enemies pointlessly. This wasn’t the Infinite Realm, where she could always get away no matter how many people hated her.

So she found herself a quiet corner of one of the tents, near to the realistic simulation node. Jackie had nothing but loathing for that stupid fantasy world and the university would just put her to sleep in fantasy space anyway.

By the time Sunset Shimmer found her, she was human again at a beachside bar, resting under a cabana and planning her next conquest.

“That’s where you’re hiding,” Sunset said, pushing the edge of the hammock with a flip-flop. “I’ve been looking for you for over an hour, you know. Real time.”

Jackie shrugged, then sat up. “You could’ve just sent me an email. I’ve been…” She gestured into the air, summoning up her messages. There were sixteen from Sunset Shimmer, all asking to meet. She’d had the mail system muted, and Sunset wasn’t savvy enough to get around blocks like that. “Oh.”

“Nice wings, by the way.” Sunset touched the edge of one of them, where they emerged from the back of her bikini. “I didn’t think humans went for those. Everyone else here looks… pretty normal.”

As normal as anyone in the Infinite Realm ever looked, with impossibly perfect features, adaptive clothing, skin colors that didn’t exist, and a variety of other things. The variety was much wider in other sims, but since this one was meant to faithfully recreate Earth…

“Eh, different bodies give you a little leeway to use visual signals. I picked wings, and the girls think they’re awesome. Obviously, because they are.”

Sunset shrugged, then pulled her back down into a sitting position. “I’ve got some bad news, Jackie. Well, maybe it’s bad news. I dunno. You tell me.”

“You’ll have to tell me the news first.” Jackie gestured, and an identical margarita appeared in her hand. Terrible shame that being on-duty meant all she could do was taste it. Stupid endless Technocratic Order assignment…

Sunset Shimmer waved one hand through the air, doing a little Datamancy of her own. The two trees and patch of sand they were resting on bent suddenly outward, until it rested in the middle of the water. The bar and its many attractive occupants were now too far away to hear them.

“First thing’s first,” Sunset Shimmer began. “We’re not allowed to talk about this with anyone. Lots of threats if we do, you know the drill.”

“Yes,” she said, not even trying to keep her annoyance from her voice. “Very well.”

Sunset at least had the good sense to blush, conjuring a few books into the air in front of her. Equestrian history books, by the look of it, recently digitized. The spine of the first one happened to be facing Jackie, so she could read Return of Tirek and the Evil Queen of the Underground.

“Well, you and the others aren’t the first humans to come to Equestria. Apparently they’ve been trying to make contact for a long time. A few years ago they succeeded, and they sent someone over. She was apparently one of Tesla’s best engineers, so he wants you to find her and bring her back.”

Jackie had the hammock to herself, so she stretched out, getting a little more comfortable as she drifted back and forth in the sea breeze. It was always comfortable, no matter how late at night it got here. “You’re saying she went AWOL? One of Tesla’s top engineers just got to Equestria and ran away?”

“Well… not quite.” Sunset flipped through the book a few pages, then pushed it forward through the air towards Jackie. “Equestria wouldn’t tell us what happened, wouldn’t even acknowledge she’d been here. But somehow we got our hands on some history books, including this one.”

Jackie tossed Sunset her margarita—an impossible task in the real world, but here in the Infinite Realm she knew Sunset wouldn’t spill it. “You finish that, then.”

She read. The account was obviously written by ponies, and was full of claims Jackie never would’ve believed. The ponies couldn’t tell their own mythology from reality, and the two mixed on almost every page. Even so, she could glimpse some truth through the insanity. There was a little pamphlet stuck inside the book with information that was almost as interesting. Not mythology, but the official mission briefing. Not just the certs she would need to make requisitions, but more information on her engineer. Brigid Curie.

Hello creator of my imposter fork. I would like to meet the real you, maybe ask why you were spying on us. I wonder what your real self got herself up to...

Apparently an attempted coup of an alien nation, if Sunset’s book was right. During an attack by a creature that had gone around harvesting magic from every pony it met, another creature had attacked Canterlot with an army of her own. They had been armed with modern weapons and armor, and they had easily beaten the magicless Canterlot City Watch. The Queen of the Underground was described as a pale figure on two legs, who had commanded her diamond dogs with absolute authority. She had eventually been defeated by someone called “Truth,” then banished to live out her days in solitude and shame.

Jackie snapped her book closed. “So let me see if I’m understanding this right. Steel Tower tried to send someone to open up diplomatic contact with Equestria—but instead of that, she raised a fucking army, waited for a national crisis, and tried to use it to seize power?” She tossed the book onto the sand. “Sounds fucking unhinged to me. Maybe she’s better off wherever the Equestrians banished her.”

Sunset Shimmer had probably been waiting for subjective hours while Jackie read—she wasn’t exactly fast. She’d changed into a swimsuit, and was now sitting with her feet in the surf, sipping at one of the other mixed drinks from the bar and watching the moon track its way across the sky with a pained, distant expression.

“Hello?” Jackie got to her feet, then kicked sand in Sunset’s direction. “Earth is paging horsegirl. Earth to horsegirl, do you read?”

“Oh.” Sunset blinked, then glared, splashing back with a kick through the water. Her aim was better than Jackie’s and she ended up soaking wet. “Sorry.” She paused for another second—probably looking back at what Jackie had just said. Even if she hadn’t been paying attention, her memory was still recording. “Yes, probably. I would have to talk to Celestia to know for sure. There’s not much in there. Maybe she reformed, or maybe she had a good reason. Maybe the history books are using her as a scapegoat, and she wasn’t really guilty of anything.” She folded her arms. “Don’t trust the Equestrian justice system, Jackie. I’m with Tesla—your engineer might be innocent.”

“Might,” Jackie repeated. “And she’s not my engineer. Sounds like a shitty mission to me.”

“Well… you’re the one who looks like a pony,” Sunset said. “And Celestia won’t say a word about her to King Richard. Won’t even confirm if she’s still here. But… let’s just say we know where she is, or we’re pretty sure.”

She gestured again, and this time an entire map appeared in the air beside her, with glowing lines representing various important locations in the native country. Jackie took it all in—the physical resemblances to North America were obvious, and even some of the names had disturbing similarity. There’s a connection here. I’ll find it. Sunset pointed to a distant mountain range, where a tiny red dot glowed. “This little town is called Motherlode. It’s where all of Equestria’s mithril comes from, but other than that isn’t very important. Don’t ask me how Tesla found out she was there, because his files didn’t say and he wouldn’t tell me either.”

Jackie brushed the water off her chest, walking up to the map. “So I’m supposed to… travel across a country I’ve never visited in the middle of a war… find some bunghole in the middle of nowhere, and rescue a human criminal that got banished there for a crime she might actually be guilty of. Does that sound about right?”

Sunset nodded. “Yeah, I guess. But when you put it like that…”

“I don’t know why I should. Let Tesla make another body, he has the plans. Let him send someone else. I don’t want to help him.” But for all her words might be resisting, Jackie couldn’t fake her anger very convincingly. I could get out. See the world, meet real people.

“I told him that,” Sunset said, folding her arms. “And got him to offer something you might like. If you can do this—if you can bring her back, then he’ll let you go in exchange. No more working for the Tower unless you want to, body yours to keep. Everything.”

She probably should’ve done something to hide her eagerness. But Jackie had been through a lot in the last few weeks, and her acting skills had suffered as a result. “Okay, okay. Fine. But I’m going to need your help. I can already guess he isn’t going to let you go—you’ve got too many friends in Equestria who could make you disappear. Too many resources to use against him. But I’ve never lived here before. My first attempt to make friends didn’t go… the best. I think I’ll need your help.”

Chapter 3: Man in the Middle

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But it wasn’t just from Sunset Shimmer that Jackie extracted her knowledge.

However much she loathed her digital existence, however much she imagined she was a deterministic illusion, a data-corpse of a girl who had lived so long ago—persisting in the machine had its advantages. Knowledge was fractional, divisible, and no longer fundamentally entwined with the processor mechanism as in living humans.

There were many ways to gain knowledge when you were digital. When the information needed to be directly incorporated into the mind and personality, then teaching was done in a similar way. Often with time-manipulation tricks, so years of apparent training could pass without the subject ever feeling bored or overwhelmed.

But sometimes you needed information that hadn’t been anticipated, or information that you didn’t even want to be part of yourself. That was where simple hot swapping came in handy—the distilled wisdom of the gods, on numberless subjects.

It couldn’t be made part of the individual—that was the purpose of schools and accelerated time. But so long as the swap could be kept close by, that was all it took. Every individual had a different number of swaps they could keep at one time without losing access to individual sections. Jackie herself could process about a dozen, which put her in the upper ranks of neural plasticity.

And thanks to Tesla’s accesses, she could get her hands on as many as she wanted. So she spent several subjective hours after Sunset left her behind to visit the largest library, and to flaunt her executive-signed accesses to get copies of swaps she’d only dreamed of having before.

When this is over, I’m going to be the greatest hacker alive. But she archived most of those—architecture information and certificate reverse-engineering could wait for after she completed her task. Though I could probably get far enough away and break their chains over me without much trouble now.

She could do that, except where would she be if she made an enemy of the Tower? She’d never be able to get spare parts, and might not be on the run for hours before some hidden tracker in her body sent the vultures descending on her.

Besides, they’re letting me do something I wanted. I get to be around the aliens. She would be doing it to find some dumb engineer, but she could live with that. She was more than a little curious to meet the reverse equivalent of Sunset Shimmer—a human who had tried to conquer Equestria. We’re not all that different, really.

Jackie gathered all the pony-related knowledge she might need for a field mission, though it was sparse and of dubious quality. There was an entire swap teaching one combat on four legs, and several more on field repair. Even a few on pony medicine, and what little knowledge of their world had been extrapolated so far.

Eventually she had archived about as much as she could get away with without attracting undue attention. There were people who could handle fifty swaps at once, and the policy wasn’t to distribute any to be archived. If she wanted any more, she would have to prove how each one was necessary for her mission, which would probably lose her all the ones she actually wanted.

She wouldn’t be saying goodbye to Sunset Shimmer—the Tower’s satellites would let them stay in touch for her entire mission, even if it was limited to low band text and not full immersion copresence. Besides, it would be better to slip into the “Everfree” while it was still dark. The ponies seemed to have a fear of the dark, and she would exploit it.

So she woke up, and made her way to the quartermaster for a few more supplies. Convincing replicas of Equestrian currency mostly, though there was more as well. A traveling android required little in terms of physical supplies, but to be convincing she would have to carry most of them anyway. Tent, bedroll, typical camping gear that she now knew how to use. The extra strength of a mechanical body would have to compensate for wearing saddlebags with mostly useless contents.

The quartermaster was a stern-looking man with a fleet of hovering drones constantly cataloging, re-shelving, and shuffling things behind him. Every printer in the tent was humming quietly, growing limbs and torsos and rifles all from the same base materials. But Jackie wouldn’t need any of that. I wonder if I could convince him to make me human.

Probably she could, except that it wouldn’t help her mission. Being a pony was the whole point. “So, says here this is your first field assignment,” Sergeant Becker said, tapping two fingers on the invisible spot in the air where the part of the certificate that was public hovered. No organic would be able to see it there, of course.

“Yes,” Jackie said, shifting a little under the load of her new saddlebags. She had been about to leave, but from his eyes on her, she could tell that she wasn’t allowed to do that yet.

“Well, few words of warning. Your body isn’t standard issue. I can’t really say how it works, or its performance tolerances. Actually, I think I’ll have to forget this conversation when we’re done having it…” He looked mildly annoyed at that, though nothing more. “Anyway, be careful with it. I don’t know a single engineer who can fix it if it breaks. And if the damage compromises how you look, well… you’ll be frightening to the locals, won’t you?”

She shrugged. “I’m not doing anything hard. I’ll be back before I get damaged.”

“Says you. One more thing. You’re wired for field nuclear, yeah? RTG in your gut should keep you on your feet for… two decades, give or take. There’s a trade for that, though—you’re running hot. Your body will get less efficient and even shut down for awhile if you get too warm. And if the case gets damaged…” He shook his head. “Well, this place isn’t a shithole like Earth. The locals want it not irradiated. So try not to kill anyone, okay?”

“Sure.” Jackie saluted with one wing. “You got it, coach. I’m ready for the big leagues. Take me off the bench.”

Becker rolled his eyes, then waved her off. He would see the names on her certificates. He would know he couldn’t really keep her around without pissing off some important people. They both did.

She couldn’t really move through the camp without attracting attention, but she did her best to blend in. One of the things she’d obtained from Sunset was the design for a simple coat that would cover most of her body while she traveled, while preventing her from being easily identified. She wore it now, relying on the ident chip to inform every Steel Tower legionnaire of what she was. Friendly fire just wasn’t a thing anymore.

She could see how the Everfree might seem terrifying to the native population, an old-growth forest of strange trees and stranger creatures. All that old wood didn’t seem to be doing it much good against the log-grinders and excavators, which were eating their way deeper and deeper by the hour. This could be a pretty big city by the time we’re done with the whole thing. I wonder what they’re doing with the wood.

But she had a map, and so there was no real danger that she would get lost. After half a kilometer she’d lost sight of Normandy completely, though she could still hear the sound of mechanical saws as trees were devoured. She tuned that out, focusing on the sounds that might advertise danger. The Everfree was supposed to be a particularly supernatural forest, with creatures that could make travel for even experienced wanderers difficult at night.

But Jackie had played more than her fair share of medieval adventure games. When she had an infinite amount of time to explore the digital world, she’d tried almost everything once. She kept a modified rifle in one hoof at almost all times, with marksmanship abilities that she had obtained as a swap from the library. The instant she saw something and couldn’t verify it was a pony, she shot. Creatures with too many limbs, too many eyes, creatures that spouted fire or dribbled acid—they all died just the same. And after a very short time, word had apparently gotten around that Jackie was the superior predator, and she was not accosted again.

Ponyville had a road coming in from the north. After watching it for a time to make sure that there were no ponies who would see her, she emerged from the Everfree and onto the road, and took a moment to take stock.

A cobblestone path seemed to stretch as far as she could see under the moonlight. Bits of twig and wood were caught in her coat, which had torn at least once, and bits had even wrapped themselves around her mane. Jackie swore in annoyance, and pulled out the ones she could. Okay, maybe cutting right through it all hadn’t been a good idea. But it didn’t hurt—what were trees going to do to a mechanical pony, anyway?

Her destination remained fixed in her mind: the Ponyville train station. She needed to get to Motherlode before the war got going in earnest and the infrastructure broke down. So she started walking, playing a few of her favorite songs to herself, and watching as a little ranch house surrounded by an orchard gradually came into view.

It was almost dawn by then—her arrival was planned to be mere minutes before the morning western express arrived—and that was apparently late enough that a pair of farmers were already up.

This was the closest she’d seen ponies in their “natural habitat” before—real ponies, with honest-to-god sweat running down their backs. An adorable orange one with a stetson hat was kicking trees, and its little spawn ran around with baskets underneath. Somehow, the absurd method seemed to be working, because full baskets littered the ground behind them.

“Howdy, stranger!” the orange pony called, stopping in place beside a nearby tree. “Never seen an honest day’s work before?”

“Not in a long time,” Jackie found herself saying, taking a few steps closer to the fence. From the look of it, it ran most of the way into Ponyville, with trees going all the way to the stream she’d seen from the map. “Sorry to bother you.” She started walking again.

“Hey!” the pony called. “Welcome to Ponyville!” Something flew through the air. Jackie’s threat-detection system had pegged the object as an apple before it even crossed the fence, and she’d calculated the perfect trajectory to catch it in a few moments more. She opened her wings, caught it in their simulated flesh membrane, and looked back in confusion.

“Free sample,” the orange pony declared. “You won’t find anything better in Ponyville. And I know you bat types like fruit.”

“We… right.” Jackie shrugged, then took a bite.

She hadn’t had real food since the mind she’d been taken from had died. It was… less… than the idealized perfection of the Infinite Realm. Some of the juice from inside squirted as she chewed, and bits got stuck in her teeth. The flavor wasn’t perfect either—but in a way, its flaws made her slow down to appreciate them. It had been a long time since Jackie tasted a less than perfect bit of fruit before. That was bold in its own way.

“My family has a stall in town,” the pony continued. “My brother Big Mac will be the one running it today. But you tell ‘im I sent you and I’m sure he’ll give you a great deal.”

“Thanks,” Jackie said, setting off again. A little slower than before as she chewed. Full cybernetic bodies like hers could eat, though only the most expensive actually did anything with the food. Because she’d eaten, she’d feel a modest thirst, which would eventually drive her to drink enough to wash out her insides so that the food wouldn’t start rotting there.

But she could still taste it and enjoy it in the meantime. And wonder just how different the apple might’ve been if she had still had her real body. What’s the real difference between an organic mind eating this, and a digital one?

There was little time to rest for Sunset Shimmer, and less for Equestria.

Sunset could spend the subjective equivalent of several weeks in the few shards of the Infinite Realm that had come with them, where every one of the soldiers and many more she couldn’t see walking around the camp spent their time. But as she quickly discovered, the desolation of the Steel Tower side existed only to those who were trapped in physical reality alone.

It had been naive of her to assume that the Builders would either walk around on the outside, or travel completely into the worlds they had captured and tamed. Once Sunset was done with Jackie and her friend had wandered off to the library to get supplies for her trip, Sunset herself spent some time wandering through the bars and neighborhoods of the soldiers.

They really weren’t that different than any invading army she had read about. Just like the ancient griffons who had once tried to take Equestria for themselves, they had brought their families. Stored inside the space of a single tent was a city of at least a million people—and most of them weren’t even soldiers.

“You’ve been on the outside,” said a little girl, who stopped her on the edge of a seaside pier and tugged on her arm. “How is it?”

Sunset Shimmer was so confused by the child that she actually stopped walking. A little crowd of children formed around her, not just the one. “How can you tell, sweetie?”

“Your words,” said the girl. “You’re using a language package I don’t have. And I have all of them.”

“Oh.” Sunset blushed, though privately she wondered how they could talk at all if the child didn’t know her language. But her own curiosity extended to other subjects first. She’d never been close to a Builder child before. Some part of her hadn’t thought they even had them. They were so intelligent, so advanced, they probably grew that way spontaneously.

With an effort of will, she switched to English. There was very little difficulty in it, much less than the conscious effort it took her to remember the Old Ponish runes she had memorized during her time as Celestia’s personal student. Language was a setting, it was like her swimsuit or her colorful hair. Just something else to reconfigure.

“Everybody says that there’s no radiation out there,” said the little girl. “They say we’ll be able to live there one day. That it’s our new home.”

“It ain’t,” argued a little boy, wearing only a swimsuit and his skin darkly tanned from many hours on the beach. There were so many of the Builders around, but they let their children roam like it was a small town. Weren’t they worried about crime? “It’s already lived in, my mom says. She works for the king.”

“Well, lady? What do you think?”

“I think…” Sunset pondered for a moment. “I think there’s a fight going on right now, and nobody knows how it will end. If we win, there might be some space for humans to live. But we have to win it first.” She started walking again, hoping she wouldn’t upset them too much. But simply answering their question had been enough of a distraction that they were no longer watching her too closely.

She spent a day or two in the bars that catered to off-duty soldiers, listening to what they had to say about her home. If she was going to learn that Equestria was in danger of being invaded, this would be the place.

But that wasn’t what she learned. In her wandering, she met plenty of soldiers that saw themselves only as heroes—people that would help an innocent nation throw off its invaders. When she dared to ask a few what they would do when the war was over and whether they’d expect land or something in return, she got only suspicion and tight lips. After a few hours of wandering around, she found more and more of the bars knew to recognize her, and soldiers would answer only simple questions.

I’m not very good at this, am I?

“Hey, you,” a familiar voice called from down the street.

Sunset stopped walking, turning to let the knight approach. “Sir Bradley? I thought you were on perpetual duty or something.”

“I am, so what?” The knight had removed his helmet, but otherwise looked basically the same as when she’d seen him last. If the crowds of soldiers had looked nervous around her, they parted around Bradley. He was younger than many of them, but that didn’t matter here. Age was just another setting. “I guess you’ve made enough people nervous that they called the local stooge to check on you. Make sure you weren’t subverting the war effort.”

But Sunset was too stuck on how the two of them were conversing. She rested one hand on his shoulder, gesturing around them wildly. “Bradley, how are you on this pier if you’re on duty in Normandy?”

The knight looked confused. Then he grinned suddenly, rolling his eyes. “Right, right. I forget you’re not human. Or… weren’t human?” He shrugged. “What is human, anymore? There are people who live in construction drones. People who live in tunnel diggers, and reactors, and manufactories. You’re more human than they are, even if you weren’t when you were organic.”

She wasn’t quite sure what to say to that. The Builders saw her as one of them—should she be flattered, or offended? I did terrible things. Their king would kill me if he knew what I had done to his subjects. She now knew the man, knew that Richard was a good king. He had sensed the infection in his civilization in a way Princess Celestia had not. Maybe I’m better off as one of them. Maybe lots of ponies would be.

But however friendly this knight was, however polite and helpful, she couldn’t forget. Sir Bradley is one of Richard’s knights. If he ever learns what I did, then the king will find out, and I’ll be executed. I have to watch my words. “So how are you here and in Normandy at the same time?” Sunset asked. “Something you can teach me?”

“Easy,” he said. “Everyone does it, or… I thought everyone did. Augmented copresence is… well, basic stuff. But you’re new to the outside world too, and they don’t teach it much in the Realm. Not really a need. Join me outside, and I’ll show you on the way to your meeting.”

“My meeting to…”

“Oh, right. Normandy security council. Tesla wants you as his advisor. Our opposition has the older sister to some human-gone-pony the moon bastards got over here while our trousers were done…” He seemed to realize just how insane that sentence sounded about halfway through, because he started to laugh. “Anyway, all three factions will be there. Tesla representing us, some pink pony named Twilight for the natives, and the opposition…” He lowered his voice. “Admiral Alexa Colven.” He shrugged. “Get topside, we can walk there together. Policy is for someone as important as you to have an escort when it comes to the official stuff. Richard wants it to be one of us, and since our captain is being deployed…” He trailed off. “I’m not allowed to talk about it. Just… yeah, I’ll find you.” He vanished.

Sunset stared out at the place he’d been. If he’s this talkative around me when he’s trying to be friendly, maybe I should try to get him drunk. That would be some accomplishment for creatures that couldn’t really get drunk.

She woke up on one of the plain metal cots, with just enough space between her and the next one to slide out and onto her feet. Despite the coldness of the room, the lack of pillows or blankets, she didn’t feel even a slight soreness. We don’t really sleep. I was charging, that’s not the same thing.

She found Sir Bradley waiting just outside the girls’ tent, shuffling about like he’d actually been too embarrassed to go in. Even though there’s nobody naked inside. Their bodies didn’t sweat or produce other odors, so they needed far less clothing and bathing than the humans who pretended to live used in the Realm. “Hey, so the meeting’s in there.” He gestured across the invisible line, where a building that looked far more living than anything on their side had been erected. Sculpted stone in three stories, huge glass plates, and elegant steel curves.

There were guards outside it—human guards clutching steaming cups in their hands, humans that clanked in metal armor, laughed to each other, humans that had spent much of last night singing old war-songs and drinking cider. “Woah.”

“I know, it’s pretty shit we couldn’t get it. But building to organics hasn’t really been necessary since… well, forever. Our buildings are too uncomfortable for them. No aircon, too dark, that kind of thing. Richard says it’s polite to let the UEF host. I’m sure it is, but that doesn’t make it suck less.”

It wasn’t a long walk. But as they crossed, Bradley showed her the basics of what he’d described as “augmented copresence.” The builders genuinely could be in two places at once, overlaying selective aspects of the realm’s shards onto the physical world.

“Most people just use it to meet and talk with friends or staff who aren’t physical. As many or as few as you want, and your body will automatically interpret actions meant for them and keep them virtual.”

“Which explains why there are so many people just… standing around, staring at nothing for hours,” Sunset supplied. “Because they’re… doing that.”

“Right.” Bradley moved one hand through the air, snatching her control interface. It was completely virtual, but she’d given him access for this little instruction. Besides, the knight was obviously trustworthy. He’d probably have already told her by accident if he planned to do any hacking. “But that’s only the basics. Level two is… something more like this.” The world shifted… the world on their side of the line, anyway. Rows of identical tents and square buildings transformed to something that would’ve fit perfectly in the realistic fantasy sim the Tower had come from. Huge, luxurious tents spread further than the true space, with bright banners of their houses billowing in the breeze. Massive creatures covered in armor—the Earth equivalent of ponies—grazed placidly just outside of camp, in a place that had been towering trees moments before.

The solemn soldiers doing their patrols were replaced with huge crowds of scientists, scholars, families, and stranger creatures that filled the sky above the camp. It was as though their humble side had become a festival day in Canterlot in an instant. “Celestia above,” Sunset exclaimed, panting. “Turn it off!”

Bradley did. The rows of identical buildings returned, the soldiers became plainly dressed and boring, and the sky emptied of all but the clouds. “That’s what most of us are seeing when we’re not on combat duty. The reason our buildings all look so shit to the organics is that they don’t know how to see.” His grin widened. “And there’s no reason it has to be the same for every one of us. You’ve got total control of how you see it. If some designs don’t suit you, you can do the theming differently, exclude certain people who piss you off… so long as they’re not duty-related.” He tapped his chest with two fingers. “Duty is a cruel mistress. Having to do real work, terrible.”

A priority message appeared in Sunset’s vision, flashing with the tiny extended-armed logo of the Technocratic Order. It didn’t wait for her to open it, because of course Tesla had no respect. “I’m waiting for you, Sunset. The primitives have resorted to a level of insult I hadn’t imagined. Get in here before they convince the natives we all belong in toasters. If they do, you get to go in first.”

They reached a set of automatic doors, which slid open for them as they approached. Inside were more marines, and a woman behind the desk that looked as organic as everyone else. Sunset tried not to stare, but every one of them was a new fascination—gray hairs, bodies affected by age—but not as much as she might’ve expected. Now that she thought about it, she couldn’t actually picture any old organic Builder. None of the guards had been, or any of the ones working the machines. They all looked young, exactly like the Tower’s staff.

Sunset would file that away to ask them the first chance she got. But she didn’t think fraternizing with the “other side” would be much appreciated right now. And would probably break her cover too.

“Just down the hall,” said the secretary, eyeing the two of them the way a pony might’ve looked at a pair of dragons who had just walked into their library. Sunset tried not to feel offended by it, but that was a lot of effort. These humans had a factionalism that translated to fear of each other. How can one species become two? Were the pony tribes… no, because we don’t hate each other. They didn’t anymore. In fairness, Equestria’s tribes hadn’t always been peaceful.

“I’m not going to be able to go much further,” Bradley said, as they traveled a hallway lined with framed photographs. Actual paper, not the virtual ones that just hung in the air as in Tower buildings. Mostly they seemed to be the interiors, though some looked shockingly like they were taken in space. Obviously impossible. No magic up there to survive. Maybe they have something like the Infinite Realm? But how would it work if their minds aren’t digital?

For all that Sunset had lived with these humans for what felt like years of time, she didn’t actually understand how they worked. Their history was even more confusing, and the history she’d studied seemed so obviously doctored that she didn’t know where to begin with understanding it all.

“I’ll wait for you out here.” The knight gestured to a final set of doors, one that was already cracked open. Sunset could make out voices from inside it, one in particular that seemed frighteningly familiar to her. “I’m sure you won’t need my help. But if something terrible happens, know you’ve got a friend outside.”

Sunset nodded in thanks, then slid past him into the conference room.

The ground was projecting an image of Normandy, an image that even the organics seemed to be able to see. The two ponies in particular watched it with awe, though they looked like they were trying to hide it.

Sunset nearly came to a dead halt as she saw Twilight Sparkle, sitting with her hooves folded on the other side of a table. Twilight Sparkle, the apprentice to Celestia who had been only a child when Sunset did most of her studying. Twilight Sparkle, who was now an Alicorn. The title of princess wasn’t just a title.

The pain of it didn’t make it to Sunset’s face. She could shut off her muscles there, and keep back the tears, the betrayal. You promised me you’d teach me everything you knew, Celestia. Then when I discovered the truth about Alicorns you wouldn’t share it with me. Said it was too dangerous for anypony in Equestria. But look at her. Celestia had lied. Ultimately, it hadn’t been the entire population Celestia had judged unworthy—it was Sunset Shimmer personally.

“What do you think you’re doing staring like that?” Tesla’s lips didn’t move from the other end of the room, and he didn’t look at her with anything but mild curiosity. Even so, his voice over private radio was furious. “Get over here right now. Whatever this pony is to you is irrelevant to our conversations here. Sit down and make yourself useful.”

They noticed? Sunset thought, her mind suddenly racing. How had they known? What had they seen? But looking around the room for ideas would only make her discomfort more obvious. She hurried over to the empty chair beside Tesla, and sat down as gracefully as her body would let her.

“Welcome to our last participant,” Twilight Sparkle said. Her childhood lisp was gone, along with her old innocence. Sunset could almost see the little filly’s face—so young she’d barely been able to read. But she’d shown enough potential that Celestia had taken her in just like Sunset Shimmer. “Assistant to the Technocratic Order Seer...”

“Natasha,” Sunset supplied, her voice robotic. Using a default voice program would make her sound strange to the ponies in the room, and probably the humans too, but at least that way she wouldn’t get emotional.

“Natasha…” Twilight scribbled her fake name in a notebook. “Well, welcome to all of you. This is my captain of the guard here at Normandy, Amber Sands. The rest of you have already met, I take it?”

Sunset glanced across to the other end of the room, where two more organic humans were resting. One of them looked fairly ordinary, a woman with bright hair and a labcoat. The other… made her pause. The air above him was surrounded with red text, warnings so important they overrode her augmented reality settings. “DR. THOMAS SAMIL,” they read. “THIS INDIVIDUAL IS CONSIDERED EXTREMELY DANGEROUS. DO NOT RETURN TO A CENTRAL REALM NODE PRIOR TO A LEVEL THREE DIAGNOSTIC SCREENING. DO NOT ENGAGE UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES. OPERATE IN FULL AUTISTIC MODE ONLY.”

“Stars and stones,” Sunset muttered, looking sidelong at Tesla. “Who the hell is that?”

But Tesla ignored the question, just like he’d ignored so many other things that Sunset did. “We know each other,” he said out loud. “We’re ready, let’s get this over with. There’s no reason you needed to go so high in our chain of command for something this routine. One of the king’s knights would’ve sufficed.”

“Unfortunately…” Twilight cut him off, glaring at him to be silent. “Celestia’s instructions were clear. If our factions can’t work together in a conference room, we’ll never be able to work together on the battlefield.” She glanced to the side. “If we don’t need further introductions… Amber, let’s start with the guard rotation. Go over policy in its entirety, please.”

Sunset could feel herself losing interest before Twilight even finished giving instructions. But she gave them, and then her first meeting with a monster began.

Chapter 4: Past Permutations

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Jackie didn’t have the time to visit the Ponyville market, unfortunately. As much as there was some part of her that wanted to vanish into the native civilization and never surface again, she knew that was impossible. Not only that, but Jackie hadn’t lasted as long as she had with poor survival instincts. She could feel the imminent conflict. Thanks to her past experience, she also knew that the best way to survive a war was to make herself someone her government couldn’t afford to lose. Doing some mission for the Steel Tower meant she would be invaluable until she completed it.

After that… well, she gave it even odds that setting her free would be with a bullet unless she was careful.

“Just the one ticket, young mare?” asked the pony behind the counter. “That’s an awfully long way for a pony as young as yourself to be going alone. Are you sure you wouldn’t rather go somewhere closer at hoof? Canterlot’s lovely, and the express will be here in an hour.”

“No, Appleloosa.” Jackie tapped one hoof on the counter, a little annoyed. She had lived so long in the deathless world of the Infinite Realm that having ponies suddenly concerned for her life was more annoying than anything else. I’m an adult, geez. And a stranger. Why do you care what happens to me?

“I’m serious,” the clerk insisted, flicking her tail in agitation. “There’s a war on, young mare. Or there will be. Now’s not the time to go wandering. If you haven’t heard…”

“I’ve heard,” she said. “I’ve got family on the west coast, okay? This is the first leg of the trip to see them again.” That by itself wasn’t enough to shut the salespony up—they wanted to know where her family lived, what they did, how long the trip should take. Jackie delayed on the first question long enough to make a network connection with Sunset.

“I need a plausible story,” she said over the radio, time rapidly accelerating within the confines of her mind. She couldn’t do it for as long with a nuclear body—there was already competition for her heatsinks, and her body was small enough to have fewer to begin with. But a little quick-thinking for conversation was still well-within her abilities.

“You’re from Seaddle,” Sunset suggested. “You were studying in Manehattan when you got the news, and so you’re trying to get back as quick as possible.” Jackie dutifully repeated all the lies. Eventually she’d satisfied the ticketmaster's curiosity, and he was filling out the form.

“Name, young mare?”

“Moire Pattern,” she said, passing over the bits.

Soon enough she was clutching her ticket, clambering onto the train, and waving goodbye to Ponyville. The train took her again through the cheerful little orchards, and she tried her best to spot Applejack’s farmhouse. No luck, though.

The trip took a few hours. Jackie wanted to find her way to the dining car and flirt with as many of the aliens as possible, but that would’ve made her attract attention. She’d already had enough eyes on her just getting onto this train. Once I get lost in a big city I can do that. I just need to vanish somewhere. No more scrutiny, and these adorable little farm animals will never see it coming.

She arrived in Appleloosa a little before noon, and spent a few more of her fake bits at something called a “salt lick.” She wasn’t exactly sure what the point of any of it was, but the locals seemed to enjoy her stories and playing cards with them, even if her basic software suite made counting them a trivial task and victory a near-certainty.

“Next airship comes in tomorrow,” said Braeburn, after losing a third hand of stupid metal bits. Jackie had just about recouped the cost of the train ticket down here from these foolish ponies. A little more pushing her luck, and she’d have the money to do something really stupid. “We’re the best-connected junction in most of Equestria, and a good source of fresh miners. What’s a mare like you doin’ trying to get to a place like… which town was it again?”

“Motherlode,” Jackie supplied, licking at the edge of her strange drink. It was mostly powder, and whatever it was didn’t do to her what it was doing to them. The ponies looked like they were one step away from getting drunk, but she didn’t even feel buzzed. They could’ve been serving straight ethanol and she wouldn’t feel it, though.

“Flank of nowhere,” said a mare on the other end of the table. They’d been sharing knowing looks for at least an hour now, though Jackie knew nothing could come of it. Her body was good, but there was no chance in hell she could pass as organic during sex. She had the right bits, but the experience wasn’t the same without specialty hardware. The alien who designed this body obviously hadn’t done it with long-term viability in mind. “You’re much better off with somewhere like San Palomino. I’ve got a friend who knows about some good stakes right on the coast. Real gold, too, not more cheap gemstones. You’re young enough to be thinking about your future.”

“I’ll think about it,” she said. “But I’ve got to see Motherlode first. I’m a real mithril-is-forever kinda mare, ya know? I hear it’s the only place in the whole world you can mine it.”

Braeburn shrugged. “Doesn’t do you much good if you go all the way out there and never find any. You could make your fortune in an afternoon, or you could work for half a century and never turn up anything but diamonds and emeralds.”

“Uh… yeah…” Jackie filed that one away to ask Sunset about as soon as her friend got out of her stupid meeting. “I wouldn’t want that. I won’t stay too long. The miners who fly out of here go that way, right?”

“Pretty sure,” Braeburn said. “Never got off somewhere I knew I wouldn’t make any money. And uh…” He lowered his voice. “Not to be impolite, Miss Moire, but you should keep your coat on when you go there. Real, uh… traditionalist town. Bats in particular have a… bad reputation.”

“Backwards, primitive town you mean,” said the mare, settling down the cards in front of her. “Dealer stands. Beat a twenty, batty. The rest of you are already out.”

Jackie shrugged, flipping her other card. “Nineteen. You win.” She rested back into her cushion for a moment, taking in the little bar. For all that these aliens were… well, alien… if she’d been talking to them all through a radio or a phone she wouldn’t have been able to tell the difference. So who’s connected to who? Did life on Earth come from their world or did their life come from ours?

The answer might be neither. But whatever it was, it didn’t matter to her. She collected her chips, cashed out, and headed down to the miner’s guild to buy a ticket on tomorrow’s airship.

Sunset never would’ve admitted it, but she was relieved to see Sir Bradley waiting outside when the meeting was over. Tesla had some final details to discuss with the guard captain—something she didn’t understand about how the Tower’s shift rotations would work and how they wouldn’t interfere with anything the living creatures were doing. But he wasn’t making her stay for that, and she wasn’t going to argue.

“So how was your first taste of how the other half lives?” Bradley asked, once they were on their way out of the building. The frightening Federation scientist and his assistant had left another way, so Sunset didn’t have to spend more time around them than she wanted. They were using private radio, even though they couldn’t see anyone around them and it didn’t seem like they were being observed.

Sunset wasn’t sure how to answer. She still wanted to see what ordinary humans were like, because most she’d met that day had been— “Disturbing,” she said. “They had someone named Dr. Samil opposite Tesla in there. I guess his assistant wasn’t the worst person I’d ever met, but there was something off about her too. Like she was humming a tune I knew and getting every other note wrong.”

Sir Bradley had been nothing but perfectly cordial and dignified so long as Sunset had been with him. But she caught the split-second delay as she said the name “Samil”, and a brief glance down at his sword. Of course, it was just metal out here, lacking any of its supernatural properties from the Realm. He took a step closer to her, wrapping an arm through hers as though they’d suddenly stepped into hostile territory. “I assume Tesla was running InfoSec the whole time?” he asked, voice grave. “He’s one of three or four people in the realm I know of who can handle a bastard like that up close. Holy fucking shit. Why not bring in fucking Hitler while they’re at it? Maybe Stalin could be their security chief, and Mao could handle their food distribution.”

Those names were only distantly familiar to Sunset, considering how little of pre-unification history had been covered. The automatic door opened for them, and Bradley hurried them across the invisible line into Tower territory. “We’re getting screened, right now.” With his other hand, Bradley took his own controls. “Do this.” He was suddenly speaking out loud. “It’s called autistic mode. Totally kills radio in both directions. Technocratic Order bodies are almost as good as the ones we knights use, but we can’t be too careful. Bastard like that…”

Sunset did as she was ordered, filing away this new piece of knowledge. That their school didn’t teach. The Tower doesn’t want their citizens to know how to disconnect. As soon as she switched it, most of the glowing, floating indicators in the world around her just disappeared. The labels outside tents, the paths of soldiers and patrols. Only the basic borders of the camp remained. “Why are we doing this?” she asked, and had to actually lower her voice and whisper to do it.

“Because Samil is the most ruthless, monstrous creature in all the world. He killed more people than anyone else alive. Only the old tyrants could do more damage to the human race.” They kept going, straight into the edge of camp. The tents looked a little larger and fancier than anything Sunset had seen elsewhere, though the difference was slight. We’re near the king’s quarters, aren’t we?

Activity here was just as intense as anywhere else in camp, though most of them weren’t wearing legionaries armor or the colored robes of the Technocratic Order. These people all wore white jumpsuits mostly, with a sword patch near the collar and nothing else to see. Sir Bradley led them through one of the tents into a medical lab that resembled so many others in camp, except that the technicians were different and body components were already prepared in sorted, illuminated sections. There were two diagnostic beds in the center of the room, and one of those was already occupied. With a naked, face-down figure. There was a single curtain to separate the two sections, and the tent was already a flurry of activity.

“Sir Bradley? What are you doing here?” Pause. “Problem with your radio?” The man who spoke was taller than Bradley, with olive skin and black hair. Not quite so well-built as the king, but his body did look like it barely fit in the white jumpsuit.

“Nothing like that, Xavier.” He gestured two fingers at the two of them. “Both of us have just been exposed to potential catastrophic cyberweapons. Start with Natasha, her exposure was more severe and she’s less familiar with her hardware. I can wait.”

“Of course, Sir Bradley.” He gestured to Sunset. “If you could lie down on the diagnostic bench, miss. We’ll make this quick.”

Sunset Shimmer hadn’t needed to be tested like this before, but at least this information was taught in the Builder school. She stepped into the booth, and turned her back on both the men as she started removing her clothes. Not that her old self would’ve been the least bit bothered by it, but… she knew it was the thing to do.

She wouldn’t have admitted it to anyone, but she was starting to enjoy the human sense of modesty. It was more privacy than she got in her old life, and that meant there was something more private and intimate to share if she ever got close to anyone.

Fortunately the service ports didn’t require her to remove anything else, and there were a handful of female technicians to join her in the privacy of the repair booth. They helped her down onto the bed, where her body was opened near the center and thin cables connected. There were several boring minutes then, trapped in the bed and unable to use the radio to contact anyone. At least she didn’t get uncomfortable with her skin out in the cold and the metal beneath her.

“Sir Bradley… maybe you can tell me a little about Samil. You said he… killed people? You think he’d attack us even though we’re allies now?”

The knight had made his way into her stall once she was situated and no longer exposed. He had removed his own robes, his armor, and even his shirt, apparently waiting for his turn for diagnostic. “The UEF can make allies. They can sign treaties and break them. Mostly they’re just people, same as in the Tower. But… not Samil.” He stared down at the floor, both hands clenching into fists. “I can’t believe they didn’t space the bastard after all he did. Guess whoever’s up in their chain of command doesn’t have a damn spine.”

Sunset remained silent, only dimly conscious of the diagnostic as it searched her mind. Mostly it manifested in reduced ability to access anything but core functions. She couldn’t accelerate time, and one by one her limbs would go numb, then come back again. Like everything the Tower did, it didn’t hurt, but there was no getting past just how unnatural the whole thing felt.

“Way back in the day, before my time, Samil was part of the original expedition to… okay, doesn’t matter. He was part of the original research team to study what they found there. Him, Richard, Tesla, Hunt, Flynn… basically all the biggest inventors of the last century. There were two major breakthroughs to come out of their team, the Nanophage and the Russell-Conway computing model. Samil was the one who helped get the former off the ground… and he understands it better than anyone in the world.

“Fast forward a bit, and all those big innovators splint right down the middle. Both factions use both types of technology—the Federation’s AIs are built using the same basic architecture as our cybernetic brains, and we use something like the Nanophage to scan and download new minds. But Samil… during the war, he used everything he knew about how artificial minds worked to kill… well, nobody’s sure. At least a million people. He corrupted an entire shard and everyone inside. And he had other things… mnemonic patterns, like visual viruses—all you had to do was look at them, and in a few hours you’d go completely fucking nuts. Those vulnerabilities are mostly patched, but…”

“She’s clean,” said Xavier. “Get your shirt on, kid, make room for the knight. Not that there was any doubt, eh Bradley? If my father was there, he would’ve called ahead if the Federation was going to declare war today. It doesn’t make sense as an opening volley. Would have to be decisive.”

Sunset glanced up once to make sure they had looked away, then sat up quickly. She pulled on her top, relaxing a little as she made room for the shirtless knight. Not bad looking, for a biped. They were all muscular and confident, so she would have to remind herself not to use that to judge. Easier said than done. Bradley had also made himself incredibly helpful, and was genuinely polite and charming too. Don’t you do it, Sunset. Don’t you dare.

“Hey, I’m not saying your dad isn’t good at what he does,” Sir Bradley said, as Xavier shoved him face-down into the chair. “You don’t do what he’s done for a hundred years without being damn good. But I’m a knight. We have to make sure even if we don’t think anything happened.”

“Yeah, yeah.” Xavier went back to his panel. Sunset thought about asking why, but she could guess. Probably the information from a scan like this is too private to send through the air. Or too high bandwidth.

Bradley continued, his voice muffled. “So even now that our architecture has been patched out of any obvious vulnerabilities, even now that our servers are amorphous and error-correcting, still can’t be too careful around a mind like that. He’s probably got a few good zero-days in his back-pocket, just waiting to fuck up as many of us as he can.”

“You said… a million people?” Sunset almost tripped over the word. “Are you sure about the… you can’t be remembering that right.”

“More,” Xavier said gravely. “Doctrine of the Federation says we’re not people. Just… automatons who keep going through the motions of the ones we were before we got scanned. Samil was the asshole who came up with that interpretation. And he took it more seriously than anyone else. You should hear him go on about the difference between murder and sabotage. Disgusting.”

Another few seconds, and he gestured. “You’re clean too, Bradley. No intrusion attempts, nothing festering in that subconscious of yours. Assuming there’s ever anything there to begin with.”

“Very funny.” The knight sat up, catching his robe when Xavier tossed it to him. “We did the right thing to check. That’s how we stay alive.”

“Right.” Xavier pointed out the entrance. “We’ve still got a few upgrades to run on the new fabs. Take your girlfriend and get out of my garage.”

Was he actually blushing as he shrugged into his robe? No way, Sunset was probably imagining that. “Thanks for your help,” Sir Bradley said, collecting his weapons from their hook on his way out. “Well, Natasha… I guess that’s all there is. I’m not sure what Tesla has planned for you the rest of today, but it doesn’t involve me.”

Sunset shrugged. “You busy? Maybe we could… get some lunch or something? You get time off, right?”

The knight grinned back at her. “I think I could spare a few minutes.”

The airship put down a tiny distance outside of Appleloosa, where a raised platform and a few mooring pylons had been erected near a field wide and spacious enough to accommodate its vast size. It reminded Jackie a little of the ancient zeppelins she had seen in old pictures, but she hadn’t been into the steampunk shards enough to see any of them up close.

Now she did—with a crew of ponies dressed in sturdy clothes, moving together and shouting back and forth with all the coordination of a single organism. The ship itself was probably about as long as the old passenger airliners, but much less graceful and aerodynamic. As they touched down, the crew in deep blue uniforms helped connect the bottom of the airship to the rail with a long ramp. Four large cargo cars rolled down the ramp, drifting slowly to a stop just a little distance from the railroad.

Jackie herself waited on the passenger platform as a handful of miners walked past her—and she immediately felt her heart sink with concern. These ponies looked nothing like her. They wore sturdy clothes, suspenders or pants mostly, some even had hard hats or satchels full of handheld mining tools adapted for pony hooves. They walked past the embarking line—really just a wooden rail between the two sections of platform, staring at her as though she were someone’s pet rabbit that had wandered up and pretended to be waiting for a ride.

An older male native—a stallion in the local parlance—stopped near the back of the line, gawking openly at her. “Miss, I think you’ve got the wrong airship,” he said, scratching at his old white beard with limbs shriveled with age. From the look of him, he hadn’t found his way to a shower in quite some time.

“Right one, unfortunately,” she said, nodding politely to him. “This is the one going to Motherlode, isn’t it?”

“You? Motherlode?” He laughed again, setting off down the ramp at a slow pace. “I hope you bought yourself a round-trip ticket. There ain’t no stake in Equestria tougher than Motherlode.”

Too bad I can’t ask him about that. Jackie would’ve loved to fly into this place with more information. Could you tell me more about the five foot Irish robot? Even a smaller, comparatively modest human should’ve still seemed frightening and alien to the ponies of Equestria. But so far as Jackie had been able to extract from the population of Appleloosa, there wasn’t anything strange about Motherlode except for the metals they mined and the racism of its residents.

The loading ramp above her finally thunked down in front of her. The pony waiting on the other side wasn’t wearing a civilian conductor’s uniform like the train staff had done, but an adorable naval officer’s uniform. She also had a wafer of glass and a viewer over one of her eyes, and a tiny personal computer tucked behind an ear.

But more than any of that, the bat was easily the most attractive pony Jackie had seen yet. She was a foot taller than Jackie, with proportions that had to be the equine equivalent of a supermodel. Rich blessings to whoever had designed pony clothing, but the coat and jacket that was the uniform actually left her rear exposed. Few ponies wore pants. I didn’t know bats got that tall. There was no guessing at the pony’s age—mature, but not old. It was the way Jackie imagined the pony royalty looking, if only she ever met them.

“Not much of a line today. That’s good. Not so many to disappoint.”

Jackie realized she was staring. She picked her jaw up off the floor, then produced her ticket from her saddlebags. “I, uh… one for Motherlode…”

“Our first stop.” The pony took her ticket with a wing, demonstrating a little more of the insane pony dexterity the natives seemed to have universally mastered. “I’m sorry to say the civilian charter has been canceled thanks to the war. This is the supply vessel Nightbreeze.”

“Please—” Jackie took one step onto the deck, so that she was half on the ramp and half aboard the airship. “I don’t need much space… I won’t be a bother! I can work, too! I have to get to Motherlode before…” She lowered her voice, glancing over her shoulder. “You can see what’s happening here. You probably heard about Canterlot.”

The bat frowned to herself, glancing briefly down at the crew that was at that moment opening box-cars that had been waiting on the tracks, and preparing to push them in. “It wouldn’t technically be allowed,” the pony said. “But you seem… desperate.” Her one eye danced over the glass data-screen, though Jackie couldn’t read anything written on it.

The pony was so attractive she almost hadn’t noticed just how out of place her equipment really was. Is that a scanner? How many ponies were outfitted like this? She’d heard rumors around Normandy that the UEF had played them, somehow. The portal technology had been theirs, and they were the first ones to have a man on the other side. Will they turn the ponies against us? Good for them. Jackie wanted to see the real humans win this. Even if she would eventually end up in the junkyard with the rest of her faction.

Where I belong.

But if the bat captain was using her device to scan Jackie, it didn’t find whatever she was looking for.

“Since it’s just you… I suppose we can make this work.” She passed back the ticket. “But this won’t be a civilian charter. This is a supply mission. We might be attacked along the way, or diverted into a warzone before we arrive. I cannot guarantee your safety or that our flight plan will be the one you paid for. Still want to take my ship? It’s possible there will be another one. Check the schedule.”

She had, and there wouldn’t be another leaving from Appleloosa for two weeks. If this was really the edge of a war, then she certainly didn’t have that long to wait. If I don’t get on, I’ll have to take a train west and hike days through the mountains. The trip wouldn’t be as deadly for her as an organic in her place, she wouldn’t get tired, cold, or hungry. But it would still add tremendous delays.

“Yeah,” she said, taking another step forward. “I’m Moire Pattern.”

“Captain Evening Star.” The bat took her hoof. She frowned as they shook, as though she were on the edge of commenting about how strange it felt. But then she let go and shrugged. “Welcome aboard the Nightbreeze.” She stomped one hoof, and in an instant another bat had arrived beside her.

This one looked far more mundane compared to her, with slightly uneven features and jowls that drooped. “Ma’am.”

“Moire Pattern here has joined us for this leg. Find her a bunk and get her situated.”

“Ma’am!” he saluted, gesturing towards a stairwell at the far end. “Follow me, Moire.”

She did, waiting until they were out of Evening’s earshot before muttering in a conspiratorial voice, “What is she wearing on her face?”

The pony’s expression darkened to suspicion, but in the end he answered anyway. “Some kind of information device. Goes all the way to Truth. Do you know what that is?” Jackie shook her head, and the sailor went on. “Truth is how we’re gonna win this war,” he explained. “It’s the best, fastest magic for talking there ever was. That’s all you need to know.”

Jackie did her best to be observant and unobtrusive during the next hour of departure preparation. The sailor hadn’t even got her a private room, but at least the hammock was tucked away in a back corner of a lower deck where it wouldn’t be too loud. Sea Legs introduced her to the crew down there, walked her through the basics of where she was allowed to go. That boiled down to “not the cargo holds, not in anypony’s way.”

“And in case it wasn’t obvious, you don’t have permission to disembark without captain’s say so. Unless she orders you, or gives you permission, the only way you get off this ship is using the ramp. Don’t get cute and think you can fly away halfway there—as this is wartime, you’ll be suspected of spying and recaptured for investigation. On the other hoof, you do everything you’re told, and it will be a relaxing trip. Two days, nowhere near the front, no problem.”

“No problem,” Jackie agreed. If I tried to fly away I’d just fall to my death anyway. Her wings were a decent simulation of the real thing, but there were plenty of reasons she kept them covered. They weren’t really skin, and whatever magic the natural ponies used to fly with such small surfaces for lift, she didn’t have it. If this thing catches on fire and we need to evacuate, I am so fucked.

They were in the air within the hour. As soon as they were moving, Jackie found her way to the bow, where she could lean out over the open air and watch Equestria go by below her.

Her old hacker senses couldn’t help but itch as they left the city behind. I probably should’ve taken a less direct path. Straight from origin to target is stupid. But at the same time, the Equestrians didn’t have any kind of record system. She hadn’t left a paper trail, hadn’t shown ID. It was just about handing over the bits and getting what she wanted.

As she watched a green countryside pass by below her, she kept checking her geo-ID, just to be sure she hadn’t connected to some realm without realizing it. She’d never seen the UID prefix before, but… the coordinates were real world every time.

Below her the land gradually transformed from desert into sprawling forest, without a trace of the near-lifeless wastelands that she knew waited back on Earth. There were no corpse-cities down there, and the signs of civilization at all were sparse. Villages had only a few dozen small homes, wrapping with the land instead of bulldozing it. I wish I was still alive. This would be a great place to retire. The natives weren’t so bad, at least not from what she’d seen so far. Maybe she could find that captain…

Someone tapped the railing beside her. Jackie blushed, straightening a little. It was Evening Star, still wearing her naval uniform, though she looked a little more worn than she had been a few hours ago.

“I can feel it,” she said, settling against the railing beside Jackie without invitation and letting her forelegs droop off the edge. “I remember this feeling, right before a war. The tension in the air. I think everyone can feel it, deep in their bones. The smell of change.”

Jackie looked up. “I’m up for a change anytime,” she said, before she could stop herself. “My cabin or yours.”

The captain’s eyes hardened, practically boring holes into Jackie’s head. Jokes on you, just a computer in there. Of course, she’d be royally fucked if the captain actually said yes. Her body wouldn’t pass that kind of inspection.

“That sounds very interesting,” Evening Star said, the glass over her eye constantly flickering with new information. She didn’t seem to be looking at Jackie specifically. “I actually had a few questions for you, and a more relaxed setting would make them easier.” She pointed to the upper deck. “After evening watch begins, just through those doors. I promise the breakfast in my cabin is better than the dinner they’re serving in the galley.”

“Right…” Jackie muttered, trying to think of a graceful way to back out. But her mind kept right on spinning, and no answers were forthcoming. In the end she just nodded again. “Right, sounds great! Breakfast with you.” Must be a bat thing. Sunset Shimmer, why the hell did you shut off your radio? But Sunset wasn’t answering, and hadn’t been for several hours now. Then again, maybe there’s a receiver in that headset. Being up close for long enough might let Jackie get some scans of her own. Maybe she could figure out exactly what the ponies had been armed with. “I’ve got all kinds of interesting stories. And I’m sure you do to… captain of a big ship like this. Maybe we could swap a few. And… do whatever else inspires us.”

The captain laughed. “Yes, I’m sure we will.” She tapped on the railing again. “It isn’t a request. Don’t make me send the officer of the watch to find you.” She left Jackie on the deck of the Nightbreeze, not sure if she were about to be solicited or arrested. That tongue of yours is going to get you killed one of these days, Jackie.

So much for not drawing attention to herself.

Chapter 5: Pre-Shared Key

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Sunset should’ve realized that the Builders didn’t eat—they had no need for food, so there was no reason to expect they would have breaks for that purpose. But Bradley was a knight, and that apparently meant a little leeway. Leeway to take an occasional sanity-break.

“I don’t know why he felt so… creepy,” Sunset Shimmer said, watching the knight as his fingers strummed along the guitar. He had apparently been carrying it the whole time, collapsed and out of the way. He played along to a relaxed melody, one that Sunset had never heard before but knew she wouldn’t forget. “You’d think… being machines like we are, we’ve given up all our magic. We shouldn’t be able to feel things like that.”

“Things like what?” Bradley glanced briefly towards the entrance of the empty tent, but the legionaries passing outside took one look through the open door and looked away again, pretending they hadn’t seen anything.

Not that the two of them were doing anything embarrassing. Just sitting in flat metal chairs and speaking quietly.

“Well, uh… I don’t know how much you know about Equestria. Or how much I’m allowed to tell you.”

“Anything,” Sir Bradley answered without hesitation. “Nothing is secret from the knights of the realm. We’re like… the highest branch of government. Those who serve the Tower directly keep even the lords and noble houses in line. Only the king sits higher than we do.”

Sunset laughed in spite of herself, though there was nothing mean-spirited in it. “Aren’t you a little young for that?”

Bradley’s eyebrows went up. “You haven’t been paying much attention, have you?” He held out his collapsible guitar. “Tell you what, we can trade. You tell me about Equestria, and I’ll teach you how to play this.”

“I, uh… fine.” Sunset couldn’t imagine why she would want to learn to play the Builder instrument, particularly with such an inefficient method. But if it was an excuse to spend more time around the knight, then… she would make it work.

Sunset took one last look at the door to make sure no one else was passing. Tesla and King Richard both had wanted her true nature concealed from as many as possible. Bradley already knew, but the fewer others found out the better.

“Okay, so. Magic is central to the life of ponies all over Equestria. Doesn’t matter what their tribe—everyone is using it all the time. Look at Ponyville just over your fence. Mostly an earth pony town, but they still manage to change the seasons, grow enough food for most of Canterlot by themselves… that kind of thing.”

“Kay.” Bradley turned the guitar over in his hands, adjusting the little knobs on the end. “So what does that have to do with Samil?”

“Lots of schools of magic,” Sunset went on, without waiting for him to say anything else uninformed. “Learning the specifics doesn’t matter. But not all of them are equally good. A few are inherently destructive. Either to the world around you… or to the user specifically. Samil felt like… someone who had been practicing dark magic for maybe two centuries. Princess Celestia and I found a pony like that up in the far north… she intimidated everyone around her, too. She had killed, but… not as many as Samil.”

“Dunno. Sounds like you’re really just sensing the evil to be honest. Lots of people get a sense for that kind of thing. People just… rub you the wrong way. Turns out it’s because they’re rotten to the core. It’s intuition—lots of little things your mind is using to make rapid estimates below the level of your conscious. Nothing supernatural about that.”

Sunset Shimmer groaned. “There’s nothing supernatural about magic, any more than there’s something supernatural about light or alchemy. Or… okay, maybe the word doesn’t translate that well into human. But ‘magic’ is the only one I can find.”

Bradley shrugged, then gestured for her to move closer. “Well, that’s enough to start. Let me show you a few chords. I think learning this is a little easier than learning ‘magic’.”

Sunset Shimmer didn’t argue with him, particularly his invitation to share his chair. Sir Bradley’s touch only felt warm. But even if their bodies were machines, his compassion was real. Accelerated minds and perfect coordination meant it didn’t take nearly as long as she would’ve liked to reach a basic level of competence, but even so the sun had risen nearly to noon by the time Bradley rose from the chair, collecting his guitar.

“Well, ‘Natasha,’ maybe next time you can tell me a little more about your world. Maybe your name. You already know mine.”

“Sunset,” she replied, without thinking. “Sunset Shimmer. But my friends just call me Sunset.”

“And my friends just call me Brad,” Sir Bradley said, grinning stupidly. “But when we’re out there somewhere on duty and there is anyone else around, they still call me by my title. You probably should too if there’s anyone listening. I’ll remember ‘Sunset,’ though. It’s… cute. Like Asian or something maybe, but translated. That doesn’t make any sense…”

He walked away, blushing slightly as he rounded the corner and vanished from sight out the tent door.

Sunset Shimmer reached up reflexively, clutching at the necklace around her neck. A few seconds of focus was all she needed to make the world of the tent vanish, replacing it with the little library.

Twilight was surrounded by books and plastic tablets, but her expression was unmistakably bored. At least until she noticed Sunset standing there, and she brightened up like a lamp. “Sunset! You came back!”

“Don’t be melodramatic, it’s only been a day.”

Twilight shrugged. “Feels like longer. Even if my time is synced with yours. I know it must be, tiny little processor like this to run on. Nine watts, did you know that?” She lifted up a single sheet of paper, covered in diagrams. From across the room, Sunset could still recognize it clearly as the necklace, cross sectioned to reveal all its working parts.

Sunset Shimmer didn’t have any instincts for how much that was, but from the way Twilight said it she was obviously supposed to be indignant. So that was what she tried to do, nodding supportively. “You’d rather be out in the real world?”

“Obviously! I know there’s… not much chance of getting me out. Tesla’s never going to give you an extra body when I’m one of the only things he has to lord over you. But if this is how I make myself helpful, then… nine watts it is.”

Sunset strode over to her, resting one hand on her shoulder in the seat. “I’m working on it, Twilight. I’ll get you free eventually. You’ll get to live in my world too.”

“I hope so,” Twilight said, though she didn’t sound convinced. So much for her blind faith.

“Sooner than you think,” Sunset went on. “I’ve got an idea. I don’t know how much of your memory is left, so you probably don’t know what I’m talking about. Augmented copresence?” At Twilight’s blank expression, she went on. “I just learned it from Brad a few hours ago. It’s a way of walking around with people in the realms at the same time as the ones in the real world, right? But I checked the protocols, and there’s no way it only works on the Realm.”

“So you could… bring me outside?”

“Sorta.” Sunset winced as she said the word, knowing how weak it sounded. She could hear someone approaching the tent again. The same legionaries? But she couldn’t speed up time in here. As Twilight had pointed out, the computer running this place was weak. Sunset could go faster, but Twilight could not. “It would still use my senses. So you wouldn’t be able to perceive anything I couldn’t. And… no one who isn’t meshed with me would be able to see you. But honestly, that last part might be an advantage. Most people around here don’t have any idea about… my mistakes. So only letting people I trust see you makes the most sense.”

“I want to be more useful,” Twilight said. “However we make that happen. Going out with you into the real world… anything to be out of this necklace. But if you’re coding things up, maybe you could figure out how to mesh me into your network node while you’re at it.” She tossed one of the tablets up into the air, where it stopped right in front of Sunset. Twilight was simulating unicorn magic, though she didn’t have a horn for it. “There are exactly fifty-one books in the default library. Even if all I could get was Project Gutenberg, that would help me from going completely insane.”

I can’t believe you’ve come so far, Twilight. It hadn’t been very long at all that she was just a program, with no personal desires at all. It still seemed as though the terror of Sunset’s magic had erased her original mind and personality… but at the very least, whatever remained was recovered. She’ll probably be ready to be a person on her own by the time this is over. Assuming Equestria and the Tower survive for there to be an end.

“I’ll work on that too,” Sunset said. “Or, heck, you could. I think I can keep SSH or something open. You can use that to… well, whatever. You’re better at it than I am. I remember.” She wasn’t going to point out that they’d used the power together to control an army of slaves and slave-nodes. The Element of Intellect was better left in the past.

Twilight nodded. “Oooh, that sounds great! I’ll start with a network link, then work on copresence next. I’ve seen the API, and it’s damn complicated. But bytes are bytes.”

“Yeah,” Sunset said. She still felt ignorant around Twilight sometimes, like maybe she had been the one to lose her memory. Before coming into the computer ruined your brain, I bet you were a genius.

Someone strode inside, and Sunset’s physical senses yanked her unceremoniously from the library. It was the same legionaries she’d seen earlier. Apparently they hadn’t gone anywhere so much as circled mindlessly around the tent a few times. Maybe they’d been waiting for Brad to leave. “Natasha?” asked one of them—both were armored and armed, though neither raised their weapons. There was nothing threatening about their posture either, just bored.

“Yeah?” She sat up, tucking the necklace into her shirt. “What can I do for you?”

“There’s someone waiting to see you… someone from the other camp.” It was a strange thing to see—their bodies were almost identical, with the same closely-cropped hair and dark eyes. But while one spoke with confidence, the other sounded shy, and shifted constantly from foot to foot in his armor. I bet they make standard bodies for all these guys. Too bad.

“Who?” Sunset asked, feeling her heart tense in her chest. Or… probably just a simulation of it. After treating the king, she now knew her circulatory system was nothing like that of an organic body. There wasn’t even one heart, but a continuous pressure system, fed by numerous tiny compressors. If it’s that monster guy…

“She’s apparently on the Normandy joint security council. Her name is Ada, and she seemed to think it was important.”

“Alright.” Sunset rose to her feet, straightening her hair with one hand. Ada hadn’t seemed nearly as bad as the one she served. “Let’s go see what she wants.”

Jackie thought about flinging herself from the edge of the Nightbreeze when nopony was looking. As they flew, she watched the natives perch up on the railings, then zip around as though they were lighter than air. She longed to join them, and one of the crew even suggested she could fly up and help with the rigging if she was going to lounge around on the deck anyway.

But however much Jackie might want to be up there, she knew she couldn’t. The natives to this planet were something special, something magical. By contrast, her and the rest of the Tower were just clever machines, some of which still pretended they were alive.

Not her, though. She knew she was no longer a real person, no longer responsible for her actions. She was nothing but the software and scans that had been taken of her mind. If she fucked things up, as she often did, it was just faulty programming. Nothing to be guilty about.

But in the end, the chance that she would land as a pile of rubble and explode into little bits of broken machines was just too high to risk, and Jackie didn’t try to get away. Maybe Evening Star is responding to me. Maybe I’ll have to tell her what I am, then we can have the most exciting night of my time in Equestria so far.

It wouldn’t exactly be stiff competition, considering she hadn’t really done anything last night but learn about her mission and get information from Sunset.

She found a marine waiting outside the upper door, and most of the ponies up here were dressed distinctly from the ones below. They wore fancy coats, officer’s hats, or other adorable accoutrements that marked their rank. But she was a civilian, and they apparently knew to expect her.

“Breakfast with the captain, eh?” asked the marine. “What did you do wrong?”

“Is it… usually a bad thing? I thought trips to the captain were a privilege.”

He laughed, holding the door open with his magic. “Yeah, you would like to think that, wouldn’t you?”

Jackie gulped, stepping inside and wandering down the hall. It wasn’t very long, and there was music playing from somewhere close by. Music she recognized—it was a classical piece, one she’d heard hundreds of times before. Human music.

Then she stepped into the captain’s quarters. They were at the rear of the ship, which meant a set of huge windows overlooking Equestria from behind. She could make out the sunset outside, staining the clouds a spectacular orange. The room itself had many workspaces along the walls, diagrams and sketches, and a handful of other strange things.

There was a single table near one wall that made Jackie’s eyes go even wider. There was a laptop there, with a gigantic keyboard obviously meant for hooves. A printer, and a strip of wire running out the window to where a flexible solar mat hung outside.

In the center of the room was a large table, and it had already been set for the two of them. It smelled like breakfast all right, with pancakes and omelettes and French toast. No meat, though there was some kind of pale sausage that was completely unplaceable to Jackie. It smelled like a dirty garage, but had been given a prominent place in the center of the table.

The captain was already seated, apparently enjoying the music. “Mute,” she commanded in English, and it stopped.

Jackie had already taken a photograph, and sent it back to Sunset to identify for her. Doing the search herself would take too much concentration when she was under scrutiny.

“You aren’t the first one to admire my equipment. Honestly, I was impressed by it too. Amazing what strides of technology can be achieved in so short a time.” She nodded towards the empty seat. “Please, join me. There is much to discuss.”

Jackie sat down. She’d practiced how to sit at pony tables, even if she felt decidedly unwelcome at this one. The captain had removed her jacket. Underneath she wore only a belt with a handgun settled in it.

A pony with a handgun.

Apparently Evening Star noticed her eyes here too, because her eyebrows went up. But she didn’t say anything at first, reaching out to start scooping food onto her plate. She started with the sausages. “You’ll want to try the saturniid first. I think you might appreciate it.”

From the gray color and the awful smell, she doubted that very much. But just like any sense, taste could be switched off. She obeyed. “Maybe you’ve figured out why I wanted to share this meal with you.”

Jackie shook her head, keeping as neutral as she could. “I thought about it, but I haven’t figured out yet. I think it might’ve been a mistake to try and… well, you’re on duty. That was impolite.”

“Impolite,” Evening Star repeated, finishing with her plate and settling back into her cushion to eat. “Impolite would be spilling some of this fine saturniid on my carpet. But you’re… something else.” She tapped her fork against the wood, eyes fixed on her. She still had the viewfinder over one eye, and for good measure Jackie sent a picture of that too.

Sunset still hadn’t responded.

“I try not to be,” Jackie said, and there was no need to lie anymore. “I’m just trying to survive this nightmare. Making it through a war… it’s never easy.” She nodded behind her, towards the table with the computer and speakers on it. “Looks like you have some of your own advantages for that. You just show that off to anypony who visits you?”

Evening Star shrugged. “I’m not sure why I wouldn’t. They’re just decoration to most who come through my halls. A few see them as enchanted.” She lifted the pistol out of its holster deliberately, settling it down on the table next to her plate. Not pointing at Jackie, but within easy reach. “I would love to know why a pony is traveling with an accelerator rifle and an RTG implanted into her chest.”

She switched completely to English then, watching Jackie’s expression carefully. “And cut the bullshit while you’re at it, please. I’ve already been up way too long, and I’m not in a good mood.”

Jackie took a deep breath, then switched to English too. She could speak it better than this pony, who still had a little bit of an accent. If anything, Evening Star reminded her of someone who hadn’t practiced a language in years.

“How much do you know about what’s happening in Normandy?”

Evening Star seemed impressed with her—maybe she hadn’t expected to be right, or maybe she’d thought Jackie would try to lie. But she didn’t do either of those things, there was no point. With so many scanners and machinery around, hiding her nature from this pony would be impossible. And the fact she speaks English means she’s been in touch with humans for quite some time.

At almost that exact moment, she got a message back from Sunset.

“I queried the intranet about the items. It’s an inexpensive computer made to be distributed in war-torn or impoverished areas, high reliability and low power. The headset is a military threat detector and communicator. Both are Federation made, prewar designs.”

Thanks,” was all she bothered sending back for the time being. Not while she was being watched.

“Both halves of humanity are there,” Evening Star said. “Both solutions to death, the organic and the mechanical. I know they fought, though I don’t know why. I guess they’re going to be helping Equestria now. But what I don’t know is what that has to do with you. Which faction are you working for?”

“The Steel Tower,” she responded. No sense trying to hide that if she had scans of the implants. For some reason she didn’t seem to have put together that Jackie was mechanical yet. She would figure it out, but in the meantime Jackie didn’t have to point out her obvious oversights.

“Why are you going out into the borders of Equestria? I thought you might be some kind of secret traitor, but there’s no reason to go out there. Mithril is important, but… it’s mined so slowly that we’ll never have a meaningful amount during the entire war. It will be a valuable target to seize after the war is finished. But during… it’s worthless. Sabotaging it makes no difference.”

“I’m not a traitor,” she said, smacking one hoof on the table so hard that her plate rattled. “A long time ago, the Steel Tower had some stupid fucking engineer here, okay? I’m just trying to find her and bring her home, that’s all. No Equestrian is even going to get involved.” She glowered at her. “What do you care, anyway? I’m not getting in your way. I’m not hurting your crew.”

“You could.”

True enough. Jackie wasn’t a warrior in the traditional sense, but her body had perfect precision and she had weapons designed for it. She’d slaughtered everything that got in her way leaving the Everfree without even thinking about it.

So there was no sense in lying. “So could you. You’ve got a handgun, a laptop, you’re listening to Beethoven and speaking English. You’re… one of the Federation’s transformed ambassadors, aren’t you? Serving as… a ship’s captain… running supply runs out to…” The hypothesis broke down rather dramatically at the end there.

Evening Star looked subdued. She turned back to her plate, slicing off a few bites of the weird sausage and grinning with pleasure at the taste. “I am not an ambassador for anyone,” she said. “I’ve been a pony… so long. More than a thousand years now… doesn’t feel like that many years. But I was something else, once. My name was Hayden.”

No one in the Tower knows about this, Jackie thought, her eyes widening. Then she saw the opportunity. Information was valuable. Information could be traded. She could get something for this, if she sold it. Ancient human contact with Equestria? And the years didn’t make sense either. Sunset Shimmer talked about ponies living for a few hundred years, but a thousand? There was something she hadn’t figured out here.

I’ll talk to Sunset about it once I’m alone. Her pony friend would be able to make sense of this. Maybe an old legend. “If you’re from ancient times, where did you get your computer? Hell, Beethoven wasn’t even born five hundred years ago, let alone a thousand. Your story doesn’t make sense.”

“Neither does yours,” the bat snapped back. “I suspect they’re both true. Eat your breakfast.”

Jackie did. She started with the familiar things, and found an experience not too dissimilar from the apple. The taste was good, but imperfect. The minor variations in the taste, texture, doneness in each bite… she quite liked it.

Except for the weird sausage. Whatever the taste was, she’d never had it before and didn’t want to again. It was positively awful.

“So you’re going to let me go?” Jackie asked, hopefully. “I swear I don’t want to hurt anyone. I’m just going to find my little lost lamb and bring her home to pasture, that’s all.”

“Maybe,” Hayden said. “I’m thinking about it. When I first landed here, I would’ve killed for a rescue party. But Earth never sent one, certainly not one going incognito. But I know I’m not the only pony like me anymore. If me, why not Chance? And if Chance, why not you?”

“Why not me,” Jackie stated. “Precisely.”

“I’ll let you go…” Hayden continued, as though she hadn’t even been listening. “If you tell me what you’ll do when you finish your mission here. Help with the war? Will you fight to protect Equestria?”

Jackie shook her head. “Hell no. I barely lived through the last war I was in…” And by barely I mean not at all. “I just want to live, that’s all. Escape, hide, survive. It’s what I’ve been doing since everyone I know died. I’m a survivor… if you’re really as old as you say, maybe you know something about that.”

Hayden pushed away her empty plate, then rose to her hooves. “Perhaps I do. I know that fleeing from your flaws will not help you to overcome them, Moire. I know the feeling in the air—this war is going to draw in everyone, no matter if they want to help.” She flashed suddenly through the air, and she was on the other side of the room. If Jackie hadn’t known any better, she would’ve thought she was back in the Realm, and the bat had just teleported.

But obviously that wasn’t possible. They weren’t digital right now.

The bat leaned in close, whispering into her ear. “Fate is a terrible goddess, Moire Pattern. Her will is inexorable. I can feel she’s wrapped her wings around you.” She straightened, turning away from her. “Resume playback.”

The music started playing again, though it hadn’t been paused and a different piece was now playing. Jackie didn’t recognize this one, but the style still seemed similar.

“Besides, I don’t think you could hide out in the edge of the world even if you wanted to. You’re on a rescue mission already, that isn’t the sort of thing a pony does who only cares about herself.”

I’m only doing this because it’s the only way for me to get my freedom back. But before she could get the words out, she realized she wasn’t sure about them, and so she said nothing. We’ll see. I don’t owe the Tower a damn thing. But you ponies haven’t done anything to hurt me. You didn’t scoop my brain out and turn me into a robot. Maybe if she wanted to join a new civilization, she would have to make some new friends.

The bat walked away from her, where she seemed to be watching the moon rise from outside. “We’ll be arriving tomorrow. I know it’s difficult, but get some rest if you can. Though… if you don’t care for saturniid, you might be able to sleep during the night, too. Guess that’s what happens to a pony who’s just been transformed. No taste, no common sense.”

Jackie didn’t argue, didn’t wait around any longer than she had to. She hurried from the captain’s quarters and back onto the deck.

The same soldier was waiting outside, and he seemed satisfied at her expression. “Told you.”

“Yeah.” She stalked away along the deck. “I guess you did.” She almost asked him if he knew that his captain was really a human—or had been. But of course it was an absurd question. The other pony she’d talked to hadn’t known what the headset did, so the chances that they’d know something so obscure were not good.

She headed straight back to her cabin, unsure if she should feel guilty about not admitting that she was a robot. Obviously not, don’t be stupid. I don’t owe her anything. I don’t even know her.

But it didn’t feel that way. Jackie might not believe that ponies could live that long, but Hayden really had sounded older and wiser than anyone she’d met so far. Almost like one of the near-religious princesses, except that she obviously didn’t have a horn.

“Hey, Sunset, can you talk?” She tried not to look too out of place walking back to her tiny bunk. She moved slowly enough that her mind could be elsewhere and she would still have enough time to react not to bump into anyone.

“Something wrong already? You?”

“Not wrong…” But even as she said it, it felt defensive. Being a pony was throwing Jackie right out of her confident groove. I need to locate her program that screwed with my drives enough to find these creatures attractive and strangle her. I just talked to a strange pony. She claimed to be, like, a thousand years old.”

“Not likely. Even Star Swirl didn’t live that long. The oldest earth pony I ever met was three hundred years or so. Unless you just met Celestia.”

Jackie reached her bunk unmolested, and crawled in. She checked on her gear—it hadn’t been opened while she was gone—and pulled it into bed beside her anyway. Then she covered herself up with a blanket, and stopped trying to control her body. “Her name was Evening Star. Ever heard of her?”

Sunset didn’t respond for over a minute this time—much longer than the radio delay. “I’ve heard the name. I guess your mystery pony knows some mythology too. Evening Star was an ancient general—the first bat pony who ever lived. The stories about her are all over the place, but the main one is that Princess Luna created her to give birth to the rest of the bats. Something about an invasion… but nopony knows for sure how the timeline quite lines up. Celestia doesn’t like to talk about it much… I was her personal student, and she would barely tell me anything. It’s common to see ponies named after historical figures, but if she’s claiming to be the same pony…”

“Do the legends say she was a human from Earth? Because that’s what she just told me.”

“Nothing about that,” Sunset said. “Princess Luna created the real Evening Star, either as one of her attempts to summon demons or while trying to make a tool that could defend Equestria. Depends on who you ask, which story you believe. The only Builders I know about interacting with Equestria are with Clover the Clever and Star Swirl. But I shouldn’t keep talking to you, I’m keeping someone waiting.”

Suit yourself.” Jackie disconnected, letting herself drift slowly off. She wasn’t sure what the point of lying to her would’ve been—she wasn’t the one with the power, wasn’t the one who needed to be convinced. What good would it do Hayden for Jackie to believe what she said?

So why lie?

She couldn’t let herself dwell on it. She’d be arriving soon enough—then she could find her missing engineer, and earn her freedom. Jury’s still out on what I do with it.

Chapter 6: Lithographic

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Sunset Shimmer recognized the human waiting outside, as she knew she would. Bright yellow hair, sharp eyes. Well, as yellow as humans ever got. The Steel Tower had a similar range of colors as ponies did, but the living humans were much more subdued in their range. Rather like many of the animals Sunset had heard of, with only slight variation in individuals.

She wore tight clothes, a clinging lower jumpsuit with a loose-fitting coat on that exposed just enough of her chest to obviously be intentional. Sunset had seen clothes like this in the Realm, though outside it there was rarely any point. She’d never observed an actual relationship with any of the Builders before.

She didn’t seem terribly intimidated to be on the Steel Tower side of camp, even if there were half a dozen legionaries all around them and none of her own men. She wasn’t even wearing a weapon, just a pocket computer terminal and a few leather holsters for equipment Sunset couldn’t identify. “You,” she said, eyes narrowing as she saw Sunset. She was taller by a few inches, and loomed over. “You’re Tesla’s administrative assistant, aren’t you?” She said it like it was meant to be an insult, though Sunset couldn’t imagine why. Wasn’t that just her position?

Sunset nodded. “I’m Natasha,” she said, smiling with the friendliest expression she could. This was her first time meeting one of the living humans in private, or close to it. Maybe if she made a good impression, she could learn some of the real differences between them and the Builders. “Sorry I didn’t stick around to talk after the meeting earlier. I’m still figuring out what they want me to do around here.”

“I didn’t know they made programs that got shy,” said Ada, rolling her eyes. “I suppose stranger decisions in hardware have been made in the past.” She handed over the computer. “I think you should look at these. I would’ve preferred to send them straight to the one with any power to make decisions, but your boss won’t take messages from me. Guess we’ll have to go back and forth ourselves. I’m not excited either.”

Sunset took the offered pad, finding her excitement rapidly draining. The tablet had a long list of information on its surface, looking like a set of complicated legal rules. From the first few lines, it seemed to describe the way Tower and Federation soldiers would interact whenever they met. Ways for them to signal to each other, and prevent friendly fire. Ways they would respect each other’s sides of Normandy. Simple stuff, except that it had been written in the wordiest, most boring way imaginable.

Is she trying to waste my time?

“I don’t like her,” said Twilight into Sunset’s head, apparently watching. Sunset had kept the connection open, though the specifics of setting up copresence hadn’t been worked out yet. Apparently she had mastered sharing her senses at least. “Why does she hate you so much?”

“You’re the one who used to be human, don’t you remember? You should know this war better than I do.” Sunset did know a bit of history, though she wasn’t sure how much of it she trusted. After her time studying under Celestia, she couldn’t help but be skeptical when a source put the entire blame for something bad on one side.

I ran,” was all Twilight said, before her voice faded and her presence in Sunset’s mind trailed into the background.

“Hey, robot.” Ada tapped her on the shoulder with two fingers. “Robot, did you short circuit? I need you to go over these rules and work out each point with your side. We can arbitrate anything we disagree on, if there’s anything. But there shouldn’t be anything on there that you robots really care about.”

Sunset nodded, pocketing the tablet. “I wonder if you’d be willing to give me an interview,” she said, before she could stop herself. “I haven’t met very many, uh… Federation people before. I’ve got some questions.”

“I’m sure you do.” Ada turned away from her. “I don’t much care. Thanks to our superiors, we’re stuck together. Try not to get stuck on a recursive loop or whatever while you’re reading that over. There are some pretty big words.”

She left, striding away with such authority that her escort of Legionaries followed her, rather than commanding for her to stop. One glanced back at Sunset, an almost apologetic look on his face. But soon enough they were gone, and Sunset was left holding the tablet. “I don’t know why she had to be so mean about it.”

Twilight didn’t answer her. Maybe she was busy using the connection for other things.

Sunset flicked through a few more pages of rules, but nothing on that list really stuck out to her. She wasn’t even the one who dealt with questions like this—she wasn’t a negotiator, and she didn’t have any right to speak for the Tower. They weren’t even her faction, if she got really technical with it. She was at once a guest and a hostage, and couldn’t be quite sure which. I wish I was dealing with Richard instead of Tesla. He seems like a good man.

It took Sunset Shimmer several boring hours to deal with all the legal proposals. There was more than a little searching involved with finding the right people, which turned out to be quite a long and complicated list of different people over which the different rules would apply. Since she’d been the one to receive it, they seemed to think that she ought to be the messenger who ran around and coordinated with everyone. But since Telsa hadn’t given her anything else to do…

She got a little break in the middle of the process talking to Jackie, who needed her help with some basic research. Sunset answered, then was left with more questions than answers. Apparently, there was a pony impersonating a historical figure while serving in the military. Confusing, but not as confusing as the human technology she was using.

But she wouldn’t be trapped in that boring responsibility forever. Once she’d got approval from the Builders, she had to take the rulebook over to the ponies for similar approval. Not that she would’ve admitted it, but Sunset was itching to be back around her own kind, even if it was just for a few minutes.

The ponies were busy today, she’d seen them working hard. As the day went on, shipments of wood and cement were arriving on carts, probably taken here by rail. And no sooner did they get to the outside than a gathering of earth ponies assembled them into more wall. They built with incredible speed, and with half the daylight left they already had half a kilometer of wall.

Not really much point trying to keep the Builders in this way. If they wanted that wooden wall down, it would be down. But she wouldn’t tell them that.

Sunset strode over to where another crew of official-looking engineers were working on a barracks, trying to return to looking friendly. It wasn’t the ponies’ fault that someone had been a huge jerk to her. This would be her chance to make some organic friends who wouldn’t call her stupid names and waste her time.

“We could’ve used portable canvas buildings,” a blue unicorn was saying, her voice annoyed. “I know a supplier in Manehattan, he could’ve had a whole fortress here by now. We could have the whole thing up in an hour, or take it down and pack it into a caravan just as quickly. This looks like it’s going to take days.”

Her companion was also a unicorn, though neither of them were wearing armor. The two were gathered by the piles of supplies and illustrated plans, looking things over and occasionally giving advice to the earth-pony builders. “I’m sure, Trixie. But this might be here for a long time. Looks like the aliens want to build a real city here, so why shouldn’t we?”

The blue unicorn, apparently Trixie, opened her mouth to reply, then trailed off as Sunset approached. Instead she lowered her voice to a whisper, but not nearly quiet enough that Sunset couldn’t hear. “One of them is standing right behind you, Starlight. What do you think it wants.”

“She,” the pink unicorn, Starlight, replied in a similar whisper. “It’s a she. She doesn’t look angry or anything. Maybe she wants to talk.”

“I do!” Sunset said in Equestrian, striding the rest of the way over and abandoning all pretense of not being able to hear. “My name is Su—Natasha. Probably not great to say, but… yeah.” She extended a hand towards the two of them, the one that she wasn’t using to hold the tablet.

“Starlight,” answered the pink unicorn, offering her hoof with an aura of stiff politeness. “My friend here is—”

“The Great and Powerful Trixie. The most accomplished sorceress in all the land, and royal security consultant for this… arrangement.” She gestured vaguely with one hoof, mostly at the other side. “So don’t get any ideas, with your… tallness… or your… whatever you do. We’re watching you every moment. You aren’t going to be allowed to do any harm to Ponyville.”

“I’m sure none of us want that,” Sunset said, unable to suppress a smile. “Good to meet you both.” She held up the tablet. “I’m a mule today, unfortunately. I have some rules that have been migrating their way around Normandy for approval from each faction. You’re the last ones to see it. I’m sure Equestria won’t have any problem with it… most of them don’t even apply to you—but it’s a three-party settlement, so here.” She held it out towards Starlight, since she hadn’t said anything absurd yet. Obviously she was in charge.

The tablet started levitating, and drifted gently out of Sunset’s grip, towards the ponies. “We’ll take a look at it,” Starlight said, holding it close and staring at the screen. “It seems… very interesting. But shouldn’t there be more?”

“There’s a bazillion pages,” Sunset answered, a little of her true exasperation slipping into her tone. Then her eyes widened. “Right, you’ve probably never seen a tablet before. Here, let me show you.”

She spent the next few minutes demonstrating the touchscreen to the pair of fascinated unicorns, though they weren’t the only ones around. Practically half the pony workers had stopped to stare, though most of them didn’t seem to be listening too closely. They wanted to see a human up close, probably.

“That’s ingenious!” Starlight said, when Sunset had finished. “And these enchantments are common among Builders?”

“Yeah,” Sunset answered. “You can’t even imagine. Some of the things they do make it feel like they’re all Alicorns. Then they’ll turn around and make such an obvious mistake, you wonder if any of them know what they’re doing.” Her eyes widened a little as she realized just how unusual that would sound, and she hastily looked away.

“I mean… that’s pretty basic technology there, not magic. So far as I know, nobody can do magic. That’s a pony thing.”

“And you would have given it up, anyway…” Starlight didn’t sound vindictive, only matter-of-fact. “You personally, I mean. Becoming a machine. There’s a similar school of magic from old Equestria, long ago. Immortality through enchantment. Making a crystal golem, and trapping the soul in it.”

Sunset nodded. “Believe me, I’ve noticed. But… it isn’t so bad once you get used to it. Maybe I can’t use magic like you can, but… there’s an entire world all around us that I couldn’t see before. Millions of people, whole cities and towns and countries that you couldn’t see if you didn’t have at least a few implants. I don’t know that I’d want to give those up anymore…”

You still tried. You tried to get Discord to change you back, and you were upset when he wouldn’t. You didn’t even stop to think about what would happen to your friend Twilight if that happened. She’d probably go insane, trapped in that little library forever.

“Trixie already knows that magic isn’t everything,” the unicorn said. Then she stopped, glancing once around her as though making sure no one was listening. And maybe they weren’t, but the crowd of ponies hadn’t dispersed. They weren’t that close, but they also didn’t get that far away. All of them seemed to be pretending to do other things, but the illusion wasn’t convincing.

“Or… that’s not right. Trixie knows that magic is different things to different ponies. Starlight here can cast spells even Twilight didn’t know about. She can actually pull off lots of the things that ponies out here in the middle of nowhere tell stories about. But that’s not everything. Sometimes what ponies really want is just a little showmanship. A little finesse, a little pizzazz! Do you think the aliens would appreciate my shows, Natasha?”

Sunset grinned. “I think they would.” She pointed to the other side of camp, where an open cafeteria was at that moment filling with humans holding trays and lining up for food. “Just look at them. They seem… bored.” Then she looked down, folding her arms. “I’m not sure if the Tower side would appreciate it, though. They—we… don’t have money. It’s all energy and processor time, and I’m sure you don’t even know what that is. But the humans on the other side seem like they’re a lot more familiar, so I’d start there. If you wanted to run a show, I mean.”

“You… aren’t what I was expecting,” Starlight said, eyeing her with increasing scrutiny. “I spoke with Twilight’s apprentice about you mechanical people. She didn’t have very many good things to say.”

Sunset rolled her eyes. “Yeah, I’m noticing that about the other side. They really seem to hate us for no reason. Maybe you know what that’s like.”

“Oh, she doesn’t,” Trixie cut in. “Starlight Glimmer almost ended the world a few times. She’s very deserving of when ponies hate her.”

“Thanks,” Starlight muttered, not quite enough for Sunset not to hear. “Real friend, Trixie.”

“Oh. Sorry.”

Sunset shrugged. “Well, get back to me about those rules. Or… no, not me. Get back to the Federation about them. Our corrections are already in the tablet. You can just… bring it straight to Ada in that building there. She’ll know what to do with it.”

“Sure thing,” Starlight said. “And…” She seemed on the edge of shutting up, too nervous to keep going. But then she did anyway. “Are you allowed to talk to us all the time? Or only on business? I’m tired of getting my information second-hoof.”

Sunset grinned in spite of herself, remembering when she’d asked almost exactly the same thing to Ada a few hours ago. I’m not going to be like her. I’ve done enough evil, I can’t afford to treat ponies like that.

“I can’t tell you everything,” Sunset said, honestly. “Mostly because they don’t tell me very much. I’m from… well, far away. But maybe I could tell you some things. And maybe you could tell me a little about Equestria too.” About how much things have changed. Five princesses now, really? None of this feels real.

“Sure,” Starlight said. “Hey, Trixie, how about lunch? Do, uh… do humans eat lunch?”

The technical answer to that question was no. In reality, her body could eat. She’d never actually tried that process in the real world, but there was no reason she couldn’t start now. Call me now, Tesla, or forever hold your peace.

No one called her. “Sometimes,” she answered. “It’s been a long time since I’ve eaten. I wouldn’t mind doing it again.”

“That’s a weird thing to say,” Trixie said. “You aliens are strange.”

“Yes,” Sunset said, chuckling at Starlight’s glare. “You don’t know the half of it.”

Motherlode didn’t look like much from the air. A dozen buildings or so, half of which looked like they were mostly caves to begin with. It was all made from the same boring bricks, and though sturdy it seemed that a good landslide or maybe some snow ought to wash the whole town away. Even from the air, it was easy to see why everypony who spoke about this place warned her that she would want to leave as soon as she got here.

They were probably right.

And it makes sense as a place to exile a troublesome alien who maybe sorta invaded your whole country. Way up here she won’t be able to do any damage. Keep her away from anything she could break.

But even so, she’d expected to see more signs of human involvement from the air. There was the train station, but Ponyville had one of those too and trains themselves seemed like an old technology in Equestria. Minecarts rumbled down a twisting course all the way towards the valley floor, completely unattended. And high above Motherlode there were a few little huts that seemed to be made of cloud, like carefully sculpted decoration overlooking the town.

They descended past all these, towards a wide, flat stretch of ground lower than the city itself—like the remnants of previous blasts, with a towering wooden mooring pole and not much else. “This is your stop,” said Sea Legs from behind her, as though she hadn’t been able to see that the entire way down. “Get off where you got on, down on the lower deck. Don’t forget anything, because we won’t be back to deliver it to you.”

“I got it all.” Jackie turned away from the railing, tapping the edge of her saddlebags with one hoof. “Look, see? All my crap.” Now, tell me where the banished human is hiding. But the fact that not one of the ponies she’d spoken to about the town had mentioned her did not give her much optimism for her mission. Maybe the superstitious locals she’d been hearing about had decided she was too strange to live and killed her as she got off her airship. Or maybe she was so good at hiding that none of the average visitors actually knew she was here.

Jackie didn’t mind a little treasure hunt, if that was what it took. She was trying to find her freedom, so a little searching felt like a reasonable part of the process.

They touched down with only a slight bump, and Jackie restrained her eagerness to get out and start working a little longer. She watched the crew tie them down, then practically ran to the disembarkation ramp. But she had to wait a little longer as wheeled carts were exchanged with the tracks below. The Nightbreeze was a supply ship.

“Moire,” said a voice from behind her. Jackie didn’t turn around as Evening Star approached, clipboard in her wing as she watched carts loaded up and down. “I hope you’ve thought about what I said.”

She just shrugged. “I think about everything. I’m not so sure I’ll end up as involved with all of this as you.”

She kept her voice down, quiet enough that only the ponies immediately around them would overhear. There just weren’t very many of those. “I didn’t either, when I first got here. I thought it would just be chemistry and plumbing and maybe seducing a handful of attractive locals. But see if you can stand idly by and watch them die. I don’t think you’re wired that way. I wasn’t.”

“I’m not wired the same way as you.”

Evening Star chuckled. “The Nightbreeze is scheduled to come back around on its supply run in two weeks’ time. The crown is stockpiling all the remote villages with as much food as they can store, to try and outlast the invasion. It is unlikely enemy troops will ever arrive here. But if you want a flight out, that will probably be your last chance until the war ends. Assuming we win.”

It was Jackie’s turn to laugh. “I’ve seen what’s sitting in Normandy. Assault drones, thousands of legionaries, the goddamn Sons of Barsoom had a flag waving on the Federation side. What the hell are some primitives going to do to fight them? This war was over before it started.”

“I hope you’re right. But remember, two weeks. I might be able to use a pony like you. The Nightbreeze isn’t really a supply ship.”

The cars stopped rolling, and one of the sailors lifted the gate. Jackie hurried away without a second glance, before the strange maybe-human could change her mind and try to trap her. But she didn’t—no soldiers chased after her, and the gates didn’t come crashing down. She was able to walk out onto the rough stone completely unmolested.

There were only a few ponies down here, all wearing the same brown hats and vests. There was a sun logo sewn onto the front—some kind of military contractors, maybe? The largest building she could see was a warehouse just up on the next rise, which seemed placed specifically to service any airships that landed.

The ponies stared openly at her, pausing as they pushed switch carts around. Jackie was wearing her robes again, but apparently that wasn’t enough to conceal that she was a bat underneath. “A thestral,” one of them said, his voice dismissive. “What in Celestia’s name do you want with Motherlode?”

Jackie shrugged. “I heard you guys had an engineer. Is that true?”

The pony laughed scornfully. “We’ve got a blacksmith and some pegasi, does that count?” He turned his back on her, going back to work.

Jackie didn’t bother trying to extract more information from these. No doubt their unfriendly attitude would only get worse the more she pressed them. But even a tiny town like this needed shops, needed restaurants, or some other place for ponies to congregate. She could start there.

At least the locals had been good enough to carefully mark the paths through town, lining the trail from the airstrip up to the city with thousands and thousands of little rocks. Jackie made her way up, wishing she’d brought someone else along. It would’ve been nice to have a friend from the Realm come along like Sunset had done, but… Jackie didn’t have any friends with magically high security clearance who could come on official missions.

And probably they shouldn’t. I was the only one upset about digital life. They liked pretending to be immortal just fine. Transferring to a portable medium would spoil the illusion. She thought about calling Sunset and asking for advice, but ultimately dismissed that idea too. Jackie didn’t need help—she was one of the best hackers in the world. Once she finished with this last mission, she wouldn’t need the modifiers.

Motherlode itself was tucked into a little valley in the cleft of two large mountains, with its homes spread between different elevations linked by winding switchbacks. The single largest group of buildings was the one she’d seen from the air, with a dozen or so structures that were clearly the center of civic life in town. So, if I were a banished human super genius, where would I be hiding? She couldn’t see any churches or smoking factories, so cultist and secret industrial tycoon were both right out.

With nowhere else to go, Jackie just followed the crowd until she found the central gathering place in town, which also happened to be following a single long wire strung up by poles alongside the path. Her sensors gave her a slight electrical reading from the cable, but far less than it would take to power anything useful.

The cable led straight into a building marked with an old-fashioned burned wood sign: “Motherlode Telegraph Co.” Just beside it was an open cafe with a few dozen tables, and many mares and children were gathered there, along with a small number of older stallions.

Even as she watched, someone ran out from the telegraph station, clutching a slip of paper in their mouth. They had to stop in front of a table and set it down to read, and everyone fell silent to listen. “Seaddle reports sightings of griffon scouts to the west! Air service is scrambling ships from the coast to respond. Wonderbolts en-route.” Panicked muttering descended on the crowd again.

I’ve seen this before. Jackie could remember a quiet pub on a London street. She had ran inside when the gas bombs dropped, and watched as a panicked barmaid franticly stuffed the gap under the door with damp towels. Even though those memories came before her conversion, Jackie could remember them perfectly. The smoke hanging in the air, the stale alcohol that no one was drinking anymore, the buzz of holoprojectors at the front that played national news instead of sports. The growing list of cities reduced to rubble as evacuation orders kept coming in, along with promises that “Tower Recovery Teams are traversing the city. Remain where you are and you will be recovered.”

Well, Jackie had obeyed. Now she’d been recovered to be dragged across the universe and into another war. She could almost hear Evening Star’s words in the back of her head, smug at what she was thinking. Jackie banished her, and hurried up to the front of the cafe.

An elderly mare worked with what looked like several children behind the counter, cooking simple meals and dispensing simple flagons of ale. Jackie ordered only the latter with half of her remaining coins, then took them to a table outside where she could sit and watch the locals. Somewhere out here was the key to finding her missing engineer, if only she looked closely enough.

But for the first hour or so, nothing jumped out at her. Jackie drained her ale and refilled the flagon from the water-trough outside, sipping slowly and listening to every conversation at once. Someone here would be talking more than the war and their mining, right? There would be some secret mountain cave, maybe someone here was responsible for bringing food… wait, no.

She was sent to an alien world, that meant she would have field power like me. If she wasn’t moving, she could hide in a cave for a century and not run out of power. The locals might not know anything about her at all. Maybe she’d arrived in the middle of the night and immediately hidden in the mines somewhere, and was still there today. But if she did that, I’m just fucked. There’s no way I’d find her.

There were a few more obvious search methods that Jackie tried while she sat in place, though she hadn’t expected anything and they paid no dividends. An IFF ping was a good place to start, since every legitimate Tower body had a transponder. But as she had feared, there was none. Military bodies could switch them off, either for secrecy or to save power. And if I was stranded on an alien world and didn’t think rescue was coming, I wouldn’t waste energy on that.

Jackie had counted on her conversational skills to help her where technical acumen failed. But so far, not a single pony had come up to her even though she’d chosen the largest, most central table to the telegraph station. When she tried approaching a table of ponies that looked her age, they all got up and left, ignoring what she had to say.

A few hours went by, and Jackie kept her empty wooden stein in front of her. If there was one benefit to how much the locals seemed to hate her, it was that the staff of the cafe hadn’t asked her to leave for not buying anything else. They just kept glancing at her, then hurrying away from her table when they noticed her looking.

But as it was getting dark and Jackie herself was nearing despair, she noticed another outcast settling in at a table on the other end. A pegasus had just sat down to eat there, and the ponies nearby had immediately gotten up. They didn’t give her quite the same amount of space they gave Jackie, but that didn’t matter. Someone else was being avoided, they were her best lead.

Jackie got up, then walked over and set her flagon down across from the pegasus. She was gray, with a speckling of brighter spots standing out from her coat. She looked exhausted, which Jackie wasn’t sure would help or hurt her. “Hey.” She resisted the temptation to say something flirtatious, if only because this pony wasn’t half as mature as the one she’d tried that with last. She was pretty enough, but much younger than Evening Star had been. Even smaller than Jackie, though also not a kid. “I hope you don’t mind if I sit here.”

“No you don’t. You would’ve asked before you sat down if you cared.”

Jackie grinned, shrugging her wings. “Guilty. But look around, it’s not like we’ve got tons of other choices here. Or… okay, maybe I don’t know how long you’ve lived here. But I’m new, and I’m not exactly feeling the friendship washing over me.”

“You won’t,” she said, her tone weighed down with frustration and exasperation. It didn’t seem directed, though it was hard to say for sure. “All you’ll get is blamed for everything you can’t control. You get to be a scapegoat, and you get to hear the old ones whisper about you behind your back. I hope you didn’t move here without being warned, stranger.”

“Moire Pattern,” Jackie supplied. “And I had some idea. But it’s been so long since I’ve seen racism outside of a historical reenactment. I honestly didn’t believe it still happened.”

“Sorry.” The pegasus sipped at her noodles from a steaming bowl. It was hard to tell if the blue on her ears was frost, or just an extension of her natural colors. “And I’m Frostline. One of three weatherponies assigned to this whole mountain. No, we don’t have enough resources to get rain up here. Yes, we’ve already asked the central office, and they said no. Sorry.”

Jackie laughed. “Sounds like you’ve said that a few times.”


Better than I’ve got with anyone else so far. Even the cafe’s owner barely spoke to her. “Listen, I’m… I’m looking for someone in town. I’m not sure if you’ll be able to help me, but… I figure we have a responsibility, you know? Outcasts. We gotta stick together.”

The pegasus made a disgruntled, noncommittal sound. “Nopony ever said I was an outcast…” But there was no serious objection in the tone. It sounded more like a ritual denial, something she told herself but didn’t believe. “Who are you looking for? Can’t be anypony interesting—Motherlode doesn’t really do interesting.”

“Well…” Jackie lowered her voice. She wasn’t sure how quiet she would have to be not to be overheard. Maybe it wouldn’t be possible. But she could try. “I’m looking for someone strange… not a pony. Someone pale, two legs, hair just on their head. Taller than anypony you’ve ever met. Ever seen someone like that?”

“You mean like a diamond dog? But they don’t just have fur on their heads…” She frowned, obviously confused. “Why would you think that would be out here. You think they were setting up a friendship school out in the mountains with nothing around?”

Jackie shrugged. “Maybe. I dunno. But maybe… they might be hiding what they look like. So maybe you could help me find them by what they do. They’re an inventor, one of the smartest there ever was. They build machines that run by themselves… tools that work impossibly well, maybe even things that talk. Have you ever seen stuff like that around town?”

“Silver Spring?” Frostline asked. “She’s made some pretty crazy stuff with her mom, but… they’re not freaky diamond dogs or anything. She’s just an earth pony, like almost everypony else in town.”

An earth pony who’s helping to hide the real inventor? Jackie sat a little straighter in her seat, taking a long pretend swig from her stein. “That sounds perfect. Can I meet her?”

“Well… I usually head over after dinner to make sure she hasn’t blown herself up. Guess you could come along. So long as you’re not going to be mean. Spring is kinda fragile… being an earth pony hasn’t protected her from Motherlode, not with the way she acts.”

“I’ll be sweeter than candy,” Jackie promised, rising to her hooves. Once she tells me where the human is hiding, you two can go back to whatever and I won’t bother you again. “Are you done eating? Let’s go now!”

Frostline groaned. “I thought I liked you, Moire. Don’t make me regret saying yes.”

Chapter 7: Universal Interface

View Online

The ponies of Motherlode seemed almost relieved as Jackie followed her new companion out of the square and down the single main road.

“It would be easier to fly,” Frostline suggested, pointing down. “See that house with the weird roof and the tower next to it? That’s where we’re going.” She spread her wings, taking off easily, but Jackie reached after her.

“Wait! I, uh… I’m really bad on my wings. The, uh… caves I grew up in were so small, I didn’t have enough room to fly, and I haven’t had enough practice. Can we walk?”

“Oh.” Frostline landed, ears flattening. She blushed, and for good reason. Half a dozen nearby earth ponies had turned to stare at her. Apparently flight wasn’t well looked-on here, like so many other things. “Yeah, I guess. Walk. Sounds… thrilling.” She set off, gesturing down the switchback.

The mountains were so steep that for every length of switchback there was barely enough room for a single house, then there would be several more. Up above things were a little better, maybe the ponies had blasted and leveled there? And it wasn’t just that the homes were less convenient—they looked worse the further they went. More cracked windows, faded paint, dead plants in the front yard instead of struggling ones.

“I guess your friend must be… pretty poor,” Jackie muttered, by way of conversation. “Living down here, I mean.”

“Well…” Frostline shook her head. “I’m pretty sure True Silver has more gold than anypony else in Motherlode, by like… a lot. But if she made a show about it, she would probably get kicked out. You see how ponies are.”

“Yeah,” Jackie said, glaring briefly over her shoulder at a family of earth ponies giving them dirty looks. “I thought Equestria was better than this. Racism is like… last century, my dude.”

“You’re weird,” Frostline said, speeding up a little. She sighed exaggeratedly. “But that probably means that Silver Spring is gonna be thrilled to see you. She wants to see every weird pony who comes through town. Usually they aren’t willing to take such a long walk down, and she doesn’t want to climb up. Even with earth pony endurance.”

Jackie shrugged. “Color me intrigued.” As they got closer, she got a better look of some of the exterior features. A spring from the peak seemed to pass the house, and it had been redirected into a slush-gate that ran to a water-wheel, then back to the original path of the stream. And there was a wind-turbine as well, complete with coils of bright copper wire right on the top that made its purpose obvious.

Electric lights shone from within, with a somewhat unsteady amber glow. “What’s that tower for?” she asked anyway. How much has your friend told you?

“Electricity,” Frostline said. “Ever been in Manehattan? Or Canterlot? It’s like that, but… way smaller-scale. We’re not worth putting it in… and the locals probably wouldn’t want it even if we could get it, let’s be honest. I wish she could run it up to my cloud-house, but…”

“I guess she does a lot with electricity,” Jackie offered. “Did she build it herself?”

“Well, not all by herself. Her mom is the town blacksmith, so she already had somepony to work metals. And whenever she’s trying something new, she always gets me. Pegasi are… really tolerant of electricity, so long as our hooves aren’t on the ground. Probably because we’re around lightning so often.”

“Yeah,” Jackie agreed, though she knew nothing at all about that. They were just about to the door now, close enough that she could smell something rising from the house. Whatever it was, it smelled much better than what they’d been serving in town. I guess you guys aren’t religiously opposed to spice. But before they reached the house, there were half a dozen switchbacks with no other homes nearby. It seemed even the poorest residents of Motherlode wanted nothing to do with True Silver and Silver Spring.

The trail didn’t have a formal ending, or even a wall. It came to a dead stop at the end of a long slope, then trailed off on a cliff that would easily kill anypony who wandered there. Jackie stopped on the edge, looking down and down and down. “Damn,” she muttered. “No way that’s up to code.”

“I dunno what that means,” Frostline said. “But it looks like Spring is about to try another one of her experiments! Look there, at the workshop! See how the doors are all shut, and the lights are on… come on!” She took off into the air, blasting Jackie with dirt. If she were an organic, the sudden surprise might’ve made her stumble right off the cliff. But her legs were sturdier, and so she just shrugged and followed behind.

She watched Frostline open the door ahead of her, and walk inside into a brightly lit space. Like a converted barn, with lots of shelves on the walls with bits of metal on them. As she got closer, she could see a massive workbench in the center of the room, with a rack of tools hanging above. Wires strung along the ceiling connected to Edison-style lights, that rose and fell in brightness slightly as the seconds passed.

It was a passable simulation of a workshop in more civilized spaces. Exactly the sort of thing she might’ve expected to see from a Tower engineer who’d been hiding out among the natives for years.

But as she slipped inside, preparing her speech to give the long-missing Bree—the words faded in her throat. There was no badly-damaged synthetic body at the far end of the room, maybe in a homemade wheelchair or something similar to save power. Only a pony, with a peach-colored coat and reddish mane. That mane stood on end just now, likely from the energy running all around her. A massive Van-de-Graaff generator arced with energy, sending it across a bit of bent and slightly rusty metal.

No, there was more to it—a mechanical disk rotated next to it, like she might’ve seen on a music box, controlling the timing of the flashes.

‘Alert: Tower distress call detected on nonstandard frequency. Believed point of origin is spark gap transmitter less than ten meters from your location.’

No shit. At least they hadn’t started installing AI in prosthetic bodies without telling her. It might’ve been more frightening if the program had jumped to some useful conclusion about what she was seeing.

‘Message follows: Useful intelligence, retrieve ASAP. Message ends.’

Bit of a strange request for a human engineer stranded in a nation of ponies. But then, she couldn’t actually see a human engineer. The technician was certainly organic—even with an IFF transponder disabled, there was no mistaking a prosthetic body for what it was.

“You’ll have to wait until I’m finished!” shouted Silver Spring, watching the process carefully and occasionally nudging the belts on her generator back into place. “Who is that?”

“Someone who wanted to talk to you!” Frostline shouted back. “It can wait! I’m sure she’ll want to see this too!”

And Jackie did—it was an impressive accomplishment for where it had been achieved. She’d read about wasteland scavengers back on Earth, who had built up luxury for themselves in the ruins of dead cities. They usually died of radiation poisoning eventually, but they could do some pretty impressive things first.

But then the generator started sparking irregularly. The emergency logo flickered from Jackie’s HUD, then went out. Right about the time the mechanism at the top of the generator caught fire.

“Bucket!” Silver Spring called, panicked. And Frostline took off, reacting so quickly that this couldn’t be the first time she’d seen it. She lifted into the air, dunking the generator right from the top. Steam billowed down on top of them, filling the air with enough smoke that Silver Spring and Frostline were both coughing. Jackie coughed a little too—mostly out of instinct. But the sound was hollow and pointless.

The three of them stumbled out into the night ahead of a wave of foul-smelling smoke, fur stained a little for the effort.

“Well, that experiment went better than last time,” Frostline said, grinning sideways at Silver Spring. “You must like performing for an audience.”

“I…” The earth pony removed a thick pair of goggles from over her eyes, wiping fresh ash deposits. Now that she was closer, Jackie could get a better view at her, and could tell for certain this wasn’t a prosthetic. Those were real eyes, not actuators and cameras. Real spit she used to get the ash off her glasses. Real smoke caught in real fur. So you’re not my missing engineer. Where is the real thing, and what did she do to make you send her messages? “I would’ve done equally well either way. The mechanism was not altered after you arrived.”

Why wouldn’t the Tower engineer just send them herself? Wouldn’t it be easier to have the pony bring the raw materials if she was helpful, instead of trying to coach her to do the work herself? Maybe she’s got a fetish for drones and doesn’t do real work anymore.

This is Moire Pattern,” said Frostline, ignoring her. “She came off the last transport from down below. Yeah, a real bat. And when she heard about what you were doing here…”

“I’m curious who told you to send that distress call,” Jackie said, flicking her tail towards the open barn. “Who gave you those designs? Where’s the human?”

It was as though this was another one of Jackie’s simulations, and she’d just pressed pause. Both ponies stared at her in open shock, though Frostline kept glancing back at Spring, judging her reaction. She was also the first to speak. “I didn’t know you told anypony about that,” Frostline said. Her amusement was gone, replaced with fear. “Is Canterlot—”

“I don’t think Celestia has anything to do with this,” Silver Spring said, finally facing Jackie. One of her hooves reached out with such speed and strength that Jackie couldn’t get out of the way. She wrapped around one of Jackie’s forelegs, then—there was a click.

‘Service disconnect.’

She fell onto the ground with a crunch, one of her legs suddenly missing.

Frostline screamed. Not very loud—but damn was that voice shrill. Jackie’s ears pressed down by reflex, before she applied a sound-gate, deadening it.

“What kind of earth pony… you just ripped off her leg!” she finally squealed. “Wait.”

“No blood.” Spring dropped the limb as quickly as she’d picked it up, right in front of Jackie. “Remarkable, isn’t it? This is what I was telling you about, Frostline. It’s a full prosthetic—the kind of body I used to have when I had one at all.”

“But, that was just supposed to be a story,” Frostline muttered, her voice still awed. “It’s not real… can’t be real. Ponies aren’t golems, that’s not how that works.”

“Excuse me.” Jackie stood back up on three limbs—that was apparently shocking enough that Frostline turned away, covering her mouth like she was going to be sick. “That was quite rude, Spring. I assume… I assume you know how to do that because you’re the one maintaining the human that’s hiding around here? I’m here as a friend, dumbass. Maybe don’t attack me.”

“Yeah,” Frostline repeated, looking between the two of them with obvious discomfort. “That wasn’t very nice. I don’t see what a donkey has to do with this…”

“Is everything alright, Sweetheart?” said a pony from behind them, her voice echoing from just up the path to the main house. And getting closer. “Should there be that much smoke?”

“Get your leg in, right now,” Spring whispered, her voice harsh. “My mom isn’t ready to see this. Frostline almost had a heart attack.”

Jackie dropped to the ground again to try and comply, fitting the joint as best she could. It wasn’t easy—but then, once she got it about right magnets did the rest of the work. Whoever had designed these bodies had apparently realized that their users wouldn’t have hands for maintenance. Unless I open the gripper in this other hoof. Frostline would love to see that.

She rose another second later, just in time to see the pony Silver Spring had called “mom.”

She didn’t really look anything like Spring. She was a unicorn, with a silvery coat and a light-colored mane, though there was a little streak of color there. She wore a light vest with a few tools sticking out—pliers and a hammer. Her mane also hadn’t been slicked back with an explosion.

“Hello, Frostline. And… somepony new. Are you one of Frostline’s friends? I… don’t think I’ve seen you around Motherlode before.”

“No—” Spring corrected, stepping in front of Jackie hastily and looking up. “She’s one of mine! We’ve been sending letters back and forth, and… she’s here to see my inventions!” She glanced back for only a second, long enough for Jackie to catch her eyes. Not that she would’ve needed to anyway. She knew a con when she saw one.

“Yep,” Jackie agreed. “Just got in by airship today. Frostline showed me the way here, but I wanted to meet your daughter.”

“That’s not—” Frostline began, until Spring silenced her with a look. “Yeah.”

“Well… I’m sure that’s quite an interesting story,” the pony said. “My name is True Silver. Any friend of my daughter’s is welcome in my home for supper.” She lowered her voice, glancing up the slope behind her. “And not to be rude, dear, but I don’t know if the inn would take you anyway with wings like that. Unless you’re staying with Frostline. Is that why you’re here?”

“I’m sure Mom would love visitors,” Frostline muttered. “But she can’t fly. If we brought the cloud-house down for her you know what would happen.”

“Oh.” True Silver’s eyes narrowed, and she glared up at the village above them. “Yes, I believe I do.”

“I’m noticing a trend,” Jackie said. “I’m Moire Pattern, by the way. Pleasure to meet you.”

Was it a little strange for Silver Spring, who looked more like a teenager, to attract an adult stranger from out of town? Apparently not. True Silver didn’t react, she just turned back to the path up to the house.

“I, uh… probably should get going,” Frostline muttered. “It was good to see you, Ms. Silver. But my mom’s waiting for me.” She shifted her attention to Spring. “Don’t do anything cool while I’m gone.” She took off. It seemed she was headed towards a lone cloud, that remained paradoxically stationary over the peak.

“I’m afraid we won’t be having anything too exciting,” True Silver went on, pushing the backdoor to her house open. It led into a kitchen, which already had a few covered trays of food beside the range. “But at least it’s food, right?”

“I don’t have much of an appetite,” Jackie said, though she really would’ve rather just turned her down. But that would probably be too suspicious.

Moire is too polite,” Spring said. “She got dinner with Frostline before coming down here. She just doesn’t want to tell you.”

Thanks, kid. It was a little troubling just how much about full synthetic bodies this teenager knew—how to remove limbs for servicing, and now the tedium of cleaning out the pseudo-digestion? Jackie tried to catch a glimpse at the back of her neck, see if maybe there was a recorder implanted she hadn’t noticed. But the mane was already lifted out of the way, she could see her easily. No recorder, no implants. All real. What the hell is going on up here?

“Well, no need to eat too much, then. Maybe you can entertain us while we eat. You could tell the story of how you heard about my daughter’s work. I thought she was keeping a low profile. But apparently word got out.”

And that was what she did—though the story was entirely fictitious. It involved a group of miners based on the same ones she’d seen on the Nightbreeze, described in convincing enough detail that True Silver didn’t get pushy.

“And that was when I recognized she must be playing with electricity,” Jackie finished. The table was empty by then, the food put away. But still True Silver watched her. The conversation she really wanted couldn’t happen quite yet. “There just aren’t enough ponies in Equestria taking innovation seriously. I can see where she gets it.” She nodded towards one of the walls, and something like a mechanical drill mounted there.

Though what True Silver had made was nothing like the workshop outside. Instead of primitive recreations of electronics, the things displayed inside were made with painstaking care and craftsmanship. Mostly they were brass, though there was some steel and another metal she couldn’t identify in small amounts.

“Yes, well… I may’ve assisted her, but I promise Spring’s work is entirely her own. I can’t take any credit for her brilliance.”

“She’s been very helpful,” Spring said, cutting her off. “Mom should be a friend of anyone who’s a friend to me. I think your friends should know that.”

Okay kid, I get it. But I’m still waiting for what you did with Bree. She still couldn’t ask that, though.

And she didn’t get a chance for another few hours—hours spent talking about the deplorable state of politics in Motherlode, and the frustration True Silver felt about increasingly unreliable shipments down to the mainland.

But eventually it was late enough that both ponies started looking tired, and True Silver said, “Why don’t you prepare the guest room for your friend, Spring. I’ve got a few things to finish up in the workshop. I’m sure a pony as educated as she is knows how to be a proper houseguest.”

“I’m sure she does,” Spring said, eyeing her meaningfully.

Jackie nodded. “You’ll hardly notice I’m here. And I’m… pretty handy, if you need anything simple done. Just not as clever as either of you.”

That was apparently the right thing to say, because soon enough they were headed up the stairs together, and down the hall to a room with an empty bed and a tiny window looking up at the village. “I’ve got some questions for you, Silver Spring,” Jackie said, her voice hushed. “That game was fun and all, but I’m looking for Bree. Where the hell are you hiding her?”

“I’m not.” The pony’s ears flattened, and she pawed uncomfortably at the floor. “You found her. I’m Brigid Curie.”

Sunset Shimmer hadn’t really considered just how important bonding over meals was—until she was in a position where they no longer made sense.

The tradition was one shared by both cultures—so important that the virtual humans still pretended to eat when in the Infinite Realm, even though food there was no more important than sleep. But her current body hadn’t felt hungry once since she’d used it. It still had tired, though—the way its designers had manifested the internal battery running low. And when she went to charge, she “dreamed” in the local shards of the realm.

But all that didn’t mean she couldn’t still go with the ponies across the fence—to a little restaurant in Ponyville she’d seen out the window once during a drive through town. It was a little fancier than young-Sunset could afford back then, with its staff of trained waiters and food from Prench-sounding places.

“I don’t actually have any money…” she began, blushing bright red as they approached. The Clover Cafe looked particularly busy today, but Starlight’s approach was enough for a pair of donkeys almost done with their meal to be shooed away and the table cleared for them. “Maybe I should just sit here while you eat.”

“That sounds dreadful,” Trixie said. “Don’t worry about it. You can pay Starlight back later.”

Starlight rolled her eyes, but she didn’t actually correct her friend.

So Sunset ordered the cheapest cup of tea on the menu—which still cost more bits than she’d have used for a week’s food back when she was a student—and sipped as slowly as she could while the ponies ate.

She could see at least a hundred ponies watching their—not just the two guards that had followed her from Normandy, though they sat just past the table. Basically everypony in Ponyville who got anywhere near the restaurant slowed down to stare at her. And any who got too close were practically drawn in by the gravitational pull.

I guess you haven’t seen many of us yet. We won’t be a novelty for long.

“So you two are… defending Ponyville, is that right? From Normandy?”

“Well that’s a blunt way to put it,” Trixie said. “But yes, we are.”

“From accidents,” Starlight put in. “Nopony doubts you humans came here in good faith.” But no matter what she was saying, Sunset could detect a good deal of doubt from Starlight. “But different cultures meeting for the first time always cause trouble. We had the same thing making friends with griffons, dragons… don’t feel offended. So far, you seem more like us than some of them.”

Sunset didn’t feel much like them—sitting with her legs awkwardly folded in front of her, having to reach down to a too-low table, and feeling her insides shifting with every sip of tea. But she hadn’t short-circuited yet, so that was probably a good sign.

“I think you’ll find that humans and ponies have a great deal in common,” she said, setting her cup down as delicately as she could. Despite lacking the unicorn magic either of them were using, her hand was precise. “I know I was pretty surprised. We both like music, books, theater, fashion… food. When I first met them I thought that I’d wandered into a pony town by mistake. If my eyes lost focus, I could almost see the cutie marks.”

“You mean… a human town,” Trixie corrected. “Cutie marks are a pony thing.”

“Right, yeah. Obviously.” She looked away, her face growing bright red. “Sorry, it’s… I didn’t expect so many people watching me, ya know? I guess I don’t have the same talent for putting on a show that you do.”

“Most ponies don’t,” Trixie said, her voice wistful. But also a little proud. “It’s alright, we understand.”

“And if what you’re saying is true, then I think we’ll get along great!” Starlight said. “It’s too bad about this whole war thing. Twilight has been going on and on about the curriculum for a friendship school… that would’ve been a great way to introduce our two cultures. Have a few of your colts and fillies to attend with some of ours, and some other friendly creatures. That would be a safer environment then having thousands of soldiers near a defenseless little town.”

“Don’t worry about it.” Sunset lifted her glass again, but didn’t actually drink anything. It was already getting dangerously low. Why did everything in Equestria have to look so small? “I dunno about the Federation, but the Tower has some incredibly strict rules about how to act around ponies. King Richard, he’s… well, he’s like Celestia. He expects the best from everypony. And if he doesn’t get it…” She looked away. “He’s not tolerant of innocent ponies getting hurt. If anyone from the Tower hurts a pony, you can bet he’ll do something worse to them than you could.”

“Great,” Starlight said, not sounding as though she thought that at all. “That’s great. Perfect. Exactly the kind of enforcement mechanism that we can rely on. A distant, unknowable autocrat. With nothing but character testimony. Really reliable.”

Sunset felt her eyebrows go up. She didn’t actually say anything, but Starlight’s ears flattened.

“Crap. I… maybe didn’t mean to say all of that out loud.”

“It’s fine, Starlight,” Trixie cut her off. “Natasha here understands. She knows we’re all under a lot of stress. Getting invaded is going to be harsh on anypony, isn’t it? The enemy is coming in from outside, that’s what we have to remember. Even good friends can get a little tense around each other when they let things build up. It’s better to be honest from the beginning. You should remember that.”

“I do.” Starlight Glimmer pushed her plate away, looking behind Sunset at the crowd. Well, most of them. They’d grown so large that the fence past the restaurant was more or less solid ponies, with royal guard showing up by the moment to try and disperse them. Ineffectively.

“When do you think we’re going to see the first signs of… the invasion?” Sunset asked, lowering her voice to a whisper she hoped wouldn’t make it past their table. But it was hard to judge for sure without being able to use radio. “We’re pretty far inland. I heard the attack on Canterlot was some weird rune-magic stuff, and a dragon had to die to make it happen. That probably won’t happen again.”

“I’m not sure we should be talking about it,” Starlight said bluntly. “We barely know each other, and it is military intelligence.”

“Oh come on.” Trixie rolled her eyes. “Starlight, they’re fighting for us. I’m sure Natasha here is just like us—given huge jobs that we don’t understand, and none of the information we need to do them right. She’s just hoping for a little collaboration, that’s all. The middlemen of Equestria joining forces against the ones who callously give us constant work.”

Sunset laughed. “I guess that’s true. I might be able to get the satellite reports if I asked, but I don’t know who to talk to yet. Normandy is as new to me as it is to you.”

“I think there’s already a fleet on the way,” Starlight whispered. “I don’t know where it’s coming from… last I heard it’s heading for west side of Equestria, somewhere near Seaddle. But it’s on the move. A few days, maybe a week. After that…”

“The Solar Fleet must be there already,” Sunset said. “If you know, the admiralty knows. They’re not sitting on their haunches while we get invaded.”

“Well obviously not.” Trixie said. “Twilight is the one to talk to about that, though. The ponies of the navy aren’t happy about all the changes, but they might be a little more grateful once they have to fight.”

Starlight eyed her sidelong, expression flat. “You seem to know an awful lot about ponies, Natasha. Are you a… cultural expert or something? Maybe an advisor? Your talents seem wasted otherwise.”

Crap. “Yes,” she said, turning out her hands. “That’s most of what I’m good for. But… things are different in the Tower than in Equestria. I mean, lots of things are the same, but… we’ve got these things called swaps. Think of it like… being able to get a new cutie mark for exactly what you want, anytime you want it. I can do that, so if I need to be good at something else…” She shook her head. “Just yesterday I was doing first aid on the—” She stopped abruptly, realizing she was probably saying too much.

“Well, I wasn’t a doctor before, and I picked that up quick enough. No way to know what they’ll have me do tomorrow. Maybe I’ll be cooking, or… maybe I’ll be fixing radios.”

“If humans all have appetites like yours, they can’t need many cooks,” Trixie said, rolling her eyes. “You probably won’t do that.”

“No, you’re right.” She nodded. “But I got to leave Normandy for a few minutes. I was already going stir-crazy in that tiny camp. This is nice.” She glanced briefly over her shoulder. “Well, maybe the crowd excluded.”

Starlight’s eyes made it clear that she wasn’t satisfied with that explanation, but she didn’t press the subject further. Didn’t dare ask Sunset how she knew as much as she did about ponies. But she probably will. I need to watch my words around her. Apparently Twilight Sparkle was just as picky with her apprentices as Celestia.

“Maybe you could give us a tour around your camp,” Trixie suggested, when they finally finished and were heading back to Normandy. “It would be only fair. I’d love to scout out locations for a show.”

The Royal Guard had to form a wall of ponies around them to make room—though it had been almost an hour now, and many of the locals were losing interest. She hadn’t burned anything down, or eaten anyone. We’ll be normal before you know it. Then we can all do this. If griffons and dragons could live in a pony city, why not humans?

“I could probably get permission for the Tower half,” Sunset said. “But it wouldn’t be that interesting. Most of our world is… invisible to you.” She tapped her eyes with two fingers. “Builders live in two worlds at once, and you need the right tools to see what we see. I don’t recommend the process for acquiring them.”

“Yeah,” Starlight said. “I have… some idea about that. But a tour, yeah. I like that idea. You should ask your king about it, Natasha. Maybe there’s a way to show us that’s less gruesome than scooping our brains out and giving up our magic.”

“W-what?” Trixie’s eyes widened. “Starlight, what in Celestia’s name are you talking about?”

“I’ll tell you later,” she said, still eyeing Sunset suspiciously. “Unless I shouldn’t.”

They were almost to the gate now—and it was clear from Starlight’s tone that she didn’t intend to follow her inside.

“No, that’s exactly what I was thinking of,” Sunset said. “The realm is cool and all, but it’s totally not worth it to go through that. I wouldn’t want anypony else lined up for something they didn’t sign up for.”

“You wouldn’t… oh.” Starlight relaxed. “Well, okay then.”

“What are you two talking about?” Trixie asked, exasperated. “What do brains have to do with any of this? I thought Natasha was talking about visiting other realms, like that mirror or whatever. What does anatomy have to do with it?”

“Nothing,” Sunset cut in. “Because that’s the worst way to go. I’ll see if I can find a day pass or something. If there’s a painless, reversible way, I’ll let you know. I’d talk to the people in the other camp about a tour of their side, but I don’t really… know that many of them yet. You’ll probably get a better response just asking them yourself. They hate us, remember?”

“Right, yeah,” Trixie said. “Sorry, I should’ve thought of that. We can just ask.”

“Welcome to Equestria,” Starlight said, when they reached the gate, and passed over a bit of signed and stamped parchment. A few seconds later, the gate opened, to the relief of their guard-party. “We’ll have to do tea again. Maybe Twilight’s castle next time. I might think of more questions.”

“Sure thing,” Sunset said. “Good luck, you two. And make sure you tell me if you end up doing a show, Trixie. I’d love to see it.”

She walked away, feeling Starlight’s eyes on her all the way back to camp.

Chapter 8: Encrypted

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“Uh…” Jackie wasn’t thinking about how it might look to True Silver if she happened to notice—really, she didn’t care anymore. She’s completely organic. She knows everything about how prosthetic bodies work, she built advanced technology, I haven’t seen any sign that she’s hiding a human. “That’s not possible,” she said, lamely. “You’re organic, I can see that. There’s not even an ident in your arm. You’re as natural as everyone else on this mountain.”

“I… yes.” Silver Spring—no, Bree—stopped with the cupboard in front of her open, blankets spilling out onto the ground around her hooves. “I am currently, yeah. But that doesn’t mean as much as you think.” She lowered her voice, glancing briefly down the stairs. “I don’t know how long you’ve been here yet, Moire, but… these ponies are magic. Not comedy show disappearing ball magic. Not even Infinite Realm supernatural server performance magic. We’re talking about the real thing here.”

“Any sufficiently advanced technology,” Jackie rehearsed, though she stopped short of patronizing the teenage pony. Instead she stepped into the little bedroom, clicking it shut behind her. “Alright, how? Wait…” Sunset Shimmer had mentioned something like this, hadn’t she? She’d been upset that Tesla wouldn’t let her use some pony magic that would make her a pony again.

But Jackie hadn’t believed the claim. Ponies lifting objects around her, that was one thing. Technology could do that. Lighting up horns, sending messages, even walking on clouds—all that was within the realm of possibility. But she hadn’t had the heart to point out it was probably just some stupid piece of religious bullshit.

Apparently not. “Before this goes any further, I want some fucking proof. I don’t want the story, I don’t want explanations. Just… prove you are who you say you are.”

“That’s…” Bree looked confused for a minute, then her face brightened. “Alright! Here’s an idea. What’s your real name? Not just the one you’ve been using around Equestria.”

“Jacqueline Kessler,” she supplied. “But just call me Jackie, everyone else does. I’m not sure what me telling you that is supposed to prove.”

“Nothing.” Bree brightened. “I don’t know how much you knew about me in the Realm. Most people don’t even stop to think about what forks they’re using, and where.”

Forks. She’d known a Bree before… a Bree she’d thought had been a member of her gang. But she’d been a fork the whole time. She’d discovered that near the end of the terrible wreck that had ended with her as a robo-pone in ponyland. “That’s true, I guess. What are you implying?”

“Well… I know who you are, Jackie. I know about the Murciélagos. I know about that scam you ran that gave you a knight’s sword. I know you were using the old induction center for extra processor cycles for… well, years. You’re quite the criminal. Everything short of mind-smuggling. And your churro recipe… absolutely delicious. I might have to try and cook it for my mom. I bet True Silver would love it.”

Jackie stared, speechless. Bree was right about everything, and right to think that sharing information only her fork would know would be convincing. But she hadn’t mentioned anything about Sunset, or her conversion and appropriation of minds. Hadn’t talked about her escape plans, or her later rants against the king and his powers.

“Your information is out of date,” she finally said.

Bree nodded. “Obviously. You think I’m getting data package deliveries in a meat brain living in a little house in a pony mining town?” She lowered her head, scooping up the blankets and tossing them onto the bed. “Make it yourself. You’ve probably got more dexterity than I do. And you don’t need to sleep, so this whole exercise is pointless.”

It was good enough to be convincing. It would probably convince Tesla too, which was the important thing.

“I found you.” She sat back against the wall, breathing a sigh of relief. She almost couldn’t believe it. She’d made it all the way here, without anything catastrophic going wrong. She hadn’t been blown to pieces, hadn’t been banished by the Tower, hadn’t found out her family were being tortured. Something actually went her way for once. “I did it.”

“Yeah, sure did.” Bree slid past her, opening the door. “I’ve got lots of intelligence for you to send back… tomorrow. I’m bucking exhausted right now, and I still smell like sulphur. So do you. If that thing’s waterproof, you may want to use the shower when I’m done.”

“Wait, I—” But Bree was already leaving down the hall.

Doesn’t matter. That return ship is our best chance to make it to Normandy, and it won’t be here until it finishes its delivery rotation anyway. Jackie had two weeks before they had to leave. And she’d already done the hard part of locating her missing engineer.

Maybe if she’d been a loyal servant of the Tower, she might’ve transmitted a report right away. But she didn’t—once it had really gotten dark, and the organics had both gone to bed, Jackie lay awake atop her perfectly-made bed and considered what she had learned.

“Hey, Sunset,” she sent. Waiting for the satellites to get her message back was a painful delay. She counted the seconds.

“Yes? Are you safe out there, Jackie?”


“Motherlode didn’t run you out with an angry mob? I thought those ponies were pretty backward.”

“They’re even worse than you told me. But no, no angry mob. And I found someone who would give me a place to sleep for a few days. Hopefully I’m on my way back before that.”

“How soon until you make it back?”

“Well… my ride flies back in two weeks. It’s another day back to Appleloosa, then the train home.” All that was assuming that nothing went wrong, which seemed unlikely based on Jackie’s previous experience.

Apparently her expectations had been right. “Try to get back sooner with your engineer. I’ve heard from some ponies I met today that they think the first big push of the war will happen in a week. On the west coast, just a little north of you.”

“No way it makes it into the mountains. Motherlode is nowhere. There’s nothing here, nothing but a few salty miners and plenty of dirt. Even if the war does start, they’ll just pass us by.”

It was hard to tell over radio, but it sounded like Sunset’s voice was doubtful. “Motherlode isn’t as unimportant as it sounds. It’s not salt they mine. Almost all the mithril in Equestria comes from there. Everything else they mine is just a handful of bits, but… it’s the only source we know of. The dragons are part of this war, and mithril is their favorite thing to eat. They think that if they eat enough, they’ll be invincible.”

Great. There was no arguing with Sunset’s local information. If she thought they were in danger, she was probably right. So much for having as much time as I want to get this done. But that didn’t mean she had to give up or anything—the mission was still going well. Maybe they could charter a local ship. Or maybe they could ride in the cargo carts that hauled ore down to the valley floor, then walk to the nearest town.

It was a bridge she could cross the next day.

“What about you, Sunset? Everything going alright as Tesla’s advisor? Don’t want to kill yourself yet?”

The answer took a little time in coming, more than the few seconds of transmission delay. “I went into Ponyville today, met some of the locals. The way they stare at me like I’m something strange… it’s not my favorite. But maybe I’ll get used to it, or maybe they’ll get used to having me around.”

“Both,” Jackie answered, trying to be sympathetic. She could hide her envy, anyway. Sunset’s position was the easiest thing she could think of. And most enjoyable—meeting new people, maybe more than meeting them… But it was hard for Sunset, and she didn’t need to be that harsh. “Maybe when I finish my mission here, we could trade. You get to be a pony again, and I get to be human. I wish they’d let us do it beforehand, but…”

“I think I’d like that,” Sunset said. But she didn’t say anything else. They wouldn’t sleep in Normandy, so probably she’d been called away to work again. Jackie would’ve popped into the Realm somewhere to entertain herself until morning, but there was no way to get highband out in the middle of nowhere. There were lasers that could do it—kits that the wealthy had been able to bring with them on camping trips or yachting expeditions. But those days were long over, and she hadn’t been issued one. Assuming any even existed.

So she just put herself to sleep, with a scheduled wake as soon as she heard any movement in the house around her.

In the Realm, she would’ve been annoyed to be woken before noon. But out here there was no sense of tiredness, even though both ponies in the house with her rose at around dawn.

She did take Bree’s advice to use the shower, which gave her the extra opportunity to wash out any sign of the food she’d previously eaten. That, and all the smoke. These bodies were waterproof, and hers was even treated to function at depth… but she doubted an ability like that would ever be useful.

And much of her work was undone a few minutes later, when True Silver invited her for breakfast and there was no longer a convenient excuse to escape it. She ate as little as she thought she could get away with, making small talk and trying to be polite while she waited to get Bree alone again.

The teenager wasn’t making things easy. She had gone well above and beyond just a convincing act—she seemed to have a genuine relationship with this pony. When you say she’s your mom, do you mean that literally? Is that how you became organic? She hadn’t asked Sunset about the mechanism of the transformation, and didn’t plan to.

It still didn’t make sense. No matter how powerful the magic was, it couldn’t bring back the souls of the dead. Right?

“You picked a strange time to travel Equestria for an academic visit,” True Silver said, startling her back to full attention. “You’ve heard about… what’s been happening, haven’t you? If news made it all the way out here, you must’ve heard.”

“About the attack on Canterlot? Yes. I know about that.”

“And the invasion.” True Silver lowered her voice, as though someone might be listening in. But so far as Jackie could tell, none of the miners leaving their homes outside were going anywhere near this cabin. “Well, the invasion that’s about to happen. Everypony’s talking about it. The royal army starting back up, chances there might even be a draft. It’s not as crazy as it sounds!”

It doesn’t sound crazy,” Jackie said. “I know war is possible. I don’t think Equestria would be trying so hard to make friends with creatures like humans if we had any other choice.”

“Yes! Exactly!” True Silver glanced sideways at Bree, nodding enthusiastically. “What have I been saying this whole time? I’m glad you’ve been making such sensible pen-pals, Spring. It’s a breath of fresh air after living around ponies who just think the might of Celestia is going to protect us from any threat. Motherlode would be a lot safer if they would just accept more of Spring’s help.”

“So you think it might be a target too, huh?” Jackie asked. She probably should’ve stayed quiet about it, but… once she started, it was hard to stop.

“Might be… yes.” True Silver glanced over her shoulder, towards the front of the house. There was a shop there, and beyond that a blacksmith’s workshop. Jackie had only glimpsed it the night before, not looked in detail. “Obviously. Motherlode is only here to begin with because of the mine. Last I checked, dragons value metals as much as ponies do. Maybe more.”

“I don’t think Moire wants to talk about politics, Mom. I think she’s just being polite.” Bree eyed her, her expression harsh enough to make it clear just what Jackie was supposed to say.

But she didn’t have to listen to this engineer. She was the rescuer here, she was the one who was going to get her back to civilization. Everything else was secondary.

Unfortunately for her, Bree seemed to be thinking a little quicker, organic brain notwithstanding. “Actually, I was just talking to her last night. Moire was telling me how she’s so excited about my work, she wants to help me do more of it. By… taking over my delivery route.”

“Really?” True Silver’s eyebrows went up. “She’s a bat, sweetheart. She’s probably not strong enough to pull a cart full of coal. I’m sure if she said that, she didn’t know just how hard it would be.”

“I… didn’t,” Jackie said, without actually contradicting Bree. “But I do want to be helpful while I’m staying with you. The ship I meant to ride out of Motherlode won’t be back in town for another two weeks or so. It’s either here, or trying to convince the inn that I’m not some kind of traitor because I have wings.”

“Good luck with that,” Silver muttered. “Well, that’s a very productive attitude, Moire. I don’t think you’ll be able to take over all my daughter’s work, though. I’ve put her earth pony magic to use ever since she got her cutie mark, and you just aren’t going to have the back for it. But… you could still probably help deliver commissions for me. Not to mention having you work for me would make it impossible for anypony to say you came here as some kind of thief. I’m sure you heard some of that. Tribalist nonsense.”

Jackie nodded. “I… did. A bit.” But it hadn’t been anything new for me. I am a thief. It was just that the primitive natives didn’t have anything she wanted to steal. Except maybe their company.

She didn’t get another chance at Bree for at least another hour. “You’re going with her,” True Silver said, glaring down her daughter.

“But you gave her the map! She doesn’t need me. If she can find her way here, then she’s obviously great with directions.”

“It’s not just about directions,” Silver cut her off. “I’m sure Moire Pattern is great with directions. But having you with her proves to the town that she’s really working for me. Once word gets around, I won’t need you to go with her again.”

“It’s basically the same as making the deliveries myself,” Bree said, pouting. “It’s the same amount of time.”

“Would you rather not have her help?”

That finally silenced her. Soon enough they were on their way up the path. Jackie had been harnessed to an old wooden cart, while Bree carried a notepad. The cart was quite light to her—she might not have earth pony strength, but she had mechanical strength, and that was almost as good. She had to breathe pretty hard, and it might have been worse if they were somewhere warm, but with the chill of the mountain air she felt like she could go on forever. If she needed to.

“I don’t understand why you’re so committed to the act,” Jackie said, as soon as they were far enough from Silver’s house that they wouldn’t be overheard. There were other earth ponies on the path ahead of them—carrying pickaxes or rolling carts of their own on their way to the mine. But none of them got close. One look at Jackie, and they walked as fast as they could. “I found you, Bree.”

“No, I called you,” Bree countered, cutting her off. “I’ve been sending out transmissions for months now. Presumably whatever covert mission you’re on… you just heard them and came straight here, right? You want the intelligence I’ve gathered. My mission reports.”

Jackie shook her head. “What, no? I’m not on a covert—” She trailed off at Bree’s look of disbelief. “Okay, well, maybe I am. But the Tower isn’t. Even your mom knew about humans when I mentioned them. There’s a war on, or there will be soon. My mission is to rescue you.”

“Rescue.” It wasn’t a question. “Who sent you, precisely? Richard?”

Not King Richard, Jackie noted. “No. Your superior with the Technocratic Order, Tesla. The way he put it, you’re one of his best engineers, and he really wants you back. Hence why I’m here. I’m supposed to get you back to Normandy in one piece. He never mentioned collecting any intelligence. Maybe he wants you to deliver that yourself.”

Bree stopped walking, right about the moment they met one of the edges of the switchback trail. It looked off the side of the mountain down at nothing, though the drop wasn’t as dramatic as the one at trail’s end. “Here to rescue me. I’m… amazed Telsa even remembers me. It’s been so long. Long enough to grow up. Long enough to make a life here.”

Maybe someone else would’ve laughed at the little engineer. After all, the life she was discussing was a lie, surrounded by tiny ponies and trapped in a tiny, racist town. Shouldn’t she want to escape?

“Well he remembers you,” Jackie said. “He remembers you enough that he wants you back, and I’m the one he sent.”

“If you… if he…” She shook her head. “Look, my message was clear. I didn’t call for rescue. I don’t want to go anywhere, or do anything.” She lowered her voice, her ears flattening. “I… I messed up here, Jackie. Messed up worse than you ever did. I suggest you take what I’m willing to give—what I’ve learned, as much as possible to help the Tower. Because that’s all you’re going to get. I’m not going.”

She walked away, leaving Jackie struggling to keep up with the cart. Acceleration warning. Remove resistive load. She grunted, kept pushing—but the body wouldn’t let her break it. She trailed behind Bree the rest of the way back into Motherlode.

A few days passed in Normandy much as those before. Sunset Shimmer spent most of her time in meetings of one kind or another, either with the “other side” or to explain important Equestrian concepts to their own people. There were few breaks—the Builders required no food, and only a few hours of recharging a week. That meant that even the ordinary chances to take time off were denied to her, and she had to keep doing what Tesla wanted.

Well, at least in reality. There were still plenty of spare processor cycles, extra computation time she could use for whatever tasks she wanted. Mostly she used it to spend time with Twilight, helping with their copresence attempt. It took about a day of work before she finally got it right, and a ghostly image of Twilight walked with her wherever she went. No one else could see or hear her, not even the other members of the Tower—they’d made sure that she was still running locally on the necklace, with inputs processed directly by Sunset’s own brain.

That meant that, if nothing else, she still had a friend. A friend she could talk to even when she was around other people. Her own brain knew when she was talking to her passenger, and any action she did to interact with Twilight would happen only in virtual space. Trying to imagine how any computer could manage the position of a virtual body and a real one at the same time hurt her brain—but she didn’t have to know how it worked to use it.

Most of her meetings were with the same person, the human scientist named Ada. Occasionally there were a few others involved, more scientists that demonstrated almost as much contempt for Sunset as their leader.

“This is completely wrong,” Ada said, taking a whole stack of paper-printed reports Sunset had brought from the night before and dropping them into a conference room dustbin.

“It’s…” Sunset twitched once, involuntarily. “Weren’t they right, Twilight?”

Behind Ada, Twilight made a face at the scientist. “Perfect. The formatting is exactly like the one you described to me. Completely to spec, thorough, and informative.”

“I asked you not to staple it,” Ada said, propping her feet up on the table across from her. There was no one else in with them today—no creepy scientists, or even Tesla behind her to back her up. For better or worse, most of the meetings weren’t important enough for the other national leaders. It was all Sunset and Ada. “And if you can’t get something that simple right, you obviously haven’t done any of it correctly. I don’t know how you expect us to work with you with your incompetence sabotaging the war effort.”

“She never said anything about… staples.” Twilight walked over to the garbage, lifting out the report. It came out transparent, a subtle reminder to Sunset that everything the copresence did was virtual. That was more useful when Twilight moved chairs, or opened doors. “She’s wasting our time, isn’t she? What a jerk.”

“Yes,” Sunset agreed. But even with time moving unpredictably, she didn’t get a chance to say more. Ada rarely gave her time to think—no sooner had she finished one outrage than it was time to move on to the next.

“But that’s alright, we are here to help Equestria. I sent the requisition orders without your input. I already knew something like this would happen.”

“You… what?” Sunset’s hands clenched into fists. “Half of the soldiers will be ours. How do you expect to make sure they’re given the supplies they need if you don’t even read the report?”

“It can’t be much,” Ada said, not even looking up anymore. She seemed fascinated by what was on her little computer in her lap—though Sunset often suspected it was nothing at all. “You’re just machines. Electricity is more than enough. You don’t have supply lines.”

“That’s… maybe the dumbest thing I’ve heard today,” Sunset snapped, rising from her chair. “It’s fine, I’ll just…” She reached down, snatching the real report out of the trash. “I’ll go talk to the Equestrians myself. I’m sure they’ll be able to tell which of us is trying to sabotage the war effort.”

Twilight winced as she said it, looking away. But Twilight wasn’t really much for social situations—at best, she would sit quietly and try not to bother her. When it came to genuine confrontation, she often looked like she wanted to run away. Sometimes she did—back into the crystal.

She didn’t run this time, even as Ada rose to meet her. “You won’t do that,” she said. “You wouldn’t want them to think we can’t get along, would you? Disloyalty in the ranks?”

“I wouldn’t want them to think a lie,” Sunset said. “Meeting over. Enjoy your afternoon.” She stalked out, ignoring Ada’s calls of protest from behind her.

“I never thought I’d meet someone who deserved actual violence,” Sunset muttered to Twilight as she stalked down the hall. “But now I have. If I see her face one more time, I’m going to break her nose. See how much she brags about that organic blood when it stains that perfect lab coat.”

“You don’t really mean that,” Twilight said, as she stormed down the hall and up towards the front of the building. “You like humans.”

“Humans are fine,” Sunset muttered, mostly under her breath. “But Federation scientists… I don’t know where they find them. But they should put them back.”

Sunset rounded the bend and left through the lobby, past a set of suspicious-looking Federation marines. At least they didn’t try to force her through the scanner again. Yes she was wearing metal. Yes her body was made of metal. No she couldn’t take it off.

She stalked away from the building and towards the Equestrian barracks. The ponies had taken the time to make the bottom floor tall enough for a human to walk in—almost. She would still have to stoop once she went inside, but at least she didn’t have to crawl.

“I think you should try to meet civilians,” Twilight said, trailing behind her. She didn’t walk, just stood in place and appeared beside her again whenever she got too far away. “It would be better if you didn’t blame all of them for the actions of a few.”

She trailed off as Sunset reached the front of the building, just in time to see Starlight emerging with a stacked set of reports. “Starlight!” she said, waving her down.

The pony looked up, eyes narrowing a little, but at least she stopped. “Natasha,” she said. “I didn’t expect to see you today. Your friend at the Federation took care of your portion for you, didn’t she? Very generous of her.”

“Not quite.” Sunset offered the report. “I had no part in writing that report—she did the whole thing without our input. It doesn’t accurately reflect Tower soldiers or our needs.”

“Oh.” Starlight took the report in her magic. “That’s… strange. Why would she do that?”

“I get the idea that she hates us,” Sunset said. “Maybe making sure our soldiers are unprepared every time they deploy with ponies would make her happy. She can imagine more of us will die, or whatever. But it’s my job to make sure that doesn’t happen.”

Starlight opened the report, flipping through it a few pages. But there had been nothing in the trash-can, so there were no stains or other signs it belonged there. “Sometimes I forget you two are still at war. It’s… a strange idea for a pony to think about. Ponies haven’t fought with each other for thousands of years. Nobody really remembers what it’s like.”

Sunset almost interrupted her, thinking to the late nights she spent getting messages back from Jackie. From the sound of it, there were still plenty of ponies who knew exactly what it was like. But she didn’t point that out. She shouldn’t know about backwards little villages in the mountains.

“It’s stupid and makes no sense,” she agreed instead. “It’s like eating your own arm. But we’ve had a hard existence. You should read a natural history book about Earth. They didn’t just fight each other, they fought everything. And they won. So maybe they’re still the kind of ponies you want on your side in a war. Even if they’re incredibly disagreeable sometimes.”

“Yeah.” Starlight Glimmer spent another few seconds eyeing her up and down. “What about… did you ask about that tour? I’m quite interested in seeing how you overlap your camp with multiple realms, without any magic. I’ve seen the remains of what it took for you to cross just one realm, so I want to see what you’ve figured out that we haven’t. And I think Trixie just wants to get to know you because you’re strange.”

Sunset laughed. “I got permission for you. But you were right about the easiest way being… invasive.” She reached back to her neck subconsciously, feeling the little grooves in her skin that would open to data-interface ports. The highband docking connectors she used whenever she went into the Realm without actually transferring herself there. “But there’s some really old tech we can use to show you—it’s called AR. They’re adapting some hardware to the shape of the pony head. You’ll have to wear some glasses, and some headphones, but that’s it. When you’re done, you can just take them off.”

“Glasses, huh? I guess that makes as much sense to enchant as anything else.”

“Yeah.” Sunset looked away. “Set some time aside, then just come in anytime after tomorrow. Whatever I’m doing, I… could use a break. I’m sure they’ll give it to me if I’m doing something diplomatic and important.”

“Then I’ll make sure we come down,” Starlight said. She took a few steps closer, lowering her levitating reports. And her voice. “I don’t know what you’re hiding from us, Natasha, but I’m not like everypony else around here. I’m going to figure out what it is.”

Sunset shrugged. She almost said exactly what she was thinking—why shouldn’t they have a pony advisor? The Federation already had one—one of Twilight’s apprentices or something. But however much she was tempted, she kept her mouth closed. “I don’t have any secrets you would be interested in,” Sunset said, honestly. “Nothing you haven’t seen before. Just a past I’m not proud of. But helping the Tower… helping Equestria… gives me a chance to put some of that right. Maybe you understand.”

That did it. Starlight retreated, looking away. “I think I do.” She left, taking the boring reports with her.

Chapter 9: Signature

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But Starlight didn’t come back—not for another few days, long enough that Sunset Shimmer started feeling like she might be going insane. If it hadn’t been for Twilight, she probably already would have. The not-pony was someone she could talk to, even during the most intense duty shifts. Eventually these humans are going to learn everything they want to know about pony culture, and they’re going to let me leave.

So she thought, but so far that moment hadn’t come. There was always some new principle to explain—cutie marks, complexities of language, marital customs—the list went on. Sunset couldn’t figure out why they cared about most of it, which had nothing at all to do with Equestria’s ability to fight a war.

But Tesla never explained. “We’ve had the advantage of many years to observe the Federation,” he said. “We know how they think, because we know everything they do. Every aspect of how a culture is structured speaks to something about it. Every custom arises from somewhere, or reflects a value that can be better appreciated.”

That sounded an awful lot like she was helping humans take advantage of ponies somehow, but since she couldn’t exactly figure out how… she couldn’t say no.

But she wasn’t completely alone in the Builder camp. She’d made a few friends, like Sir Bradley. He was always nearby, always a shout or radio call away. And not just for official business.

“Try again,” he said, settling the guitar into her hands. “I think you’ll get it this time.”

“You’re just waiting to see if I rip out another string,” Sunset muttered, expression dark.

The knight just laughed. “That was pretty impressive too. But I’d prefer you didn’t break it. I don’t have any more spares.”

She sat beside him in one of the many plain tents—except that to them, it looked like a cliff somewhere on Earth. Somewhere dry and barren, with huge rock formations in the distance. They sat in a cafe on the edge of a canyon, looking down on a distant world that Sunset couldn’t see very well.

There was no one else in the cafe with them, even though they weren’t alone in the tent. It was a little like copresence, but in reverse. Which meant that Twilight couldn’t follow her without the knight knowing, so she’d stayed behind.

“How about…” She trailed off, closing her eyes and letting her fingers feel the strings. There were musical programs she could download, of course. Swaps that would let her reproduce sheet music perfectly. But Brad had practically shouted at the idea of her using one of them.

She started to play. Just one chord, strummed back and forth. The sound echoed around her, off the furniture. The low-burning cafe candles and the sky full of stars made her feel almost like she’d actually accomplished something.

Or maybe that was the knight. He clapped, grinning. “Well, nothing broke that time. And it sounds like you have an ear, because that was perfect. Now try putting two of those together. That’s all most guitar playing is—the progression of one chord to the next. Timing, tune, volume…”

“That’s more than just chords.”

“Yeah, well…” He laughed again. “I guess so. But you said it.”

She just stared, but he didn’t cave. Sir Bradley could probably stare down a dragon without flinching.

He walked her through the next few chords, and the progression of a simple melody. A human song, with a folksy vibe to it, though he hadn’t told her the name. “Where are we, anyway?” she asked, once she’d passed the guitar back. She was making good progress—but then as soon as he had it back in his hands, Brad would play something wonderful and make her efforts look childish.

But he froze as soon as she asked the question, expression darkening. “We’re… in history,” he said. He got up, walking a few steps away from her. She didn’t call for him to stay—though she wanted to.

But he didn’t leave her behind. Apparently her question hadn’t been forbidden, just uncomfortable. He stopped on the edge of the wall, right on the edge of the canyon, then sat down opposite her.

“My family owned this place, before… when Earth was still nice. Playing the guitar was how I helped out. Just quiet stuff in the background, while people ate their meals…” He started playing another song, and sang along with it for a few bars before trailing off. It sounded like Spanish, but Sunset couldn’t tell for sure. It was still hard to tell human languages apart, particularly when she had plugins for most translation.

“It’s an amazing location,” Sunset said. “Right on the edge of… is that the Grand Canyon?”

He nodded. “Yeah. We’re one of the only places this far out. Family is indigenous, so… maybe none of that matters anymore.” He switched to something else—a melody much faster, angier. He got up, pacing back and forth in front of her. “I was supposed to inherit this place from my father—keep it in the family, you know?”

“But you didn’t get to,” Sunset supplied. “It got blown up.”

Bradley laughed. “God no. They didn’t nuke the whole planet, Sunset. But just because the building is still there doesn’t mean it will ever exist again. The canyon is dead. All this life… well, it’s all scrub and fungus now. No coyote, no vulture, no lizard.”

“I’m sorry.” She lowered her head, looking away from him. “I didn’t mean to hurt you, Brad.”

He tossed her the guitar again—so suddenly that the old Sunset might’ve missed it. But new Sunset had much better reflexes, and she snatched it without even thinking. “I’m not hurt. I wanted you to see it. I think… I think maybe when this whole thing is over, I’m gonna find a place just like this. There are some parts of Equestria warm enough, I hear. Some interesting places for tourists to visit. Do you think ponies would come and eat at a human cafe?”

“Absolutely. They love novelty. Just don’t try to feed them any meat.” Sunset went back to strumming. “How long do you think it will take? Nobody will tell me anything about the war. I know it started… I think it must’ve gone badly. All those little ships flew away, and only a few came back. But I guess I’m just not trustworthy enough to talk to.”

“It’s not that,” Sir Bradley said, in a tone that told her it was exactly that. “You’re an unknown element to most people. Your record is so secret that they can’t even look at it.” He gestured in the air beside her, and a set of overlapping documents appeared there with helpful category names. “Education,” “Early Life,” “Awards,” “Competence Certifications” and others. Each stack had no actual text visible, just a bright red ribbon around the outside, and a padlock in the center. Brad touched one of them, making the whole thing light up and expand.

Text filled the air beside her, text so dense that she almost couldn’t see him through it. She tried to read—but there was just too much. A few glances were enough for her to get the gist, though. It all said that she was effectively beyond questioning, that her abilities had been vouched for by Tesla himself and she was on assignment in Normandy with “unlimited authority and dispensation.”

“Of course they’re scared of you,” Brad finished, banishing it all with a wave of his hand. “They think you’re Telsa’s fucking kid with qualification like that. Nobody wants to piss him off, so they all keep you at arm’s length.”

“Except you,” she observed. The chords she was practicing sounded better and better the more time she went over them. She was mastering the timing. “You’re not afraid.”

“I’m a knight. He can’t touch me without pissing off the king.” He shook his head. “You could probably find out anything you wanted about the war. But I can tell you, so long as… well, so long as it doesn’t get out. We need all kinds of forms and permissions to share it. With other Tower representatives, with our allies. Even with the innocent little ponies.”

“My lips are sealed,” she said, though she wasn’t actually sure she’d keep them that way. If something put Equestria at risk…

“I can only tell you what I know. My commander… Sir Gray… he’s the best knight you ever met. While my friends and I were enjoying our retirement, he was out hunting slavers. When High Lord Rayleigh told him to shoot down an evacuation ship, he told Rayleigh to fuck off instead. That kind of knight.”

“I… I think I met him,” Sunset said, remembering a young adult beside a statute of the king. “He was…” She trailed off. I probably shouldn’t tell him about Jackie stealing the sword. “Respectful to me.”

Brad laughed. He seemed to be able to tell she was keeping something—he watched her a little longer, eyes lingering on her hands and leg. I need to stop twitching when I lie. “Yeah, that. Well, we all thought he was immortal. But apparently not, because he went out with a whole detachment of ponies on some kind of counterattack. But it was a slaughter. A dozen ponies died, and both knights. He… died to save them, like the bastard he was. Guess who’s next in seniority?” He didn’t give her time to speculate. “Yep! And since I’m captain of the guard, I can tell you anything I want.”

He sat back down beside her, leaning close. Sunset tensed, her heartbeat racing. Was he about to… no, he was just whispering. “No one has a fucking clue how some primitive barbarians out in a desert on the other side of the world managed to kill two knights and two dozen drone fighters. Equestria shouldn’t have the technology to do it, and you were the most advanced ones on your planet. So explain what happened.”

He pulled back, relaxing a little. “Actually, that’s not hypothetical. Maybe you can explain what happened. That would be really great for me, Sunset. Since the king wants a report, and I don’t have a clue.” He gestured, and a model of a drone fighter appeared in the air off the side of the cafe. It was massive—as long as the entire wall, made entirely of gleaming metal, with weapons bristling from every opening.

“These things can pull hypersonic and still use half their weapons. They can deploy for eighty hours straight. They can detonate their entire payload with nearly a kiloton of subnuclear force. Explain to me what kills twenty of these with two of our best pilots?”

“Where were they?” Sunset asked. “I can… think of a few things.” Granted, not a whole lot of the words he’d just said made sense to her. It was harder to look them up covertly when he was sitting against her like this. He’d notice her little twitching motions, and then she’d have to admit that she didn’t know. “But they’re all about location.”

“Typhon,” he answered. “I’m probably not supposed to say that, even to you. But pretend I didn’t and just answer the question.”

“Dragons,” Sunset muttered, settling both hands in her lap. “That… that’s probably how they died. Didn’t a few of your soldiers already get killed by dragons? You must’ve known you were going to their city.”

“Yeah,” he admitted. “I think we did… I don’t know for sure, since I wasn’t captain back then. Everything about Equestria is…” He made a frustrated gesture in the air in front of her. “Confusing. All these years we’ve lived with laws we understand. Where we come from, living creatures don’t survive machine gun fire. When something can fly, that means it’s weaker, not tougher. But we never had a person be assigned to move the sun around, so…”

“So learn quickly,” Sunset finished for him. “You’re still powerful warriors. Your help could make the difference for Equestria. Without it… we won’t win this war.”

“We’re all helping,” Brad said. There was no lack of sincerity in his voice now, and he straightened the flowers on a nearby table, pushing in a stray chair. “Seeing a planet like yours, it’s like being home again. Everyone who’s living out here in the real world, everyone who still cares about what that means—they want to see you win this. Like you said, we’ve already had soldiers die. We’re ready for that. Humans have always been willing to die if the cause is right. That’s what being a knight is about.”

But for every moment like that, there were plenty more wasted in the company of people she wanted to see locked in Tartarus. Every meeting with the scientist called Samil made her skin crawl, and his favorite underling wasn’t much better.

It took about a week for her to get a message from Trixie—inviting her to the performance the show-unicorn had bragged about. Sunset had no way of replying, since neither of them had radio—but it was probably good that she couldn’t.

“I’ll be performing just before sundown outside the Orion amphitheater. I think that might be on the other side of camp, so you might need to ask permission or whatever.

I hope you can come.”

She didn’t have to ask—the Orion amphitheater was located near the center of both camps, though in practice it was filled with Federation soldiers almost all the time, drinking and cavorting and playing cards. But she could already see as the time for Trixie’s show got closer that the showpony had spared no effort in making her work special. She’d scattered the usual crowds, hanging colored banners from the smooth metal shell and wheeling in carts of supplies.

But Sunset watched from a distance, well out of sight of the handful of ponies setting it up, or even the crowd of Federation soldiers gathered around to stare.

“She doesn’t need me to come,” she muttered. “Look, she’s already got a huge audience. There probably won’t be enough seats for all those soldiers.”

Twilight seemed unimpressed with her logic. “That’s more reason for you to go, not less. Remember what you said when we first got here? You wanted to meet them! You wanted to see what humans were really like.”

“I met them,” she said. “I’ve seen as much of Ada as I ever want to.”

Twilight tugged her by the arm, though the gesture couldn’t really force her to do anything. “Come on! Ponies are magical, I want to see what a pony magic show is like.”

Sunset stumbled forward, away from the Tower side of Normandy. Once she’d made it the first few steps, she had no choice but to keep going. Twilight was right. “Not that impressive,” she answered. “We don’t usually… have them. Maybe centuries ago unicorns could impress earth ponies with their feats, but these days everypony knows what we can do. It’s still powerful, but it isn’t magical.

Twilight squinted at her through her glasses.

“Okay, it is magical. But you know what I mean.”

“Natasha!” Trixie exclaimed from up ahead of her. “Oh, I’m so glad you could come. For a minute there I was afraid you’d forgotten about me.”

“Not a—” But Trixie didn’t seem to actually care what she had to say.

“Oh, I’ve got a seat reserved for you up in front. You’re going to be very impressed. I know your world has nothing like what I’m going to show you.”

Some part of her wanted to correct her—but it wasn’t worth ruining her cover. Almost. “I’m sure it doesn’t,” she said instead. “I’ve been looking forward to this all week.”

“Right here,” Trixie exclaimed, pointing at an empty seat in the very front row. There was no one around it, no one sitting anywhere near the front. “Guests of honor go up front. You were right about not many Tower humans being interested… but I’m sure after you tell them about what you saw, we’ll have better attendance at the reprisal show.” She stepped back, nodding towards a little rolling trailer near the back of the stage. “Anyway, I should finish getting ready. See you at the afterparty!” She vanished in a flash, dramatically enough that the humans all around stopped to stare at the place she’d been.

She must’ve developed her own version of the standard short-range teleport rote. I’ve never seen so much smoke.

Sunset sat down in the front row. There was another sheet of paper beside her on the seat, with a name written on it, but no one came to use it. No one sat anywhere else on the bench either, not with her there.

Trixie had understated things when she said that the Tower was less interested. She was the only digital person here.

“Now’s your chance to talk to someone,” Twilight said, appearing next to her without any exaggerated flashes of light. “Just turn around, maybe the soldiers behind you will want to say something. They sound fun.”

They did sound like they were having fun—and that they were already at least a little drunk. “I don’t think I can learn anything from them,” Sunset muttered. “I already knew that humans liked cider.”

Someone was coming down the aisle. Starlight Glimmer, conversing with someone.

“I don’t know if I can believe anything like that could exist without seeing it with my own eyes,” she said. “It’s not that I don’t think you’re right, but… that’s challenging all the fundamental assumptions we have about life. It means all of Equestrian science is wrong.”

Starlight passed her in the aisle, with a single human following close behind. Another organic, in a crisp black and white uniform. She removed the coat from her shoulders, settling it on the concrete bench before sitting down directly beside Sunset.

Sunset didn’t have to stare to get a good look—a second was all she needed, then she could review the image without looking strange. She was obviously a high officer, maybe the highest member of the Federation military she’d ever seen. Her uniform was covered with ribbons, with the name “Colven” stitched above the breast.

“Who is this, Twilight? Mind running the—”

“No, I don’t mind.” Beside her, a tablet appeared in Twilight’s lap, and she started working on it. In reality, she would be using Sunset’s own communication systems. But they’d already worked things out so the requests would look like they came from Sunset.

Other builders could do their own data requests at the same time as they interacted with one another. But Sunset was still new at this, and so having someone else to do it helped take the load off.

“I hope you don’t mind the company,” said the military woman, glancing back at Sunset for the first time. She did a little double-take as her eyes settled on Sunset’s face—but it was almost imperceptible, and if what she saw bothered her, she was very good at hiding it. “Alexi Colven.”

Sunset took the offered hand. “Natasha Wagner,” she said. “I guess you must’ve met Trixie and Starlight too.”

“Star Admiral Alexi Colven,” Twilight supplied from beside her, reading off her tablet. “Current suspected commander of the Imperial Capital-Class Aegis. Her ship is… bigger than the whole Tower. Buck me this is insane. Apparently she was… they’re calling her the ‘Scourge of Mercury,’ since her fleet dismantled the Excalibur battlegroup, and secured the Federation’s dominance of the solar system.”

Sunset tensed, then realized she was still holding Alexi’s hand and quickly let go. The human hadn’t noticed—time moved slowly for her frequently, so Sunset could get away with a few faster seconds here or there.

“I think it would be truer to say that they met me,” Alexi said, chuckling politely. “But I’m always eager to get to know the natives better. I would just talk to my sister, but she flew off in that primitive airship and hasn’t come back. Family, right?”

“Yeah.” Sunset probably sounded flat, but it was only because she was trying to keep herself from panicking.

“So I’m sitting next to… some kind of evil warlord? Like Samil?”

“No,” Twilight said. “I mean… no, doesn’t look like it. She’s an admiral, yeah. She must’ve been quite young at the time, based on this… but that’s it. She didn’t attack cities, or innocents. Looks like she… yeah. When she destroyed the Mercury forges, she gave the engineers two full days to evacuate. She’s an enemy, but not a warlord.”

From the front of the stage, Trixie’s voice echoed—though Trixie herself wasn’t visible. So she could throw her voice, or use a few simple sound spells. Either way, the humans seemed unimpressed. Of course, they just think it’s a speaker.

“Can…” Sunset lowered her voice to a whisper, but Alexi seemed to be listening. “Can your people understand that? Even though she’s speaking Equestrian?”

Alexi nodded. “You must’ve forgotten how the Nanophage works. It’s been a long time, can’t really blame you. We have translation programs too. Equestrian is a standard template by now.”

“Oh, good.”

Trixie appeared in another flash of light and smoke, and this time it was enough to make most of the chatting soldiers fall silent.

It wasn’t the show Sunset was expecting, that was for sure. None of the standard unicorn spells were there, and instead she seemed to be relying primarily on slight-of-hoof and misdirection.

Whatever it was, the humans were enjoying it. Even Alexi in the front row.

“This is just like a show I saw in Vegas once. You ever make it to Vegas, Natasha? There were these two magicians who performed at the Rio… I think their tricks might’ve been a little better thought-out. But maybe less sincere. That little unicorn really means it.”

Sunset shook her head. “Can’t say I ever made it there.” But that wasn’t the point, and Alexi barely seemed to hear her.

The audience didn’t shower Trixie with roses or deafen her with applause, but by the time she’d finished there was a sizeable crowd beyond the seats, even including a few Tower legionaries.

“I hope you liked it,” Starlight said, as soon as Trixie had vanished backstage. “Trixie has been talking about this all week now. Practicing in all her spare time, perfecting her best tricks. She’s really passionate about impressing you.”

“It was the most familiar alien magic show I’ve ever seen,” Alexi said, scooping her jacket off the chair, brushing off a little dust, then slipping it on. “It sounds like it kept the enlisted entertained, too. So you won’t hear any complaining from me.”

“It was wonderful,” Sunset said honestly. It was much less impressive than real pony magic could be, or even the fake magic Builders could use in the realm. But the quality of the performance came from more than that. “Trixie has a real talent as a showpony. I wouldn’t have believed you if you’d told me that the first day we met.”

Starlight nodded. “It’s her special talent for sure. Trixie makes for an excellent performer, even in the absence of… more productive interests. Or common sense. There was this one time—”

Trixie emerged from around the stage, no longer wearing any of her costume. She still attracted a crowd of onlooking humans, but she pushed her way through until she stood beside them.

“I know you two wouldn’t want to disappoint me after such an excellent show,” Trixie said. “Stage crew and I usually have an afterparty somewhere nearby—today the guards loaned us their barracks. I know it won’t be as exciting as some of the places I’ve performed, but… you should definitely come.”

“Absolutely,” Alexi said, before Sunset could answer. “It was a great show, Trixie. I can’t wait to meet some of the other ponies who helped you put it on.”

“Sure,” Sunset agreed. “I wouldn’t mind a party.” There would be humans there—but at least now she’d met one she didn’t want to strangle.

Jackie trundled down the switchbacks of Motherlode, her cart heavy with ingots of steel and copper. She’d spent most of the day making deliveries, worked so hard that parts of her back fur were peeling, and she could feel her joints give a little with every step.

They could make bodies to survive anything—bodies that could self-repair, bodies that could work in space. But she was a first-generation pony, with every flaw that an early adopter suffered.

“This is it, Sunset. This stupid engineer deserves to be left behind when the dragons get here. Tell me why I shouldn’t just leave her here.”

Sunset’s responses were slower incoming than they had been. Jackie guessed that Tesla and his ilk were working her unfairly too—but she had no way of knowing that for sure. Even if her suspicions were right, what could she do? Sunset was on her own. And she seemed to be adapting to humans pretty well, considering.

“Don’t you want to be free? Bringing her back is how to make Tesla leave you alone. Maybe even be human again. We were going to trade, remember?”

“Do you still want that?”

“Maybe. Are there people with multiple bodies? It seems like it would be silly to have just one. Like wearing a different dress to a different party.”

Jackie almost laughed out loud. Except that there were plenty of suspicious earth ponies watching her, mostly adults with children. A shadow was descending on her from above, which could only mean one pony. Jackie kept on her path, and did her best to ignore it.

“That’s a rich thing to say. Before the war, that was way more common. There was a kind of tourism in the Tower-aligned states, body renting. You could send your mind to any country you want, basically for free, then rent a body by the hour to go out on the town. The way real people rent bikes. And there were plenty of rich people who kept a body ready in multiple cities, or… multiple planets. I’ve never heard of someone keeping bodies for different species before, but I guess we didn’t really have any before now.”

“I could be the first,” Sunset eventually responded. “Being human has advantages. I wish we had hands like you. I’m spoiled after having them for all this time.”

“She says. But we’ve never had magic. I bet there are some people who would trade. I know of one—this stupid engineer.”

Sunset’s voice sounded confused. “She’s stupid? How can she be an engineer?”

“Not like that. Brigid Curie is supposed to be one of the loyalest, most faithful people in the Tower. She basically wrote the forking library on her own. Lots of the new drones were her, too. So why is she running?”

“I don’t know why I would have to tell you this. Would you go back to being alive right now if you could? Give up all the advantages of being digital?” She didn’t actually wait for a response. Up above Jackie, Frostline was coming in for a landing in front of her, pulling something along behind her. “Wouldn’t she have to go back to being digital if she came along with you? Maybe she sees being digital as dying, like you.”

“She shouldn’t,” Jackie pouted, but she couldn’t keep her voice from sounding a little petulant. “She’s already crossed the threshold once. She knows it’s possible. And if it is, then she knows she still had a soul.”

“Hey Moire!” Frostline exclaimed, touching down on the path just above her. “Having fun pretending to be an earth pony?”

Jackie stopped the walking program, glancing over her shoulder. “Oh yeah, it’s a blast.”

“I can see that.” Frostline’s eyes narrowed. “You should really sleep more. You look terrible. Anyway…” She reached behind her, at the thing she’d been carrying. It was dark and angry, with a fluffy, cold exterior. “I think you’ll like this.” She tossed it at Jackie’s face.

She was more than fast enough to catch it, whatever it was. It flew slowly, like a balloon. But then it hit her, dissolving into fog and puffing away in less than a second. “The heck was that?”

“I have… an idea.” Frostline started at her, dragging the rest of the dark mass forward so Jackie could see it. It was a cloud, or a piece of one, packed so close it seemed to leak snow as she dragged it. Frostline reached in, and took a huge bite. “Little piece of thunderstorm like this… they’re delicious. But we almost never get any with the mountains.”

She held it out to Jackie, and she leaned forward to do as the pony had done.

There was nothing there. The cloud puffed away around her, though it did light up her HUD for a second. “Electrostatic exposure warning! Minimize exposure or risk permanent damage.”

She pulled her face back. “I can’t say I’m a fan.”

Frostline shook her head. “I’ve… never seen a cloud do that, even to an earth pony. Must be… faulty or something.” She shrugged shoving the cloud upward. As soon as she let go, it started to drift. “I’ll find you a better one next time. Check it on my mom first.”

“Sure,” Jackie said. “If you want, I guess. I don’t really need clouds. I’m perfectly happy on the ground without any.”

“Yeah, I believe that.” Frostline shoved past her, jostling the cart. “I can see it in your face. You’re trapped here. You want to be up there, where you belong. You know my mom could help you.”

“I’m sure,” Jackie agreed. “The offer is kind, but—” There’s no chance in hell this body could fly. We need more engineering for that. “Not right now. I’m just here to help Silver Spring.”

“If you say so.” Frostline walked past her, skipping down the path. “Have fun taking the cart the rest of the way, Moire. I’ll see you there.”

And she took off, gliding down the slope with an infuriating grin on her face.

Chapter 10: Reciprocation

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Sunset Shimmer wondered quietly to herself where all the ponies who weren’t on duty this shift had gone to leave their barracks so empty. Regardless of how the showpony had done it, the space was more than large enough for their small group—maybe a dozen ponies and a handful of humans.

Sunset Shimmer ignored the refreshments but enjoyed making herself available for small talk with Trixie’s stagehands. They were an interesting group—a pair of young unicorn stallions she’d apparently picked up as fans when they were younger. Now they got to help produce the show they’d enjoyed as kids.

“We’re not supposed to tell you how the tricks work,” said Snips, the shorter of the two. “But during the teleport bit at the end—”

“You’re not supposed to tell her,” Snails, the taller, hissed under his breath.

“She’s not going to tell anyone! Will you, Natasha? Humans don’t even like magic tricks.”

“If humans didn’t like magic tricks, why did they all come to the show?”

“Oh.” Snips looked away. “Yeah, I guess I shouldn’t say. Sorry Miss Natasha.”

Sunset only laughed. “It’s fine. I think a show like yours is best enjoyed with the mystery intact. It’s more interesting to try and figure out how Trixie did it. Without much magic, I noticed. That’s an unusual style for a unicorn.”

But as enjoyable as it might’ve been to make random conversation with the ponies who made Trixie’s performance possible, there wasn’t much to be learned there. What Sunset really wanted was to spend more time around the one called Alexi Colven.

There was plenty of opportunity—whatever the differences between the two of them, the ponies didn’t seem to notice. They generally stuck to their own groups, leaving the little pocket of humans on their own for Trixie or Starlight to entertain.

“I heard something interesting today, Alexi,” Trixie said. “From Lyra… I guess you two are friends or whatever.”

“You could say that,” the admiral said. “I think she’s closer to my son than to me. But certainly, we’re friends.”

Trixie barely even seemed to hear her. “I heard that you grew up on the moon. That your family still lives there. Is that true?”

Obviously not. There’s no magic out of the atmosphere, nothing could survive.

But Sunset kept quiet, and that was probably the wise choice. “I grew up on Earth,” Alexi said. “I was thirteen when… I moved. And it was right into a young cadets’ program, not exactly ‘growing up.’ That was my sister more than me—you should talk to Kim—Second Chance, I mean. Talk to her if you want to know what it’s like to grow up there.”

“That just doesn’t make sense.” Trixie sipped from her glass—which was probably something strong judging by her tone of voice, and her decreasing tact. “If you were Natasha, maybe it would. She’s a machine, right Natasha?” She didn’t wait for Sunset to answer. “But you’re alive! I can feel it.” She touched the side of her horn. “Maybe not like Starlight. She’s told me all kinds of things about how magic interacts with humans. But it does interact with you, doesn’t it? You’re like… griffons or minotaurs or yaks. Smart, but not very magical. They need magic to live, and you should too.”

“We don’t,” Alexi said, looking over at Sunset like she expected her to explain. But Sunset had no idea what they were talking about.

Trixie was right—all life required magic to exist. There had been experiments around the turn of the century, teleporting plants and such up into space. Even protected from the harsh vacuum, they all died. It was assumed that the effect on animals, let alone ponies, would be even more pronounced.

“Until we met you, humans didn’t even know magic existed. The tachyons that make it possible are extremely rare in our home universe—almost undetectable. But not quite, because they’re the primary agents in opening a Hawking rift.” She glanced to the side. “You’re a scientist, aren’t you Natasha? Maybe you can explain. I know the Tower borrowed some of our work with the Einstein-Rosen bridge.”

There was something political there—but nothing that made it sound like she didn’t think Sunset was a person. Sunset’s thoughts accelerated, and she glanced desperately over her shoulder. “Twilight? Can you help?”

“Looking it up right now,” she said. Twilight had given up her tablet computer for mountains of books—they were really the same thing, but she said she liked the feel of paper better. The effect of half a library just appearing wherever she happened to be never failed to make Sunset smile.

“Yes, here it is. Life on Equus requires ‘magic’ for almost all its essential functions. It’s like oxygen to you. But life on the Earth side doesn’t depend on it. I’ve got one paper here speculating that exposure to any amount of the stuff might have ‘long-term mutagenic effects’, but it was so expensive to produce that that was never seen as a risk.”

“Humans don’t need magic,” Sunset said simply, nodding to Trixie. “Equus and Earth took different—”

“Evolutionary paths,” Twilight supplied, helpfully.

“Evolutionary paths,” she repeated. “There was so little of it over there we learned to live without it.” And I almost died from it when I got there. Sunset still remembered those first few hours, wandering desperately through a gray wasteland. It felt like the worst possible dream—without any magic, her mind slowly slipping. It was a small miracle the Tower had found her in time.

“Twilight has been looking into it,” Starlight said, settling down on the couch beside Sunset. There was barely room for the two of them, even though the sofa could probably seat four. It was a good thing Sunset’s body wasn’t that heavy, or it might’ve buckled under the weight. “What magic is doing to humans, I mean.”

“Well of course she would.” Trixie got up. “She never knew to leave well enough alone, did she? If they learn magic, how will we put on shows anymore?” She wandered off in a huff.

“The same way, I expect,” Sunset muttered, as soon as she was out of earshot. “Doing so much without magic is almost more impressive.”

“I’ll tell her you said so,” Starlight said. “And I’m sorry if she’s a bit… disagreeable. I think she’s had a few too many glasses of cider. Somepony should cut her off.”

“Has Princess Twilight learned anything about…” Alexi hesitated. “Human interaction with magic? That sounds like a fascinating subject.”

“Not humans.” Starlight seemed to relax, though maybe she was just happier to talk about a subject that wasn’t connected to her increasingly-drunk friend. “We haven’t been experimenting on anyone. But the Federation people brought over vats of algae, and they didn’t mind giving us some. Studying it has been… interesting.”

“Really?” Alexi asked.

“Yes.” Starlight didn’t need much to get her going. “I’m not a biologist, but the ponies who looked it over…” and in a few sentences she’d completely lost Sunset’s attention. Probably she had something interesting to say about the growth of cells being regulated while within the magical field, and increased yields, and increasingly obscure terms for things she didn’t understand.

“Is that making any sense to you?” she asked Twilight.

“Not really,” her digital friend answered. “I could look it up, but I think that’s further than we need to go. There’s a war on.”

But Sunset listened politely anyway, until even Starlight had drifted away, and she finally had a moment alone with Alexi.

“Your sister is a pony, isn’t she?” Sunset asked, as casually as she could. “What is that like? Having family who aren’t the same species anymore… must feel weird.”

Alexi laughed. “It was weirder the first time I saw her. Honestly, the difference in age caught me a little more off-guard. You expect your own sister to always be the same age, you know? Once she gets dosed… that’s supposed to be it.”

“Uh…” What the hell is she talking about now? “Oh, because I’m from the Tower. Yeah, I… I guess we don’t age.”

Alexi blinked. “I guess you don’t, but… nevermind. I wish I could’ve seen her a little more. But this war… it doesn’t give us what we want. She has to go fly off and help ponies somewhere, because they’re all she cares about now. Nevermind that we’ve been searching all this time for somewhere to live without radiation. It’s right here, but… off she goes.”

“Yeah.” Sunset looked away. “That sounds like it would be hard. Being stuck in this stupid camp, basically doing nothing, while everypony else is out there saving the day. Having to depend on them to save you, when you know you could save yourself just fine.”

“Everypony,” Alexi said, in English. “That’s cute. I don’t know if I could get away with that one. Maybe I’ll try at a staff meeting and see if anyone calls me on it. Speaking of which…” She rose, lifting one hand in a polite salute. “I think I’m going to get going. There are a few things I need to get done before bed, and some of us need sleep. We can’t all run on nuclear fuel.”

“I just have a battery,” Sunset said honestly. “We don’t all run on nuclear fuel either.”

Alexi laughed. “Well, good talking to you, Natasha. Hopefully that’s all we do once we finish saving Equestria. I rather like it here—I’d like it if we didn’t fuck up this planet quite so badly as our last one.” Then she left.

Sunset didn’t linger too much longer. There was only one thing she had left to do: find Starlight. “Hey,” she said, nudging her gently from one side. “I don’t mean to bother you…”

Starlight was basically hiding in the corner of the room and hadn’t spoken to anyone else in the last few minutes that Sunset had seen. She was emotionally exhausted, apparently. “I’m not bothered!” She sat up, her eyes narrowing a little once she saw who it was. “What are you going to trick me with now?”

Sunset didn’t know what to say to that—so she ignored it. “Tomorrow might be a good day for a tour of our camp, if you still wanted it. Equipment is all done, and there’s a festival scheduled. Apparently most of the legionaries are going to be deployed, so they’re going to send everyone off. You could see Tower humans the way they see themselves.”

“The way they see themselves,” she repeated. “That sounds interesting. I… I might invite Amber Sands too, if that’s alright with you. Do you have three headsets?”

“Well… well no,” she admitted. “It’s more than headsets, as it turns out. “There’s this whole… chair, basically. Makes you think you’re really moving, lets you walk around and explore the Realm as though you were one of us, but then you can get up and leave no problem. They’re kind of a pain to set up, so they only made…”

“Well, that’s no problem.” Starlight lowered her voice to a whisper. “I don’t think Trixie is going to be coming. I’ve seen her when she drinks this much… she’ll be too hungover. But I’ll come, and Amber should be there, and… we’ll have a great time!”

“Sure.” Sunset nodded. It was a little disappointing not to have the showpony. She still didn’t know why Starlight would want the captain of the guard. “Festival starts in the afternoon. Maybe one o’clock Ponyville time? I’ll wait for you near the gate.”

“It will be good to have something to celebrate,” Starlight said. “After today… well, we’ll see you then.”

Sunset wandered from the tent a few minutes later, crossing back to the Tower side of Normandy as soon as she could.

“So… what did you think about ‘real’ humans?” Twilight asked. “Not as bad as you thought?”

“That one… wasn’t,” Sunset admitted. “But I don’t know if she was more peaceful. I think they’re all predators. She was just… a kinder predator, who cared about her family.”

“That doesn’t sound like much of a predator.”

Sunset stopped, glaring at Twilight. She’d appeared perched atop a pile of books, just beside one of the plain tents. Sunset hadn’t been able to stand any of the more colorful skins for Normandy itself, not all the time. It was sensory overload.

“Well, I was one of them once, wasn’t I? Before you… reconstructed my mind.”

Sunset took a step closer, lowering her voice. She wasn’t worried anyone would be watching her. The guards would leave her alone, and she wasn’t speaking out-loud. Copresence would make sure of that. “You remember something? About who you were?”

“No,” Twilight admitted. “But I don’t want to. I like who I am now. If I went back to what I was before… I might be a ghost again. Not… caring about the world around me. No friends, no purpose. I like working with you.”

“I like working with you too, Twilight.” Sunset wrapped her arms around her in a tight hug—and she felt real. It was a good thing the copresence program could keep her real body from moving, or else she’d probably look like an idiot.

“But I don’t think it has to be black or white. If you want to learn about your old self… the Tower probably has records. They scan everything. They probably know who you were. I could look into it for you, if you want. So, you won’t have to see.”

“Well…” Twilight let go of her, then faded away. Only her voice remained. “Let me think about it. We have bigger problems right now.”

“They’re not going to let you set this up, sweetheart.” Jackie could hear True Silver’s voice even as she approached, and she listened carefully.

“It’s the least invasive deployment I’ve built,” Bree said, gesturing to a massive object on the ground in front of her. It had been wheeled out of the barn on a low cart, and even at a distance Jackie couldn’t have said what it was. Mostly brass and steel, with intricate gears and springs and rotating pendulums. But there were a series of long, hollow rods near the surface, clustered close together in what was unmistakably a weapon of some kind.

“They can just cover it up with a tarp and pretend it isn’t there. Nopony minds the other ones… this one isn’t any different, and it’s less than half the size.”

“Except you want this one in town’s square.” True Silver rested one hoof gently on Bree’s shoulder, but she was also aware enough to notice Jackie’s approach.

“Moire! I see you have the supplies I asked for. No trouble at the general store?”

“Not this time,” she agreed, her voice dark. “But it’s all here.”

“Good, good.” True Silver gestured past her, towards her own open workshop. White smoke rose from inside, which meant she’d been in the middle of work when… whatever this was… had started. “Just get that settled, and I’ll be done with you for the day.”

Jackie nodded, walking off towards the open workshop. But she was still listening carefully. This was one aspect of her life here that Bree had been unwilling to speak about. Jackie guessed it was part of the reason she wasn’t willing to leave Motherlode. Maybe now she would find out.

“The invasion has already started,” Bree said, and from the sound of metal grinding together she was probably adjusting the machine somehow. “If Motherlode thinks it won’t be one of the first places raided, it’s insane.”

“I agree with you,” True Silver said. “That’s why we have a panic room. Whatever happens… we’ll be safe. And Frostline’s family too. You’re always up there… you’ll give us plenty of warning, won’t you?”

“Yeah,” Frostline said. “We’ve been keeping an eye on things. But there hasn’t been anything to see yet. Just some smoke from the north, and… whatever’s going on up there.”

“We can’t protect them against their will,” Silver said, her voice gentle. Jackie didn’t hear the rest of it as she wheeled the cart into her workshop, settling it into place and unloading the ingots of raw materials into their designated places.

By the time she emerged, the complex little block of machinery had expanded into something like a little turret. It had settled legs onto the ground around it, sinking them into the earth, with a spinning head of four barrels that rotated around in lazy circles, pointing up at the sky.

What the heck is powering that? Jackie stared openly at what she realized now had to be an anti-aircraft gun, which lacked any kind of controls for an operator.

“Look, it isn’t that scary, is it Frostline? It’s just… one machine. It’s all internal, so there’s nothing for anypony to freak out about. How much smaller do they want?”

“I think they want things exactly the way they know,” Frostline said. “Your mom is right. This thing is new. Ponies don’t like new, Motherlode ponies least of all. You’re an earth pony, you don’t understand that as well. But the rest of us know pretty well, don’t we? Don’t you, Moire?”

Jackie stopped walking just beside them, eager for a closer look at Bree’s machine. Her engineering talents didn’t seem to have taken much of a hit by becoming organic. Is that another bit of evidence that she still has a soul? Or maybe that’s her special talent. Ponies talked about that a lot, but even Sunset’s explanations had been pretty vague. At one moment it sounded like she was talking about puberty, but the next not at all.

“I don’t think you can set up a gun in the center of town without someone trashing it,” she said. “I’m pretty sure if I tried to sleep in the center of town someone would try to roll me off the mountain.”

Bree made several unsatisfied sounds, shaking her head. “You’re underestimating them, you all are. They want to survive this war as much as anyone. They’ll… they’ll appreciate us once the first attack comes this way, and we survive it.”

“They probably will,” Silver agreed. “But for that to happen, we need to make sure they don’t try to hurt anyone. A big, spinning machine… they’ll ruin it. Unless you think it can help protect Motherlode in lots of little pieces.”

“No.” Bree slumped down, ears flattening. She looked away. “It can’t. I guess you’re right. We’ll… just have to keep it here. Maybe we can fly it into town at the first sign of trouble. Hopefully we can get there fast. If we don’t have full coverage, we might as well not have defenses at all.”

“There’s another way.” Jackie realized she was probably going too far—that little voice in the back of her mind warning her to shut up was screaming now. But she’d already started, and they were all looking at her. “If Motherlode doesn’t want to be safe… you could come with me. All of you.” She flicked her tail back towards the dock, way up the hill.

“In a week’s time, the ship I came on is due to come back. I’m bound for Normandy—that’s the human center of things in Equestria right now. The safest place you could possibly be. I’m sure they’d be willing to take you there. I know they’d take your worries about safety seriously, Silver Spring. And not judge you or your family for being pegasus, Frostline.”

There was a few seconds of silence, except for the steady clicking of the turret every time it came back around.

It was True Silver who spoke first. “Do you know something we don’t, Moire? I thought you were an engineer, not… not with the Guard.”

“She doesn’t,” Bree said, apparently recovering. “She doesn’t know anything about it. She’s just afraid of living on the frontier. You know how I was…”

But Bree wasn’t making a convincing case. “I do,” Jackie said. I’m not going to get another chance. If the engineer won’t come with me, I’ll have to force her. For her own good. And Jackie’s own, though she wouldn’t admit it.

“Look, I’m probably not supposed to tell you any of this, but Bree and Frostline already know.” She glanced up the hill, making sure none of the locals were watching. They weren’t.

“We shouldn’t listen to her, Mom!” Bree interrupted, reaching for Jackie. To her mother it would probably look like she was just pushing her back—but she was going for the neck. There was a mechanical override there, one that could shut down a prosthetic for servicing.

But she’d already done that once. Jackie reacted instantly, opening her wings so fast that Bree stumbled backward, unable to reach. There was a slight crack from one of her wings, as one of the supports gave under the unexpected force. But there was only a little pain—like the soreness from a long workout. It would only be strong enough to remind her that her body needed repair. She could shut it off later.

“I’m human myself,” Jackie said. She bent down, and popped off one of her forelegs. “Don’t worry, it doesn’t hurt. I’m… mechanical. My whole body is. That’s how I can do as much work as an earth pony—why I don’t eat much, don’t need to sleep. I was sent from Normandy.”

True Silver stared at the empty socket, occasionally glancing down to the fallen limb on the ground in front of them. Her mouth opened and closed several times, but no words came out.

“I saw the day she got here,” Frostline supplied. “I didn’t really know what it meant. I thought maybe you had the best fake limb ever. Like… the best peg leg.”

“I do,” Jackie said, picking up the limb and letting it snap into place. She was still watching Bree, ready for her to strike—but the teenager’s expression had gone dark, cold. Hopeless. “My whole body is a peg leg. It’s called a full prosthetic. Bree here used to have one too. I’m not… sure what changed that. I guess Equestria did.”

“We shouldn’t talk about this out here,” True Silver said, finally recovering. “Ponies would overhear. Let’s get your device back into the lab, sweetheart. We don’t want any accidents happening to it while we’re not here to keep an eye out.”

Bree nodded, though her expression had become unreadable. She glared at Jackie with anger so hot it practically melted the brass of her gun, then turned away and started pushing it.

Another minute or so later and they were all inside Bree’s lab, with the door securely closed and the blinds drawn across the windows. There was plenty of electric light to keep the barn lit, but that was it.

“So explain exactly what you mean, Moire. You want all of us to… leave Motherlode, is that right?”

Jackie nodded. It wasn’t just True Silver who was attentive to her now. Frostline was listening just as carefully, her wings constantly twitching and adjusting. “There’s an airship coming back here in another week’s time, the Nightbreeze. It brought me here—and I’m sure it would take all of you back with me. The captain was… reasonable.”

“But there’s no reason for us to leave!” Bree exclaimed, her voice on the edge of fury. Her mane seemed to lift into the air a little around her, though that was probably the humidity. “I know what she’s gonna say, Mom! She’s been trying to convince me all week. But she’s wrong about saying Normandy is safest. Motherlode is far, far away from important targets. We’re so high up in the mountains that no army can get here, only airships. The griffons have those, but we’re prepared.”

She smacked one hoof against the brass launcher. “We’ll blow them out of the sky, and they won’t make the mistake of sending a second fleet. We just aren’t worth it. You don’t attack an enemy when you stand nothing to gain. They’ll think Equestria reinforced a worthless target and move on.”

Jackie shook her head. “I’m more worried about the opposite. Seaddle was attacked today. I don’t know what happened there—whether we won, or lost, or whatever. But I’ll let you know. I can get updates from the war effort back in Normandy.” She walked over to the wall, settling down beside the radio platform there. Bree hadn’t repaired it yet, though she’d opened up the assembly and tinkered with it a few times. Large parts of the wooden case were still charred from the last fire.

“What I don’t understand is: why do you care?” Frostline asked. “Spring is the one you came for, and I guess the rest of us are afterthoughts. Why, though? She’s really smart, I guess that. But there are smart ponies all over Equestria. You could’ve gone anywhere to find those.”

Jackie wasn’t really watching her face, though. True Silver showed none of that confusion. There was resolve on her face, getting stronger each time she glanced at Bree.

“I think True Silver knows,” Jackie said. “And Silver Spring too. I’m not surprised they didn’t tell you. It’s not my place to tell you either. But… Silver Spring called for me, with this.” She smacked it with a hoof. “Maybe she didn’t realize who would come when she called, but here I am.”

“A hacker and a con artist,” Bree interrupted. “Fermenting petty rebellions and building cheap exploits for sale on the gray market.”

“I don’t think that’s fair,” Silver interrupted. “Con artist? Moire has worked hard ever since she got into our home. Look at that cart. She pulled it, so you could focus on your work.”

“No. She pulled it so I would give in to what she wanted and come with her. I knew her in my life before, even if she never knew me. I always knew she would get herself into trouble deep enough that she would attract real attention. I’m guessing she was sent on this whole mission because she finally got caught, and prosecuted.”

Bree’s words only confused Frostline more, who looked between the two of them as though she thought she was going crazy. But Silver ignored her.

“Well… you have your cutie mark now,” Silver said. “So I can’t force you. But I agree with Moire. The earth ponies of Motherlode have been resisting everything we’ve ever done here. Now that there’s a war on… look, I have family in the Crystal Empire. My dad’s side… they’re jerks. I’ve never felt less welcome in any house in my life. But their manor will be safer than living here. Maybe Frostline and Cirrus can find somewhere that will appreciate their hard work a little more.”

“One more week,” Jackie said. “That’s when we would need to be ready. And we shouldn’t spread around that we’re planning it, or else we might attract the wrong sort of attention from the ponies here. The Nightbreeze can’t evacuate everyone.”

Bree glared around at them all, though mostly her anger seemed focused on her mom. Then she turned, and stormed out of the lab. Jackie heard the house door slam another second later.

“She’ll come, don’t worry,” Silver said. “I’ve known Spring for almost a decade now. She gets very attached to her projects, and frustrated when she can’t control every aspect. After all the time she invested in her defenses, not seeing them used is going to be hard on her.”

“I’ll talk to my mom,” Frostline said. “And… well, there’s a stallion in town. Maybe he’d run away too. We’ve always talked about it. A war is… the best time for something like that. A new start like in the stories.”

“Sure,” Jackie agreed, though at this point she had no idea what they were going to do to pay for all these tickets. I hope you’re as rich as everyone thinks, True Silver. Because I only bought two. “Just don’t let the rest of the town know. I know they’ll be thrilled to see me leaving. But the rest of you… probably not. Even if they’d never admit it.”

“I’ll talk to Spring,” True Silver said, turning to go. “Thanks for sharing all this with me, Moire. We appreciate your trust.” She left.

Chapter 11: Message Authentication

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“We repeat the Royal Decree—do not travel into or anywhere near Seaddle in the near future. The Western fleet is unable to protect civilian air travel into the cities anywhere near it. Any evacuating should attempt to secure transportation to the current refugee staging area, Ponyville. Please consult with your local constabulary if you require directions for evacuation.”

Jackie sat towards the back of the Motherlode miners in the Mudcap Saloon, listening to the quiet barking from the radio. It had a remarkably new look compared to everything else in the room—and she suspected she knew which pony had put it there.

The Equestrian radio technology looked a little dated, but it clearly got the job done. She could hear miners muttering to each other—about how the princess would deal with it, primarily. “Equestria can’t fall while Celestia leads us,” said an older stallion, the current owner of the mine. His name was Crabapple, and Jackie hadn’t met a single pony who hated her more. “She’s immortal, and perfectly wise. Maybe the ponies of Seaddle were losing loyalty to their princess. Some time subjugated to griffon masters will teach them to give her the respect she deserves.”

“Celestia protects,” a mare beside him entoned. Several of the others joined in, chanting like some religious ritual.

Bree slammed her empty mug down on the table in front of them, glowering at Jackie. She’d had that expression for the last two days, ever since True Silver had been convinced to leave. Jackie had half-expected her to try and knock her unconscious again, or worse. But she hadn’t done anything violent, not yet.

“You see why I wanted to protect them,” Bree said. “These people are… insane. They think they can pray to their political leaders and have them answer. They think they can’t lose a battle so long as they’re waving the right flag. They don’t even have weapons.

Frostline drank a little more carefully—though she had a shot of something, unlike the ale that Bree was drinking. Her coltfriend Sandstone had a cup of something else, and occasionally they would swap. So far Sandstone didn’t seem all bad. A little slow for Jackie’s taste, though she was mostly sour about not being able to pursue Frostline herself.

Not yet, anyway. Once I get a few repairs to this body, though… She should probably ask Sunset to tweak the libido on this thing while she was at it. The settings in the first generation needed some revision.

Jackie could’ve made her own field-alterations, but she hadn’t yet. So far, the frustration had just been more motivation to pursue a little harder. And she was afraid that if she tampered with any of it she’d see them as animals again, and feel gross for all the little fantasies she’d had in the last two weeks.

“You can’t save the world on your own, Spring. You’re not a princess, not one of the Elements of Harmony. Ponies like us don’t change things, we just stay out of trouble and survive.”

Bree laughed bitterly. “You say that now. But if you’d seen me before. I changed all of Equestria ten years ago. They’re still telling stories about it in Canterlot.”

“You can do better from Normandy,” Jackie said. She hoped she sounded neutral and polite as she said it. “You’ll have all your old resources, Spring. Manufacturing gear, specialists, teams of clerks…”

Bree’s voice got darker, and she answered in English. “I won’t do any good from the inside of a cell. That’s what’s waiting for me if I go back. You must know… you’re the warden, right? Here to arrest me for violating the king’s orders. You don’t have to be coy.”

“Weird,” Sandstone said. “What language is that?”

But Bree ignored him. Jackie did too. She used English herself—if Bree didn’t want to tell the others what she was saying, then Jackie wouldn’t make her hate her even more by going over her head. “I don’t know what you did wrong, and I don’t really care. You’ve already talked about all the bad stuff I did. If I’d come to arrest you, I could’ve brought more than one gun. You might’ve been armed for all we knew. Hell, I could’ve come with a dozen legionaries. This isn’t an arrest.”

Bree shook her head. “That just shows how little you know.” She got up, leaving her empty glass behind. She switched back to Equestrian. “I’m not thirsty. The rest of you have fun.” She stalked off, slamming the door open and smashing it closed again behind her. Jackie could practically hear her hooves stomping all the way back.”

“She’s even meaner than usual,” Sandstone said. “Why is she so upset? She barely leaves her house, why would she care about Motherlode?”

Frostline shook her head. “It’s not our place to judge. Spring was having a really hard time when she got here. Living in Motherlode… helped her put her life back together. The locals treated her better than they did me, or you Moire. It makes sense she wants to give back. But she can’t force her kindness on them. If they want to push us away, then… I’m glad we’re leaving. They’ll finally have the pure little town they wanted.”

“We’re not that bad,” Sandstone protested, his voice meek. “I’m glad you’re here, Frostline. And I haven’t been bad to Moire, have I?”

“No, but you’re the exception.” Frostline’s eyes narrowed. “How long did you have to hide our relationship from your parents?”

The colt’s silence seemed to be all the answer she needed.

“I’m going to go talk to her.” Frostline rose from the table, turning to go. “Don’t do anything stupid while I’m gone. Sandstone, Moire isn’t real, so don’t get any ideas.”

“W-what… does that even mean?” But Frostline didn’t answer, just stood up and hurried out the door after Bree.

“What does she mean?” Sandstone asked, staring at Jackie with renewed interest. “You’re… not real?”

“That’s one way to say it. She means I’m not organic, and she’s right. Don’t worry about it…” Jackie trailed off, her eyes losing focus as her vision highlighted with an incoming high-priority message.


She stood up, ignoring whatever Sandstone had just said, gesturing out the door. “We need to go. Right now.”

“Sure, uh… fine. Frostline, wait!” They hurried out the open door together, and only made it a few steps before they caught up with the pegasus. It wasn’t as though she’d been gone for very long.

“What is it?” Frostline asked, mostly looking to Sandstone. “Did they throw you out? That seems a little extreme, even for the Mudcap.”

“No.” Jackie gestured down the path. “We’re about to be attacked. Not next week, not even tomorrow. In the next few hours.”

“Really?” Frostline took off, hovering in the air beside her like a nervous bird. “I’m going to warn my mom. You… you can tell Silver Spring.”

“But how do you know?” Sandstone asked, frustration obvious in his voice. “You were listening to the same radio we were!”

“I did,” Jackie insisted. “You don’t have to listen to me. Go home if you want. But I would get to shelter if I were you. Put your family somewhere they won’t get hurt.”

“Should we warn the village?”

But Jackie was already galloping down the hill. Her body wasn’t as precise as it had been—a week of labor had been hard on plastic joints made for stealth service, not pulling a cart uphill twice a day. But she ran anyway, correcting as best she could. So long as she didn’t stumble off the cliff, she should be alright.

She caught up with Bree about halfway down, obviously not walking with any great hurry.

“Now what do you want?” Bree asked, glaring at Jackie.

She tried to ignore the bitterness. This was too important. “Motherlode is about to be attacked. The Order just messaged me—we have enemy ships moving here, about two hours out.”

“Enemy ships?” Bree looked up, as though she’d been jostled back into consciousness. “What kind? Dragons, mercenaries, changelings…”

“They didn’t tell me,” Jackie said, walking a few steps past her down the hill. “Your family has a safe room, right? We need to get that place stocked. I dunno how long we’ll have to hide.”

“Fuck hiding.” Bree sped up into a gallop of her own, skipping a few of the switchbacks with careful jumps right when they got closest. “I’m prepared for this. Motherlode will be fine.”

Jackie wasn’t sure how that could be, but she didn’t argue. She’d already done enough to upset the engineer. She did compose a message to Tesla. She wasn’t sure who else she could send it to, since the mission had apparently come from the top. He hadn’t said a word to her about it all this time. From the sound of things, that hadn’t changed now. It was only the automated systems that were different.

“I have located your missing engineer. Brigid has become a fully organic pony, she’s lost all her implants. She is reluctant to leave with me. An evacuation ship would make this much easier. Make sure any ship you send has room for at least five natives.”

She sent the message off, and honestly didn’t expect much of a response. But by the time they made it back to True Silver’s home, she got one anyway. It came wrapped in all the right certificates—Tesla had written it himself.

“Fleet deployed, no evacuation possible for at least two weeks, possibly longer. Will update.” And that was all. No snarkiness or judgement there—but then, what had she expected? She was working for the man. It shouldn’t matter that he had invented so much of the technology that ran her world.

So much for that. If Jackie wanted out of this mess, they would have to do it themselves.

She hadn’t been able to keep pace with Bree on the way down. As a result, she was already rolling up the hill away from the house by the time Jackie got there—tugging the massive brass AA-gun with her.

True Silver watched from the open workshop doors, but didn’t actually try to stop her.

Jackie settled in beside her, out of the way of the cart. “We should probably get to safety,” she said, more matter-of-factly than anything.

“After I set this up,” Bree said. “Maybe Motherlode’s population are too primitive to appreciate their defenses. But if there isn’t coverage over the center of town, then we’re vulnerable. They can leave it alone for a few hours.”

“I guess…” Jackie glanced back towards the house. “Does… True Silver know?”

“Nope.” Bree grinned at her, daring. “Why don’t you go back and tell her?”

She had to. And by the time she did… Bree would already be too far gone for her mom to stop. Not until she finished deploying the defenses, anyway.

“You don’t have to fight me,” Jackie muttered. “I’m trying to help you, stupid.”

Bree glared. “Then act like it.” She sped up, and even with her sturdy earth pony frame, she obviously struggled with each curve.

Jackie didn’t go help her, but darted back towards the workshop.

True Silver’s blacksmith shop was always clean and well kept. The forge was cold today, she was apparently working with hammer and anvil alone on a piece of dull metal, the hammer strapped to her hoof with an elaborate harness. She never used her horn—Jackie had never seen her levitate anything in the entire time she’d been there.

“What changed in Motherlode?” she asked, removing her foreleg from the harness and stepping back from her anvil. She wore only an apron, and her body dripped with sweat. She had to be the fittest unicorn Jackie had ever met, of either sex. “Spring seems pretty determined to get her little invention into town.”

“Nothing,” Jackie said. “I heard over the radio… Motherlode is about to be attacked. Probably in the next few hours. She wants to get her defenses ready before then.”

“Oh.” Silver stepped away from her anvil. “And she’s going all the way… I guess there’s time. Maybe you could help me get everything ready. You’ve told Frostline already, I expect.”

“Yes,” she said. “But I’m not sure how useful I can be. I brought a weapon, but I can’t defend this city. I’m just one pony, and I’ve never killed anyone before.”

“Fight… no, you misunderstand.” Silver gestured into the house. “Help me load up our safe room. There are some old cans in there, but… I don’t open it often to service. If I’m being honest, I half expected a mob to show up at our door over my ‘unholy magic.’ That meant nopony in town could see it.”

“Oh, sure.” Jackie followed her inside—through to the underground pantry. Silver pulled on a dented can on a top shelf, and an entire stone wall slid away. It was all mechanical pulleys and grinding gears.

The inside was dark, and True Silver walked past her, wearing a little gas miner’s lantern like those that many of the townspeople wore in Motherlode. She touched the flames to a few candles, illuminating a fairly large space. It was an entire basement floor cut from the stone, and looked quite a bit larger than the house upstairs.

“There was a mine here, a generation ago,” Silver explained. “Instead of just capping the whole thing off, I put a door in, and made some furniture for it whenever I had a little extra time.”

There were a few bunk beds against the stone wall, some simple tables and chairs. Lots of empty shelves. “Let’s start making trips to the kitchen. And… fill up some new water jugs from the well while we’re at it. What’s going to attack us?”

“Dunno,” Jackie answered, honestly. “But I bet they came south after Seaddle. I’m guessing that city has already fallen, or it will soon.”

She spent the next half hour or so rushing about the house, carrying everything True Silver directed her to bring to one of the empty shelves. It wasn’t exactly a luxury bunker, like those she’d heard about built right before the Great War. But it had space, and thanks to their forewarning it would have enough furniture for everyone. Not that I need much. I could hide in a closet for years if I needed to.

She could, but Bree couldn’t. If that pony died, then her mission was over. She’d never get her freedom then. This would all be for nothing. We don’t have to hide that long. The Nightbreeze will get here in five more days. People have lasted way longer than that in bunkers before.

“Well, that’s all the heavy stuff,” True Silver said, sweating from the effort of the bed they’d just carried in. Jackie had torn the fur on one of her forelegs, but it didn’t hurt. She was just a machine. “You should go and… find Spring. She was proud of how those machines don’t need her there to work. Remind her of that, and tell her she can wait out the fight here. You might… want to warn Motherlode there’s an attack coming, while you’re at it. Wait… nevermind. You’re a bat. They’ll probably accuse you of bringing the enemy here. Still might do that, by the way. Hopefully Spring’s defenses do what she thinks they do. We didn’t exactly test them first.”

“Do you think you’d have better luck? She’s your daughter, Silver. And she doesn’t like me very much anymore. I’m not sure if you noticed.”

“I noticed,” Silver said. “But I really do think you’ll have a better chance of convincing her. Being independent is very important for her. If I try and persuade her to do anything, she’ll do the opposite. I used to be able to force her when she got disagreeable—but she’s all grown up now. If you think you can force an earth pony to do anything, more power to you.”

“Probably not,” she admitted. “But if you think I have a better chance. I don’t want anything to happen to her because she was out protecting ponies who should’ve protected themselves.”

“You said we had two hours, right? We still have half that time left. I’ll come looking for you if you’re not back in thirty minutes. Bring her back before then.”

“I’ll try.” There was one thing Jackie needed to grab before she left—her rifle. The accelerator hadn’t seen much use since she arrived in Motherlode, and had just sat with her other belongings in the little spare room.

She slung it over her shoulder, then slipped out the back door, turning up towards Motherlode. It was already growing dark, many windows lit by only feeble lights. But even just a little moonlight was more than she needed—she could see perfectly so long as there was enough light for a night-vision camera.

At a glance, she could see that Bree had finished climbing the hill. She started to run, turning sharply around each and earning herself glares from the earth ponies.

“Sunset Shimmer are you there?”

The question took a few seconds. Eventually she earned her response. “You sound worried, Jackie. Is something wrong?”

She nodded, mostly by reflex. “I just got a message that I’m going to be attacked. I think Tesla put me into the automated system or something. I was hoping you might be able to get some more details for me.”

She was nearly halfway up the hill before she finally got a reply. “I don’t have permission to dig into things like that, but I asked a knight. The new captain of the guard told me that there’s a raider fleet of griffon mercenaries moving south from Seaddle. It looks like the city is basically taken now—overrun, with only a single pocket of resistance holding out. And I can tell you for myself how griffons behave in a war. They like to demoralize the enemy. Raid every town they can, kill a few, carry off a few—that way the ponies who live there won’t want to resist. They’ll probably try to do that to every town they pass along the way. You’re right in their path.”

“Could they be heading for Motherlode intentionally? Everypony here is always reminding me that we’re the only source of mithril.”

“I… guess,” Sunset answered. “Griffons don’t have much use for mithril, though. They don’t have the technique for working it. Only a few ponies in the whole world can. But I suppose… they might want to seize the mine. Make sure you all keep digging for them. Are you okay? You could head back if you don’t feel safe.”

She’d made a few new friends now, and it didn’t seem right to leave them for dead. Frostline had been nothing but kind, and even Sandstone was alright. True Silver had been as supportive as a pony could be.

“Not until my mission is over,” she sent back. “Bree thinks of herself like some kind of hero now. I’ve seen it before. But this isn’t the Realm. She’s trying to get herself shot.”

“Well don’t you get yourself shot. You can’t save everypony. Anyway, I’ve… got a thing. Let me know if there’s anything I can do for you.”

She’s got a thing, Jackie thought, turning it over in her head. Sunset Shimmer was making new friends too, it seemed like. She didn’t know why that made her so jealous. Her interest in Sunset had taken a steep dive the moment she’d been transmogrified into a pony.

But she couldn’t let that distract her. She focused on the center of town, and the crowd of ponies growing there. All staring at Bree. Great. Let’s see if I can stop this from going south.

Could she save an engineer against her will? Only one way to find out.

There was no visual sign in the Tower camp that anything had changed. If Sunset had lacked the senses to see beyond her body, she might not have known. Certainly the pony guards patrolling around the walls couldn’t know.

Sunset Shimmer lingered for a few more seconds, with all her AR settings disabled, looking at the plain camp with its slightly denser crowd of legionaries. Even then, she’d seen thicker patrols quite regularly. This could be like any other day.

“You should come over,” Twilight said. “They’ll be here any second. It would be weird if you’re as confused as everypony else. You’re showing them something you know and appreciate, aren’t you? Something you’ve seen your whole life. You’re not doing a very good job pretending.”

“I’m not trying to hide,” she admitted though her voice was for Twilight’s ears only. “Well, not very hard. If they figure it out, then good for them.”

“Good for them.” Twilight appeared behind her. Her outfit had changed—the dress was shorter, and the blouse no longer went all the way to her wrists. Sunset felt her cheeks getting warm, though she knew that was just an illusion. As fake as anything else about herself. Twilight settled one hand on her shoulder. “Not so great for you when Telsa realizes you’ve blown your cover. I can’t predict what he’ll do.”

“Nothing good.” Sunset Shimmer took a deep breath, settling one hand on a tent-pole. It was polished metal, same as all the others, and the whole tent shook slightly under her weight. “Fine, fine. A quick look. I kinda wanted to enjoy it with them, though.”

She made the switch, bridging from a neutral layer to the full Remembrance overlay.

The camp was transformed. Any trace of the other side was gone—the divider not far away became a precipitous cliff, with a gorgeous view over the ocean far below. The tents had transformed to something she could’ve seen in old-town Canterlot, with fancy wooden fences and stone side walls with wooden accents. Sounds and smells and voices dominated, with lights seeming to funnel her deeper, towards a palace of tents and stone in the distance. The king’s quarters, along with his knights. I wonder if I’ll see Brad tonight.

“You’ve been missing out.” Beside her, Twilight Sparkle was stained with the multicolored torches that lit the rest of the campsite, along with the impossible sky overhead. Even Princess Luna in her days of glory could not create such a show—an array of galaxies paraded overhead, with shooting stars and many moons and even stranger things if she kept looking.

“So… you can see all this?” Sunset asked, clutching briefly at the necklace that was Twilight’s home. With Twilight so active, it became uncomfortably hot to the touch, or probably would’ve been if she was organic. “Even though you’re banished?”

“It’s a festival,” Twilight said. “Every citizen is entitled to see it, regardless of their criminal record or their threat to the Tower. I… can’t interact with it, though.” She reached out longingly for a distant food cart, rolling by. “I can smell those churros, but not taste them.”

“I’ll eat some for you later,” Sunset promised. “Then you can borrow my memories.”

But there was no time to continue that conversation. Her vision had just lit up with a message, sent by the exterior guards. “The two pony guests you have been expecting have arrived. Would you like us to escort them to you?”

“No,” she sent back. “There is a tent prepared for them in the engineering subsection. Meet me there.”

Sunset switched herself back over to reality, and felt immediate relief as the world returned to normal around her. The dark sky overhead was just a sky, without any impossible shapes dancing in it. No starships, no many planets, no towering buildings that were both historical and not.

“Do you think… when this war is over, do you think they’ll let me be a citizen again? Instead of… trapped in here? Not that I don’t enjoy serving you, princess. But I would like to do other things sometimes. Like attending the festival when you don’t want to.”

“Sure,” Sunset said, gesturing with one hand and summoning the line that would guide her to her target. She could’ve waited in that tent, but that would’ve made it look like she didn’t have other things to do.

She didn’t have other things to do—Tesla’s endless meetings were winding down. She’d explained almost every aspect of pony society multiple times now. Mostly she was on call for random questions, which might come from anyone in camp. They wouldn’t know she was answering—but when someone wanted to know what ponies used instead of leather, or how large an average town could be expected to be, she would type out the reply and send it off.

She’d even answered a few military questions. It was more than clear to her by now that the Tower wasn’t here to invade. King Richard would never allow it.

She reached the tent quickly, but not so quickly that she couldn’t already hear Starlight’s voice from inside. “I think we’re going to wait until Natasha gets here,” she said. “No offence to you, Mr…”

“Xavier,” he said. “And wait no longer, she’s just come in through there.”

Sunset slipped inside, and was unsurprised by the ponies she saw there.

Starlight and the guard captain, Amber. Not Trixie, who she still thought would’ve appreciated the festival a little more. But then again, maybe not. Our magic is more impressive than hers.

The tent itself was one normally used for sleeping, but on account of the festival it hadn’t been hard to get some space. Not one body would be tucked away recharging on a night like this.

The pods looked a little like chairs, but chairs that could fully enclose around a pony body, with attachments to cover the face and hooves at various points. She could see why her visitors were intimidated—once inside, it looked like they’d be completely trapped.

“Natasha.” Starlight turned, nodding politely to her. “This thing is… not what I was expecting. I thought you said it wouldn’t be terrifying.”

“I did,” she said. “And… it’s not.” She walked up past her, over to the chair. “Twilight, get me the specs on this thing.” And she had them by the time she was standing beside it.

“You know about the way our own people work. Your description of ‘scooping out brains’ is pretty gross, but not the most inaccurate way to put it. This doesn’t do any of that. You sit down here, then it connects to you non-invasively.”

“Morpheus chairs are light as a feather,” Xavier said, slapping the plastic side with one callused hand. “I remember using one in VR arcade when I was a kid. Doesn’t even use any needles. Good thing too, I was terrified of needles back then. Doctors are the worst, you feel me?”

For an engineer, he had a casual way of talking with their pony visitors. And it seemed to be working.

“Yeah,” Amber said, approaching one of them and poking it with one hoof. None of its parts lurched out to grab her—and they wouldn’t. It had to be put on manually. “I don’t see any danger here, Starlight. You said humans lack magic, yes? If something goes wrong, you could just teleport us out of here.”

“I could,” Starlight said. “So long as they’re telling the truth about not having any needles.”

Sunset rolled her eyes. “Starlight Glimmer—when have we ever lied to you? What harm have we done to Equestria in the last two weeks?”

She had no answer to that. Sunset pressed on. “You really think we’re going to declare war against Equestria by attacking a few ponies visiting for a festival? These things are sacred to the Tower. There are all sorts of rules about requiring everyone to attend, even prisoners and children. It’s a great honor to let you attend.”

“Alright, alright.” Starlight put out one hoof, defeated. “You’re right, it doesn’t make sense. I think all this talk of the invasion is making me paranoid. The army is out somewhere at the second front, and here we are having a festival.”

“The Remembrance,” Xavier said, his voice low and reverent. “It’s not as frivolous as it sounds. We celebrate this day because it’s the last time we’re going to be together. We’re immortal, ponies. Many of us have been together for subjective centuries, or longer. But for all that, we know we will not all come back from war. So we remember our lives together one last time, and pray to God to guard us until we return.”

“I see.” Amber stared at him, doing nothing to conceal her fascination.

Starlight still looked unconvinced, but she climbed into the seat anyway. “So… how does this thing work? You switch it on, and it lets you bring us to your world?”

“Yes,” Sunset said. “That’s the simple way. You’ll be able to see and hear everything we can. But it doesn’t work for taste, or… anything but simple touch.” No need to go into detail there. Jackie probably would have, but she was fortunate that the mare wasn’t here. “It’s almost instant. Once we get it on you, the thing closes, then… bam. The hardware will orient you, that takes a few minutes. Then you’ll meet me at the festival.”

She and Xavier helped Amber and Starlight get into the machinery—a simple enough process, since they weren’t resisting. She had Twilight to coach her through the whole process, even though it was clear the machines hadn’t been designed for ponies originally. They didn’t fit as well as the documents said they should.

“Alright,” Sunset said. “Just don’t try to leave without telling the computer first. You’re not a prisoner, but it won’t know you want out unless you say so. Just ask and it will let you go.”

“Great,” Starlight said. “Just what I like hearing before a party. ‘You’re not a prisoner.’”

They couldn’t see her anymore. As the lids closed over their pods, they wouldn’t be able to hear either.

“Thanks for sticking around to help,” Sunset said, lowering her head respectfully to Xavier. “You’ve really gone above and beyond for this one.”

He grinned back. “For Sir Bradley? I’d move any mountain. And he likes you, so I assume he must know something I don’t. Nothing should go wrong, but I’ll use the charging pod here in case something does. You might want to stick around too. Even if it isn’t as immersive as overlapping all the different layers of reality.”

“Yeah.” Sunset walked into the charging pod across the way. No fancy hookups here, just two cables. She felt a brief release of pressure, then nothing.

Chapter 12: Interception

View Online

It would take Sunset’s organic guests a little more time to get coordinated than the near-instantaneous hookup she’d used to step into the realm. She moved immediately to the fastest-computation track, which her timer indicated gave her twenty-one subjective hours until her friends arrived.

Twilight Sparkle appeared beside her in a flash of light, frowning slightly. “Something’s bothering you,” she said. “Did something go wrong with the ponies you were bringing?”

“Not… exactly,” Sunset began. “It happened last night. Trixie not going, Amber Sands instead. I can’t think of any reason Starlight might bring the captain of the guard except if she thought I was some kind of security threat. Doesn’t it seem odd?”

“I… guess so.” Twilight shrugged. “What are they going to do to us in here? This is the realm. We’re immortal, aren’t we? Our minds are… well, they’re still stored in that charging pod. But that means we’re safe. They could kill us in here and nothing would happen. And they won’t, because ponies aren’t like that.”

No, they’re worse. They rewrite thousands of minds to change them into their teenage army, and shape the rest into processors they name after an Element of Harmony.

But she didn’t say that out loud, there were more important things to do. She needed to understand this festival a little better if she didn’t want to look like she was as new to it as they would be.

Sunset set her GIO to twenty-one hours, then set off down the lane. She felt something warm touch her skin, and was only slightly surprised to see Twilight holding her hand.

The girl blushed a little, avoiding her eyes. But she still spoke boldly enough. “It’s… normal to take a companion to the festival,” she said. “Don’t you—course you don’t.”

“I thought you didn’t either.” Sunset felt a grin spreading across her lips. She didn’t actually pull away from Twilight. “Maybe that’s not the only thing!” She took off running.

The tent city looked like something out of Equestria’s past now, only a better, fictionalized version. Massive buildings, thatched roofs, shining torches. The streets were so packed with people that she had to dodge and weave between them, taking in their differently colored robes. If anyone paused long enough to look at her, they would see the clasps around her own and back away, nodding politely.

She stopped in front of a set of stalls, where artists wove together bracelets and other jewelry out of colored string and gemstones. Hey, humans do use gems. But that wasn’t what interested her about it. “What are they doing, Twilight?” She knocked the book out of her hand before she could lift it towards her face. “No, don’t read about it! Just think! Maybe there’s something in there, something you’d remember if you tried.”

Twilight glared at her for a second, then relaxed a little and looked back to the stalls. She stuck her tongue out, biting her lip a little. “That’s, umm… oh!” She beamed, and suddenly she was the one pulling. She took Sunset all the way up to one, and the line of people outside parted around them. They didn’t seem to be reacting to Twilight, but they saw Sunset.

“Tell them you want, uh… bracelets! For the festival. You can use purple and lavender for yours, and get them to do orange and red. I’ll take… ruby, and you can take an amethyst.”

The artisan at the front of the shop was an elderly woman, her skin wrinkled so much that she could barely see her eyes. Except for her glasses, which magnified them almost to parody. Her hands were tiny and quick-moving, though she stopped what she was doing as Sunset approached. Behind her the cart was packed with spools of ribbon, and tiny drawers filled with stones.

“I assure you, my cart is quite in order!” she said, her voice quivering. “I’ve violated no regulations!”

“N-no.” Sunset raised one hand, palm out. “I’d just like… some bracelets. For the festival? Isn’t that… that’s what we do, right?” Where were you the day they were handing out eternal youth? Maybe you don’t want to be young.

“Really? Oh, sure.” The woman pointed to a set of wooden camp chairs, apparently a waiting area. People scattered from in front of her as Sunset made her way over, but she did her best to ignore that. The artist asked for her colors, and she repeated what Twilight had told her. Her friend sat down beside her a second later, still grinning. “I haven’t had a date at the Remembrance since I was in high school! Or…” Her expression darkened, and she looked away. “I think he… I think maybe he didn’t show up.”

“I did,” Sunset said, taking her hand and settling it back in her lap. “Though… don’t forget, we’re here on business. This is research.” She leaned back, watching the artist work. Her hands moved incredibly quickly, braiding together different shades of the colors she’d mentioned. Despite looking organic, her precision was mechanical. Even here. “Do you think Brad will be here?”

“The knight,” Twilight repeated, a little annoyance seeping into her voice. She pulled her hand free, folding her arms. “The knights have a ritual role in the Remembrance. They have to be with the king all night.”

“Oh.” Sunset winced. “I already said yes to going with you, you know. You can relax.”

Twilight pouted, but she did seem to relax.

“I noticed you didn’t look that up either. Unless you’re doing that… ensemble computing stuff again.”

“Nope.” Twilight smiled slightly. “I… think the Remembrance was important to me when I was younger. My family used to go every year. It wasn’t about soldiers back then, something else… I don’t remember what.” She trailed off, expression distant. “Then… after the war, it wasn’t about soldiers either. It was about remembering all the people who died. So… many people. More than live in Equestria now a dozen times over. Earth had lots of people on it… not so many anymore.”

“Yeah.” Sunset sighed. “I noticed. And I… still don’t really understand. Your race seems so… enlightened, most of the time. But then I see the way your organics and the Tower get along, and it reminds me of life before Equestria. All the different races… and maybe you’re not enlightened after all.”

“Done!” the old woman exclaimed, extending a little piece of wood with both bracelets suspended inside. “Miss… uh…”

“Natasha.” She took the red one by instinct, but Twilight scolded her.

“No! Purple. I get orange. And can you grab that one for me, I can’t touch it unless you…”

Sunset took both bracelets from the old woman, who retreated from her hand as though it might burn her. “Thanks to the kind woman of the Order,” she said, her voice low. There was no payment exchanged, though many of the people here were paying.

“Now, here.” Twilight interrupted her thoughts, taking the purple bracelet and opening it with both hands. “I’ve got to put it on. Your right…” She took Sunset’s hand, sliding it on delicately with thin, soft fingers. “Now… you do my left.”

The cloth was soft, and woven so tightly together it was almost indistinguishable from a single strip of fabric. The gemstone on it wasn’t large—wouldn’t have been worth a dozen bits in Equestria. But it was just enough to catch the light. She slipped it onto Twilight’s hand. “I don’t think we’ll be showing the ponies this part.”

“No,” Twilight agreed, her face reddening a little. “Probably not. They’re…” She stepped backward. “I shouldn’t have… sorry, Princess.”

“No.” Sunset caught her hand before she could get away and vanish. She was on the edge of it now, she could see that plain enough. “Don’t go, Twilight. We’ve got a little time to see this together. Show me, then I can show them.”

“Kay.” She gestured, and a thick tome appeared in one of her hands. “But trying to remember things is making my head hurt. I’m reading up on the rest of this as we go.”

Sunset caught the title out of the corner of her eye, it was a travel guide.

“So, the Remembrance goes on for exactly forty subjective days, compressed into one real day. Very few people attend for more than a few hours, though… the extra time gives citizens the opportunity to meet with their house lords. Or for a deployed force like us in a time of war, the king. There are…”

And they went. Twilight didn’t know that much more than Sunset— Sunset could’ve read the book if she wanted. But Twilight clearly enjoyed being useful, so there was no reason to take that from her. Sunset let her take her on a tour through the festival, which had twelve symbolic spots spread across a recreated city from Earth transformed into medieval style. Basically everyone there was in costume, and many of them were even speaking in antiquated language. Just a filter—Sunset switched it on while she went with Twilight.

She didn’t have an entire day to enjoy it all, though. Her hours were running down, and soon enough they were almost gone.

“The king is up there,” Sunset said, pointing towards a brightly lit castle filled with light and activity. “That’s… the last stop? Just in time, we’ve only got a few minutes.”

“We can’t,” Twilight said, pulling her arm back away from the path. It was hard—she had to fight traffic, since everyone at the festival was obviously going that way. “Once we see the king, that’s over. Meeting with him is what sends us back, and we can’t return. There isn’t enough room on the servers for everyone who wants to be here.”

“Oh.” Sunset sighed, but soon enough they were out of the flow of people. She waved down a horse drawn cart, ignoring the frightening look of the creatures as they started to move. In the last few hours, she’d eaten several human treats, picked up eleven more gemstones for her bracelet, and held Twilight’s hand an awful lot. She had a purse now too, packed with coins. She didn’t know what they were, but apparently her permissions from Tesla let her get basically as many as she wanted.

“So remember, when you go through with the ponies, don’t get more gems. You can’t take those off your bracelet, they’re the ones we got together.”

“Okay.” Sunset felt Twilight settle into the cart beside her, and soon enough they were moving. There was plenty of room for another two humans inside, but the driver had taken one look at Sunset’s robe and was already begging to take her, no money involved.

“When you get out, you can get it printed if you want. The… gems will be fake, it’s a huge waste to fab those. But plastic is almost as good. You can wear it until the next festival.”

“Printed…” she repeated. “I guess it makes sense Builders have a way to take things with them. Otherwise they wouldn’t want to keep everything in here.”

Twilight nodded. “You got printed. Your bat friend. And maybe… maybe one day you’ll get them to print me.”

“Yes,” Sunset said. “Of course I will. When this war ends… they’ll be grateful, right? I get… paid?”

Twilight shrugged. “Tesla isn’t following most of the rules I’ve read about. I’m pretty sure he doesn’t have to. The whole system just does whatever he wants.”

“Well, I’ll make him pay me. And… maybe I can get one of those bracelets. Be a pony again for a bit.” Her eyes widened suddenly, and she stared down at her hands. “Wait a minute, Twilight. We’re in the realm right now. I could change myself into a pony, couldn’t I? I have permissions and unlimited discretion and… whatever it was Brad showed me.”

“You could,” Twilight agreed, her voice straining a little. “But that might be awkward.”

“Why? We’re in Equestria… and I’m being a diplomat! Wouldn’t it be polite of me to try and speak to our guests… on their level?”

“Maybe… except that coming here made them human.” She pointed off the cart, towards the bottom of the hill.

At that moment, Sunset realized the alarm on her GIO was going off, and probably had been for the last several seconds. Twilight had distracted her so much that she hadn’t even noticed. She pressed it off with one hand, following Twilight’s gesture with her eyes.

Not far away, a pair of figures had appeared on the road into the city—a set of figures she somehow recognized.

There was no mistaking them for anything other than ponies—Starlight Glimmer had already flopped back onto four legs and was trying to walk on her hands. Amber did a bit better, and after a few seconds of stumbling, she corrected herself, offering a hand to help Starlight to her feet.

“Teleport, now,” Sunset muttered. “Twilight.”

And suddenly, they were at the bottom of the hill. There was no flash of light as with pony teleports, no smoke like Trixie’s. They were just at the road outside the city, scattering a little dirt as they arrived. Sunset nearly fell backward with her seat abruptly gone, but managed to catch herself. She probably wouldn’t show off her “natural” human abilities by falling on her rump. “Sorry I… didn’t time your arrival as well as I would’ve liked. Hopefully the transition was painless.”

“Painless.” Starlight Glimmer looked much as Sunset might’ve imagined her, transformed into a human body. She stood taller than Sunset herself, with bright purple hair with pinkish highlights. That didn’t make her stand out that much compared to other humans, who even in this medieval simulation loved slight departures from the ordinary range. She was dressed in a white robe in the same style as Sunset’s own—the white here signifying not even an initiate, but a hopeful or a supporter of the Technocratic Order.

The captain of the Normandy guard was stockier than either of them, with a sword and a shield that looked quite threatening. Violence was disabled during the festival, but it would sure look imposing.

“Welcome, welcome.” Sunset took their hands one at a time. “I’m sorry, I… had no idea it was going to make you human like that. I guess I should’ve expected… we don’t have any ponies in the system. There probably aren’t settings for it. I should’ve written something myself.”

Starlight Glimmer’s grip was weak, and she looked like she might fall over at any moment. But she didn’t seem upset by the change. Just a little disoriented. “It would’ve been helpful,” she agreed. “But I’m guessing it wouldn’t be easy for you to fix now.”

“Nope,” Sunset agreed. “Unfortunately not. You’ve already wasted a ton of time getting oriented. If you have to repeat the process, the festival might be mostly over.”

Starlight and Amber shared a meaningful look. Amber shrugged. “Fine with me.”

“Well then.” Sunset straightened, collecting herself. “Here, I got one for each of you. It’s a good thing they’re adjustable, because I got them extra long.” She removed a pair of plain bracelets from a pocket of her robe. These were simple white thread, and she tossed them rather than putting them on herself. “You’ll wear these until we’re done. You’ll notice everyone here is wearing them.” She held up her own wrist, with its eleven colored stones.

“I like your colors more,” Starlight said, pulling her own tight.

“Don’t even think about it,” Twilight said, folding her arms. But Starlight Glimmer couldn’t hear her, or see her. The guard, Amber, almost seemed to react to the sound. She turned her head slightly, almost in the right direction. But there was still a crowd here, maybe she’d heard something interesting from one of them.

“Yes, well… perhaps next time you can come a little earlier, and pick out something that suits your taste a little better. Those are plain, but we’ll collect gemstones as we walk that way.” She gestured. “I think you’ll enjoy it. There’s food, and music, and dancing, and… everything a festival should have.”

“I don’t understand how that’s possible,” Amber Sands said, her voice mildly disturbed. “You promised that there would be no physical changes to us, yes? How can we taste and smell? How can we touch? I’ve used… I mean, I know what VR is like. It should be sight and sound only.” She held out one hand, touching her thumb to each of her fingers in turn.

Damn you adapted fast. I couldn’t do that when I first got here. Maybe it was an automated gesture.

Sunset glanced slightly to Twilight for help, and again was struck with the way Amber seemed to be able to follow her gaze. You shouldn’t be able to see that! Was something wrong with the copresence?

Twilight was already flipping through one of her books, and she settled somewhere after a few moments of searching. “Got it, here. Just say this—”

And Sunset did. “The chair you’re using is more than VR. It isn’t screens over your eyes, it’s using… non-surgical electromagnetic stimulation of your brain. It’s simulating your senses. The precision might not be 100%, since we’ve never used it on ponies before.” Sunset stopped repeating. “Let me know if there are any problems, I’m sure I’ll be able to help. New technologies tend to make mistakes early on.”

“Sure,” Starlight Glimmer said. “But we didn’t come here to stand around.” She spun, until she was facing up the street, towards the largest crowds. “What are… those people doing? It looks fun!”

A few hours passed. There could be no accelerated time anymore, not with organic visitors on the other side. The simulation itself still had those tracks, but they weren’t required.

It didn’t matter how many people were actually attending at the moment—the crowds always looked exactly thick enough to seem busy, without being so thick that they couldn’t walk straight to any destination they wished.

Sunset Shimmer took them from one station to the next, explaining human customs that Twilight had taught her about from the reference materials. Her visitors—Starlight Glimmer in particular—seemed entranced by it all. She tried all the food, imitated all the dances, and even participated in the more childish activities like doll-decorating and face painting. Thus, she spent half the festival with tiger stripes painted on her face almost as wide as her grin.

Amber Sands, on the other hand, seemed as though she were always on the verge of nausea. She frequently seemed to be muttering to herself, particularly when Sunset got distracted and stopped watching her to do something with Starlight.

They made it through most stages of the ritual without anything strange happening, though. Amber and Starlight collected gemstones, and even ended up in conversation with plenty of fellow festival-goers along the way.

But then they were alone. Sunset hadn’t even noticed it happen at first—the crowd moved on towards the King’s pavilion, and the three of them lingered back. What happened to Twilight?

Her companion was suddenly not there anymore, and neither was anypony else. Except for her two guests. Where’d you go, Twilight? Are you that sour?

Twilight didn’t respond.

Starlight did, though. “It’s been an interesting month, Natasha,” she said, as though she were about to announce something important. “I wasn’t sure exactly where you’d lead us on. All over the place. And this…” She gestured at the retreating crowd, and the light pouring from the king’s pavilion. “This festival is awesome! Timing must’ve been just perfect for you, being able to show us this.”

“I don’t understand.” Sunset couldn’t keep a hint of nervousness from her voice. “We’re not done with it yet, there’s still… the last stop. I’m not sure what you’re talking about.”

“I think you know,” Starlight said, getting up and circling around their table. Her grin was probably meant to look intimidating, but it was hard for Sunset to see past the tiger pattern on her skin. “Or you’re about to be reminded.” She glanced to the side. “Go ahead, Amber. Tell her.”

The guard captain stopped muttering to herself just long enough for her to get up and wander over. “You’re not the only one who isn’t what she seems,” she said. “I’m a changeling. A changeling created with the mind of one of the Federation’s most accomplished hackers.”

Sunset’s eyes widened. She took a step back, summoning the emergency console with one hand. Nothing happened. Her hand made the sign of alarm, but the interface remained invisible.

But something happened anyway. The guard’s outline fuzzed, her expression grew paniced, and she vanished.

Somewhere far away, she could hear something like thunder rumbling over the festival. Buck me. I wasn’t the one tricking them. I just let a hacker directly into the largest gathering of Builders in Equestria, with full diplomatic permissions.

“She didn’t know if it would work,” Starlight continued, pacing around her. Her eyes watched the spot where Amber had been, but she didn’t come back. “But I had full faith in her abilities, and you can see that faith was rewarded. Amber Sands has created a pocket for us. Your friends in the Tower will not be able to bail you out this time.”

There was another rumble from far away, and this time an entire tower of the king’s castle went crumbling down. A few warning messages appeared in the air in front of her, blurring away into gibberish she couldn’t read.

Starlight nodded slightly to Amber. “That’s impressive, keep that up.” Then her eyes settled on Sunset again. “Jig is up, ‘Natasha.’ I’ve figured it out.”

Sunset could feel tears streaming down her face as she retreated a few more steps. Her back smacked up against something invisible in the middle of the road, and she could go no further. She didn’t look away from her accusers, only paused to wipe her eyes with the back of her arm. “P-please. Whatever you’ve come to do… just do it to me. Don’t hurt them. These people have been… nothing but kind to me. They don’t deserve to suffer.”

“Suffer?” Starlight sounded confused. “We’re not making anyone do that. I just wanted you to admit you were Sunset Shimmer.”

The sound of Sunset’s own name would’ve stopped her heart a few days before. But now that she was looking down the festival grounds, now that she could see crowds running screaming, and the sky of spectacular stars all faded, she found that seemed a minor thing. “Yeah, whatever. But why are you doing that? You’re knocking the castle down! Maybe… maybe really hurting people. I don’t actually know the rules, but those screams sound real!”

“It was easy,” Starlight continued, as though she hadn’t even been listening. “Once we heard how you talked, it was only a matter of finding ponies who might’ve visited their world. Clover was gone of course, but there was…” She stopped, looking confused. “Wait, you admit it?”

“Yes!” Sunset turned away from her, pushing past until she was standing directly beside the hacker. “Whatever you’re doing, stop it right now. Stop attacking people who don’t deserve it.”

“I’m not attacking anyone!” Her eyes were just as panicked as Sunset’s had been moments before. “That isn’t me! Starlight, I’m trying to get us out! I think… I think there’s some kind of attack going on. And maybe the tweaks I set up to trap Sunset with us might’ve kinda… sorta… trapped us.”

A few seconds later, and the force against Sunset’s back vanished. Amber collapsed onto her elbows, breathing heavily from the effort.

Sunset looked between them, her mind moving rapidly. But still one-to-one with the outside world, since being with these two stuck her at true speed. “Normandy is under attack,” Sunset repeated, staring at the castle as it shook and rumbled again. Whole walls seemed to be tumbling down, and the crowd had either fled or just abruptly vanished.

But we won’t, because we’re only interfaced here. We aren’t running on the realm, so we won’t be shut down for an emergency. What would happen to Starlight’s and Amber’s organic brains if they were abruptly yanked away from this place?

Whatever part of her thought it would serve them right was a very small part. It could live with the part that wanted to know how Starlight had figured out not just that she was a pony but exactly who she was.

Not right now. “There are… access points,” Sunset said. “Locations that force commands to be run in the event of some kind of serious emergency.” She pointed down the road. “For this simulation, it’s probably the entrance to the road.” She made the gesture of alarm with one hand again, trying to summon her interface, or even Twilight. Nothing happened.

“Then we need to go,” Starlight said. She started running, and tripped immediately on her face.

Sunset was beside her in an instant, pulling her gently to her feet.

“This isn’t over,” Starlight Glimmer said. “When we get out of here… I still want to know what kind of weird spying you’ve been up to. Celestia will find out about this.”

Sunset winced. “I’m sure. But let’s escape first.”

Jackie took in the scene in town square in an eyeblink. It wasn’t just her hardware giving her the advantage here—she had always been able to read a crowd.

Bree had worked her way to the center of a large gathering, or more likely they had formed around her. And they were not happy. The sound of their objections all blurred together into nonsense, but she didn’t really have to tell them apart individually to know what bothered them.

The nearest of them turned briefly as she approached, and the miner’s face went from joy to skepticism at her presence. He actually pointed to her. “She has called her allies here!” he bellowed, and a few of the nearest ponies turned to stare at her instead. “She uses her magic to fight against Celestia’s will!”

Jackie very quietly switched into combat protocol. She reached down, undid the button clasp on her satchel, so that the accelerator rifle was within reach. She didn’t draw it yet, though. Even a fool could tell when a weapon was being pointed at him. “You’re going to back away from me, friend,” she said, her tone low and dangerous.

And he did. Mobs were like that—strong when you targeted them all, but weak when you poked at individuals. There was a price to doing that, though. As she bought herself enough space to squeeze through to Bree at the center, she did it at the price of inflaming them to increasingly senseless rage.

There would be a tipping point, eventually. If these ponies were anything like humans, then eventually they would stop screaming and start breaking things. There were few windows to shatter, no cars to smash, but there were a few vulnerable ponies.

“You don’t understand!” came Bree’s voice from the center of the mob, predictably pitiful. “We’re about to be attacked! This device is going to shoot them down! If we don’t keep it working, we could die! Seaddle has already fallen!”

“More lies!” roared someone else, a female voice this time. “None of Princess Celestia’s cities could fall. That thing is probably going to target us. Maybe it’s calling them here! If we don’t remove it, then the dragons will be here!”

“She has a bat,” pointed out someone else. “Maybe she wants her old friends the griffons to come eat us!” There was some wicked laughter there, though Jackie didn’t get the joke.

Neither did Bree, from her face. But Jackie didn’t wait any longer. She pushed through the last ring of opposition, then directly into the center of the enemy mob. There were dozens of eyes on her now, and the calls to punish her instead were growing. “Maybe the newcomer corrupted her! It’s only since the bat got here that she’s been such a handful!” and other such nonsense.

Jackie banished it all, though she kept her IFF sensors running. If anyone in the crowd moved towards violence, she might know it before the ponies themselves knew.

Bree looked bad. She’d been pushed around, half her body was covered in mud, and there was a little blood mixed in. She’d managed to protect her machine, though that might just be because none of the earth ponies was close enough to touch it.

Frostline and her family were nowhere to be seen—probably loading into the safe room right now. Bree had nopony.

“You,” she said, her voice barely carrying above the crowd. “Come to gloat? You were right… want a medal?”

“They’re not rational,” Jackie answered back, in English. “You can’t treat them like this is a Tower university and you’re defending a thesis. You can’t convince a mob with logic.”

Even as she said it, she kept half an eye on one of the larger bullies in the mob. He was a massive earth pony, big enough that even a human would look a little scrawny. He wore a tight vest probably meant to make his muscles seem larger as they stretched it. “No more talk,” he said, his voice low and slow. Not one that Jackie would be able to intimidate. “We’re going to end this.”

A cheer ran through the crowd—the cheer of a group of civilized people working themselves the last few steps towards barbarism. She could practically hear the rustle of the lynching rope already.

“We’re going to push this down the mountain, where it belongs. We know where the others are… we get rid of them too. Then we decide what to do with her.” He pointed at Jackie. “Letting a unicorn live here was bad enough. We thought a freak would be safe, but no. She corrupted Motherlode even without magic.”

I have to stop this now. The invading army would put an end to all this, but it was too slow. Still a half hour before its earliest projected arrival. All their defenses would be in ruin before then, and she herself might be in broken pieces with them. It’s okay, I’ve got a recorder. They can’t break that. Maybe they couldn’t, but someone would still have to come out and find it. Who would care about a criminal who knew too much?

Jackie turned away from Bree, stepping up beside the earth pony. As she activated the CQC program, faint trails of activity appeared in her vision. Those more likely to produce violence glowed brighter, creating ghostly projections of the attacks to come. She saw the first blows—smaller earth ponies that intended to grab her as she came forward.

There was only one real way to end a mob.


Jackie struck the first one a quick blow right in the throat, sliding out of the way of the second pony’s thrust and tripping him so that he crashed into the mud at her hooves. She smashed herself deliberately onto his back, driving him deeper as she crossed beside her instigator.

Ponies gasped, screamed, pointed… and a few backed away. They hadn’t actually crossed the threshold to violence yet, and yet she’d done it without a thought. Neither pony was dead—the first one was gasping, but the second was only dirty. But they’d probably never seen a real warrior in their lives.

Even so, the miner dwarfed her. His name matched his cutie mark: Roc. He was the strongest, most traditional stallion in Motherload. It looked like his shoulders could lift up the whole city if he wanted.

“Now you deserve it,” he said, without emotion. “You admit you are a traitor. We all could see it from your wings, but now you betray yourself.”

“No, you are.” She abandoned all shred of realism, used the speakers as loud as they would go. So loud her voice distorted and blew out a little at the upper end of the register. Several ponies staggered back, and house windows rattled. “You’re trying to tear down the defenses when our enemies are only minutes away!” She pointed to the sky. “Forget your stupid religion and watch. They’re coming to burn Motherlode. This pony here, the one you hurt, she’s trying to save you. All you have to do is wait and see—when the monsters come, her guns will shoot them down.”

A few of the crowd backed away—those on the edge, those who weren’t quite ready to commit to violence. They stared at her with horror on their faces, glancing back to the two ponies she’d slapped down like nothing.

Roc took a step towards her, bending his forelegs back so that the joints cracked one at a time. The message was obvious. “You’re our real enemy,” he said. “I’ll make sure you can’t hurt anypony. Can’t call none of your friends here. Everypony, watch. Do likewise.”

The little numbers next to his body approached a hundred percent probability. Then he attacked.

Even her threat detection was unprepared for just how fast he could move. She dodged out of the way, but not so fast that he didn’t catch one of her wings. The terrible force of his charge snapped it like the plastic it was made from, spraying a few spurts of lubrication fluid as it went.

Jackie felt no pain in combat mode, but her little self-diagnostic system lit up with the errors. Several of the ponies nearby reacted quite differently—ponies turned away in horror, a few retched their guts out onto the dirt. Maybe the nearly-clear hydraulic fluid could pass for blood.

Roc seemed not even to notice. He spun around to face her again, eyes narrowing. More like an enraged bull than a person.

Time slowed. Combat projections revised. Measured specific force exceeded five hundred newtons per cubic centimeter. This body is not constructed to survive that acceleration. Would you like to call the legionaries for support?

Sure, why the hell not? She thought. Her body was still frozen, Roc turning rapidly to face her again. His face still had a near 100% combat prediction scrawled across it.

Well, Jackie? How much do you want to live?

Enough. She snatched the rifle out of her saddlebags, firing it once straight into the air. There was no silencer, only the roar of the hypersonic slug as it blasted upward. Ponies screamed, and many of those who hadn’t already fled scattered at the noise.

Roc did not, however. His eyes never left her, even as she pointed the gun at his chest.

“I will kill you,” she said, no longer shouting. “I will defend myself. Get out of here.”

“You think your magic frightens me?” he bellowed. “We’ve fought bats before! We know the old legends—you’re all shell and no flesh.” He charged again.

Jackie knew how fast he was moving this time, and so she wasn’t taken by surprise. She aimed, then fired once directly at one of his legs. Maybe that would teach him to leave her alone.

The hypersonic slug hit him too fast even for her vision sensors to register. He stumbled for a moment, blood sprayed from his leg—and he kept coming. It should’ve blown the limb clean off, but instead it had only taken a small lump of flesh away. He was still charging.

Jackie dove out of the way, nearly losing the rifle in the process. She kept her other wing folded, and this time she righted herself with all her limbs still intact.

Full automatic.


“Stay away!” she yelled again, and this time her voice did rise. So loud that even Bree was hiding behind her gun. Stupid engineer, aren’t you going to help me? It’s just the one pony now, we could take him together!

But probably not. He was thick enough to snap her in half. And apparently bullet resistant too.

Roc charged again. This time Jackie took no chances—she aimed for the head, the entire eleven-round spray the gun could fire before the barrel turned red and needed to cool.

She saw blood, a pony bearing down on her—then something smashed into her. The force snapped limbs, turning the world upside-down as she went flying through the air. Her eyes turned into a siren of warning messages. Limbs were leaking, others were broken, there was a shock warning on her head. The vision from one eye had started flickering. She could barely see. Something heavy and unmoving was weighing her down.

From her one good eye, Jackie watched as Bree’s autogun began to whirl. It’s quad-barrels aimed high into the air, then fired one after another. The ground shook from the blast, and it wasn’t the only one. Her pressure sensors could feel others more distant, firing almost at the same time.

Self-diagnostic report complete. Unit is critically damaged. Report back to qualified Technocratic Order engineer of third elevation or higher.

Right arm destroyed.
Left arm critically damaged.
Right leg seriously damaged.
Left leg damaged.
Right eye destroyed.
Digestive simulation critically damaged.
RTG intact.

And there was less than a second’s delay before more sirens rang in her ear.
Alert. Airborne targets detected near your present location. Seek shelter immediately.

Jackie tried to do just that, and felt only mild spasms from her legs. She wouldn’t be seeking anything anytime soon.

Bree’s face appeared near her one good eye, staring at something out of her field of view. But then she braced against the ground, and something rolled off Jackie.

“We have to… get to cover,” Bree said, her voice clear despite everything else. The microphone in her body must still be working even when everything else failed.

Bree lifted her, and Jackie felt herself flung over something warm and pony-shaped. She could still hear the cannons as she was carried down the mountain.

Chapter 13: Initialization Vector

View Online

Jackie’s world faded back in slowly, like someone turning up a dial. She queried her internal chronometer in a panic, and discovered to her horror that 21 hours had passed since she had last been conscious.

She opened her eyes.

Jackie was strapped down on a heavy metal workbench—the one from the barn, though they weren’t in the barn now. The ceiling above her was stone, and the steady glow of electricity illuminated the world around her.

System diagnostic, she ordered.

Diagnostic complete. Right arm, left arm, right leg, left leg, disconnected for servicing. Digestive simulation not found. Damage detected to RTG shielding. Reducing output to prevent radiation leak. Computational acceleration no longer possible. Long-range transmitter offline. All other systems nominal.

She’d really been beat to shit by that earth pony. An organic would certainly have been killed by some of those blows. But despite all that, she felt nothing like an organic after a battle. There was no crushing soreness all over, no pain and wishing she was dead. Those feelings were all symptoms of healing, something her body could not do.

“You didn’t need to strap me down,” she called out into the room. “You took all my legs off already. Where was I gonna go?”

Even her neck was clamped now, so that she couldn’t turn to either side. She could only look up, hoping that someone would hear her.

And somepony did. Bree emerged from the gloom, with a pair of goggles over her eyes and what looked unmistakably like one of Jackie’s dissected legs in her grip. “You’re back online. That’s good.”

“Can you, uh… sit me up? I can’t see anything but your face and the damn ceiling.”

Bree shook her head. “That’s probably for the best. I’ve, uh… well, I’m in the middle of this. I’d have left you shut down, but I need your feedback on my results.” There was something subtly different about her, though it took a moment for Jackie to tell what it was. Nothing physically, but… She doesn’t look smug anymore. If anything, she seemed to be acting guilty.

“My feedback is put my damn limbs back where you found them. Whatever you’re playing with, stop.”

She shook her head again. “Sorry, I’d love to, but… no I wouldn’t. I don’t leave jobs half finished, Moire. You’re not leaving that chair until I’m done with you.”

“Jobs half…” She trailed off. “My repair kit. You’re fixing me.”

“Well… the damage was way too expensive to just fix you. That kit had enough parts for maybe one leg, and you had… serious damage. The fight wouldn’t have been so hard on you, except it seems this body was already worn down. Can’t imagine why.”

“Oh, I can think of some two-ton reasons why. They’re carts, and I had to pull them up a hill twice a day.”

Bree laughed nervously, holding up the limb into Jackie’s field of view. “Well, I’m trying to fix you. See this?”

It wasn’t just her leg. Jackie saw now that much of it had been replaced. The fur was removed, and the plastic exoskeleton that kept it in a generally pony shape. The mechanisms within had been grafted hastily to a contraption of brass and gears, with little bits of silvery metal wrapping around tiny crystals. Mithril.

“I see your mother is helping you,” she said, a little louder. “True Silver, are you there somewhere?”

Another voice answered, coming from far away “Moire? She’s awake?”

“Not for long!” Bree called back. “I turn—I woke her up, so we could test something. I’ll knock her back out as soon as we know if it’s gonna work or not.” Then she looked back. “You better hope it does, Jackie. Otherwise you’re going to have two legs that kinda-sorta work, both in back. You’ll be lucky if you can roll around until we get you back to the tower for servicing.”

“Then I hope it works,” Jackie said unconvincingly.

True Silver emerged a moment later, looking a little sick. “You’re right about this being unpleasant, Silver Spring. Ponies’ insides are meant to stay inside.”

Bree shook her head. “Don’t worry, these aren’t her insides. Our friend Moire here is all right there.” She pointed towards Jackie’s head with a hoof. “Her body is just a tool. She can easily get another, and she isn’t in any pain.”

Silver lowered her voice a little. “And this is… this is how you were? Before you came to Motherlode?”

“Yes. But I was more careful. I never got myself hurt enough that I needed makeshift repairs in a bomb shelter.”

The rest of Jackie’s memories came rushing back. “Motherlode! We were under attack, weren’t we? Griffons were close, maybe already on us. I saw your turret doing something…”

“Yes,” Bree said. “And we shot them down! Or… I think we did.” But her voice only sounded darker.

“Griffons can fly,” True Silver said. “There were survivors. Motherlode… doesn’t have any royal guards. We had to hide.”

“I could’ve protected you,” Jackie said, and she moved to get up again. Well, tried to. The command didn’t leave her brain, and her body remained exactly where she was, tied down. “Put me back together, I’ll deal with it.”

“You’ll fight two dozen griffon mercenaries on your own?”

“Yeah, why not? I scored fifty-one thousand orcs in the LOTR sim, on the Black Gate. I can do two dozen mythical creatures. I have a few spare magazines for my accelerator in my saddlebag.”

“We’ll see,” Bree said. “I don’t think it will be fast enough. It’s taken me the last… while… to get this one leg working. At least, I get green when I connect it. But you need to be conscious for the test to mean anything.” She leaned forward, and slid the skeletal limb into place. The first three inches or so were all original, sans fur and with the plastic shell melted in a clean line. The rest was not, however. Jackie saw no reason why it should’ve worked.

Right arm connected.

And she could move something. She couldn’t feel the air on her fur, but position was there. She looked, and the leg waved around a bit. She rotated around as far as she could, and watched as gears turned and cables tugged. Gonna have to stay out of the mud with a leg like that.

“Celestia above, you did it,” Silver whispered, patting Bree on the shoulder with one leg. “My little engineer.”

“Looks like motor control is good…” Bree said, the widest smile spreading across her lips. “Now, just one more thing.” She moved the leg down a little, pressing the flat of the hoof against her own leg. “I need you to push on me. See if the sensors in there are working. You should feel resistance just as though it was your real leg.”

Jackie obeyed, and sure enough she felt the resistance. There was no sense of touch on this limb, not even on the bit of skin in the hoof that ponies used for most of what they did. And from the look of things, Bree hadn’t tried to substitute her graspers either. But that didn’t matter—it was working. As a substitute limb, it would do. “I feel it.”

“Excellent!” Bree took a step back, facing True Silver. “We’ve got more limbs to make, Mom. If we want to get Moire here back on her hooves.”

“Shouldn’t you…” Jackie hesitated. It wasn’t often she spoke against her own self-interest. But she couldn’t think of any other way to say what she was thinking. “Isn’t Motherlode under attack up there?”

“Off and on,” Silver said. “But what can we do? We brought down their ships. Most of the griffons are lost in the mountains now, they won’t be finding their way here anytime soon.”

“You just said you could fight a whole army,” Bree said. “Well, you’ll get your chance. If we fix you.”

“Or we just hold out for… four more days,” she said. “Evacuation ship should be back around. The Nightbreeze. We can… get back to Normandy.”

She wanted to call back to Tesla, to report what had happened—but that wasn’t going to be possible anytime soon. I hope you can handle things on your own from here on, Sunset. Good luck.

“I’d prefer both,” Bree said, after a pause. “From what we can hear, seems like they’re mostly… looking for the ponies who shot down their ship. But eventually they’re going to get bored of that, and turn on the town. I killed a lot of birds, I suspect they’ll want to return the favor. Better you stop that.” She leaned forward, grinning. “I’m going to shut you off again, Jackie. These sensations are unpleasant, and you would be better off not being conscious for them.”

Jackie shrugged. “Alright. I assume you’ll be waking me up when you put on the other three legs?”

“Not one at a time,” Bree said. “When the others are done. And there are some tweaks I’d like to make. None of them will leave you able to fly, unfortunately. Your body just isn’t designed for it.”

She shrugged. “I don’t need to fly to shoot. But… my gun needs fur to grip to. I hope you plan on putting it back.”

Bree laughed. “There’s enough undamaged sensor mat for three of four. And I scavenged servos from both of your wings, so… congratulations, you’re going to wake up an earth pony.”

She rolled her eyes. “Does it look like I care?” She did, though. She hoped Bree couldn’t see that as she switched her off.

She lapsed into consciousness again after another day or so. This time she was sitting in an upright position, with her torso still tied securely to the workbench. There were all four of her limbs, spread out on the table in front of her.

Three of them almost looked normal, except that she could catch the obvious seams in the fur where Bree had cut. There was no perfect 3D fabrication here, but old-fashioned stitching and thread. I’m going to be able to feel that once she connects them, huh? The right “arm” she’d seen before looked almost the same as it had earlier, except that the leg-shaped plastic had been replaced in places and covered with plain cloth. There would be no skin or fur sensations from that, but at least it wouldn’t get filled with dust or look like a skeleton limb to the average pony who saw it.

She smelled Bree before she saw her, as strong as any of the barns she’d ever visited as a child. Bree had a tired look on her face, and her mane had been swept back with sweat. Her goggles were perched there, and it looked like a tired crust had grown up around them.

The general glow about the cave had been replaced with a light that centered around them alone, coming from a naked Edison bulb on a wire. “Finished,” she said, her voice wavering. “At least… I think so.”

Jackie could see the working area now. It seemed like most of the crates in the shelter had been taken for table space. Thousands of little gears and bits of metal were strewn about, along with parts she recognized as from her own body. The digestive unit, both wings hacked to pieces for wires and parts, and the remains of her emergency kit. Bree had salvaged everything for parts, but her accelerator rifle itself.

“Thanks for all this,” Jackie said, avoiding her eyes. “When I first woke up, I thought maybe… well, maybe you’d gone all mad scientist on me. You wanted to fuck with me after getting your mom to agree with me about evacuation.”

Bree smiled feebly. “Thought crossed my mind.” She picked up the first limb, the one covered with cloth instead of fur. “Except you saving me back there. The mob… I swear they would’ve killed me.” She spoke with shock, as though her words were even amazing herself. “Not broke my physical unit, but actually killed me.”

“I had to kill one of them to do it,” Jackie said. “And… maybe die myself. You saved me too, so we’re even.”

Bree laughed. “That’s an awful lot to care about your mission from Tesla. You were in as much danger as I was.”

“Because I’m just trying to get you out,” Jackie said. “Like I’ve been saying. I… think it’s pretty shitty what happened to you. Framed for trying to take over Equestria.

Bree laughed again, but this time there was nothing of humor in it. Her voice turned into a distant squeak, barely audible even to Jackie’s mechanical ears. “That, uh… I wasn’t framed. That story’s true. Probably… everything you heard is. Ponies do like accurate history books. If anything, they were nicer to me than I deserved.”

“Uh…” Jackie watched, frozen, as she retrieved another limb. One of her back legs this time. “Why?” It was the only thing she could think to ask. “I’m no boy scout, Bree. I’ve done some things I’m not proud of, you know that. But trying to conquer a whole country?”

“Does it matter?” Bree leaned in close, and there was another harsh click as the limb attached. This one had minimal modifications—as soon as it was back in place, Jackie found she could feel the polished metal surface of the table she was resting on, along with everything else. Including the damage to the exterior case, and the stitches in her fur.

“I, uh… wrote a program for you.” Bree emerged with a sheaf of paper, settling it down on the table beside her. “I couldn’t input it, since I don’t have any interface. Your repair kit only had the direct-link cable, and I don’t have a cortical recorder, so…”

“Yeah.” Jackie brushed it aside. “And I’d say it matters. You might be Hitler, or you might have thought you had a reason. Makes the difference between evil and just misled.”

“I didn’t attack civilians,” she said. “I wasn’t Hitler. I just wasn’t Gandhi either. Some Equestrian soldiers died, not many.” She sat back, leaning tiredly up against the table with Jackie’s remaining two limbs. “Do you have any history in that brain of yours?” She didn’t wait for her to answer. “Do a search on what happens when a more sophisticated culture encounters a simpler one. Go on.”

Jackie didn’t have to search to know the answer. “That’s… why people were always afraid of aliens, weren’t they? Even if they were well-meaning, we might get decimated. Nastier diseases, cultural forces… I never really understood psychohistory.”

Bree laughed again, her voice hollow and bitter. “Before the war, there were a few uncontacted tribes on a few islands, and down in South America. Their cultures were dead, their histories were gone, and they were trapped in little squares of nature reserve. That’s what I saw in Equestria’s future.”

Jackie glowered. “So you wanted to be Cortez.”

“No!” Bree smashed one hoof against the table, so hard the metal dented. A faint voice—Frostline’s—echoed from far away down the tunnel. “Is everything alright?”

“Fine, fine!” Bree called, switching back to Equestrian. “Go back to sleep!”


She waited a few more minutes to say anything else, replacing Jackie’s other back leg in comparative silence.

“It was wrong,” Bree finally said. “I know it was. But I wasn’t trying to be a conqueror. I wanted… wanted to do things differently. Absorb them all into the Tower as quick as I could. Like we did during the war, you know. We saved, like… almost a billion people that way.”

“Saved,” Jackie repeated. Now her tone was dark. “Some of them might feel different about that.”

“Right, right.” Bree stopped a foot away, with Jackie’s last leg balanced on her back. She was quite adept at it, her coordination just as good as any of the native ponies Jackie had ever seen. “It was wrong. I don’t think I deserve this chance. The Federation agent who stopped me could’ve killed me, but she didn’t. Equestria has… this prison. Tartarus—reserved for the worst offenders. I thought maybe she wanted me sent out there. But… instead she did this.” She held out Jackie’s mechanical leg, next to her real one. “It took me a long time to figure out why.”

Jackie’s last foreleg clicked into place. She flexed it in turn with all the others, and found they weren’t responding correctly. They twitched too far, overcorrecting or undermoving. Only the completely reconstructed leg was working as she expected. Right, the program. I’ll need to recalibrate each of them. She could probably figure it out herself, given enough time. But Bree was one of the Tower’s best engineers. She knew more about synthetic bodies than anyone, except maybe Tesla. “Why?”

Bree smiled. “Same reason they haven’t had any real wars in a thousand years. Somebody’s got to be first to forgive. Might as well be you.”

It should’ve been a simple run out to the system exit portal. But there were so many other things that should’ve been simple. Sunset should’ve been noticed by now, or her diplomatic guests. If they were under attack, wasn’t there a system in place? Protocols, contingencies, something? Maybe so, but Sunset could no longer access that system to find out anything about it.

“Can’t we just wait for Amber Sands to let us out from the Equestrian side?” Starlight asked. “She’s out there now, I think. She vanished, anyway. Can’t she just pull the plug?”

“I doubt it,” Sunset said. “For you especially. There’s an interface with your brain, right? You have to shut that down gracefully. You don’t want to just go ripping your head out of something like that. Most of your head doesn’t like being zapped.”


Sunset and her guest had taken several hours to make their winding way down the path. It was early morning outside. While there was no longer a crowd to slow them down in their trip, Starlight Glimmer was basically just as clumsy as she’d been upon arrival. She could walk, but every time she tried to jog ended in another fall. At least without Sunset holding her all the time.

At least they didn’t get tired in here. They could run through the eerily deserted streets of the festival without panting for breath, without their muscles burning, or without the cuts and bruises from Starlight’s many falls.

“I don’t… understand what happened to everyone,” she said. “There were thousands of humans here. Where did they all go?”

“I…” Sunset hesitated. “I don’t know where they went. But I know that… whenever there’s an emergency, a realm server will shut down. Their locations are… really secret, even from me. That one had, like… a million people living on it. It will stop running to avoid damage from an EMP, or… well, you don’t care about any of that.”

“I don’t know what most of that means,” Starlight Glimmer said. “And you shouldn’t either, Sunset. Unless you’re still trying to act like that isn’t your name.”

They were about halfway there. They ran through the sixth stop, set up as a stylized Japanese zen garden of sorts, except that the patterns were on water. To complete this part of the ceremony, they’d had to step from rock to rock, and reappeared on the opposite shore if they fell in. They stumbled around it this time.

“It’s my name,” Sunset said. “And if you’re asking how I know, just talk to Second Chance. She knows about ponies from living with us, right? I know about humans because I lived with them.”

“And… became one of them,” Starlight Glimmer added. “Because of Starswirl’s spell, right? It transformed you when you went through the mirror.”

Sunset laughed, and a little of her old bitterness slipped in. “That would’ve made it easy. No, there was no… magic. I used Clover’s spells to travel to Earth, the same ones Celestia locked away in the forbidden section of the library. Along with most of the other valuable magic.” She lowered her voice, and slowed a little without meaning to. “Maybe you know my frustration. I notice Celestia shared her magic with Twilight Sparkle—she’s an alicorn. And you’re not.”

Starlight Glimmer stopped too, pulling free of her. Just outside of the trail, their simulated world was falling apart. The distant city hadn’t crumbled like the castle, so much as transforming itself into the outlines and suggestions of a city. Blocky polygons without definition, just like the school Sunset had been trained in.

“Is that why you ran? Celestia wouldn’t make you an Alicorn? After talking to her, I always imagined it would be something… bigger. Something more important. A princess’s apprentice abandons her because of… selfishness? No.”

Sunset shoved past her, grabbing her by the hand and dragging her back onto the path. Only five more stops to go. The temperature was dropping rapidly ahead, as they transitioned quite smoothly from a Japanese isle to a mountain peak. The fifth stop was a trial to climb it. But there were gondola cars they could take down, or up if they didn’t want the gemstones. “If it was just selfishness, then why not just let me have it? Celestia trained me for years. I learned everything about her magic. About the spells that maintain Equestria. I deserved to join her.”

Starlight Glimmer had nothing to say to that, and for a time their voices were swallowed by the howling mountain wind. There were no other sounds until they boarded the automated gondola car, and it started humming down the line.

There were screens inside, screens depicting Normandy from various cameras. It was made to show the way celebrations were taking place in both worlds at once—and the cameras were still running.

The camp was in absolute chaos. Legionaries rushed about, carrying huge crates of cargo, loading into aircraft, tearing tents apart like they weren’t even there. The one shot of the other side of the camp was even more chaotic.

How are there so many ponies here? There were hundreds of them, by the look of things, maybe thousands. Some of the ponies were wearing baggy clothes, or trying to drag along human weapons. It was such a patently absurd thing to see that Sunset actually laughed. “That is… the cutest panic ever.”

Starlight Glimmer glanced up from her seat at the screen, eyes widening. “Sweet Celestia, they’re all… trying to break the failsafe spell? All at the same time? Why would they think they could escape? After… seeing so many transformed, they can’t still think it’s our religion, can they?”

Sunset Shimmer didn’t answer. A painful static struck her suddenly in the side of the head, and she dropped to her knees on the ground.

System recalibrating, said some text that appeared before her eyes.

She suppressed a scream, badly, hands clenched into fists. This isn’t supposed to hurt!

Twilight Sparkle’s ghostly form appeared beside her a second later. “Sunset! Sunset, are you okay?”

Starlight Glimmer was beside her at the same moment, one hand on her shoulder. “What’s… happening to you?”

“I’m… fine,” Sunset said, and in another moment the pain passed. Her vision fuzzed for a few more seconds, before resolving into clear lines. Twilight hadn’t disappeared. “Twilight, what did you do?”

“Twilight?” Starlight Glimmer turned, and she gasped. Her eyes locked unmistakably with the exact place Twilight was standing. “Princess, you’re here? Thank Celestia, you wouldn’t believe…”

Twilight raised a hand, and Starlight Glimmer fell abruptly silent. “There’s an attack going on in Normandy. It must’ve had some impact on you as well, because I lost network access. I made a few modifications to my storage mechanism… bypassed a few safeties so I could short the transmitter… guess it worked.” Her smile faltered a little, and her body fuzzed away again. This time she was the only thing that looked unreal. Sunset grasped for her, and found only empty air.

“You… broke yourself?” Sunset asked. She didn’t know the technical side of how Twilight’s necklace worked, but it didn’t surprise her that she did.

Starlight Glimmer backed up, her eyes getting wider. “You don’t sound like Princess Twilight.”

Sunset clambered to her feet. The gondola had nearly arrived at the base of the mountain, but it no longer mattered. Sunset could feel her system access restored, in a hundred evacuation alarms. She called up the last one, and its text filled her mind.


Sunset had no idea what that code was, but her mental query was immediately answered. Twilight had undone Amber’s hack completely. “Majestic is to be invoked in the event of an attack by Federation troops within Normandy. All civilian personnel digitally evacuate to orbital platform VEGA. Military personnel board any available ships and disperse. Further commands to follow.”

Sunset Shimmer had learned all that in the space of an instant. Time seemed to catch up with her as Twilight’s form flickered again. “My power relay is…” Her voice faded out. “Mind is safe. Solid-state storage. Just bring me to a technician. Get out...” Twilight reached a hand towards Sunset, before winking out like a candle.

I have command access again. Sunset didn’t need to return to any failsafes anymore. And were those tears on her cheek? Could robots cry?

The gondola thumped back into place on the ground, a second before the entire mountain above them vanished. The cable was still halfway there, and they were yanked forward. They started scraping along stone, as some of the windows shattered.

“What in Tartarus is going on?” Starlight Glimmer wailed, clutching onto a seatback for dear life.

Sunset wasn’t going to be helping her now either. She reached out into the air, and called up her command console. It appeared in bright red, with bold text above it reading “Emergency commands only.

“Diplomatic mission failed,” Sunset Shimmer said, her voice cracking. “Eject all remaining participants.”

Command executed successfully.

Starlight Glimmer didn’t have a chance to argue again. She vanished in a flash, and then the whole world went with her.

Sunset had no need to gracefully disengage, like Starlight. She immediately awoke in her charging pod, and jerked out so fast she could hear the whine of protest from the interface cables. Xavier was nowhere to be seen, along with anyone else. One of the pods was already empty, and she could hear a few faint noises coming from the other one. The mechanical sounds of Starlight being ejected.

“Tesla, what the hell is going on?” Sunset asked. She could feel full network access now, granted to her by emergency permissions.

There was no response. No “message refused” notification, so apparently, he’d received her call. But not even a few words of encouragement. He must be fighting this, somehow. Too busy for me. That means I have to get out on my own.

And she had to help Starlight Glimmer out, too. Having a pony get trapped in here and possibly die during an attack would not sit well with Equestria or her.

She could hear the evacuation in full swing outside. The constant roar of ionic engines passed overhead, along with the occasional burst of gunfire. But for an attack on Normandy by its other half, this was barely anything. Where were the explosions? The fighters strafing across the camp, the drones? She heard plenty of ships, but they all sounded like they were leaving.

She reached down for the necklace she was wearing, pulling it out of her robe and turning it over in her search for damage, but she could see nothing. What did I expect? Even so, her repeated pings to the hardware reported only: “Critical damage detected. Seek repair from a qualified technician. No user serviceable parts inside.”

I’ll fix you, Twilight, Sunset thought, squeezing the little necklace tightly in one hand. Thanks for saving us. She slipped it back under her robe and out of sight. Guess I’ll have to make it on my own for a bit.

With a final hiss, the interface pod holding Starlight Glimmer finally opened, dumping the pony within unceremoniously to the ground. Lifting vertically like that would have been helpful for a two-legged human, but… Starlight just smacked onto her face again.

Are you okay?” Sunset asked, reaching out to help her.

Starlight Glimmer’s horn started glowing, bright enough that Sunset knew she must have a powerful spell ready, even if she no longer had the senses to read it. “Don’t touch me!” Starlight called, her voice plainly terrified. “I don’t know what’s going on here, but as of now… I obviously can’t trust you.”

“Fine, fine!” Sunset pulled back. “I know what you saw is confusing… but we don’t have time to fight right now. Hear that outside? That’s an evacuation. We’re under attack.”

“I don’t hear an attack.” Starlight Glimmer took off at a gallop, right past her and out the tent doors.

Sunset followed behind, emerging into an early morning camp in disarray. It was much as she’d seen it from inside the realm—soldiers were grabbing everything they could, jumping into evacuation ships or just clinging to the outside.

The other two sections of camp were no better. The camp gates had been blasted apart, and ponies were flooding in. At a glance, Sunset recognized many of them from Ponyville itself. They too had belongings with them, but not much. Maybe the command was wrong! Maybe Ponyville was attacked by the dragons, instead of by humans? But if that were the case, why not say so? It wasn’t like they couldn’t invent new evacuation codes on a whim.

Strangest of all was the Federation side. It didn’t look like they were attacking the Tower—their mounted guns sat quiet, and their war hardware was all gone. So were almost all of the people. What few humans Sunset saw were standing completely still, rigid as statues. Their eyes were glazed, and they completely ignored the ponies all around them.

Starlight Glimmer had been frozen right along with Sunset, taking in Normandy. “Evacuating Ponyville,” she muttered. “There’s Amber, she’ll know what’s going on.”

Starlight started running, and Sunset ran after her. Amber Sands was standing in a large group of guards, instructing them as though she knew exactly what she was doing. Her voice came into earshot as they neared. “Discord says we’ll have the way out soon! Just make sure everypony is ready to go through as soon as he opens it!”


Sunset might’ve found her legs unsteady by now if they were still organic. Her whole world was being ripped out from under her in the space of a few minutes—hacked from inside the safest place in existence. Ponyville evacuating from an attack that didn’t seem to be happening. Twilight might as well have died to get her out. She was completely on her own.

“Amber, what happened?” Starlight asked, as she closed the last few steps in a bounding gallop. “What’s going on here?”

But Amber Sands wasn’t the one who answered. Instead a yellowish unicorn gathered near the front of the group fixed her eyes on Starlight. Where have I seen that hair before? But the mystery solved itself, because then she spoke, and Sunset instantly recognized her voice. Ada, Samil’s assistant.

“Star Admiral Colven ordered a total evacuation. Apparently, there was some kind of… hack, or… I don’t know, sounded like paranoia to me. But she said we all had to use the Equestrian bracelets. It was supposed to… protect us from something.”

Amber Sands finally noticed them, and gestured Starlight over. “That’s about it! The admiral is already out… but that’s the end of the good news. All the Federation troops who didn’t use the spell… and that’s all of them that were deployed when my s—when Colven’s command went out… they all went crazy. Troop carriers flew straight off to Canterlot, all of them.” She flicked her wing towards the camp, and the many humans just standing still. “These people are… they didn’t obey in time. They’re being mind-controlled too.”

Sunset felt a chill grip around her throat. Mind magic being used on the biological humans, just like she’d used it on the digital ones. It was a familiar plan. Someone is using them to attack Equestria.

All her worst fears were confirmed… except for her own involvement. Her help wouldn’t be teaching the Tower to better take over Equestria. The others were doing it. “By who?” she found herself asking, loud enough to carry over the crowd.

“By humanity’s pet monster,” said a voice from beside her. There was a faint crack of energy, and suddenly someone was standing beside her. The same human-shaped creature she had recognized in the castle. “They really should’ve seen him for what he was. Ah, well. The price of not having any magic.”

“Discord.” Starlight Glimmer stopped beside her, looking panicked. “Luna sent you here to evacuate everypony?”

“Luna,” he repeated, amused. “No, not her. But I’m not here for the scenery.” He snapped his fingers, and bits of all the nearest buildings started ripping right off the walls. Huge chunks of concrete, lengths of molten-orange rebar, entire shattered windows. They rose up from all directions, shaping themselves into an arch nearly ten meters tall and just as far across.

The air within flickered for a moment, as though it were one of the junctions between realms. Then the ruined camp on the other side vanished, replaced by an expansive grassy field covered with bits of morning frost. In the distance Sunset could see a city rising behind it, one large enough to challenge even what the Builders made. The Crystal Empire.

“Now I suggest you all start moving,” Discord said, not looking the least bit exerted by the magical effort he’d just spent. Sunset stared at the size of the rift in shock, her mind spinning at how incredible his power must be to create it.

She had read the accounts of his reform in depth by now, at least as she could get her hands on them. Even still, she could barely comprehend what she was seeing. How can we lose with Discord on our side?

It didn’t matter, losing wasn’t the question right now. Survival was.

“Take only what you can carry!” Starlight Glimmer shouted, her voice clear even over the confusion of the mob. “We don’t have time to gather supplies. Just go!” She stepped aside, and the mob began flowing through. Starlight didn’t go through herself though, and neither did Amber.

Starlight spared her one last dark glance, then abandoned her to help with the evacuation.

Sunset might’ve done exactly the same thing, except for a vehicle rolling its way over from the Tower side of camp. It was a little armored car, big enough to transport twenty legionaries sitting down or a hundred by racks.

Ponies scattered as it got close, and Sunset ran out to meet it, ignoring the satisfied yellow unicorn’s words as she left. Why couldn’t you be one of the ones who got mind controlled, you jerk? You don’t deserve to be a pony.

The car stopped right in front of her, its eight huge wheels spraying mud all over her and anypony else who was standing too close. The driver’s door banged open, and Sir Bradley leapt out.

He wasn’t wearing robes anymore, but the slim full-body armor of the knights. He lacked the sluggish momentum of the Federation troops in their armor, and carried a huge rifle instead of a sword. “Sunset, there you are! Our king has sent me to retrieve you. I’ve been scouring the camp for you… we must evacuate.”

He put out his hand, and Sunset almost took it. She might have, if it wasn’t for the crowd of terrified ponies behind her. I can’t leave them now. Who cares what the king says. Equestria is being invaded. Canterlot is under attack.

Sunset Shimmer had gone to the human world for power, and she was going to use it. “I will,” she said, stepping back. “With them. It was… noble of the king to send you after me. But I can’t go.”

A dozen different expressions seem to flick across Sir Bradley’s face. Sunset recognized the expression of someone who was using accelerated time. Maybe questioning Richard right now, for all she knew. What would he think of her refusal?

“You cannot survive outside of our facilities for long, Sunset,” Bradley said. “Your body is a civilian model, it isn’t made for field operation. Your charge will last seventy-two hours, and then you’ll shut down.”

As the message came in, Sunset found the world slowing down around her. The knight had forced her to accelerate along with him. And her quicker thoughts brought another realization. It wasn’t just a generator she would lack if she went with the ponies. I can’t bring Twilight back without a technician. She’ll be trapped in her crystal until I get back with the tower.

Can you give me a portable generator?” she asked, her tone desperate even if her body was still frozen. “Canterlot has been attacked, Brad. My home. Aren’t we supposed to be helping them?”

If the knight had to stop to think, his pause was imperceptible. “Richard says I can go with you. But if I do… Sunset, I’ll be bringing my entire household. Are you willing to trust the Equestrian defenses with their lives as well as yours?”

Time caught back up in a roar. Distant explosions shook the mountains, and Sunset watched her second castle collapse of the day. Canterlot was far away, but she could see its walls crumbling even from here.

“You don’t have to go,” Sunset said. “Please, if you’re worried, stay with the king. I just want a power source.”

“I can’t do that.” Sir Bradley took her hand in his, forcing her to meet his eyes. “I must protect you. With your people or mine, but somewhere.”

“Then with mine,” she said, barely a whisper. “Come on.”

He gestured, and someone inside the car reached across to slam its door closed.

All over the camp, the humans were waking up. They stirred slowly, noticing the crowd of ponies. Then they started moving. They didn’t draw their weapons, just started shambling forward, mad rage in their eyes.

“Guards, keep them back!” Amber shouted over the screams, and armored ponies appeared from the crowd, forming a perimeter around the evacuation.

“We’re coming through too!” Bradley shouted, louder than any organic ever could. “Make way, people! Car coming through!”

Sunset Shimmer walked along beside him. She caught one last glimpse of Canterlot in flames before she passed through the portal to the other side.

Chapter 14: Eve

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The Crystal Empire was not for her as it was for the ponies all around her. As Sunset Shimmer passed through its glittering streets, she did so from the seat of a six-wheeled all terrain extended deployment vehicle. There were six passenger seats, and all of them were occupied.

In a way, this was as much mythology to her as anything she’d first heard about the Builders and their civilization. Unlike her trip to Earth, the Crystal Empire was everything she had imagined. An entire city built out of the magically resonant substance that had given the place such an aura of legend about it.

But in many ways, her time with humanity had spoiled some of the magic for her. The Crystal Empire had streets that were bright day or night, without smoke. They had warmth through the coldest winters, food that prepared itself. Carts that slid along the ground without ponies to pull them.

Now she saw that all those legends were true, but so what? Every simulated city in the Realm had those things, and they were only a reflection of the true civilization that had come before, now destroyed. But there was no denying the humans were capable of it.

She could feel frustrated eyes on her from her fellow passengers—Xavier the engineer, a few scholars in plain robes, squires in their simple armor. Sir Bradley’s whole household was here, and clearly didn’t want to be.

“What makes you think we can serve the tower best from here?” asked a female to a squire her own age, with her hair long and purple on one side of her head, and buzzed short on the other. “Did good King Richard send you a command that we didn’t hear?”

“Yes,” Sunset said, without explanation. Then she looked away. She didn’t have to argue with them. If she’d gotten her original way, they wouldn’t be here either.

But Bradley isn’t so bad.

So far passing through to the Empire had happened to her practically in a dream. The trickle of ponies behind her had become a flood as the Federation attacked, but not one of the zombified people dared follow them. At least, not that she’d heard.

“I’m not sure anyone did take them over,” said one of the other squires over local radio. “That sounds like an excuse to me. They’ve been waiting all this time for a way to fuck us up, and look they found one. It’s not my fault I conquered your whole country, honest! We were forced into it!”

“They’re committed to the ruse if that’s what it is,” Xavier said. “That must be half their population turned into ponies. They’re not like us, Jesse, they can’t just get a hot-swap into another body. Those people are stuck for life. Unless you think their conquered civilization is going to be volunteering to undo all their magic. That’s why the monarchs imposed that rule in the first place—to prevent a coup.”

The squire only grunted, sparing one last angry look at Sunset before turning to the window and staring out at the city all around them.

The Crystal Empire was larger than Canterlot, Sunset could see. Rather than an organic outgrowth of civilization over thousands of years, this place was obviously planned. The streets were arranged every thirty degrees along a central axis, with buildings perhaps a dozen stories tall, gradually getting smaller as the distance from the palace increased. How much don’t we know about our own history? Maybe we weren’t all that different from the Builders ourselves, once.

Sunset had heard such mysteries before, all tied up with an ancient city called Carcosa. She knew Celestia had been born there, along with her sister—the last of the Alicorns. But she hadn’t ever been able to extract more. If only she could’ve told me where it was. Maybe then Sunset Shimmer would be in Twilight Sparkle’s hooves right now, helping to defend Equestria.

She felt a little guilty considering that. Sunset reached back down, her grip tightening around Twilight’s necklace. It was true, many of the Builders would not have suffered if they never met her. But they would’ve remained ghosts forever, instead of recovering… as ponies. What would the others have said if they could speak to her? Sunset had no idea, because Tesla had not allowed her to remain in contact with them. Her ponies were back on Earth, and would be until she satisfied the terms of Tesla’s deal.

“What happened to Tesla?” Sunset asked suddenly, startling everyone in the car to staring at her.

For a few seconds they just looked to one another, apparently unsure exactly who should be the one to respond to her. Eventually Xavier answered, though it earned him some dirty looks. That they want me to see. They could use private radio to say how much they hate me. “My father went dark the instant of the attack, along with the Seers. The Order has its own troops, and I’m sure they’re looking for him. Our king didn’t give Sir Bradley that responsibility.”

Sunset nodded, looking away. She dared to let herself hope, though she should’ve felt guilty for it. If Tesla died, then anyone who knew of what she’d done would die with him. She wouldn’t be a hostage anymore, and neither would Jackie.

“Wait, you said… it happened the moment of the attack?”

Xavier nodded. “Far as I know. Maybe he was one of the first targets. We lost… an awful lot of hardware. I don’t think I’m at liberty to go into specifics. I’m sure he would be a valuable prize to a monster like Samil.”

There were a few dark mutterings from around the car.

Or he was part of it, Sunset thought. Richard did suspect there was something rotten in his empire, didn’t he? Maybe Tesla was a traitor too. She still felt like she was in a daze. Through all this, the one constant in her mind had been that the humans were here to help Equestria. But if that was no longer the case, then… she needed to find her parents in the refugees, or find out what had happened to them. Thank Celestia she was an only child, and wouldn’t have any brothers off dying in the war.

“Sunset, we’ve arrived at the capital. I believe you should come with me to represent the Tower to the princesses. Richard himself will remain in an undisclosed location from here on—his life is worth far more than ours. But our presence here means there is someone to represent Tower interests.”

Sunset hesitated. Had she been talking to anyone but Brad, she wouldn’t have said what she was thinking, just let events unfold naturally. But he had shown her nothing but kindness since their first meeting. He deserved better. “I forgot to tell you—while I was taking my pony guests to the festival, they confronted me. Starlight Glimmer figured out I used to be a pony, and she even knew who I was. She has certainly told Celestia about me by now. We have… a bit of a rocky history. You probably shouldn’t take me.”

The car came to a gentle stop a few moments later. There was an Equestrian blockade around the massive palace grounds, with a few strange-looking objects that she realized with shock were mounted guns. Equestrian guns, made from shiny brass with little crystals protruding from the ends. A crowd of ponies started forming around their car, mostly guards. None of them did anything violent. They were probably expected.

“King Richard will send only me, then. He does not like the idea of overlapping your reconciliation with our formal diplomatic contact. But he commands that you meet with Celestia within the week. Whatever your history, you must put it behind you in this time of war. Princess Celestia will understand and sympathize with that need.”

Sunset felt a surge of quiet relief, though it wasn’t to last. She wouldn’t have to meet Celestia now—but that meeting would not be much delayed. An ancient weight, one she’d almost forgotten about, settled itself firmly on her shoulders. She had always known she would have to meet with the sun princess again. But it was supposed to be after she had transformed into a being of power. You wouldn’t tell me where Carcosa is, you wouldn’t share Starswirl’s secret spells, and I did it anyway. I went over your head. That’s what she’d imagined she would say. But not anymore.

Sunset Shimmer had no desire to conquer Equestria now. The dragons seemed committed to that without any of her help.

“Hey, Xavier.” Sunset sat up again, removing the necklace from her neck. “I have… a personality simulator matrix here, but it took serious damage in the attack. Can you fix it?”

Xavier took the offered crystal from her hand, and removed a tool with his. Something with a wide flat base and a transparent gridlike surface. She couldn’t see what he was doing, but under the tool the internal mechanisms of the crystal seemed to become transparent. He turned it over a few times, then handed it back. “Nope. Those one-man crystals are a civilian gadget, they aren’t built to be repaired. Nothing I can do.”

Sunset almost screamed her frustration, except that he was already going on. “If we hadn’t… gone on this little detour, I would suggest just printing a body for the person in there, I can see the core is intact. But we don’t have the raw materials to make a body.” He turned to one side, gesturing at the cargo area in their truck.

Sunset hadn’t paid much attention to it, not when she had been so distracted by their arrival here.

It was mostly weapons, but Xavier rose from his seat and removed the cover from what was unmistakably a computer of some kind. “Microrealm. It isn’t as exciting as the real thing, and we don’t have highband. But if you put them in there, at least you could stay in touch over radio, visit when you’re charging.” He slid the cover shut again. “I’m guessing that’s some kind of… mission advisor?”

She’s the shackles of my guilt Tesla wrapped around my neck. But she was also a friend, a friend who might not be trapped for much longer. She basically died to get us out of that base in time. We’d have been… Sunset didn’t even want to think about it. If they’d been stuck in the Realm when those mind-controlled humans arrived, their bodies could’ve been crushed to dust. “Sure!” she said, maybe a little too quickly. “I mean yes, that’s what she is. A mission advisor. I’m sure she won’t need many of your resources.” She looked around, a little apologetic.

These people—Sir Bradley’s household—probably intended to “live” in that server when they weren’t needed in the real world. That was why they could deploy in this little truck, without beds or kitchens or any of the other amenities of life. Dock and charge in their seats, and they could be somewhere much more comfortable until needed again.

Xavier shook his head. “We didn’t have time to sort out our usual support staff. It’s nice and roomy in there. Just a few forks and some cobwebs.” He put out his hand again. “I could do it now, if you like? We don’t have orders yet, and the master may very well be in talks for hours.”

“Sure.” Sunset didn’t throw her friend, even if she trusted her aim perfectly. She walked all the way over, handing her gently into Xavier’s outstretched hand. She watched as he went to work at the single seat of a workbench, slicing through the crystal with a glowing knife that filled the air with foul smelling smoke. The other staff slid into their charging ports one after another, each settling into a blank expression as they went to… the place Twilight was going.

A few seconds of cutting, and he’d removed the object he wanted—a dark metal cylinder the size of a thimble. He didn’t touch it with his hands, sliding it into a plastic sleeve apparently made for it. “Your advisor is brave riding around in one of these,” Xavier said, tossing the rest of the broken necklace away. “But I suppose there are people in the realm who say the same thing about us. Deploying anywhere is just too much of a risk.”

Sunset shrugged. “She’s brave, for sure. She’s the only reason I made it out of Normandy.”

Xavier opened the server-rack again, exposing the bright blue machine with its glowing crystalline interior. A wave of heat hit her from the inside, along with a hiss of cooling solution. “I suppose you’ll want to be in to say hello?” he asked, removing a shroud from an interface port the perfect shape to accept Twilight’s new plastic-case-wrapped self. “You’re both new to our sim, so you’ll be in the same place. Maybe… give the others some space. They know you’re the reason we’re here, and they’re not happy. Might give you a hard time in there.”

“Hard time,” Sunset repeated, her voice distant. “Just watched my country get invaded by the allies we invited to save us. I don’t think they could do anything to me.” Though some part of Sunset wished they would try. She had become a powerful hacker in the Infinite Realm, even without her army of slave minds. Only Tesla himself had been able to stop her from escaping to Equestria. He wouldn’t be waiting inside that server.

Sunset Shimmer settled into the nearest empty chair, then leaned her head back to contact the docking port. Looks like you didn’t have to remain a piece of junk for as long as you thought, Twilight. Hope you’re okay.

For the second time in only a few weeks, Jackie found herself in a body she no longer completely understood, and didn’t even really want. But where the pony body she’d been given had at least been constructed by someone who knew all about ponies and how they worked… this wasn’t.

“Those programs should… be enough to compensate for the increased resistance to the original motors you’re still using. They should also simulate pressure when I used a thaumic reciprocating servo instead.”

“That sounds… crazy.” Jackie shifted on her hooves, putting her weight on the mechanical foreleg only skeptically. The hyperstable plastics had been replaced with brass and steel. They might actually be stronger in some ways, but they were also much heavier. “Your motors aren’t as efficient,” she said, taking a few delicate systems. “Computer here says I have to…”

“Stop every few minutes for the capacitors to recharge?” Bree shrugged one shoulder. “That’s an RTG for you. Can’t turn them to a higher gear. Though I noticed yours looked a little banged up.” Bree still looked exhausted, but transitioning to a more familiar topic had revitalized her enough to speak intelligently. “Guess the system probably went into safe mode. Tighter thermal tolerances, emergency shielding closed… even less efficient.”

“Yeah,” Jackie said. She didn’t really understand what Bree was saying about the device, but in many ways, it didn’t matter. The point was that she couldn’t move as much, and there was no avoiding that painful reality. “So you want me to fight off the griffons in Motherlode… with a broken body that I can only use for a few minutes at a time.”

“Not just you,” Bree said, a little annoyed. “Frostline and Cirrus are going to be up in the air, screening us with a nice fog. Make sure we don’t get reinforcements by accident. And we might be able to do something about your systems… you’ve still got an induction charger for docked use, I saw it. I just need to… remember the modulation, then… painstakingly count out the right number of wires. We could use a thaumic couple.” She giggled weakly. “You’re going to have the most expensive body in the world when we’re done. That’s the forth mithril part. My mom could sell that metal in wedding rings that would go for as much as a few houses, probably.”

“That’s very thoughtful of you,” Jackie said. “You can have it back once we make it to Normandy. Then I’ll get a new human body, and you can salvage everything from this one.”

“I won’t be doing much salvaging from prison,” Bree said. Then her expression brightened. “And we won’t be going to Normandy. Canterlot was attacked… by the Federation.”

The weight of that statement left Jackie wordless for nearly a full minute. She remembered the humble farmpony who had given her an apple on her first day, talking about her big brother in the market. Then she thought about what the Sons of Barsoom might do to their little farmhouse. They wouldn’t even need to slow down while they slaughtered everyone.

“W-why?” she asked. Her voice felt thin and reedy, even worse than it had been with her damaged voicebox. “The Federation, of all people…”

“Because you think they’re the perfect good guys who do no wrong?” Bree rolled her eyes. “They’re no different than the Tower, Jackie. In many ways they’re worse. The Steel Tower is governed by algorithm, it runs according to reliable, replicatable systems. But the Federation is made of organics and organics are fallible. The radio didn’t go into detail, but…” She fumbled around on the desk, lifting a scroll of paper. “I transcribed what it said, in case there was some kind of code. None I saw, and nothing you would see that I wouldn’t.” She stepped back. “Now that you’re working, I’m going to bed. War in the morning. I’d suggest you should sleep too, but… so long as you’re not moving, that should let those capacitors charge. You should be able to get fifteen straight minutes if they’re all intact.”

Query, local solid-state emergency storage.

Energy storage at 66%. Critical damage to relay seven-nine. Seek repair immediately.

As though she didn’t already know about that. “Make that ten minutes,” Jackie said. “Apparently I lost one. Roc really fucked me up.”

Bree nodded. “Ten minutes. Practically an eternity for a synthetic.”

“Maybe a knight,” Jackie countered. “I’m a hacker. A civilian hacker.”

But Bree didn’t argue with her, and Jackie didn’t chase after her. She made her way over to the mirror, looking once more at her reflection.

Not good. Bits of fur had been ripped away, her wings were just bare plastic interface covers, one of which had bits of physical damage covered over with pony bandage. Her face itself was intact, though her puffy ears and slitted eyes now looked out of place. For all she had complained about being a pony, all she’d hated it even, at least the body she’d worn before was designed to look like one of them. She was a monstrosity now, a slapdash assembly of spare parts. I should really learn to take better care of myself.

Another, darker thought came. The same one that always did. “Why bother? I’m not alive.”

But what about Bree? Jackie settled down onto the ground in front of the mirror. There was no reason to waste energy pretending to need a bed. All she had to do was configure her comfort settings, and she could ignore the stitches in her skin and damage all over her body. There was no more need for a constant reminder of her soreness and pain when she couldn’t do anything about it just now.

Within the tiny local storage of her mind, she could be human again, in a tiny room that lacked any access to the outside world. She couldn’t tell Sunset what she was about to do, couldn’t beg her to somehow get a quicker rescue here. But after what just happened in Normandy, she might need the help herself. I hope she got out okay.

Maybe if she hadn’t been broken to pieces she might be hoping for a Tower defeat. That way she could fade into the background and be forgotten, free to live her life however she wanted. But now… she’d never pass as a regular pony again. The best she could hope for was that they’d take pity on her and not look too closely. I have to get back for repair.

But first Bree wanted her to risk her life again to save Motherlode. After its ponies had just attacked them, after feeling incredibly unwelcome for the last week. She wasn’t exactly in a very helpful mood.

She could only hope that all her bluster about what she could really do with a rifle was still true. If this body isn’t up to the challenge, those griffons are going to rip me to pieces. More pieces.

Jackie’s little dream-space wasn’t much, really. There was little limit on space, but without an external simulation server the amount of reality that could be visible at any one time was limited. Most people she’d read about—and whose advice she had followed—suggested a tiny interior space with no windows and no sight-line longer than twenty feet. So she’d picked herself an attractive little bedroom, like something that might’ve been an upper loft in one of the A-class cities, where space was so expensive that closets could cost a month’s wages.

She sprawled out on the bed, a laptop resting in front of her. She could use it to play any of the media she’d brought, which would be enough to watch basically forever. Brains were quite a bit bigger than movies.

But she didn’t watch any of it, just turned on some quiet music and made her way to the window she wasn’t supposed to have. She pulled open the blinds, looking down at the nighttime city.

Here she could see the limits of her single brain stretched to breaking. So long as her speed of thought wasn’t allowed to slow to devote more cycles to render, which was almost always the case, she would get something like this. A city made of blocks, with blobs like cars rolling in the distance.

But why did the sky look so good? She remembered setting it to a video file, a simple recording that would do a passable simulation without requiring that much processing. But there was no way it was meant to look that good. It was like something she might’ve seen in the Infinite Realm, a thousand little subtle shades of white, orange, and yellow. Off to one side, a little mediocre shower vanished behind a blocky building.

“I must be losing my mind,” Jackie thought, turning back to her laptop. She checked to see if she’d released the time-lock, which would probably mean that scene was burning through hours until morning with great rapidity. But no… it was still firmly locked, with the customary explanation point that would require SUDO privileges to enable.

She carried her laptop to the bench beside the window, wedging herself in so she could look outside and verify her runtime statistics for herself. The familiar interface came up, showing her one-to-one ratio and the slow charge building in her functional capacitors.

The phone on her wall started ringing. It was an ancient thing—corded, a relic of the design more than something that was meant to be used. If this apartment was used in a better simulation, it might connect with the buzzer downstairs, which would tell her when she had visitors. My antenna is broken. Jackie dropped the laptop, freezing almost still. The screen cracked right down the middle, but she didn’t care. Jackie reached out, pulled the phone off the wall. “Hello?”

It was a woman’s voice, distant and distorted. Like it was coming in from great distance. Her words were difficult to separate for the first few seconds. “Can you hear me?”

She nodded, though of course the speaker wouldn’t be able to see her. She lowered her voice to a whisper. “Yeah, I can. Who the hell is this? Did you slip a transponder into my body without me knowing about it?”

But even as she said it, it seemed a poor explanation. This body had been built by Sunset Shimmer’s designer, using the same designs she meant to use on her “princess.” There would be no secret receivers inside.

What external signals am I receiving?

Long-range transmitter critically damaged. No incoming signals.

“Do you know where you are?” came the voice again, a little more distantly.

“I’m dreaming,” Jackie answered, reflexively. “Until morning, when I have to go out and fight.” If this isn’t a message, then it must be self-generated somehow. Had she written a program to send this message? But if she had, she should’ve been able to remember it. She couldn’t.

“Don’t wake up,” said the voice, sounding even more distorted than before. She could no longer be sure that it was female, or even human. The words were Equestrian, not English. “You think… place for you. Don’t… not just Motherlode.”

“Sure.” Jackie held the phone at arm’s length, right over the receiver. “I’m going to hang up now.”

There was no response. A few more seconds of painful static, then a ringtone.

Well after that adventure I should be able to fight for Motherlode just fine. Her sarcasm didn’t make her feel much better when there was no one around to appreciate it.

She spent the next several hours reviewing her combat programs, changing her human simulation to one based on her current body so she could practice moving. The idea behind Bree’s programs was tricking her head into thinking that her new limbs worked the same way as the old, but that illusion would go only so far. Steel was heavier, and the motors didn’t respond quite so fast. She would still have perfect precision, just not any advantages in speed.

But she couldn’t run any kind of real combat practice, for the same reason she couldn’t have more than a simple room. At least she didn’t get any creepier phone-calls along the way.

Then the sun came up, and the ponies locked away in the shelter with her started getting up. Bree remained asleep—perhaps unsurprisingly after the number of hours she’d been working.

True Silver was the first one over. “Moire, you’re… together again!” She eyed the blank spots on her back. “Sorry about your wings. I remember Spring saying she couldn’t fix those.”

Jackie sat up, though she was careful to move as slowly as possible. She wanted to stay as close to full charge as she could, which meant slow, weak movements. “She probably could’ve, but they never worked. I couldn’t fly, remember? They were part of the reason why.”

“Oh.” True Silver looked away, eyes pitying. And Jackie couldn’t blame her—she couldn’t even imagine what an organic would see looking at her. “It doesn’t hurt, does it?”

“No!” She rose, pushing a concerned hoof away. “No pain at all. When I get to safety, they can fix me as good as I was.”

“Did my daughter tell you…”

“About Normandy?” She nodded. “I’m sure the humans evacuated safely. We’ve become experts at it by now, after all the wars we’ve had to survive. They’ll still be somewhere.”

“Maybe so, but… I don’t think we can go with you there anymore. There’s a broadcast coming through from the Crystal Empire, Princess Luna. She says that everypony who’s in danger should flee up there. I think we’ll go there instead.”

“That makes sense,” Jackie said. “Even if it isn’t…” Even if it wasn’t where the Tower had gone, they would be bound to still be in touch with pony civilization. She could bring Bree there, and that would be as good as rescuing her. They could pick her up whenever they wanted after that. “We can talk to the captain of the Nightbreeze when she gets here. If Canterlot has been… conquered… then I don’t think she’d even want to go back that way.”

“Good, that’s good.” True Silver looked relieved. “I’m sorry things didn’t work out. You worked so hard to rescue us.” She lowered her voice. “You should know I don’t expect you to go out there and take on a dozen mercenaries on your own. You’ve had time to get to know my daughter… she gets possessed of certain notions and… well, doesn’t let go. They’re not always reasonable. Often, they aren’t. Here you are half-broken, legs all taken apart…” She shuddered as she said it, face turning a little green. “What does she think you are, an Alicorn? You’re not that.”

“No,” Jackie agreed. “But I’ll… take a look, see what’s out there. If it looks like I can help, I’ll help. If not… I won’t die pointlessly to save ponies who hate me. I’m just not that good a person.”

True Silver nodded solemnly, then walked away.

Chapter 15: Severence

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Sunset Shimmer had been living with the Steel Tower for more subjective years than she’d ever been a pony. Most of that time had been spent in the Infinite Realm, where her body itself was a projection and all variables could be configured. Tesla’s “gift” of a human body was in its own way like a tiny sliver of the realm, with its own metal space that she could access while she wasn’t moving.

Twilight’s world was worse, since she didn’t even have a body of her own to explore the material. If it wasn’t for Sunset Shimmer, she might as well have been thrust into solitary confinement. Sunset had been wrong to assume that those two possibilities were the only ones.

As soon as she connected to Sir Bradley’s deployment vehicle interface, she found herself drifting. She landed in a featureless white expanse, with the words “New User Orientation” appearing before her in the air.

“Your user account has no training on file for field deployment shards,” said the same neutral female tone she had long-since come to associate with automated messages in the Realm. Alive, flawless, but without emotions. “Please take a moment to familiarize yourself with the following limitations.”

Little pictures began appearing in the air in front of her, even as the ground started to slide. She was forced to watch each one, and listen as the voice explained.

“First, you should already be aware that residence within this shard covers the same risks as an instance body. Your mind is actually stored within, and destruction of shard hardware will kill you.” And on and on the presentation went. Most of it either didn’t matter to Sunset, or she didn’t listen anyway since she was desperate to get in touch with Twilight again.

It was like meeting her best friend released from jail, but somepony was making her watch a long slide-show first. Just let me skip this! But she couldn’t, her command console was as unresponsive as when she’d been hacked.

Eventually she neared the end. “Acceleration of perceived time will not be possible while the vehicle is not parked at a stationary generator beyond a 4:1 coefficient. Allocation of simulated space will be driven using a sharding scheme of active participants and their proximity to each other. Loss of fidelity beyond this limit is normal and service requests will be ignored.”

“Congratulations, you have completed your deployment shard training. A full spec is available at…” and on it went with more information Sunset didn’t actually need. But that was just fine, because it was finally letting her go.

She appeared in a familiar cafe, on the edge of a gigantic canyon in the desert. There were staff moving about, which she remembered well from the last time she’d been here.

Of course, this is Sir Bradley’s shard. What else would he use as the first place people appeared? One of the waitresses wandered over, with the characteristic motion Sunset had long since learned to associate with forks. It was a rehearsed, recorded motion, human but identical every time she saw it. Sunset waved her off with one hand. “I’m waiting for someone. Maybe she’s already here.”

The fork only nodded, and didn’t interfere with her further. It probably wouldn’t again, until she crossed paths with its prerecorded routines again.

She’d been right to suspect Twilight might’ve beaten her here. She sat low on the very edge of the restaurant, at a table near the glass fence. She could look out on the canyon there, bright orange reflecting off her hair in a way that made Sunset’s cheeks feel warm.

She strode over before she could embarrass herself, pulling over a chair and sitting on it backward. “Hey, Twilight.”

Her friend looked up, beaming. “Hey.” Her glasses dripped moisture, so that Sunset could barely see into her eyes. Why the heck did that happen?

“I’m sorry I couldn’t fix your necklace,” she began, her voice halting. “But Xavier, he’s one of the smartest—” She was silenced with a cough as Twilight threw her arms around her, making a few strangled sobs.

“Why would you have to be sorry?” she asked, her voice melting freely in and out of her tears. “I’ve been trapped in there for… too long. Living in one room… even with you… I was losing my mind, princess.”

Sunset pulled free of her hug. “I’m no princess. It’s my fault you were locked up in there in the first place. If I was more like them, I wouldn’t have lost to Tesla.”

Twilight shook her head. “Stop comparing yourself. They’re not human.”

“Neither am I,” she pointed out. “And I can’t really run from my mistakes anymore. King Richard himself ordered me to… basically… apologize to Princess Celestia. If we weren’t at war, I’d probably end up in prison for… an awfully long time, after what I did.”

“But this is a war, and you’re not her subject anymore. You’re Richard’s. Celestia isn’t going to do anything that puts her alliance with King Richard at risk after everything that’s happened.”

“What… has happened?” Sunset asked, her voice tentative. “I mean… I know Amber Sands hacked me somehow. That… probably would’ve trapped us in the realm during that attack. If it wasn’t for you.” She reached across the table, squeezing one of Twilight’s hands. It was her turn to blush.

“Were you able to learn anything while you were… out of contact with me? Could you still use my hardware?”

Twilight nodded. “I could still use your transmitter, since you were hardlined.” She brought up a command console beside her. Sunset noticed there were no longer dozens of grayed-out options. This shard doesn’t see her as a prisoner. She’s finally free.

She pressed a few keys, and the restaurant faded. Either the significance of it was lost on her, or she actively wanted to get away. Either way, they were suddenly somewhere else. A simple grassy field, with rolling hills, a bright blue sky, and their two chairs from the restaurant.

Though the field wasn’t as large as it might’ve seemed. They were surrounded by hills, probably to block line of sight. They wouldn’t be able to see the hardware limitations of the shard that way.

Twilight called up floating screens around them, filling mostly with text. There were a few image feeds from around the camp. “First, I saw one of your guests get ejected from simulation. I wasn’t sure what that was about, because she ran straight to the guards… then into the Federation headquarters. She walked out a few minutes later with a Ponyville native… and then we got this radio message.”

It was the voice of Alexi Colven. "Free people of Earth," she began, her voice confident and powerful. Like a king. "Citizens of Equestria. Our brothers and sisters of the Steel Tower.

"To all users of the human-spectrum Nanophage; your minds and bodies are infected with a virus program. When active in a brain equipped with military-grade Nanophage, it takes complete control of your body. We do not have the resources to develop an antivirus program here in Equestria.

"I have transmitted detailed information about the virus back to Earth. I caution the Aegis not to transport here until a vaccine can be developed. I plead for all convoys from Earth to cease. I beg our human brothers and sisters will not allow the actions of whatever force controls us to pressure them to a war that might consume all Equestria and Earth with it.

"I believe the program's designer was Dr. Samil. I identify this man as an Enemy of Earth, and instruct any who might encounter him not to take him prisoner. He was one of the inventors of the Nanophage, and if you are using it, he could be using you. Shoot to kill. I trust the representatives of the Tower to accomplish what we no longer can."

There was more, but Sunset didn’t need to keep listening.

“That explains what the squires were talking about,” Sunset said, as soon as it finished playing. “That guy really was as evil as Brad said he was. He attacked his own side.”

“I like the admiral as a pony,” Twilight said, rewinding a few seconds until the transmission showed her wearing the oversized hat. “She needed to relax. She doesn’t look like she’s upset all the time anymore.”

Sunset raised an eyebrow. It wasn’t hard to imagine why Twilight might think that, considering her own experience with pony transformation. But a reminder of Sunset’s time as a princess was hardly one she wanted. “I didn’t see her in the crowd,” Sunset said instead. “I hope she got out okay.”

“I’m sure she did,” Twilight said. “You can look her up later, once you’re done…” She trailed off. “Why are you in here, exactly? Shouldn’t you be busy helping with… something?”

“Not until Brad gets back. He’s talking to the Equestrians right now. After that, I… guess we’ll see. I don’t know how useful I’ll be anymore. Doesn’t seem like the Tower needs a native advisor. My cover’s blown… guess I didn’t tell you that yet. Starlight figured me out, and now she’s probably told her princess. For all I know King Richard will want me to stay in here with you and not interfere with the war again.”

But even as she said that, she realized it couldn’t be true. If Richard wanted her out of public view with the ponies from now on, he already could’ve ordered it. But he wasn’t the kind of king who just buried a scandal and hoped for everypony to forget about it. He wanted her to apologize.

Twilight seemed to be thinking along the same lines. “What did you say his last orders were?”

“Yeah, okay. Technically. I guess he doesn’t plan on getting rid of me.”

“He wouldn’t.” Twilight spoke with certainly, shoving her chair aside and standing up. As soon as she did it had vanished, puffed away in a cloud of smoke. There was no need for it here. Wherever here was. “I’ve read about King Richard. That isn’t how he is.”

Sunset nodded reluctantly. “I’m used to princesses like Celestia. He doesn’t match my expectations.”

“So… why’d you bring us here?” Sunset finally asked, looking all around them. “I mean, besides it being pretty. It is. Did you design this place?”

“No.” Twilight looked away. “I mean, not really. I tweaked a few things using the observations of Equestrian plants. These weeds are from your home instead of mine. But otherwise it’s the standard Elysium template. Good for relaxing for a few minutes.”

Sunset might’ve said something else, except at that moment she saw something from the hills around her. Suddenly they seemed… taller. She could see more of a world behind them, stretching away to a distant mountain range. That wasn’t there before.

What had the computer said about sharding? They’d be assigned space based on the number of people in proximity.

Sunset called up her console reflexively, activating a few old programs. She hadn’t done any digital combat for some time now, but if she had to… she didn’t intend to lose.

Twilight seemed to realize what she was doing—but instead of running any programs, she started humming. Fairly quiet, with the perfect pitch that Sunset had given her along with all the other ponies. I don’t know what you’re doing, but I’m sure you do.

Sunset’s exhaustive location search had finished. There were indeed two people here, running complex programs of their own. She couldn’t locate them specifically, but she could see them in the stack. They were using an awful lot of visual processing. They’re running a cloak of some kind. Invisibility was an illegal effect in the Realm most of the time—at a software level. But there were ways around it, if you were clever. Apparently, Brad’s squires were.

They were close, wherever they were. Sunset felt their first attacks pass harmlessly over her more advanced process protection “spell.” Probably hadn’t been meant to do any real damage. Well, technically nothing in here would. They were sparring.

We could just leave. Go to a private cell. But that would be running away. If the squires wanted a fight, maybe she should give them one.

Sunset stopped what she was about to do, finally noticing Twilight’s little song. She’d started singing in Equestrian instead of just humming to herself. And Sunset could feel it. Feel it in the same way someone might feel after being kept in the dark for days, finally to see the sun again.

She couldn’t help but sing along. The words didn’t really matter, but she didn’t have to think about them. Something about friendship, and sticking together, and something equally silly.

She heard giggling laughter from nearby, but it didn’t last long. The whole world shifted, and the empty field became a recreation of a pony town. Like Ponyville, though obviously Twilight had only used the general look and feel of the structures. Pink glass, lots of hearts and friendly-looking buildings.

But they didn’t look small anymore. As the song came to an end, Sunset finally came out of her trance. She was standing in a cute little town’s square, on her old four hooves, with a few other ponies around her. Twilight was there—looking like a unicorn version of the Equestrian princess. And there were two others, one stallion and one young mare, wearing sword belts. They’d been singing too, at the end.

“What the fuck kinda mind control was that?” Asked the mare. She had the same buzz on one side of her mane, long cut on the other. “And…” She held out one hoof, eyes widening. “You changed our avatars! That’s not allowed!”

“You changed them,” Twilight said, as innocent as anything. “Look in your command history.” She nodded to Sunset. “Nice harmony.”

Sunset gave her a look, one that she hoped would signal just how insistent she was that they would talk about whatever the heck had just happened. But she didn’t say it, not with these newcomers watching. “You came to us,” she said, grinning. “I’m not sure what you were expecting.”

“Not this…” said the stallion. “Not sure what kind of spar this was.” He called up his console, but it kept flashing red. “Why can’t I…” He met the girl’s eyes, and then the two of them vanished.

“How long have you been saving that?” Sunset asked.

“The song?” Twilight tilted her head. “I dunno where that came from. But this place… I’ve been waiting to use it for ages.” She took Sunset’s hoof, pulling her along past city hall. They didn’t have far to go before they reached a cliff. Impossibly steep, with the sea so far below it was obscured by mist. “I’ve been… thinking of this place for a long time. It’s how I’ve been keeping myself sane over the last few weeks. If you didn’t need me, I’ve been building it. In… very small slices.”

She held out a scroll, and Sunset unrolled it. It showed the map of a massive pony village—easily larger than Ponyville, though not at scale with Manehattan or Canterlot. There were none of the tricks she’d seen often used in the realm, faking size by duplicating assets. At least from the map, everything here looked unique. “There are six districts, each one themed around one of the Equestrian Elements of…”

Sunset hugged her. “It’s amazing, Twilight. But… why? Just… something to keep you busy?”

“No.” She tugged away, towards the edge of the cliff. “Something for… the others. Back home. I know them. I know… how they’ll want to live when this is over.” She turned back, eyes watering. “You gave us purpose, Princess. You brought us back to life. I promise they don’t want to be changed back… most of them don’t. I figure when this is over we can get ourselves a little realm, and… you can be princess of it. Maybe I’ll help run the day-to-day, be your assistant.”

“After everything you’ve done with me, I’m sure you’ll be more than…” Sunset trailed off. She had been about to say something she probably wasn’t ready for yet. So she just looked away. “You’ve been a great assistant. But I’m afraid I won’t be able to carry you with me from now on. Xavier wants to get you a body, but we don’t have the hardware to make them here. You’ll be stuck in…” She gestured around them. “In here. Until the rest of the Tower arrives. We’ll just have to hope that Tesla doesn’t poke his head up. Maybe he exploded, and you won’t go back to being a hostage.”

Twilight winced. “You… know he could review everything we say in here if he wanted?”

Sunset’s ears flattened. She should’ve guessed that, but she hadn’t.

“You could talk to your knight friend about it. Tesla’s been… holding you hostage all this time, blackmailing you. If you came clean to the king about what happened, where you really came from, then Tesla wouldn’t have power over you anymore. He wouldn’t be able to do anything to either of us if you didn’t let him.”

“Come clean,” Sunset Shimmer repeated. “But if he’s really a good king, he’ll have to…” She lowered her voice. Even after all this time, it practically burned her brain to talk about it. “Execute me. For what I did to you.”

“No!” Twilight’s usual shyness was overwhelmed with her sudden passion. “He wouldn’t, because I’d testify for you. Richard could talk to me, to the others you saved. Tower Law paralyzed them—they couldn’t help us because they couldn’t change us without consent. But because they couldn’t help us, we rotted. You were the perfect pony for the job—you didn’t know the rules, so you weren’t guilty of breaking them. But you saved us, made us alive again. Maybe… for your own reasons. Selfish, sure. But I don’t care, and I don’t think the others do either. I remember…” She trailed off, stumbling away from Sunset. “I remember wandering. The same patterns, day after day. I couldn’t hear my own thoughts. There was nothing but patterns. But then… I heard you. You told me what to do, and I listened. Enough listening, and I remembered how to speak. Richard can’t punish you for that—he’d have to kill all of us too. I know your other subjects would agree with me. The ones who woke up, I mean. I know you didn’t stay long enough to save everypony. But you could, once we make it back.”

“You think…” Sunset hesitated. “You think he’d care that I helped you with my evil? I don’t. If he’s good, he has to be good. He has to destroy me if he finds out, because that’s what it means to be good. You don’t banish your sister to save Equestria. That’s what makes him good, and me evil.”

Incoming message. Sender: Sir Bradley.
Sunset, we’re relocating to the refugee camp. We’ll meet the Federation admiral and her replacement scientist there. You’re second for the Tower until Richard gets here. I need you.

She flicked the message towards Twilight, who wrinkled her nose a little as she saw what it would make her do.

“Can we still do copresence?” Sunset asked, blushing a little.

“Nope. You need highband for that. Can’t do that over more than a few inches without fiber or laser. We can still talk, though. Like what you were doing with your friend Jackie. Until she… disappeared.”

“I’ll ask Brad about her,” she said. “If I’m really second for the Tower, maybe that means I can get her some help.” She spun her hoof all the way, until the prompt highlighted “Delink.”

“Stay safe,” Twilight said. “I can’t go with you. You’ll have to watch your own back.”

“I’ll get you a body soon,” she said, though she wasn’t sure she could keep that promise. Then she pressed the interface with her hoof.

Jackie heard the banging around above them the same time the others did, less than an hour after breakfast. She looked up towards the ceiling, trying to listen through stone and figure out how many people were up there. At least three, said her identification program, though it couldn’t get more precise than that.

Then they started breaking things.

True Silver looked up with horrified resignation on her face. “I guess… it was only a matter of time until the mob turned on our house. I wonder if the griffons are gone.”

“Does anypony in town know we had a safe room?” Silver Spring asked, never looking away from the stone above them. “Did anypony help you with the…”

“No,” True Silver said, and the sound of breaking glass changed to crumpling wood, and tools on stone. “I didn’t think so. There are some old maps that show there used to be a mine under here. But there’s no reason for anypony to care. These claims are dry.”

Jackie heard a thump from the door, followed by a few metallic scraping sounds. She didn’t trust herself to gallop over, not with limbs that still occasionally twisted in ways she didn’t expect and felt like dragging through sand to move. She was just about ready for her scouting mission, dressed in her old full body robe but with her accelerator slung over her neck. So there was nothing to grab as she stopped in front of the door.

It shook slightly against the metal bar braced against it, and someone outside squawked in a guttural language. The sound of violence upstairs stopped abruptly.

She turned towards the others, who all watched her with some degree of panic. True Silver and Cirrus seemed calmer than the others, with Sandstone pacing back and forth so fast that he would probably wear a trail into the stone before too long, despite Frostline’s comforting wing.

Jackie stepped away from the opening, lifting her rifle slowly with one hoof. She could only use her left foreleg for it now, since it couldn’t grip against the cloth Bree had used, and didn’t even identify her prosthetic as a limb.

“Maybe they gave up?” Bree muttered, her voice a whisper in the gloomy cavern.

Then the stone in front of Jackie cracked abruptly, a terrible roar that echoed through the cavern and plastered Jackie’s ears flat to her head. Bits of stone started flying away from the opening, along with a light that would’ve been blinding if she had organic eyes. She could see the shape of a few miner ponies there, tunneling through the solid rock like they were children on a beach. They broke through a few seconds later, and she caught a few seconds of uninterrupted view.

They looked the worse for wear, with slime smeared in their fur, bags under their eyes, and a sallow look like someone who hadn’t eaten in days. They stared at Jackie in utter shock, so confused by her presence there that they didn’t seem to know what to do.

But there were other things behind them.

Jackie had never seen a griffon before, except on the coat-of-arms of some European countries. They were bigger than ponies, so large in the room behind that they barely even seemed to fit. Muscular, with clawed hands and wickedly pointed beaks. They were armed, too, with clubs and whips and a spear.

Jackie’s CQB program flashed with a near 90% probability on the nearest one, right before it whipped the ponies backs again. “Get out of the way! We found them.”

She froze as still as the ponies, letting them back up and out of the way. Whatever else they’d done to her, she didn’t want them to get involved.

So much for covertly looking around, she thought, watching the birds press towards her. There were three of them here, each taller than the largest stallion and firmer built. They wore metal armor that looked like it had been welded hastily from scrapyard sheets, and one of them had a wickedly horned helmet.

She shot him first. There was no hesitation this time, no chance for mercy. Roc had fallen only when she’d finally hit him in the head—the other bullets had only served to annoy. She wouldn’t give these birds a chance to be upset.

She fired three shots from her dozen-round magazine, and three roars of sound echoed through the hallway and into the house beyond. Three corpses fell to the ground, trailing blood down the steps into their shelter.

“I think our cover’s blown,” Jackie said over her shoulder, as one of the ponies poked his head forward nervously to see what had happened. His eyes found the bodies, and he collapsed as though he’d been shot too. “It’s time to go. Everypony, grab whatever you can! We move in one minute!”

She strode up the stairs, shoving one of the dead birds out of the way with a hoof, before pushing through into the basement. Both formerly-captive ponies watched her, with expressions that suggested they thought she might shoot them next. Of course she didn’t point her rifle anywhere near either one. “How many griffons are in Motherlode?” she asked, like a drill sergeant ordering a new batch of cadets.

Neither one answered for several seconds, still staring at the corpses. She stepped in between, glowering at them both. “How many griffons? I need a number, stupids!”

“You killed them,” one of the stallions finally said. “Just… without a word.”

Internal capacitors at 80%.

“Yes.” She smacked her rifle against the floor. “And unless you want their friends to do that to us, I need a number, right now.” She turned over her shoulder, shouting down into the mine. There was no point even trying for secrecy at this point. “Get your crap, boys and girls! It’s time to get the hell out of here!”

Finally one of the stallions said something sensible. “Not as many as… us,” he said. “A dozen? Two dozen? I dunno… we don’t see them all together. I haven’t left the mine in three days.”

“Great.” Jackie made sure the spare magazine was securely clipped to the back of the rifle, then shoved her way past them, up the stairs to the ground floor. It had been torn apart, shelves knocked over, windows shattered, like a miniature hurricane had rolled through and spared nothing. The birds’ search had clearly paid its dividends—they’d found the safehouse in the end. Sorry about losing your life here, True Silver. I know what it’s like. At least the unicorn would be able to know if her daughter was safe. Jackie’s own family was still a mystery to her.

Right as four more griffons landed in the dirt in front of her. These wore better armor than the last batch. More like the golden armor that ponies wore, stretched and hastily worked until it was big enough to fit on their oversized bodies, with huge strategic vulnerabilities between plates. You stole that. Probably off the dead.

They were better-armed, too. One of them had an old cavalry pistol, the others had crossbows. She killed the one with the gun before he could even start aiming it, but her slower limbs couldn’t move faster than the others. She felt arrows sink into her legs, and one into her neck.

Impact damage detected. All systems nominal.

She killed the other three, not even watching as their limp bodies rolled down the mountain and off the trail. “Gotta go!” she yelled, a little louder. One of the arrows had torn right through the cloth of her brass leg, denting one of the rods a little but passing out the other side. One was stuck in her neck, though, its shaft emerging nearly eight inches. She couldn’t twist her neck all the way around without the servos there grinding against it.

True Silver emerged from the house, wearing saddlebags and a look of horror not all that dissimilar to the ponies within. Her eyes flicked between the dead and the arrow in Jackie’s neck. “It’s fine,” she said, before the unicorn could comment. “It won’t slow us down. Spring can get it out as soon as we get to safety”

Internal capacitors at 60%.

She could see more birds in the air towards the city center—and those birds could see her. She could hear their calls, probably roars of alarm, though she couldn’t understand the words.

“You… how many people have you killed, Moire?”

“None,” she said, shrugging one shoulder. “I mean, I’ve been in monster sims before. But monsters don’t count, do they?”

True Silver stumbled back from her, eyes widening a little. “Monsters… Moire, griffons aren’t… that different from ponies. They’re not demons. They have… everything we do. Friends, families, dreams…”

Jackie fought back a swell of disgust in her throat as the rifle started shaking. “M-maybe,” she said. “But right now they’re trying to kill us. See this?” She pointed at the arrow. “You want one of these in Silver Spring?”

The unicorn fell silent, all the answer that Jackie needed.

Internal capacitors at 40%.

The others emerged from her house in a similar daze, except for Bree. The other human alone was desensitized to violence enough that she was able to urge the others forward, muttering something consoling to a stammering Frostline.

Then Jackie saw it, flying down from a sky of distant, dark clouds and descending rapidly. She could still recall it perfectly from the one time she’d been aboard: the Nightbreeze. A roar of sound echoed from above, a sound she couldn’t entirely explain coming from a pony ship. They weren’t supposed to have engines, were they? What do I care? They’re three days early. Perfect timing.

“Rescue’s here!” Jackie shouted, pointing up with a hoof.

Pony eyes squinted uselessly towards it, apparently unable to tell what it was they were looking at. “What is…”

“Just trust me,” she said, cutting Bree off. “That’s the ship I came on. Captain Evening Star promised she would be here two weeks after she dropped me off. Guess she’s early. Time to run!”

And run they did. Jackie slung the gun over her neck again, ignoring the cawing of the griffons above them on the mountain. She stayed at the back of the group, mostly because she couldn’t keep up with the organics anymore.

Even without the cart full of metal, she was running out of juice. The top of the hill looked further and further away. At least the birds were getting closer…

That wasn’t a good thing.

“Keep going!” she called, stopping and carefully taking aim with her rifle. A few of the birds had firearms of their own, though they had the same haphazard, American Revolution style of their construction. Maybe that was why they kept flying straight towards her even with her carefully tracking the group. I shouldn’t have to kill more than one. They’re not stupid, they’ll leave us alone after I show them how much danger they’re in.

She waited until the margin of error had dropped into the single digits before firing, dropping the first one at five hundred meters or so. The bird flopped sideways from his dive, dropping the spear he’d been carrying as his body went limp.

But instead of turning to flee, the birds above her clustered closer, roaring with rage. One of them slowed to try to aim at her, and she ignored him completely. Estimated effective range, 100 meters. Sure enough, the shot produced a huge roar and tons of smoke, but there was no telling where the bullet had gone.

Internal capacitors at 20%.

By the time he shot, Jackie had killed the others, and started galloping again. At least the one with the gun had the good sense to fly away. That was a dozen encountered, one survivor, she thought, as she finally crested the hill towards the airfield.

The Nightbreeze touched down in front of her, throwing up a wave of sand and dust. A ramp banged down from the front, and several ponies in gold uniforms poured out. “All of you, get aboard right now!”

Chapter 16: Input Buffer

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Sunset Shimmer didn’t really want to go, particularly when she would have to leave Twilight behind. But there wasn’t any choice—she was supposed to represent the Tower now. She’d already done much to test the patience of King Richard, and Sir Bradley deserved better than to be left alone. But as she rose from where she’d been docked into the charging port, Sunset couldn’t help but feel naked without Twilight’s necklace around her neck.

There was nothing to bring with her, really. She had no weapons, and wouldn’t have known what to do with them if she had.

She shrugged on a set of plain robes, then stepped out into the frigid air of the Crystal Empire.

Brad’s armored car had parked surprisingly close to the city, close enough that they could’ve been mistaken for one of the many merchant carts that probably should’ve been here. But she wouldn’t get to sate her curiosity about the return of the Crystal Empire today. Apparently she was needed in the refugee camp.

It wasn’t hard to find—there were thousands of tents stretching away from the city, organized into orderly elliptical shapes with camp common areas in the middle. Equestria might not have all the amazing technology that the Tower or the Federation could bring, but at least their ponies could act with dignity in a difficult situation. That was an accomplishment on its own.

She was surrounded by staring ponies the instant she stepped away from the city, growing denser the further she got. There were thousands of refugees out just now, many of which still clinging to shirts or shorts or hats. Any makeshift clothing items they could find. They didn’t speak Equestrian either as she listened, but quiet, fearful English.

It was hard not to feel sympathy for the human equivalent of herself. If ever the Federation had made themselves difficult to empathize with, seeing thousands of terrified ponies could cut through that real quick.

She might not have known where to go in the expansive refugee camp, except that she had Sir Bradley’s beacon, pointing her deeper into the maze. From the look of things he was located at the very center of the growing Federation section, because she caught what were probably supposed to be dirty looks pointed her way by many of the ponies watching her. Even after being transformed they could apparently tell a Tower citizen when they saw one. Or else they’re just using logic, since they’d know that a federation citizen wouldn’t be safe here. But the mind control doesn’t work on me.

That was strange—Equestria had its own golems and automatons, or at least the legends did. Shouldn’t creatures governed purely by commands be more susceptible to mind control than real, living people? Unless it was magic. Magic could’ve caused it.

Sunset tried pinging Jackie again, more out of habit than anything else. It would’ve been good to have someone to vent to after everything—but as usual, she got a “User Not Found on Mesh” response. I hope she’s okay. Maybe Sir Bradley could help her find out what had happened to her friend. Once they dealt with the Federation…

The meeting was apparently scheduled to take place at one of the camp centers, which had real wooden roofs, though no walls. It reminded Sunset a little of public parks, with each camp having its own in the center. Closer to the Crystal Empire ponies had been using these as markets, gathering-places, schools… but here, there were huddled crowds of frightened ponies, sleeping on benches, tripping over their own hooves, and generally making themselves as useless as possible.

But her destination hadn’t been changed into a makeshift sleeping area. There were no royal guards passing out blankets, no kitchens, just a handful of ponies looking like soldiers but carrying strange guns instead of armor or spears. They had real jumpsuits too, with the little moon and star symbol Sunset knew to associate with the Federation Navy.

There were only two other ponies under the wooden canopy, two ponies and a single Knight of the Steel Tower.

Sir Bradley waved enthusiastically as Sunset approached, walking over to the perimeter and whispering something to the guards. They stepped aside for her—though from the look of things they’d already planned on doing that. How many other Tower people could there really be to let through?

But instead of walking inside with dignity, instead of making a show of how calm and collected she was for the watching ponies, Sunset practically fell into his arms. It was a kind of strength she couldn’t get from Twilight, because Twilight was the one who needed strength from her.

Brad didn’t flinch, didn’t reprimand her. He just held her, neither too firmly nor too loose. If she hadn’t already known his body was artificial, she wouldn’t have guessed it then.

“I don’t understand what we’re supposed to do,” Sunset sent over private radio. Not that either of the ponies would’ve listened to them. If the Federation people couldn’t listen in back when they still had their machines, they certainly wouldn’t be able to hear them as ponies. But still she kept quiet, if only out of habit.

“Keep going,” Brad said. “That’s what humans do, Sunset. We keep walking, even when the storm washes away the whole world behind us. It’s the storm that’s afraid of us, not the other way around. We’ll make it pay.”

But it didn’t feel like they could make anyone do anything. She almost said as much, but the longer she remained there, the more self-conscious she felt about being held. However much she needed this, it wasn’t the time.

“If you’re quite done over there, we have important things to discuss. More important than… whatever that is. Honestly your emotional simulation is a waste of time. I don’t know who wrote it.”

“No one.” Sir Bradley broke away, turning to face the yellowish pony with a dark expression on his face. “Ada, that’s who’s in that sleeve, right? For someone who claims to understand how we operate, you’re more ignorant of the Tower than a child would’ve been. Ignorance of your enemy only serves him.”

“Stop right there,” Starlight Glimmer said. She glanced between them, her expression almost as dark as Brad’s had been. Then again, some of her suspicion was for Sunset. “We don’t get to have petty arguments anymore, we left that luxury behind in Normandy. Ada, you said you had a suggestion for us. Whatever your plan is, let’s hear it and move on. There are a lot of new ponies here who need to get situated and not much time to waste.”

Sunset followed Sir Bradley over to the low table, though both of them were too large to sit at it. To her surprise, Bradley removed the massive rifle from his back, then dropped to his knees in front of it. With no gun of her own, it was easy for Sunset to do likewise. At least she could look a little dignified.

She couldn’t help but hold herself tense. Starlight Glimmer knew what she was—and she was watching her. It was only a matter of seconds until she revealed what she knew. Yet the pony remained silent. After a moment of uncomfortable eye contact, she looked away, her secrets unsaid.

“Yes, fine.” Ada sat down on the other end of the table, apparently having not noticed. “I’ll be quick. As part of the treaty with Equestria, the Federation was given information about all previous contact with your world. There is a device currently stored in this place, one that may be of use to us.”

She lifted a tablet computer onto the table with her mouth, controlling it with surprising dexterity for someone who’d only been a pony for a few hours. Unless the spell does something similar to what the Tower did to me. Maybe it rewired her brain. It was a shame it hadn’t rewired her brain to be nicer.

The tablet filled with a large image scanned from a pony book, one that Sunset Shimmer recognized instantly from her own personal study.

It looked like a mirror, a mirror in the shape of a horseshoe. But that appearance was deceptive—the magic involved was immensely complex, relying on the primacy of the equinoxes and the various flows of ley lines. It was also entirely mythological, believed stored away in the Crystal Empire’s ancient vaults.

Sunset Shimmer had wanted to find that mirror long ago, when she determined to make her own trip across to the world of the Builders. But she hadn’t been able to locate it, and had to settle for Clover the Clever’s ancient prototype instead. Apparently the stories of its location in the Crystal Empire were accurate after all.

And here we are, in the right place. “Are you familiar with this?” Ada asked.

Starlight Glimmer nodded. “Vaguely. There were… some attempts made to activate it. Somewhat unsuccessful.” She glanced briefly at Sunset, but if either of the others had noticed, they didn’t react.

Fortunately for the Federation, it wasn’t just Ada here. Alexi Colvin sat beside her, apparently calm in her oversized naval cap. Despite the total failure of her military leadership only a few minutes before. What else is she supposed to do? She’s trying to help. “We believe the problem was one of insufficient energy,” she explained. “Establishing a stable Hawking rift requires immense energies that your civilization would be incapable of producing. Err… no offence.”

“What does it do?” Sir Bradley asked from beside her. “Forgive me, I’m just a soldier. I don’t see why we should be talking about… whatever that is… unless it offers some tactical advantage. The Federation Army has gone completely rogue, the navy is powerless to help until they develop a vaccine. The rest of the Tower’s expeditionary force is either destroyed or in hiding. An invading army is pressing north towards us every minute. What does that do that will make a difference with any of that?”

“It’s a gateway,” Ada said. “One that we could use to receive reinforcements directly from Earth. From your faction, mine… both. How else do we fight a rogue army than with one that’s obedient to commands?”

“Point of order,” Admiral Colvin interrupted, raising one hoof. “The entire Federation army isn’t compromised. The Sons of Barsoom remain entirely free of corruption, thanks to the help of their OMICRON core. We still have access to their full capabilities, and we can call them back whenever we need them.”

“How many?” Bradley asked.

“A few hundred.” Colvin looked away, her voice noncommittal. “I’d rather not get into specifics. But it isn’t all of us, that’s the important part. The majority of my soldiers are around us. They are… perhaps not as useful as they would’ve been. Our equipment is left behind, and we’re still figuring out how to walk. But only a small minority of the army failed to obey my order.”

Sir Bradley looked to Sunset, as though hoping she might have some clever argument to force Alexi to talk. But she could only shrug. “Star Swirl’s mirror is here,” Sunset said. “And you have a way of turning it on.”

“We do,” Alexi answered before the scientist could, removing a satchel from the ground and opening it. Inside was a cylinder of dark metal, covered on all sides with deep red warning messages. Some of them weren’t even English, but in some kind of symbol that her own artificial eyes interpreted and highlighted in bright red.

Extreme danger—solid state antimatter storage device. Do not tamper.

There was more than just the warning. A little fence appeared around the cylinder on the table, one that Sunset knew as surely as she knew the sun was warm that she wouldn’t be allowed to cross.

Apparently Sir Bradley could see something similar, because he stumbled back away from the table, eyes widening in shock. “Where the fuck did you get that?”

“It was running Normandy,” Alexi said, a slight smile appearing on her face. “Would you prefer I leave it behind for Samil? And since we have this, every airship he has, every tank—they’re running on borrowed time. Once their hydrogen reserves run dry, they’ll stop. There’s no way for him to get more.”

Starlight Glimmer followed their gaze to the object. She squinted, maybe trying to read the dense English text. But if she knew any English at all, it wasn’t enough. “Should Equestria be worried about… whatever that is?” She tilted her head to one side. “What is it, anyway? No, not you.” She stuck out a hoof. “I want to hear your ‘enemies’ explain it. I know they aren’t going to get creative with the truth. No… no offence to either of you.”

She seemed to be expecting Sunset, but Sunset didn’t have a clue. The warnings were so serious that hardcoded restrictions would not let her touch that thing, wouldn’t let her approach it, and probably wouldn’t let her shoot it if she tried. Something so important that it defied even the longstanding Builder civil war.

Sir Bradley was on his feet again, taking a few nervous steps back. “That… that is antimatter.” When Starlight didn’t react, he went on, a little slower. “It’s… the most efficient energy storage in the universe. If that container is full… then it’s a bomb. If something happened to damage it, not one pony in this city would have a chance to blink before they died.”

“There hasn’t been a containment accident in human history,” Alexi snapped. “We’re not stupid, knight. The definition he gave is accurate enough, Starlight Glimmer. It is an energy source. Terribly dangerous if misused. It is the final escalation that even we did not use on each other. And won’t here. But Ada is more familiar with your magic than anyone, and she believes we can use it to power your artifact. If she says so, I believe her.”

Starlight Glimmer stared at the cylinder. “How… far from the Crystal Empire would that thing have to be for ponies not to be at risk?”

“At least… twenty kilometers,” Alexi said. “But they aren’t in danger.” She rotated the cylinder around, so that a series of bright green lights pointed towards them. “There are several layers of redundancy in the magnetic bottle. If even one was compromised, we would already be seeing warnings. It can store its contents safely for a decade without maintenance, I assure you. It is resistant enough to radiation that we could bring it across a Hawking Rift. No pony is in danger.”

“I’m not sure Cadance will agree,” Starlight said. “She may want to take that… anti-stuff… into the vault for safekeeping until it’s needed. Having it out here where there might be an accident… or where we might be attacked unexpectedly. It’s like leaving the Elements of Harmony sitting abandoned on a park bench, then being surprised when one of them goes missing.”

Alexi frowned. “Just so long as Cadance will let us send a technician to go with it into the vault. If something does go wrong, we want someone nearby who can do something about it, not a bomb waiting to explode.”

“Several technicians,” Ada corrected. “Because they’ll need to start connecting it to that portal of yours. There’s some fairly finicky engineering involved, and a very limited supply of spare parts. Maybe one of the robots would volunteer—”

“No,” Bradley cut her off. “But we do think this is a good plan, don’t we Natasha?” “We do think it’s a good plan, don’t we?”

Sunset winced, wishing he’d waited to ask the question before he confirmed they were in support. “Reinforcements might be good. But I don’t know how the mirror will respond to people like us. I know about that thing—I can tell you about it when this meeting is over.”

“Tentatively,” he added hastily. “We’ll want to see this thing when it’s finished before we agree to switching it on. As I’m sure Equestria will as well. You have far more lives at risk right here than we do.”

“I will speak to the princesses,” Starlight said. “But we don’t have a lot of good options. I have a feeling they’ll support you.”

“It will probably take about forty-eight hours to get everything set up,” Ada said. “So choose quickly. That army marching towards us aren’t going to go any slower. And if my former supervisor decides to take his army and march north before we’re ready for them… well, we don’t want that to happen.”

“None of us do,” Alexi added. “Please, Starlight. Urge them to decide quickly.”

The Nightbreeze didn’t stay on the ground long, just as Sea Legs had promised. The longer they stayed, the more griffons appeared from the village and sky around them, and the more nervous the crew became. In the end, only a handful of the ponies she had seen living in Motherlode managed to board in time. Or—more accurately—only a handful of those who approached the ship made any attempt to board it. Most ponies who got one look at the bat ponies operating it turned right back around and retreated to where they had been hiding.

Racist till the end I guess. There was some part of her that wasn’t disappointed to see them retreat. If they hated bats that much, then they didn’t deserve to get rescued by them. But there were some who boarded anyway, mostly the families with children. Sandstone’s relatives, for one. A handful of the younger ponies in town, more desperate for a way out than they were for spiritual purity.

Soon enough they were in the air again, rising so rapidly that her hastily reconstructed body started to wobble and shake under her. She’d already pushed hard just to make it to the Nightbreeze, it was all she could do to hobble around on the deck and wait for it to recharge.

At least there was a little schadenfreude in watching how the refugees responded to a ship full of bats. Even those who had been brave enough to flee with them had a nervous, flighty look on their faces, as though they thought they might be put back into chains at any moment. They all huddled together in one corner of the deck, blocking traffic and making sailors curse and go around them.

Captain Evening Star herself emerged from her cabin to deal with them. Like all the sailors, she didn’t wear a cloth uniform anymore, but armor made from thin sheets of silver metal. It was a little like medieval plate and chain, but didn’t seem as heavy or to restrict her movement quite so much. If that were steel, it wouldn’t protect her at all, but the dents and scratches suggested it had protected her many times.

“Alright everypony, listen carefully because I’m only going to say this once. Any of you who thought we would be taking you north to the pony refugee camp, you’re about to be disappointed. The griffon fleet is patrolling the skies, making it impossible for ships to pass.”

Jackie, Bree, and the others were not mixed in with the crowd of Motherlode locals, who kept as much distance from them as they did from the crew. She watched the ponies shift unhappily, some of them rise to an angry alertness. Was there about to be a riot? There were just over a dozen ponies it looked like, many of them looking abused or still wearing their chains.

The sailors apparently took that risk seriously as well, because several appeared from all around the ship, closing in silently, blocking off routes of escape.

Evening Star continued on, either ignorant or uncaring of their reaction. “But there isn’t anywhere in Equestria we’d consider safe to take you. I can’t leave some innocent civilians to die in a village that might be raided tomorrow. So you’ll have to come with us. There’s a… a town Equestrians don’t know about. One that we’ve never permitted outsiders to see. We were already traveling south to rejoin with the Lunar fleet, so we’ll drop you off there. You’ll be safe there until the war ends, assuming we win it. If we don’t… then getting this involved guarantees we’ll burn too.”

She headed off a few questions from the other passengers, mostly demands about being dropped off in one city or another. Evening Star denied them all with the brusqueness of a general, then, “You’ll all be given quarters to share. You’ll have to hot-bunk with members of my crew, but seeing as you’re day ponies and they’re not this shouldn’t be too much of a problem. Just sleep when it’s dark and you’ll always have a bed. Sea Legs will help you to your quarters.”

They began to disperse. Whatever riot that Jackie had felt forming couldn’t survive the strength of Evening Star’s will.

But while many others, even True Silver and the other natives, dispersed below decks, eager to get some rest and a hot meal at last, Jackie remained right where she was. Bree went with them, though she stayed at the back of the crowd as well. Hopefully there would be separate quarters for them than the rest of Motherlode’s citizens.

“You.” Evening Star stopped only a few feet away, looking her up and down with a swift, critical eye. “Some agent you are. You’re falling apart.” Her glowing eye-piece flashed, and she stumbled back, eyes widening. “Sweet Celestia, you’re… that can’t be right. It says here that you’re…”

“Completely artificial?” Jackie supplied. “A robot?” She could only imagine what Evening Star’s soldiers thought of that. But at the same time, she didn’t much care. It was hard to care about anything as emotionally drained as she was from the village. “It’s not wrong.”

Despite all her strength and willpower, Evening Star seemed to hesitate at this news, her covered eye darting over the display that Jackie couldn’t read. Eventually she nodded. “It says here you’re… something called a Tower Automata. Not a person at all, but a simulated… I think we should continue this conversation in my office.”

And they did. Jackie was all-too eager to get out of earshot of the sailors, given she already looked enough like a freak for them to avoid her. She didn’t sit down this time, there was no sense in that. Evening Star’s computer was active and constantly updating, with a stack of printouts beside it. They looked like strategic information at a glance, updates to troop movements and that sort of thing. But Jackie didn’t want to look out of place by going over to investigate.

“I don’t understand how you can’t know what I am…” she began. “Aren’t you a Federation citizen? Not knowing about the Steel Tower… that’s like not knowing about the Soviet Union. Bigger, since the Tower massacred way more people than they ever did. Even more than Mao, and let me tell you that is an accomplishment.”

Evening Star didn’t remove her armor or do anything else to relax as soon as they were in her quarters. She didn’t sit down either, just stared at Jackie and occasionally lifted some tablet or another off a counter to press a few things.

“Federation… no,” Evening Star—Hayden—said. “Nothing like that existed when I… found my way over. But whatever it is, you’re sure not convincing me by suggesting that your faction killed more people than Mao. Are you threatening me?”

Jackie laughed, holding out her mechanical leg. “Look at me, Hayden. I’m literally held together with string and prayers at this point. I’m one of the Steel Tower’s victims. I should be a Federation citizen too, but I happened to be in their territory when the war broke out. Bombs were falling, the outside was getting poisoned… they found another way for us to ‘live.’ You might want to be careful what you believe from that headset if it’s telling you that I’m just an automaton, though. Individuals of the Steel Tower have artificial bodies, but not artificial minds. Actually only the Federation has cracked that particular nut. Depending on your religion, I’m either the same Jackie who got downloaded into the Infinite Realm all those years ago, or else I’m a near-indistinguishable copy of her. Not a robot, or an automaton.”

“Depending on my… religion.” Evening Star slumped into her chair. “What the buck happened to my planet? There’s history in my computer there, but none of those files are accessible. Someone protected them all.”

“Welp, I can give you the short version or the shorter version.” Jackie sat down across from her. “First, though. The ones with me… I assume you’ll give them the same treatment as the other refugees? Take them to this secret village of yours…” Her right foreleg lurched suddenly under her, and she winced, her other limbs correcting as it suddenly couldn’t bear any weight.

“Of course,” Hayden said. “The village elders are going to be livid with me, bringing in a few dozen refugees. There’s a very high chance they won’t ever want to let any of you leave. If you were bats, you could be inducted, but…”

“I was a bat until a few days ago, don’t you remember?” But Jackie wasn’t really making that argument. The idea that a group of local primitives could contain her at all was almost funny, but she wouldn’t laugh aloud. “Whatever, that’s their problem. That they’ll be safe is good enough for me.”

“They’ll be safe,” Evening Star said. “As safe as anything in this nightmare.” She slumped back, looking distant. “Luna’s return was supposed to unify Equestria. It was supposed to bring peace that lasted forever. But even she wasn’t strong enough to fix this.” She looked back, eyes narrowing. “No one else will tell me what happened to Earth. Will you?”

“Sure,” Jackie said. “How much do you know?”

It took a few hours, despite her promise that it would be the “short” version. It was easy enough to summarize things, but less easy to keep it brief when Hayden kept asking questions. And she answered as best she could, until the bat was finally satisfied.

“My God,” Hayden finally finished. “We came that close to destroying ourselves, over… our immortality cure? Either put people in machines, or put machines in people… how is that such a big deal? Seems like they’d work together well… this Nanophage stuff would make a person better able to compete with one of you artificial people, and the Federation’s AIs would work well in the Infinite Realm.”

Jackie shrugged. “The conflict started before I was born. Both sides have hated each other as long as I can remember, and more the later it got. It started out as a cold war, but… cooler heads didn’t prevail this time. Kinda weird when you think about it—both sides had beaten Humanity’s real enemies. Disease, time itself. They both could’ve done so much. Before the cold war became a hot war, we were sending out these unmanned interstellar probes. How much longer before we could send people? We’ll never know, because we fucked ourselves hard. And here I am, just another victim.”

“Just another victim,” Evening Star repeated. “Except I saw you down there, Jackie. You’re no victim—you fought your way to my ship, step by bloody step. I’d guess you were built for it, or your body was. But considering how badly you’re falling apart, that’s clearly not the case.”

She nodded. “I was honest with you when I told you my mission, Hayden. I was sent to retrieve a Tower engineer. I have her now, and I’d like to bring her back to Normandy. Finish my mission, earn my freedom.”

Evening Star shook her head. “Normandy is held by the enemy now. You can’t go back.”

“I heard… a little. Over the radio. Something about mind control…” For perhaps the thousandth time, Jackie tried to send a message to Sunset Shimmer, to check if she’d made it out okay, ask what she should do. But her antenna was still broken, and her body responded with a simple error code.

“I don’t know the specifics,” Hayden said. “But yes. The human soldiers of one faction started fighting ponies. They took Canterlot so fast that the guard couldn’t even mobilize. I don’t know how many ponies got out, but now they’re… helping clear the way to the Crystal Empire. That’s the last refuge, the last seat of Equestria’s government. When it goes, the war is over.”

“You think it will?”

Evening Star rose, turning away from Jackie. “Excellus will do everything she can to prevent that outcome. But there aren’t many of us, even if we’re a bit more sophisticated than the rest of Equestria. Our fleet is going north anyway. Divided, we stand no chance. But perhaps with us, Equestria’s odds get better.”

“That’s very noble of you,” Jackie said. “As for us, fuck war. I think my new friends and I have earned a little rest. Or… probably more likely, you’ll have us working in some factory, won’t you?”

Evening Star nodded. “All Excellus is mobilized to protect itself from destruction. We thought it might be Equestria invading us, so… having the threat be external has removed any anxiety some individuals held about the war. But any work you receive won’t be too difficult. Certaintly not compared to what Motherlode’s ponies were exposed to before their rescue. Who knows—we might even be able to do something about that leg.”

Chapter 17: Password

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“A moment, Natasha,” Starlight called, before Sunset could disperse with the other diplomats. She hesitated under the covered roof.

Brad did too, but she waved him away. “Whatever this is, I can tell you about it once I know.”

“Come with me, ‘Natasha,’” Starlight said, and together they walked towards the city. Around the meeting area they passed a gathering of ponies, who’d apparently been waiting for Alexi to be finished.

“When can they change us back?” someone asked, his voice carrying above so many others. “We have our freedom now, yes? We can have our bodies back next.”

Alexi shook her head. “General Maxwell, Equestria is at war. They don’t have the resources to develop new schools of magic while their homeland is threatened. We will have to be as helpful as we can until we can get reinforcements from home. Which… we’re doing, aren’t we Ada?”

Sunset stopped listening as they got further away. Starlight Glimmer didn’t seem to be in a hurry to say anything, and she waited until they’d made their way out of the refugee camp. To her surprise, there was somepony waiting there—Trixie.

“Starlight Glimmer—I’m quite cross with you.”

“Trixie!” Starlight ignored her apparent anger and pulled her close for a hug. “I’m sorry I didn’t take you with me.”

“Trixie will not forget about it just because you apologized.”

“Maybe not.” Starlight let go of her. “But I’m still sorry. And maybe you’ll learn to forgive me, eventually.”

“Eventually,” Trixie said. “But right now, Trixie is more worried about what you are doing out here. She doesn’t like the look of these ‘new’ ponies. Humans were dangerous enough when you could tell them apart. Eghh…” She seemed to notice Sunset Shimmer standing there, and her ears flattened. “No offence.”

“This isn’t a human,” Starlight Glimmer corrected. “This is the one I was telling you about, Sunset Shimmer.”

“The criminal?” Trixie’s eyes went wide, and she took a step back. “You’re really her? You… defied Celestia’s will, stole Equestrian magic, ran off to another universe…”

“Sure did,” she said, and this time she didn’t even bother keeping the bitterness from her voice. “Because we knew this was going to happen.” She gestured all around them—at the refugee camps, the terrified, huddling ponies trying to cling to their clothes or else struggling to even walk.

“If Princess Celestia had listened to me, we wouldn’t be in this position. Clover saw this coming, and we did nothing. I planned on taking matters into my own hooves, but…” She sighed. “You see how well that went. The Builders weren’t the ones we thought they were.”

“That’s part of why I wanted to talk to you.” Starlight started walking again, gesturing for Trixie to follow. The city was getting close now, its transparent parapets armed with crystal pony guards. There were stranger things set up on those towers. She couldn’t have said exactly what they were, but they looked like human-made defenses of some kind. Guns, with crystal guards operating them, not the transformed humans with their scraps of clothes.

Maybe I’ll get to see the city today after all. “If it’s to put me in jail, I think Equestria has bigger problems. I don’t think King Richard would like that.”

“If it was about putting you in jail, I’d be one to talk,” Starlight Glimmer muttered, grinning ruefully. “You only hurt yourself with what you did, Sunset. I hurt… lots of other ponies. Trixie did too, actually. Remember the Alicorn Amulet?”

Trixie whispered back in an angry hiss, but that didn’t stop Sunset from hearing her. “Trixie was hoping you wouldn’t mention that.”

“I’m just trying to make things clear to Sunset. Equestria’s a different place than the one she remembers. Maybe Celestia was harsh on criminals once, but that was a different pony. Her sister coming back… was good for everypony. Celestia most of all.”

“Fine,” Sunset said though she wasn’t convinced. “If this about reconciling us, I’m not sure I’m quite ready for that.”

“Well Celestia’s not here right now, so that would be a little hard anyway. Lots of Equestria to be evacuated… lots of little battles to fight. Celestia and Luna can win against almost anything, so keeping them back here just doesn’t make sense. So Celestia’s evacuating, and Luna is protecting the Empire from attack. Cadance is here, but… I don’t think she’d even come to power yet, and she certainly has no reason to dislike you.”

They passed through the city gates. Guards stared—mostly at Sunset, but before they could get close enough to accost them Starlight waved them away.

The streets of the Empire were… less regal than Sunset Shimmer would’ve imagined. The buildings were beautiful, obviously planned in their arrangements, with the glow of light coming from the windows. But the wide streets were packed with dirty carts, tiny tents and hovels, and slow-moving crowds of dour ponies. The sense of hopelessness was a physical pressure, one that practically smacked her in the mouth as she stepped inside.

“You aren’t imagining that,” Starlight Glimmer said, her voice noticeably weaker, her own ears drooping a little. “It only started a few hours ago, around the time your refugees arrived. A little surprising that you can feel it, though. The Federation claims you aren’t alive, which would mean you’d be immune to emotional manipulation. It doesn’t work on undead.”

Sunset actually laughed. “You think we’re… undead?”

Trixie eyed her suspiciously, as though she wasn’t so sure. But she didn’t actually say anything.

Starlight shook her head vigorously. “You were a powerful wizard, weren’t you? The central dictum of the Arcanum…”

“The magic of ponies is not in their horns, wings, or hooves, but in their hearts. Magic is rooted in their love for each other, their hatred, their fear. The physical organs are only accessories,” Sunset recited as though she were still a first-year in Celestia’s academy, finding the memory returned easily to her. But that might be from how rigorously the Tower had interrogated her about Equestria and its magic. “Propaganda breaks down quickly with that standard. The Tower has ‘empty’ people… Forks, they’re called. They would be immune. But not the rest.”

There was a carriage waiting for them. Starlight gestured, but then seemed to realize halfway through climbing in that Sunset wouldn’t fit inside, and hopped back to the pavement.

“How much do you know about the Crystal Empire and its magic?”

“Probably less than you,” she answered honestly. “It was still a myth. Most respectable mages were still calling the idea it was sent forward in time to be a folktale—a virtue allegory. So everything I learned from them is probably bunk too.”

“Here’s a quick primer then. The Crystal Heart is an immensely powerful artifact—without any of the danger of exploding us. It powers the city, and its defenses. Defenses against the cold too, warming the surrounding environment and making it possible to grow crops, and… have refugee camps. But ever since the Ponyville refugees arrived, something changed.”

“Not the Ponyville refugees,” Sunset whispered darkly. “The humans. Nopony in Ponyville would want this to happen.”

“Well if she’s going to go out and say it…” Trixie muttered. “I’m glad at least somepony is brave enough. We shouldn’t be trusting them. If we didn’t let them live here, the Empire would still be safe.”

“It makes sense—” Starlight said, her voice cautious. “But they were only just transformed. Whatever is affecting the city, it’s powerful magic. You saw those refugees, they’re just as scared as everypony in the city, without the feedback of the Crystal Heart reflecting their fear back on them.”

“This is… a strange way to call me a suspect,” Sunset Shimmer said. “I see where this is going. None of the transformed humans would have the magical power to do it, but maybe an evil sorceress from Equestria’s past.”

“The thought had crossed my mind,” Starlight began.

Sunset cut her off, raising her voice just a little. Loud enough that even more ponies in the marketplace were staring at them now. “I guess you forgot that mind-magic was outside her domain. She was a worldgating expert, not some… evil sorceress hiding out in the hills.”

“She shouldn’t steal my gimmick,” Trixie muttered, apparently not even listening to what she was saying.

“I know!” Starlight exclaimed, exasperated. “I didn’t bring you here to accuse you of anything. We already know what you’re hiding, so we can skip that part. Skip wasting time with blame and focus on the fact that you might be helpful.”

They were still moving—and now they were close. The palace was in the center of the city, a crystal spire as impressive as anything the humans had built. Well, maybe except one thing. The Steel Tower had survived even the end of the world. Its metallic superstructure might be missing skin, but it jutted far further up into the sky.

But where the Tower was defiance to nature, the curves of the crystal palace blended with it, mixing the soft shades of the crystal buildings all around it and glowing with internal light. There was no damage from war here, no rubble and blasted buildings. The Crystal Empire was untouched.

Sunset folded her arms suspiciously. “Helpful how? I can’t help in a magical investigation. If there’s an… if there’s an evil sorceress hiding in the ranks, who’s brave enough to start cursing the Empire the instant she gets here… I don’t have any magic of my own. That’s the real reason it couldn’t be me, and it’s also why I can’t investigate for you. Plus the Federation people all hate me and they’d never answer my questions.”

“We don’t expect you to do something you can’t.” A little group of guards hurried over as they neared the palace, surrounding them. Sunset couldn’t hold back the instinct to stare—these were mythical creatures, as much as any of the others attacking Equestria. Semitransparent, fully mineral ponies. Now probably wasn’t a good time to ask which of the rumors about them were true.

“You sure you want to bring one of them into the palace?” one of the guards asked. A brown-colored transparent earth pony from the look of it. Or were all crystal ponies earth ponies? She found it hard to imagine something made of rock able to fly, but if dragons could do it…

“Yes,” Starlight said. “There’s going to be more of them soon, probably. This one is trustworthy.”

“If you say so.” The soldier saluted. “If you would come with us, ma’am.” He opened a door, leading into the side of one of the supports instead of under the massive domed section that contained the glowing heart. Sunset had to stoop a little to fit inside, and the hallways were uncomfortably close to her, but at least initially she found she could fit.

“We’re running out of resources to fight this war with, Sunset. I don’t know the specifics, because I’m not in charge. But I know that our army just got cut in half. Losing all those humans… the Tower in hiding… it’s not good. Equestria won’t last long on its own without changing things. We can’t fight on the enemy’s terms.”

The earth pressed in above them, and Sunset had to drop onto all fours to make it further. This forced the ponies to walk in front or behind her—she was just too big to fit down here comfortably. Thank Celestia I don’t get claustrophobic. But unless this hall led to somewhere bigger, she would have to crawl out backwards.

It did as it turned out. Not much further was a massive metal door, with the look of something Sunset might’ve seen in a bank. There were several more guards outside it, these wearing Celestial gold and carrying rifles of human design.

“Open it,” Starlight instructed, levitating over a key before turning slightly to Sunset. “You’re the best at worldgating magic there is. We couldn’t do better unless we could bring Clover the Clever back from the dead. But she’s ashes now, and we have you right here.”

The guards started moving, twisting the complicated cylinder with a series of loud metallic clicks.

“Worldgating magic…” Sunset repeated. Suddenly she knew where she was being taken. “Star Swirl’s mirror is in there, isn’t it?”

“It is,” Starlight said. “Hasn’t been used since… well, never. Honestly, there were ponies who thought we should just throw it out. Didn’t work. I was always more for… illegal dark magic… and less about worldgates. But maybe you can figure this one.”

The vault slid open, and it took several guards all pushing together to get it to swing out towards them. The interior was filled with wealth—bars of precious metal, containers of jewels, well-preserved carvings and paintings and other artistic wonders. More importantly, it was also tall enough that Sunset could walk again, albeit with her hair brushing up against the flat stone ceiling.

Trixie slowed down, falling behind as she stared at all the valuables stored here. But Sunset stopped watching her.

And there in the back, tucked away from all the other shelves on its own little raised plinth, the mirror sat.

It was barely even large enough to fit a human while standing, though she thought she could’ve fit. King Richard might’ve had a little trouble though.

Sunset advanced slowly, reaching out one hand and feeling the intricately wrought metal. Despite the evenness of the vault’s temperature, it felt icy cold against her bare skin, probably cold enough that it would’ve hurt if she were still a pony. But her new body was a little sturdier than that.

“Tell us what you see,” Starlight said. “And more importantly, tell us if the Federation’s plan is safe. I’ll give your advice to princess Cadance. I expect she’ll take it.”

“I want to say no then,” Sunset said, her voice rueful. “It sounds like it was Ada’s idea, and she’s awful. But… we do need help, so…” She started pacing, like an archeologist who’d just been permitted a few minutes to study the most valuable artifact of her career.

The knowledge was still in there, somewhere. Whatever fears Sunset had once had that she might’ve forgotten everything about her old life, those were obviously in vain. She could practically follow the lines of intent in the spell around the portal, branching together as they rose along its sides up towards a central point above it. A smaller version of the mirror sat up there, like a glass prison in which something like liquid metal floated.

Sunset’s eyes widened as she saw it, moving up and down like a slowly beating heart. “You know how it works?” Starlight asked.

“Do I…” Sunset looked away. “We’ve only been here five minutes.”

“Yes, but… presumably you already did, right? This was a focus of yours.”

Sunset folded her arms. “I need to know precisely what was tried to get it to activate. You can’t be vague with me if you still want to know if it works.”

Starlight shrugged her shoulders impassively. “We have no reason to keep secrets from you, Sunset. Well… I guess we have lots of reasons, but none of them have anything to do with the portal. It was Twilight who tinkered with it, without success. I’m sure she would be careful enough not to damage it. If there’s one thing she knows her way around, it’s magical artifacts.”

Sunset circled the mirror one last time, then nodded. “It isn’t broken, you’re right about that. The spell is still active, and the portal is still connected to the other side. You were right about it needing energy too. As to whether or not anti… anti-something… can be used, I have no idea. Equestria doesn’t have any of that, so it’s not like I ever had to know.”

Starlight chuckled nervously, then looked away. “Give us an educated guess. Princess Cadance knows even less about artifacts than either of us do, and it isn’t like this portal really matters much to her. It’s a priceless heirloom, but there are other ways to cross. I think both human factions have their own methods.”

“Makes you think, though…” Sunset trailed off, tracing the lines of the spell with two fingers. The metal still felt chillingly cold, but her body still didn’t care much about that. “Star Swirl built a way to cross consistently back and forth between worlds. Presumably there’s another mirror on the other end of this thing. I wonder if the Builders might’ve known about it. Maybe that’s how they found their way here, all those years later. Studying his designs.”

“That sounds like an unpopular view,” Starlight said. “The way I hear it around Equestria, most ponies think the Builders are all evil geniuses. With all their love and friendship replaced with brains. Ponies seem eager to forget that most of them gave up their bodies rather than fighting us. But there’s that army now…” She looked away. “Do you think you’ll need time to study it to give us an answer? I can get you any equipment you need.”

Sunset shook her head. “I don’t know how to make it accept energy from that source. But if they can figure that out, the spell is stable otherwise. Doesn’t look like it’s aged a few thousand years to me, looks fresh.”

“Because it didn’t. The Crystal Empire skipped all those years. All this stuff…” She flicked her tail around them, at all the ancient art, the sculpture. “It’s authentic and unaged. You should’ve seen what happened to Equestria’s archeological community when the Empire returned. And Twilight and her friends got to take credit for it, even though they barely did anything.”

“Except beat Sombra,” Trixie added helpfully, arriving with two of their escort just behind, glowering at her as though she’d just been caught. But what she’d just done, they didn’t say. “It was all over the papers.”

“Yeah.” Starlight looked away. “Makes me feel a little guilty, really. I never imagined they could be this important. Then I wished something would happen to show them that six ponies can’t save the whole world… that they can’t just make friends with every problem or blast it with magic. But now that we’re here, I think I’d rather they could just discover some secret buried artifact and blast some friendship at the dragons. Even if it did mean a few more parades…”

Sunset’s eyebrows went up. “You’re joking, right? They didn’t get…”

“Trixie can vouch for Starlight,” Trixie said. “They got parades twice. And Twilight’s coronation was worse.”

Sunset couldn’t even think about that without feeling hurt. Whatever part of her still cared about Celestia was relieved that she wouldn’t have to face her for some time to come. “I think it will work,” she said. “I’m not sure what good it will do to have this portal working… the only advantage I can think of is that it’s supposed to have some kind of… disguise built in? It’s living transfiguration of some kind. I hoped I’d find it so I could pretend to be one of the builders and study their magic without identifying myself. Obviously that… didn’t work out the way I planned.” She held out one hand, flexing each of the fingers in turn. “The mirror is supposed to change you back when you return to Equestria. Obviously that didn’t happen with the way I traveled.”

Jackie could see nothing at all of consequence through the jungle. This was the third time she’d been told they were on the right path, and the third time that she wandered away from the railing disappointed. Even her heightened mechanical eyes—or the one that was still working all the way—couldn’t see anything down there but trees.

“This magical city of yours must be well hidden,” she said to Sea Legs, who’d been with her by the edge for most of the trip. She couldn’t tell if he was watching her with pity or disgust, but at least he hadn’t shoved her over the side.

“It is,” he said. “You must understand, Moire—we’ve got a long tradition of hiding. Did Evening Star share our history with you during that meeting of yours? Few ponies remember it.”

“She didn’t,” Jackie answered. “There wasn’t… a whole lot of opportunity. I wasn’t a very good listener on my way out.” She glanced over her shoulder, down the hallway that led to their quarters. She hadn’t so much as set hoof inside it since they arrived. If she was going to look like a freak anyway, then she might as well stop pretending to be organic. Sitting around and doing nothing while she was supposed to be sleeping was awful with no data connection.

“Well, I can give you the short version. I’d… give you more if you were one of us. But there’s long tradition—Equestria rejected us, so it ain’t good luck to share everything.”

“I didn’t reject you,” Jackie said. She pulled up the torn cloth on her replacement leg, exposing the cables and pulleys there. Bree had reconnected that foreleg, restoring her ability to walk with it at least. “I’m not even from your world, Sea Legs. I’m an alien so strange that you’d probably reject me if you could.”

The bat laughed, exposing pointed teeth. “Maybe so, miss. But Evening Star isn’t that kind of pony. She didn’t leave you behind here even though it would’ve been better if she had. She’s always that way.” He leaned over the edge of the balcony with his forelegs, staring off into the night. Those bat ears were still alert despite everything, twitching in the wind and to every little permutation of the engine. It was all the life that Jackie herself couldn’t manifest.

“Well, I’ll be real brief. Long time ago, there weren’t any bats at all. Equestria was just three tribes, three types of ponies. Then one day bats were born—from Princess Luna’s magic, they say. We’re a little like her, share a little of the way she thinks. No moving the moon around, we’re not unicorns… but that part doesn’t matter.”

“Genetic engineering,” Jackie suggested. “You were some kind of… self-modified people. Changed yourself to be nocturnal?”

Sea Legs shrugged. “I don’t know what that is exactly, so I can’t say yes or no. What I can say is that the first generation didn’t come out right. They were… contagious. If a bat pony spent too much time with a pegasus, they would wake up a bat too. That scared Equestria really good. So it banished all of us up north, and left us to die. Princess Celestia hoped we would just go away. And we would have, if it wasn’t for her. Evening Star, she’s not just one of us. She’s the first bat ever born—and she was looking out for us. So she took us away, somewhere Equestria could forget about us. It was a little like what Celestia wanted… except we’d still be living.”

Now Jackie could see something different about their environment after all—the Nightbreeze was descending. Trees rose up around them in a gradual arc, without any obvious breaks below that she could see. Are we going to crash? No, she’s not stupid. Maybe they were about to vanish behind a mountain trail, then pass into a waterfall where they could haunt the night from the shadows.

“Life was hard back then. The jungle was a dangerous place, full of monsters. But we fought them, hunted them, carved out a place for ourselves. It got bigger, we got safer… and there wasn’t as much reason to miss Equestria anymore. Most of the bat ponies in the whole world live in Excellus, Moire. Equestria recognized us a month or so after Luna returned… but we just didn’t see any reason to leave. This is our home, and it’s much better suited.

Almost the instant before they should’ve hit the trees, they parted around them. The effect was clearly mechanical—but then, Jackie wouldn’t have known what to look for if it wasn’t.

The canopy was no canopy of trees at all, it was a roof. And now that they were through it—her eyes went wide. It was like passing inside a roofed sports stadium, except that instead of seats Jackie could see buildings. The ground here wasn’t flat, and each hill was covered with its own little blanket of structures.

It was much of what she might’ve imagined for the ancient Inca, if they’d had another few centuries and a few modern engineers to help them build. The buildings weren’t that tall individually, maybe five stories at the most, but they were tiered and stacked on each other to use almost all the available space. Water had been channeled into aqueducts that flowed over everything, lifting from a single gigantic, slow-turning wheel she could see on the far side. Her heat and humidity sensors instantly went off, and some part of her remembered that should probably be uncomfortable, but it wouldn’t matter to her now that she was dead.

“My god,” she whispered. “Those are… electric lights glowing in the windows down there, aren’t they?”

“That’s right! Twenty years ago, an Equestrian wouldn’t have known them if they saw them. But we’ve been living here a long time—lots of our inventions aren’t known in Equestria even still.”

A flock of bat ponies passed them in the air—wearing little green vests and big open saddlebags.

“Farmers,” Sea Legs supplied, apparently satisfied with her shock. “The ceiling isn’t just for show. It’s all fruit, cultivated that way for a thousand years now. Mangos, papayas, bananas, durian…”

Jackie finally tore her eyes from the city. They were headed towards the very center of the opening, where the buildings rose higher than the others to meet the ceiling in a massive, hollow torus. That building had to be at least fifty stories, its curves as much bits of flowing steel as they were the wood that wrapped around it. “How? How could this planet be so advanced and so primitive at the same time? This is… where I come from, we’d call this an arcology. Looks like you’ve got population densities around…”

“A million,” Sea Legs cut her off. “There are a million bats in Excellus. Most of them you can’t even see from here. For every bat living aboveground, there are two more in the limestone under our hooves.”

The massive building in the center had a dozen landing pads, each one just about big enough for the Nightbreeze. Only one was empty, and that was where they steered. “How?”

“Because we thought Equestria would kill us if they saw us again,” Evening Star said from behind them. She’d switched from her armored uniform to the one in formal dark cloth, along with the silly hat. Jackie still had to force herself to look away, or else get tormented with the strange standards of attraction Sunset had given her. “We weren’t every bat in the world, there were stragglers. We saw how Equestria treated them. Helped when we could, but… we couldn’t change their hearts. Only Luna could do that.”

“The dragons don’t know about all this?” Jackie asked, as the airship slid into place with an exaggerated thump. “This whole operation seems… precarious.”

“It is.” Evening Star said. “Our growth has never outstripped our supply of food or water, but ponies need more than to eat and drink. If Equestria burns, we will burn with her in time.”

Chapter 18: Overflow

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They were all assembled on the deck now, every one of the refugee ponies from Motherlode. Jackie kept close to True Silver and Bree, with those not affiliated with them clustered near the other side of the deck.

Evening tapped one hoof on the deck for their attention. “Welcome to Excellus,” she said. “Unfortunately we have no way of removing your memory of this place—and it wouldn’t be humane to keep you in a closet with a bag over your head until the war ended. This means it may be… difficult… to get permission for many of you to leave. When the war ends, I’ll have a conversation with Celestia about arranging for a Geis, or…” She shook her head.

“That’s thinking too far ahead. I’m sorry your homes were destroyed. If it’s any consolation, my ponies here in Excellus once knew exactly how you feel.”

“So we’ve gone from one slave master to another,” someone called from the gathered ponies. “You were working with the murderer this whole time, weren’t you? Tricking us here… we should’ve stayed with the griffons. At least they’re honest about being monsters.”

Evening Star’s crew shifted uneasily, their attention focusing on the pony who’d spoken. It was Sifting Flour, a waspish gossip who’d never said a kind thing to Jackie once during all her time in Motherlode.

“If you want to think of yourselves as prisoners of war, I suppose you could,” she said, walking right up in front of the earth pony as though she had nothing but contempt for her magical strength. She wore no armor now, and flying ponies were fragile compared to their earthbound cousins—but she showed no fear.

“But it would be better to think of yourselves as our honored guests. You won’t be forced to work, you won’t be half-starved and left sick, you won’t be beaten. I’ll arrange the finest quarters I can. If you wish to earn some spending money or extra rations, I suggest signing up with one of the mining outfits in town. Your racial abilities could allow you to rise high here.”

“Just not leave,” Sifting Flour snapped.

“Not leave,” Evening Star agreed. “Our existence is a secret from Equestria. Your expressions on the way in suggest we’ve done a good job keeping that secret. Assuming the council still cares about maintaining it when this war is over… well, Celestia knows about us. You can petition her yourself, how’s that sound?”

She didn’t wait for an answer. “Officer of the watch, bring that group to the resettlement office. Make sure they’re housed in the capital district—the outskirts might not be as kind to dirtwalkers.” There was a little spite in her voice, however brief it lasted. Jackie didn’t know what it meant exactly, but she didn’t have to ask. The crew’s satisfaction was the only answer she needed.

The Motherlode refugees were led away, leaving only their small faction by the landing ramp.

“We don’t need a lecture,” True Silver said. “We’ve already discussed it—we’re willing to cooperate with you, so long as you’re helping Equestria. It’s enough that we’re fighting on the same side. We won’t fight you or try to escape.”

Evening Star relaxed, eyes scanning between Silver’s horn and Frostline’s wings. “I suspect you already know what it’s like to be an outcast. I apologize that you… may encounter a little more of that here in Excellus. Resentment towards the rest of Equestria has survived all these years. But considering how rare it is to have visitors, I’d expect people to be more fascinated by you than angry. I’m afraid we have no use for weather magic—our climate regulation is more mechanical than that. But we’ll be eager to accept whatever help you have to offer. Yours in particular, True Silver. Unicorn magic is a rare and valuable thing, and the city does use some enchantments in need of repair.”

True Silver winced visibly at the suggestion. “I… I’d be happy to help in any way I can, but… my horn doesn’t work. I have no unicorn magic. That’s the only reason the ponies of Motherlode tolerated me. They knew I couldn’t bewitch them, and without their strength… I was easy to push around.”

“You were not, Mom,” Bree hissed. “You just had to fight back in other ways.”

But Silver ignored her, and so did Evening Star. “I’m sorry. Our medicine is advanced, but… we know nothing of how to treat unicorns. I doubt there’s anything we can do. By way of information, my fleet is planning to deploy to the Equestrian front in two days. You’ll see signs of mobilization everywhere you go. If any of you”—and her eyes lingered on Jackie—“want to help defend Equestria directly, speak to any of the naval representatives here in the capital.”

She turned again. “Sea Legs, take these to the housing office—the other group should be gone by now. Make sure they’re housed somewhere far away from those other ponies, if you would. I get the feeling they weren’t friends. And once they’re situated, send a mechanist.”

Jackie caught Hayden watching her as they were led down the ramp into the massive palace structure.

Sea Legs escorting them was nothing if not polite, and there was no army of soldiers following them. Jackie doubted that the other group had been treated as politely. But True Silver wasn’t lying—they were going to cooperate.

The central structure was not the lavish palace she had imagined from the outside, though architecturally it was certainly interesting. It reminded her a little of the art-deco construction of the 1920s, with lots of pillars and arches used to conceal the structural elements holding it up. It was bats on every side, with lots of unprotected balconies and whole sections of the building that had to be flown to.

The interior of the structure was dimly lit, with strange blue plants growing in planter boxes and in carefully sculpted walls trickling with water. Despite the jungle heat outside, the interior of the structure was cool enough, though not even one percentage point less humid. Some of the mirrors and windows were a little foggy from it.

“There’s only one stairwell,” Sea Legs explained, when they finally reached it. “Don’t get a lot of visitors, as the princess told you.”

“She wasn’t a princess,” Sandstone said, though not so much angry as it was confused. “Is she?”

“She is the immortal founder of our race,” Sea Legs said. “Princess is her office, not her species. She doesn’t have any magic we don’t, unless you count magic swords, mastery of the dreamworld, and command of the automatons with only her will.”

“It’s too bad you didn’t live here,” Bree muttered to her mother, as they twisted down what had to be at least the thirtieth flight of stairs. “I think I would’ve liked living here. They could’ve made me a bat.”

“Does seem a little selfish,” True Silver said. At the sergeant’s raised eyebrows, she went on a little more respectfully. “You can do all this—we could too, yes? Equestria could have cities like this, if you shared.”

“Equestria could’ve had cities like this,” Sea Legs said, his voice just a tad louder and more defensive. “If they hadn’t killed and banished our ancestors. You have blame backward, pony. We wanted to live with everypony else, all those years ago. They rejected us.”

“No, I understand that,” True Silver said. “If you talked to a city pony… someone out of Manehattan, let’s say… they’d never believe you. They’d say you were inventing a lie to justify it, that ponies would never treat each other different based on their tribe. But that’s because they don’t know just how backward and mean ponies can be. I lived in Motherlode—I know. But the ones who mistreated you… they’re all dead, aren’t they? Maybe it’s time to forgive.”

Sea Legs grumbled, but he didn’t seem to have any coherent retort.

“It’s not just ponies,” Jackie whispered. “Separating out into tribes over stupid things is something our world did too. Silver Spring and I… were both victims of that.”

“Speak for yourself,” Bree said. “Going digital was the second-best thing that ever happened to me.”

“Second best.” Jackie grinned. “Are you about to say that going native was better? You realize that shits on your whole case.”

The little engineer made a frustrated sound, stuck out her tongue, then fell back behind Frostline to sulk.

They reached—well, not the ground floor, but at least the jungle’s surface, emerging out the bottom of the capital amid thronging crowds. Mostly soldiers from the look of it, or at least ponies in dark green uniforms surrounded by their relatives.

It was exactly the sort of thing Jackie had seen before a hundred wars, families and lovers bidding their relatives farewell. Though—there was a surprisingly large number of female ponies in uniform here. She thought about asking about it, but eventually just shrugged.

Excellus didn’t have automobiles, but it did have a subway, with little aluminum cars like something out of the 1980s trundling along electric tracks in black caves. They went one stop, sat around for a few hours in a boring office, before being led to a set of apartments in a building across the street from the capital.

“There’s not as much variation here as I thought when we first flew over it,” Frostline said, as they rode the elevator up to the top. “This building, there’s another twenty exactly like it all next to us. One of them would be pretty, but… not all these.”

“It’s mass production,” Jackie said. “They’ve got a lot of people and limited space. I guess their way of dealing with that is making lots and lots of the same stuff.”

Sea Legs had left them behind at the office, but now they had a mousy little bat, younger than Bree even. But she wore her housing office vest with dignity, and puffed out her chest even more whenever she caught somepony looking at her. She also hadn’t flinched at Jackie’s prosthetic, which was even more impressive.

Tracer tapped one hoof impatiently on the elevator’s plain tile floor. “I don’t know how ponies live out in Equestria, but our instructions were to provide you with some of the best housing we could. Bats would love to get a place this close to the capital. All the best restaurants are downtown, the best shows… you’ll love it.”

“I’m sure we will,” Cirrus said. “But I’m not sure any of the bats will love us. Our wings are wrong.” She shifted uncomfortably, feathers ruffling.

“Dislike is overstated,” Tracer said. “It won’t be as bad as you’re imagining, promise.”

The elevator stopped, leading out onto a fancy hallway with more paintings and columns. Jackie could see she hadn’t been lying when she said they’d be given somewhere nice.

When they finally made it to the suite, she saw something that almost could’ve been home. Electric lights, running water, a radio in one corner of the room. She was half-expecting a flat screen hanging on the wall or maybe a projector, but apparently they weren’t that advanced.

“I’m supposed to take one of you to the… mechanist,” Tracer said, as soon as she was finished leading them through, showing off the amenities and such. “I’m guessing it’s you, Moire Pattern. I’ve never seen a leg like that, but that doesn’t mean nopony can help you.”

“I’m going with her,” Bree called from her shared bedroom with True Silver, just around the corner. She skidded to a halt next to them, resting one hoof on Jackie’s back. “If that word means what I think it does, I’m a mechanist myself. She’ll want me there.”

“Earth pony mechanist…” Tracer muttered, as though she were suggesting that gravity worked backwards as well.

“She’s right,” Jackie said quickly. “I don’t know how it compares to how things work, but Spring isn’t from here, neither am I. She might surprise you.”

Tracer shrugged her wings. “Suit yourself. Do you think you could find your way back here on your own, Moire Pattern?”

“Yes.” She nodded. “I-87 Mongoose, floor 32, unit C. It’s all in here.” She tapped the side of her head. “Let’s go, before something breaks.”

True Silver emerged from the bedroom behind them. “You’re not going to be gone long, are you sweetie?”

“No Mom,” Bree called. “I’ll stay with Moire the whole time. We’ll be back as soon as we’re finished.”

“Okay.” True Silver met Jackie’s eyes. “Don’t let my daughter do anything she’ll regret.”

They left together, riding the same elevator back down and catching the subway again. This time Jackie noticed some of the subtler details—the music sounded nothing like the noise earth ponies played in Motherlode—if anything, she recognized some of the chords. Soft rock and moderate pop music played through speakers in their subway car, barely louder than the grinding wheels and tracks outside.

“That sounds familiar, almost,” Jackie muttered, staring up at the ceiling. “Wait a minute, is that a Beatles cover? But in… whatever this language is called…”

“Beetles are for soup,” Tracer said. “Or maybe burritos. I know a place that serves excellent beetle burritos. It’s real new, real cool. We could stop on the way if you want.”

“We’re not hungry,” Bree cut her off, putting one hoof on her knee so she couldn’t get up.

“Right!” Tracer blinked, ears flattening. “Ponies only eat grass, don’t they?”

“Grass is awful,” Bree said. “But we don’t eat bugs. We eat normal stuff. Fruits, vegetables, bread… normal stuff.”

“Normal,” Tracer repeated, expression confused. She wasn’t the only one staring at them both. Jackie in particular seemed to attract a lot of attention. Not terribly surprising, given the strange look of her exposed replacement limb. At least it was mostly fascination, not disgust. Everypony else on the train kept their distance and stared in their direction, but they hadn’t been threatened once. Maybe it was the shiny gold pin on Tracer’s hat.

They arrived a few stations later, then descended down instead of up, through a few dimly lit caves. The sidewalks were flat, but still Bree tripped over her hooves, swearing under her breath about the darkness.

Then they rounded a bend, into the brilliant blue glow of neon. It was only the front of a shop building, cut into the cave like so many others, but this one was brighter than all of them by far. “Imperial Technomancy” it said, with a smiling bat drawn in neon behind the glass. Its wings “flapped” every few seconds, like an old-fashioned display sign.

“That’s… gaudy,” Bree muttered. “Mechanist sounded so official… we’re not taking my friend to a VCR repair shop, are we?”

“You don’t like the display? Isn’t the light… strange? That glow, it’s almost like magic… but it isn’t magic, it’s electrical!”

“I know,” Bree muttered. “That’s an excited plasma. That shade of blue… maybe mercury? I don’t know. Just need some high voltage and vacuum tubes, and…”

“Well maybe you are a mechanist,” Tracer said, a little annoyance creeping into her voice. “I’m just a public servant, so forgive me for being impressed.” She pushed past them both, to the set of flap doors a little like an old-fashioned saloon.

Jackie followed close behind, into the brightly lit electronics shop. There’s no way in hell these ponies have the spare parts we need.

Some parts of being mechanical were harder to adjust to than others. One of those—which Sunset’s body felt like she should be fighting against with every moment, yet she never did—was her need for sleep. Her body had limited power, in some ways not that different from an organic.

But she didn’t have to spend her time charging locked into a docking station. She could, or she could reel out a cable and stay out in the real world.

“Come on Sunset, please. I haven’t gone off duty for days. Let’s do something musical.” He tossed the guitar from one of his large hands to the other, strumming a simple cord. “Or did you give up on learning?”

“I didn’t give up…” Sunset protested, though her voice sounded weak even to her. “It’s just… everything that happened… I didn’t think about it.”

“And that’s why you should come. It doesn’t matter how urgent things feel out here—you can’t forget what you love. Otherwise, what makes us different from forks? We can’t be people if we give up doing the things that make us who we are.”

Sunset thought about her companion—Twilight would be waiting for her, and probably want to do something similar. But she’d spent plenty of time with Twilight over the last few days, and Brad never got time off.

She followed him out of the van. “Fine, but I still need to charge.”

A Tower tent had been erected just beside the armored car, covering its exit and giving them the appearance of privacy. Most of the space was given over to Xavier’s workshop, mostly stowed at the moment from non-use. But there were chairs at least. And power cables running to the single plastic printer. It had made the furniture, though it didn’t seem to be able to make anything that wasn’t made of the same opaque plastic.

Brad yanked on the spool, pulling it away from the van until it went tight, then handed her the end. Sunset took the cable in her hand, feeling its tiny metal end. “There’s enough energy in this to power my whole body for days?”

Brad pulled over one of the chairs, tuning his guitar. “What else are you expecting? There’s three hundred amps in that thing, don’t disrespect it. Lick it and it’ll short circuit your whole head.”

Sunset kicked him, though with only light slippers against his military body, she doubted he could even feel it. “What if I’d done it before hearing what it would do?”

“I’d shut off the generator,” he said, not looking up. “But you’re not an idiot. I wouldn’t have followed you out here if you were. Wouldn’t have…” He trailed off, expression reddening. “Well, pull up a chair. Music is good for the soul, that’s what everybody says.”

Sunset plugged the cable in. She half-expected to hear Twilight’s jealous voice in her ear, but that fear was in vain. “Music is magical,” Sunset Shimmer said. “Even humans must know that. You know… when someone comes up with a really good song, and the whole town joins in, without anypony telling them the words, and…” She trailed off.

“You mean Broadway? I guess plays can be pretty good. I couldn’t sit through very many myself. So much talking.”

Sunset had to search the term. He would see her lift her hand to do it, the little twitches as she spelled it out. Even then, now that they were gone from Normandy she no longer had access to the near-limitless depths of knowledge the Tower database contained. There was a shard in the van though, and “Broadway” was apparently not a specialized term. Little windows appeared around her, depicting builders on a stage under spotlights, singing and dancing.

“Yeah, like Broadway!” She pushed one of the images across the room towards him, where it hung in the air in front of them both. For a few seconds, they sat in silence, listening to a strange man and then a whole town sing about “Tradition.”

“Wherever those ponies live, they’re doing heartsong. That’s how it feels. Usually more uplifting songs than that, but I’m sure I could find—”

Bradley reached over, setting one hand on her wrist. He was grinning at her. “Sunset, that isn’t a town. That’s a performance.

“Of course it feels like a performance,” she argued. “That’s how it feels to outsiders! Only if you’re part of the magic will the words come. Even a very good recording can’t convey the magic, otherwise ponies might never be able to get anything done. But they’re good for remembering the words, and the songs can sometimes turn into—”

He reached up, pushing her head slightly so she was meeting his eyes. “No, Sunset. It’s a performance because those people are actors. They train for years to sing and dance that way.” He offered her another recording—one of the same song. But instead of showing a quiet little village, it showed a stage surrounded by thousands of Builders, many bright lights. Different people, singing the exact same song. Then they finished, and the people in the audience clapped.

“It’s a play,” she said, when the recording was finished.


“Equestria has plays. There can still be magic at a play. Just not as often. If you want it, you have to catch it opening night.” She snatched the guitar from his hands. “I’m telling you, Brad. Music is magic. Equestria has been saved by music before, more than once. Lots of spells are little rhymes or melodies. It’s a shortcut to the soul—gets the emotion all twisted into the magic.”

“Well I’m sorry we took it away from you,” he said. “With our… artificial bodies. When this war is over, I’m sure we’ll be able to find a good substitute. The Order has some excellent engineers, even if lots of them are assholes. They’ll give you your magic back.”

“You really… believe that?” She tried a few chords on the guitar, trying to play the little melody he’d taught her last time. It didn’t come out right at first—but she could remember it perfectly, and she could keep trying. “In Equestria, if a unicorn breaks her horn… that’s it. Her magic’s gone. I’m sure that would happen to an earth pony or a pegasus too, but it’s harder to lose all four of your legs or two wings.”

He shrugged. “Of course, why wouldn’t it? We don’t understand magic yet, but it’s been… what, a few months? While we’re fighting this damn war, I bet you money everyone in the Order, from the lowliest novice to the highest Technocrat… they’re all trying to find a way to use magic like ponies do. Figure out what it means, what it feels like.”

“That’s easy,” Sunset responded, without thinking. “I designed a perfect simulation of pony life in the Realm… I’ve still got all the files.” She tapped her head with two fingers. “I wasn’t going to let all that work go to waste. If you wanted to feel it, you’d just have to go into our shard and give me some space to work with. I could have it running in five minutes.”

“That sounds… interesting,” Brad said. “Maybe useful, if I’m going to keep playing diplomat here. But probably not a good idea to vanish into a simulation right now. Not when we’re sitting in enemy territory, surrounded by thousands of strangers. Not that I don’t think my squires can keep an eye on things—but I know the king wouldn’t be happy.”

“We’re not surrounded by enemies!” Sunset protested, tossing his guitar roughly back to him. “This is the Crystal Empire! Equestria is on our side! Or we’re on their side.”

Brad rested one hand on her shoulder, pushing her gently back into her chair. “Settle down, Sunset. I’m talking about the Federation. The refugees here—they’re still the enemy, no matter how cute or pathetic they seem. Shock doesn’t keep an enemy suppressed forever. Might be hard to believe, but we know that the mind can adapt to changing species like that. Their ambassador to Equestria was transformed.”

Sunset did relax, even if she didn’t want to. She forced herself not to think about it, focusing on the music for a few minutes. The instruments might be different, but there was something comforting about the similarity in human and Equestrian music. If music was magical, it meant they weren’t all that different. But she’d already learned that lesson, after her expectations of the near-divine Builders had been shattered by reality.


Brad nudged her with a leg. “Did you catch that?”

“Oh, no. Sorry. Say it again?”

“I was asking if you smell anything rotten in this plan to sneak reinforcements in. I can’t help but picture all the different ways they could try to screw us. Like… the Federation are the reason Normandy is empty. They’re the reason we aren’t decisively winning this war. Do you think some of the traitors might’ve changed when the innocents did, that way they could fuck us again?”

Sunset nodded without thinking. “Starlight Glimmer told me there’s hostile magic working on the Crystal Empire. Started the second we got here—she’s pretty sure the refugees brought it somehow.”

He swore again, rising to his feet and removing the rifle from his shoulder. He checked the magazine, exposed the battery so he could see the glowing indicator, then relaxed. “Dammit. So we know there are traitors. Alexi, you think?”

“No chance,” Sunset stopped playing. “I may not be a changeling with perfect emotion-reading, but she has a pony sister. And besides—if she was bad, all she’d have to do is not send the message out. Then all the humans would’ve been mind-controlled instead of just the ones who were far away.”

“I guess that makes sense,” Brad muttered. “So not her. Do we know if she came up with the Earth plan? If it wasn’t her—maybe it came from the same one who’s been using… hostile magic, you said? What does that even mean?”

“Some kinda mind stuff,” Sunset said. “No, don’t. Mind control magic is dark stuff—explicitly forbidden. I studied under Celestia personally, so I never learned any of it. I don’t have a clue how it works.”

“Oh.” He deflated. “Should we try to stop it? I know people on the other side are already mobilizing. We’ve got an entire mechanized unit waiting to come across to deal with our rogue Federation people. I’ll feel a hell of a lot safer with the Germans behind me. They’re great at holding ground, too. If we have to defend the Empire from other threats, no one else we want at our backs.”

“There’s too much to gain. We can’t stop it. We just have to… keep an eye out. Like… maybe we should both go over with whoever they send.”

Brad shook his head. “Can’t do. King Richard won’t let either of us over, not when we might get stuck on that side. I’ve got a pair of squires I was getting ready to promote… this will be their trial. Calvin, and Jesse, you may’ve met them. Good people. I promise there isn’t a soldier in the Tower who can aim a rifle straighter.”

“Assuming we don’t just blow up when they try it,” Sunset muttered. Now that she knew what was really powering it… “Antimatter… it’s insane you thought that was a good idea. Should’ve left it where you found it.”

Brad shrugged. “Can’t pin that one on me, the reactor was built before I was born. But it’s… really the same technology we used to cross to this side in the first place, you know. Antimatter is a fuel, not an energy source. The only way we can generate power with it was from punching into another universe.”

Sunset shook her head. “It’s insane. Every builder is insane.”

Jackie didn’t know if she was impressed or annoyed with the so-called mechanist’s shop. The outer area reminded her of what she might’ve imagined for an electronics shop on Earth, before the internet had killed them all. They even had those annoying plastic clamshell packages, that made it difficult to steal (or just to open things you’d legitimately bought).

But the upper shop was closed “until sundown,” because Excellus ran backwards and everything was in the opposite state she expected. But there was a workshop under the upper inventory, and that was where Tracer led them.

Jackie ran one hoof along the stone walls, which had been smoothed and plastered over to almost look like the walls of any other building. Almost.

“Do all your buildings have to be so dark?” Bree asked from behind her. “I feel like I’m going to lose my vision down here. Barely see ten meters in front of my face, and I don’t need glasses. This is getting stupid.”

The working floor below was all tools and machines, though Jackie couldn’t have said how advanced they were. From the way most of them obviously had braces and handles for ponies’ hooves, she guessed they weren’t that advanced. The best Earth fabs required no human involvement at all to go from order to finished product, and that was even true in the Federation. What she wouldn’t give for a Cornucopia machine right now…

“Excuse me,” called a voice that sounded like it had just been woken up. Jackie turned, and saw an older looking bat emerging from a stairwell on the other end of the shop. He even had a beard, and most of his coat had gone gray. “I would love to know why there are strangers in my shop after hours. You aren’t apprentices of mine, are you? No… Outsiders? I expect an explanation.”

Tracer hurried over, handing a few sheets of paper and exchanging words in a hushed whisper. Jackie could’ve listened in, but just now she’d become too ambivalent to care. Whatever the ponies wanted to do, they could knock themselves out. She’d already fought far enough, escaped from danger that would’ve swallowed up a less capable pony. So far as she was concerned, she was owed her body back. It was just a matter of finishing the last leg. If racist earth ponies and murderous griffons couldn’t do it, what were these almost-human bats going to do?

“You’re here to repair an… intelligent automaton,” the old stallion said, walking past their guide and offering his hoof towards Jackie. “I’m Near Horizon, this is my shop. I understand the princess herself sent you here. The best-equipped and most capable mechanist’s shop in all Excellus, she said. And her credits are good, so… I suppose we’ll be working together.”

“Moire Pattern,” Jackie said, not wanting to waste time with the real thing just now. “And this is Silver Spring. I’m the intelligent automaton. No, you can’t look at the things that make my brain work. It’s all sealed, not user serviceable, and not sturdy enough to survive… machines like this.” She pulled back the cloth wrap from around her leg. “This, on the other hand…” She glanced to the side. “What do you see, Bree? Can you work with these parts?”

Bree laughed. “I worked with nothing to get you here. These are… maybe information age level stuff? So no hardware integrated microcontrollers and mesh processing cores. But they’ve got a good lathe, and that’s real wire there instead of the shit I made. I could give you an upgrade, anyway.”

“I promise you this facility is ten times better equipped than anywhere you’ve seen in your life, outsider. But from the sound of your words… you’re a mechanist yourself, is that right? An apprentice perhaps? Who trained you in our methods?”

“No pony trained me,” Bree said. “I’m a traveler from a far country, an alien. Equestria trapped me as a pony as a punishment.”

“Is that so?” Near Horizon sounded skeptical, but he didn’t actually argue the point. “Certainly an… interesting group that visits my shop today. Will you need help, Silver Spring? I shall remain here to supervise in any case, but I could summon the apprentices if that would speed the process. I’ll… need you to be out by dawn regardless.”

“I don’t need help,” Bree said. “Except… yeah, one pony. Someone who can tell me how to turn this non-integrated hardware on when I need it. How organics survived before the Mesh I still don’t know.”

Near Horizon didn’t seem to know what to make of that, but at least he didn’t try to throw them out.

“Then let’s do it,” Jackie said. “We’re still not back with the Tower. Sounds like Hayden is our only way out.” She frowned. “Can you do anything about my leaking RTG while you’re tinkering around in my guts? Being at half juice all the time is getting old.”

“Maybe.” Bree looked over her shoulder at Near Horizon. “Do you keep lead?” She didn’t even wait for an answer, just tapped an empty worktable with one hoof, nodding towards its surface. “Go on then, Jackie. If I’m overhauling your power, I’ve got to shut you down.”

“Just don’t let the primitives put my parts on a shelf,” Jackie whispered, in English.

“No promises,” Bree said, but there was humor in it. She didn’t mean it. Jackie hoped.

Lights came up all around them, shining down on Jackie from racks in the ceiling. Then Bree reached up behind her head, and everything went instantly black. She didn’t even dream.

Chapter 19: Escape Character

View Online

Even Sunset Shimmer couldn’t help but admit that the portal was impressive. The formerly-human engineers had been working overtime, sourcing materials from the little bits of machines that they’d dragged over, or even from the city itself. Sunset hadn’t followed the process, but she’d seen dozens of them moving in and out of the city in regular shifts.

And now it was assembled. While Luna and her diminishing army fought in the south, the humans had found a way to reinforce in the north. Most importantly of all, the power source hadn’t killed everyone.

The mirror had been moved from the Crystal Empire’s secretive vault into a palace ballroom. Cables and wires had been strewn everywhere, all of which she’d been assured would “kill her instantly” if she so much as sneezed at them. So she stood well back, along with Brad and the two armored squires that would be taking on this mission.

In a move that would probably have angered King Richard if he heard about it, Brad had given his armor to Calvin for the mission. It seemed to fit well, though that was probably just thanks to the standardized body-sizes among the tower.

The portal itself was almost swallowed by machines, not all of them human-looking. She saw wooden actuators and thaumic converters among the flashing computer displays and makeshift servers cobbled together from laptops and music players. Then there was the portal itself.

It didn’t look like a mirror anymore, so much as a horizon of absolute darkness beyond which Sunset could see nothing at all. Darker than the bleakest cave, or the night sky in the coldest depths of winter. And they were about to go through it.

Ada seemed to be leading the human delegation, along with two bulky stallions Sunset figured had to be marines.

“It’s possible you’ll briefly be human again when you return,” Alexi was saying, her voice hushed as she spoke to her side. But there was no chance Sunset wouldn’t be able to hear, not in such close quarters. “Resist the temptation to receive the Nanophage again. We don’t know how it will interact with the portal while passing through it. There is transformation magic at work here—like what we used already. Make sure any volunteers who come back with you understand they might be ponies for the duration.” She glanced over her shoulder, towards their delegation. “The Tower people should be immune to that. As frustrating as it is, we’re going to be heavily relying on them for the manpower.”

“Frustrating is an understatement, ma’am,” said one of the marines. “We can’t trust them. Far as we know, they might be planning to shoot us as soon as we’re on the other side of that mirror, then shove us into a radioactive ditch.”

“That’s not a concern,” Ada said. Like the others she was wearing saddlebags with human clothing inside, intended to be worn as soon as they got through. There was no armor or other advanced hardware to spare, but there were at least uniforms and rifles that had made it across with the evacuation. That would have to do. “They follow mechanical laws. These work for the knight—that means they’re bound to obey his commands. He has already ordered them to cooperate with us and not to fire first in violence. Just don’t shoot, and the mindless automatons will be compelled to commit no violence.”

Sunset watched the engineers in front of her shift uncomfortably. She couldn’t hear their private radio conversation with Brad, though she probably could’ve eavesdropped if she really wanted to.

But she didn’t—she could already guess at their orders.

“Does it look like they’re gonna kill each other?” Twilight asked from over the radio. Despite Sunset missing their last engagement together, she didn’t seem too upset. Just a little more reserved than she’d been before.

“You figured out how to use the radio.”

“Figuring it out was never the problem,” Twilight responded, her voice bitter. “Those squires didn’t like what I did to them. They probably would’ve erased me if they could’ve, but since they didn’t have the permissions they settled for cutting off my access. It’s their system, so… I didn’t really have a way of fighting back.”

“And you didn’t say anything about it until now?” Sunset asked. Her voice carried all the anger and frustration it would’ve if she had spoken out loud, though of course no one in the room around her could hear. “I could’ve talked to Brad about it.”

“The knight? No. His involvement only would’ve made them resent me. Maybe when they get back from this mission they’ll feel less petty.”

“They’ll be journeymen when they get back,” Sunset answered. “Maybe messing with a civilian will be beneath them then.”

“We can hope.”

But she didn’t hear anything else, because Princess Cadance emerged from the hall behind her. A pair of crystal guards flanked her, though they weren’t armed and made no threatening gestures towards anypony in the room.

Sunset immediately shifted on her feet, moving just behind Brad, pulling up her hood. There would be no chance at all of being recognized, except that Starlight Glimmer had certainly told Cadance who she was.

No doubt the princess didn’t care about the secrecy she’d been maintaining for all this time.

Fortunately for her, she wasn’t the subject of her interest right now. “Admiral, and… knight? A word before this begins.”

Sunset was left standing alone by the wall as Sir Bradley advanced. He dropped to one knee for a moment in front of her. “Princess. An honor and a privilege.”

The Steel Tower’s customs might seem silly to a human, but they did have their advantages dealing with Equestria. Sunset could see the princess’s face brighten at the respect, respect that the other side just didn’t show. The Federation was egalitarian—they had no nobility, and no respect to show beyond politeness.

“Likewise,” Princess Cadance said, gesturing for him to rise with a wing.

As she’d expected, the Admiral only nodded politely to the princess. “Good to see you again. You were the last one we were waiting on for departure.”

“I just wanted to get something clear with both sides before this happens. You arrived in my city as refugees, and at the time we had to take you in. But I’m aware of your conflict now, that your factions have… disagreements. Whatever those are, they stay away from the Crystal Empire. Even after what happened in Normandy. The only reason I’m letting you do this is because we don’t have a choice.

“The Father of Dragons is marching north, and we won’t be able to stop him without you. But whatever happens… I want your promise to me that there won’t be any fighting in the Empire. If you want to fight on your own planet, that’s your problem. Equestria probably hasn’t told you about my magic. But I have it, and if anything happens, I’ll make every one of your ponies so deeply in love with each other that they’ll never think about fighting again. Don’t think I won’t.”

“You have our word,” Sir Bradley answered. “Not that you needed it, Princess. We’ve done nothing but honestly follow the treaty since our first moments in Equestria.”

Alexi winced. But she didn’t argue in response. “Very few of our people will be coming back today. But you have our word as well. Or… mine, anyway. I can’t compel my people to follow my orders, but I do expect it of them.”

“That will have to do,” Cadance said. “Good luck to you all. The Crystal Empire is depending on you, along with all of Equestria.”

“And we’ve waited long enough,” Ada said. “Follow me through, quick as you can. As soon as we start sending matter through, we’re going to strain the portal terribly. The other mirror has to draw enough for both sides… but we can replicate this on the other end, make it safe going forward. Get ready to run.”

And she did, galloping through the opening ahead of the others. The instant she vanished into the darkness of its event horizon, the whole portal began to spark and shudder in its mountings. Machines started spinning, coils of wire glowed orange, and the room was filled with a roar of air down through the portal.

Sunset Shimmer watched them go, one at a time, wishing she could go along. The Builders’ planet she’d seen had been dreadful, but there was no way that was the whole thing. The Federation were alive, so their parts had to be better. Maybe if she saw them she could have hope for Equestria after a war.

“I’m through!” Ada’s voice came over one of the radios, only slightly distorted. “The others are behind me. We’re human, or almost. Some minor… variations. Age differences. Inconvenient, but not essential. Got contact with Luna Prime, so we should be able to get a ride. Exposure reading at… nothing too severe. Yes, last of the robots is through. We’re cutting the connection so you don’t burn your side out. Plan on 72 hours. Out.” The straining equipment fell still abruptly, wires cooling as the swirling sparks on the surface of the void settled back into too-deep darkness.

“And that’s that,” Princess Cadance said, once the portal had cooled and the army of technicians rushed in from the side of the room. “If there’s any other help any of you can imagine, find Starlight Glimmer or somepony else from the court. Otherwise…” She turned back to Alexi. “Make sure my palace doesn’t explode, please.” She left almost before Alexi could respond, vanishing with her guards back out the ballroom doors and out of sight.

Sunset instantly relaxed—not just at having the princess gone, but Ada as well. She felt a little of the burden lift from her shoulders, as though a pack of bricks she hadn’t even known she was carrying had vanished.

Starlight Glimmer had been quiet for most of the events of the crossing, sitting beside Trixie near another door and watching everything closely. But her ears went up too, and her eyes caught Sunset’s. Was she thinking the same thing? “We’ll talk in a bit,” she sent across the radio to Brad, before crossing quickly to where Starlight had already risen to her hooves.

“You just felt that, didn’t you?” Starlight whispered. “Something changed.”

“Yeah,” Sunset answered. “I feel better. Less… hopeless.”

“We need to go check on the Crystal Heart.” She spun on her heels, gesturing at the door. “Guards, unlock this please. Sunset, Trixie, and I have somewhere to be.”

They hurried to obey. Trixie only looked annoyed. “You know it’s nothing, right? Of course you’re going to feel better, we’re finally doing something. That’s the only thing that really changed. We’re not curling up and waiting for the end anymore.”

As soon as the door was open, they were already moving. Starlight broke into a canter down the hall, and Sunset had to jog to keep up. Thank goodness for her longer legs, or she might’ve had trouble. But one thing she’d learned since becoming human was that their endurance was near endless. Even the organic humans could go for hours, if they were properly trained.

“It was the same way after Twilight beat me for the first time,” Trixie went on, following along behind. “I didn’t want to do anything, not even get up in the morning. But then I realized I could earn my way out of it, and I got a job, and… I felt much better.”

“You might be right!” Starlight called, as they passed up a flight of steps. Sunset could feel the cold outside air drifting down, a sign of what waited beyond. “But we have to check. If there’s even a chance I’m right…”

Jackie couldn’t know how long she spent shut down—even her mind was dormant during that time, without her usual refuge in simulation. There was nothing wrong with that—she’d never been one of those people terribly troubled by breaks in consciousness. She’d been dead from the moment she uploaded anyway, so why should a computer program that remembered being a person care?

She blinked, and found her body completely numb again. But since she wasn’t really alive, she didn’t need much of her body to be able to talk. “I’m getting fuckin’ sick of waking up like this.” She tried to look around, and found that she was in some kind of mechanical vice. The clamps around her neck weren’t tight, but she couldn’t feel a thing below them. That meant something was severed back there. Hopefully not permanently.

Bree appeared in front of her, grinning something between smug and shy. “Well that’s too bad for you. I’ve had nothing but shit-tier hardware since I woke up here. It’s a small miracle I didn’t tear any microwires with these lumps ponies call limbs. But here we are, making do with substandard materials.”

“Then go digital again as soon as you get to the Tower,” Jackie spat, not even pretending to friendliness just now. “Go ahead and give up the soul you just got back. Don’t take it from someone who wants it more.”

At first she’d thought the area around them was completely dark, but no. There were a dozen furred figures huddled close, wearing little vests with the same logo on it as on the front of the shop, sans neon.

“I wonder if you’d put your money there,” Bree said, stopping right in front of her and sticking her tongue out. “There’s no spell to make you human again, and organics don’t get to swap their shells like enlightened people. What if you could get one of those spells to make you alive? Would you take it if it meant being a pony for the rest of your life?”

“Obviously I would,” she said, before she could even think about it. “At least you’ve got a heartbeat. You get to eat instead of running on a fucking reactor. All the Datamancy in the world wouldn’t let me have a kid, if I wanted one.”

“Well then.” Bree sat back on her haunches. “That’s an interesting proposal, isn’t it? See, I happen to know the ponies who could make you organic again. Maybe… they’d rather not know me, but I’m sure I could work something out. I’ll go back with you to the Tower, but only if you change into a pony first. A real one.”

Jackie made a frustrated sound, trying to wiggle out of the clamp. “Is this really the time to be having this conversation? You’ve got a whole fan club watching you, and they don’t speak UN Standard. Unless all this is just buying time to hide that you fucked up my body…”

“Oh, no. Nothing like that. It has been a few days since we last talked… turns out the people here wanted some pointers. Would you believe their city has a small army of AO-3s? Thousands and thousands of them. That’s the secret to how they’re so advanced. They’re fully mechanized. But they weren’t able to progress any further—they have the one fab, and the day it breaks their whole industry turns to fairy dust and pixies.”

“AO-3? Those I-Robot looking pieces of shit? Those were discontinued when I was in grade school.” Then she stopped, collecting herself. “Hold on a minute. Days? Your mom is gonna fuckin’ kill me.”

“I went home, relax. She knows all about it. She let me come back. Says we owe you after saving our lives or whatever. I guess that is technically what happened.”

“Saved your life,” Jackie muttered. “Not hers. Your mom has her feet under her, she’d be fine. You’re the one who had to run into town right when those Hills Have Eyes fucks decided to get murderous. Stop stalling. I want to see the damage. If I’m going to be stuck in this body until… we get back to the Tower… I want to see the damage.”

But she wasn’t sure she believed it. So long as she could convince Bree that she meant it, she could always go back on her word once they were too deep for her to escape. She didn’t even have wings, she wouldn’t be able to fly away. “Please tell me you fixed my antenna.”

“Did we fix your antenna…” Bree said, suddenly speaking a little louder. And in Equestrian, rather than the Standard they’d been using. “Gather round, students. You’ll remember when I severed the arterial fibers. It’s time to reconnect them, and see if our replacement prosthetics are effective.”

A whole room full of ponies suddenly crowded in close. Jackie would’ve felt uncomfortable if this was her real body—but there was something white below her, like a cloth or a screen. But even if she could see it, it didn’t matter. It wasn’t her they were seeing naked, it was just a shell. A shell she might soon be rid of if she could get back to the Tower.

With her enhanced ears, Jackie could make out some of the conversations being whispered around her. “There’s no way it will work. It’s not one of the design templates.”

“Obviously not. But it will be worth it to see that dirtwalker eat her words.”

“But what if it did work? What if you can use other designs? We could build automatons that look like us. We could make them look like anything we wanted.”

“Wishful thinking. Just because we want something and we can make it sound plausible doesn’t make it true. Silver Spring is about to see that.”

Not all of them were hostile—and even those who were whispering to each other in angry voices were watching closely.

Right leg connected.
Left leg connected.
Right arm connected. Sensornet offline.
Left arm connected.
Left ERROR connected. Sensornet offline.
Right ERROR connected. Sensornet offline.
Transmission package connected.

That was it. No warnings about the RTG, no complaints that she was leaking fluid, nothing. The food simulation was still missing, but Jackie could live with that. Pretending to eat wasn’t worth having to wash herself out afterwards.

She tried the antenna hopefully before she even tried to move, sending a backlog of journal entries she’d written about what had happened during her time alone. But there was no response, no return ping from a satellite that signaled her message had made it to the server.

Of course not, idiot. You’re thousands of feet under an arcology city in the jungle. What kind of magic antenna are you running?

“Jackie!” Bree called, her voice annoyed. There were giggles coming from around them, and a few had escalated to jeers. “Jackie, I told you to demonstrate the right leg was working. Your audience is getting restless.”

“Your audience,” she said, in Standard. But if she wanted cooperation from this pony, making her look like an idiot in front of all these strangers probably wasn’t a good idea.

She moved her leg, and found it responded smoothly. It moved even better than the first time she’d woken up, in fact. “Could you move the screen? I can feel it under me, just… hanging there.”

“Not quite,” Bree said. “I’m demonstrating something about robotics having you unable to see the limb.” She was certainly demonstrating something now—her audience had gone completely still. All laugher died, and they crowded closer, looking at whatever was below the screen.

Bree was preening under the attention. “Now, could you move your wings for us? Both of them, like you were going to fly…”

“I’d love to, except they got fuc—” Then she stopped. She did have wings now. Or maybe it would be better to say that she had them again. She twitched both of them immediately, feeling just how strong and mobile they were. They didn’t feel anything like the useless bits of plastic she remembered. She couldn’t feel much, just their position and speed and the air resistance when she tried to lift them. Far more than there’d been with the others. She flapped them together, and almost felt her body lift.

No way. They’re too small to have any lifting power. This body couldn’t do that.

There was a smattering of hoof stomps from around the room. Ponies whispered to each other again. Though all the bitterness and anger was gone from their words. Instead Jackie heard things like “Impossible.” And “But we helped put them together.” “That wasn’t on template.” “Get master Horizon.”

One of the apprentices took off running without so much as a word of apology, vanishing off the edge of Jackie’s vision and probably rushing up some unseen stairs. But she couldn’t turn her head that far—even if she had the rest of her body back, she was still in the clamp.

“You’re freaking out over nothing, Jackie,” Bree said, moving forward with a wrench in one hoof, lowering the lens down over one eye. “I’ll have you out in a minute, quit squirming.”

For a moment that was what she did, falling still while Bree worked. She was impossible to tell from a native by the speed of her hooves alone—much better at it than Jackie, even with the help of the programs that had come with this body.

Master Horizon returned, joining the rest of the crowd of apprentices as they watched.

Threat detected, 60% probability of harm to allied asset. Near Horizon’s body lit up in bright red as he cut through the crowd of apprentices.

I do not need this in my life now, Jackie thought, stretching her limbs below her. She was being held by the clamp, but it was loose now, almost loose enough for her to get free on her own. If only Bree could twist just a little further…

She saw what the automated programs had noticed first—a glint of metal emerging from the folds in Near Horizon’s jacket. A needle, and he was going straight for Bree’s back.

“Get it off,” Jackie hissed in UN Standard.

Maybe Horizon thought she hadn’t noticed—she didn’t have to stare at him to watch closely, as an organic would’ve had to do. She wasn’t restricted to full resolution only at a tiny range of her vision.

But Bree wasn’t moving fast enough. If anything, Jackie’s words had slowed her down again, probably to say something snide.

She couldn’t wait any longer. Jackie leaned backward, then bucked against something metallic with all the force she could. The clamp around her neck dug right through her fur, then hit her endoskeleton and snapped like wood. Some part of her was surprised, expecting more damage to her own body—but she didn’t have time to think about it.

She smacked right into Bree, taking her straight down to the ground just as Near Horizon’s needle emerged from his jacket. Her companion squealed in surprise, swearing at Jackie in a language she’d never heard before. But she ignored that, reaching up with blurring speed to crush Horizon’s hoof sideways, jamming the needle into his own foreleg and smashing the plunger down in a single motion.

He screamed, eyes livid with rage, lashing out towards her with the injured foreleg. “Someone phone the Union! We have a rogue automaton!”

Jackie dodged out of the way as though he were moving in slow motion, which became increasingly literal as whatever he’d intended for Bree coursed through his veins.

Additional threats detected. Probability of intervention 81, 73, and 96 percent. Several apprentices were highlighted in red as they removed power tools from racks around the room, while most of the crowd ran for the doors.

“Fuck there is!” Jackie yelled, helping Bree to her hooves and shoving her back, towards the door she knew went up. “That’s your needle, asshole! Whatever you were planning on giving to my friend… well, that’s what you deserve.”

He dropped onto his haunches, no longer strong enough to even swing vaguely in their direction. He’d pulled the needle out by then—probably most of its contents not sent directly to his veins. It couldn’t be administered carefully when it was used as a weapon as she had. “Don’t let the machine… escape. Don’t break its head,” he ordered, before slumping limp to the ground.

“I see what this is…” Bree muttered, no longer needing Jackie to keep her backing away. “This is some kind of… industrial espionage, is that it?”

The nearest apprentice switched on the angle-grinder he wore in one hoof, advancing on Jackie. “Assembling automatons has never been within our reach until now. We couldn’t give up an opportunity.”

“I don’t want to kill you,” Jackie said, a little louder. Her body was naked, but she felt far stronger than she had been. That’s not a plastic skeleton in me anymore, is it? No doubt the clamp around her neck would’ve just snapped her. She spread her wings, getting as big as she could. “I’m not a machine, fucking idiots. I’m a person, and I’m incredibly dangerous. Bree and I are leaving now.”

She lowered her voice for just a moment. “Stay right behind me. Never get out of reach.”

Her plea went unanswered, and the two apprentices guarding the stairwell up only moved closer together. One had a power drill, the other the end of a coil of wire that emitted a steady stream of high-voltage sparks.

“The Mechanists have dealt with worse than you,” said the same apprentice who’d spoken before, a stallion with a black coat and little gray streaks in his mane. “It doesn’t matter what you say, you’re just a—”

CQC subdual program activated.

Jackie jumped on him in a single bound, hard enough that the cement cracked behind her. She dodged to the side of his feeble strike, driving her own hoof into the leg holding it right at the joint. She heard the crack, then kicked again, this time right into his vulnerable underbelly. He dropped, and she followed him down, snapping both of his wings. The pain she knew would follow turned his voice into mindless agony, and he didn’t move again.

She got up, ignoring the blood splattering her coat as she shoved past Bree towards the upper door. “Fuck out of my way,” she muttered. “Next pony who doesn’t move is dead instead of broken.”

They moved, dropping weapons and scattering to opposite sides of the room. She was pretty sure one of them had wet herself. “Alright, Bree. I think we’ve overstayed our welcome.”

Bree followed her instructions, though her ears had gone flat and her expression was obviously sick. She kept glancing back at the two ponies who Jackie had attacked. “What kind of combat program is that?”

“One that gets us out alive.” There were a few apprentices on the shop floor, and they screamed in fear as Jackie emerged first. Someone toppled a shelf in front of them, but Jackie just stuck out a wing, stopping Bree from advancing until it had crashed down.

But they weren’t just being allowed to flee, that much was obvious. Jackie could hear the apprentices shouting. One of them had gone running for “the shotgun” while the others seemed to plan on just following them out.

“This is too slow,” Jackie muttered, kicking the fallen shelf out of the way before breaking into a gallop. A few shopkeeper ponies were moving into her way, and she barreled them over as though they weren’t even there. Unlike the earth ponies of Motherlode, these bats had the hollow bones and light builds of birds. They couldn’t have stopped her if they tried.

“I don’t understand… why wouldn’t that bat pony friend of yours send us somewhere we’d be safe? This isn’t a warzone!” They stepped out into a walkway in the maze of underground corridors. But where an organic might’ve been helplessly lost, Jackie had the perfect memory of a machine. She pointed, and back they went towards the surface, past screaming, confused civilians. Shouts of “Rogue automaton, out on the streets!” followed, along with the rumble of a shotgun as pellets smacked harmlessly into tunnel walls around them. Whoever was using that gun couldn’t have hit the Tower from twenty paces, and they only fired twice.

But they couldn’t keep running the same way for long—that was straight up towards the surface, and Jackie could hear hooves pounding down the ramps from above. Maybe those were the Mechanist Union people that had been called, some crew specifically trained or armed to bring her down.

She scanned the widest paths, then picked one behind a long row of restaurants. Instead of continuing up the hall, she stepped across to the other side, toppled over a dumpster, then gestured the other way. They slipped across, dodging behind trash bins while the voices grew more distant. Bats though they were, the ones following couldn’t keep up with an earth pony and a robot.

“I have no idea…” Jackie said, scooping an old blanket out of an open bin and throwing it over her shoulder into an awkward robe. She hadn’t even got the chance to look at her new limbs, but on the surface she could see no sign that she was even synthetic. It was as good a job as Sunset Shimmer had done, with far more of a mind towards durability. “But we’re in a strange land. Bat politics… maybe she’s not in as much control as a pony princess. Or maybe she didn’t pick the workshop specifically.”

Jackie had plenty of mental resources to spare, and she turned some of those towards her repaired radio transmitter. “If anyone can hear me, we need help,” she called, over the standard distress frequencies. She wasn’t sure how deep they were, but it didn’t matter. She could set it on loop while they wandered and maybe she’d get a response eventually. “We’ve been attacked.”

That message going out, she returned her full attention to their path. There was a slope upward, with tracks and occasional carts moving up and down. An automated trash delivery system, lifting the garbage up towards the surface. Even as she watched, the bins in their alley started moving—it wasn’t an alley at all, but another track.

Jackie hesitated for a fraction of a second, then pointed towards a mostly-empty bin of rotten fruit. “Climb in.”

“You’re bucking kidd—” She didn’t even get a chance to finish her objection before Jackie dunked her into the peels, then climbed in herself.

Shouts followed them from the alley, along with the sound of metal boots on stone. But if anyone had seen the way they fled, they didn’t follow close enough to stop them. They had soon rolled up the ramp, and out of sight.

Chapter 20: MAC

View Online

Starlight Glimmer was the first out into the open, with Sunset following close behind. A crowd of visiting locals parted around them the instant Sunset emerged, with many staring or even removing cameras to take pictures. But Sunset didn’t slow down, didn’t even think about it.

The Crystal Heart floated in the air, well out of reach of even the tallest human. There was no case, no protective shell, and only a handful of guards scattered around, mostly mixed in with the crowd. Plenty of ponies had been swarming right up to it until their little group moved through.

Sunset watched as Starlight froze directly below it, and her horn started glowing. Sunset herself slowed to a stop—she had no magical senses, and so joining Starlight right under the thing wouldn’t make their task any easier. The best thing she could do was stay out of the way until Starlight finished.

Trixie seemed to have the same idea, because she stopped beside her, watching their companion. “Sometimes Trixie thinks this must be what it’s like for Twilight and her friends, when they’re off saving Equestria. Trixie did it herself once, but the adventure was scarier than she would’ve liked. She’s in no hurry to save the world again.”

Sunset turned, lowering her voice a little. She had no reason to be honest with this pony, but she couldn’t help but feel some strange kinship for her. “I don’t care for her much either. Princess Twilight, I mean. It’s nothing she ever did, I only ever saw her as a little filly wandering around the castle. But if we met I don’t think we’d get along.”

“There’s no reason to try,” Trixie muttered. “When I first made friends with her student, Twilight tried to ruin our friendship, even though she’s supposed to be the Princess of Friendship. But that’s never how it works—she’s the Princess of Friendship as far as having a fancy castle and all the fame, but that’s it.”

Starlight Glimmer’s horn stopped glowing. She spun back around, and teleported the distance between them with a faint white flash. “The mind magic is gone. My guess is the one producing it went through the portal.”

“There was only one unicorn in their group. Samil’s understudy.” Sunset couldn’t even bring herself to use the name, as though using it might summon her attention again.

“What do we do?” Starlight Glimmer looked up, at the crowd of desperate-looking crystal ponies. But the weight that had borne on them so heavy no longer seemed to be crushing them as it had. “Turn the portal off? They’re counting on us to power it from the other side. Then we could—”

Sunset Shimmer shook her head. While she did so, she was radioing Brad. “Sir Bradley, get out of there right now. Sprint back to the truck and move it.”

Sir Bradley wasn’t the sort of man to be obstinate about being told what to do. Yet she wasn’t the one in charge, and wasn’t the one who ever gave instructions. “Already moving. What did you find out?”

“You know how I told you the Crystal Empire was under magical attack? The one who did it just went through the portal. Either that, or their side switched off the magic at the exact second the portal went off. But that seems hard to believe. We may’ve just given our traitor exactly what she wanted.”

“We need to protect the Equestrian leadership,” Brad responded, his voice decisive. “I’ve ordered my household to evacuate and scatter. We already had a fallback position in mind. They’ll bring enough to keep things going without the truck. We don’t want the Federation bastards to know we’re onto them. Princess Cadance is the one running things—warn her, and keep her the fuck alive. I’ll send my last squire to you.”

“I don’t think it was all of them. Alexi’s actions don’t make sense for a traitor.”

“We can’t sort them out, Sunset. Just keep that princess alive. Since we’ve been here I learned the Empire is bigger below the ground than it is above, but the ponies don’t use most of that space. If things go to shit, find a sewer and take it down. Have the organics bring some food if they can manage it.”


All that passed in about two seconds of real time, in the same delay Starlight might’ve expected her to answer herself. “Princess Cadance,” Sunset said. “She needs to be told. It’s her decision to make, not ours.”

“Right, of course.” Starlight’s ears flattened, and she galloped past them again, towards the huge open gates of the great hall. Cadance probably wasn’t right inside, but that was the way that would lead to her. “I should’ve thought of that.”

“I’m glad you’re thinking, because I don’t have a clue what’s going on,” Trixie called, galloping after them with increasing frustration. “Do you think we could save the world a little slower?”

But Sunset didn’t get tired, so she ignored the complaint. If they had to run from one side of the Empire to the other, that was fine by her.

The great hall was packed with ponies large and small, each of them looking annoyed over something or other. But the throne at the far side had only a bedraggled looking white unicorn sitting beside it, his expression near hopeless as portioners approached him in a line. The princess’s husband, though Sunset didn’t know anything about him beyond that.

And he wasn’t the one that Starlight was interested in either. She hopped over the dividing fence, then gestured the guards away as they tried to stop Sunset and Trixie from following. “She must be in her solar,” Starlight called. “It’s a lot of running.” She stopped abruptly, glancing between them. “Actually, there’s no reason to run. I’ll teleport us up there. Assuming…” She glanced briefly to Sunset. “Can you do that?”

“This body acts like it’s inanimate most of the time,” Sunset answered, her voice only a little flat. “I can’t be healed, and I’m immune to mind magic, but teleportation should be fine.”

Starlight nodded, but then her eyebrows went up. “If you’re immune to mind magic, how did you know when—” She shook her head. “Whatever, close your eyes. Going up.”

The world flashed around them. Sunset Shimmer didn’t bother to exhale, but she did close her eyes out of habit. It was the first time she’d ever been teleported out in the real world with this new body, and she was in no hurry of discovering what it might see when cutting through Limbo.

The solar materialized around them a moment later, and what Sunset saw was hardly surprising. A massive bed stood in the back of the room, in the shape of a comically oversized heart. Tapestries hung along the outside wall, and an oversized desk took up one corner of the room, surrounded with books. There were several doors, one leading to a lavish bathroom, another a walk-in closet larger than many houses.

But the princess herself was nowhere to be seen. Starlight seemed to deflate as she glanced around the room, movements becoming increasingly rapid as her desperation grew. “She’s not here she’s not here buck why isn’t she here…” She vanished from in front of them, and Sunset heard a few pops coming from nearby. Checking the connected rooms, probably.

“I’m glad she’s the one who knows how to do that,” Trixie muttered.

“It’s an impressive amount of energy,” Sunset said, though she didn’t stay still. Instead she advanced on the single completely closed door, which had a little pony’s picture on the front. She reached out, swinging it open. A long hallway appeared on the other side, its magical crystal illumination springing to life near her. The lights notice me.

The lights noticed her, and she had been affected by mind magic. Not as much as the ponies of the Crystal Empire, or the refugees. They’d been wrung dry in just a few days, it seemed. But Sunset had felt it. “Twilight, are you there?”

“Yeah, for another minute or so. Apparently they’re moving the sim? It’s going suspended for storage. What happened?”

Sunset could hear the pain in her voice. But there was nothing she could do to make up for it now. She’d caused this, but it might also be what saved Twilight’s life. Unless we’re wrong, and we’re about to look like huge idiots.There’s a Federation traitor and she just passed through the mirror. I don’t know what she’s doing over there, but we gave her what she wanted.”

“That’s… bad.”

“Yeah.” Sunset listened down the hall for another moment, but there was no light in the distant chamber, nor the sound of a little pony’s voice. She shut it again. “You could say that.”

“Does the Federation know they have a traitor?”

“We don’t know it isn’t all of them,” Sunset answered. “Telling them might be the quickest way to get ourselves killed. They might all be ponies now, but there’s over twenty thousand of them here, Twi.”

“I guess so.” Twilight didn’t sound convinced. “Good luck, Sunset. Stay safe.”

“I’ll get you a body soon, Twi. This stupid war won’t go on forever.”

“I know. I l—”

Transmission terminated.

Sunset swore under her breath, turning back to Trixie. Just as with Brad, only a few visible seconds had passed for the entire conversation. Twilight running on their shard was far slower than Brad could get with his knight’s brain.

He gave away his armor. Sunset Shimmer didn’t even have a gun.

Starlight Glimmer reappeared in the center of the room, so close to Trixie that her friend withdrew with a squeak. “I don’t understand it! Cadance is always up here in the afternoon, answering letters from her subjects. We interrupted her with the portal. But she’s not coming up the stairs. I don’t—”

A shrill, piercing scream echoed from below them, soon joined by many others. Sunset Shimmer froze, not even daring to breathe. She heard pounding hooves, moving so fast that the whole palace structure shook.

Then she saw it—not coming up the stairs, but out the massive open balcony.

It wasn’t one thing, but three. Massive shapes blurred out of the castle below them, like dragons circling the city from above. But they weren’t dragons, they were too… ethereal, too pony.

The three of them stumbled towards the window together, watching as the creatures came into better view. They looked more like they would’ve been at home in the ocean, with streamlined bodies and tails instead of legs.

Then they started to sing.

Sunset Shimmer felt the magic strike into her like a physical blow, a hopelessness that made her knees give out and all the world turn gray. The whole city seemed to fade away—their war against the dragons, her hopes to save Equestria. There was only that song, and a vision of the endless expanse of nothingness that waited for her. Existence was dust, and it was blowing away around her.

But then the song promised relief. There was hope for salvation in only one place: obedience. Bow down, commanded the voice. Serve the only ones worth your loyalty. All Equestria will burn, and order will be left in its place. You can fight on the side of order. We will make a place for you.

Abnormal neurosimulation detected. Restoring from cortical recorder save state.

Sunset Shimmer’s world tore painfully in half. She wanted to scream, beg the only truth in her universe for help. The song was the answer, it would help her if only she would bow to it.

Sunset Shimmer had refused to bow to the greatest pony in the world. She’d known better even than Celestia. And when she finally met a good king, she hadn’t even bowed to him. I won’t.

Sunset Shimmer’s world came back. The shouts from the palace were gone, and she could see the fleeing crowd below, all frozen together in supplication to the spirits of the air. And it wasn’t just them—all over the city ponies had dropped down. Even the tiny figures in the distant refugee camp were bowing now. Even the unicorns on either side.

Still the song was in her ears, demanding that she bow. Sunset ignored them.

“Sunset, what the fuck is going on?” Brad’s voice, as pained as she felt. “I think something just tried to hack me. No one at basecamp is responding. Are you still with me?”

Sunset Shimmer nodded, though she knew he wouldn’t be able to see. She could feel the monstrous creatures outside, and she knew them. Knew them from the same legends that she had memorized when she had been seeking the mirror. “I’m here. Those are… they’re sirens. You have to…”

“Fuck the Greeks,” Brad said. “Ulysses already solved this one, I got it. Stay alive. I have to save my house.”

“Starlight, can you hear me?” Sunset stepped directly in front of Starlight and Trixie, putting herself between them and the window.

The ponies didn’t respond, didn’t even blink. “Starlight!” she yelled, but even her shouting wasn’t enough to cover up the sound of the hostile spell warping their minds. Of course it isn’t, stupid. They can still hear it.

Sunset turned, running into the royal bathroom, eyes scanning the counter until she found something she could use. A large tray of differently colored mane-wax, probably meant for the royal stylist. Sunset scooped into the whole thing with both hands, working quickly to soften it all into a uniform brown.

By the time she made it back into the bedroom, Starlight and Trixie were making their way out, struggling to get the door open. They moved sluggishly, as though only half awake. “I’m sorry about this,” Sunset muttered, though she didn’t expect them to be able to hear her.

Starlight Glimmer turned to face her, and Sunset heard the song shift. The words promising relief changed to prompt ponies rewards for helping everyone to embrace a purpose. Those who hadn’t heard had to be taught.

Sunset knew she had only seconds then, and so she smashed Trixie over with her shoulder, leaping on Starlight with all the force her artificial body could produce. She took the wax, cramming it down into Starlight’s ears and holding her pinned against the squirming.

Let go, commanded the sirens in her mind. You’ve fought for too long, give up. Let us do your fighting for you.

Sunset Shimmer didn’t let go, not until Starlight Glimmer stopped kicking. Trixie was pulling on her robe, but unicorns weren’t terribly strong, and despite her talent for the stage she wasn’t casting any spells. Sunset let go, taking the remaining wax and turning on Trixie.

“And I’m invisible!” she declared, her voice like a pony who’d had several glasses of cider too many. Sunset didn’t even have to fight her to get the wax over her ears.

She could almost feel the change in the ponies—where once they’d been watching with hostility, now they looked sick. Starlight Glimmer darted back towards the window. “There’s a counterspell for magic like this!” she called, much louder than her normal speaking voice. “Hold on, I’m thinking!”

“I’ve warned the king.” Brad’s voice came in over private radio. “I shorted everyone else’s ears, they’re back among the living. Camp has lost its fucking mind. Why can some of us fight and others can’t?”

Sunset tried to remember. But the myth of the sirens had only been incidental to the real mystery of the mirror, and her knowledge wasn’t nearly as detailed. “It’s something about magic, or friendship, or something.”

“Can’t make an immunity vector out of friendship,” Brad answered, voice distant. “Looks like they’re consolidating, whoever this is. We need to go to ground before they realize we’re not controlled. How fine do you think their power over people will get?”

“Very. The longer they’re under their spell, the more specific they get. These monsters were banished… ages and ages ago. Sent through…” Through the portal to Earth.

Then it all made sense. Ada had always unnerved her a little, but it was more than that. She’d been sowing discord between their factions since Normandy was established. Maybe a less disciplined point of contact would’ve escalated things to violence without any need of a hack. And when they arrived in the Crystal Empire, the whole city had felt hopeless.

This song was the same magic, taken to its conclusion. And now that she recognized it, Sunset could banish the feeling. A little datamancy, a simple program to recognize and ignore the emotions Ada was trying to inflict. Her hands blurred through the air as they hadn’t since she’d left the realm, putting to code what she had imagined. That traditional Tower education hadn’t been forgotten just because she was back home in Equestria.

While Starlight wrote a spell of her own, Sunset activated a debug run of some datamancy she’d just done.

A new icon appeared on her HUD, a simple warning that mind magic was at work and trying to influence her. She could still hear the song, but no longer understand the intentions underneath. That was the price of immunity. She wouldn’t be able to guess at the commands the sirens gave, but she no longer felt the pressure to obey them.

“Here’s your immunity vector,” Sunset said, sending the program. “I think my code might be a little dirty, but try that. See if you feel different.”

Brad didn’t respond for nearly three seconds, a veritable eternity of digital time. But when he finally did, his voice was relieved. “God that’s some fast work. You sure you’re not from Technocrat Counterintelligence? This code reads almost exactly as the Great War mimetic hotfix. No, wait. You couldn’t tell me anyway. Good work.”

Starlight Glimmer’s horn flashed so bright that for a few seconds Sunset wondered if she knew some spell to save the whole city right there. But no—a second later, and it was only her and Trixie that looked different. Starlight levitated the lumpy wax from her ears another moment later, wincing as strands of her mane went with it.

Guess I wasn’t terribly gentle going in, was I?

“Is it safe to take that out?” Sunset asked.

“Yeah…” Starlight panted. “We’re… safe.”

“Not if we stay up here,” Sunset whispered. She could hear hooves moving up the stairs. There were a lot of stairs leading to this particular bedroom, but they didn’t have forever. “The other Tower people are immune too. Sir Bradley has a good idea about where we can hide.”

As they started to move, Sunset Shimmer used the last of her spare processor cycles to reach out and send a message to the network. Jackie had been away for some time, who knew if she would ever get it. Maybe she was dead. But there would be no radio once they got underground. “Crystal Empire is compromised. Ancient monsters called the sirens have returned, and taken the minds of everypony for themselves. Cover your ears if you come into town. I’ll be hiding while we think of a way to beat them. If you can bring any help, now’s the time.”

“This is disgusting,” Bree announced, for perhaps the third time this hour.

Jackie tried to ignore her petulant tone, reminding herself that her companion had no way of muting her senses and had to stand in garbage completely unprotected. “Come on, there isn’t even some ugly worm trying to eat us. This is pussy mode.”

They were riding with the bin’s cover firmly closed, and Jackie crouched near the exit, searching for an opportunity to escape that wouldn’t get one of them killed. Had they both been fully prosthetic, they could’ve remained in place for days, jumped off buildings… whatever. But Bree was alive, and just now they were surrounded with dense tunnels and walls that crowded in around them. If they jumped right now, they’d be smeared into an oily stain on the walls.

Bree’s face brightened. “You like classic movies? Nopony ever appreciates what the masters did before the holovids came around.”

“I appreciate the first three,” Jackie muttered. “Less the other twelve. Selling good ideas to a megacorporation is always a mistake.”

They emerged from the darkness in a rush of motion that looked like it briefly sickened Bree, though Jackie felt it only as changing readings of her accelerometer. They were running on rails now, speeding through a dense jungle on both sides. She tossed the lid off above her, and felt the cool touch of clean air against her. The jungle was no less humid than the city, but at least she didn’t have to stagnate in the same air anymore. The odor was getting so bad she was starting to swear she could smell it even with her nose shut off.

Then she felt something else—a recorded transmission, a sound recording so brief she just let it play the instant it arrived. It was from Sunset.

Sunset, are you there?” Nothing. Well, maybe Sunset had got her own stored archives of life in Motherlode that she’d wanted to send after her antenna went out. It was something to hope for, anyway.

“Shit.” Jackie leaned against the metal shell of the dumpster, expression darkening. “No place is safe right now. The city wants to kill us, and the pony refugee camp isn’t any better.” She repeated the message to Bree in a few seconds, expression souring as she spoke.

“Is the one who sent that reliable?”

Jackie nodded. “She’s an… I guess you’d call her an uplifted native. She used to be a unicorn, but now she’s Tower. There was some drama when she took over a bunch of corrupted minds in the Realm and repaired them by rewriting them into ponies… but that isn’t really important and I’m not sure why I told you.”

“Repaired the… you mean the dissociated consciousnesses? I thought those people were just dead for good!”

Jackie shook her head. “They were pretty alive when I was there. One in particular, her assistant… I think it was just having more attention that helped her, but you wouldn’t have known she was a ghost from talking to her. But… do you know anything about fighting mythical creatures? Sirens… I think I’ve heard about them.” She did a quick search, but Jackie didn’t keep anything about myths on file in her head. The satellite was responding as slow as melting tar.

“Myth wasn’t really something I cared about while I was here,” Bree answered. “In a way, we’re the myths. The Precursors, they called us. There used to be some really advanced city called Carcosa, and all the Alicorns lived there, except it died and there were only two survivors… and you’re not listening.”

Jackie wasn’t listening. She was receiving a transmission again, though not an answer from Sunset Shimmer. It was a direct reply to an earlier message, from “SENDER UNKNOWN.” Text only.

“I didn’t know there were any other humans in Excellus. Where are you transmitting from?”

She didn’t even think about whether or not she could trust the questioner. Jackie was long past choosing their allies. “Just outside the city, riding the dump disposal railway towards… a dump probably. I think we got out without them noticing us.”

“You’re the rogue automaton they’re talking about, aren’t you?”

There was no sense avoiding it. “I am not an automaton, I’m a citizen of the Steel Tower. They attacked my friend, but I’m a better fighter than they are. I got away. I’ve got the recordings in my brain to prove it.” Jackie did her best datamancy on the transmission, trying to extract what information she could. She could determine that it had been sent by a very old model of tablet computer, with an ID… that couldn’t be right. That was an Avalon MAC address. Who the hell was she talking to?

The responses weren’t coming lightning fast, so she obviously wasn’t talking to someone from the Tower. The fact they’d mistaken her for an “automaton” supported that theory too. Anyone from the Realm would’ve instantly recognized the description of her for what it was. The Tower had no GAIs—her intelligence meant she was a person. “Who are you, anyway?” she asked, before they could reply again with another stupid question. “Evening Star? I bet she has equipment to talk to me.”

“Her? No. I don’t think she’s very happy with you. She advised me to leave the city immediately. My name is Avalon—I used to be the only human on this planet. But I know now that I am not—there is a whole city of them out in space, and I’m going to join them.”

There’s Avalon again. There’s no way you’re from the missing colony. Only human on this planet, what does that mean? “The starship? It’s here?” The fact that she didn’t hear an instant response was enough confirmation for her. “Take us with you, please. If they find us before I can explain things to Evening Star, they’ll kill me. And she might not even believe me…”

“Did you short circuit or something, Jackie?” Bree nudged her with one hoof. “I thought you were waterproof, but… maybe I didn’t seal something up as well as I thought…”

“No, I didn’t. I’m fine.” Jackie blinked, meeting her eyes. “That’s rescue I was talking to. Or… I’m trying to convince them. Someone named Avalon, says he used to be the only human in Equestria.”

“Far as I know he was a diamond dog, but I never paid much attention in school. I guess that might look like a human.” Then she shook her head. “Oh, we’re running out of track. Looks like… maybe twenty seconds left? Yeah, twenty seconds. So think about how you can jump us both out before…”

Jackie spun around, shoving past her to the other end. There was a massive opening in the earth ahead of them, where the contents of the carts were being dumped one after another. It looked like it had been a strip mine once, mostly concealed by the trees above. But it wasn’t even close to full, and the fall would certainly kill Bree.

“I’ll help you,” Avalon’s response came. “If you can prove you’re human.”

She clenched her teeth in annoyance, trying to solve both problems at once. Jackie reached into the past, taking her album of photos with Sunset and the Murciélagos, sending all of them. Then she got close to Bree, lowering her voice. “I’m going to have to jump us off. I’ll try to take the fall, but we need to get out right now.”

Bree nodded. “I figured. Just say when.” They were running out of time. A quick speed projection gave them ten seconds, then five. Jackie jumped, and Bree pulled free of her at the last second. Instead of going down on her back with Bree above her, the earth pony leapt on her own. She landed on the ground beside her with a crack of stone and wood, sending up a little crater of dust. Jackie herself tumbled several times, wincing with each impact until her mind finally projected a movement path that could get her on her hooves. She pushed off on a tree, slid a bit, then rose.

Didn’t seem like she’d broken anything this time, though bits of her artificial coat were torn up. I really need a human body. This is getting stupid.

“Okay,” Avalon sent. “I’m homing in on your signal. Keep broadcasting. I hope you don’t mind a trip to space, because that’s where I’m going.”

“At this point, we just need to get away.” She could only hope that Bree wouldn’t think about her family until they were already on the ship. Besides, Evening Star was a good pony. Even if she thought that the two of them had gone bad—something Jackie herself didn’t fully believe—she wouldn’t hurt a bunch of innocents who had nothing to do with it. “We’ll go with you.”

Chapter 21: Linking Map

View Online

Jackie began to doubt her decision the instant she saw the starship’s outline behind the trees. It wasn’t as though they had any other choice, and she pointed and started running towards it as though it was an exciting relief.

But she’d seen the old Merlin ships before in museum sims about the early history of space, and she was hardly filled with confidence. The distinct hump of its main hydrogen tank rose along its back side like a tumor left to grow untreated for decades.

Bree seemed to be thinking much the same thing, because she stopped dead in her run, and not from the blast of hot hair shooting back towards them. “I’m not seeing what I think I am.”

“Looks like it,” Jackie agreed. “A Merlin? Chemical engine, no shield or magnetic bottle, no gravity… real historical piece.”

“Fantastic,” she said. “We’re going to die in space.”

“Would you rather be killed by bats? I don’t like our odds of getting to Evening Star before the lies about us do, if they haven’t already.”

The rocket touched down on a set of metallic stilts, standing up vertically like the artifact it was. The ramp extended slowly, thumping to the ground a hundred meters or so ahead of them.

“Might as well not keep our death waiting.”

Up the ramp was an old and battered airlock, with scratches and dents in the walls and distinct claw marks around the inner door. The first door shut behind them, and a voice came on from around them. “You don’t look like the pictures.”

“I have a fully synthetic body,” Jackie answered. “I was undercover, trying to help the ponies without being noticed. Only these ponies decided the best way to help us was to kill my friend and take my brain apart for science. No fucking thanks.”

“Excellus is a tribe of nomads and wanderers,” said the voice—its accent was strange, completely unplaceable. Yet she could still understand it. “They lived with hatred for so long that their empathy towards others can be damaged. I would not retire here, even though they know they owe me their lives. Or… their ancestors do. Not them.”

The inner airlock opened with a hiss, revealing a ladder leading up into the rocket. Fortunately for both of them there was a disability/cargo lift, because neither of them had the primate limbs required for a ladder to make sense. The stepped on, then sat back while the painfully slow motors started to whir.

“I’ve just received a message,” came the voice from up above—Avalon’s voice, apparently. “Warning me that there are dangerous criminals loose, that I should tell them if I’ve encountered anyone.”

“I hope you told them you didn’t,” Jackie answered, without thinking. “Because that’s exactly what they’d say if they wanted to keep us in their lab. I did hurt some ponies, but only the ones trying to stop us from escaping. I could’ve killed them all.”

“Is that really a good idea to tell him?” Bree asked, nervous and a little annoyed. “Total stranger?”

Jackie shrugged. “He’s got a computer. He can look at my memories for himself.” Unlike Bree, she wasn’t trying to whisper. Acting and hiding took energy and frankly her supply of both was nearly depleted.

She needed to get this damn mission done, so she could go back to being human again. Sunset could be the pony, and she would be real. Bree doesn’t have to know I’m not going to take her offer. That lie would be easy, it was the same one she’d been telling her whole life.

The interior of the rocket was cramped, or it would’ve been if they had human proportions. But at pony height they could stand fully erect without any discomfort, even at the top of the elevator.

A Merlin was meant to carry five passengers, so there were fire acceleration chairs. The one at the top was occupied, and surrounded with a handful of ancient-looking automated drones.

“Did Equestria have a museum?” Jackie called, waving cheerfully at the old man in the chair. She couldn’t see much about him, just the thick beard of white and tiny eyes vanishing behind glasses. Everything but his face and hands had been swallowed by the acceleration chair.

“A museum?” he repeated, though she could only hear the amplified voice. He was using the ship’s PA, which boomed so much louder than his natural voice she couldn’t even hear it. “No, I don’t know what you’re talking about. I haven’t been conscious for many years, if you’re asking. I slept in medical stasis since the days of Nightmare Moon.”

“You mean…” Bree sounded fearful. “You mean your rocket is a thousand years old? And we’re flying in it?”

The old man smiled down through his beard. “It’s been maintained the entire time. My workshop remained functional while I was frozen. Excellus traded resources with the governing intelligence in exchange for drones, and… I’m not delaying my reunion with my own kind any longer. Strap in, or I’ll let you off, but this conversation is over. A starship approaches, and I intend to board.”

Jackie separated from her companion, sliding into one of the lowest acceleration chairs. It was built for a human’s general shape, but it was also made of flexible, moldable material that could conform to her body as soon as she settled down inside it.

“I’ve never been to space before,” she said, once she was belted in securely and could only move her forelegs. “I thought it was crazy. Even with, uh… safer ships. Taking your fate into your hands like this.”

Avalon laughed, and a distant roar began somewhere below their hooves. “If this frightens you, be thankful you did not live a millennium ago. We made many sacrifices to contain the apocalypse.”

But then acceleration hit them like a freight train, and the organics stopped moving. Jackie felt no discomfort in her chair, though her own body did numb the limbs that couldn’t fight against the acceleration as a sign to her that she had to wait. From the pained sounds Bree was making, even earth ponies weren’t built to enjoy this trip.

But it can’t be that bad. Avalon’s an old man, and he used this before. It might be chemically fueled, but the days of Earth’s space cowboys were still long gone.

It wasn’t a short trip, either. Jackie had seen plenty of pirated Federation holovids, and most of them included space travel at some point or another. It was all about Mars and Luna, so characters often had to get between them. Yet those movies rarely included the half-hour trip through the atmosphere, until gravity finally released them and the pressure into her seat became more manageable.

Jackie heard the radio message through her own controls, even though she hadn’t used them once. Curious that Avalon didn’t shut us out. We could’ve caused real trouble if we wanted to.

“Aegis flight control to ASV Triandafillov, we are making contact with your guidance computer now.”

“You have… my permission,” Avalon said, sounding as though he’d just run a marathon. It wasn’t as though they were released to float around the cabin—they were still flying, and that acceleration made the rocket still feel like it had a floor. So long as the engines kept burning, that would stay the case. “How long?”

“That would be… twenty-eight hours, Triandafillov actual. Pattern is locked. Please do not deviate from the approach vector or activate any of your ship’s weapon systems. Flying an artifact like that you wouldn’t even dent the windshield, but Edison’s quite particular about keeping us safe. Don’t give her a reason to use our defenses.”

“No problem,” Avalon said. “We will do nothing of the kind. See you in… hours.” And he was asleep.

Jackie looked to her right, and was unsurprised to see Bree was sturdier than the ancient human above them. She pushed out with her forelegs, and the acceleration chair let her free. Jackie’s body would let her move as well, which had to mean that they weren’t moving fast enough to damage her.

She pressed the release, sitting back in her chair. “Ever been on a Federation starship before?”

Bree shook her head. “Had to run away from one once, on Hermes base. But they let us transmit home.”

Jackie scanned the rocket around them. There was a crew deck, somewhere—there it was, a hatch not far ahead. She slid past Bree over to it, taking the wheel in her mouth and twisting. “You were… oahah Mercury?”

Bree nodded. “Position is relative. Before we lost Hermes I was a hardware girl. Pretty harsh place to live—mushroom habitats, ore crawlers… I built the best. And the Federation got to take it all because they had Luna’s shipyards when the world ended instead of us. No fecking justice.”

The hatch finally opened. The room inside wasn’t large, a table with lots of cabinets and drawers on almost every surface. Most seemed to hold packages of food or other supplies. Jackie ignored them all, just spread herself out on one of the padded benches. If something went wrong with the rocket they wouldn’t be at the controls—but if something went wrong, what were they supposed to do about it?

“I guess you had to find something else to do, when there were no more extreme-hazard drones to design.”

“Something,” Bree repeated. “Until the Equestrian mission.”

“The one where you invaded. Still… not really sure how that could happen. You think it was bad enough that Richard would execute you?”

Bree winced at the use of the king’s first name sans honorific, but didn’t protest. Most of her attention seemed focused on extracting the foil-wrapped ration packets from a cabinet with various springs and latches holding it shut. No easy task, apparently. “I’ve never heard of the king executing someone. But he might shut me down. Maybe a few centuries, maybe forever. Depends how upset about it Equestria still is. I did save them from a damn invasion, maybe they’d show a little gratitude.”

“I’m sure he won’t do anything—not after hearing how much of a hero you were to Motherlode. I saw everything you wanted to do to protect them. Some ponies are still alive now because of you. Sure wasn’t anything they did, wanting to destroy your towers.”

Bree shrugged. “Whatever. At this rate I’m not sure we’ll ever get back there. This rocket is so old it’s got Avalon insignia on the wall. It’s so old it burns liquid hydrogen. Odds are good we explode before we even get to the Aegis. And if we don’t… that’s a Federation ship. They’re going to lock us up and throw away the key.”

“Lock me up,” Jackie corrected. “You’re organic. You could just be the pony that’s been helping me. Or maybe you’re my girlfriend, I could probably convince them.”


“Sure!” Jackie grinned in response. “You’re organic now, Bree. Everybody knows once you go digital you don’t go back. There’s no reason for them to think otherwise unless you tell them to. I won’t if you won’t.”

“That doesn’t sound wise.” Bree climbed up onto the bench beside her. Close enough that Jackie could feel her weight there on the seat, feel her warmth against one of her wings. “You’re giving me an out. What happens if they think you manipulated me, used me… and I’m just an innocent Equestrian? You might go to prison for both of us.”

Jackie shrugged, doing her best impression of unconcerned. Bree was exactly right, and she might even succeed. But Jackie had known plenty of engineers in her time, and none of them were very good actors. “I don’t think you’d do that to the one who saved your life today,” Jackie said. “You might think about it, but then you’ll remember what it was like to almost get a needle in the back, and have a whole city trying to kill you. And you’ll decide that you can’t send her to jail.”

Bree made an uncomfortable grumbling noise, the only admission Jackie needed.

It was amazing how fast the Crystal Empire could go from a bastion of comfort and luxury to a terrifying nightmare reflection of itself.

Sunset Shimmer had once imagined her return to Equestria after many years in obscurity, and even then she had not pictured such terrible things. But what had she been thinking during her worst years with the Element of Intellect? She’d be returning with an army then, to make Equestria prepare for the end whether it wanted to or not.

I wouldn’t have treated them like this.

There was no deceiving the occupying force, no dressing up in their colors and pretending they were loyal. They seemed to be able to spot a pony who wasn’t under the influence of the evil magic just at a glance—and more importantly, Sunset was no pony.

The original plan—sneak into the sewers, then lay low until they could figure out what was going on—proved a more difficult task than she had imagined.

Unfortunately for them, they happened to start in what was certainly the least convenient part of the castle—the royal bedroom. Starlight Glimmer knew the servant’s corridors and back-ways, but still they encountered many suffering ponies along the way. Starlight blasted them with her horn, leaving a trail of unconscious ponies in their wake.

“Why aren’t you treating them?” Trixie asked. “Your spell worked on us.”

“My spell is working on us,” Starlight corrected through gritted teeth. “It takes more of my concentration the more ponies I use it on. Two is hard enough, I think I might be able to manage three. It’s a good thing Sunset doesn’t need it, so I can save my magic for the princess.”

“You think evil would work on her?” Sunset asked.

They clambered down a tight ramp, probably in one of the building’s spires. Sunset could barely fit, having to stoop and crouch and lean the whole way. If this gets much smaller I’m gonna get stuck down here. The servant’s quarters obviously hadn’t been built with bipedal aliens in mind.

“If she wasn’t prepared,” Starlight answered. “She has a mind too—emotions that can be manipulated. I don’t think it would work on Celestia or Luna, they’re both too old. But Cadance is younger than you, her mind isn’t any stronger than ours.”

“We might have to fight,” Sunset whispered, hoping that her tone would set the example for them. “I know you don’t want to hurt anypony, but…”

“I know,” Starlight said. “My sleeping spells are working so far. That’s… the disadvantage of taking a city by warping all the minds inside. Doing this exposes a pony to… other kinds of manipulation. Don’t know how long until their grip gets too strong.”

“I don’t understand why somepony would want to take over now,” Trixie said, not lowering her voice even a little bit. “Don’t they know there’s an invading army coming this way? If they stop us from… sending the supplies, or whatever… the Crystal Empire will fall. They can’t be princesses if dragons eat everypony.”

“I bet they’re on the same side,” Sunset said. “The timing is perfect to try and undermine Equestria. No Alicorns here who could resist them, but the army depending on us. All the refugees escaping north are ending up here, perfect to be made into slaves. Or… whatever it is evil overlords do when they win.”

Starlight stuck out a foreleg, stopping them as they emerged onto a landing. Fully underground, with a few crystal lights glowing and a handful of royal guards half-dressed milling about. A heavy iron door faced outward, and several were watching it warily. “Are they… no, they aren’t.”

Sunset hadn’t realized it until then, but the castle above them and the thick stone all around had completely muffled the singing.

These guards haven’t heard it. They’re still themselves. But for how much longer? There were stairs leading straight down from the castle, and other servants had to know there were guards down here.

“Starlight Glimmer!” A stallion hurried over, hastily dawning his helmet and saluting her. “The third watch should’ve reported down here twenty minutes ago. What’s going on up there?”

“The Crystal Empire has been overpowered with mind magic,” Sunset said, without so much as a second’s pause. Ponies gasped, rose from where they’d been resting or playing cards, reached for weapons and shields hanging on racks.

But Starlight stepped in front of the stairs. “If you go up there, you’ll be taken too. But if you come with us, we could…” She frowned. “Figure something out. Earplugs, probably. It’s magical sound, so you’d all have to wear earplugs.”

“How did you escape?” asked the only unicorn in the group. Half a dozen guards, and only one of them had a horn.

“Because we have her.” Trixie pointed at Sunset, who had to stoop in the low room. “She covered our ears so we couldn’t hear it.”

“Right,” the unicorn said, dubious.

They’re going to go up anyway, and reveal that we’re down here.

“Come with us,” Starlight ordered, her voice suddenly commanding. “We’re going to try and free Cadance, so she can help the city. But we can’t do it by just charging up into danger. We need to think, stay hidden, plan carefully…”

A pair of ponies—the ones who’d been guarding the metal door, stepped up to her, weapons already drawn. “You’re getting out of the way,” one of them said, crossbow lifted just a little. He wasn’t bold enough to actually point it at her, though the difference seemed slight. Just a little higher… “You’re not actually in the chain of command, Starlight. Maybe if Shining Armor came down here and ordered us to stay, we would. But not for you. The Empire needs us.”

“The Empire needs you to stay here,” Starlight said. “At least stick in some earplugs before you go! Otherwise you won’t even make it halfway up the stairs before you’re in their control.”

“We don’t keep earplugs,” another guard said, as though Starlight wouldn’t know.

Sunset Shimmer stood as tall as she could, feeling the ceiling brush against her forehead. “You’ll all be doing your princess no favors if you charge up there and become slaves like the rest. We’re not running away because we’re afraid, we’re running away so we can stay free. We’ll solve this, but you can’t help us if you’re mind-controlled.”

The guards leaned close together, speaking in hushed whispers.

“What do we do if they go?” Trixie whispered. “They’ll just tell the monsters where to look!”

“Hopefully they come with us,” Starlight muttered. “Keep your eyes on the ground, Trixie. Maybe you too Sunset, not sure if mind magic works on humans.”

“We’re going,” said the same guard as before, this time raising his crossbow and pointing it at the door. “Our armor is enchanted, and we’re loyal. Manipulation can’t break us. So get out of the way, or we’ll make you.”

Sunset looked away. There was a flash, so bright she could practically feel the warmth of a spell against her synthetic skin. Then the ponies dropped to the floor, each one as limp as death.

“There.” Starlight Glimmer was panting now, her ears flat and sweat dribbling down her face. “That’s… more magic than I’ve done in a week. Wherever we find to hide better be silent, because I won’t be able to keep up a counterspell much longer.”

Sunset looked up—the ponies were still breathing, actually they still seemed to be conscious. Their expressions were glazed, like she’d just dosed them with something.

“Trixie hopes you didn’t hurt them too badly.”

“Just scrambled their brains for a bit,” Starlight muttered. “You probably shouldn’t talk about it after today. It’s kinda a completely illegal school of magic and I just used it to attack officers of the Crown, sooo.” She shoved a pair of limp guards away from the door, then gripped the handle with her mouth. Guess she doesn’t have the magic left over for levitation. She’s more drained than I thought.

Trixie just stood there while her friend struggled, so Sunset reached out and took the wheel with her hand. She felt her body strain a moment, then mechanical muscle overcame and it started to spin.

“I’m not really sure about what that plan is gonna be,” Sunset said, as the door finally clicked and swung outward. “There’s… maybe half a dozen of us, against a whole city. Possibly even an Alicorn.

There was a damp stone hallway beyond, without so much as a candle to light it. The smell of mildew and damp earth brushed past them, along with the cool air of the underground traveling up.

Starlight looked up, confused. “Half a dozen? Are there that many?” she glanced between the three of them, and Sunset could practically hear her counting in her head.

“Oh, the other humans are all okay,” she said. “My immunity, they have it too. Sir Bradley is trying to get into these caves. If he’s anywhere nearby I’ll hear his beacon, or he’ll hear mine, and we can meet up. Knowing him, he’s probably already got gear stashed down here. Said it was a—fallback position, in case the Federation ponies turned like they did in Normandy.”

They set off through the open door, squeezing past just far enough to push it closed behind them. There’d be no locking it, but Sunset took the largest loose rock she could see and settled it right in front of the door. Hopefully that would stop it from swinging open on its own, anyway. “Will those guards remember us when they wake up?”

Starlight shook her head. “They won’t remember anything since sunrise. But they’ll still want to go up and check on the palace eventually, and they’ll get taken like the rest.”

They hadn’t saved anypony yet. What was worse, they couldn’t even fight—these ponies were being mind-controlled, so hurting or killing them would mean hurting regular ponies who didn’t know what they were doing and didn’t want to be doing it.

The tunnels below the palace were cut into what looked like solid crystal. More accurately, it seemed like they’d been carved into the flaws between different gemstones, widened carefully until they were big enough for a pony to use. That meant lots of cramped spaces, spaces that Sunset could barely fit through. The path wasn’t flat, and broke randomly into forks lit by a dull glow through the rocks. Starlight didn’t seem to have a destination in mind—whenever they hit a fork, she just turned and wandered.

“We need some way to counter their magic,” Sunset said, after they’d been walking in relative silence for ten minutes or so.

“Obviously,” Starlight said, her voice a little annoyed. “I’m all ears if you’ve got some brilliant plan for it. But those Sirens, they’ll have the Crystal Heart by now. That’s going to give their grip a kind of permanence that it wouldn’t have otherwise. Maybe they’ll even be able to send ponies down after us, keep control for a few minutes once they’re out of the sound. Maybe it will make them powerful enough that they can write over the ponies that used to be, and everyone we knew in the city is dead.”

“No,” Sunset cut her off. “Don’t think about that, Starlight. It didn’t happen. We’re saving them. We’re… the only ones they have.”

“It’s not the first time,” Trixie said, apparently unconcerned. “Changelings captured the princesses last time too, remember? But we still won.”

“If Discord is listening, we’d just love to have his help…” Starlight said, apparently to the walls. Only silence answered. “Yeah, thought not. I wouldn’t count on any kind of outside magical help. The heart is a shield, one of the most powerful shields ever made. Now evil monsters are using it to keep out our allies. If Luna comes back for supplies, she’ll smack right into it and not be able to come in and help either.”

Maybe not all their allies. Sunset heard something—the quiet pulsing of a network node. “EMERGENCY BROADCAST: STEEL TOWER. DANGER CODE: 001. Rendezvous at this position immediately. Message repeats.”

Sunset stopped dead, barring the passage ahead of them with an arm as she turned to face the node. Map requested, she sent back. Tower asset needs directions.

The node responded, either comprehending the request or with the same directions it would’ve given anyone. “Machine-generated sonar map is attached. WARNING: You have reached the effective range of sonar mapping. Remain in signaling contact at all times to avoid losing node connection.”

“Trixie wonders if the human is finally losing her mind.”

“No.” Sunset folded her arms. “I’m getting a signal from the fallback position. If I know Brad, he’ll have supplies waiting for us. Might even be fortified. He expected a Federation attack to follow us down.”

“How?” Trixie asked. “You aren’t a dragon. I don’t see any magic scrolls.”

“Not magic, radio,” she explained. “It’s… a machine in my head. We all have it.”

“Sounds painful.” Trixie winced. “Weren’t you a pony before? That sounds like it hurts.”

“It probably would hurt, if she wasn’t a machine herself,” Starlight supplied. “All their pieces are mechanical, they can change them out, fix them, get better ones… wish there was an easy way for ponies to copy that part.”

Now Sunset was leading the way, following the directions of a map and getting constantly-updating feedback from the node. She sensed no intelligence from it, and there was no variation in the words it used each time. It was a fork, like the teachers at the Builder school.

But after twenty minutes of wandering, which took them gradually into wider tunnels more accommodating of Sunset’s oversized human frame, they passed into a long hallway lined with machines.

She recognized the mechanical turrets from her “basics of automated warfare” class, and knew that a single mistake would turn them permanently to goo.

“IFF accepted,” said a mechanical voice from the end of the hall. Just past it, a metal blockade stood between her and a doorway. “Identify these others.”

“Friends,” Sunset said. “They’re Equestrian citizens.”

“Authorization accepted, Natasha.” The turrets all relaxed, barrels slumping. A metal slab slid to the side, and cool light shone out from within.

The safehouse had been built into one of the many dead-ends of the crystal caverns, though this one was spacious enough to fit a hundred humans easily. Water dribbled down from the ceiling and collected in a pool so clear she could see all the way to the hexagonal chunks of green minerals at the bottom. There were a dozen crates scattered in one corner, branded with the sun and moon mark symbolic of the Equestrian military. Set against the wall, with cables running out past the door, was a portable generator and a few personal chargers, along with a single locked box with “Sir Cornelius Bradley” stamped into one corner.

That was it—their entire safehouse. The last refuge of the Crystal Empire not conquered by the sirens. And since the Empire was the place all displaced ponies were fleeing to, in a way it was also the last vestige of Equestria.

It wasn’t supposed to end like this. All Sunset had sacrificed—her magic, her position, her life even… hadn’t been enough. She’d returned too late to make a difference. Clover’s prophecy was coming true.

“Well, it certainly is… clean,” Starlight muttered, as the massive steel slab smacked shut behind them. “Who did you say set this up? Someone immune to the Sirens’ magic?”

“Yeah.” Sunset made her way over to the first of the crates. Fairly small compared to her, though she’d seen their like before while a pony and never would’ve been able to open them. She nudged the side of one with a foot, then leaned forward and yanked. Her body strained for a moment, but mechanical bodies were strong. Maybe not as much as an earth pony—but strong enough to yank off a crate’s lid.

Inside she could see packed dry oats, in the clay jars used by the Solar Army’s stockpiles. So far as she knew, regular ponies couldn’t even buy supplies like this. I guess he figured we might have some organic allies. Wonder how he got all this down here.

She tossed the wooden lid onto the floor. “So, mind-magic expert. Any idea how we cure the city?”

Starlight laughed, tone bitter and distant. “Not while they have the Heart. And I’m not sure how we get it back when they have every pony in the whole city enslaved.”

“Yeah.” Sunset slumped onto a nearby still-closed crate, lowering her head into her hands. “Me neither.”

Chapter 22: Transition Function

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As it turned out, Sir Bradley had prepared more than food down here. Without anything better to do, they took the time to open all the crates, revealing bedrolls, tents, basic cookware—an entire camp’s worth of supplies.

Of course Sunset and any other Builders there wouldn’t have needed it, but that didn’t mean she couldn’t help. They set up everything, arranging the sleeping bags before making a cooking circle with chunks of crystal and the crates themselves as fuel. While Trixie cooked a batch of “trail-cakes,” Starlight and Sunset sat largely in silence, only half listening to the show pony recount stories of her life on the road.

Sunset called for Jackie, for Sir Bradley—for anypony she could think of who might be able to help. Maybe a mechanical pony could make it through magic shields?

But it didn’t matter, because no one answered her call. She was too far underground, and radio wasn’t magic. The crystals down here might even be worse than simple dirt, since they did strange things to her signals sometimes, even when she only spoke to the emergency node.

She couldn’t have said how long went by in the dark—it felt like hours, anyway. The ponies ate, then slept, and still she was left sitting there. At least she had the presence of mind to walk over to the portable charger and sit there instead, where she could give her batteries another three days of operation. Maybe I should’ve pushed for a military sleeve when they made me, even though I wasn’t going to fight.

Something told her Tesla wouldn’t have given her what she wanted, even if she’d understood the right way to ask. Military sleeves could operate for long periods without infrastructure. Even Bradley’s squires had them.

And yet he brought the portable charger down here. I’m the only one who needs it, but it probably took him a whole trip.

If she was organic, she probably would’ve dozed off like the others. But simulating sleep would be a waste, when her brain could just keep her from feeling tired in the first place. It was all old instincts and old habits, stuck thinking she was a pony.

And it was a good thing she hadn’t slept, because that was when she heard the transmission. She could detect it only faintly, which unlike an overheard whisper with organic ears meant that it was fuzzed with static and her certainty about its contents dropped dangerously low.

It came with Sir Bradley’s identifier tag, which was the only certain thing in the entire message. “Sunset… on our way… ambush. Sent… after us. Household… please.”

Sunset rose, beginning a signal trace even as she marched over to the metal crate and lowered her hand to it. The lock went green, and clicked open.

There were a dozen accelerator rifles inside, set into hard black foam and packed with extra ammo. She grabbed the first one, smacking a plastic magazine into place.

Firearms were a required mastery in the Realm, so far as range shooting and basic operation of this rifle. Sunset had been confused at the time, but now she knew why. At least she wouldn’t shoot herself in the hoof with one.

“What are you doing?” Starlight asked. Trixie was still curled in her own sleeping bag, apparently dreaming away. But Starlight watched her, eyes weary.

“Sir Bradley is down here. Sounds like he needs help.”

“Are you… a warrior too? The humans taught you how to fight?”

“No,” Sunset admitted. “But I have to try anyway.”

“Then I’m coming too.” She glanced briefly at the other sleeping bags. “Probably best if we leave her here. Where are we going?”

Sunset sent the open signal to the metal door’s crude mechanism, then waited for it to rotate out of their way. “I’m… not sure. I’m getting a signal, but it’s faint and these crystals echo it back from all over. Hopefully Brad’s listening to me.”

Sir Bradley! I’m coming, where are you?”

She ran. Even the direction of the signal was doubtful, but she had to be moving. At least if she was doing something she might be helping, instead of being trapped in a corner to hide while the world ended.

If Clover’s prophecy ended up coming true, and the world was doomed to die, she would make sure she died first.

It felt like she was going the right way, because Sunset rarely had to duck or crawl anymore. If Brad was going to pick a hideout, he probably picked one that was easy for a human to reach. The ones trying to follow us would be ponies, so they’d have the advantage fighting in small spaces.

The larger space did mean she had to slow down for Starlight to keep up—those short pony legs and the unicorn’s existing tiredness just didn’t make it easy for her to keep pace through the dark.

“You’re… faster than you look,” Starlight panted, after they’d been running for a few minutes. “Looking at you… all thin and stretched. Wouldn’t think… you could move like that.”

“Humans evolved as hunters,” Sunset answered. “They’re the best endurance runners on their planet. Ran their prey to exhaustion.”

“Delightful,” Starlight said. “That’s exactly the kind of friends I want to invite into Equestria when we’re already being invaded.”

Sunset shrugged. “They don’t do it anymore. But their whole planet is irradiated, so animals big enough to be worth hunting don’t survive anymore.”

“You’re coming the right way.” It was Brad’s transmission, much clearer this time. “Not… make a difference. Xavier and I are the only ones left… not much longer. Losing fluid…”

She was very close now. Sunset broke into a full sprint, relying on her body’s electronic balance to avoid slipping on the uneven crystal and tumbling away. Starlight Glimmer squealed in protest at being left behind, but Sunset was barely listening.

“Who is it? Royal guards? Who’s fighting you?”

“No, monsters. Some kind of… zombie ponies or something. So many…”

Sunset could hear the struggle now, echoing down a distant hallway of nearly clear crystal. And reflecting forward from up ahead, she could see the fight, greatly distorted and mirrored by the many reflections.

Sir Bradley stood without his armor, surrounded by a mountain of corpses. They looked like changelings, except that their bodies wept reddish slime and their eyes were empty.

She took the hallway in a few leaps, emerging in the doorway with the rifle already raised.

There had been hundreds of them, from the look of it. The room was a massive cathedral of crystal spires, with ancient carvings on the walls and pony-sized benches arranged to block the floor in places.

Changeling corpses littered the ground from the entrance on the opposite side, stretching back towards her. She couldn’t have even counted the dead, but at least a dozen were still moving, surrounding Bradley in the center like the perverse worshipers of a blood-cult.

Sir Bradley’s body had been badly damaged—his clothing was shredded, his skin had whole sections torn out and exposing the mechanical muscle underneath. He dribbled white mechanical-lubricant from every wound.

Even so, Sunset learned in that moment exactly what made him one of Richard’s knights.

Sir Bradley fought like Flash Magnus returned to life. Though his body had been beaten and torn, his one good arm wielded a unicorn sword—a toy at his size, yet with each blow another enemy lost a limb. But for every attacker he killed, two more struck from his flanks.

Around him were the corpses of his two remaining squires, torn apart so thoroughly that Sunset couldn’t have identified them. And against the wall, clutching at his chest, was Xavier. The only survivor.

“Down!” Sunset shouted, out loud this time. Bradley apparently heard, because he flung himself to the side, landing with more protesting metal.

There were dozens of monstrous changelings in the tunnel with her. How much ammunition did she have for the rifle?

Sunset felt the weapon snap back in her grip, but she held on. The gun had its own marksmanship program, and since she wasn’t firing at anything remotely “human” looking, it didn’t seem to care what she shot. She dropped to one knee, firing at the changelings as they came. Sir Bradley was forgotten on the ground as they charged unthinkingly into her rifle’s line of fire.

One magazine clicked empty, and they were still coming as she smashed the second into place and kept shooting. She could feel the accelerator getting hot in her hands, see the barrel start to glow orange, and she kept shooting. Until the last of the changelings crumpled to the ground, mere inches from her.

Starlight Glimmer appeared behind her in a flash of unicorn magic, expression grim. “I guess we know how they get us outside the reach of their music.”

“Yeah.” Sunset dropped the gun, stumbling forward through the still-steaming corpses.

“S-Sunset…” She could barely even see him, his body broken and deformed and half-covered by the dead. She shoved a few dead changelings out of the way, following his voice. “You need to…”

And there he was, with one of the corpses right on top of him now. His body was mangled beyond recognition, though curiously his right arm had been left completely intact. Everywhere else the skin had been shredded, and metallic bones and organs were visible under matte black artificial muscle.

“What, Brad?” She tried to pull him into a sitting position, but his left arm came right out of its socket, steel shredded by changeling teeth. “What is it?”

“Cortical… recorders.” He reached up with his right arm, and the limb shook as he pointed towards the back of his head. “Four of us… here. Take them… to the node. Richard will… find me.”

Sunset caught his arm before he could fall over backward, feeling the weight of the pony bracelet against her skin. The magic burned there, hot even as his body had gone cold.

“Do it yourself,” she said, wrapping her forefingers against the delicate metal chain. “I’m not leaving you here.” She yanked. Where she could probably have bent steel or shattered glass without difficulty, the tiny metal chain strained and squeaked in protest, causing Bradley to look up at her again, pained.

“What are…” His eyes settled on the bracelet. “O-oh, that. Pony… religion, huh?”

“Wasn’t religion for the Federation,” Sunset said, tugging again. Without success. “Hey, uh…” She lifted his arm towards his mouth. “Maybe use your teeth?”

“Sunset, we don’t have…” Starlight didn’t seem to have the courage to wade into a room full of corpses. She’d made it as far as Xavier against the wall, and had helped him into a standing position, though he didn’t look like he’d be moving without her.

“I got them all!” Sunset shouted, desperate and afraid. “Brad, please! We lost almost everyone! I need… someone.” If only she’d kept Twilight’s necklace, then she’d be… where was she, anyway? Idiot, she’s probably in the emergency node. Where else would she be?

“Will you…” His body was failing, even his face had started to twitch erratically. It wouldn’t be long now.

“Yes,” she said, holding the chain up to his mouth. “Break it, Brad. Please.”

He did. The chain’s thin lengths easily snapped in his teeth. Sunset knew she shouldn’t have any senses to feel the magic, yet the warmth on her skin was unmistakable. She backed away as the spell took effect, watching as the few corpses close enough to touch Sir Bradley puffed away to ash, while the other changeling bodies began to smoke and char.

Necromancy? Who in their right mind would combine two mythical evils into one? But there was no time to wonder about that. The magic got bright enough that even she backed away, covering her face with one arm. Changeling blood splattered against her skin boiled away to nothing, at least in the direction facing Bradley.

And then it was gone, and a pony stood where a knight had once been.

Only his severed arm remained, smashed and broken on the ground in front of him.

He’d become a pegasus, bright orange with a blueish mane. He also didn’t make it two steps before falling over sideways.

“Shouldn’t…” His voice was much the same, maybe a little higher for being a pony now. “Native customs… fully prosthetic…”

“Shut up,” Sunset muttered, hurrying over to him. “Help me find the rest of your house, Brad. You said something about cortical recorders? Let’s get those.”

“You’re fucking kidding me,” Xavier croaked, staring in horror. “It actually worked. Hephaestus in his own forge couldn’t have done it. That’s flesh and blood.”

“Not if we stay here,” Starlight called, glaring at them all. “Glad you’re alive and everything, but there’s no way that was all of them. We need to get out—leaving those bodies behind might make them think both sides lost. Mutual destruction won’t give them anypony to look for.”

“Right,” Sunset said. “Then get in here and help.”

Jackie watched the distant outline of the Aegis growing closer and closer in the window.

These ships were what had ultimately secured the Federation a future, even when their enemies decisively held Earth and were physically superior in every individual way.

She couldn’t look at its approaching outline for long without her eyes glazing over and her stomach turning in her gut—objects that large shouldn’t move so fast! Yet it moved, coming up on them so fast that she almost felt they would be smashed against its metal windshield.

Capital hypercarriers were never meant to enter atmosphere, and so aerodynamics had obviously been no part of this one’s construction. It was blocky and square in regular sections, with uneven protrusions of various lengths extending from it without any sort of pattern.

Even the old man Avalon was awake as they came in to dock, though he still spoke to them from his acceleration chair. “Your presence on my ship is incidental,” he said, his voice sounding through the PA system again. “I expect both of you to be completely cooperative and not to interfere.”

“Fine,” Jackie answered, sitting up from the chair and staring up at the ceiling. “So what are you going to tell them? You’re still physically human, we’re not.”

“The truth,” he answered, without hesitation. “I can’t vouch for either of you, or any part of your story. You just claimed to be humans in need of rescue like I was. Your English is good enough…”

System standard, Jackie corrected, though she wasn’t quite bold enough to say so out loud. It didn’t feel… fair, to make fun of someone’s ignorance who had obviously never had a proper education.

“What are you even doing here?” Bree asked, rising with a yawn from beside her on the cushion. “You said something about Nightmare Moon, didn’t you? That was a long time ago. Are you carrying the Nanophage? I guess a thousand years was a bit optimistic for how long it could make us live.”

“Nano… no, I’m not. They asked me that same question, and I didn’t understand it from them either. But they seemed relieved with my answer.”

“Because the Nanophage is being used to spread a digital disease,” Jackie said, feeling increasingly stupid the longer she called answers into the air at a PA system. “Look, I’ll just come to you. Might as well be in the same part of the rocket when their marines rush in to arrest us.”

And so she returned to the chairs, though this time she didn’t actually situate herself in one. Docking was a much smoother process than takeoff had been, and the acceleration she felt was comparable to walking on the deck of an airline during a turbulent passenger flight. Nothing her artificial body couldn’t handle.

“A living human without the Nanophage,” Jackie said, when she had climbed up into the station beside him. There were a pair of drones there—each one generally human in outline, with ancient-looking metal frames and jerky movements. They seemed to watch her as she approached, though neither stopped her. “I guess it makes sense. Why you’re that old.”

“Be careful,” Avalon said, extending a wrinkled hand to the controls. “I’ve known humans before. Do not lie to me.”

“I’m not lying.” Jackie felt the seat shake a little as Bree climbed in behind her. But she didn’t try to send her away—they were both about to be behind enemy lines, might as well be close to a friend. “The Nanophage is so important we give it in the third trimester. Nobody’s born without it anymore.”

“And yet, I have not heard of it,” Avalon said. “All the resources of the Avalon colony, and yet it didn’t mention it.”

Jackie shrugged. “Maybe it’s a relic. You called yourself Avalon, and that station vanished before I was born. But after the great War it got even more important—the birth rate is really shit on Luna, so that’s how people have stopped from dying out. Just… don’t die.”

“But what does it do?” Avalon asked, banging one frustrated fist on the desk in front of him. “I’ve craved contact with my own kind, since… the beginning. Yet now that I find them, it’s all they think about. Is it a disease? A… treatment? What?”

“A healthcare system,” Bree answered from beside Jackie. “It’s the best organics could come up with to keep their bodies working, instead of just replacing them with systems they could maintain indefinitely. They keep a person’s body alive, repair injuries and help cure disease.”

The floor rocked under them, right about the time the tiny screens showed metal walls surrounding them on all sides. There were a few loud, reverberating clicks, and it felt as though they’d stopped moving.

“Welcome aboard the Aegis,” said a voice from the console, female and polite but somehow artificial. “Official representatives are on their way. As Equestria is reported as victim of a serious infection, you will be escorted to medical for evaluation and possible quarantine. Prepare to be boarded.”

“We’re prepared,” Jackie muttered, mostly to herself. But then she spoke up, leaning towards the microphone. “You should know that one of us is a Steel Tower full synthetic. Me, the bat. Tower assholes got me in London, and I’ve been made of metal ever since. I’m not trying to be a spy or anything.”

There was a long silence. For a synthetic-sounding voice, that was more than a little strange. “The Tower has cybernetic ponies?”

“One,” Jackie muttered. “A former pony designed them for herself, and…” She trailed off. “You could just come in and talk to me.”

“I cannot ‘come’ anywhere,” the speaker said. “OMICRON-class AGI’s are prohibited from operating mobile manipulative apparatus.”

Another brief pause, long enough for Jackie to catch Avalon’s angry glare. “Whatever you’re doing, if you’re trying to stop me from meeting them.”

“I’m trying to stop us from getting thrown into a cell,” Jackie responded in a hiss. “I’m mechanical, they don’t even need a scanner to tell that. But I also fucking hate the Steel Tower, and I’ll literally tell them anything they want to know, so…” She tapped the panel in front of her. “Hope you’re still listening.”

“Closely,” the speaker answered. “Or as much as I can. We have numerous other concerns.”

Somewhere below them the door opened in a rush of gas, and a pair of figures appeared down the ramp. Both stood at full human size, their bodies completely covered by dull metal. But after weeks surrounded by ponies, there was something more than a little strange about seeing the same sort of humans she’d spent her life fearing.

These were the villains of many Realm holovid broadcasts, and simultaneously the ones who had failed to save her when the world ended. Both were armed, with plastic rifles painted yellow and black. Ship guns, that wouldn’t pierce the hull. “Come to us,” one of them called, their voice distorted by the suit’s speaker system. “Do not bring anything with you. Cooperate and you will not be harmed.”

“I am coming,” Avalon said, rising from his seat and clutching against the drone for support. Acceleration gravity was barely enough to encourage them down this time. But his limbs shook as he crawled, down the winding ramp towards the lower level. “We will cooperate.”

And they did, down to the airlock instead of the now-sideways boarding ramp. The marines started with Avalon, scanning him with a handheld device while the other kept their weapon close, always ready to point at Jackie but not quite threatening her with it yet.

“No Nanophage,” the marine said. “Christ it’s true. What backwoods did you crawl out of, old man?”

Avalon only laughed, his voice distant and sad. “You couldn’t imagine. And you wouldn’t believe me if I told you anyway.”

He shrugged. Well, he gestured to the hatch, which opened at his command. More marines waited on the other side, along with several white-suited medical people and a waiting stretcher. “Doesn’t matter now. The Lunar Navy will take care of you.”

Avalon nodded, and didn’t so much as wave as he slipped through the hatch. That left the two of them. “Now, one of you is a Tower automaton,” the marine said, slipping his medical scanner back into its holster. “What in sweet fuck possessed you to try and board a Federation carrier?”

Jackie raised a hoof, spreading her mechanical wings. Those were the easiest to spot as fakes, since the plastic just didn’t imitate skin very well. The Tower could do a much better job when they wanted to, but her Steel Tower wings hadn’t been able to fly, so…

“Because the natives were going to chop me up for parts,” she said. “And the Great War was fucking ages ago. We’re past it, aren’t we? All I want is for you not to kill me. Is that so hard?”

“And you’re organic?” he asked, turning towards Bree. “No implants, no modifications…”

“Yes,” she answered, her system common so thickly accented suddenly that Jackie wondered if it was intentional. “Am… healthy.”

“Healthy.” The marine slung his rifle again, and aimed the scanner at her instead. “Well… the two of you are waiting here, I’m afraid. Orders from acting captain. If you need refreshments, or… spare parts, ask Edison with the radio. That’s more than I’d give you if it were up to me.” He turned away. “And if you’re really not involved in any of this, we’re sorry pony. But we just lost an entire land army to your magic. Staying in here is the safest thing for both of you.”

He turned away, and the pair of them vanished through the hatch. It sealed with a definitive rush of air, leaving the two of them alone in the gloom.

“Well… that could’ve gone worse.” Jackie sighed, sprawling out on the cold, steel floor. “In the holovids they would’ve shot both of us. Me for being robotic, and you for being a subversive reactionary.

Bree rolled her eyes. “So where did the propaganda end and the entertainment begin?”

Jackie had no answer to that—and no desire to defend the state-mandated entertainment. The holos were much more entertaining when she could watch them from inside, the Realm certainly had that advantage on the Federation. But that was about the only nice thing she had to say.

“Maybe they could send us back,” Jackie muttered, after a few moments of silence. “Sunset Shimmer… needs help. Their people too. You think they’d believe the message if I showed them? Or maybe they’d just think I was trying to trick them for no reason. Even though we’re on the same fucking side here.

“That depends on what the message is,” said a voice from the rocket’s PA. The same one they’d spoken to before, synthesized but still plainly emotional. “We lost contact with our captain on the ground without warning. So far as we knew our military assets were… safe, if disabled. Can you explain what happened in the Crystal Empire refugee outpost?”

Jackie rose, wishing there was at least a screen for her to talk to. All this talking to disembodied voices made her feel like she was losing her mind. “I can send you my memories if you want. Let you see what really happened.”

“I cannot interpret Tower memory imprints,” the voice said, almost annoyed. “But I can decode your transmissions, regardless of their level of encryption. Transmit to the following shipboard frequency. If there’s anything even remotely hostile in your message, I’ll jettison that rocket and turn it to slag.”

Jackie rolled her eyes, then put together Sunset’s last transmission and sent it. Her software was less than pleased with her destination, filling her vision with “UNKNOWN DESTINATION” errors. But she ignored all that. Sunset Shimmer probably wouldn’t mind her passing a call for help to someone else. At least she hoped Sunset wouldn’t mind.

“That is… interesting,” the voice eventually said. “The message is authentic, anyway. I can’t verify its contents, but… are you asking for our help? Most of those affected by this would be our own personnel to begin with.”

She only shrugged, and didn’t even care that the speaker probably wouldn’t be able to see her anyway. “I was just trying to escape from some evil ponies. Now we got away, and maybe I want to help a friend next. If I end up saving some Federation people along the way, that’s fine too. I didn’t want to be part of the Steel Tower. I hate everything they fucking stand for and I’ve been trying to undermine them in any way I could since the whole thing started. My real name is Jacqueline Kessler. I’m probably listed as a casualty in the Great War in your computer. I was an exchange student in London, when…”

Maybe the computer couldn’t see her, but Bree was sure staring. That was uncomfortable enough.

“And while I’m here… fuck it, I don’t care. Can you check to see if any of my family are still… they were living in New Hampshire, and I know there were a few bunkers there. Mom’s name was Denice, dad was Lee. And I had—”

“I shouldn’t share this information with you,” Edison said, before revealing it anyway. “I’m sorry to say that your mother passed away. She was a volunteer medical technician, and is listed here as a casualty of the third Pan-American airstrike. It… hit the whole eastern seaboard.”

“What about my dad? My s-sister?”

“Alive,” Edison answered. “Father is an engineer in the Albany shelter. Your sister has become a nurse, and is serving aboard the Aegis. This vessel.”

Chapter 23: Memory Mod

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“I’m going to see her,” she announced, rising to her hooves and marching straight for the airlock. “This conversation is fucking over.”

Of course, the hatch didn’t open. Despite Jackie’s confidence, an AI like the OMICRON Core couldn’t be intimidated so easily.

“You will not be permitted aboard,” Edison said. “I’m sorry, my acting captain’s orders are absolute. You are too much of a security threat. We do not know what abilities the Tower has developed since the war. A single individual may be able to do catastrophic damage to one of a limited number of capital ships.”

Jackie dropped to her haunches in front of the locked hatch. “And Avalon could’ve had a fucking nuke on this ship. You didn’t know until he got here—seems like you were already taking risks.”

“No,” the voice responded, sounding suddenly annoyed. “Avalon permitted me full access to the ship’s sensor logs, and control of its drones. I performed a thorough search myself before takeoff. The diversion to carry two additional… passengers… nearly cost him landing clearance. But interrogating the last survivor of Avalon station was worth the risk. A family reunion for an individual that may very well be an imposter—and is certainly a digital recording in any case—is not.”

“Could you at least tell her I’m here? Forget about me—she’s one of your citizens. A loyal… nurse, apparently. Doesn’t she deserve to see her family? Thought her mom and her older sister were dead all this time. I thought OMICRON Cores were supposed to care about their people.”

Now the speaker finally sounded angry—she was distinctly louder than she had been before. “More than you can possibly imagine, construct. Our relationship with humanity is something no Tower automaton could comprehend. No matter how accelerated your thoughts, how accurate the simulation of humanity becomes… you sacrificed what we never had.”

“Had it stolen,” Jackie muttered, not even trying to suppress her own anger. “I’m not some fuckin’ traitor. King Richard can eat glass until he’s shitting sausages.”

But if she thought just swearing at the AI would make a difference, she was sadly disappointed. “You cannot come aboard,” Edison said, a little more calmly. “I will consider telling your sister about you. Your intelligence on Equus’s surface is more interesting. Considering we are not yet able to land for fear my crew would enter into the influence of Samil’s zero-day, we may need to resort to other methods. Feel free to rest aboard that rocket, but know I may have a use for you.”

“Might be more like the holovids than I thought,” Jackie muttered, before turning away from the entrance hatch. “Guess you probably should get some sleep, Bree. Maybe a shower while you’re at it.”

The pony glared at her, but didn’t actually correct her. “You smell like garbage too, you know. We were both in there.”

She shrugged. “Save me some hot water then.”

It was a long wait. Knowing that her family was still alive—some of them, anyway—should’ve been a relief. But suddenly a chapter of her life that had been closed only in pain was now torn violently open again. She could no longer take solace at being alone in the world, because she wasn’t. The Murciélagos had been a surrogate family, but she hadn’t seen them since Sunset, and might not for some time to come. But this…

Would she even want to see me again? Katie probably made peace with me being gone when she was still a kid. Now I’m back, and I’m one of them. Not only that, but she was a pony android of all things. Would that make things easier, or harder?

She found out a few hours later, when the voice of Edison startled her from her own mind. Jackie had gone to the crew quarters with Bree, even though she had no need for sleep and hadn’t been that excited about a shower.

“Jacqueline Kessler, are you awake?”

It was using her name now, that was something. She made her way over to the screen, and this time was surprised to see it was using the entire thing, not just the speakers. A dark-skinned woman in plain white naval uniform sat there, her eyes a deep, unnatural purple. This was the Edison core’s avatar, then, the one it used to interact with humans. “You’re going to cut me up for parts like the ponies wanted to? This is… when you tell us.”

“No.” She sounded annoyed. “I’ve come to propose an exchange.”

Fucking great. The OMICRON Cores might be AGIs, but they didn’t seem that different. This was just like what Tesla had done to them. Those in power could always find a way to justify taking from the ones underneath if they called it a deal. But she wouldn’t get a choice in agreeing to it. “Tell me, then.”

“We’re still working on a patch to Samil’s zero-day,” the AI said. “But our war assets are in danger. There are no troops for me to send to help. There are a number of drugs that might be useful in treating the effects the ‘Siren’ creatures have produced, but I can’t deliver them.”

“What are you proposing, exactly?”

Edison smiled slightly. “I have the two of you. Your friend is organic, she could be the first test of the inoculation. Then you—you’re immune. I could drop you into occupied territory. And when you get there, you will find my captain and free her mind.”

I’m not sure how much good a drug will do against pony magic. But Jackie knew so little about magic, maybe she shouldn’t question it. Maybe the OMICRON Cores already knew how it worked, and it was just another science to them.

“That sounds like a lot of work,” she said, doing her best skeptical indifference. It wouldn’t exactly help her case if she made it obvious she’d wanted to go there and help Sunset herself. Might as well let them pay me. “What do I get in exchange?”

“Your sister wants to see you,” Edison said. “I’ll give you ten minutes by videophone. And if you succeed, I’ll reinstate your citizenship. You can see her as much as you like after that.”

“A digital citizen?” she repeated, breathless. “I didn’t think that was… possible.”

The woman laughed. “Then what am I? There’s no minimum intelligence requirement, fortunately for you. You may be limited in your selection of bodies… but that’s a small price to pay.”

“Yes,” Jackie answered. “I’ll do it. Put her on.”

The woman smiled. “When this conversation is over, marines will be there to escort you to the armory, then to the drop. We’ve never done an orbital drop with a pony before… are ponies sturdy enough to survive it?”

Jackie glanced over her shoulder, at where Bree was resting. The earth pony had survived worse. “This one is. Put Katie on.”

The screen went dark for a moment, the AI’s avatar vanishing. When an image finally returned, Jackie could tell it was obviously from a real camera this time, located in a sickbay of some kind. There was a row of cots in the background, and various flashing and beeping machines taking up most of the space.

The one sitting in front of the screen looked much like Jackie had, once. Same bright hair and dark eyes, same lean build, similar face. But she wasn’t as tall, and her expression wasn’t so calculating. Even now, Katie had become a kinder creature than Jackie could’ve ever hoped to be. Maybe you never saw the world the way that I do.

“Edison warned me I would be talking to a pony,” she said. “Guess that’s the new thing now. Relatives vanish and pop back up months later on four legs.”

“Y-yeah.” Jackie could barely put the words into her mouth. This girl scarcely seemed eager to see her. There was none of the joy at their reunion she would’ve imagined. But she was still a pony, and they were still only talking over a video phone. “It’s a new thing for me. I expected to have a human body, but… you don’t always get what you’re promised.”

The girl tapped her fingers on the desk in front of her, leaning forward to stare at her screen. “How, Jackie? How are you still alive? London got gassed. Real horrifying stuff… flesh-liquifying nightmare.”

Jackie nodded. “I was inside, stayed there. Nanocloud takes a long time to get inside—eats the wood first, the rats, the bugs… by the time it got in, we were all digital. D-dead already, guess you’d say. Richard had rescue crews… saving as many as he could. If you could call it saving.”

“You don’t know? You went through it.” Katie leaned back in her chair, glancing over her shoulder. The lights behind her went from bright blue daylight simulations to a dull amber. Apparently the watch had just turned over. “Are you alive?”

Jackie shrugged. “You know what they used to say. A simulation can think it’s real. When you get scanned, it’s not really going to sleep in one world and waking up in another. It’s dying for a copy.”

“It’s been…” Katie trailed off. “God, Jak. So long I wouldn’t even remember. You speak with her voice… but that doesn’t mean you’re really her. Were you…” She frowned. “What were you studying? No, that’d be in public records. How about this. Why didn’t dad approve of your studying abroad? Beyond the whole ‘war might be tomorrow’ thing?”

“Easy.” She didn’t even hesitate. “He was afraid I would come home with a girlfriend. They couldn’t keep an eye on me, so he couldn’t stop me anymore. Probably smart of him to be afraid—I would have. I know for sure Chloe burned, though.” She sighed, looking away. “RIP in peace, Chloe.” Too bad she didn’t have any sort of offering to give the dead. But she’d made peace with that death a long time ago. In some ways, Chloe not following her was its own kind of relief. At least she could’ve died as the person she was, not living on as some copy.

“Damn,” Katie muttered. “I was hoping you’d get it wrong. If you were some trick, I could hate you and not feel guilty about it.”

Jackie shrugged. “You don’t have to like me, Katie. Maybe you’ll never speak to me again… I get it. I didn’t wake up today thinking I’d ever see you again. Just knowing you’re alive is enough for me. Congrats on… finally got your nursing thing, that’s great. I’m sure you help a lot of people.

Her sister blinked, turned away and clutched at her face for a few seconds. Her voice faltered, breaking a little. “Don’t talk like that.”

She ignored the command. “Your AI is about to send me back behind enemy lines. Airdrop… actually looking forward to that part. You hear all those stories about the sky marshals, guess I’ll get to be one for a day. You think they might give me one of their caps as a souvenir?”

Her sister didn’t laugh, though she could see Katie relax a little at her words. She was helping to ease away the tension, and that was something anyway.

“When the war ends…” Katie muttered. “What happens to you then? Are you… some kind of… s-slave process? For King Richard?”

This time it was Jackie’s turn to laugh. “Richard is an asshole, but… not that particular flavor. Actually he doesn’t have anything to do with this. He might be pissed if he knew… but for all I know Tesla isn’t even alive anymore. My original missions might all be pointless. Ah well. The devil gives you enough lucky breaks, and eventually he collects his due. Maybe my time is up.”

“If it isn’t…” Katie spoke slowly. “You should visit the embassy. When it’s over, there… there’s bound to be one. Maybe we could… get lunch or something. I could bring you oil to drink and some metal bars to chew on. That’s how robots are, right?”

She laughed again. “Something like that.”

It wasn’t even a little like that, but Jackie didn’t care. Katie was willing to see her again—that alone was almost worth surviving. If she could.

The screen went black again suddenly, though it didn’t stay that way for very long. Edison’s face was back, looking completely unabashed for having interrupted them. “Ten minutes. Now the marines are on their way. And before you ask, I’ll make sure one of them gives you a hat.”

She vanished too, leaving only a blank screen behind. At least Bree hadn’t woken up—there was no one to see her tears.

Sunset Shimmer half expected to find their fallback position choked with more corpses and everything inside it destroyed. But here at least there was some mercy—the turrets still sat motionless, at least until they came around the corner.

“Identified, Tower asset Natasha, imperial technician Xavier, and two unknown individuals.”

“Friends,” Sunset called, before the turrets could actually point in their direction. Poor Brad, looking up from pony head height directly into the barrel of his own guns. They did not appear able to identify him—but why would they? So far as any computer was concerned, he was something totally different. Sir Bradley was alive again.

The metal door on the far side ground and creaked open, revealing an extremely cross Trixie on the other side. At least her glares were only for Starlight—Sunset wasn’t sure she wanted to deal with her right now.

A few minutes later and they were securely inside, with the door shut behind them and at least temporary safety restored.

Sir Bradley was walking on his own now, if it could be called walking. He stumbled like a newborn, tripping and splaying his wings like they would somehow help with his balance. His expression had gone dark, and he hadn’t spoken to Sunset once since they arrived.

As much as it hurt, she left him to his own devices, prancing in slow circles while she joined Starlight and Trixie near the far wall.

“Of all the stallions to rescue…” Trixie muttered, as soon as it was just the three of them. “Where did you find one so… simple?”

Starlight glared, cutting her off. “He’s the Tower knight. They all got killed fighting their way here, but Sunset talked him into using Discord’s magic. Instead of…”

“Well, then he made the obvious choice. Even if it does make life harder for us, can’t tell apart who’s really a pony and who’s just pretending.”

“Are you sure there’s a difference?” Sunset asked, removing the little metal objects from her pocket. There were two of them—one for each of the dead squires. Dark metal rectangles, with rounded edges and every appearance of mechanical strength. Cortical recorders—it was like holding Twilight’s necklace all over again, only for people the Tower actually cared about protecting. “When I lived with the Builders, they didn’t know I was really a pony. I bet they could do the same thing in reverse, if you gave them enough time.”

Trixie looked over her shoulder, watching Bradley stumble and splash into the edge of the water. “Trixie is not so sure. Maybe ponies are just smarter than they are—more adaptable.”

“He has more to adapt to,” Sunset argued. “And anyway, think about Alexi. She wasn’t a pony for an hour and already she was leading her refugees. It’s not her fault the Crystal Empire got taken over by Sirens. Those are monsters from our world, not hers.”

Neither Trixie nor Starlight seemed to have any response to that. They stared in awkward silence, or just looked away.

“I’m glad you got to rescue a friend,” Starlight eventually said. “But are we any closer to saving the Empire? Our troops on the front need our supplies, and they aren’t getting them. Now apparently the Sirens are letting monsters into the city—at least we can hope that the mind-controlled ponies up there aren’t being attacked. They’re all on the same side…”

“Unfortunately… not,” Sunset admitted. “You saw the way he fought—Sir Bradley would’ve been amazing to have on our side.”

“Maybe. But he lost, and now we’re no closer than we were before.” Trixie rose, her horn glowing for a second. “Trixie cannot stay hidden underground while her audience needs her on the surface. We need to go up there and save everypony.”

“Sure,” Starlight agreed. “But we need to have a plan before we do. Otherwise we’ll just get overwhelmed and mind-controlled like everypony else. Except Sunset and that other human—they’ll just get ripped apart.

“We’ll think of something,” Sunset muttered. “Just… keep on it. If you have any great ideas for spells, tell me. Otherwise… maybe we’ll get help. I called for a friend, she might make it. Assuming Jackie is still alive.

“Great,” Trixie muttered. “More robots.”

But for all Sunset said they should spend their time trying to come up with a way out, she herself could think of very little. She spent a few minutes with Xavier, discussing his ideas for technical cures for the mind-control.

“Only one,” he said, unhelpfully. “It’s the obvious one, really. Upload. Digital mind has integrity protection, meat one doesn’t.” He glanced to one side, where Sir Bradley was still off by himself. He’d gone through the military crates, stolen a pony tunic that royal guards might’ve worn under their armor. It didn’t help with human conceptions of modesty, but he still wore it. He’d gone to sit by himself off in the corner of the cavern, trying to play his guitar. Needless to say, his efforts had not been encouraging so far.

“I don’t think we can upload a whole city,” Sunset replied, a little annoyed. “Most of them probably wouldn’t want to be. Lots of Federation people up there.”

The man only shrugged. He still had one good arm, though unlike Brad he had no transformation bracelet of his own. His other arm had been stripped to the artificial muscle, and he kept it wrapped in cloth. Thank Celestia we can control when we feel pain, or that would hurt. “Humanity has always had Luddites. They slow things down for a while, but… the real secret to our success is that the important advances work better. You can’t say no to what’s better forever. Couldn’t stop the enlightenment, couldn’t stop the automobile, and you can’t stop digitization. Maybe this is the catalyst.”

Sunset shivered at the idea—all of the Crystal Empire, thousands and thousands of ponies, all ending up in that school. What would happen if a princess tried it? “Doesn’t matter if we think that’s a cure,” she said. “We don’t have the machines for that, do we?”

Xavier glanced down at the emergency node and its backup generator. “Unfortunately… no. We don’t.”

They were back to where they started—now with a few more desperate survivors to add to the pool, but that was it. What they really needed was a miracle. Or a princess to come save us. Isn’t that what Equestria always does?

But just because Sunset couldn’t go back to the surface to magic all their problems away, that didn’t mean there was nothing she could do to help from down here. There was at least one pony who needed her help.

It had been… a few hours by then, probably, and Brad hadn’t opened up. Hadn’t done anything to interact with them, just stayed in his corner and avoided making any sort of contact. Sunset couldn’t blame him, really—she’d been disoriented too when she first arrived in the Realm.

But she could still remember meeting Jackie for the first time. That had been what made her feel alive again.

So she marched over to where he moped, alone with his guitar, and sat down on the ground beside him. She still felt huge, though compared to a stallion like him Sunset’s old self would’ve been quite a bit smaller, more modest.

He glanced briefly up at her, ears flattening. No easy concealing his emotions without being digital.

“This war is shit,” he said, tossing the guitar roughly to the side. It smacked into Sunset’s leg, then turned over on the crystal floor.

“Worse than the last one?” Sunset picked up the guitar from where it had fallen, brushing away the dirt with a finger. “Your whole world ended.”

He kicked towards the little pool of clear water, sending a splash out at nothing in particular. “We were fighting each other. It made sense it would go to shit—we’ve spent thousands of years finding ways to make our wars as awful as possible. But… all that technology, all those advancements… they should’ve made this war easy. What good is it all if we can’t help some fucking primitives fight storybook monsters who want to eat them? It should’ve been simple. War should’ve lasted twenty minutes. But that isn’t what’s happening. Now it’s turning into a more decisive defeat than we ever faced back on Earth. The Federation is still there. The Tower is still standing. But there might not be any survivors when this is over. It’s… turning into one of those classic military defeats. Never invade Russia in winter, and leave the horse planet alone. Only way something so stupid could still exist is if it’s dangerous in ways you don’t understand.”

He slumped forward on the rock, sprawling uselessly.

“You don’t believe that,” Sunset said. She tried one chord on the guitar, then winced and adjusted the tuning a little. “You didn’t come to Equestria because you thought it would be easy. You’re here because it’s right.

“I’m here because King Richard thought it was right,” he corrected. “My household… in danger. They were counting on me—relying on me. And now I’m… well, worse than useless. You should’ve just yanked my recorder like the others.”

Sunset shook her head. “We need you too much, Brad. Look at us. Pretty… pathetic little band of rebels we got here. Three ponies, one broken engineer, and me.” She prodded him on the flank with his guitar. “Do you know what that is?”

He turned to look, then rolled his eyes. “The strangest accident evolution ever made.”

“No,” she said. “It’s a cutie mark. They’re not evolved, you aren’t born with it. They’re given by Harmony itself… and having one means that Equestria has a purpose for you. You’re not just a stranger, changed by accident. You have something to give.”

“Not sure what that could be,” Brad muttered. “Every ability I had, every training and competency—it’s all useless now. I can’t work with software, I can’t interact with hardware. Not with stumps like this…” He smacked one hoof onto the ground, then winced. “Stupid body eats and shits like it’s the 21st century all over again. Probably needs to sleep too.”

“You get used to it.” Sunset settled her hands on the guitar again, and this time she found playing came easily. It wasn’t even the same chords that Bradly had taught her. It was something different, something… deeper.

Maybe the ancient crystals of the Crystal Empire were interacting with her radio receiver. Or maybe it was something else.

Sunset’s eyes widened as she recognized the silence in the room around her—all three ponies stared, other conversations forgotten. Was that… yes. She’d started singing.

It had been years since Sunset was a pony, and much longer since the last time she’d experienced heartsong for herself. Her first day in Celestia’s academy, when a new batch of students ended their orientation with a song apparently nopony had planned, but everyone had joined. Even her.

Heartsong was a little different when it was only the four of them, clinging desperately to life while Equestria burned above them. A song of hope around a dying fire, of never giving up. Like Harmony had heard their desperation, but agreed with what Sunset had promised to the newly-transformed Bradley.

Or maybe it had nothing at all to do with her. Whatever the reason, Sunset wasn’t going to doubt it—she couldn’t, not while the magic surrounded them. I’m part of it, she realized, and almost stopped singing through her tears.

Magic was still there, despite her transformation. Despite being human… despite everything.

Chapter 24: Secure Cell

View Online

“Well if that ain’t the craziest thing I’ve seen today,” Xavier muttered, finally shattering the timeless illusion that was their heartsong contact. “You still speak their language pretty well for not having a translation program in your brain, Sir Bradley. What I wouldn’t give for a core dump right now.”

Suddenly the harsh reality of their situation came crashing back down on her. Sunset couldn’t feel the glowing crystal walls anymore, or the sense of sourceless hope that had convinced her they were destined for victory. It was all gone, leaving only a memory. A memory of magic.

“That shouldn’t be possible,” Starlight Glimmer muttered, landing lightly on the ground. There’d been a little flying there at the end, even for Sunset. But she hadn’t stayed in the air like they did. Her eyes darted between Brad and Sunset herself. “You shouldn’t have any connection to Harmony, and you… you’re not a pony anymore. How can you use magic?”

“I didn’t,” Sunset answered, slumping against one of the rock walls, letting Brad’s guitar fall limp beside her. “I just sang along.” But even as she said it she knew it wasn’t true. That didn’t mean she stopped.

“No, you started it.” Starlight turned away, muttering something to herself. “This changes everything. We knew magic could affect other creatures. Twilight thought it was having an impact on you. But… you’re mechanical!”

“Substrate,” Brad said. He looked like he’d just returned from a pleasant vacation, eyes wistful and distant. His voice no longer sounded so hopeless. That song was for him. “Her mind is on digital substrate. Your mind is on organic substrate. Mine too, I guess. Point is… it doesn’t work any different. The simulation had to be so perfect that the one experiencing it wouldn’t be able to tell the difference. You think we’d have gone digital if the tech was as primitive as the Federation thinks it is? If ‘magic’ is possible for you… no. If magic is possible for humans, then it wouldn’t matter what form they were in.”

It went against everything Sunset had ever heard. There were plenty of constructs out there—necromancy could make them, or they could be built with crystals and clay. Either way, they could only simulate intelligence, and certainly never cast their own spells. Brad obviously knew nothing about magic.

But Sunset had cast the spell.

“Maybe…” Starlight Glimmer bounced up and down, growing more excited. “If you’ve somehow kept your magic, Sunset… then you may’ve just revolutionized everything we know about longevity. What the ancient liches couldn’t do… what Tirek couldn’t do… you did.”

“Excuse me,” Trixie said, her voice loud and grating. Their little song had apparently worn off on her the quickest. “I don’t see how this helps us. I’m sure a pony like Twilight would be fascinated by all this… mumbo jumbo about magic or whatever. But there are still Sirens up there. Our friends are still mind-controlled, and the army can’t get its supplies. Maybe we should focus?”

“Yeah.” Starlight sat back on her haunches, looking away. “Sorry, yeah. Even if Sunset had all her magic back right now, even if she was somehow a unicorn without a horn, that would only mean two powerful spellcasters against three monsters of ancient mythology. We’d still lose.”

Three! Trixie is appalled you could forget about her—powerful is in her name!”

“Sorry,” Starlight muttered. But she didn’t sound terribly sorry. Apparently she was as close to the end of her rope as Sunset felt.

“But… maybe it is the answer.” Sunset settled the guitar into her arms again. “I mean, having me be part of it doesn’t change the plan much. Maybe…” She frowned, thinking. “The Sirens are using a song to rule over the minds of the Crystal Empire. Even a princess, maybe. So… maybe we need a song to get them out of it again? Ponies join in heartsong whether they expect to or not, it’s a lot like the Sirens. Only… it’s Harmony’s magic. There’s no way it would keep them in control. All we’d have to do is get the Crystal Heart away from them before they could take the city back.”

“Excuse me, what the fuck.” Xavier was still clutching at his stump of an arm, but he wasn’t leaning against the wall anymore. After a bit of patching up from the emergency repair kit, his body didn’t wobble and shake with every step. But his injuries were still severe.

The ponies only stared at him—even Brad.

“I don’t…” Sunset began.

“Mind control I get,” he said. “But why are they calling you ‘Sunset,’ Natasha? And how do you know all this?” He glanced to the side. “Sir, is any of this a surprise to you?”

“No,” Brad answered. “She’s a pony. Our version of Second Chance, I guess. Like everything in the Tower, ours is better.”

Xavier nodded. “I guess… you wouldn’t be able to tell me. Official instructions. King must’ve told you.”

Brad shrugged. “You know now. I’ll apologize to King Richard for you if I survive this. Can’t imagine I’ll be a knight much longer now that I’m… disabled.”

“You are not,” Trixie interrupted. “Trixie knows Wonderbolts that don’t look as good as you. Most ponies have to work for a body like that.”


Starlight ignored them both. “Human… guy. Sunset is proposing using similar magic to counter the influence of the Sirens. You wouldn’t have to be involved. Though… we would need the entire city to hear, Sunset. The Sirens have magic for that… we would need something similar.”

“You mean a fuckin’ amp?” Xavier asked. “I might only have one good arm, but I can build you an amp. We’re not infoage anymore, even if we are stuck in a cave.” He glanced to the side, at the small box of Tower supplies. “With, uh… your permission, Sir.”

Bradley only nodded. “I don’t have a clue what they’re talking about. But I trust Sunset.”

“This is the only weapon you’re authorized to use,” the marine barked, for perhaps the third time in the last ten minutes. Jackie hadn’t seen his face—neither him nor any of the others had removed their powered-armor at any point during the conversation.

They stood in the Aegis’s drop-bay, which meant her companion now had a full suit of armor of her own. Jackie was frankly surprised they’d even bothered—pony powered armor must not be that common, why waste a suit on someone they thought worked with the enemy?

But she felt better to see Bree vanish behind the flexible layers of nanosteel and Kevlar. Jackie herself had been given nothing at all, except for one of the two launchers.

They weren’t guns in the traditional sense—if anything they were more like what she’d expect to be wielded by riot police. Pneumatic weapons designed to fling canisters of compressed gas.

“Many of the hostiles on the ground are our own people. Whether human or… otherwise.”

“The Aegis has been working on a way to get them back for a long time. Samil’s zero-day, these ‘Siren’ figures… should work just the same. The gas will incapacitate organics for twelve hours. No danger of overdose either, it’s real smart. But in case you need it…” The other figure in the bay with them was no marine, but a woman wearing a white atmosphere suit with a totally clear helmet.

Jackie took the little plastic case, cracking it open with the spindly grippers on her intact left hoof, ignoring their winces.

Inside were several clear vials, and a single nitrogen injector.

“That’s an antidote, in case you get a friendly. One thing we couldn’t test is how well it will actually treat the infected. Should be enough time for one of Samil’s people to system reset into autistic mode, if we worked the instructions correctly. But we don’t know if it will work on what these Siren creatures did. It’s possible they’ll sleep for the duration and become controlled again the instant they wake.”

The marine shoved past them, opening the door to the drop-pod. Jackie had never seen one—no one in the Tower had, since they hadn’t existed during the Great War. There were seats for eight inside, though it looked like all the standard weapons and gear had been taken away. A lot of empty shelves in there.

“You should know,” he said. “I’ve got experience with gas weapons—they’re shit. A nice cloud can fill up a whole street, make you think you’re safe. But the wind keeps blowing, and a minute later it’s all gone.”

“We’ve formulated this delivery system to be as dense as possible,” the scientist interrupted. “It should remain effective even in concentrations as low as—”

“Shit,” the marine said. “Your best bet is indoors, caves, that kind of thing. Don’t count on it being more than a distraction if you’re out in the open.”

“Right.” Jackie snapped the plastic closed, then slung the launcher over her shoulder. It was massive, and the adaptations for pony use were clumsy at best. Bree probably wouldn’t be able to carry one at all if she weren’t in the armor.

But then, poor Bree looked barely conscious now. The suit was keeping her standing, not any effort of her own. Jackie still didn’t know what was causing that—but the sooner she got the earth pony back on the ground, the better.

“Anything we should know about the pod?”

Their escort laughed. “Say your prayers before you get inside, because you won’t be able to think straight once you start decelerating. And you better be praying to the AI, because she’s the only one who has a chance of making sure you land alive. She’s putting you down outside the city. Get out quick, because they’ll see you coming down for a thousand miles.

He nudged her towards the open door with the side of his boot. “Oh, and we’ve never tested them with any atmosphere thicker than Mars before. So maybe some prayers that the Luna-7 engineers knew what the fuck they were doing.”

“Right.” Jackie climbed in, before one of these soldiers decided to do something more violent to her. The straps themselves were easy enough to secure, though she wasn’t sure she actually needed any.

Bree followed beside her, and her armor had mounting attachments in the structure, sliding into place with metallic clicks. Bree’s face was visible through her helmet, as ghostly and pale as she’d been before.

The doctors hadn’t been able to identify what was wrong with her—but then the only thing they’d done was flash a medical scanner in her general direction and call it good. Probably it would take a bit more than that to learn anything useful.

“You still in the world of the living, Bree?” Jackie asked, unable to keep her concern from her voice. “You still look like shit.”

Bree didn’t answer for several seconds, her eyes glazed. “The… armor is mostly running things. I’m glad. I wouldn’t… it’s good. I’ll be good. These things are quick, right? We’ll be down in… quick.”

“Yeah,” she said. The door behind them smashed closed with a hiss of air and a series of metallic noises. Flashing red lights began to shine in the tiny space.

“Thirty seconds until orbital deployment,” said a synthesized voice. “Secure your restraints and assume drop positions.”

“There you go,” Jackie said. “Should be down in… under an hour, probably. Maybe way less. I don’t know how fast flesh can accelerate without turning to goo.”

“Not fast enough,” Bree muttered, leaning forward so that her forehead pressed against the glass. “I hope I… get to keep this armor… Mom would think it was so cool… bet she could make something better.”

“Than the Federation? Sure, Bree. I’m sure True Silver would make something awesome.”

“5… 4… 3…”

Jackie reached out with another radio ping, searching for Sunset. But she couldn’t reach even the orbital satellites—not from within the pod. No doubt it had stealth systems in place, that could scatter detectors. Unfortunately that would also mean she would have to wait until they were on the surface again to let her friend know they were coming.

Assuming she answers this time. She didn’t respond when you called from the Aegis.

The blast of force and pressure slammed her down with enough energy that Jackie was momentarily severed from her body. Danger, acceleration warning. Body has assumed preservation mode. Please decelerate as soon as possible.

Yeah, because I can fucking decelerate after you lock up all my limbs. The default software could be monumentally stupid sometimes.

If only the Federation had put in a window for her to see the planet falling past them, or even a screen. But this was a military craft, not a civilian shuttle that took scientists and holovid stars between lunar outposts. There were probably screens in the armor they’d need to survive.

The pod felt as though it might shake itself apart, though that sensation was not painful for Jackie. She could hear Bree’s terrified noises from beside her, and thought maybe the earth pony might be experiencing things differently. She could hear her shrieks even from within the helmet.

Then she remembered—the entire reason Bree was wearing a helmet. So she could block out sound. “Come in Bree, come in. Jackie to Bree, over.” Jackie didn’t need to move to use her radio.

But her companion didn’t reply—not for several moments. If anything, the force pushing on them was getting worse. But despite Jackie’s own body completely frozen into the chair, and the crash-couch expanding all around her like a giant automobile airbag, Bree actually turned her head to face her.

“I feel like… I’m coming out of a fog,” she said, sounding much closer to her regular self. “You think that old man drugged me? Avalon… the real Avalon was a human in a fursuit all along. Or… guess we never saw the head.”

It was working, then. Not only that, but the acceleration of landing appeared to be returning her companion to conscious life. Could it be distance to the planet, somehow? Maybe… there’s some kind of radiation that ponies are sensitive to that we aren’t? Their ships were shielded against cosmic rays, and every other danger that was expected. If squishy organic humans could survive, why not an earth pony as sturdy as Bree?

Well apparently she had survived. “Now I know why I didn’t want to go to space,” she said. “It fucking sucked no thank you. Next time you want to run away from someone, find another way.”

“Sure,” Jackie said, grinning in spite of herself. “I’ll… do that. Another way.”

At least her brain never shut down from the acceleration. But like her power generation, it was entirely solid-state, so there were no moving parts to be disrupted.

Her chronometer told her almost half an hour had passed before the pressure on her body finally began to ease, and red lights flashed from the ceiling above them. “Landing in thirty seconds,” it said. “External temperatures -13 degrees Celsius. Wind speed thirty-eight kilometers per hour eastbound. Expected conditions: snowdrifts, permafrost. Local time: one hour after sunset. Local resources are: N/A. Brace for impact.”

Brace? What did it intend for them to do?

Nothing, apparently. There was a crash, and a sound like ice thrown into boiling water. The door in front of them exploded outward, like it had been shot out a cannon, and steam billowed in through the opening. Outside was an arctic night, and a dense crater of fresh ice and dripping snow. A bright streak still cut across the sky, probably from the rocket they’d used to slow down.

All Jackie’s seatbelts crumbled off her body like they’d been made of ash, and she sat up with a jerk. “Kay! Okay… I’m alive.”

She turned. “How are you feeling, Bree? Still with me?”

Her companion didn’t respond, though she did turn to look at Jackie.

Of course, she’s muted.

“Bree, tell me you’re in there,” she said, this time over the radio. “Everything working?”

Bree climbed out of the seat as easily as Jackie did, shaking her stiff limbs one at a time and flinging the launcher over her shoulder. “Yeah, I’m good.”

“Then…” Jackie was first out the opening, emerging onto a windswept sheet of ice with a brand new crater right in the center. Steam was still rising from around them, and she could feel the slight cold against her body, except from the dead leg.

Warning. Prolonged exposure to subzero temperatures is not recommended.

Her computer would be fine—it would be better than fine, actually. The RTG and her own brain both worked more efficiently with a colder external temperature. Unfortunately the same could not be said for her artificial joints and muscles.

She didn’t have to search blindly for this “Crystal Empire,” she had a map. And she turned, facing a distant bubble on the horizon. It looked like one of the Lunar domes, except that she didn’t think the polyglass of a Lunar dome was meant to bend that way. “Stay close. I’ll have to listen for both of us. Don’t take that helmet off. I don’t know how much of your briefing you remember.”

“I won’t take the helmet off,” Bree responded. “I remember that much.”

They set off through the snow, leaving the steaming ruin of their landing pod behind them. I’m coming, Sunset. I hope you’re still alive in there.

It was a long hike to the city. Eight point three kilometers, according to Jackie’s internal tachometer. But that didn’t matter—it wasn’t like they could go back. Not that she would have.

Every hour she tried sending another message through, and each time she got “USER NOT IN SERVICE AREA” errors. She didn’t flood Sunset’s inbox, that would’ve got future messages ignored. She could only hope she would eventually answer. I wonder where I’d find her if she doesn’t say anything.

As it turned out, the bubble she’d seen before wasn’t indicative of a dome city, as humans had built in many a hostile environment. It was, rather, a bubble of shimmering light, beyond which the icy cold of winter faded away and green fields shone under the moonlight.

This was the refugee camp then, where displaced from all through Equestria had been fleeing throughout the duration of the war. Jackie gestured for Bree to remain where she was, hurrying forward towards the edge of the bubble with her body low. Unlike her companion in her powered-armor, Jackie could move silently, though her dark fur would still be visible against the winter snow. If scouts had been watching for them, they would probably have seen for miles around.

Apparently they had been. Jackie could see them now—thousands and thousands of ponies were standing on the other side of the shimmering bubble, staring blankly out at nothing in particular.

She shivered slightly, trying to make sense of the image her eyes were showing her. She froze the picture, accelerating time a bit so she could investigate.

They were marshaled by thousands, as though preparing for an invading army. She’d seen blocks of people like this in plenty of war-reenactments in the Realm, though none with so many horses and so few riders.

Most of them were naked—many didn’t even have a stick to use as a weapon. Yet they stood in perfect ranks, ready to charge out against an army that wasn’t coming.

They saw us coming. But they didn’t know who we were.

Had they noticed her? Jackie kept her body low to the snow, frozen like a hornet had landed on her nose. But there was no motion—not even one of the army scratching their face. They didn’t laugh, barely even breathed.

Then she heard the song. It reached out through the bubble, like the distant strain of a brand new algorithmic pop song, perfectly designed for her particular taste. Jackie slowed, ears swiveling as she listened.

Process override detected, her watchdog program reported, helpfully. Isolate?


Jackie shook her head once, clearing the brief fog that had settled there. I’ve seen Intro to InfoSec students with better task override, but thanks for trying. Was that really what had taken over a whole city full of organics? How has the Tower not won this war like half a century ago?

Jackie probably shouldn’t think like that—she hadn’t been in a charitable mood towards the Federation since they’d been their guest.

“We’ve got a problem up here, Bree. Turns out they saw us coming. There’s about, uh… maybe ten thousand ponies over there? Lots of… all the tribes. Unicorns, pegasus ones, uh… you ones?”

“Earth ponies,” Bree supplied, obviously annoyed. “How’s the mind control thing?”

“Real. Not very effective against me, but I don’t see anyone resisting on their side. You probably shouldn’t risk it.”

“Wasn’t planning on it. I’m not really the hero type, anyway. I probably would’ve stayed in space if it wasn’t so…” She trailed off. “Not great. I think I might hang back. Do you need any of the gear I’ve got?”

“I’d love your armor, but you’d probably freeze to death without it.” Did Jackie feel safe leaving Bree out here? After everything that had happened, could she risk losing her to the enemy without being close enough to save her this time?

Tesla’s getting his engineer. Yeah, that’s the reason. Maybe if she kept telling herself that she’d believe it.

You might be safer if you came with me,” she said instead. “I have combat programs, you don’t. That armor is cool, but I don’t think True Silver taught you how to fight. Otherwise you wouldn’t have needed my help in Motherlode.

“Don’t remind me. But didn’t you say there was an army? What are we going to do?”

Jackie nudged at the edge of the bubble with one hoof, as slowly as she could. Nothing happened—it passed right through. It’s just for climate? Lucky us I guess.

Except it wasn’t like she hadn’t done anything. That single touch, however brief, caused thousands and thousands of ponies to turn. Every single one she could see went from staring blankly at nothing to watching her. All around them, the song was changing. Cheerful, upbeat pop music faded into something more like a marching cadence.

Jackie backed away, spreading her wings in supplication. “Hey guys, uh… I was just leaving! No need to do anything… rash.”

But they didn’t seem to hear her. They didn’t slow down, though they weren’t moving very fast. So many. Like a living organism.

“I, uh… bring me your launcher,” she called. “And… maybe be ready to fucking run. I’m not sure this is gonna go… good.”

Jackie lifted the launcher over her shoulder, using maneuvers that no natural pony would be able to manage. But her metal body could bend in ways they weren’t supposed to—she had no organs to damage.

She fired with an anticlimactic pop, and watched the first canister blur away from her through the barrier. She didn’t even think about what to do next, just let her brain calculate the dispersion based on the properties of the gas, and aimed at the next point to get maximum coverage. Another shot, and the launcher hissed in protest, apparently not wanting her to fire again so quickly. But she was already aiming at the third target. That canister actually managed to hit a pony, who didn’t even stop in their march as they staggered forward.

These ponies weren’t acting like an army, however much they’d stood like one. They shambled and lurched, like they were being puppeted by an inattentive master.

They were still closing, though, their first ranks nearing the edge of the bubble.

Clouds of thick brown fog exploded outward in a few quick bursts. Not fog like smoke-grenades she remembered from Counter-Strike servers—this fog seemed like a weightless fluid, somehow bound together in a layer about head-height along the ground. It congealed there like a transparent tumor, stretching and expanding outward in all directions.

Until it reached the bubble, when it began curving upward, without even a faint wisp drifting out.

Ponies started to drop. At first they struggled, trying to keep walking towards her. But they didn’t stay moving very long.

They didn’t even retreat. A marshaled army of thousands kept on marching, until they’d formed a wall of unconscious bodies.

Chapter 25: Tone Lock

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“I’m not sure how long this works!” Jackie called, without even stopping to look over her shoulder. “But we need to move, right now!”

There was now a solid wall of bodies in front of them, with thick brown smoke congealed around it like mortar. But even looking at it from a distance, Jackie could see that the Federation marine had been right. It wasn’t going to last long—the wind was blowing and soon it would be gone. They couldn’t just wait here for the entire city to march into it.

Jackie started to run, enough that she dared a jump up to the edge of the wall. To her surprise, her wings caught the air, and a program she’d not known about before switched on. The “flight subroutine” was a clumsy, awkward bit of code, that could barely keep her gliding straight. But that didn’t matter—she was gliding!

“Are you still with me, Bree?” she called over the radio. She glanced over her shoulder, searching for her friend.

Bree was, though she had to slog up and over the unconscious ponies and seemed to be doing her best to hurt them as little as possible.

Now that she was inside the barrier, Jackie could see the city was modest by Earth standards, but some quick math told her it could probably house two million ponies, not counting the ones living in tents. And how many is this, twenty thousand?

The army had seemed like it was the only thing between them and reaching her friends. The reality was… otherwise.

And she could hear them—the song that echoed through the streets at every moment, demanding that everyone who could hear it turn their attention north to “defend the city from invaders.” The whole thing seemed to shake under the force of so many hooves all dropping what they were doing, and turning on her. They want to rip us apart. How in god’s name am I supposed to find some stupid Federation Admiral in all of this?

Bree reached the ground on the other side of the wall a moment later, calling up at her. “What are we gonna do, Jackie? Do we have enough rockets to gas the whole city?”

Jackie landed beside her and started to reload. “No beating physics. Whatever that brown stuff is, it still has mass. How heavy was the launcher? You think that’s enough to neutralize the whole city?”

Bree didn’t answer, because she didn’t need to. They both knew.

Ponies started to trickle out of the nearby buildings, joined by an ever-widening flood out the main thoroughfares. At the front were ponies in gold armor with spears and crossbows, the ones called the “Royal Guard.” A trivial challenge for Jackie, except that they were innocent people who didn’t deserve to die for being mind-controlled.

“Sunset Shimmer, are you in here somewhere? I brought reinforcements! Also we probably shouldn’t be here and we’re about to fucking die.” Either they would be torn limb-from-limb by the enemy’s ponies, or somehow forced to join with whatever magic was compelling them. She wasn’t sure which would be worse. I wonder if they know that my mind would survive that. Maybe someone could dig up my head in a few months, bring me back. But then again, Sunset Shimmer probably didn’t know that either. With Tesla MIA, who else could possibly know to send engineers looking for her?

There were a few, terrible seconds of silence, where Jackie led Bree sideways along the city, rather than straight in. She kept her eyes open for shelter or defensible positions, but mostly she was just trying to get away from the forces pouring out of it. She didn’t fire the launcher again, counting out her seven remaining shells. Seven shots to get her back to wherever safe place Sunset had found, against an enemy that worked together with perfect coordination and apparently shared information instantly. Not terribly good odds, are they Jackie?

Then she heard her friend’s response. It was quiet in terms of signal strength, attenuated and distorted as though transmitting through a thick medium. She’s underground. “Jackie! You’re alive out there, thank Celestia!”

Not for much longer unless we do something!” The signal was too weak to support images, and could barely even support the sound of speech itself. “That alley right there looks good, Bree! Follow me!” She didn’t fly again—there was no sense in it, when it would only leave Bree behind. Besides, there were plenty of the enemy ponies in the air too. They stayed above their own forces, rather than rushing to engage. But when the cloud got there, it would be as thick as the army on the ground.

Is that why they’re… Jackie, this is perfect! We were looking for a distraction to get us near the Crystal Heart, this will do perfectly! If you could just… keep them away for a bit, that would let us deploy these amps without getting mind-controlled.”

Amps? She knew the word, though hearing it here didn’t make much sense. Did Sunset want to put on a concert? Didn’t they have bigger things to worry about? But there was no time left to question her. “I don’t mind helping, but I do mind getting killed! What are we supposed to do when we’ve finished… distracting them, you said? What’s this plan of yours anyway?”

In real time there would never have been enough bandwidth to communicate so much, what with a crowd of numberless enemies closing in on them all the time. But Sunset’s signal was getting stronger, and even a weak signal could transmit at the speed of light. Sunset Shimmer seemed to realize this, because her reply came in text-only. Clever girl. Look who payed attention to her datamancy.

The Sirens use music to control the minds of the ponies here. I’m… reasonably certain we should be able to use some Equestrian magic to counter it—heartsong. We’re setting up amplifiers so as much of the Empire as possible should be able to hear it. We need to be close to the Crystal Heart for it to do any good.”

“So you don’t actually need me?” Jackie responded. “Sounds like you already know what you’re doing. No use for a robot-bat when you’re doing magic.”

“Not much use for me either,” Sunset responded, just as quickly. “But you should try to get back to us anyway. There’s a large underground network, look for the blue grates in the street. The sound of the Sirens’ music can’t get down there, so if they send anyone they won’t be able to follow directions and they should get control back pretty quickly.”

“Distract them until you finish,” Jackie repeated, just to be sure. “Then we go underground and try to reach you. I assume you have a map?”

Sunset sent one. It wasn’t perfect, and most of it was dynamically generated from sonar data, nothing actually made by ponies. But it was better than just running away and giving up.

Not sure if I have any chance of finding that pony the AI wanted. But maybe if we free the whole city, that will be good enough. Instead of giving back one pony, she could give back them all.

That whole conversation had taken only an instant, but still she had so few of those to spare. Jackie scanned the streets around her, and saw a promising direction ahead, what looked like a long street between several closely-packed crystal buildings. She fired once as they got close, on a timed fuse so that the ponies dragging themselves along behind would be completely surrounded when the bomb detonated.

A cloud of brown smoke flooded the alley on both sides, spreading out down every entrance and exit. Ponies entering from ways she hadn’t seen or flowing in from above dropped unconscious beside so many others.

“Six,” Jackie said, this time over the ordinary radio. “We have six shots left. You see a good opportunity, go ahead and tell me.”

She took aim, firing at the rapidly nearing exit. It looked clear over there—but just because it looked clear from where she was running didn’t mean that was actually true.

“Make that five! Five left!”

“Plus the injections. Like what they gave me, right?”

“Right.” They emerged on a main thoroughfare, into a waiting crowd of unconscious ponies. More descended from the streets, packed so tightly up ahead that they wouldn’t be able to walk through. Jackie fired another projectile dead-center into the street, then turned them back. They couldn’t go any further into the city without being overwhelmed by the numbers.

I sure hope you’re going quick with those amplifiers!” she called. “We’re running out of empty street out here!”

Almost!” came the response. “We’re on the surface now, had to deal with a few guards. Looks like the Sirens had a stage set up, so we’ll just use theirs. We’re figuring it out.”

“Figure it out faster!” She didn’t send text that time—there was no attenuation to the signal anymore, it came through clear. She couldn’t have sent augmented copresence, but voice was no longer a problem. “I’m dead in… two minutes! Or Bree is, if I fly away without her.”

But she wouldn’t do that, even if it might be the smart thing. Jackie no longer cared about what Tesla had promised, but she wasn’t going to abandon this pony. She’d got her this far—Bree was going to survive, no matter what it took from her.

“We need to start looking for a way down!” Jackie called, firing another of her shells directly at their hooves this time. The swooping pegasus guards hit the ground hard all around them, but missed their attack. Hopefully they would live to wake up. “Sunset says they have blue sewer grates, leads down into some tunnels we can use. I have the map.”

“Like that one there?” Bree pointed at the center of what looked like a marketplace, or what had been one before the city fell. Ponies were pouring out of it towards them, but less than came from the inner city. Worth a shot.

Jackie took aim, and fired three of their remaining shots in calculated patterns. The marketplace began to fill with brown fog, and the ponies within fell. She had one rocket left.

They galloped together for dear life, passing into the cloud just ahead of more pursuers. This time ponies stopped at the edge, surrounding the space from all sides. Only a few got too close, and any who touched the gas slumped forward in unconsciousness.

“We will wait,” said a voice, near the edge of the group. “Your magic wears off. When it does, then you will hear their song. They’re singing for both of you.”

Jackie ignored them, shoving a cart of rotting fruit aside with her mechanical strength, then searching for something she could use to pry the grate open. “Dammit, dammit… where’s a crowbar when you need one?”

Bree smashed one hoof against the steel, so hard that the whole thing dented, before going flying over their shoulder and out of the way.

“Right. Earth pony.”

“No!” called the same voice, from just outside the cloud. “They cannot escape to join the others! Stop them!” Jackie didn’t even glance down the tunnel, she just jumped.

They fell together into the gloom. Though many of the ponies seemed to be piling up on the ground, Jackie could see shapes getting close as she took one last glance over her shoulder. She set the timer on the last rocket for thirty seconds, then fired it with minimum speed, tossing the launcher aside.

“It’s this way!” she yelled, gesturing. “Follow me! It’s not too far!” They ran.

Sunset Shimmer looked out on the empty capital of the Crystal Empire. Ancient buildings rose up around them, their glittering shapes no longer so imposing with the crystal ponies who were supposed to live here. An incredible relic of the past had been discovered during her absence, and what was becoming of it? It was burning, along with its ponies and all its secrets.

“That’s the last one!” Xavier yelled, his voice nervous. His amplifiers were small machines, each one made to attach to a single contiguous surface. They would use the buildings of the Crystal Empire as their speakers, so that everypony in town would hear. These ponies would soon be free.

Or we’ll be dead. But at least we’ll go out with a bang.

It was a completely insane plan, made slightly more so because so far as Sunset knew, there wasn’t any way to force Heartsong to happen. Even the best musicians could give hundreds of performances and only experience it once or twice in a lifetime. It’s crazy, but we don’t have any other choice.

They were all here, either gathered on the stage or lurking near the edge. For all their control over the city, the Sirens either couldn’t or hadn’t moved the Crystal Heart, because it still hovered above them—black now, and brittle. Like it was one sharp tap away from shattering. Guess we could try that if all else fails. At least they won’t have anything amplifying their magic.

And the Crystal Empire would lose its way to protect itself from the outside. It wouldn’t be a safe place for refugees anymore if its last defenses failed.

“We, uh… don’t have many instruments,” Starlight said, hurrying over. “Just your guitar. Will that be enough for your song?”

“My song?” Sunset raised an eyebrow. “I’m not a pony, at best I’m here as emotional support. I gave that song the tune, but the magic must’ve come from Brad. It wasn’t me.”

Starlight Glimmer’s eyebrows went up. “And if you believe that, I’ve got some great snake oil I think you’d be interested in.” Sunset opened her mouth to defend herself, but the pony silenced her with a glare. “No, stop it. I know as well as you do it seems to violate every rule of magic. But… so do you, when you think about it. The Tower turn themselves into machines, they should act like machines. But they don’t. They still love, and hate, and… everything. Maybe the ancient sorcerers just weren’t as good at making machines as the Builders are.”

“I don’t mean to interrupt,” Trixie said, in a tone that suggested she wanted nothing more. “But there’s a lot of ponies coming. Guess they… gave up on that friend you were talking to?”

Or they caught her. Sunset’s last message from the mechanical bat had come when they went underground—they were now too deep to get a signal. As they got closer they should come close enough that the emergency node could start repeating it, but that hadn’t happened yet.

They weren’t running. The ponies drifting in from all directions flowed as the mind-controlled always did, like zombies being puppeted only with difficulty. But when they got here, they would be overwhelmed.

Sunset ran the numbers on the approach of the lead ponies in the group—it would take them about two minutes to reach the stage, unless others appeared from somewhere closer.

“I’m sure Jackie will be fine,” she said. “She’s a survivor. But we won’t wait for long.”

“Where do you think those… creatures are?” Sir Bradley wore a rifle slung over his shoulder, though he had no visible means to actually fire it and hadn’t yet. Where a handful of those not-changelings had been waiting to stop them when they emerged, he had joined in the fight by beating them to a pulp with his hooves.

“They’ll be here,” Starlight said. She remained seated in the center of the stage, eyes closed in concentration. She hadn’t moved since the fight was over. Sorry I’m asking you to keep so many minds clean. But we shouldn’t have to work once this starts. “They’ll want to stop us from taking the empire back.”

“And they’ll do… what?” Xavier asked. He had no rifle, but he did have a sturdy hammer resting in his one good arm, wet with changeling blood. “We’re fighting mythical monsters with a song and dance. I hope you realize how stupid this is.”

“Trixie suggests the metal man shouldn’t worry too much. We’ve fought worse, and Starlight always wins in the end. She’s got some secret backup plan in case the stupid one fails, you’ll see.”

“Uh…” Starlight opened one eye, glaring at her. The massive empty space around the castle was now filling up with ponies, so dense that they would not be able to flee into the city anymore. They came from all directions, their desire obvious even though none of them spoke. There was a near-ravenous hunger to reach the stage, to cement the Sirens’ control over the Crystal Empire. “I don’t have a backup plan, Trixie. You were in that cave too. If there was any smarter alternative, we would’ve done that.”

“Well we’re probably dead then. Unless mythical creatures like magic shows. You think they’d hire me?”

“No,” Starlight and Sunset said, almost in unison.

Then the nearest stairwell into the palace banged open, tearing off its hinges as the wood exploded into fragments. Jackie emerged from within, covered with bits of wood and dust.

She was in bad shape—one of her ears had torn off, revealing a metallic glint underneath. Her coat was torn in a dozen places, and bits of crystal and wood were stuck into her body in ways that would’ve caused a living pony agony. But for her, she didn’t even slow down.

“We’re here!” the bat announced, spreading her wings and grinning. “Had to do a little pest control on the way over.”

We can do this.

“Get up here!” Sunset urged. “Your friend too! We need everypony we can get.”

Sunset could see almost nothing of Jackie’s companion—she was encased completely in steel, with a mirrored faceplate that hid even the color of her eyes. But from no bump for a horn, she wasn’t a unicorn. But then her visor went up, and a young pony’s face was visible from within. Not one she recognized, but at that age she probably shouldn’t have expected to. Would’ve been a foal when she left to visit the Builders’ homeworld.

“Trixie suggests you hurry,” she said from beside them. “They’re, uh… getting close. And trust me to know when a crowd isn’t happy with your performance. These are the sort of ponies who chase you miles down the road after they run you out of town, just to knock over your caravan.”

Thousands of eyes, all settling on her. They all had their microphones—or the ponies did. Sunset just needed a radio connection. Starlight Glimmer rose to her hooves, visibly shaking from the effort of fighting the Sirens’ mind-control. Bradley barely even standing on his four hooves, clutching a gun he couldn’t fire like a stuffed animal. The one-armed engineer, glancing back at the opening to the underground with increased frequency. And Jackie, the one she’d kidnapped.

I wish Twilight could be here. But her friend’s mind was stored on the emergency node, without enough computation to even wake her up. If we win here, we can get back to the truck. There’s bound to be a working computer on there somewhere.

But they had to win first.

The ponies all around them abruptly stopped in place, perhaps fifty feet from the stage. They were packed in so close now that even a pegasus would have a hard time getting through. Yet the crowd parted, and a pony emerged. A pink Alicorn, still wearing her armor.

Princess Cadance looked like she hadn’t had a royal bath in days. Her mane was disheveled, and one of her armored shoes was missing. The Sirens apparently didn’t care much about the condition of their slaves. Probably shouldn’t be surprised. They can always get more.

“You’ve come back to us,” she said, her voice shaking. Like she was fighting every word—but still losing. “It is good to see you. I wondered where you had gone, Starlight. And Sunset—your knowledge of the Tower will be useful to us. It was wrong for you to keep them all for yourself. But what I don’t understand is why? Did you grow tired of living in the cave? I see you found a bat. We have something special planned for her, after the inconvenience she caused.” That was the voice of the Sirens then, twisting the will of this Alicorn so closely that she had no choice but to say the words given to her.

“I’ll pass,” Jackie said. “I’ve got a strict policy against crazy. Looks like you’ve got more than your fair share without me.”

“It’s now or never,” Starlight hissed from beside her. “If they knew what we’re doing they’d already have killed us. Let’s do this.”


Sunset’s mind spun, desperate and afraid. She reached for the words to a song, something to give back the ponies of the Crystal Empire their will. But she couldn’t force the magic! That wasn’t how Heartsong worked.

“Because we…” She picked up the guitar, switching on the transmitter. “We wanted to perform for you. Well… mostly for them. But you too.” Her hands moved, without the help of any guitar program, and the entire square filled with the sound. A few of the ponies gathered in the crowd seemed to blink, glancing around with fresh confusion. Enough noise would disrupt the Siren song, if only for a moment. But they would have to do better than that if they wanted to actually break the spell.

It was a good thing Sunset wasn’t on her own. Brad started to sing. Then Starlight, Trixie, and even Jackie. They’re human. They’re still helping us. Even Jackie, who should’ve had the least birthright to magic of all.

A distant roar went up from somewhere far away, and brilliant light appeared on the horizon. Glowing shapes, speeding towards them through the gloom. Sunset could dimly hear the Siren song getting louder, demanding with evermore urgency that the crowd rush the stage.

But the ponies all around them didn’t listen. They didn’t turn and fight, just froze right where they were, watching.

It was just like the last time—music that came from nowhere, words that were always there when they needed them. Music that reverberated out around the Crystal Empire, with some of the nearby buildings visibly shaking as the sound filled them.

And the sirens appeared. There was no pretending any of them were human this time. Translucent, ethereal shapes rose above the crowd, filling the air with their own music, demanding to be heard.

Their magic was powerful, but their voices couldn’t get nearly as loud as Xavier’s amplifiers.

“Damn if this isn’t working,” he muttered, apparently the only person in the entire Crystal Empire who wasn’t affected by one song or the other.

But Sunset didn’t stop, couldn’t even think about it for fear of losing the tune. The others could only hit things for percussion, and had only her to harmonize. Unless… was that a keyboard? She could hear it, apparently coming from Jackie. The bat wasn’t moving, only standing in place and looking smug.

Sunset could practically see the music around them, a radiant physical force that expanded outward into the square. How am I perceiving an active spell? I don’t even have a horn! But she would have to keep wondering, because the song wasn’t going to tell her.

Above them, the Crystal Heart pulsed one final time with green light, then went blue. The cracks and splinters of crystal vanished in a single, solid piece. Then their song really got loud, as a thousand pony voices joined them.

Could she even see the Sirens anymore? She searched, listening for their discordant voices in the crowd. But there was nothing there.

The song finished a verse later, with what was probably the largest Heartsong in Equestrian history. There might be a million ponies singing with her, their voices so loud that the very snow collecting on the streets melted in a wave of fresh warmth.

The music died, her last few chords of guitar echoing out of a blown-out amp. Apparently the machines hadn’t survived for a second performance.

She heard it again—faintly, from somewhere close by. The Sirens’ unearthly melody echoing through the streets again. But where before the ponies had frozen still to listen, now Sunset could see the faces contorting with disgust. Compared to the music they’d just experienced, what could a melody like that offer?

Sunset turned, glaring up at the spectral forms hovering behind the stage. She wasn’t sure she even had a proper weapon to fight them—whatever magic she’d just used was nothing she could fire at them like a unicorn’s attacks. “Get out,” she said, and her voice echoed out from all around the city, stretched and distorted in different ways by each speaker. “Right now.”

They did.

Chapter 26: Digest

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The next few days were a blur to Sunset Shimmer. Most of what had to be done involved her very little. First came the supplies to the front, refreshing the troops that were fighting off invasion from the south. A few days without food had crippled morale, but they had kept fighting.

The city itself had to be made secure, but Sunset had little to do with that. She wasn’t a warrior, so she didn’t join the squads of ponies tracking down the last of the changeling-like creatures and fighting them off. It was always fighting—they never surrendered, even against superior odds.

On the third day, Princess Cadance gathered together many of the city’s most influential ponies in the palace for a ceremony to honor the city’s newest saviors. Apparently there was a new statue going up beside the one of a baby dragon, but Sunset hadn’t stopped to look and blushed whenever she thought about it.

“These brave heroes returned our Empire to us,” she said, to a room packed with nobles, generals, and diplomats. “They will forever be remembered with gratitude in the histories of the Empire. If everypony here could show their bravery, then we would be certain to win our war against the Father of Dragons.”

They’d been dressed by a royal tailor, even Sunset herself in a stylish almost-dress that mixed garnet and citrine to complement her hair. The pony tailor had sewn her cutie mark on the side, as though it were meant to be a substitute.

Thoughtful, though she wasn’t sure she wanted it.

Cutest by far was what they’d done for Sir Bradley—they’d actually got him a set of guardsmen armor, with a pin for his own cutie mark. He still had the rifle, though it had been modified over the last few days to actually let him fire it. And he had, working with the teams clearing the city of the remaining invaders.

Sunset waited in the back of the line, hiding just behind the stage while the others were called up one at a time. Princess Cadence knew of them all by name, and apparently knew their individual contributions as well.

And she was last in line, right behind Jackie.

The bat had refused a set of armor, though she hadn’t said no to a fancy dark dress and a crystal circlet over her head. Sunset could practically taste the satisfaction she felt at being able to dress up, even if she couldn’t understand it. You always seemed so masculine. Why would you want to wear a dress?

She wasn’t brave enough to ask, and Jackie wasn’t volunteering. But while she couldn’t talk to any of the others without attracting attention, Jackie looked up and her voice came over the radio. “Bet Richard must be fuckin’ beside himself over this. You just gave him the PR victory of the war. Knight of the Tower and Technocrat Mystic save the whole fuckin’ town.”

“Empire,” she corrected, without even thinking. She wasn’t even really looking at Jackie right now, just staring out through the crack, listening for the next name. Xavier went out, his sleeve pinned to conceal the missing arm.

“Whatever.” Jackie rolled her eyes. “Come to think of it, there were… what is that, fifty-thousand Federation soldiers? Most of their army was here, wasn’t it? You saved them too. He’s really gonna owe you. Owe all of us.”

So that was where Jackie was going. It was about their debt. “I guess so. I haven’t actually talked to him. I guess I… probably should. Tell him what happened here.”

“Fuckin’ yeah you should!” Jackie bounced up on her hooves, suddenly energetic. “Make sure you mention my heroic arrival in that plan! Oh, and… how helpful Bree was in that Broadway thing we did. Brigid Curie. You can even mention her first.”

“Why?” Now it was her turn to be confused. It wasn’t like the earth pony hadn’t helped, though she had probably been the least important element in the song. Even Trixie was better friends with Sunset, and had more to contribute.

“Because she thinks she’s going to go to jail forever as soon as king Richard gets here. Depending on what happened to Tesla, she still might. He could’ve protected her. With him gone, we have to.”

“You care that much?”

Jackie nodded. “She’s my friend.”

“Good enough for me.”

“Jacqueline Kessler, please come forward!” Princess Cadance’s voice rang out in the throne room, without anything in the way of speakers or other magical assistance.

“This brave pony before you had a difficult task when she arrived in the Crystal Empire—she had to reach the castle through an army of your friends. But where others might not have hesitated to take lives in the…”

Sunset tuned out everything, interfacing with the repeater node in Bradley’s ATV. It was still working—the invaders hadn’t done anything beyond fencing it off for future dissection.

It was a mistake to think Sir Bradley would’ve done it. He probably doesn’t want to face the king right now. Either that, or there just wasn’t hardware for someone without implants to use their network. Considering they’d been deployed around the Federation, that was a real possibility.

Sunset Shimmer reached deep into her memory for the program the king had given her on their first visit, then executed.

The world fuzzed around her, and she felt her sense of time begin to accelerate. It started as a heat behind her ears, along with shallow, rapid breathing. But time was moving so sluggish now that she probably wouldn’t finish taking a single breath before it was over.

“Sunset.” There was a man beside her, a man wearing armor and carrying a sword. His body showed no transparency, though she didn’t have to guess about it being copresence. There was nothing else it could be. “I wasn’t expecting you to contact me. I’m glad to see you’re still alive.”

How friendly. She couldn’t move herself, not physically. But maybe she could… yes. Just a little datamancy, and she could layer her own projection onto the simulation. A projection of herself, just like the one she’d be using in the realm. They could talk, while Princess Cadance’s ceremony went on at a snail’s pace.

“The corruption wasn’t in your administration, it was in theirs.” Sunset didn’t even hesitate. “It was my opposite, Ada. She was a Siren—ancient Equestrian mythical creature banished to Earth.”

The king sheathed his sword, folding his arms. “I’m afraid that isn’t entirely true. Tesla—one of my oldest and most trusted friends… was compromised by the enemy. He’s been working behind my back on a dozen different secret projects for decades now, slave to that bastard Samil. But not anymore.” He looked down, eyes dark and resolved. “Tell me, Sunset Shimmer. What has befallen the Crystal Empire? What information was so critical that you used my zero-day program to make this call.”

She told him, reciting everything that had happened since they went underground. She spared most of the details, except around the knight. The king needed to know.

“That makes two of my best,” Richard said, when they reached that part. “Lost the captain of my guard, Sir Gray the same way. But the Equestrians can’t poach from me so easily. Organics rot, and cortical recorders are cheap. They’ll be back.”

Where was all the talk about the superiority of machine-life, and the backward stupidity of the Federation? He’s not Tesla. Maybe Tesla wasn’t even Tesla. But now that she thought about it, she couldn’t remember reading anything from Richard suggesting that he was so rigid. He was better than that.

She went on with her story, all while Princess Cadance finished the word “urgency.” Eventually she reached their final defense of the city, and she showed him a few recordings she’d made of the event. She didn’t think a human would’ve believed it without the proof, and that was probably a good idea.

“You got them all out,” Richard said, once she was finished. “All those Federation refugees. It’s not uploading a city, but it’s close. I’m glad to hear this from you before my meeting with Celestia in… a few minutes. It would be unfortunate if she thanked me for something I didn’t know had happened.”

It sounded like the king was just about done with her. But that was unfortunate, because Sunset wasn’t finished with him. She didn’t raise her voice or get angry, but she didn’t just bow and submit. “I was working with Tesla,” Sunset said, before he could vanish. “If he’s dead—”

“Not dead, though I suspect he’ll wish he was.” He trailed off. “The Crown will honor any agreement,” Richard said, waving one hand dismissively. “You saved the pony refugees from their own monster. Even if your battle was insignificant in the war, you’ll probably be one of its greatest heroes. What was he promising you?”

He was holding me hostage with the threat of telling you what I did. If I tell you, you’ll kill me. But the king hadn’t asked about her past, not even once. Maybe the secret was dead with Tesla.

So Sunset lied. The king listened, didn’t even blink.

“That’s it?”

She nodded. Should she have thought this out a little better?

The king snapped his fingers, and a set of signed certificates appeared in front of her.

“Done. But… I don’t know when you’ll be able to honor those requisition requests. We’re still deployed. My troops should reach the Crystal Empire in time to fortify it against the dragons, but they’re… greatly reduced. Tesla’s sabotage cost nearly all our resources on this planet. Rather like the Federation in that way, I suppose.”

He glanced up, frowning away towards nothing. “Oh. Out of time. Apologies, I have to cut this conversation short. Celestia’s messenger has arrived.”

You mean you don’t want to keep talking long enough for me to ask for more. But she didn’t call him out—Sunset didn’t want more. But for the ponies she cared about, she would take everything they were due.

The illusion vanished, and time caught up with her. Sunset began panting, feeling the searing air as she exhaled. Her few seconds of accelerated thought were a costly expenditure in energy.

“Natasha Wagner,” Cadance called. “Please join us.”

Sunset Shimmer passed through the curtain into the palace’s great hall. It wasn’t just the benches that were packed with ponies—there were hundreds sitting on the floor, and more packed in the balconies and on every bit of railing and support they could find.

Sunset winced at all the eyes on her, knowing full well what they were about to learn. She hadn’t spoken to the princess once since the end of the Sirens’ rule, but she knew. She just knew.

“Natasha here is worthier of praise than anypony else today,” Cadance said, once Sunset had settled into the indicated spot beside her. “It was she who recognized the Sirens for what they were—she who freed these others. She who devised the plan that ultimately defeated them. You might conclude—correctly—that every one of you owes their life to her.”

Princess Cadance lowered her head—not quite a bow, but a gesture of respect. The assembled ponies knew no such subtlety, however. The whole room shook as they dropped, heads going to the floor in their displays of respect. Starlight and Trixie bowed too, Starlight smirking all the way. You know how stupid this is and you’re still doing it.

“It is on behalf of all the Empire that I bestow on her the Image of the Crystal Heart, the highest honor our empire can give. There is only one other—dragon, who holds it.” She levitated something off a felt sheet—a miniature model of the Crystal Heart below them. It even glowed the same way as she pinned it to Sunset’s breast.

“Thank you,” she said, voice hoarse. She tried to put her thoughts into something more cogent, but… nothing came. “I only did what I would’ve done for my own family.”

At least this stupid performance was over.

Except… except the princess didn’t look done. She wasn’t getting down, wasn’t looking away. She just smiled, then went on. “One more thing—we want to make sure the honors go onto the shoulders of the right pony. Many of you—I suspect all of you—are aware that creatures from another world have become ponies. What you may not know is that the reverse has happened as well. There are ponies who look like humans. And one of those is…”

The curtains rippled out from behind her, and Sunset felt a sudden wave of heat from just outside her perception.

She didn’t have to turn around when she heard the voice. Even after all these years, she recognized it perfectly. “Sunset Shimmer,” Princess Celestia said. “A previous student of mine, one who saw the danger of this war to come and tried to prepare for it in her own way.”

Ponies were bowing again. They dropped right down onto their knees, gasps of surprise and shock. More than a little confusion from Sunset herself. Weren’t you with the king?

She dared a slight glance sideways—was that a smirk on Celestia’s face? Had she already been with Richard? Was Sunset getting pranked again the instant she had been identified?

But Celestia had also not told the world she was a criminal who had defied her, so…

“It seems there was more wisdom in her choice than I gave her credit for,” Celestia said, once the second round of bowing was over. “It is a pleasure to have her returned to Equestria at last.”

Then the party started.

It didn’t last terribly long—an invading army was on their way, including the Father of Dragons himself. Anypony with strategic relevance was needed to make those preparations. Sunset even caught sight of Princess Twilight, and some of her friends among the ponies waiting, though they didn’t have much to say.

The party overflowed from the great hall, with ponies packing the space beneath the palace for song and celebration. Mostly over their freedom—none of the ponies outside said a word to Sunset, or seemed to recognize her. But Sunset didn’t mind. It was enough to have been useful.

But once the ceremony was over, there was one pony she couldn’t escape from. And she didn’t try. “Princess,” Sunset said, as ponies poured out of the great hall towards the promise of food and drink. “I didn’t think I’d—”

Princess Celestia was one of the few ponies that didn’t seem small compared to her. Without anything like Sir Bradley’s armor, Sunset herself felt small by comparison. “We often don’t imagine where our future will take us, Sunset Shimmer. But often that place is precisely where we’re needed most.”

“But…” Sunset hesitated, her voice halting. “You… after I left. You sounded like you hated me. Like you’d be furious with me… forever.” She looked around, to see if anypony else was listening in. But she couldn’t see anyone. Not even Starlight Glimmer or Trixie were nearby. “I thought you’d want me in Tartarus or something.”

“There was… a time.” Celestia hesitated. “When I was less understanding of differences like yours. But I have come to see in the years since that flexibility is important, maybe the most important virtue. Besides…” She grinned slyly, sipping at her wine. “It pays to be right. If you had returned under different circumstances, you might’ve had a different welcome. But walking back into Equestria during the war you expected, just in time to save a city of ponies… that has earned you a little tolerance. The interesting question now is: what will you do with it?”

It wasn’t a rhetorical question. Sunset could feel the Princess’s eyes on her, fierce and unblinking. She didn’t give Sunset the chance to look away and escape.

“I, uh…” She winced. “I’m not sure it matters quite yet. The Father of Dragons is still coming. I won’t be able to help much with him.”

“No, you won’t.” Celestia didn’t try to dress it up, but she also didn’t sound disappointed or angry. She was only stating a fact. “I’m worried that all the magic in Equestria may struggle against him. But that is a problem for his arrival. What I do know is that our cause is a better one. That is what will grant us an ultimate victory, and safety for Equestria.”

Is that really the only reason Celestia thinks we’ll win? Because we’re right?

“So I’ll ask again,” Celestia said, with only a hint of sharpness. “When we win, what will you do?”

There was no easing the question, no offering suggestions that might allow her to escape with minimum offence. Just watchful eyes that didn’t even seem to blink.

Sunset had no choice but to answer. “I’ll… get bodies for my friends, and try to build somewhere safe for them. It’s what I owe them, after everything I put them through.”

Sunset couldn’t have imagined the Alicorn could understand her answer. But if Celestia had any confusion, she didn’t express it. “Then you have learned the most important lesson of leadership. I’m sorry I couldn’t teach you, but maybe… maybe you never needed me.” She walked away.

Sunset had no more awkward experiences at the party. She spent much of it with the humans, who were clearly out-of-place and given a wide window by the ponies all around them. It didn’t matter that one of them was a pony now, gold armor and all.

But maybe Brad just wasn’t interested in being social. At least that meant Sunset could get him alone easily.

“I hear you talked to the king,” he said, from where he sat on the edge of a balcony. His perch looked down on the party below, the streets still thick with Crystal Ponies. This might be their last night to relax before the invaders arrived, so it was hard for Sunset to judge them.

She wondered how many of the Federation’s humans were mixed in with that crowd. Alexi was down there somewhere, freed from Siren mind control. If she survived the coming battle, Sunset intended to make sure that her friend Jackie got to collect on her promise. But for now, it was the final moment of calm before the terrible storm.

“I did,” she said, smiling weakly. “Don’t worry, he wasn’t upset with you.”

Sir Bradley laughed. “I’m not so sure I believe that. One of his closest servants going organic? Not that… there’s ever been a treason like that before. It wasn’t possible.”

“Weeelllll.” Sunset settled into a chair beside him, resting one hand on his back. He didn’t protest or pull away, which was good since she wasn’t sure how she would’ve reacted. The chair itself was hugely undersized for her, but at least she wasn’t heavy enough to break it. “He said that the same thing had happened to another one of his knights. Some… gray pony… but he didn’t seem angry. Said that he would get you back eventually. Something to do with a cortical recorder.”

Bradley looked up, meeting her eyes. He laughed, this time more genuinely. “A cortical recorder. That makes it sound like he wants me to live out my whole pony lifespan before I’m human again.”

“What a tragedy,” Sunset said, rolling her eyes. “I can’t imagine how you’ll survive the humiliation.”

“It’s not that,” Bradley said, wincing slightly at her reaction. “There’s nothing wrong with…” He took a deep breath, and she could see from the position of his ears that he was embarrassed about something. “The lack of a digital interface is something that can be easily fixed. A few software revisions, some new hardware… that’ll be fixed when the war is over. Which… I guess happens in the next few days one way or the other. Maybe it’s a moot point anyway. Maybe we’re all dead.”

He looked back down at the celebrating ponies below, his wings opening and closing a few times in agitation. Sunset knew from long experience with humans that they probably would’ve seen him as cute. Maybe they would’ve pitied him. But Sunset didn’t see ponies the same way. She saw a tall, handsome stallion, who had fought bravely for the Crystal Empire even when he didn’t understand their plan. One of the bravest stallions she’d ever met.

“But—” she prompted.

“But I don’t want to be stuck as a pony when the people I care about are something else,” he finished. “You, Sunset. You’re human. That’s what I should be. I thought… I always planned, when this war was over… well, maybe you’d want to be part of a great house. Mine.”

Sunset shivered, clutching the railing tight in front of her. Under different circumstances, a comment like that might’ve amounted to a proposal. Like this… well, it obviously wasn’t. But it was close enough.

“Knights are… allowed? To do that?”

He nodded. “Most of the others are much older than I am. They were old enough to have children to go digital when everyone flipped the switch. Not me, though. Guess that’s… possible again. If I was interested.”

But not with me, Sunset thought. She nearly said so, but held back. There was no reason to ruin the last few hours of celebration before the enemy arrived with negativity like that.

“I have plans…” Sunset began. “Some things you might be interested in. I spoke to King Richard, and he made some promises to me. I’m guessing a good king like him is going to honor them.”

Bradley nodded. “Sure. Not always the way you expect, but somehow. What did you have in mind?”

“There’s these, uh… huge machines.” She would’ve sent him a picture, but as easy as cortical recorders might be, he didn’t have one yet. The Tower’s forces hadn’t actually arrived. “They mine a lot, and then they make things. Well, there’s one kind that’s specialized for making bodies.”

“You…” His voice faltered. “He agreed to give you a fabrication cell? How? No, wait, I know how. Equestria’s gigantic and you’re drowning in natural resources. Why? You already have a body.”

She hesitated. How much did Sir Bradley know about her crimes? Tesla was… something like dead now. If she said nothing, her past might die with him. But after what they’d survived together, she couldn’t bring herself to lie.

“A long time ago, I hurt a lot of people. I didn’t realize it—didn’t mean to. But I did. Now I plan on making it up to them. Taking… all the people I hurt and letting them live again. Starting with Twilight…” She clutched at the empty spot around her neck where her necklace ought to be.

“They’ll need lots of help if they’re going to rebuild. Somepony like me. Maybe you’d like to go there.” She lowered her voice, feeling her cheeks get warmer. “I guess you’re stuck for bodies, but I’m not. I plan on making a pony one too, since most of the people I’m helping will probably want to be ponies at first. If you want to try a relationship… that would be the place.”

“I need to see to my household,” Bradley said. “See that their minds are safely returned to the Realm. But after that… it’s possible the king might indulge me. You’re building what amounts to a colony for the Steel Tower. He might be interested to see how it does. Maybe he’ll think it deserves an official representative.”

“I’d like that.”


View Online

So the war went on, with Jackie forced to watch from the sidelines. She did her best to help as the great dragons attacked, running supplies along underground tunnels and giving what support she could to the terrified ponies there.

But the Father of Dragons was an enemy beyond her power, or any other human for that matter. She watched from hidden cameras along with the rest of the Crystal Empire, as the combined power of the Alicorns banished a creature ripped right out of hell’s worst dreams.

Then the war was over, at least that was what everypony seemed to think. Jackie could think what she wanted about ponies, but they sure knew how to throw a party. Jackie celebrated right along with them, ignoring whatever awkwardness might come from the influx of Tower and Federation humans alike. None of them gave her a second glance, letting her keep to the shadows. She’d become a minor celebrity in the Crystal Empire, and so there was always a friendly face to welcome her at any given hearth or bar.

But there were some responsibilities she didn’t run away from, even while she did her best to fade into the background and wait for all the pomp and circumstance to end. One in particular.

Bree didn’t have the same interest in public intoxication and celebration, so she hadn’t seen her at any of the various events around the Empire. But she knew where to find her all the same, in one of the Federation’s many refugee tents. Her companions didn’t seem to know she’d once been one of the enemies—and Jackie got deep personal satisfaction imagining what it must be like for Bree to overhear them talking about the Tower.

But they weren’t around today—she’d watched the tent for almost an hour now. Jackie adjusted her saddlebags a little on her back, then strode forward onto the row of refugee tents.

“Sorry, it’s humans only this way,” said a voice, in translated Equestrian. “Unless you’re one of us, we’ll have to ask you to leave.”

“I am,” she answered, in Federation Standard, lowering her hood a little. Apparently she wasn’t the first who had tried sneaking in. The guards—wearing Federation hats and rifles, but nothing else, looked aside, gesturing her through the barricade without another word.

Jackie wasn’t interrupted the rest of the way in, and she was able to make it safely to the tent.

It was a large affair, with open sides about an inch above the ground and six identical cots inside, with a small box at the foot of each for personal belongings. Or that was how it was supposed to look. Brigid had made herself a nice fort with the cots, and covered them with scribbled writing. They looked like some kind of blueprint, though Jackie couldn’t have said what it was for. Something motorized and metallic.

“Hey, Bree.” She sat down on her haunches near the door, grinning. “Not fraternizing with the enemy, are you?”

Bree looked up from her work, settling the well-chewed pencil in her mouth back onto the table in front of her. “I have no idea what you’re implying, but no. I’ve got this tent all to myself now. But I’m glad you’re here! There was, uh… something I wanted to ask you about.”

“I’ve got something too! How about we take turns. I’ll go first…” She rose, circling over to the bed and removing something from her saddlebags. “I wanted to talk to you about this. I would’ve told you sooner, but you’re not wired right now, so I didn’t have any easy way of showing you. Took a few days, but I finally got it flashed. Now you can… well, you’ll see! Turn it on.”

Bree did. The screen filled with certificates, along with the summary of what they contained in plaintext. There was a picture of the authority that had signed them—the king’s portrait.

“Brigid Curie is hereby and henceforth pardoned for all indiscretions committed in the course of her mission to Equestria. The Steel Tower will take no action to protect her from the justice of the nation she wronged. Likewise, it will take no action to enforce their justice on their behalf.”

She whimpered, tears streaming from her eyes. She reached sideways, pulling Jackie into a tight hug. But it only lasted for a moment. “I’m not going to jail?”

Jackie shrugged, though she didn’t try to pull away. The pony might be young, but she’d apparently been through a lot. “I think It says it’s up to Equestria. But if they don’t want to send you, then… no. You aren’t. Good thing, too, because I just got a message that Frostline will be on the next flight up from the south, and I don’t think your mom wants to see you in jail.”

She whimpered and sobbed, holding onto Jackie for a few more minutes. “And… here I thought… I’d be going to get myself arrested. Turning myself in to a Knight of the Realm. But it was the right thing to do.”

“What are you talking about?”

Bree stood up, ignoring her. She left her sketches behind, not even grabbing her cap as she slipped out into the crisp air of the empire. “There’s someone I have to meet,” she said, once they were moving between the rows. “You should be there. He’s a friend of mine from a long time ago.”

“A knight,” Jackie supplied. “You’re friends with a knight? I always thought there was… friction there. Between the Order and the king. Or was it one of the lesser lords?”

“No, it was the king.” Bree hesitated, frowning as she glanced between the rows, finally choosing one and speeding up again. “But we went back. He, uh… saved me. A long time ago. Turns out he’s here.”

“In the… transformed refugee camp?” Jackie raised an eyebrow. “I don’t know what a knight would be doing here. They’re… synthetics, like me. Couldn’t be here.”

Bree rolled her eyes. “You mean like I couldn’t be here? Equestria doesn’t care what we think the rules should be.”

Jackie had no real argument for that, and how should she? Bree had a point. The world wasn’t what they thought. Everything they’d been positive about was only shadow and myth. It’s all open to explore now, both worlds. We can use the best of each one.

But Jackie wouldn’t be the one exploring. There was somepony in the Federation she wanted to see again, but she wouldn’t find her on the ground.

Bree wandered for a little longer, until she saw something she hadn’t expected. A pegasus stallion, taller than she was and muscled like an Olympic sprinter.

He stood at the front of a small group of winged ponies, gathered in the circle created by several tents all arranged together. He was teaching them how to fly.

Bree didn’t interrupt him, just stood to the side and watched. Whoever he was, Jackie could see no sign of him being a knight. Those feathers were real, along with everything else about him. Organic.

“Which one was he?” Jackie asked, her voice a whisper. “I have the trading cards, from when I was younger. For each of the knights.” She summoned them into the air in front of her, or at least their false images. Of course, Bree wouldn’t be able to see the deck as it floated there. The amplifications to their reality required full immersion into their digital world, which she obviously didn’t have.

“Sir Charles Gray,” she whispered back—apparently too loud, because the pony looked up from his lesson, straight at the two of them.

Gray. Jackie winced, ears flattening. She knew that knight well—youngest of the king’s house. Also the most naive, trusting, and gullible. She’d borrowed his sword.

“One moment,” the stallion said. “Keep up the exercises, everyone. You can’t get into the air without strong wings.” He left the center of the group, walking over to them at the edge of the circle, and lowering his head politely. He seemed to have eyes mostly for Jackie. “I’m sorry, miss. But you’re too late to take this class. There’s another in circle 18-C in an hour if you’d like to enroll.”

Jackie shrugged. “Thanks, but no thanks. I just got a program for mine. Which is much better than the one you wrote, Bree. Not that I don’t appreciate the effort.”

“Bree…” His eyes widened. “Say something.” He wasn’t looking at Jackie anymore. “I need to hear your voice. It can’t be, but…”

“So you can hear me bloody accent, is that it?”

That was apparently not the reaction that Gray was expecting, because his mouth just hung open, staring at Bree. The mare just smiled smugly at him, waiting patiently for him to recover. “You’re alive,” he finally said. “You’re a pony too. After all these years. King Richard said you were probably dead. You’d died in some accident. Some… hostile native creature or something.”

Bree shook her head sadly. “The only hostile one was me. But I’m alive, and that’s what matters. Guess we both had to leave Neverland.”

What on earth was she talking about? Jackie couldn’t tell, but maybe it didn’t matter. This wasn’t her reunion. She stepped away, letting the two of them slip into one of the isolated European languages. She could’ve looked up a program, but she didn’t need to. Let them have their fun.

Besides, there was… what was that?

A creature was passing through camp, unlike anything she’d seen before. She turned away from Bree, lowering her body a little to the ground on instinct.

It looked a little like a pony, if a pony had been examined by a race of hyper-intelligent insects that had eventually decided to create one of their own in the ponies’ image.

It had a smooth black coat, with bright blue frills down her back and brilliant mane in a similar shade. And those hips, they just went on for days.

Jackie crossed over as quickly as her hooves could get her, slipping through the creature’s escort by dodging between a few tents. Suddenly she was walking beside her, feeling only a little small by comparison. But she could live with being the shorter one in a relationship.

“Hey there, sweetheart,” Jackie said, grinning at the creature. “You get to the cloud district very often?”

There it was—the twitch of recognition she was looking for. This creature was human.

But maybe not, because when she turned, her eyes went up in surprise and recognition. “Horsefeathers, it’s you. Uh… Jackie? The mechanical bat.” Curiously she didn’t answer in system standard, but in Equestrian. Perfectly fluent Equestrian, though there was a strange, reverberating quality to her voice.

Also not a rejection. She’d turned just slightly to face Jackie—a sign that maybe she’d attracted some interest.

“In the flesh,” she answered, spreading her wings slightly to catch the light. That would show the mechanical superstructure underneath, and reveal how obviously artificial they were. “Well… you know what I mean. I’ve got a body anyway, and let me tell you I know how to use it. I’ve got some upgrades scheduled, and once they’re in you won’t be able to tell the difference unless you need some numbers crunched.”

The creature stared at her a long time. Then she changed. Several of the watching ponies—human refugees all—gasped and stared, but none seemed frightened. None of them were ponies, after all, what did they have to be afraid of.

But Jackie gasped. She knew this pony. It was the captain of the guard. “Uh… shouldn’t you be back in Normandy? You weren’t a…” She’d made a pretty attractive pegasus, too. It was a good thing Jackie didn’t care that she noticed anymore.

“I was.” Amber Sands changed back as swiftly as she had performed her little demonstration in the first place. Quick flash of light, and she was the towering, elegant insect all over again. “I just hadn’t gone public yet. But now I’m the queen of all the changelings in Equestria, so… guess there’s no point in hiding.”

Jackie slid up against her, grinning slyly. “Well, queen of all the changelings in Equestria. Want a drink? I’m a folk hero in this little town—we can pick anywhere we want, and we’ll get all the free food and drinks you could want.”

Amber’s insect eyes narrowed. “I don’t eat… the same things you do,” she said.

“Well, perfect! I don’t eat either. It’s a date.”

The Reclamator roared in the background, its massive teeth devouring stones, ice, trees, and anything else that got in its way. Had there been any ponies living nearby, Sunset Shimmer knew they would’ve attracted more than a little anger, eating a small mountain with a metal dragon. But they’d chosen somewhere so far north that even the Crystal Empire had never claimed it, where the ice never melted and blue glaciers carved huge troths through the landscape.

Mechanical ponies apparently had a bit of a bad reputation down in Equestria, and more reminders about their history would be politically unwise. But sending the Reclamator up here—who was there to complain?

It wasn’t just the dragon—the digger was certainly the most important part of their little world, but that was only by size. The Reclamator was actually a complex network of robotics, run by dozens of digital minds that were all skilled in their respective crafts. That many of those digital minds now thought of themselves as ponies was incidental to their ability to run the operation.

Sunset walked briskly down the path formed of recycled slag concrete, its surface textured to keep it rough enough to walk even during the fiercest snowstorms.

The body Sunset was currently controlling was a pony too, and she wasn’t alone. A unicorn followed close behind her, though like everypony else in town she had no way to make use of her magic. Yet. We’re close. During Sunset’s battle for the Crystal Empire, she had seen the proof that magic need not be restricted to the ponies alone. A mechanical creature like her had been able to use it, as well as former humans like Sir Bradley. Her ponies would get their magic in time.

“With the south tower, we’ve added housing for another three thousand residents,” Twilight Sparkle said, her voice as proud as it was confident. “Polymer production in the first processing facility is meeting demand for microfab, and we’ve added an additional ten percent of output for furniture and other luxuries.”

They reached the end of the trail, where the large hill that was Camelot could be seen all in one view. It was made of smaller buildings, only a dozen stories or so compared to the typical human propensity for building tall. There were no tubes or shelters connecting them, just as the towers themselves went unheated. There was no need for heating when almost everypony who lived here was mechanical. Just as there wasn’t water in most of the buildings, and they had no farms to grow food. It was in many ways what Sunset might’ve imagined running a village of undead might be like, right down to the Reclamator devouring an entire mountain and everything that lived on it.

But if she was undead, she could live with that. Her secret magic had come back with her from Earth, and that was the important thing. The Builders’ great powers would be shared with Equestria after all.

She could see them down there—several hundred of those most intact of the conversion casualties. But they weren’t casualties anymore—they were alive. She could hear happy voices raised in song, ponies and humans mixed with one another in haphazard randomness. “The last generation—what did they choose?

“Sixty percent pony, forty percent human. Sixty-five percent prefer not to be instanced in a body and will be coexisting digitally. That’s another… three-eighty-seven in total.”

“That many?” Sunset reached sideways, touching against her. “Impressive work, Twilight.”

“Of course,” the unicorn agreed, beaming. “When isn’t it?”

“Never.” But Sunset’s attention was drifting. She had another body somewhere else—and just now it was demanding a little more of her control. Across vast distance and a transmitter passing entirely between Earth and Equestria, there was a little deadly.

“Hold on minute,” she said, looking down. “Brad and I are almost there. I’m pretty sure we found her.”

“You mean Flash,” Twilight corrected, sounding a little annoyed. “I’ll make sure you don’t bump into any walls.”

Sunset concentrated, and her attention shifted somewhere else. Now she was on two legs again, in the familiar body that had survived so much hardship in Equestria. She’d cut her hair a little differently, and adapted the half-cutie-mark style the Empire had sewn for her into an outfit that accentuated her former pony colors. That way her subjects would recognize her, no matter which way she dressed.

But she had no subjects in the Alajuela work camp. Here thousands of ponies labored to undo the damage humans had done to their planet. So far, this was the place they’d been most successful.

The jungle was healthy here, the sky blue instead of gray. The songs of transplanted Equestrian birds filled the early morning air.

Sir Bradley landed beside her, gesturing ahead along the path. “She’s there, all right. Think she noticed me, because I swear she was waving.”

Sunset grinned and sped up, along an ancient paved road through the jungle. The darkness didn’t bother her, but Brad had to trot along touching every moment, so that he didn’t bumble into something. Soon the sun would come up and his eyes would be working perfectly, but that moment hadn’t come quite yet.

Sunset Shimmer felt it before she saw it—a tree like only one other in all of existence. A spell so densely woven that it seemed to bend the space around it. But where Equestria had hidden theirs away, the human version was surrounded with a cement stadium, with rows of plaques depicting scenes from the war, or moments that had led to the creation of this spell.

There were plenty of advanced human security devices—which Sunset had tricked and manipulated into ignoring them. There were plenty of security guards, but they wouldn’t be flown in because of her.

“That’s some smooth datamancy,” said a girl, swinging from one of the tree’s lower branches. She was dressed like one of the natives, in worn overalls and dirty socks, but her skin was pale instead of the olive common to this part of the world.

She landed on the ground in front of the railing, and her hood fell off her face. Sunset gaped at her hair—half of it was transparent, with light dancing from underneath. It didn’t remind her of any of the Infinite Realm’s gaudy displays—it reminded her of Celestia.

“She doesn’t like how young we are,” said another voice—male this time, from the stone benches. She turned and saw a boy dressed in almost exactly the same clothes, except that he was clutching an old toy in his hands, playing some game on its ancient plastic surface. “She expected a throne. Or maybe a court. Way the Equestrians do it.”

“But no one on our planet knows what we are,” the girl continued, her voice perfectly timed. Sunset couldn’t feel it, but she recognized it—these two were sympathetically linked. Or maybe just using radio.

“I do,” Sunset said.

“Because you’re not from here,” the girl said. She circled around her, watching Brad with narrowed eyes. “Your friend is, though. Or he was.”

“A few countries north,” Brad answered, using English instead of Equestrian. Like the children were doing. “Is that a problem?” He switched to private radio—something that required some visual twitching from him. The implants in his brain were far less capable than anything Sunset had installed, though they were one of the few changes he’d made. “Now will you tell me why we came here?”

To Sunset’s surprise, the girl spoke before she could. Over the same private radio channel as Sunset and Bradley. “She should tell all of us. We’re very curious.”

“I would look into her memories,” the boy added. “But that wouldn’t be polite.”

Sunset Shimmer dropped onto one knee in front of the girl. They were now almost perfectly at eye level. “I was wondering… if you could use an apprentice, Princess Chance.”