The little gray pony was slightly singed around the edges; the tips of her cornsilk mane and tail smouldered in the stinging, acidic rain. The heavy metal ring was still clutched tightly between her teeth; as she regained her senses, the smell of burned hair and ozone biting her nostrils, she suddenly startled with renewed fear. She rose to her hooves; she felt wobbly but much more confident in her new body.
The damper ring. Lillian knew that she needed to get the band of metal over her horn again, and she had to do it quickly. She could not sense the strange feeling that indicated Celestia's approach, so it was likely she had not yet been traced. She stared at her clumsy hooves; if she had hands she could slip the ring over her horn in an instant. Then again, if she had hands, she would be a human, and the entire issue would be moot.
Lillian set the ring down on the dead, flattened grain that covered the disturbingly flat landscape. It could be Alberta, or more likely Saskatchewan. Then again, it could be Iowa. Gray stalks stretched to the horizon; they had been dead for a very, very long time. The last crop ever grown had been perfectly preserved by a small error in genegineering; nothing could digest wheat anymore, neither animal nor bacteria nor fungus. The broken genes for the new wheat had spread quickly around the planet contaminating all wheat. The last crop had become the tombstone for wheat as a species.
The little gray pony set her front hooves on either side of the ring, pinching it between them. She could feel the resistance of the ring in her... ankles? Knuckles? Whatever her new body parts were called, she reasoned that she could use her hooves to keep track of the ring's position on the ground.
Lillian lowered her head slowly, until she felt her horn touch the earth. Lifting and lowering her head again and again, she tried to work the tip of her horn down toward the space between her hooves, where the ring was held. She couldn't roll her eyes far enough to see the tip of her horn, but... wait. That must be the ring! And that curvature her horn was sliding off of was her right hoof! Carefully, carefully... that is probably it. That is the center of the ring.
She slowly and ever-so-gently moved her head to see if her horn was trapped by the ring pinched between her hooves. She felt faint resistance. The ring must be over the tip of her horn. Lillian pushed her head down, hard, digging her horn deep into the muddy soil. The rain pounded her back and trickled through the feathers on her wings. Now what?
She had to get the ring to stay, and she needed it to fit around the base of her horn, just the way that Olivia had set it. Lillian lay flat again, her belly down once more upon the crushed stalks and mud. Using her chest and hindquarters as a stable base, she slowly lifted her horn free from the muck, while simultaneously trying to drag the ring closer to her forehead with the edges of her hooves. She felt the scrape of the ring as it slid down her horn. Resting now on her... elbows? she was able to fiddle about with the ring, finally assuring herself that it was on her horn and set solidly around the base, close to her skull.
She didn't feel any different. The metal ring felt a little heavy, but other than that she could detect no change. Was the ring working?
Lillian scanned the horizon. It was flat in all directions, with no trace of mountain, hill, or building. The view made her feel dizzy and unsettled. Her eyes craved any difference in the landscape. For a moment she felt as if she might fall into the sky. How could anyone live in such a flat, barren place?
They didn't, of course. Not now, anyway. Once, though, she knew that this had been one of the breadbaskets of the world, when the soil was alive, when grains were still capable of nourishing life and were not filled with genetically engineered preservatives and pesticides. Back when grains could still grow at all.
Even so, the thought of spending a life in a perfectly flat land made Lillian shudder.
The rain was stinging her eyes terribly. She shook her mane, trying to get spikes of it to hang over her face like the brim of a hat. She managed to get a large sheaf of hair to curve over just enough; for now the rain ran down it, and stayed mostly out of her eyes. Better. Much better. She blinked again and again, allowing her tears to clear out the stinging rain.
There was no pursuit. If Celestia could find her, she would have by now. Lillian let out a huge sigh of relief that turned into a moan. The moan became a cry, and the cry turned to exhausted tears.
Lillian cried in the rain for a long time. Eventually the fear and tension drained from her. She was safe. For now.
It was enough.
Thunder boomed in the gray sky, but Lillian saw no lightning. Still, it would be sensible to find some kind of shelter. The little gray pony... no, alicorn - she would have to face the fact of it - stood up again. Alicorn. The word seemed strange and alien. That was the species of monster she now was. Lillian Fogarty, the alicorn.
She realized that she was something else that had never happened before. She was the first newfoal to ever regret their conversion. And she did. She regretted it so much. That was supposedly impossible. Newfoals were universally filled with positive feelings, as though they were high all the time. According to some things she had read, that was not far from the truth.
Lillian was not at all high. She felt no special feeling of wellbeing. As far as she could tell, her thoughts were as dark and moody as always, more so today, considering all she had been through. She could imagine the most horrible ends for herself. That too, was supposed to not happen for newfoals.
Apparently, alicorns didn't get the automatic gift of happiness and serenity that normal ponies received. Lillian just felt sad, regretful, and miserable. And afraid.
Shelter. Lillian began to amble in an arbitrary direction. There was nothing to see, wherever she looked, but standing still was pointless. At least if she moved, she might run into something.
Suddenly, Lillian realized she had missed out on lunch. She had never gotten to have the coveted 'First Meal As A Pony' party that made morning conversion so much fun. Her belly rumbled with hunger. All around her was kilometers and kilometers of wheat, the ripe grain still on the stalks, and not a bit of it was food. She laughed, bitterly, as she walked. "Water, water everywhere, and not a drop to..." Lillian froze.
That was a building. That was absolutely a building. It was gray against the gray sky, but it rose above the gray fields. It was faint but it was there, not entirely hidden by the mist and the downpour. Lillian began to move faster, her amble rising to a trot. Soon she was galloping.
It was a corporate farming facility. It must have been abandoned decades ago. As she approached she could see the rows and rows of automated silos, the three concentric chainlink fences, the razor wire on top. There were the automated turrets, and the guardhouses. She slowed her pace; no, no. The turrets, the defenses... they would all be dead now. No power. No maintenance. It had to be safe by now. They'd probably removed all the ordnance in any case. No one would bother attacking a production center that produced nothing. The days of anti-corporate resistance were long gone.
Lillian began circling the fence, looking for a way in. There had to be a gate, somewhere, because there had to be a road, or roads, leading in and out. The stark, angular buildings and curving silos looked eerie and strangely beautiful in the rain. Above all, it was somehow a delight merely to have something break up the monotony of the flat landscape.
The gate, when she finally got to it, was busted open. Sometime in the past, someone had apparently run a heavy truck through the gate, probably to pillage the abandoned facility. Lillian felt grateful to that long ago scavenger; she had no idea how to get through the triple fences on her own.
The complex was huge. After the gate were guardhouses; these contained nothing but broken glass and stains. Lillian ambled down the plascrete roadway. On both sides were now rows and rows of compact apartment blocks, the housing for the corporate prisoners who had once served as the workforce here. An idea stirred in Lillian's mind.
While most ponies did not wear clothing, some did, especially on the Earthly side of the Equestrian barrier. Newfoals were notorious for clinging to the wearing of clothing; hats, coats, scarves, even pants. Newfoals commonly did not grasp the cultural significance of clothing to native Equestrians, despite the efforts of the classes held at the Conversion Bureaus. Wearing clothing, for ponies, was uncommon, and where it was not functional or ceremonial, it was remarkably sexually provocative. In Equestria, the equivalent of a strip-club involved the putting on of clothing, not its removal.
Lillian had entered one of the apartment blocks, and was searching the apartments one after another. In one she had found a hard hat, but it was too small and would not serve to hide her horn. In another she discovered a stray pair of boxer shorts; even if they were not ripped and filled with holes, they would have been utterly useless.
One apartment held a holophoto of a family, a mother, father and two daughters smiled out at Lillian. They all wore the same corporate worker jumpsuits, but they appeared glad to be together even so. She lay down on the floor there, for a while, and sobbed; she wished she could talk to her mother, she wished she had a family now. Her mother would never accept her as... this thing she was.
When she had regained herself, she continued her exploration. Outside the rain continued to beat down; as she entered each apartment, she could smell it as it fell through shattered windows and splattered on the bare, plascrete floors.
Finally, in one closet, Lillian found the jackpot. A trenchcoat. A marvelous, dark gray, intact trenchcoat. How had it been left here? Who would ever leave such a thing in the post-collapse world? Lillian wondered at the owner, a corporate prisoner, wearing nothing but assigned jumpsuits for their entire life, unable to leave the farming facility, yet possessing a fairly decent trenchcoat. Had someone been allowed a visitor, one who left behind their coat? Had an elite taken an interest in one of the prisoners; some kind of dalliance or romance behind the razor-wire? The coat held mysteries that would never be answered.
But the coat also held promise as a way to hide her wings.
All Lillian really needed to do was to hide one aspect of her being. If she could hide her horn, she could pass as a pegasus. If she could hide her wings, she could pretend she was just a normal unicorn. Lillian took the coat carefully down with her teeth; it tasted of mildew and ancient pollen.
There was a bed in this room; it had mostly rotted away, but the frame was intact. Lillian lay the coat down on the frame to study it. If she was to use it, she would need to put it on somehow. Clearly, one forehoof would have to go down one of the arms of the coat, then the coat would need to be tossed over her back. Lastly would come inserting her other forehoof down the remaining arm.
Lillian took the neck of the coat in her teeth and sat down on her haunches. Using her teeth and her other foreleg, she worked her right hoof down the ample arm of the coat. It was fortunate that the coat had been made for a male adult human; this made it large enough for her hoof to fit the tunnel of fabric.
She trapped the opposite side of the coat with her left forehoof, and pressed into the coat; her right hoof popped out of the arm. One part done. The coat was partly draped across her back now, which was a good start. Lillian craned her long neck and tried to nab the left side of the collar with her teeth, but it was impossible. Instead she settled for the middle of the left side of the coat. No. That wasn't going to work either. This was a problem.
Finally, after much struggle, Lillian managed to wriggle her left hoof down the left arm of the coat by spinning on the floor while resting on her haunches and leaning back. This hurt her tail, and it bruised her flanks, but with enough short, sharp spasms she managed to jerk the coat all the way onto her back, and her left hoof all the way down the arm of the coat.
Lillian lay on her side, panting. It had been exhausting trying to put the coat on. She did not want to imagine how difficult it would be to take it off again. If she even could.
It struck her suddenly that... she was a unicorn. Well, partly, anyway. She had a horn. Suddenly she felt stupid. Unicorns could lift and manipulate objects with their magic. Telekinesis was normal for unicorns. Duh.
Lillian looked around the room. There was a chunk of rotted foam on the floor, once part of the bed. It was about the size of an orange. Lillian's stomach growled loudly at that; she had enjoyed some marvelous oranges back during her fourteen days at the Bureau. Oh, how she could use just one of those shining fruits right now. Enough. That only made things worse. Time to concentrate.
Move, she thought. Move, foam. Lillian tried to reach out with her mind, she tried to pretend she had an invisible arm stretching out from her forehead, she imagined beams of energy tractoring the lump of rotted bedding. Nothing. Not a glow, not a feeling inside her head, nothing.
She had managed to teleport! She had teleported herself all the way to... wherever this was. Probably Saskatchewan. Lillian Fogarty of Surrey, magical alicorn, had teleported herself all the way to Probably Saskatchewan without even knowing how, and she couldn't move one little piece of freaking foam!
The ring. That must be it. The ring on her horn.
It wasn't for hiding her. That was just a side effect. Why would a Conversion Bureau even stock such a thing?
To control new unicorns that could not contain their power. That was the real purpose of the ring. To keep frightened, out-of-control newfoal unicorns from harming themselves or others if their magic expressed itself dangerously. Lillian had heard stories; occasionally some newfoal unicorn would turn out really powerful right from the moment they woke up. There had to be a provision, a protocol for that eventuality. That was the point of the ring. It blocked magic completely. It wasn't a cloaking ring, it was a damping ring.
That it hid her from Celestia was merely a fortunate benefit to shutting off the fount of magic.
Rested from her struggles with the coat, Lillian stood upright. The coat dragged a little on the ground, but overall it did the job; her back and sides were covered all the way to her tail, and her wings were entirely hidden. She could wander now as an ordinary unicorn. A unicorn dressed in an old trenchcoat.
Beyond the worker apartments was the main building of the corporate plantation. These had been the offices of the corporate drones that ran the facility, the overseers. There was one thought now in Lillian's mind; food. There must be old vending machines in this place, and there were certain snacks said to be impervious to the passage of time.
It did not take long to find a cafeteria in the structure, and as expected dozens of vending machines crowded the walls. Most were partially full, some were empty, one looked as if it had been filled the day the complex was abandoned. Lillian studied the selections carefully; she did not want to eat something that could make her sick.
Could an alicorn get sick? Just how unusual was this body of hers? It was prudent to avoid unnecessary tests of her status, she concluded.
Nanobars. Fruity chewy Nanobars. They had been one of the first commercially successful nanoconstructed snacks. A smart advertising campaign combined with clever endorsements had overcome public distaste for entirely artificed food. Nanobars contained nothing natural but the atoms from which they were woven. And they were woven, out of threads of protein, carbohydrates, and flavoring molecules, all stitched together with nutrient complexes.
Now, after the Collapse, virtually the whole of humanity lived entirely on nanoreconstructed, recycled food. It was the crowning achievement of human civilization; an entire planet fed, no human ever went hungry. Of course, a diet of small, awful tasting gray and brown rectangles could not be considered exactly good living, but, for the first time in history, everyone everywhere ate at least one meal every single day.
Nanobars would do. They never degraded so long as their packaging was sealed. It was said that a cache of Nanobars should last for centuries in perfect condition, so long as they were kept properly. Lillian's stomach was growling like a beast.
The trenchcoat hindered her hindquarters a bit, but a few good bucks with her rear hooves opened up the front of the vending machine easily. Using her front right hoof, she scooped out stacks of the Nanobars onto the floor. Squatting down in the fading light from the intact windows, Lillian bent her head and picked up one of the bars by the edge of the wrapper.
Lillian held the bar between her forehooves and used her teeth to rip the end off of the bar. Hunger had made her feel a little shaky, so it took a few tries before she succeeded in opening the wrapper. The smell of artificial fruit essences filled her nostrils. It was disgusting to her new senses, but she was so hungry she simply did not care.
After the ninth Nanobar, Lillian was getting quite efficient at manipulating the small objects; she snagged the tenth bar with only one hoof, balancing it in the cleft of her frog. In one swift motion, she clasped the bar between both hooves and neatly tore the wrapper open. Once in her mouth, the fruity bar was vacuumed out of the wrapper in an instant, and wrapper number eleven joined the growing pile on the floor. Lillian munched contentedly; she had been through so much and food helped. Food definitely helped.
Twenty bars later, she finally felt full. The cafeteria was dry, the windows were intact, and the storm still raged outside. It was late; Lillian had no way to tell what time it was but it surely must be evening by now. It was desperately dark now; she felt sure that human eyes would be entirely unable to see. What she could make out seemed to shine unnaturally; it crossed her mind that she might be perceiving more of the spectrum than humans or ordinary ponies, could see.
Then again, it could all just be her imagination; right now she wanted to believe that she had some kind of power, some kind of extraordinary means at her command. As she hopefully studied what she could see of the room, she gradually came to the sad conclusion that while her eyesight was better as a fresh new pony, it was not magical after all. The realization somehow felt far more depressing than it really should be.
She lay down on the floor. There was nothing else to be done. She was exhausted; she was full, in the trench coat she was a little warm, but she did not want to go through the hassle of trying to remove it, only to have to put it on again. She lay partly on her back, careful of her wing, and spread her legs wide to allow her belly to cool.
What next? Where was she supposed to go, what was she supposed to do? Olivia had made it clear that she could not flee to Equestria; besides that was Celestia and Luna's home turf. They would surely be at their most powerful there, without question the place was the very source of magic itself.
The human world held its own dangers, though. Large cities and operational complexes were all constantly monitored; cameras everywhere, corporate eyes in every room, on every street, in every space. It was a pity that there was no living wilderness left; Lillian could imagine running off to some forest and living comfortably as the pony she was. But all the forests were dead, as were the seas; the only places that plants could grow now were in controlled environments.
This meant that if she wanted to eat, she had to deal with the cities. She would have to find a way to get into the food queues. If she kept herself covered, and moved regularly to new locations, in theory she could remain hidden. As long as she kept the ring on, presumably Celestia would not be able to track her down. Presumably.
It was not much of a life, but it was survival, and right now that enough. Lillian recalled the look on Celestia's face.
According to the holo on Equestrian History and Politics she had seen at the Bureau, Celestia had exiled her own sister, Luna, for a thousand years because of a squabble over how day and night should be apportioned. Supposedly, Luna was an alicorn, a full and true goddess, and equal to Celestia in power, more or less. If this is how she treated her own sister, then what would be the most likely reaction to the existence of an upstart wanna-be alicorn like herself?
Lillian didn't feel like a goddess. The thought was laughable. She was just a pony with wings and a horn, a freak, but nothing more. She had no special wisdom, and her alicorn powers consisted of being able to put on a trenchcoat and rip open Nanobar wrappers easily. Not much of a resume for a goddess.
And teleport. She had somehow done that. Lillian had no idea how, and no idea why it had happened. But it had, there was no denying that. OK, maybe one little hint of magical wonder there.
That said, though, if she ever wanted to try such a stunt again, she would need to remove the damping ring, and if she did that she would become visible to Celestia, and she had no doubt, no doubt in all of both worlds, that Celestia could wipe the floor with her and never even break a sweat.
Lillian understood that the only reason she was even still alive was sheer luck and the clumsy response of the humans to whatever a 'Code Majeste' was.
Majeste. It sounded familiar. Lillian thought for a moment, unable to sleep. Majeste. Lese Majeste! That was it! Lese Majeste. The crime of insulting or diminishing royalty. Treasonous thoughts, speech, or deed. Merely failing to show proper deference was Lese Majeste. Historically, the crime was serious, and the punishment often dire.
That was Code Majeste, then. A direct insult to the Crown Of Equestria. Her very existence was that insult.
Lillian began to cry, softly, then more loudly. The thunder and wind seemed to weep with her; and for the rest of that night she desperately clung to the strange and irrational comfort that the storm was somehow trying to be her friend.