By Chatoyance

4.    The Lights Are Much Brighter There

Lillian Fogarty had no pony name. Indeed trying to come up with a cute and fun Equestrian name for herself was the last thing she felt like doing; so far her experience of being a mare had been anything but cute or fun.

Then again, she was not a mare, at least not an ordinary one. She was not even a pony, properly.

The pockets of the gray trenchcoat that covered her body were stuffed with colorfully wrapped Nanobars, the last she could find in the decaying rooms of the corporate agricultural complex. She had found scattered buckets and containers that had been filled with rainwater to drink from; the water was tainted with whatever had drifted into the buckets over time but she had been desperate with thirst.

With the storm over, and nothing more she felt safe to take from the vending machines, Lillian had decided to leave the complex; there was nothing else for her in that abandoned place.

Endless, gray, dead fields of inedible wheat stretched out in all directions; the nightmarishly flat expanse of Probably Saskatchewan made Lillian feel more alone and lost than she had ever felt. All directions seemed the same to her, at least there was the remains of a road to follow.

The road was broken and deeply cracked; it was not made of plascrete but of concrete, and it was clear that the road had been built decades before Lillian's birth. Some parts had buckled and crumbled entirely, forcing her to step carefully around tilted slabs and chunks. The sides of the road were littered with ancient bottles, some still intact, and aluminum cans.

What she could see of the road seemed to go on straight to the horizon; she was worried about just how far she would need to travel before running into... anything at all. At least, after the storm, the sky was remarkably clear; she could see blue here, the global smog layer not yet having filled in the brief window created by the rain.

As Lillian walked, she fell into a monotony driven trance, daydreams and memories compensating for the boredom of travel down an endless, perfectly straight road through flat, gray fields.

"Good on ya, Lill!" Her father was proud of her; she had just told him about how she had given her tickets to the Calgary Tech Faire to the cyborg twins. Everyone called them the cyborg twins, because of the implants and the support frames that kept them alive; they had such terrible congenital defects that without technology, they could not be alive at all.

Lillian had wanted to go to the Faire -some still called it the 'Stampede', though hardly anyone remembered where the name had come from- and she had worked hard to win the tickets by having the highest ZTA in her class. A high Zone Training Average meant that she could potentially have her pick of occupations within the BC subsection of the Northamerizone Corporate Production lists; her father wanted her to keep the family tradition of having a job going.

Though they were far from the elite class, Lillian's family had held low level positions for generations; it was more than employment within the world corporation, it was a matter of family pride. The worldcorporation tended to hire from established families; it was reasonable since there was no upward mobility any more. Lillian's family had wealth enough to afford education from Early Indoctrination all the way to Corporate Training; the countless masses had no such advantage, so they could never hope to have a job.

Lillian knew her father, Graeme, worried about her; he felt she was a bit on the soft side. This trait seemed to both concern him and endear her to him - it would have been more appropriate for her father to have scolded her for giving away an advantage. But the twins were moderately famous for their struggle to survive - one of the media outlets had done a story on them recently - and if nothing else Lillian's act of generosity and kindness would probably be seen as good strategic self marketing. Those watching would likely think her shrewd, communicating her willingness to be a team player and sacrifice for the benefit of the greater good; all traits the corporation valued highly.

But that was not why she had given them the tickets. They really, desperately wanted to go. The cyborg twins didn't get to do much that was fun, and Lillian didn't care about their recent publicity. She didn't even know them that well. It was just that... they wanted it so much! Both Étienne and Joseph had worked hard - FAR harder than she had - to try to get the highest scores on the ZTA, yet they had fallen quite short.

Lillian had seen them roll away from the posted scores on the holodisplay and cry, softly, in the corner. It had broken her heart. When later, after being declared the winner, after Onésime and Jeanne had sneered and made faces at her - they looked down on low-level corporate drone families - something in her raged. Lillian hated the constant fighting for status and position, that those who truly struggled ended up with little, while those had innate talents ended up with everything. It wasn't... nice. It might be 'correct' - if that was even the correct word to use - but it wasn't at all kind.

Lillian was sick of things being correct. Correctness didn't make anybody happy except those already advantaged. Lillian wanted nice. She wanted kind. She wanted a world where those who already suffered were not penalized further for being imperfect. She wanted something she didn't quite have a name for, something that hovered on the edge of her understanding. A not-corporate world. A world where people mattered more than they did.

So she had gone up to them later and given them the tickets. They thought it was some kind of trick at first, as if the tickets were fakes, or that there was some hidden agenda going on. Somehow she had convinced Étienne and Joseph that she genuinely meant for them to have her prize; that it would make her happy to see them get to do something they wanted so very much.

They were still uncertain, even after that, and she knew they had checked the tickets to make sure they were real. They probably felt she was trying to horn in on their recent celebrity or something. That thought had made her feel sad.

It didn't matter, she had told herself. It didn't matter what anyone thought. She had done what her heart had told her to do, and somehow that made her feel closer to the world she wanted, the world she didn't have a name for.

When the worldgovernment finally revealed the existence of Equestria to the masses, when the first speeches by Princess Celestia had been disseminated, Lillian finally had a name for her ideal world. Celestia's soft voice and gentle face had instantly stolen her heart; she saw in that royal countenance everything she had ever wanted; this was the princess of a land of kindness. More than anything, Lillian wanted to live in that world, and with ponification announced, with the Bureaus being built everywhere, she had no doubt as to her future.

Lillian Fogarty knew her future was to become a mare and serve that beautiful princess, her princess, Celestia. It was all she could think of, dream of, until she became nineteen. It was her deepest wish that she might even get to meet Celestia one day. She had practiced trying to bow on four legs long before her Conversion; she had gotten down on hands and knees, and pretended that she was meeting the princess as a pony.

She had seen the princess now. Twice. And neither meeting had been at all what she had dreamed of. No, make that thrice, if her Conversion dream was real... and it had felt real. Terribly real.

Lillian wondered what had happened to the poor PA, Olivia. She shuddered as she walked, remembering vividly how Olivia had been pulled away from the Conversion Bureau door by some invisible hand, Celestia's flowing mane filling the room.

This wasn't right! She shouldn't have let Olivia risk herself that way. Who knows what happened to her?

It was hard to believe that such a beautiful and seemingly kind creature as princess Celestia could be... so frightening. Lillian had trouble, even now, imagining her princess as a tyrant, as actually being out to hurt her. Maybe this was all a big misunderstanding! Maybe Celestia was really trying to help her, only she kept stupidly running away. Maybe she had misinterpreted the look on Celestia's face, and the feelings of dread.

What if doctor Treasen and the humans were the real danger, and Celestia had come to rescue her from them? Some humans did want to stop the expansion of Equestria, after all. What if Celestia just wanted to welcome her, to accept her as a sister alicorn? Celestia may have banished her own sister, but she had taken her back. Princess Luna didn't show up on the holoscreens as often as Celestia, but it was clear that she was co-ruler.

Maybe the best thing Lillian could do would be to just take the ring off of her horn and wait. Wait for Celestia to find her and appear. She could bow to her -like she had practiced- and beg her forgiveness for running away. Lillian imagined Celestia comforting her, giving her an understanding smile, and leading them both back to Canterlot, where she would be given her own room and taught what it meant to be an alicorn.

Lillian remembered her conversion dream. The crushing, squeezing nightmare, the cold, implacable stare. It had felt like she was being killed. It did not feel friendly.

But then again, it had only been a dream. No one had ever claimed that they had proof that the dreams were true experiences of a higher reality. They could just be dreams, nothing more, even despite the common elements.

Olivia had seemed to think that Celestia could not be trusted any more than humans could be trusted. Lillian just didn't know what to believe anymore.

Sounds from in front of her made her lift her head; amazingly there was a town coming into view. A town! How long had she been walking? The sun was low in the increasingly smoggy sky, it was getting close to sunset. Lillian suddenly realized that she was hungry. She briefly considered squatting down right then and there and polishing off her collection of Nanobars, but stopped herself. She might need them later, and the town might offer new possibilities. Also, she was desperately thirsty; eating the bars would only make that feeling much worse.

Her hooves felt sore. She had walked for an entire day. Wow. Lillian had never imagined doing that before.

Home Of The Assiniboia Arcology!

The sign was broken and decades old. What it proudly proclaimed had never been built. When the Last Crop turned out to be the death of all wheat on earth - except that preserved in vaults, or grown in special, enclosed facilities - there was no longer any reason to build an arcology in Assiniboia. Saskatchewan had become a dead land, and hundreds of millions had starved to death worldwide. Lillian had studied that in her classes; the Collapse had many aspects, not all of them merely financial.

Now she knew, Probably Saskatchewan was Definitely Saskatchewan, and Assiniboia was still a small place, probably only a half a million people at its peak. Now, it was impossible for her to tell how many people lived here, but it was clear that they had been busy; the shelters and buildings here were made with surprising care and expertise, relative to the average favela.

As Lillian clopped down the street, the life of the town ran on many legs around her. It appeared that there was an equal mixture of humans and ponies here; she guessed that it was pretty much half and half. They all seemed to be getting along well, which was encouraging, and her new ears delighted in sounds of laughter and friendly talk. Perhaps Assiniboia was going to be a nice place.

Assiniboia was interesting for a post-collapse town; it had clearly once been entirely abandoned, then resettled afterwards by the constant, unchecked, Malthusian expansion of human population. The ruins had been rebuilt into quite a charming favela-town, with an astonishing variety of structures piled like toy blocks on top of each other.

Lillian passed one street corner where a reconstructed fast food building on the ground had been repurposed as a carpentry shop, above it were cubical apartments and houses built of sheetmetal, old street signs and light-yet-strong foamcrete beams; at the top of the perilously stacked pile was a fishing boat-turned-penthouse supported by angled trusses. The entire mass loomed out over the street, connected by the endless spiderweb of bundled wires and cables that supplied meager electricity and hypernet for two hours every day, an hour in the morning, and an hour in the evening.

On every level of every pile of curious constructions were endless arrays of covered windowboxes; these had been carefully cultivated to grow anything and everything that could still be grown. It took great effort to generate living soil, and to keep it free of contamination; each windowbox was a miniature greenhouse, covered with plastic bag tents to protect the plants inside from dangerous genetically altered pollen, nanotech particles, and the poison in the rains. Assiniboia was a city of hanging gardens, covered and protected, attached to the most extraordinary collection of eccentric dwellings imaginable.

Lillian had no idea where to go, or who, if anyone, she could trust. She was encouraged by the fact she had yet to spot a camera or see a drone in the air; perhaps Assiniboia was simply not of particular interest to the corporate world government. It was not an unreasonable thought - a lone favela built in the middle of the great wasteland of Saskatchewan that was the Last Crop. It was astonishing anyone could even live here; yet these people, ponies and humans both, somehow managed.

Lillian stood in an intersection realizing that she was completely lost. She was surrounded on all sides by the piled constructions and their associated little gardens, the streets busy with ponies and humans going about busy lives. Lillian felt desperately alone and directionless. What should she do now?

Something was softly sweeping around her left foreleg. She looked down, startled and slightly afraid. It was a cat. A dark black cat... no, more of a Prussian blue. A deep, dark blue. Lillian was startled; cats, like dogs, were uncommon to see at all - only the elite class could afford such animals anymore. Worse, there were so many poisons and dangers for small animals who might nibble or eat whatever they found that the owner of a cat or dog would need to keep the animal carefully sequestered away from the outdoors at all costs.

Yet here was a blue cat, purring and rubbing itself around her leg in the middle of in intersection in a favela town.

The color was not overly unusual; cats and dogs both had been genetically modified decades ago to express coat colors every bit as bright as the equinoids from Equestria; it had been a fad for a while, back during the gene craze. If anything, a midnight blue cat was fairly conservative. "Hello, little kitty! How nice of you to say hello!" This was the first pleasant meeting that Lillian had experienced since the PA Olivia helped her to escape the Bureau.

The blue cat looked up with deep blue, almost blue-green eyes, and studied Lillian's face. It almost seemed like the cat was sizing her up. Lillian felt a tear running down her cheek, soaking into her coat; it meant so much just to even have a cat being friendly right now. "Are you lost? Do you have a home? I have no home, little kitty. I am so very lost." Lillian bent down her head and gave the cat a lick on the head, between it's deep blue ears. "Thank you for saying hello to me. It's the nicest thing that has happened to me since..." Lillian trailed off for a moment "... since I was... made."

The cat mewed at Lillian, and the expression almost looked sad to her. "Oh, little kitty, I wish I could find some friends somehow. Do you know anyone who could help me?" Lillian laughed bitterly at herself, inside her head; it was ridiculous asking a stray cat anything. Still, it was somehow comforting to just talk with anyone, even if it was a blue cat in an intersection. Loneliness and despair can drive a soul to seek comfort however they can find it.

The little cat suddenly turned and looked down one of the streets. It stepped forward purposefully, then turned back, staring directly into Lillian's golden eyes. It stared for a long time, and Lillian felt a strange chill down her spine. Cats are always mysterious creatures; one never knows what goes on inside their heads.

The cat turned and began marching down the street, slowly and deliberately. That was odd for a cat, but then again, with all of the genetic manipulations and designer engineering that had been done, cats weren't really cats anymore. At least not as they were described or shown in the old media. Lillian had no other ideas, so she decided to follow the cat. It was ridiculous, of course, but right now little in her existence made much sense to her in any case.

A gray pony in a trenchcoat followed a blue designer cat down the middle of a colorful, sprawling favela. This was life in the days of the expansion of Equestria on Earth.

Lillian didn't know when she had lost sight of the cat. She had been looking at the imaginative buildings and colorful efforts at decoration; when she looked down the cat must have run off. Oh well. It had been strangely comforting to have a traveling companion, even if for a short while. Once again she was lost in Assiniboia's maze of streets. Suddenly she realized that she was not alone anymore; she had been noticed and approached.

"You're wearing a coat!" the child was a human, beside him was a pony, a very young filly. The human was dark brown with a disheveled black mane and no tail, the pony was brick red with an equally messy golden yellow mane and tail. Lillian shook her head slightly; what an odd way to think about such things. Where had that come from? In that moment, she had thought it odd that the human had no tail; suddenly she realized that she had for some time now been thinking of humans as 'other'.

"Um... yes. I... I think coats are cool! Besides... it was raining." Lillian felt glad that her first encounter was with young children, hopefully her stumbling words would not raise any suspicions in them.

"I like your coat." The little red filly smiled up at her; she was a cutie, make no mistake about it. "Thank you... um..." Lillian didn't know what to call her. 'Little filly?', 'Kid?', 'You there?'

"I'm Simon and this is Amelie. We're best friends!" The young human boy stated this as if it were the most important thing that he could think of to say. Which it probably was. And, in this moment, on the run and alone in the world, it was somehow really nice to hear. Almost too nice to hear; Lillian felt her eyes trying to well up.

"Well, hello Simon and Amelie. I'm... new in town and I wonder if you know anyplace I could stay for awhile. Also anyplace I might be able to get some food and water." Lillian thought for a moment. This would be the place where she should rightly introduce herself to them, but it probably wouldn't be a good idea to use her real name. Her mind was blank on names at the moment. For the life of her she couldn't think of a single name! The hell? "Um... I'm... uh... Graycoat. Graycoat the pega.... unicorn. Just like my coat, see?"

Damn, but she had almost messed that up. Hopefully she hadn't messed that up. She really needed some water and food.

"I know! I know!" The little filly, Amelie was prancing about excitedly. She must be very young, Lillian thought, though she had no way to tell. She knew nothing about how to tell the age of a pony by looking at it. She knew nothing much at all about anything, really.

"You need to sign up at the center!" Amilie stopped prancing and began to recite "Every citizen must register at the closest Supply Center immediately upon entering any location. Only in this way can each citizen be assured of receiving their Guaranteed Daily Provision." The little filly seemed proud of herself; it was quite a mouthful to remember.

"Um... I'd kind of like to avoid going to the center if I can; I... don't like the taste... of the... fabricated stuff." Lillian scrambled for a good excuse; the center would have cameras, sensors and god knows what else.

"Yeah. I agree. That stuff tastes like crap!" Simon said the word 'crap' with some pride, Lillian got the distinct impression that he probably wasn't supposed to use that word at home, and this was his way to show off in front of Amelie. This seemed all the more likely when Amelie giggled and began chirping "Crap! Crap! Crap!" then giggling some more. Simon beamed, a job well done.

"Is there an alternative - some place I could get some real food, maybe a place to sleep? I don't have much of value..." Money had all but ceased to exist in the post-Collapse world; barter and trade were the norm, now. Lillian remembered her Nanobars. They were old, but they kept forever. Maybe literally. And they were in perfect condition. Maybe a treat from the past might be worth something here. "I have something to trade though."

Lillian bent her long neck back and dug her jaw into the deep pockets of her trenchcoat. She snagged a bar by the wrapper and pulled it out, dangling it between her front teeth. "See? Nanodars!" She couldn't manage the 'B' sound, but the children got the idea.

Naturally they wanted one. They really, really wanted one. "You can hath this one to sthare if you can take ne to a tlace where I can trade the resth, Ok?" Lillian put the bar back into her pocket. "I want to trade my bars for room and board. Do you have any ideas?"

"You could come home with me." Simon seemed almost like an adult in the matter-of-fact way that he stated the invitation. "My dad runs a store. He tells me to always be on the lookout for things for the store. You should talk to him." Simon was trying very hard to be a good businessman, which was really rather cute in an eight-year old human.

Lillian considered the offer. She had no where else to go, these children were friendly, and a trading store was probably where she would end up anyway. With little Simon, she had a slight in already; she might as well go. "Great! Lead on Simon! Let's go talk to your dad."

"Me too!" Amelie was pouting at being left out of the conversation for several seconds, Lillian had never seen a filly pout before and it was unreasonably cute. "Absolutely, Amelie! Lead the way too!" This seemed to greatly please the little pony, and she began to trot through the streets ahead of Simon. "Come on you slowponies! Come On!"

For the first time since she became a pony... well sort of a pony... Lillian began to feel hope. It was a fragile hope, based only on the possibly unreliable offer of a human child, but it was at least something. If she could only find a place to safely hide out, even if only for a while, maybe she could think more clearly about what she should do. Maybe she could reason out what was really going on. Or maybe she might find out something that could help. Time. She needed time - everything had happened so quickly.

It shocked her to realize that this was only her first full day as... what she was. She had been converted yesterday morning. There was no way she could hope to make a truly rational decision about her future right now. She needed time to think, to learn, to consider options.

Simon and Amelie were friendly enough. No one in the streets was taking undue notice of her; her coat was a little odd, perhaps, to some. But it was clearly not a big deal. Maybe she could get away with this, perhaps she could keep her true status hidden. That's all she needed to do, for now.

Lead on, little Simon, she thought. And Amelie. She giggled inside her head; can't leave out little Amelie. She might get upset and pout.

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