A man in a laboratory coat walked over the plascrete floor toward Mr. Ruffin, Simon, Amelie, Olivia, the two guardstallions and Lillian, still sucking on her damping ring. The white-coated man carried with him, in a surgical-gloved hand, a small white cup.
Mr. Ruffin was nearly in tears as he addressed the crowd. "In honor of the arrival of our new princess, I have been permitted the gift of Celestia's Blessing by the Grand Knights of the PER! Oh, sweet Celestia, I have waited so long for this, and I wish to share it with you, and with our princess Lillian. I will be converted here, before you all!"
The crowd went wild as Ruffin tore his clothes off. His son, Simon was jumping and stomping about, and Amelie was running around in circles. Olivia clapped wildly; there was a look of deep envy on her face. The guardstallions scanned the scene dispassionately; they were clearly very good at their jobs; there would be no interruptions of the events.
The feeling of approach was very strong now; Lillian noticed a slight bending of light a handful of meters from where the group stood, towards where one of the goals of the old hocky arena must have once been. No one else seemed to notice the distortion, either they were too excited at what they were about to witness, or such distortions were invisible to ordinary eyes.
"I give myself to the cause of Celestia and the glory of Equestria!" Ruffin ripped off his mike and threw it on the pile of clothing beside him. Standing naked and without shame, he proudly took the cup from the labcoated man, and downed it in a single gulp. He raised the cup high when he lifted his arms in triumph; Olivia and Mr. Labcoat caught him as unconsciousness took Mr. Ruffin. They laid him carefully down on his side and backed away; his dark skin had already turned to shining, waxy dough, and his flesh was subtly writhing as the serum worked its strange technomagic.
Just as the former Mr. Ruffin's limbs were stretching and clubbing at the ends, his eyes submerged into his swelling skull, a blinding flash of light exploded from the far end of the arena. As the spherical glow shrank and vanished, the regal form of princess Celestia, ruler of Equestria, goddess of the sun and sister to the moon took a single step forward, surveying the chamber and all it contained.
Lillian froze, unable even to suck on her pacifier binding ring, fear clutching her heart. She could not move, she dared not move. Celestia seemed to ignore the humans and ponies and whatever it was that was going on here; she moved with purpose now directly towards Lillian. Clearly, nothing else was of any concern to her.
Lillian bent her head and without thought tucked her ring under her left wing, and held it there. She tried to bow, then stood up again.
"Celestia! Look around you! This is the main base of the PER! This is their main staging center! Everything the PER does is supported from here! That's why I let you find me!" Lillian had shouted the words, her voice cracking with fear, and desperation.
Celestia looked deeply into Lillian's eyes, measuring her. "Remain here and take no action. Do you understand?"
Lillian understood. Completely. Celestia's calm words spoke more powerfully than the loudest shout.
The goddess of the sun of Equestria turned away from Lillian and walked forcefully towards the writhing, changing form of what was once Mr. Ruffin, now something halfway between man and pony. Celestia's horn was shining brighter and brighter, and Lillian felt strange forces filling the arena; without her damping ring, the world seemed larger and Celestia's power was palpable, rippling through the air and flooding her very soul.
Suddenly, Lillian felt something on her back. Tiny claws dug into her coat, between her wings, as something scuttled up her spine, finally burying itself in her mane, clutching tightly to her long neck. Lillian half-bucked in surprise, only the stiffness of her fear kept her from thrashing about wildly.
A small, strange voice addressed her. "Celestia is distracted; this is a matter she must deal with. Thee must flee now, if thou desirest to live."
"What? Who? What are you? I don't understand! What do..." Lillian sputtered, unable to deal with any more. The tiny claws were digging deeply into her neck and back, and the voice was strange and Celestia was here and there was magic going on and...
"RUN NOW!" The tiny voice held some power of absolute command; Lillian's legs began to move whether or not she approved of it, she found herself dashing towards a break in the guard wall of the rink and soon she was galloping up narrow stairs set between the rows of seats, towards a shadowy doorway in the high wall of the arena.
Lillian was outside the arena, in a large, oval enclosure that surrounded the chamber; pennants and flags hung here too, as well as the remnants of booths and piles of crates and boxes. As she fled, she could see the containers held weapons and ammunition, as well as uniforms, preserved food packs, medical supplies, and other things she could not identify. The hocky arena must be one of the supply depots for the PER; there was enough here to equip an army.
The doors to the outside were sealed. Of course they would be; this building had been repurposed as a supply depot, it would have been made into a fortress. Lillian found herself facing a solid wall stacked high with crates and supplies, one end of what must be a horseshoe-shaped causeway surrounding the hocky arena. She could not see any way out; perhaps at the other end...
"Listen to us, mare of Equestria. We will teach thee one thing; do not think beyond it, use it when we command, then crown thy horn once again when it is done." Lillian felt something enter her; it was like words but she did not hear them with her ears. Inside her mind she saw reality itself as if it were a blanket, and she was shown how to fold the blanket with her will. Instantly she understood; it was like the sun rising to flood the sky with light - it was so simple, so obvious! A child could do it! She... could do it.
"Choose thou a place, filled with multitudes to be lost within, and then use what we have taught thee. Do it now! Her attention is turning thy way once more! Now! We command it!"
Lillian reached out her will, her horn glowing, and folded the soft blanket of the world. Light shone all around her, and she felt herself standing briefly between two equal heres, set in equal nows. She took one mental step, and one here replaced the other, the common now remained the same.
As the blinding light faded, Lillian remembered the ring, tucked under her left wing. Somehow she had grown inside; she felt different now, stronger, more confident. Without thought, without effort, the ring flew out from under her wing and hung in front of her, surrounded in a pale field of light. She grinned as it hung there in space; she made it dance to the left and swing back to the right, now it was slowly tumbling, sparkling in the midday light.
Even more intriguing, Lillian could sense the magic imbued within the ring; it had a second existence just under the veil of the material world, like a soul inhabiting a body. She could see, somehow, the magic circling within the ring making complex patterns as it swirled through the metal; it seemed alive in some strange way, as though the metal was a beast and magic the blood flowing through it.
Lillian looked beyond the ring and found her awareness spreading outward into the city alleyway in which she stood; she could feel the corners behind her, the garbage on the ground, the nest of mutie-mice busy grooming themselves inside the electrical conduits embedded in the wall to her left...
"Do not overreach thyself! Place the ring upon thy horn immediately!" The small voice on her back was insistent, and also almost plaintive. This woke Lillian from the simple joys of levitation and perception, and she willed the ring to slide down her horn. As the ring was propelled along the shaft of her spiral horn, she lost the ability to hold it; also she lost the remarkable sensation of the power she was using. As the ring hit the bottom of her horn, it felt as if she had gone partially blind; she now knew that she had been sensing the world around her in some new way, as if she had been gifted with an additional pair of eyes and ears, which had now been covered.
Everything seemed small now, dim, less than it was. For a fading moment, she had entered a larger world, and a part of her yearned for it; she tried to clutch the memory of what she had experienced, but it was vanishing like a dream. All she could recall now was that for a moment, she had been more than herself, and in that moment had seen behind and above the world in some way she could no longer imagine.
Lillian looked around her; she was in some great megalopolis, down some blind alley between several vastly tall buildings. The rubbish bin to her right was overflowing; decades ago all service had ended, the rubbish was antique garbage now. The walls of the alley were covered in grime, in some places it was nearly half an inch thick. No one had entered this alley for a very long time; it must be isolated somehow otherwise scavengers would have gone over the trash many times over.
The claws disengaged from Lillian's neck, and she felt the strange weight on her back turn and pass between her wings. She felt a leap, and the weight was gone, looking down she saw a cat padding around to her front from the side.
It was a dark blue cat, and it looked like the very same one that had led her to Simon and Amelie the day before.
"Thank you." Lillian knew now that the designer cat could speak; that it knew how to teach her to teleport was even more intriguing. "Thank you very much for saving me. At least, I think you saved me. It had been my intention to try to talk to Celestia, that maybe in exposing the PER, she might be willing to..."
"No, little one. Thy intent was naught but good, but thou art mistaken with regard to why Celestia doth seek thee."
It was very strange to see a cat talking. A human or a pony has a large head, with room for huge frontal lobes and all the mass of brain needed for rational thought, but a tiny cat, with a brain the size of a walnut; Lillian could not imagine how such a creature could be so intelligent. In the middle of everything that she had been through, this truly disturbed her sense of reality.
"What... who are you? How can you even speak? How do you know so much?" Lillian paused, but had to ask. "Why... are you helping me?" A tiny blue cat was her savior, apparently, and it knew more than she did. The world seemed to make less and less sense with each passing day.
"We are a friend. Canst thou not see that we are an artificed organism, such as thy genegineering facilities are wont to create, designed for such purposes as humans are known to have need of? We are nothing more; a mere artificial beast constructed purely for the vanities of Man." The strikingly blue cat's deep teal eyes bespoke a vast intelligence.
"I've seen designer animals before, but I've never heard of one that could talk. There's not enough room inside such a small animal! You'd have to have some kind of quantum chip inside you that..."
"So tis, little one! That is precisely our circumstance. Within us is... some kind of quantum chip. Thy understanding is exceptional, and we applaud thy perspicuity. It is thus that we speak and know much, and how it is that we can assist thee. There are matters of importance that we wish to impart to thee; for we have come to concern ourselves with thy plight." The blue cat sat down, but it did not groom itself as a cat would, nor did it purr; it simply sat down.
Lillian was getting used to being carried along by events; she hadn't yet had a plan of any worth, mostly because she had no real idea of what was happening. For the moment she assumed she was safe, she might as well hear what the cat had to say. Lillian folded her legs and lay down in the alley.
"Alright... cat, tell me... wait. " This was already awkward enough. "What do I call you anyway? Do you have a name?" Lillian didn't want to be rude to the creature that had saved her twice; once with food and shelter, and again to escape from Celestia after she had trusted the wrong human.
The cat seemed mildly surprised. "In all that hast befallen thee, with so many questions to be asked, this is what thou first wouldst know?" The cat laughed, a pleasant sound. Lillian had never heard a cat laugh before. "Thou mayest name us whatsoere thou wilt, thy concern for our feelings is most gracious."
Lillian felt gratitude toward the strange cat; she could not help but consider the creature a person regardless of its shape or the fact that it had been manufactured. The cat could speak, it appeared to have a personality, and it... had laughed. Artificial cat or not; it was an intelligence and something not unlike life, and to Lillian, it deserved respect.
She tried to think of a name to call the artificial cat. Lillian was never very good with names, either remembering them or coming up with them. In her childhood, she had often named things after whatever she first associated them with. Lillian had been given a stuffed animal for her birthday once; she had named it 'Ribbon' because the box it had come in had been wrapped with a beautiful ribbon.
Later, when she had captured a mutie-rat to keep as a pet - despite the strenuous objections of her father - she had named the poor, two-tailed rodent after it's first meal. Earlier that day, her mother had managed to obtain some nanofabricated treats for the family; an assortment of replications of baked goods from the days when wheat had still existed, and bread had been a common staple of human food.
Even her mother - who was supportive of her wish to keep a pet - was enraged when Lillian's first feeding of her mutated rattie was one of the hard-won nanofabricated treats. 'Muffin' the rat was her best friend for the remaining year and a half of it's short life; the little creature became devoted to Lillian immediately after it's first, delicious meal.
"I'll name you 'Muffin' after... after my very best friend from when I was growing up." Lillian had not had many close human friends in her life; her little two-tailed rat had been one of the greatest joys of her childhood. Even at nineteen she still missed her little fuzzy friend. Muffin had liked to curl up on her belly when she lay down to read her holopad; occasionally it ran up and licked her on her chin; though it may simply have been looking for more tasty treats, Lillian always thought that Muffin was genuinely showing her devotion.
"Then in honor of that friendship do we accept this name with pleasure." The little cat seemed to be genuinely pleased, which made Lillian feel happy with the choice.
"Muffin, how can I tell Celestia that I mean no harm? I never wanted to be an... what I am. It just happened! I don't want any of it! I just want to be a good little pony, I just want to be kind and have friends. I am loyal to the princesses, really I am! I want to serve Celestia! I just want to... to..." Lillian was crying again, she couldn't help herself, what she wanted really wasn't that much, and it truly wasn't fair at all.
"We know fully thy true heart; exposing thyself completely to Celestia's wrath in pure duty to the crown was a remarkable act. It is why we are here with thee, now. We were most impressed with the depth of thy loyalty, gentle one, be assured thine honor and service is above reproach." The artificial cat stood and held out a paw, touching Lillian's hoof in support; Lillian saw this and could not help but smile through her tears.
"Then I don't understand! Why does she have to hunt me like that? She's all magic and stuff - can't she just make me not be... an alicorn... and make me a normal pony? I'd love that! If she can raise the sun and if she's all powerful and knows magic surely she can just make me normal and let me go, can't she?" Lillian felt a little angry now. "I'd never talk - she could even erase my memory or whatever she wants! I just want to be a normal pony!" There was no doubt about it, Lillian was a little angry. Why the heck couldn't Celestia just fix her? What was the point of being a goddess if you couldn't fix stuff?
"It is because thou art an alicorn that Celestia cannot change thee. We can tell thee what thou truly art and why Celestia acts as she does; in this understanding we must trust thee absolutely to do what we command; wilt thou agree to this?"
Lillian nodded. "I will do what you say."
"Lillian Alicorn, though thou knowest that thee hast untapped powers, thou knowest not the true breadth nor scope of their potential; in short time thou couldst rival both princesses without any intent on thy part. In becoming thus, thou wouldst have absolute power but no control withall; thy merest whim could melt the mountains or boil the seas." The little cat sat upright, serious as death and twice as grim. "Imagine thee such power, uncontrolled, consider having to watch and censor every desire, every thought, every hope or wish or dream for fear of tearing the very world asunder by the most fleeting of whims. Thou has not this power yet, but such is what thy very existence threatens; each time that thou shouldst remove thy binding ring, each time thee useth thine powers, thee edges closer to a precipice from which there is no return, one that would bring eternal chaos to both Equestria and the universe of Man."
The weight of this sank slowly into Lillian's comprehension, and as it did so she was filled with horror. "My... god. Muffin... I am a living hypernuclear bomb." It was the closest analogy that Lillian could imagine; it was serviceable enough. She was a thing that could literally destroy the world whether she meant to or not.
"We have to get back to Celestia, Muffin. If what you say is true, I cannot be permitted to live. Get me back, Muffin. Get me back to her right now, or tell me how to call her here. I understand now. It doesn't matter if its fair, it doesn't matter what I want." Lillian was softly sobbing now, tears ran down her muzzle as she calmly spoke. "I was wrong to run from her. She's just trying to save everything and everyone. I had no idea. I had no idea." Lillian stared at the blue cat, the tears running, but her gaze was level and calm.
"Is thy ring of binding firmly ensconced on thy horn?"
Lillian lifted a hoof just to be sure, but it was more just to comfort herself; the diminishment of the world she had experienced had been proof enough alone. "Yes, Muffin, the ring is on tight." Lillian sniffed and wiped the tears from her muzzle with the sides of her forelegs.
"Dost thou believe that Celestia is both good and kind, and that she desireth only that all creatures should live in peace and harmony?"
There was no hesitation in Lillian; of course Celestia was good. She was kindness itself. "Of course I do! That's why I need to give myself up to her right now!"
"Hear us then; the princesses can do anything. Nothing is beyond their power, at least within the demesne of Equestria. But while they are all but omnipotent, they are not omniscient; they cannot and do not know everything, they can be mistaken, they can be fooled, they can be in error." The cat looked down, uncomfortable with her statement somehow. "There may yet be a way to save thee, and it is our intention that this chance be taken. If thou wouldst keep thy promise to obey us, then it is our command that thee should remain beyond Celestia's reach for now, so that the means of thy deliverance may be discovered. This is our command to thee; stay thou free and hidden and giveth up no part of hope. Celestia works to save the multitudes at your cost; that thou art willing to giveth up your life honors you, but that time is not now, and it may yet be avoided. We assure thee that if Celestia knew how, she would save thee gladly."
Lillian put her head on her forelegs, confused and uncertain. "I felt the power, Muffin. I felt it growing in me." Lillian buried her muzzle between her knees, facing the garbage and plascrete beneath her. "I liked it. I liked how it felt." Her words were barely a whisper. She didn't want to say them at all.
"So long as the binding ring is not removed again, there is still hope for thee. Thy transport here must be the last time thine powers may ever be used, then. If thee remove thy binding even once more; we will no longer help thee, and thy fate will be sealed. Whatere may befall thee from this moment on; remainest thou bound and untempted; this also is our command."
Lillian suddenly realized that she could end it all, now, just by removing the ring. Celestia would come and do what she had to do, and the worlds would be saved and it would all be over. No more running, no more fear; and in doing this she would be a loyal and true mare of Equestria.
But Lillian had promised the cat. It was silly; a promise to a manufactured creature - surely the fate of worlds outweighed such a thing. But there was something about the small, blue creature. It knew too much, it was far too intelligent, it was unlikely that it should be here at all. Something else was going on, something she didn't understand. Something bigger than herself, or her problem.
Suddenly a doubt crossed Lillian mind. "Muffin; I need to ask you something and I need you to answer me with absolute honesty. You're an artificial animal, right, which means that you must have been programmed to obey humans. I used to be a human, once, and you know that. So I'm giving you a command: I command you to answer my next question with absolute honesty!" Lillian stared intently at the cat, looking for any sign of conflict or deception.
The strikingly blue, imitation animal appeared to be trying to stifle a laugh. "Thy input is accepted... mistress... we are forced by our programming to accede to thy command. We shall answer with absolute honesty. Ask thy question of us."
"Are you working for anyone out to hurt or overthrow Celestia?" Lillian stared even harder at the cat.
The cat seemed shocked at the question. "No! We would never... Celestia is our..." The cat squinted at Lillian. "Hear us now, plainly and with no deception; we in all things do work for the benefit of Celestia only, and never against her. Everything we do, we do for her best interest, and for hers alone. We work to save thee only because thy salvation would ease thy princesses' heart; though she would end the threat you represent without hesitation; the act would plague her and sadden her for ages thou canst not even imagine."
The cat seemed sincere to Lillian, in as much as she was able to tell anything from the expression on the face of such a creature. The cat's words seemed to make sense to her; Lillian tried to imagine what it would be like to be immortal, and have to live with the knowledge of having to take the life of an innocent being, even if it meant saving countless billions of lives. The thought made Lillian shudder; even more than before she realized that the last thing she would ever want to do was to be a princess, much less a goddess. No wonder Celestia always looked vaguely sad in all of those newsfeeds and holoprograms. Lillian knew she couldn't bear having to face such things.
Her respect for Celestia grew even more; to live forever, to have to make decisions like that constantly, and still to even be able to care about her people and all living things... the princess was truly wonderful.
"I don't want the princess to suffer because of me. I will try to stay alive and find a cure with you, rather than give myself up here and now. I don't know what you really are, or who sent you, but what you've said makes sense to me." Lillian thought for a moment. "I bet that Celestia has ponies in her court that try to look after her - all rulers do, don't they? One of her court must have had you made to protect her from herself. I bet that's your story, Muffin. And they have to keep it all hush-hush so she won't get mad at them. Yeah!" Lillian felt proud of herself. "That's how you know so much! And I bet you aren't allowed to tell me any of that are you?"
The cat remained silent, smiling slightly.
"Hah! I have you figured out, Muffin. They had to rush you out too, I bet, which is why they didn't have time to even give you a name. You must have been sent straight from a genetic factory right out to find me." Lillian looked with compassion at the artificial animal. "Listen, Muffin; when this is all over, if I'm still around, you can live with me, OK? I'll take care of you. Just because you are artificial doesn't mean you aren't alive. You can live with me, I'll make sure you aren't dismantled or anything, alright?"
The blue cat looked genuinely touched. "We... thank thee, our kind... friend."
Lillian smiled. "Super! Then it's settled! Where to now, Muffin?" Lillian raised herself to her hooves and looked around at the alley once more, seeking some way out. Walls surrounded on three sides, two had entrances that had been sealed long, long ago. One side held the overflowing, decaying rubbish bin, and the alley led away to what appeared to be an impassable blockage of broken beams, crushed crates, stacks of outdated, rusting consumer electronics, all backed by a tall metal fence that sealed off the blind alleyway.
"I'm not sure how to get out of here, Muffin, what do you..."
But when Lillian looked down again, and around, there was no sign of the blue designer cat. She had vanished again, as cats do, and Lillian felt very alone and let down by her sudden absence.
Lillian looked up at the gray smog blanket above, and watched the tiny flakes of ash that occasionally tumbled down. She could be anywhere on the Earth.
"What do I do now?" Lillian's words had no answer, for she was alone, unsure of what she should do next.