Lillian had paced around the blind alley for nearly a half an hour, unable to find a way to exit the blocked space. That it had been sealed off from the rest of the city for some time became ever more apparent; drifts of ashfall in the corners made small mountains, the piles of long decayed consumer devices near the thick metal gate dated from at least a decade previous, and she saw several products from the company that had made Nanobars in the rubbish bin; that business had been absorbed and dismantled long ago. It was clear that no person had set foot in the walled off alleyway in at least ten years and likely longer.
It was quite the thought that any part of a city could be abandoned so completely for so long. Lillian marveled at whatever her powers were that they would choose, somehow, to bring her to such a place of perfect isolation. If only those same powers had thought to make sure she could leave once she had arrived. The blind alleyway increasingly felt like a prison cell. Worse, it was a hot prison cell; wherever she was it was even warmer than Saskatchewan. That meant she was almost certainly south of where she had been.
She missed Muffin, the manufactured cat; always her eyes scanned for some hint of dark blue; somehow the feline had managed to escape the alley. Then again, cats could climb and move through tiny spaces a pony could not hope to follow; it was only reasonable that a cat would find a way out.
Lillian tried to assess what she had available to her, and how she might hide her status should she find a way to escape the alley.
She was surrounded by crates and boxes of various sizes; that they survived meant that they had been made of nondegradable materials, probably the new pseudoplastics that were developed after the end of oil during the great collapse. While she might potentially manage to pile them in such a way as to reach the top of the blocking metal gate at the end of the alley, the drop that must be on the other side would likely break her legs.
Even had she strong human arms and hands, and a strong back, it would take days to clear the gate; by then hunger would have weakened her terribly. Lillian was glad of the huge breakfast she had enjoyed earlier; it was still with her and she did not yet need food. She was slightly thirsty, but it was endurable.
Three of the walls of the alley were made by enormous buildings that towered above; their tops lost in the smog layer above. The scale of them was prodigious. It was also possible that it was all one great building, the alley being a notch in the contour of it; Lillian could not tell, her perspective being so limited. There were two sealed entrances available; the doors were made of metal, and one seemed riveted closed. The other offered more hope; it did not appear to be welded or riveted, just locked in some fashion. Lillian judged this to be her best option and began clearing the pile of debris and junk that blocked it.
By mid-afternoon, the door was finally exposed. Lillian, for her part, was filthy and bedraggled; soot and ash mingled in her once cornsilk mane and tail, and the feathers of her wings, once shiny and oiled, were now powdered with dark splotches and patches of filth. Lillian's hooves were caked and striped with grime and her muscles ached from pushing, kicking and dragging garbage from the doorway. Her coat was soaked with sweat; right now being covered in horse hair -well pony hair - was a distinct disadvantage.
This door was also metal, but smaller, a door not for deliveries by truck but instead for use by human beings. Whatever handle it may have possessed had been removed or had never been; perhaps it was intended to be opened only from within the building. An ancient card slot, mounted in a panel could be seen to the side of the door; perhaps it had been an electric door, opened with the appropriate identification.
Lillian began to scour the alley for some sign of a tool she could use to open the door; a crowbar would be a wonderful find. No such tool existed here, as far as she could tell; indeed no tools of any kind were abandoned among the junk of the lost alleyway.
Returning to the door, Lillian, in desperation, tried using her horn on it; she was careful, very careful, not to dip her head, or to allow any chance of the ring escaping its station close to her skull, but she had hope that perhaps her horn might be magically sharp in some fashion. She imagined cutting the metal like paper with an impossibly dangerous tip; alas her horn was just a horn, and it was no sharper than any horn could be expected to be. The metal of the door remained unscarred - instead, she had only managed to reveal a bit of shine when her horn had scraped loose the scum that coated everything in this great city of Man.
Lillian stomped her hoof in frustration. What a state of affairs to be in; she had managed to teleport, to fold the very substance of space and time, only to be trapped by a garbage-strewn alleyway. The temptation to remove her ring, or to at least lift it a few inches along the shaft of her horn, just enough to regain some small measure of power, was intense.
It would be such a small thing, perhaps even invisible to Celestia, and the cat would surely never know... No. Lillian remembered how much she had liked the feeling of being more than she was. Whatever the power inside her was, she could feel that it was addictive; that tasting any more of such wonder would make it all but impossible to refuse. The power to make every whim or wish come true; how could anything be more desirable, or more dangerous? The cat was right; she could never risk using her power again. She was not strong enough to resist its siren call.
Then she must escape this alley on her own, without supernal magics, without the powers of a god. She must find a way using only her own hooves and her own brain, and what was around her.
Lillian examined the metal door more closely. It was metal, aluminum most likely, but how solid was it? The building itself must be old, and it was clear that it was uncared for and unmaintained; the sealed alleyway supported that conclusion. Lillian could see mold and rot and weather had damaged the concrete sections of the building; the structure had been made before the invention of plascrete.
She turned and faced away from the door, looking back over her shoulder and rump, she angled herself carefully with regard to it. Facing front again, she gave the door an experimental kick; her rear hooves slamming the door. Looking back again, she saw that the metal had been dented. Yes!
Lillian began to buck at the door in earnest, pounding the metal with her hooves, kicking now with all of her might. The door began to buckle in the middle, and when she paused to catch her breath, she could see into the building through the bending edges where the deformation of the door caused it to no longer meet the doorframe. It would take effort, but she was beginning to have real hope of smashing the door open, or at least making a breach through which she might pass.
More kicking further bent the aluminum door; it was not that thick, and it was not very well constructed. Hammering even harder, Lillian finally heard a loud bang as the metal hinges tore loose from the doorframe, leaving the door itself nearly open. A few more bucks sent the crumpled door clanging and clattering into the darkness of the building; she had created a way out of the alley for herself.
Lillian peered into the darkness; the building was without power, like almost all buildings anymore, and there was no sign of habitation thus far. Certainly no one had come running to find out what all the noise was; this was a very good indication. Still, some kind of disguise was in order.
The trenchcoat was long gone; Lillian was rather grateful for that, it had been a trauma to put it on, and a greater trauma to finally have it removed. Still, it had served its purpose for a while; right now she was exposed and obvious to the world; an alicorn and no doubt about the fact.
Poking through the trash, Lillian selected a small box, made of some synthetic material it had once apparently held racks of romballs; small crystalline spheres set into cubical containers, they provided enormous holographic storage as they spun on tiny currents of air while being scanned by lasers. The romballs were long gone, but the box remained, and the empty container was just the size to fit over most of her head like a helmet.
Lillian's horn locked into one corner of the box, giving it a jaunty look as the flaps of the lid settled down on either side of her head. She imagined the box must appear like a cubist interpretation of a toque; however it looked it did the job of hiding her horn. Now, she was Lillian Fogarty the Pegasus. With a romball box for a hat.
It seemed she was cursed to look silly whatever she did.
The little gray, box-capped pegasus stepped carefully over the threshold of the damaged doorframe, and entered what appeared to be an abandoned kitchen of some kind. Stainless steel counters and sinks filled the space; the buckled door had landed leaning up against an old freezer hatchway. This building had definitely been abandoned and forgotten; the metal in this room alone could have made some favela dweller rich with items to trade or to use.
As she progressed through the old kitchen, the afternoon light rapidly faded; the only source was from the newly opened door. Lillian realized she would need to make use of that light while it still remained; she needed to find a way through the building to the outside, where any hope of food and water might exist. At least it was cooler inside the dark building, that was a happy blessing.
The back of the kitchen opened out, through a swinging door, into a large dining hall; Lillian began to think that perhaps this part of the building had once been a hotel. Beyond the dark dining hall was a small measure of light, Lillian made her way carefully around the tables and chairs toward the faint luminescence; it surely must be a window, it was very unlikely to be artificial illumination, unless it was some abandoned artificial intelligence running off of cesium-foam batteries. Occasionally one would run across such devices; no longer with a job to do they waited indefinitely for the return of their owners, or in the worst case scenarios barked out for forgotten clearance codes before activating hidden security devices.
If it was the latter; anything from entrapping foam to deadly bullets could change Lillian's day for the worse. She shuddered at this, and calmed herself as best she could. It was a hotel. It was utterly unlikely that a hotel would have that kind of defense system installed in any case. The worst she would likely have to face was some A.I. demanding she scan in at the front desk before proceeding. It would be a poor hotel that killed or immobilized its guests.
Lillian briefly thought of her artificial cat friend, Muffin. Humans seemed very careless about creating disposable intelligent beings. Then again, considering the thoughtless, uncontrolled breeding humans engaged in, perhaps the creation of disposable beings was an intrinsic quality of humanity. There were nineteen billion minds out there right now, and almost every one of them were as devoid of future or purpose as any A.I. she might encounter in this hotel. She absolutely would not let Muffin end up abandoned, when this was all over. Muffin would always have a purpose; as her friend.
Remotivated by the feeling that her little cat friend depended on her, Lillian pressed forward into the dark. It always seemed easier to be brave for someone else that for one's self. More to care about, maybe, or perhaps caring for another lifted one outside of self-concern. However it worked... it worked. To give Muffin a home, Lillian would first have to save herself.
The dark was so profound now that Lillian was forced to proceed at the slowest of paces; even so she found herself bumping into objects, some hard edged and some surprisingly soft. Perhaps they were furniture; counters and sofas maybe. The dim light ahead seemed to come from around a corner; carefully Lillian made her way there. It was creepy in the dark, and she found her old childhood terror of ghosts and hauntings returning to her; her superstitious fears made traversing the dark room far more of a heart-pounding adventure than it really should have been. Lillian feared ghosts far more than artificially intelligent security systems; fear is seldom a completely rational thing.
As she rounded the corner, Lillian heard something moving very quickly on the floor in the dark; she reared in fright, ready to dash headlong in any direction. With effort she calmed herself, remembering the last fading trace of her taste of alicorn powers; she had sensed colonies of mutie-mice living in the conduits of the buildings. Struggling to think clearly about what she had heard, she had to admit that the scuttling was of something small; it was almost certainly either a mouse or a rat. Lillian remembered her beloved two-tailed mutie-rat, and this comforted her. Rats were not really a danger of themselves; of course if they had fleas...
Lillian could not but help wonder if alicorns could catch plague. Entire favelas had been wiped out as various plagues ravaged the slums; every year there would be some newsfeed about a half a million or a million perishing somewhere. A drop in the vast sea of mankind, but Lillian always felt sad for such mass die-offs; while to the overcrowded world a million people was nothing, to the people themselves, it was everyone they knew or ever would know. She had been thought silly for fussing over people she had no connection with and would never have met.
But to Lillian, that didn't matter somehow, so her parents had finally resorted to limiting how much news she could watch, just to keep her from becoming so upset over things she could do nothing about.
The light Lillian was seeking was the corner of a window, mostly boarded up with synthboard planks and sheets of neoplasine. A triangular section, near the top of the window, coated with filth, permitted a grayish-yellow glow to enter. Lillian considered her options.
At the most basic, she could potentially try to kick open the window and simply exit that way. The planks and neoplasine sheeting should protect her legs from falling glass, it would probably work. She couldn't see much of the room beyond the dim source of light; if there was a proper main entrance to the building, she could not see it from here. The old fear of spooks began to bother her again; the building felt haunted and filled with malevolence.
Buck it, she decided, and proceeded to do just that.
In short order she had created much more light; with additional, somewhat frantic effort - she really did have quite a strong irrational fear of ghosts - she had made an opening large enough to leave the building entirely.
Carefully navigating her box-hat through the broken window, Lillian stuck her head out into the afternoon light. The outside was empty of men or ponies. It was a rubbish-strewn street, in what was likely an abandoned section of whatever city she was in.
The smog layer above was almost purple; streaks of pink and red gleamed off of every unevenness in the mass of it. It was very dramatic, and Lillian had only seen such an effect before back when she had been at the Conversion Bureau in Vancouver. It was because the city there was by the sea; occasionally the ocean would have holes in the world-spanning smog blanket that allowed sunlight directly, or almost directly through. This city must be relatively near a coast, then where openings in the gray above could occur, at least enough to let the colors of the late afternoon sun illuminate things.
Thick columns surrounded her, supporting the overhang of the hotel; she had broken through a window that had once looked out onto the entrance driveway of the building; just a few meters away was the front entrance. Breaking the window was still the better idea; the entrance was heavily barred shut with a large metal gate. She could never have breached it.
Walking out into the street, Lillian noted that the abandoned, empty shops and stores had names written in Northamerizone English; she must still be on the same continent, which would place her somewhere within a dozen miles or so of either the East or West coasts. A sign on a damaged window nearby suggested the West Coast; "Palm Tree Lounge" seemed more like something one would find in that part of the Northamerizone.
Suddenly, an idea struck her; she trotted out to the middle of the street, box bouncing on her head, and followed it until she found what she was looking for - a manhole cover.
Property Of Corporate Utilities Anaheim California
The date was worn away, but the fact that it used the name 'California' instead of 'Pacifica Production Region' gave Lillian an idea of how old this part of the city was; the manhole cover had been installed either during, or just before the Collapse. This was easily the oldest manhole cover Lillian had ever seen.
Anaheim, Pacifica Region. Some still called it California, even today. There were no more palm trees, but there had once been, and they had grown in this region, and that explained the Palm Tree Lounge. Lillian was somewhat proud of how far she had teleported herself. Not too bad for a wanna-be alicorn from Surrey! Only... she wasn't a wanna be, she bitterly reflected. She was a don't-wanna-be alicorn. A grumble in her stomach told her that her gigantic breakfast had finally worn off; next she realized she was just terribly thirsty. It felt even hotter now, after the relative coolness of the hotel. It was always warm everywhere in the world now, but Pacifica was closer to the equator than she was used to, and the heat was really starting to get to her.
Lillian began following the street, her head sweating under the romball box. She wanted to take it off, but if anyone was around, unknown to her, she could end up in the same sort of trouble she had just escaped from and the words of the artificial cat sent by Celestia's court were very clear; she couldn't escape like that ever again. She walked for hours; at one point she kicked in the door to a market and began what she expected to be a hopeless search for anything to drink or eat.
Much to her great surprise, she found sealed bottles of sterile water; after the Great Flu, water had been sold only after complete sterilization - the flu hadn't been associated with bottled water, of course, rather it was just brilliant marketing to sell the idea of sterilized water. This too was from the Collapse, back when money had actually existed and had mattered to the average person. Since the rise of Equestria, coinage for the masses had returned to some regions; brought back by the seemingly inexhaustible Royal treasury, and the arrival of native Equestrians adventuring in the human world, or staffing the Conversion Bureaus. Lillian idly wondered how many Equestrian bits a bottle of sterile water would go for in a pony-run market.
The water, preserved and still potable if not particularly appealing - it tasted strongly of chemicals and plastic - vastly improved Lillian's feeling of well-being. She was disappointed to find the store did not carry Nanobars; there was little in the place beyond the pallets of water in the back. Whoever had abandoned the market had probably just left the heavy water bottles as not being worth the cost of transport.
Lillian briefly considered a small stack of Happy Pies, but they were decades beyond their pull date, and despite bearing the cheery, faded label announcing they had been 'Radiation Purified', she did not want to dare them. They would not have decayed in all of that time, but other chemical reactions would certainly have occurred just between the salts and sugars and carbohydrates in the pies in twenty years on the shelf, and the result could very well be poisonous.
With her thirst slaked, Lillian headed out onto the street again, and continued seeking something, anything, that might help her. Highest on her list was an information kiosk; she could see whether her existence had been announced. That could determine just how much danger she was in from the general population. She wanted to know about what had happened to the PER, too. She couldn't help but worry for Mr. Ruffin, his son Simon, and Amelie.
More importantly, she imagined perhaps finding out something about what alicorns were, whether or not what had happened to her had ever happened before, and what the result of that might be. If, of course, such things were allowed to be known at all. That was certainly an issue.
She also wanted to research Conversion itself. Maybe there was some way she could be 'Reconverted' into a proper, ordinary mare. If the little nanomachines could rebuild a human into a pony, why couldn't they rebuild an alicorn into a pony somehow? At least it was a hope, and she needed hope more even than food.
The corner ahead caught her attention. There was light coming from around it, and the light was not from the setting sun. It was starting to get dark, and the light stood out fairly well.
As she approached the corner, she heard voices; they seemed to be laughing. Laughter was good; maybe she would find a friend, or a block party in progress, maybe there would be food! Her slow pace quickened to a trot, then a canter; the thought of food made her stomach command additional speed.
Rounding the corner, Lillian saw humans standing around, lounging on the backs of trucks and cars, some sitting on the street itself. They seemed to be drinking something from cups and bottles both. They were a jolly bunch, apparently celebrating some success. She could hear music playing.
Approaching closer - the rowdy group had not heard her hooves over their own din - she saw the party included ponies! They were all laying down in the center of the group. They seemed sleepy; all were laying on their side or their back. Some were laying on top of each other and that was when Lillian noticed the large painted letters on the side of the big white electric van, the three big black letters that spelled out HLF, Human Liberation Front, and it was clear that the ponies weren't sleeping at all and there were sure a lot of them and the long, black things she just now noticed leaning against the trucks and cars were automatic rifles and shotguns and other guns she didn't recognize because guns weren't her thing and oh god, oh god...
They had seen her now and the laughing had suddenly stopped and someone shut off the music with a click and they were staring at her like she was a ghost in shock then as she started to back up in horror the humans began reaching for their guns and that was when her bladder just let go, just like that, right in the street, and she could feel the warmth running down her rear legs but she didn't feel embarrassed only scared and that was the moment she realized she couldn't run away because where would she go but wait! Wait!
She had one option she hadn't tried before, and it would make her harder to hit, and so she spread her wings, she could do this, she knew she could do this, she had glided down the steps in Vancouver, after all, and she began running right towards them which surprised them as she had intended and then she was flapping her wings and somehow she was over their heads and there were a few shots but they missed and soon she was flying, she was actually flying like a proper pegasus! and she flew over the top of the building and across three streets of buildings, trying to get higher and higher to get over the big wall ahead of even taller buildings and that was when she finally felt the pain.
Oh god, the growing pain was in her stomach, but she hadn't eaten any of the Happy Pies, so it couldn't be indigestion, but the pain was getting worse and so she hazarded a brief glance back and down as she flew, and that's when she saw the pink worm bulging out of her side, the pink, writhing worm oh god they had shot her after all, she just hadn't felt it at the time and that was her intestine wasn't it, yet that was definitely her intestine because her side was all ripped out and she was amazed it wasn't bleeding, but that was probably because all the arteries had clamped down, she had read once that that could happen immediately after severe injury, but it wouldn't last long and then she could bleed out in seconds and she was feeling faint now, and began losing altitude, and if she passed out she would fall so she tried to head for the little courtyard on the top of the building ahead...
There was a light on in the penthouse, there were so many cute penthouses around here, it must be a rich area, a rich area abutting the dead old poor area and oh god she was feeling very dizzy now and she had to land and here came the courtyard and suddenly she had hit the table with the awning over it and knocked it over and it had smashed the metal chair and she was on the tile of the courtyard now and her side was really hurting now and oh god here comes the blood and there was only one thing she could do now, and she had to do it and she didn't want to do it because Muffin would never help her again but she was dying and she knew she was dying and she didn't want to die so she moved her forelegs up, and they were moving so slowly, why were they moving so slowly and she pressed her hooves against her skull, and she couldn't tell if it was working and then it was clear that it was working because she could feel the power coming back and so she decided she would just lift the ring up just enough, just enough to wish her body whole just enough to wish not to die, just enough, just enough, oh, god Muffin, I'm sorry but I have to, I have to, I have to...