Jigsaw simply stared in shock and horror at Cerulean. It was undoubtedly the same pony, though she appeared to have aged twenty years since their escape from the library—her fur had lost its lustrous blue sheen, her wings had become ruffled and flat. Her walk, however, was upright and proud, a distinct change from her simpering disposition she exhibited in Rubidium’s tower.
Tiptoe recovered from the shock first. She flared her wings outward and marched towards Cerulean.
“What are you doing here?” she seethed.
Before Cerulean could respond, Incendia spoke. She was standing propped between the two ponies that had entered earlier, her leg still splayed out painfully. When she spoke, her voice was clearly strained. “We know she used to work with Rubidium. She defected to our side and gave us some very valuable intel.”
“Oh?” Tiptoe shot back. “What intel did she give you that was so important?”
“Well, she told us how to find you, among other things.”
Tiptoe opened her mouth as if to respond, then closed it again. Cerulean smiled weakly.
The two ponies holding up Incendia led her over to a small cot that folded out of the wall at the far corner of the room. They began bandaging her injured leg.
“I know you don’t trust me,” Cerulean said, “and I know I have no reason to expect you to. That being said, will you allow me to explain my motivations?”
Tiptoe had a sour expression on her face, but she walked over to commune with Jigsaw.
“We might as well hear what she has to say. If what Incendia says is true, Cerulean saved our lives.”
“No, Incendia saved our lives,” Tiptoe muttered, though it was more to herself than anypony else. She nodded, and Cerulean began to speak.
“Rubidium, as you are no doubt aware by now, is a tyrant. However, you have been shielded from the worst of what he can do. I was his assistant. I’ve found out more than most anyone else in Stalliongrad ever has, and it goes far deeper than anyone can imagine.”
“And just why did you suddenly have this change of heart?” Tiptoe asked with more than a touch of venom.
“I’m getting to that,” Cerulean assured, “just hold on.” She began again. When she spoke, her voice was hesitant and her words were carefully chosen. “I didn’t become Rubidium’s assistant of my own free will to begin with. My family…they couldn’t afford to keep me. We lived near the barrier, you see.”
“Why should that affect anything?” Tiptoe queried.
“The more affluent ponies live closer to the center of the city. No one that can afford it lives near the barrier. It may keep the worst of Tantalus’ onslaught off, but…it doesn’t keep everything out. My family…they lived right on the border.” At this point, she fell silent, staring at the ground. After a few moments, she spoke again. “As I said, they gave me up. Most ponies given up to the government just get drained, but–”
This time, it was Jigsaw that interrupted. “What exactly does that mean, ‘drained’? We heard some security guards mention it.”
Cerulean looked at Jigsaw with sadness in her eyes. “Draining is how Rubidium keeps order. How he instills fear in the populace. And…and how he stays alive.”
“What?” Jigsaw and Tiptoe said in unison. Behind them, Incendia shifted uncomfortably on the cot, her leg fully bandaged in a reflective, silvery fabric.
“Rubidium’s reign of terror didn’t just start recently,” Cerulean said. “He’s been ruling for the past ten thousand years.”
Jigsaw and Tiptoe’s eyes grew wide with shock. Neither of them spoke for a few moments, but soon Jigsaw managed to squeak out “How?”
“Draining. Draining is the process by which Rubidium steals a pony’s life. He’s the cause of my…” she faltered. “…my current condition. It’s also why nopony has overthrown him throughout his entire reign. Well…” she glanced at Incendia. “At least not successfully, anyway.”
Incendia chose this moment to attempt to get off the cot. She stood unsteadily on her three good legs, holding her bandaged leg just above the ground. She limped forward, and the two other ponies followed her closely, ready to catch her if her balance wavered. She approached the small group near the doorway.
“We can’t stay here too long. This is only supposed to be an intermediary safe spot, and we’ve already left far too much evidence behind.” She glanced behind her at the charred spot on the ground where they had teleported in. She began to fiddle with the settings on the pad embedded in her shoulder. It was changing colors rapidly, before it settled a glowing orange hue.
“Don’t you think I should do it?” Cerulean offered. “After all, you are injured, and we carrying six ponies, and—” she stopped after an icy look from Incendia. Tiptoe was surprised a fire pony could look so cold. She hit the button on her shoulder.
The familiar disorientation and discomfort that accompanied their earlier trip through the teleporter returned, magnified what felt like five times. The whirling colors whizzed past them at incredible speeds, and they felt as though forces from all sides were alternately pulling and compressing them. Eventually, when they felt they couldn’t take anymore, they tumbled out of the light and pressure in a heap and into a small, brilliantly white room.
There was a moment of panic as Jigsaw struggled for breath, but after a few seconds his lungs opened up. He gasped for air, and the others soon followed. The all stood up, and Incendia hobbled over to the door and pressed a small button on a panel next to the door. Immediately, a blue beam of light swept down over the ponies in the room, and the light on the panel flashed twice before turning green. The door swung open.
“It’s safe to come in. Sorry about the rough teleport. Hopefully we can fix that soon.” Incendia said.
“How exactly do those work?” asked Jigsaw.
“Jigsaw,” Cerulean began, “I understand you have a lot of questions, but I can’t answer them all at once. It’s best that we focus on what’s pertinent.”
“Oh, alright,” Jigsaw conceded. Together, the group filed into the room, with Incendia leading the group and Cerulean trailing in the back.
They were lead through several narrow, metallic corridors, each one with branching hallways. Incendia lead them through an extremely complex, labyrinthine pathway, and Jigsaw couldn’t help but feel that it was intentionally designed that way.
“Why is it always underground?” Tiptoe muttered to herself. “Why can’t the resistance have a nice, open-air office?”
Jigsaw chuckled and glanced over his shoulder at the pegasus, who blushed when she realized she had been overheard.
Before too long, they arrived at a small, domed underground area. Jigsaw was struck by how similar the room looked to the much larger area that they had used to teleport into Stalliongrad in the first place. Fortunately, this room did not lock down upon entry.
The two unknown ponies gave a bow to Incendia and backed out of the room.
“Welcome, everypony, to the headquarters of the resistance!” As she spoke, the room came to life. A large holographic image of the city, complete with shimmering magical shield, was projected in the center of the room. The glittering light from the image of the shield cast a cool, blue light around the room, illuminating it with much more clarity than the small, white lights inlaid in the wall. The room was less similar to the underground bunker than Jigsaw initially thought. Three rows of seats surrounded them, and a central table lay directly beneath the hologram. Incendia cantered over to the table.
“Well, Cerulean,” Incendia said, “you may continue.”
Cerulean nodded and turned towards the two ponies sitting together on the other side of the table.
“Where was I? Draining? Yes. Most ponies given up to the government are used for Rubidium to feed on. Families that give up their children get a monetary benefit, but it’s barely enough to survive on. Still, ponies are desperate.”
“So how were you not drained?” Tiptoe inquired.
“I…I still don’t know. Rubidium simply picked me out of a lineup and made me his assistant. I always just assumed there was an opening. Naturally, I was terrified. At first, I wasn’t told much of anything. I was sent out on mysterious errands with no explanation as to why or what I was accomplishing. Over time, however, I began to earn a reputation for my…results. I always accomplished my goal, because I was so frightened of what would happen if I didn’t. Eventually, I qualified for one of these.” She turned her head to point towards the gently pulsating disc on her shoulder.
“They’re formally called Personal Transportation Devices, but most everypony just calls them teleporters. All higher-up government ponies get them implanted so they can travel around the city unimpeded.”
Incendia spoke up at this point. “Not the resistance, though. We had to make our own. As you’ve experienced, it’s…rougher than the official version. We don’t exactly have the best materials or information to work with. Rubidium runs a very tight ship. That is, until Cerulean here came along. She brought such a wealth of knowledge with her that we couldn’t turn her away.”
“But do you entirely trust her?” Tiptoe asked.
Incendia and Cerulean’s eyes met for a brief moment. An understanding seemed to pass between them.
“No. But the resistance is struggling. The two ponies you saw in here earlier? That’s it. That’s all that’s left. We’ve been getting worn down for months and we haven’t had any new recruits. I was worried that we were going to get wiped out…until Cerulean showed up. So no, I don’t entirely trust her, but we’re at the end of our rope and I have to take opportunities as they come.”
Tiptoe looked down at the table and nodded slowly. “I understand.”
A small smile appeared on Cerulean’s face as she looked at Tiptoe. “Thank you. I won’t let you down.” Her gaze moved from Tiptoe to Jigsaw, and her smile fell. “Unfortunately, there is one other matter of importance we have to discuss. And the concerns—”
“The Attenuator.” Jigsaw interrupted. “They said I was her replacement. Who is she, and why am I due to replace her?”
Cerulean took a deep breath before she began speaking. “The Attenuator is the backbone of the city. The fragment of Celestia in the city’s underbelly is the power source, but the power is raw and unrefined. That’s where the Attenuator comes in. The power from the fragment is funnelled up from the fragment and into a special room in the tower where the Attenuator is kept. We’re not entirely sure what it is—some quality of the unicorn’s special talent, natural ability, or possibly just personality allows them to convert the raw power from the fragment into pure, clean power. The process is…extremely painful. Rubidium takes every unicorn given up to him down to the fragment’s chamber. Most of the time, the door guarding the fragment won’t open under any circumstances. I don’t know why. Rubidium does, but he would never tell. Anyways, whenever a unicorn capable of attenuation approaches the door, it will open. They can even approach—and in some cases, touch—the fragment.”
Jigsaw sat upright on his chair, staring intently at Cerulean. Tiptoe glanced back and forth between the two. The look of intensity on Jigsaw’s face was almost frightening.
“Attenuators are exceedingly rare. Attenuation shortens the lifespan of the pony in question, and as they age, the power output drops. It can be…unpleasant when they need to be replaced. Sometimes we have been forced to…to artificially extend the life of the Attenuator. The current one has been around for over one hundred and thirty years. Your arrival was so fortuitous because Rubidium had begun to believe that whatever quality that lead to successful attenuation had gone extinct. The power output had been dropping dramatically for decades, and soon we wouldn’t have been able to maintain city infrastructure. He was becoming desperate. When I let you two escape he was furious. Angry enough to take it out on me. He drained years off my life, after all I did for him, all the years I had already sacrificed in his service! It was the final straw. I couldn’t take it anymore. I couldn’t watch one more pony undergo the draining process. So, I gathered up all the information on the tower as I could, released the lockdown, and defected.”
“That’s what Rubidium wants me for?” Jigsaw said, his voice shaking. “He wants to torture me for my entire life just to generate power?”
“That’s the long and short of it, yes,” Cerulean confirmed.
Tiptoe spoke up before Jigsaw could respond. “He has to be stopped!”
Jigsaw nodded emphatically. “He can’t be allowed to do this. Not just to me. To every pony in the city.”
Incendia smiled. “So. Jigsaw, Tiptoe. Would you like to join the resistance?”
Jigsaw and Tiptoe looked at each other for a brief moment, then turned to Incendia. “Yes,” Jigsaw said, “we would.”
“Excellent! Follow me.” Incendia said. The entire group stood up, and Incendia lead them out the door they had come from. They continued down a metal passageway to a small room on the left. It was very plain and undecorated. Two cots folded down from the wall on the far side and a computer terminal glowed on the right wall. On the left, a small door lead to what was ostensibly a bathroom.
“This is where you’ll be staying. Sorry it isn’t fancier, but it’s all we have.” Incendia said. One of the ponies that had helped prop her up earlier appeared at her side, a saddlebag draped over his back. Incendia’s horn glowed orange, and a small, rectangular device similar to the one in her shoulder floated out of the bag.
“Don’t worry,” she said with a smile, “we’re not going to implant this one. This is just for emergencies. If the base comes under attack, stand near the device and simply press down on the button. You’ll be transported somewhere safe. Jigsaw caught the floating disc in his mouth and carried it over to one of the cots on the wall. He bent down and set it under the cot.
“Well, I’ll leave you two alone, I think. You’ve had quite the day.”
“I’d appreciate that. The only sleep I’ve gotten was when I was unconscious in the tower, and that wasn’t exactly restful.” Tiptoe said.
Jigsaw nodded in agreement, and Incendia stepped back out of the room. Jigsaw turned and began trotting towards the cot, when he suddenly turned around.
“Incendia!” he yelled. “Wait a second!”
Incendia look back. “Yes?”
“Can you send the details from Cerulean’s files to the terminal in the room?”
“Of course, I’ll send them right over. Just remember to get some sleep. We have a big day tomorrow.”
On that note, the door to the room slid shut, and Tiptoe and Jigsaw were alone.
Jigsaw turned back to the cot and climbed upon it. Tiptoe climbed onto the one next to him. They turned to face each other, and Jigsaw let out a sigh.
“I’m scared, Tiptoe. Really scared. It was almost better when I didn’t know what the Attenuator was…it’s worse than anything I could have imagined.”
Tiptoe looked at Jigsaw sadly. “I know. I can’t imagine what it must be like for you.”
There was a moment of silence as Jigsaw stared at the glowing computer on the wall.
“Do you ever think about home?” he said quietly.
“I haven’t had much time, honestly,” Tiptoe replied. “But yeah, I have.”
“I wonder how it’s holding up,” he said. “It’s been, what, a week? Two? I can’t even keep track anymore. Either way, the water pressure will have stared falling significantly by now. The arboretum will have had to cut back on water dramatically if not altogether.”
“Is there no chance they could have fixed the pipes by now?” Tiptoe asked. “I know that you were the head of the water department, but you had ponies working under you, right?”
“Of course I did. But this wasn’t something simple like a burst pipe or even an invasion by monsters. The entire main command module for the entire network was blown out of the ceiling! That couldn’t be rebuilt in a decade, let alone a few weeks. I suppose it’s possible that with some good luck they could have patched some of the leaks and salvaged a little more pressure out of the system, but I doubt anypony would have figured out what had happened in time.”
Tiptoe nodded slowly. “So, it’s hopeless?”
“Not entirely, but I just don’t know how they could have…let’s not dwell on it. We have a new society to save.”
Tiptoe chuckled despite herself. “How did we ever get involved in all this? Saving civilizations? Wandering around the surface of Equestria? It all seems like something out of a story.”
“Yeah, it does.” Jigsaw mused. “But the stakes are very real. The fate of this entire city is apparently resting on me. Why me? What did I ever do to deserve this? What makes me suitable to be an Attenuator?”
“I don’t know,” Tiptoe said, “but we can’t let them get you. We have to fight back. All we can do is hope that Incendia has a decent plan.”
Jigsaw nodded. “Tiptoe?”
“I don’t know what I would do if you weren’t here.”
Tiptoe blushed. “I don’t know what I would do without you either.”
Jigsaw jumped off the bed and did something that shocked Tiptoe—he kissed her. Tiptoe blinked in surprise.
“Wha—but I thought you said you didn’t want to get into a relationship? I thought you said it was too dangerous?”
“Tiptoe, there’s a psychotic, practically immortal, immensely powerful unicorn that wants to strap me into a torture chair for hundreds of years and turn me into a magical transformer. At this point, I’ve been forced to realize my priorities. And first and foremost is you.”
Without another word, Jigsaw trotted away from the cot and to the computer terminal, where an image of the teleportation pad appeared onscreen. Tiptoe laid down and smiled to herself. She closed her eyes and dozed off, the light from the terminal and Jigsaw’s horn casting long, spindly shadows on the wall behind her.