Fallout: Equestria

by Kkat

Chapter Forty-Five: The Virtue of Littlepip

Chapter Forty-Five: The Virtue of Littlepip

“But it was not until the end of this long road that the Stable Dweller learned the true meaning of that greatest of virtues: sacrifice.”


The Wasteland will try to tear you down, make you a monster or strip you of your will to fight. The Wasteland… and to a lesser degree, life itself. Every day is a struggle against the forces that attempt to compromise and erode anything good in your heart. It helps to have a cause, a purpose; but I have seen too many who have put their faith in those alone and been lead grievously astray. Every pony has a virtue, whether they realize it or not. And it is your virtue and your friends, together, that form your greatest defense.

Raiders are those who failed to weather the moral ravages of the Wasteland. Velvet Remedy was wrong: they do have a reason for existing. The Wasteland is the cause to their effect.

I had finally discovered my virtue. I should have realized it when I first looked into the mirror of the soul. But I was too blinded by what I saw -- a blood-coated, dying raider -- to recognize what the mirror was actually showing me: the first time I truly acted in the spirit of sacrifice. The time when, even though I stood no chance of survival, I placed myself between a helpless caravan and what I believed to be a pegasus raider intent on slaughtering them.

That “raider” had been Calamity. And that act had initiated the first and closest friendship I have ever known. I should have recognized the truth in the mirror, but it took Pinkie Pie to help me see how to see.

You’re just looking at it wrong, she told me, pointing to the mirror, but not to me. Pointing instead to the approaching caravan and the family I was giving my life to protect. Look behind you.

My virtue is sacrifice.

I believe in Pinkie Pie, in sunshine and rainbows. But of all the Ministry Mares, I think it has been Rarity, not Pinkie Pie, that I’ve felt the greatest connection to. The mare whose last act was to save her dearest friend. Who tore apart her own soul for those she loved.

My feelings are not surprising, for sacrifice and generosity are closely tied. But generosity is a much grander virtue with a much wider scope. I am not generous. I have never given anything but myself; and upon reflection, my sacrifice was often selfish -- a vehicle to protect those I love from facing harm even when it was their right to do so. My mistakes in Fillydelphia are perhaps the most brutal example.

After my final discourse with Red Eye, I began to realize that I had been like an over-protective mother, stifling the growth of those I loved. Only now, finally, was I learning to let go. And still, it was the hardest and most painful thing for me to do. Sending my friends into battle against the Enclave without me… putting Ditzy Doo, the spirit of laughter and one of the most beautiful souls in the Equestrian Wasteland, on the front lines… it tore my heart out to not merely allow others to sacrifice, but to ask them to.

No, I was not truly generous. I was not Rarity, not even Red Eye.

Nor was I truly Applesnack. But sacrifice lies in that space between generosity and perseverance -- between the desire to give so that others don’t have to and the drive to never give up, no matter the danger, no matter the cost.

I cannot give enough thanks for my friends. They guided me, protected me, and allowed my virtue to blossom into something that just might, in a small way, help save Equestria itself. Without my friends…

Virtues can become corrupted, metamorphosing into dark and twisted shadows of themselves. This is a truth I have both seen in others and felt in myself. Without the fortifying strength of friendship, sacrifice becomes self-destructive, the sort of false nobility that drove me to blindly leave Stable Two, even though part of me believed all I would find beyond the door was oblivion. I quiver to think what I would have become, and what would have become of me, had I not met Calamity when and how I did.

Without the camaraderie of friendship to light the way, it is so easy to get lost. I have observed this, and I have witnessed so much worse.

Monterey Jack committed suicide. That was not the virtue of sacrifice at play, not even a corrupted manifestation of it, but the utterly selfish absolute lack of it. Monterey Jack abandoned everything, even his children, because he no longer had the ability to make even the most simple of sacrifices: living.

Selfishness tells us that it is more important for us to have, to get and to not suffer, than it is for anyone else. Just by merit of our experience being ours and everyone else’s not so. Generosity is not immunity to those impulses, but an ability to act counter to them, to give to others at the cost of not having for yourself.

Sacrifice demands you put at risk that which you hold precious. To do so even when another might be willing to instead. Especially then, so that no other has to.

I faced the fire, not for my own sake but for the chance to save lives, to remove the “cause” to the war’s “effect”, and to give ponies across the Equestrian Wasteland something precious, something vital which had been stolen from them.

I hoped that I was helping give them all a better world. And yet, at the same time, I couldn’t help but wonder if it was a world I would have any place in?

The mirror had shown me my virtue, but I had not seen it, distracted by the image of what I had become. All the lives I have saved can’t wash the blood off my hooves or stop the nightmares borne from all the horrors I have witnessed. When the Overmare had invited me back into Stable Two, I walked away. I knew the truth. That day I truly tasted the virtue of sacrifice and recognized it for what it was.

But I don’t think I truly understood sacrifice until today. The day I died.

*** *** ***

I died.

I remember the first time I saw Velvet Remedy. The couple living across the hall from my mother and me had gone to the Stable’s “Best Young Talent” show in the Atrium. They’d left their little colt with a babysitter.

According to the babysitter, she’d only turned her tail for a few moments. But in those seconds, the colt had slipped in the bathtub, hit his head and drowned. She called for emergency help; the clinic was only a few halls away, adjacent to the Atrium, and the medical ponies made the gallop in under a minute. Half the Stable seemed to arrive within four, including Velvet Remedy, who had been singing when the news broke. She’d cut her song, rushing along with the parents and the gawkers, to see if the colt was going to be saved.

The colt was revived. Mother said (repeatedly and to anypony who would listen) that the colt had been “clinically dead” for over two minutes. I remember thinking how beautiful Velvet Remedy looked as she tried to follow the medical ponies taking the colt back to the Clinic and was directed away. To think: the crush that set all of this into motion had started that evening.

I died. I came back.

Faith doesn’t require you to be willingly blind or dogmatically stupid. I knew as I faced the fire that it was going to be more painful than anything I’d suffered before, and I was almost certainly going to die. But I also knew there was a chance, if only just a chance, that death might be… survivable. And Pinkie Pie had promised me sunshine and rainbows. Faith does require that you take risks. Sometimes, you have to risk everything.

I said I would burn It, Rarity had insisted to Applejack after the other mare had called her on still having the Black Book. And I tried… I even tried to have Spike burn it. All that did was send it to Princess Celestia.

The Black Book. A soul jar bound with a living soul. If It could survive the trip, soul intact, then there had been a chance, if just a chance, that so could I.

Returning from death by incineration was, admittedly, more severe than coming back from drowning. And a whole league beyond re-growing a leg.

I came back.

Didn’t I?

Everything was darkness, like the nothingness I had once feared was outside the door of my Stable home. The darkness was cold. I wasn’t in pain. But I could feel myself breathe. Feel the beat of my heart. The press of my clothing and the weight of my saddlebags on my back.

I also felt cold, polished rock beneath my hooves.

The room around me rushed into being the second I realized my eyes were closed and, in doing so, instinctively opened them. I swayed, hit with a tsunami of intense relief that left me feeling strangely euphoric (and more than a little bit foalish).

I was in what I guessed to be a reception room. I chose to assume I was in the Central Hub of the Single Pegasus Project. If this was heaven, it left a lot to be desired. If it was hell, then hell was lame.

I was in a sizable, circular room with cool azure walls visible between cloud-white columns rising from a mist-covered marble floor. Above me, clouds floated in patterns beneath a dome of hazy, slate blue. The walls were covered in painted snowflakes, each with a beautiful, clear gemstone set into the center. A shower of diamonds.

There were railings, counters and carved marble furniture, all covered with a glistening sheen of frost. The room was chilly, but not freezing -- the frost itself was enchanted, radiating the cold that filled the chamber. The frost had slowly spread to cover much of the columns and patches of both the walls and the ceiling. In another fifty years, the entire room might have been covered.

There were two exits. Behind me, a set of gabled, silver double-doors which matched the ones I had seen on the exterior of the Central Hub while I was banging on the shield. Opposite those grander doors was a single, small, unassuming door which must have lead further inside.

A latticework of metal and icicles arched between two of the pillars between myself and the smaller door. Three huge monitors, each nearly the size of a pony, were mounted on the latticework, their screens a dull, dead grey.

A nearly identical latticework arched between the two pillars nearest the set of silver doors. The icicles formed words between arching bands of silver: Winter Vestibule.

But, my little pony protested irrationally, it’s summer.

Against a far wall, I spotted a few empty wall-vendors and a Sunrise Sarsaparilla machine. A bottle of sarsaparilla stood on the arm of one the chairs next to me inches from the bones of a forehoof; the magical coating of frost on the chair had turned the liquid contents ice-cold.

All about me, collapsed on the furniture or scattered about the floor, were the skeletons of ponies. Those on the floor formed small islands of bone in the mist. Maybe a dozen in all.

I trod carefully. If my suspicions were correct, one of these skeletons might be the former body of the Goddess Celestia.

I winced as my hoof came down on the metal clamp of a clipboard. Looking down at it, I was struck by nostalgic memories of Calamity and SteelHooves joking about Stubbornite. A small smile played across my muzzle before I refocused my attention.

Spike had, to my knowledge, never sent anything to anypony other than Princess Celestia. I had only my faith in Pinkie Pie’s words that, this time, his fire would take me where I needed to be in order to bring sunshine and rainbows back to Equestria. I could not deny that the reason it might do so is because that location, and Celestia’s final resting place, might be one and the same.

The shield around the S.P.P. was designed to let either of the Princesses through. And I had never found Her bones in Canterlot. It seemed to me that if She had died there with Her sister, then Nightseer would have probably been wearing both. Although perhaps not; perhaps, as the alicorn’s name suggested, she had a particular affinity for the Princess of the Night and Moon.

Near the silver doors was the corpse of a mare. Not a skeleton, like the others, but an intact body, her eyes opened wide, staring at nothing. The “Winter Vestibule” was not cold enough to freeze the body, but the chill was enough to dramatically slow decomposition. Still, I suspected she had not been here for more than a few weeks. (And it disturbed me deeply that I had become enough of a connoisseur of death and dead bodies that I felt I could make such estimation.)

There were no marks, no wounds or signs of trauma. Like me, she was not burned. She was just dead, her eyes wide open, as if in mortal terror. Had she, my mind conjectured, died of shock? When I faced the burning death of dragon’s fire, I had been hoping for this. I had no doubt that, for her, it had been completely unexpected.

As I reached out a hoof, gently closing her eyes, I wondered what her last thought had been. My hoof froze an inch from her face as it struck me that I might know those eyes. Though weeks of slow decay had rendered them strange, they could have been the eyes of that one Enclave mare -- one of the intruders into the dragon’s cave -- that Spike had slain.

I… didn’t understand.

Why was she here? And if she was, then why wasn’t the room full of propeller parts and everything else consumed by Spike’s breath?

I stared at the decomposing body of the mare in confused dismay. I had faced the fire of a dragon based on faith, thin evidence and a cripplingly desperate lack of options. If she was sent here the same way, then something must have made her different, just as something had made me different. But she wasn’t guided by a precognitive voice from the past. She wasn’t the Lightbringer. She wasn’t even a message.

…But then, in a twisted way, wasn’t she? Spike had certainly been trying to “send a message” to the Enclave. A dull pain began to thud in my mind as I thought about it.

Did forces such as destiny, purpose and intention play a part in dragon magic? If so, then it was not in the way ponies conceived of such things. Maybe they mattered in a more mysterious and nebulous existential way. I doubt Spike intended to send this mare anywhere… any more than he had planned to send the Black Book.

I felt a sudden weakness in my knees as I glimpsed the breadth of my lack of understanding. I felt suddenly like I had taken my leap of faith without even grasping the idea of gravity.

The chill of the room began to seep in as I stood over the Enclave mare, deep in thought. I recalled part of a tale Spike had told us: how a hiccup had sent a bundle of scrolls tumbling down on Celestia’s head. It was an accident… but they were scrolls. Their purpose was to bear messages. The Black Book itself desired for its influence to be spread.

Or maybe this dead mare wasn’t who I believed she was, and I was just spinning nonsensical wheels in my head.

How does she get in and out? I had asked Lionheart, looking at a pink-warped glass ball which had, centuries before, been designed to hold a small pet.

Dragon magic.

I winced, an unpleasant ache in the back of my brain. Dragon magic. One more thing to add to the list of Stuff That Makes My Head Hurt. Right up there between Enclave politics and rock farming.

But still below pony-pulled train engines.

I finished closing the mare’s eyelids down over her staring, lifeless eyes. Then, shuddering slightly from more than the cold, I rotated about and started towards the small door.

Even from across the room, I could see I was in trouble. The door had a cloud-lock. If it was locked (and when was anything ever easy), then I couldn’t open it. The cloud-walking which had allowed me this far wouldn’t affect either my tools or my telekinesis, neither of which could interact with clouds.

My trot dropped to a slow walk as I began to realize that I had come all this way, risked so much from so many, and I might be stuck forever in this cold, tacky room.

The three screens erupted into life.

Above me, glaring with an expression of cold and evil rage, was an ebony alicorn. Her vast black wings filled the screens to the left and right. On the center monitor, her turquoise, dragon-like eyes stared down at me with utter contempt from behind a helmet forged of bluish metal.

“You trespass in the sanctum of Nightmare Moon!” she said icily. “I give you this one chance. Leave. As swiftly as your little hooves can carry you.”

I backpedaled in shock, my hooves stepping into the ribcage of a skeletal pony, causing me to trip and sumersault backwards, coming to rest awkwardly against the rotting corpse of the unknown pegasus.

Nightmare Moon.

Or, I quickly suspected, a security system designed to emulate her.

Rainbow Dash had formed the Shadowbolts. It made sense that she might have drawn on similar iconography when designing the internal security for her Ministry’s greatest project.

I planted my hoofs firmly on the cool floor and glared back at the screens full of Nightmare Moon.

“I… I’m not turning back now,” I announced.

“You cannot continue!” Nightmare Moon insisted. “And I will strike you down if you try. Turn back now, while I’m still feeling generous enough to give you the chance!”

And exactly how would I do that? Was she going to drop the shield to let me out?

A bar of static crept up the left screen, distorting Nightmare Moon’s right wing.

It didn’t matter.

I turned away from the three screens, casting my gaze about the room. I couldn’t pick a cloud lock. But maybe I didn’t have to. Maybe, somewhere in this room, there was a key.

“What are you doing?” Nightmare Moon demanded.

Ignoring you, the little pony in my head thought as I began to search the room. The cloud lock probably meant a cloud-key. I had to find it while the spell persisted and I would be able to pick it up in my hooves or teeth.

Panels slid back on the frost-encrusted ceiling. Ceiling turrets dropped down, threatening but not yet taking aim. “Stop that!” the image of Nightmare Moon cried, insisting, “There’s no other way inside. Don’t waste your time.”

I couldn’t help it. A smile broke across my muzzle. “Oh, but there is,” I told her. “Know how I know? Because it’s making you nervous.”

The image on the right screen flickered with static then righted itself.

Wait. Security programs can’t get nervous.

I turned to face the screens, my eyes growing wide.

“Last chance,” the face of Nightmare Moon warned me, full of regal anger. “Leave now!”

“No. I’m not leaving!” I told her defiantly. “Because the lives of good ponies are at stake. Because the evil attacking the innocent has to be stopped. Because Equestria deserves the sun…”

I stepped towards the screens, watching as a wave of distortion warped the images of Nightmare Moon. “I’m not leaving because this is my destiny,” I stomped, staring coldly at the flickering images of the evil, black alicorn. Looking into those dragon-like eyes, as if willing my gaze beyond the screens, beyond the façade.

I took a deep breath and spat out, “And because you are not Nightmare Moon.”

The screens flickered and the images of Nightmare Moon vanished, to be replaced with a much kinder visage.

“Destiny is what you make it to be,” Celestia told me.

I told myself this was another layer of the security program. This wasn’t actually Celestia. The gentle Goddess had transcended death, rose up to the heavens. Even now, She was watching over all the ponies of Equestria. Hearing our prayers. Not… this.

This wasn’t what I believed.

“Stop with the games,” I spat crossly.

“Get out!” the image of Celestia commanded, spreading feathery white wings across the right and left screens in a stance of royal dominance. “This place is not for you.”

I shook my head. “Get out how?”

“However you got in.”

My jaw dropped. She… it… didn’t know? “Weren’t you paying attention?” What sort of crappy security system was this? “Spike sent me. Sorry, don’t have another dragon in my saddlebags.” The Celestia-image mouthed Spike’s name, looking surprised.

“You had yourself burned alive?” the voice of white alicorn asked softly. Wide, lavender eyes stared at me through the center screen.

“Besides, wouldn’t he just send me…” Wait.

Slowly, reluctantly, I asked, “You are Princess Celestia, aren’t you?”

“Yes, my little pony,” the majestic image of the white alicorn said. A line of static started to crawl across the center monitor. “And who are…” The alicorn trailed off, seeming to really look at me for the first time. “Wait. Don’t I know you?”

“Know me?” I repeated, feeling like I was losing the ground beneath my hooves. “Why would you know me?”

“I watch… so many ponies,” the image of Celestia confessed. “In my prison, all I can do is watch and listen. Until, sometimes, I cannot bear to watch any more...”

Prison? That… oh Goddesses.

Was I actually believing this? That I was speaking to Celestia Herself? That the Goddess… Princess… was somehow trapped here? Why else would She refer to this as a prison? But that meant…

“…But I do remember watching you before,” Celestia interrupted my epiphany, her voice taking on a motherly tone, almost gentle but not without an edge. “You are Littlepip, she of the colorful vulgarities, am I right?”

Of the…?! EEEP! Celestia knew me… and for that?! I wanted to hide. But there was simply not enough everything in the universe to bury myself under.

“The pony on the radio has had good things to say about you,” Celestia continued, my embarrassment compounding with Her mention of my inflated reputation.

Of course She had been hearing everything Homage had said, and all the DJ Pon3’s before her. They had, after all, been tapping into the S.P.P. towers to broadcast. Using Twilight Sparkle’s emergency broadcast station no less. All I can do is watch and listen.

“You are not like the ponies who have sought to enter this place before. The horrible things they did in their efforts to get inside…”

I winced, the little pony in my head cringing in sympathetic heartache as I imagined what it must have been like for Celestia to see an alicorn wearing Her Sister’s bones. “I put Luna to rest,” I told Her quickly, wanting to ease the harmful memory. “I burned Luna’s bones, and slew the monster who desecrated Her.”

My words felt weak and pathetic in my muzzle, but the expression on Celestia’s face was of such undeserved gratitude that I found myself bowing before Her just to escape it.

“Rise, my little pony,” Celestia chided softly. “I am no one worth your deference.” I glanced up in surprise at Her melancholy words, not moving from my position. “There are too many dead because of me for any pony to show me such reverence. I would bow to you if I could.”

I stood up quickly. “What? No!” I was appalled and, to my surprised, a little cross. “What happened wasn’t your fault! The war, the megaspells, the horrible things we have done in your absence… none of it is your fault!”

Celestia merely looked at me sadly. Her perfect voice began to soak with the sound of the tears she couldn’t really shed. “But it is, my little pony,” She insisted. “I chose the site for Luna’s school. There were three sites equally suitable, but I chose Crescent Moon Canyon because it amused Me. Because I wanted to see My Sister’s face when I told Her I was sending Her students to the moon…”

And now I could see tears in Celestia’s eyes, static warping the image on the central monitor. “I put those children there for a joke!”

I… I hadn’t imagined…

My nerves felt covered in ice. My eyes burned. I felt the heat of a tear trickle down my right cheek as I began to cry for my Goddess.

“And that’s not the end of it,” Celestia claimed. “When the zebra’s struck, Luna and I worked together, holding up the shield, giving all our subjects time to get to their Stables, even though the Cloud was killing Us. We took shifts, at first, each of Us holding the shield while the Other gathered healing supplies, then while the Other just rested…”


“…but My Sister,” Celestia’s voice trembled, “was younger. Weaker. And no matter what I did, I couldn’t prevent Her from dying in My arms.” Tears streamed down from Her quivering lavender eyes. I held Luna until Her body grew cold…”

Oh Goddesses… Goddess. Luna have mercy on Your Sister.

“…and then, stricken with grief, I flew away. I abandoned dead Canterlot, letting the shield fall, unleashing a fatal flood on the poor towns below.”

Applesnack died, I recalled painfully, in the seconds that followed. He hadn’t seen Celestia’s flight from the Royal Castle, but that could be forgiven. He was focused on the horrific wave of pink coming to consume him.

As terrible and painful as Her confessions were, Celestia was not finished. “I… I was blind with grief, with the loss of My Sister. But as I flew over Whitetail Woods, I saw zebra megaspell missiles, three of them, heading towards Canterlot. The zebras were not content to murder Luna; they intended to obliterate the city that had become Her grave. To wipe the entire mountain off the map. To utterly erase Her…”

I remembered the words of SteelHooves: I heard rumors in the days after the apocalypse that after the shield fell, the zebras launched megaspells to finally obliterate the city. But if that is true, then those missiles never reached their destination.

Whitetail Wood.

Kage used t’ call it the most poisoned place in Equestria.

Timidly, I heard myself squeak, “What did you do?”

“I destroyed them,” Celestia said, her sad voice taking on a hard edge, “My grief turned to rage, and I tore them apart. Reduced them to dust as I flew between them.”

Good for You! the little pony in my head said with an angry stomp.

The blade of anger evaporated from her voice, leaving only regret. “The winds carried the radiation and poison of those weapons across all of Whitetail Wood, covering Equestria’s once beautiful forest and poisoning the reservoir. All the way to the edge of Ponyville.”

As Celestia spoke, my thoughts traveled back to my first minutes outside the Stable -- to just how sick and poisoned Sweet Apple Acres had been, the very ground making my PipBuck click.

“My rage…” Celestia bemoaned. “When it left me, I felt like I had been stripped of My flesh, My heart. My soul was raw. And… I was afraid.” The expression on Celestia’s face was unfathomable. “I was dying, and I was afraid.”

I wanted to hug Her. To bury my head in Her royal white coat and weep. For Her. For Luna. For everything.

“I should have let Myself die,” Celestia said. “That way, at least, I could have been with Luna. But I didn’t. I was selfish. I’ve lived so long that death, ending, was alien and horrifying to me. So instead, I let my cowardice bring Me here...”

Here. The Single Pegasus Project.

“That’s not cowardice,” I offered earnestly. “That’s… normal.” The idea of anything about the Goddesses being normal was jarring to me. “We all fear death. That’s part of being a pony.” With a second thought, I added, “It’s part of being alive.”

Celestia seemed mildly thankful for my effort. “...and as a reward, I have been trapped here, in My prison, My purgatory. Listening to the victims of My sins, unable to act. Unable to help.” She seemed to look past me, Her gaze shifting across the bones. “I’ve done what I could to prevent anypony from becoming like me. And to prevent those camped outside from gaining access to this place.”

I opened my muzzle. Tried to say something, to protest, to find some way to console Her. She listened for a moment before gently cutting me off. Instead, a voice I had heard months ago filled the Winter Vestibule.

“Hello? Is there anypony out there?” the long-dead stallion asked, his voice heavy with resignation. He didn’t really expect the help I knew he would never receive. “Please, we need help! I was bringing my family to the Stable up near Sweet Apple Acres when we were attacked by raiders. Only my son and I survived. We made it to the Stable, but it’s still sealed up. There is no way inside. My son, he ate one of the apples from those damned apple trees up near the Stable, and now he’s terribly sick. Too sick to move. We’ve holed up in the cistern near the old memorial. We’re running out of food and medical supplies. Please, if anypony hears this, help us... Message repeats.”

I was struck by a ghost of the realization I first had hearing it. The unnamed father had already lost hope, and by the time he made that recording, he was just going through the motions.

And Celestia had been hearing that broadcast, reciting the death of a colt from the poisons She had spread across Whitetail Wood, playing over and over again for who knew how many years. Until I came along and shut it down.

I broke down crying.

Celestia wept with me.

“You are not like those camped outside,” She repeated when my resolve to complete my mission overrode my sorrow and I finally began to wipe my tears.

I knew She must have meant the Enclave. It struck me as odd that She wouldn’t have known who I was when I first appeared. She didn’t seem aware of the battle raging just beyond the shield, or the purpose of my appearance.

All I can do is watch and listen. Until, sometimes, I cannot bear to watch any more.

“Celestia,” I asked gently. “When did You stop watching?”

Her answer should not have surprised me.

Friendship City.

It had been the Equestrian Wasteland’s darkest hour. If I had been watching, unable to help, I believe I would have averted my gaze too.

It took me a few minutes to fill Celestia in on what She had missed.

“What... what did happen to You?” I finally asked, my voice cautious. I tried to brace myself for whatever answer would come. I needed to know, but I didn’t think I could bear hearing of even more of my Celestia’s pain. “How is it that You are here? Like this?”

My first assumption would have been that Celestia had entered the control pod Herself. But if She had, wouldn’t She have done a long time ago what I intended to do now? And hadn’t the Ministry of Awesome’s systems confirmed that the Central Hub was empty?

“I came here,” Celestia told me. “I knew My body was dying. But I knew of the Crusader Maneframes, of the chance for continued life they offered. So I came here.” She looked askance. “Part of Me had hoped that, in taking control of this place, I would be able to help all my little ponies. That I could still do some good to try to make up for my failures. But when I downloaded Myself into the Maneframe, I found Myself trapped. Helpless. I have control over a few security systems, but that is all. I can only listen and watch.”


My forehooves raised to my muzzle as I gasped.

None of that download-your-brain nonsense, Rainbow Dash had explained to Luna. I had them disconnect all that stuff. I want a living pony running Equestria’s weather, not some machine that thinks it’s a pony!

“Rainbow Dash… Apple Bloom…” I said weakly. “Celestia… they disconnected the mental download system from the controls. That was part of the design.” I had known this, but I had imagined they would have removed that part of the Crusader Maneframe completely, not left it intact but severed.

Spike had once asked me: Have you ever heard the old saying ‘The portal to hell is opened with the incantation of good intentions’? If there was a moral to their story, I guess that would be it.

“I know that now,” Celestia said mournfully. She had made a mistake. A simple, understandable mistake with numbingly tragic consequences.

It was the story of Equestria’s fall in miniature. DJ Pon3’s words rang in my head. The one great reality of the Wasteland, the truth of the matter: every pony has done something they regret.

The rational part of my mind reared up. If that was what had happened, then this wasn’t really Celestia I was talking to. It was just a program. Just the illusion of memories. Downloading your mind into a Crusader Maneframe doesn’t actually put you into the computer. It just makes a copy of your brain. The only way that…

I thought of Elder Cottage Cheese and his unholy intentions. He had planned to truly live forever by not only turning the Crusader Maneframe into a duplicate of his mind, but then transferring his very soul into the machine. Using it as a soul jar.

My face rose towards Celestia, my eyes opening in terrible realization as Rarity’s words once again whispered through my mind.

I even tried to have Spike burn it. All that did was send it to Princess Celestia.

Princess Celestia had, for a limited time, been in possession of the Black Book.

“You…” I stared, aghast.

“Yes,” Celestia confirmed regretfully, not even needing to hear the question. “The spells were so easy to learn that I knew them the moment I opened those pages. And how could I have resisted just a look?”

I felt a black chill.

“When you live as long as I have, boredom becomes an enemy,” She explained. “In its own way, as dangerous to me as Discord. Especially when I was alone.”

Celestia sighed. “In the centuries after I banished Nightmare Moon, I turned to learning everything I could about the mysterious, the secret and the forbidden. I even learned tidbits of zebra alchemy and dragon magic -- those few things which a pony such as Myself could possibly perform. Later, I even built a school to teach the things I had learned which where safe.”

Dragon magic? Was that how She sent scrolls back to Spike? I couldn’t help but ask.

“Yes,” She told me with a nostalgic smile. “I learned that from the dragon you now know as Mouse.” She continued, “The secrets of the Black Book were a temptation that played on centuries of habit.”

No wonder the shield around the S.P.P. Central Hub was so invulnerable. No wonder it had lasted so long. It was being powered by Celestia’s soul.

Another thought occurred to me: this was it, then. I was never getting out. Not that I had ever intended or expected to. In the very least, I couldn’t leave until the threat of the Enclave was dismantled entirely. It did no good to end the war today if it just started again tomorrow. Still, the reality of my eternal incarceration was like a heavy blanket.

Yet I held my head up. I would never see my friends again. I was going to be hated and villainized by the pegasi. But it was all going to be worth it to bring the sunlight back to Equestria. To stop the Enclave…

…hell, it would be worth it just for Silver Bell to get to see real rainbows.

I stepped towards the small door. My only regret was that I wouldn’t be with Homage again. That I wouldn’t be able to hold her one last time.

I stopped, looking up at the screens. “Can I see them?” I asked. “My friends? From in here?”

“Of course, my little pony.”

My heart leapt, the little pony in my head bouncing about with unexpected anticipation. My first instinct was to ask about Homage. But I had a friend for which I felt a much more pressing concern.

“Please, Celestia,” I begged. “Show me Ditzy Doo. Show me what happened to her. I need to know if she’s alright.”

Princess Celestia vanished, Her image replaced by scenes of the battle for Fillydelphia. Each monitor showed footage recorded by the S.P.P. towers, two showing recent events while the third played in real time.

I watched as Ditzy Doo, like a golden-green light of hope, rose out of the Fillydelphia crater and flew up through the clouds. And I watched as she came back, her sonic radboom clearing the skies over Fillydelphia, allowing the rays of Celestia One to strike. I watched as she fell. And I cheered when Lionheart caught her.

On the central screen, I could see Ditzy Doo, right now standing on the overturned hulk of a chariot, gazing wall-eyed over a sea of scrambling slave-ponies, her blackboard in her teeth:

This way to freedom and muffins.

Beyond her, a gaping hole had been torn in the wall, the wreckage from the barrier used to bridge the moat of toxic sludge. Lionheart was standing beside the passage to freedom. Near his hooves, a dozen monsters from the sludge-moat lay dead, their pink-tainted corpses surrounding a triumphant-looking white fieldmouse.

“Thank Celestia!” I said without thinking.

Then, blushing, I asked, “Show me Xenith?”

The screens changed. I watched my zebra friend infiltrate Fillydelphia until she had reached Stern. I saw the fight that began on the rooftop of the Ministry of Morale and that ended on a gabled rooftop on the far side of the city.

I looked on as, right now, Xenith lay bleeding and barely conscious under the cover of a cave formed from rubble as her daughter, the doctor of Glyphmark, tended to her wounds. In the background, the sky erupted with light as a concentrated sunbeam flared down from the heavens and detonated an Enclave bombing wagon.

If Celestia One was working, then that gave me hope for my other friends as well. “Could you show me Reggie, please? And Life Bloom?”

The monitors replayed the sight of Gawd’s griffins clearing the sky over Tenpony Tower, interspersed with glimpses of the Twilight Society. (Celestia was somehow able to show me inside the megaspell chamber!) The left-hoof monitor was showing Gawd and Reggie as they flew towards the roof of Tenpony Tower, supporting a wounded Blackwing between them.

“If I do become Arbiter of a New Canterlot Republic,” Gawd was telling the wounded griffin, “I would be honored to have you as co-council.”

“Don’t you think you should choose a pony for that?” Blackwing suggested. “You wouldn’t want to give the impression that Equestria is under griffin control.”

It took me a moment to realize that they were missing someone.

I turned to the other monitors in time to watch the fight begin. I felt a sharp pain as I looked at Butcher and realized she wasn’t going to survive. I gasped when Reggie was struck by the poisonous tail. And whooped when she shot back up through the clouds with Little Gilda.

“Who would you suggest then?” Gawd asked on the left screen as the surviving trio neared the rooftop. A pony galloped out onto the roof to greet them.

I heard Reggie’s voice. “Life Bloom?”

“Enough,” I said with a wave of my hoof, not needing to see any more. Those who survived the fight would recover, but we had taken losses. I knew we would, but that didn’t lessen the hurt. If anything, we had gotten lucky that it wasn’t much, much worse. “Show me Velvet Remedy?”

On the central screen, the beautiful, charcoal-coated unicorn was singing into a headset as she trotted between wounded Enclave soldiers lined up inside the protective barrier generated by several green alicorns. She had set up a triage for the enemy, helping out everypony wounded in the battle. As I watched, a purple alicorn teleported inside the shield, bearing another fallen soldier. Velvet Remedy interrupted her song once again, rushing to the wounded pegasi’s aid.

The side-monitors displayed how Velvet Remedy had taken over broadcast center. Without a shot fired or a pony wounded.

I had never felt more proud. Joyous.

And yet, my knees felt weak and a nervous sweat broke out over my body as I asked timidly, “Celestia, please… show me Homage.”

This time, only one screen lit up with a view of the wasteland. Celestia reappeared on the other two, watching me tenderly.

I could see contrails of black smoke in the sky. The camera shifted downward, zooming in on a ridge of rock. Amongst the rocks was a small cave, little more than an indentation, that somepony had built ramshackle walls into, and sparse furniture, all scaled for very small ponies. A little sign was nailed to the front, the word clearly painted by a young foal.

No fillies allowed!

Through the almost-rectangular window, I could see a very dirty, very haggard Homage, her mane in filthy, tangled strings, curled up amongst a few empty cans of centuries-old tomato paste. Hiding.

I couldn’t move. I couldn’t breathe.

Then, impossibly, Homage shifted. She looked up. Right up at the camera that was high on a tower so far away that she couldn’t possibly see it.

Her muzzle opened. And she mouthed the words: “I love you, Littlepip.”

I broke down crying again.

“Homage has been using the towers for a long time,” Celestia reminded me. “She knows them.” And somehow, my Homage… the mare who had seen ghosts, found weapons from space and had encounters with strange ponies who lived in blue boxes… could feel that she was being actively watched.

My horn glowed and I floated up to the monitor, pressing my hooves against it, just trying to be closer. “I made it,” I told her. “I burned alive, but I’m okay.”

“She can’t hear you,” Celestia said.

I lowered my hooves, still floating next to the screen as I drank in the sight of the mare I loved.

With that, Celestia informed me, “I could send you back.”

A portal of green dragon fire erupted in the room behind me.

“Back to Spike. You could be with her tonight.”

“What?!” I fell back to the floor with a thud. I couldn’t have heard that right.

But I had. The green fire behind me, Celestia explained, was like that which She had once used to send messages through Spike. Once I burned to death again, Spike would literally burp me out, alive and whole. Indescribably painful but… efficient. And a little bit gross.

“Now that you know how to get here through dragon fire, you can return to your friends and your loved ones,” Celestia offered me. “You can go, help them with their fight, and send someone else in your place tomorrow. You don’t have to do this anymore.”

The image of Homage flickered away, replaced by the sight of Celestia’s gentle, caring eyes.

“You deserve to be happy.”

I found myself faced with two choices: the small door that led deeper into the S.P.P. or another death by dragonfire, this one able to send me back to my friends.

It was almost too much.

“I can’t!” I told Her, almost wailing. “We’ll never get this close again. The Enclave is too strong. They’ll regroup… and if we don’t win today, they won’t give us a second chance.”

“The magic of Spike’s fire is not short range, Littlepip,” Celestia claimed. “You don’t have to get this close again.”

I rocked on my hooves. That was true. And I wanted so much to be with Homage again. To be with all my friends. I didn’t want the life I had grown to love, despite all the pain and the horror, to end here.

That’s natural, my little pony echoed.

I thought of my talk with Velvet Remedy two days ago. How could I ask from somepony else what I wouldn’t give myself?

Especially, my little pony added, when it means asking them to die for you. Even if it might only be temporary.

“Everypony I know…” Of the ones I could entrust something like this to, at least. “…they all deserved to be happy too. Just as much, or more, than I do.”

I stared at the monitor where Homage had whispered her love, and I thought of what Homage would say. I couldn’t help but snicker as I realized she would probably ask if I’d been staring at Celestia’s flank.

Celestia raised an eyebrow as I began to giggle.

I giggled because I knew what Homage would say if she could see me now. She wouldn’t beg me to step through that fire. She wouldn’t ask me to be with her at the cost of another.

Nor would she feel the need to push me to stay. All the things she had to say on that subject she had already said last night. She’d trust me to make the right decision. No need to hammer the point.

“You’re laughing?”

I nodded, failing to stifle a chortle. “Because I know if Homage was here, she’d probably tell me: Don’t do anything too naughty with the Goddess until I can figure out how to make it a threesome.”

Celestia’s eyes went wide. As I realized what I had just said aloud, and to whom, my face broke into the fiercest blush. But Celestia’s expression caused me to collapse in laughter.

“You have… an interesting mare-friend,” was all Celestia could manage to say.

It took me a moment to recover, wiping tears of an entirely different sort from my eyes. I knew what I had to do. On the other side of the shield, Spike believed he had killed me. I couldn’t imagine what he might be feeling, or how he would react when my friends rejoined him. I couldn’t leave him like that.

Concentrating, I floated up the clipboard, searching for ink. Finding none, I shattered the Sunrise Sarsaparilla bottle with a hoof and used one of the shards of glass to draw blood, ignoring the slight pain (compared to burning alive, a small cut was nothing), and using my blood to write a message:

Dear Spike,

I’m alive.
I’m inside with Celestia.
Thank you. I’m very, very, very sorry. Please, some day, forgive me.

PS: It hurt a LOT.

Without a word, I sent the message back through the portal.

Celestia watched in silence. When I was done, She smiled at me. “I’m proud of you, Littlepip. But I’m holding the fire open for you.”


“Because I know now where I’ve seen you. Twilight’s last act was to save you,” Celestia informed me. “Was it for this? For you to give up your life just a week later?”

She who I had worshipped as a Goddess was trying to dissuade me from my mission. Not because I was not worthy, but because I was worth too much?

“Life is a gift,” I told Her. “I’m not so selfish as to ask anypony else to give theirs up so I don’t have to.”

“Life,” Celestia remarked sadly, “is not always a gift. And death is inevitable. Or, at least it should be. Even my Sister died.” The melancholy in her voice was unbearable. “That’s the real evil of the Black Book. It changes that. It steals death from you and calls it a gift. It’s lying. I’ve lived so long, alone, watching ponies die. I’ve seen more than you could know. Please, trust Me when I say that the ponies you save by sacrificing yourself will die soon anyway.”

I couldn’t believe my ears. This was not the Celestia that I worshipped. “What are You saying?”

“I’m saying… isn’t it better for the gift of a slightly longer life to be given to those who have truly earned it, who deserve it most? Isn’t it better to hold onto those you love?”

As hurtful as it was to hear these words from the One who was supposed to be my gentle and loving Goddess, She… wasn’t without a point.

“And if the war I allow to continue today should kill Homage tomorrow?” I asked, “Or kill the pony another loves, somepony else’s Homage? How could I live with that? And how deserving would I be of another day? How could You even ask?”

“I…” I could hear the undercurrent of pain in Celestia’s voice. “I suppose I’ve always played favorites.”

I thought of her favorite student. “And… what would Twilight Sparkle do, if given this choice?” I felt immediately awful for invoking Twilight, realizing how much that must hurt Her. What right did I have? Particularly after what I had done?

Celestia fell silent. I wondered if I had driven Her away (for whatever quality of “away” Her prison allowed Her).

“When Twilight was younger, she wanted to do what you are doing. She wanted to brave the Everfree Forest alone. To not risk anypony else,” Celestia told me. “Her friends would not let her. After that? I’m not sure. I’d like to believe that she’d stay with her friends, and they would work a way through it together. But…” But the Ministries.

I felt a flare of protective anger. Was Celestia suggesting my friends had failed me? Or was I reading too much into those words?

“But her friends,” I pointed out, “were also willing to step back and allow her to do what she had to do. Even if that meant, for a moment, leaving her vulnerable.”

“And you know what happened,” Celestia replied gently. “Twilight was always weakest when separated from her friends. And you will be too.”

I felt the presence of the statuettes in my saddlebags. They were stronger together. Better.

Oh! Ooooh. Oh, Goddesses… or Goddess, as the case seemed to be.

I began to understand. Not just what Celestia was saying, but why She was saying it. I began to grasp why Celestia had become so different from the Goddess whom I prayed to.

“Celestia...” I began cautiously, “How long have you been without your friends? How long have you been alone?”

Again, Celestia was silent. Then, after a long and somber pause, She answered. “Longer than I’ve been here.”

“You don’t have to be anymore.”

“Littlepip…” The eyes of the alicorn on the screens widened.

“Nopony should be alone, Celestia.” Not even one like you. “Ponies need friends. They need the… the magic of friendship. Without it…” I trailed off. The ponies of Equestria had lost their sun in more ways than one. But I could change that.

“I’m here. And I’m not leaving you.”

Celestia said nothing.

The green flames evaporated.

The small door unlocked and opened, revealing a short hallway leading to another door. Inside the hallway, a small alcove held the download device. The metal helmet, encrusted with lights and gems, was laying next to the long-horned skull of a large, winged pony skeleton.

Celestia’s skeleton.

I took a few steps forward, then stopped. Focusing, I wrapped the bones of Princess Celestia in my magic and floated them out into the Winter Vestibule.

“Please,” Celestia asked, “As you did for My Sister.”

It took me a little while to find a way to set the bones on fire, but eventually the pyre crackled. I realized I would need to do the same for each of the skeletons in here before I settled into the control pod. But I could burn them all together. Celestia’s bones deserved the honor of their own fire.

Sitting beneath the monitors, I watched the funeral, Celestia watching with me.

I was startled when a mechanical whine started somewhere in the Central Hub and hidden fans began to suck the smoke from the room, replenishing the Winter Vestibule with fresh, summer air. Between the fire and the air, the enchanted frost began to melt and the fog on the ground faded away.

Finally, I stood up again. It was time.

As I walked into the hallway, Celestia opened the final door.

The Crusader Maneframe of the Single Pegasus Project reminded me of a tree. The large, central stalk glistened with running lines of mystical energy. Lights blinked in arcane sequences along branches that stretched out from the trunk, connecting to smaller maneframes that lined the walls. The metal oval of the control pod was nestled amongst root-like conglomerations of wires,. It struck me simultaneously as being like an egg, fallen from a nest and cracked, and a rabbit hole, dug into the base of a tree, leading mysterious places.

Three other doors marked cardinal points. The writing above them claimed they lead to the Spring, Summer and Autumn Vestibules.

A stray memory flittered through my head like an errant butterfly.

Okay, here’s another one, Spike had said, telling us stories of his long-gone friends, the Ministry Mares. This is the story about Twilight Sparkle’s first Winter Wrap-Up.

What’s a Winter Wrap-Up? Calamity had asked just before the shaken-up Sparkle~Cola I had passed to him hosed his face.

I chuckled as I remembered his expression.

In the aftermath, Spike had explained that, normally in Equestria, the changing of the seasons had been accomplished in part by magic. Later, I had heard Rainbow Dash bemoan the need to abandon the war effort once a year to help with Winter Wrap-Up.

Somehow, I had forgotten the scope of what the Single Pegasus Project was designed to do.

One part of Winter Wrap-Up, the part Applejack had always been in charge of, was planting seeds for the next year’s crops. Even that, I realized, was under the Single Pegasus Project’s purview. That was, in fact, part of what the Enclave had hacked into, altering it to fit their needs. Cloud seeding.

This was going to be a big responsibility.

I lifted the hatch to the control pod, looking inside at what would be my new home. The interior was plush, comfortable. Like a cloud, but solid. Just in case the operator wasn’t a pegasus, I suspected. Likely thanks to the oversight of Apple Bloom.

The headset looked an awful lot like the one in the hall. But there were enough differences to distinguish the two. No flashing lights. Quite a few more gems.

I concentrated, my magic unfastening my saddle bags and letting them drop to the floor. As I removed my armor, I opened those bags for the last time, floating out the small number of keepsakes I had brought with me. Treasures full of memories and ghosts.

Calamity’s hat. The Fluttershy Orb from Velvet Remedy. The drawing by Silver Bell. Gifts from my friends.

One by one, I set them down in a circle on the interior edge of the control pod. I wanted them close to me while I “slept”.

Little Macintosh. The statuettes of the Ministry Mares.

Never did learn what finally happened to Rainbow Dash, the little pony in my head mused. Probably for the best. It’s good that there are still some mysteries.

The ashes of the filly from Friendship City.

And finally, Orb #8.

That last one I set next to the headgear. The very last thing I would do before closing the hatch and sliding into a controlled coma was to watch it. I knew it would take precious time, but never seeing it was one sacrifice I wasn’t willing to make.

I wasn’t a paragon of my virtue, after all.

I looked at Calamity’s hat. The memory from our first visit to Spike’s cave had reminded me that there was one friend I hadn’t looked in on yet.

“Please, Celestia, if you would,” I asked as I trotted back out into the Winter Vestibule, “show me Calamity.”

The screens changed to pictures of frantic battle. On one screen, Calamity was dodging pursuit as he tried to plant explosives in the New Hope Solar Array. On another, he was facing off with an Enclave officer in some sort of store room. On the third…

Spike flew across the screen, the camera turning to track him. Between two of his clawtips, I could see he was clutching the clipboard.

I heard the explosive report of Spitfire’s Thunder. Calamity was strapped onto Spike’s back with rope, as was the hellhound Barkin’ Saw. My pegasus friend’s wing had been inexpertly wrapped in healing bandages; he’d overstrained the healing limb and now it wasn’t working at all.

Together, Calamity and the hellhound sharpshooter were sniping incoming missiles before they could reach the dragon.

“If Li’lpip’s okay, then let’s get Velvet an’ get outta here!” Calamity shouted as he fought to reload. “Fall back t’ y’all-know-where.”

Blood dribbled from Spike’s destroyed eye. A painful grimace crossed his bloodied snout. “The Enclave know me,” he growled despondently. “They know where I live. Soon as word gets out, they’re going to retaliate.” Calamity understood the severity of Spike’s tone when he said, “They’ll hit the cave. With everything they can.”

My heart skipped a beat. The Gardens of Equestria!

“Ayep,” Calamity said grimly. “That’s why we pull everythin’ we got back there. Form a line o’ defense.” As Spike banked to avoid a barrage of plasma fire, each bolt wider than a pony, Calamity scrambled not to drop the anti-machine rifle. “All we gotta do is keep ‘em out ‘till Li’lpip can clear the clouds. After that, we got Celie-One as a defense!”

I felt a surge of panic and fought it back down. It would be hours before they even got back to Spike’s cave. Longer before the Enclave could regroup. But the sense of urgency that I had somehow allowed to slip had returned in full force.

“Celestia,” I asked, realizing how much there would be to do. “Will you help me?”

“Of course, Littlepip.”

I walked out of the Winter Vestibule and back into the small hallway. I paused at the alcove with the downloader.

“They won’t understand,” I said, realizing it not for the first time. “The pegasi especially. They won’t understand why.” Not that it mattered. I was trying to do the right thing for everypony, for everyone, the only way I knew how.

I heard Scootaloo’s voice in my memories.

This isn’t our Equestria anymore! It’s not the happy, safe, pleasant world any of us grew up in. I don’t understand how it could have gotten this way. H-how… how it c-c-could have gotten this bad! Somepony needs to figure it out! And fix it! And…

And if I have to become the villain of the piece to do that, then I will.

I was Scootaloo. At least a little.

“I’ll be able to watch everything, right?” I asked. “Will I be able to talk to them? Or, at least, send a message?”

Celestia was quiet a moment. Then, “Not as the system is now,” She informed me, “Or I would have done so long ago. But with a good toaster repairpony, that will be easy to fix.”

My ears burned a little but the little pony in my head pranced in glee.

I looked at the download device. It was meant to make a copy of a pony’s entire mind in a few hours. How quickly, then, could it make a simple copy of a couple months?

“I want to send a message,” I told Celestia as I wrapped the helmet in my magic, turning the download station on. “I want to tell them what really happened. To explain. Even if they never believe me. I owe them all that much.”

Again, I asked, “Will you help me?”

Again, the answer, “Of course, my little pony.”

Two months. The copy process should only take minutes. Add an hour for editing and adding in a few thoughts…

I slipped the helmet onto my head and started up the arcano-tech device. I felt the odd sense of mental “pressure” as the device synced up to my brain, and experienced an odd taste, like that of muffin-flavored cake. I took a deep breath as I tried to figure out just how to begin.

Then I began, thinking:

If I’m going to tell you about the adventure of my life -- explain how I got to this place with these people, and why I did what I’m going to do next -- I should probably start by explaining a little bit about PipBucks…