• Published 1st May 2012
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Setting the Rules - fic Write Off

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Hierarchy of Reality

Ooooh, I’m so hungry. Hungry, hungry, hungry. Hey, a butterfly. Tastes better than grass, but hardly any substance. Not the sort of thing that fills you, I mean. Oh, that makes me think of food, which makes me remember I’m hungry. So very hungry.

Eating. What else do I do? I don’t know. Approach the food. Do what it takes to get the food. Eat the food. Eating. That’s what I do. That’s all I do. But I’m not eating now, and I’m so hungry. I should really eat. Hungry, so very hungry.

Hmm? It’s the boss. He’s hungry too, isn’t he? So very hungry. We all are. Maybe not all, just most of us. Maybe hunger spreads. Sounds silly, but we’re all so hungry, and hunger makes you think of silly things. Maybe the boss is going to say something silly because he’s too hungry. I’m sure he’s hungry. How could he not be hungry when we’re hungry? That’s not fair, is it?

Hungry. So very hungry.

Oh, the boss is talking. It’s so hard to hear him properly. Hey, another butterfly. I swear, these things taste less better the more you have had. I’d know. It’s my 600th one. I’ve been counting because the boss says that “being thankful” is a way to not feel so hungry. We have to do “thought exercises” and write notes on what we’re thankful for, every week. But all I can think of is being hungry. And thinking of what I’ve eaten makes me miss food, which makes me hungry. So, so, so hungry.

I was lucky enough to find a rabbit the other day. Scared it good and proper, I did, to get the most fear juice out of it before eating. Have you tasted fear? It’s horrible, it is. I don’t know who would like it, unless they don’t mind eating bad stuff. These days, it’s all we have, though. Fear and greed and malice and envy and all the nasty, nasty, icky emotions that disagree with my digestion. I get all uncomfortable about two hours after, and then the others start looking at me funny, because they’re all hungry as well, and they can taste the discomfort. We all are. Hungry, I mean.

Anyhow, the boss is talking and he says that the queen needs something done. Something like that. I don’t know. I’m just too hungry. And you can’t eat boredom, because otherwise we’d all have been full. You know, because everyone was just so bored, listening to him.

Hmm.

There’s an idea.

Nope. No, can’t eat boredom.

So, so very hungry.

The boss said something about food. Why did he have to go and do that? Now I’m positively starving, thanks to him. Something about finally filling our bellies, even though that’s what he said the last time, when we moved to Maretopia. Downright horrible, that place was, but at least there were emotions. Not like the mountain area we’re currently living on, because those Maretopians finally figured out that we were the ones draining their energy. Can’t blame us! We’re just so hungry all the time! Those Maretopians, with their evil, strange magic, and their unfeeling, heartless, fearless, loveless machines, grinding down the alleys and roadways, and their despicable, corrupt Government Initiative troops flushing us out. I’m sure that they’d have turned on each other the moment we were out of the city. I swear, they give me the creeps. There’s absolutely no soul in those things. So unnatural. So unfulfilling. So very hungry.

Now the boss is saying that we have to fly over to a place called Canterlot. That’s in Equestria, and it’s – wait, what? A sea and a river away? Is he kidding me? He’s got to be kidding me. We’re all so hungry! How can we fly such a far distance?

The boss doesn’t appreciate me interrupting him. I guess I should try and keep my thoughts inside of my head instead of my mouth. He’s saying that he’s glad I asked that question, though his eyes tell me he’s lying. I would know. I’m a changeling. Feeling for emotions is what I do. That, eating, and being hungry.

Ponies.

Real, live, actual ponies.

And love. So much love. The smell of alcohol is horrible, and so is the stench of confusion, but it’s love. And really strong rope, as well, and that double-loop-quadruple-bend knot that only Rash’ka can do. The sort that won’t let you out no matter how much you struggle. And there’s two ponies, tied together in it, facing each other, so, so very in love, drunk and limp and barely awake.

It’s actual love.

And I’m so, so, very hungry...


“You can’t possibly expect me to do that, can you?” I muttered, knowing full well the answer. Sure enough, it came, with complimentary steel-eyed glare:

“Either you comply by the rules, or no deal.”

I gave my candy-coloured mane a contemptuous flick. “You’re asking me to control thousands, if not tens of thousands of mindless feeding machines as they wreck havoc in the streets. Have you seen the size of your city? That’s preposterous.”

“Look at Equestria,” replied Celestia. “I dare you to say that you cannot one more time.”

“Oh, pfft. Your job is just administration. You don’t get your own hooves dirty, because you get to use manipulation and magic,” I whined. I knew how grating Missy Third Alicorn’s tone could be, and may I be sunned if I did not take the opportunity to annoy Gaia’s strongest power as much as possible. To Celestia’s credit, her eyes only twitched slightly, and her emotional state was a giant iceberg - imposing, cool, as sturdy as a rock, and only a fraction unsubmerged under a sea of self-control. For now. I raised my hooves in a surrendering pose. “What am I to bridle the unrelenting force of such a race? You know that we are weak. We are famished, and we are shunned. That sort of situation breeds deep, strong desire. Besides, your payment is in our satisfaction. We will accept no less. We’re doing you a favour by eliminating the middlepony in the equation.”

“You are shunned for good reason,” replied Celestia. “What sort of pony would enjoy having their emotions ripped out of their hearts?”

“You’d be surprised,” I answered, taking a sip of tea. It tasted terrible, as with all non-living, non-feeling objects. I channeled that into a wide, toothy grin. “I remember a certain somepony asking for a certain favour, in which the darkness of their subjects’ minds would be suctioned off–”

“That’s enough,” said Celestia, and I saw the tip of the iceberg chip just a little.

“Yes, it is!” I snarled, pushing my beautifully-curved snout into her face, making sure that the tips of my silky mane stung her in the eyes. “You and your sun-damn deal cost me my people! You said that it would be all right for us to eat the stuff, you said that it was for the best, and that you’d be eternally in our favour! That we’d have a place in your utopia, if all we did was sacrifice our own happiness to ‘perfect’ your own subjects! Do you remember that, Princess? Asking us to help you create the perfect world, knowing full well that it would be our curse forever? You corrupted us all, Celestia!”

She locked her gaze with mine. I breathed into her snout. I had come prepared, of course. The weight of one finely-diced onion, half a clove of garlic and milk from this morning’s breakfast – and I use the term loosely – smashed into her nostrils with delectable furiousity. Annoyance was an eclair, but anger was a whole tea tray. Neither of them was nourishment, but there was a certain fulfillment in simply getting a rise out of somepony, especially if that somepony were the ruler of Equestria, the closest to paradise this side of the universe.

I believe in giving credit to where credit is due. It pains me to tell, but the iceberg, if at all, simply bobbed for a bit. Certainly not worth the trouble of not rinsing my mouth.

“I’m sorry,” she said, and her gaze actually softened a bit. “I didn’t know that would happen. I honestly didn’t. It’s kept me up far too many nights, and you know how long it’s been since that day. I’ve been researching all these centuries for a cure for your ponies, Chrysalis. Believe me when I say that. Every year, on Hearth’s Warming, I would send you a letter, but you never replied. Runes, joint spells, artefacts, and the amount of bits I’ve poured into the research and development team, the amount of fast talking I have to do whenever the house of nobles questions me about it... however, you know full well what it’s like to lead a country, a clan of living, feeling things. They need me. My ponies come before my own mistakes. I will not stand for them to be harmed, and you will promise me that they will not be harmed, or you leave my castle empty-hooved.”

“And that’s why you’re faking an invasion? Please, Celestia. You’re not that much of an idiot,” I said, waving a jewel-shoed hoof. “The contradiction is so obvious that even Discord saw that, and he’s encased in stone.”

“Do you honestly think that this is what I want?” asked Celestia, her eyes narrowing.

“Maybe,” I replied. I threw in a giggle for good measure.

She shook her head and sighed. “Tell me, Chrysalis. What is it like to run a group so entrenched in sorrow and in need? Does the balance of the universe return to you a ‘good’ portion in turn for all the misery your ponies suffer?”

“Honestly? I don’t think so,” I replied, and this time I meant it. “I wouldn’t have believed your ‘balance of the universe’ nonsense if I hadn’t seen it in action for myself. Still, for a cosmic law, it’s suspiciously selective. It sure hasn’t paid any friendly visits to the changelings. I suppose even you can see why I’m cutting such a deal with you.” I toyed with my spoon, and nibbled on it thoughtfully. “I have to get as much as I can from every good turn that comes. It’s my responsibility. If I don’t, who else will? And no, your ‘balance of the universe’ is not the answer.”

Celestia was one weird pony, indeed. She wronged me and my ponies. She wanted us to do her a favour, with a reward that we wouldn’t have needed in the first place if not for her failure, for the purpose of satisfying some great, divine law that exacts itself in the strangest manner. She called it “the balance of the universe”, when “karma” would have sufficed, though I suppose “karma” is an understatement.

I remember, and often dream about, that time, so long ago, that we were free. We lived off our love for one another. The mating ritual was a sacred oath that ensured not only companionship, but also one’s daily bread. We lived on the love of our parents as hatchlings, and we dieted on the love of our friends. We searched, delved, explored one another, until we found the right one, the one who would be our lifelong partner. The one called Kath’ra’chak. Lover. Soulmate. Source of all the nourishment one would ever need in this life.

Those times were long gone. The reality of the present was all I could afford to think about, now, not just for me, but for the sake of my changelings.

“We’re not getting anywhere,” sighed Celestia. “Okay, so I’ll do a recap. Firstly, you are to ‘infiltrate’ Canterlot as Cadance.”

“Done,” I offered helpfully.

“You weaken Shining Armour in a non-threatening manner. No physical injuries, and nothing that he can’t recover from within a day.”

“Fair enough,” I replied.

“When the time is right, you ‘reveal’ yourself, lower the shield, and let your changelings in. You exact an appropriate amount of damage, but no harm to my ponies.”

“That’s the hard part. I’ll try,” I shrugged, but then I caught her glare. “Okay, fine, fine, your ponies will come to no significant harm. There will be no soul-sucking or heart-hollowing. But I demand extra payment, as well as supporting spells to boost my power.”

“Done and done,” replied Celestia.

“That was suspiciously eager,” I frowned.

“Firstly, even with the supporting spells, you cannot best me. Secondly, the time for exactement is drawing near. I can feel it in my bones, and the stars are lining up,” said Celestia.

“Oh, I don’t know. You’d be surprised,” I sighed, adding a triple layer of glaze to my tone, “at the power of love. Oh yes you would. Abuu-de-buu-de-buu. Ah-buu-buu. Wouldn’t that be something? Princess Celestia, defeated by the power of love.”

“Chrysalis,” said Celestia, rapping a hoof on the table.

“Right, right,” I said, flicking my mane again. “So I control my ponies to bring about certain harm. Then we get paid, yes? I need proof, Celestia, that you won’t screw us over again.”

Celestia simply nodded, and she brought over a trunk large enough to fit five ponies. With a series of small clicks, the lock opened, and the lid creaked opened.

I could not help but gasp. Celestia smiled a little.

“The latest development of the Equestrian R&D Department,” said Celestia. “Runes that replicate emotion. It’s taken us five decades of observation to properly define ‘love’, another five decades to translate that into thaumic terms, and a century to get our knowledge of magic to a high enough level to make this possible. I can even give you a demonstration.”

She withdrew a flimsy strip of stencil and placed it on the table. Her horn glowed red briefly, and a set of runes, possibly twenty or thirty – I was too busy being stunned – burned themselves into the table. Her horn then glowed blue, and the runes flared up, and immediately, the taste of love, raw, not quite right, but love all right, filled the air. It took all of my self-control to not break down into a slobbering, crying mess, jamming as much of it as I could into my suddenly-dry mouth. Instead, I sniffed, waved a hoof and took the metric equivalent of a sip.

“Not bad,” I said, while my insides screamed and thrashed at me for want of more.

“I trust that your magical skill is high enough to learn the concepts behind it,” said Celestia. “The trunk containing the stencils, as with the runes themselves, are sealed with powerful locks that only I have the key to. I will give you the knowledge for both when your ponies have left Equestria completely. The magic in these runes are one hundred percent my own, and I have stored energy into this from day one of their completion. These should be enough to last you and your kind for at least several generations, and by then, maybe your condition will have healed, or you would have developed the knowledge to make your own. I strongly recommend the latter.”

“Aren’t you worried that we’d turn on you as soon as we get the goods?” I asked, leering in a bid to ignore the gnawing void that was my belly. “My changelings can morph into anypony, you know, and with enough efforts, they can become indistinguishable from their originals.”

“You underestimate me, Chrysalis,” Celestia said. Her smile was coming out in full force now, icy and confidant. She knew she had won. Perhaps I may have let my poker face slip a little. “I will exterminate your kind if they dare to remain on Equestrian land any longer than permitted, one by one, with raining fire and death. I will scan each one of my subjects with eyes that see beyond the surface, until every last one is hunted down. And I will save you for the last if necessary. While you may underestimate me, I do not underestimate you. You should not discount your own intelligence, either.”

“I love you too, Celestia,” I replied, and the both of us broke into uneasy laughter. “Hey, where’s Luna? I haven’t seen her since the big Discordian war, remember that? Cloning her was a lot more fun than cloning you, and she always had a better-kept flank.” I wiggled my currently pink, bony one to illustrate the point. “Remember how we double-teamed Discord and confused the heck out of him, so that you could land that final blow? The blast must’ve been visible from the other side of the planet.”

“Luna’s... busy.”

“Isn’t she always, though?”

“So, is that a deal, or no deal?” pressed Celestia.

“Deal,” I replied.

Then, we chatted on for a while about countries, ponies, ideas, thoughts and the universe, the usual small talk that you can get only with a fellow immortal, whose faults one has come to accept over time, over disgustingly hollow tea and crumpets. I doubt that Celestia would have noticed, but I slowly lapped up at the residual love as we talked until the air was clean of it. Even if she had noticed, she did not say. After all, good company is rare for ponies like us. Any company at this point pretty much qualifies. Bonus points are to be had if said company was instrumental in bringing peace to the land, and was actually on friendly terms once, a long, long time ago.


Dear Mother,

I have done the math, as you requested, making note of the stars and all that. The calculations are worrying. If my predictions are correct, the Gate will claim Equestria’s +ve Tab in a month. Attached are the workings, so that you can double-check to see that it’s not just a silly error on my part.

Luna


Dear Luna,

Your calculations are right. That’s both good news and bad. Good, because now we have a time window to act in. Bad, because we have a time limit to act before. All we have to do is introduce an event that sets off the external harmony counter to pay the Tab, right? Because judging from the last time, that’s what the Gate did - produce an event that, strictly speaking, brought balance.

There’s a third alicorn, I hear? Cadance? Who is she? She might be the key to all of this, for better or for worse. I’m sorry I can’t come to you. Whooves is just so caught up with whatever it is he’s doing, and more often than not, he falls in a paralytic faint when he gets back home. And as you know, he insists that what he does is a secret that he can’t afford to tell me. Stallions! I tell you. That, and Dinky’s band recital is coming up soon. I don’t think I can afford to ditch her at a time like this. You know how it is.

Mother


Dear Mother,

Don’t you remember Cadance? She’s been around all this while. She came over from another continent or something, I can’t recall too clearly. She was there after the founding of Canterlot, that much I’m sure. Maybe you just forgot about her. She’s not exactly the most prominent pony in history, admittedly, exempting the fact that her special talent is a love spell, which would make her Celly’s ultimate reigning tool, if not for the fact that she’s a fellow alicorn, and the last thing on our minds is to start a war.

Sorry to hear about Whooves. But you know how he is. He’s been with you all this while, hasn’t he? And what time is Dinky’s recital? Would you like me to visit? When this Gate debacle is over, I’ll coax Celly to come with. We’ll even wear disguises this time.

Luna


Dear Luna,

No, I do not remember Cadance. She was NOT with us during the Discordian war. Nor was she there before your banishment. In my centuries of travel, I’ve never heard of such a pony, not even once. It all seems so fishy to me.

If you do plan on coming, wear disguises that work.

Though that gives me an idea – I know of somepony who was... remember the changeling princess, Chrysalis? What if you somehow staged an invasion, with enough structural damage to fool the Gate into thinking that we’ve paid off our Tab? Destruction is a must either way, but death is optional. Maybe I could track her down, and ask her in for another favour for old times’ sake.

Mother


Dear Mother,

That’s not a very good idea. Shortly after your exile, and Celly told me all about this, she tried to bring harmony to Equestria. But no matter how hard she tried to help things along – make crops grow, preside over disputes, that sort of thing – ponies always ended up arguing.

Long story short, Celly realized that this was because ponies were inherently bad. We all are, I mean. So she asked Chrysalis (she’s a queen now, by the way, her mother died of old age a few decades back) to lead her ponies in and literally suck the bad out of them. It worked, but sent their thaumic regulative systems out of sync. They became tainted. Celly’s been working on side projects to the end of fixing this, I believe, but the point still stands: Chrysalis isn’t on good terms with us anymore.

Besides, that’s why the Gate came after us in the first place, because ponies wouldn’t do bad anymore, and the cycle of good/bad became abnormal. If I were the universe, I’d find it creepy, too, to be honest, and I’m glad that ponies are demonstrating free will a lot more than back then. You seem to be forgetting a lot of things, Mother.

Luna


Dear Luna,

Isn’t there anything Chrysalis would want? Suggest to Celly that they arrange something, make a deal. Appeal to her about the Gate. Tell her that the signs are all pointing to inevitable doom if we can’t whip some out on our own. Press her into action.

Catching up with all of this is beyond me. I suppose you’re right; I am forgetting things. I’m old, Luna, and I’ve settled. I like my quiet life. You know this too well. Doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate that you came to me for advice, and doesn’t mean that you’re not welcome. You and Celly always are. You’re my foals.

But anyhow, this isn’t something that you two can’t handle. It feels odd to tell this to an immortal, but Luna, you have to step up more. You can do it. Don’t cut yourself short.

Mother


Dear Mother,

Convinced Celly to try and getthe Chrysalis plan. It’s better if she comes up with the details of the scheme herself; she’s more likely to follow through if she thinks that it’s her plan rather than mine (or yours). Apparently, she’s been trying to contact Chrysalis every Hearth’s Warming, to no avail. We may have to look at Plan B, just in case.

Luna


Dear Luna,

No need for Plan B. This will work. You just have to make it happen. Have faith in yourself. This is the chance for you to prove what I’ve been believing for all this time... that, and there are few other options for a Plan B. I can’t think of any other large force that’s willing to hold restraint when it comes to destroying the capital – using Canterlot as the point of impact would boost the significance of the damage; any other place would require a total demolishment and some – of the richest and most powerful country in Gaia.

Attached are the sketches to quantify the Tab, as well as the amount of destruction needed to pay it off. Run some more calculations as you see fit, and tell Celestia that’s how much damage you need from the invasion.

Mother


The Deities, first and foremost, were. It was a fact they established before they gathered; existing was really the logical first step to actually doing anything. As befitting a higher dimension, there was no colour or definite form, simply thoughts. Eight entities sat, reclined, or slouched around the idea of a long, rectangular table, on the idea of an expansive floor.

“We are,” concluded the chairpony, who sat at the head of the table. “Now, on to the next item on the agenda: Event number 167, or, the Changeling Invasion of Canterlot.”

There was a brief murmur across the spectral table. One voice rose above the rest.

“We are concerned regarding the changelings’ abilities and the One,” it said.

“The changelings can only copy appearance and voice,” began a second, but it was shot down by the first.

“The fact is that they can take on the form of the One! That’s too much of a risk to take!” it snarled. “Reality suffers as it is with one of her. Having two, three, four, multiple copies of her, even if they are a mimicry, a shadow, could very well tip the balance!”

“There is no need for such fuss,” crooned a third. “We will simply have the human deal with it, as he has been doing before.”

“And you think he can deal with several minds at once?” challenged a fourth. “You hold him in high regard, do you?”

“Do you not know what the changelings are? They are insects. A hivemind, with no spare thought for anything beyond their bellies,” shrugged the third. “Control the queen, and you control the horde. He will infiltrate the mind of the queen and use that as a vantage point. He will scope across the battlefield. He will mark down as many copy Ones as he must. The changelings will feign defeat, as per the plan of the queen, and the mission will have been accomplished.”

There was an uncomfortable shifting. “We could sway Celestia into rejecting the notion...” suggested a fifth, but it was cut off by a painfully loud slam.

“No swaying!” boomed the voice of the chairpony. “You know very well what the rules are!”

“We use the human as it is,” shouted the fifth in reply. “How is that not swaying?”

“He patches up the holes left by the One,” replied the chairpony. “He does not influence the decisions of other ponies. He fixes what was made wrong. He does not change thinking unless where necessary. It is an overall good.”

“How about the time-shifter? What of him, then?” hissed a sixth. “We intervened directly.”

“He has never not had a choice,” said the chairpony. “To sign the contract with us was his choice. He could have very well not done so. Even today, he is free to break the contract, with consequences of course, but the point is that his will is free.” It waved a hoof and raised its head to full height, towering above the other Deities. “We are getting sidetracked. What of the One, and the changelings?”

“We can experiment,” said the first. “The best way to determine an unknown future is to let it come to pass.”

“We can experiment,” murmured the third, “if the subject not an unpredictable enigma of unknowns herself. Besides, can we hope to make a perfect copy of her? Only as much as we can make copies of ourselves, if not less so. We suggest instead that the human be dispatched. Have him do what we designated him to do.”

“Why we should bother with this in the first place is beyond us,” complained the second, cowering a little. “The changelings are imperfect copies at their best, and the change only goes skin deep. To consider the need to handle them is inefficient!”

“It is for safety’s sake,” said the seventh, who had been quiet all along. The bickering died down instantly. “Can you honestly say that you know the limitations of her powers?”

“I...” stammered the second.

“That’s what we thought,” said the seventh. It swung its head slowly, scanning the rest of the group. “I agree to the notion of dispatching the human.”

“On what grounds?” asked the chairpony.

“Because we want to,” replied the seventh, “the real and only reason why we do anything at all.”