The sunlight bore down from above, casting fleeting shadows as the train glided along its track. Gracefully and effortlessly, it hung in the air, streaking forward in a manner no corporeal object should be capable of. Twilight had ensured she left home with her goggles on, the cloud cover today being especially thin, making the sun more overbearing than usual.
Skyscrapers the car passed by reflected the sun across the car's surface like a mirror ball, dazzling anypony disorganised enough to not have brought the proper protection. The leviathans of glass and steel dominated all that Twilight could see, Salt Lick City was certainly a progressive place to live, especially in terms of what was left of Equestria.
Speakers in the ceiling of the car burst into a fit of electromagical noise, with a hint of classical music blended in. A voice rose from the midst of the chaos, cool, sassy, practically exhaling confidence with each word.
"Gooood morning Salt Lick City, you're on air with the mare, Vinyl Scratch. I have my lovely assistant, Madam Octavia, on board here with the weather. Take it away, Octy!"
A light cough emanated from the rear of the soundstage, a crisp and precise voice that overtook the confident drawl of the former.
"Thank you, Vinyl. Well fillies and gentlecolts, I have good news for the weather today! Current readings this morning put the Magical Ambience down to a low of only four percent. So take off those rebreathers, and enjoy that fresh air while you can!"
A cacophony of coughs and gasps roiled around the car. Various ponies removed, adjusted, or tore off their masks, allowing their muzzles free access to the air around them. Twilight shyly stroked the side of her own rebreather with a hoof, unwilling to part with it just yet. Four percent was still enough to cause damage to the pony body. It was hardly a low enough amount to class air as being "fresh."
"Solar intensity is at a high, however, with the sun emitting twice as much heat as yesterday, giving us an ambient temperature of forty-two degrees. That's centigrade, not Fahrenheit, fillies and gentlecolts. Make sure to stay hydrated and keep your protective clothing on tight."
"That would make you bad at leading by example, Octy."
"Shu-shut up, you! It's air-conditioned in here, anyway!"
A warm laugh emanated from the speakers, though its tone was distorted by the crackling static.
"I wasn't complaining, you know. Anyway, fillies and gentlecolts, me and Octavia are going to keep up our end of the Breeding Laws, while you enjoy some smooth jazz."
The insistent objections and indignation from the more well-spoken mare were soon drowned out by the music, a soft and warming song that remained with Twilight during her travels. The train was finally nearing its destination, a tall tower that tapered to an almost hair-fine point. Its sides were solid plates of glass, carefully crafted to create a flawlessly smooth finish. The car followed the track that wound up to the summit, finally halting alongside a balcony a few metres from the summit, allowing Twilight the giddying view of Salt Lick City from so very high in the air.
There was little to look at from this height, though. A defiant few clumps of cloud wandered the heights, though the were fragile and sickly looking, vainly herded by pegasi to attempt to dissuade the sun's heat. Twilight could see the howling storm of orange and white at the bottom of her skyscraper, a sandstorm meeting a blizzard, two titans clashing in battle. It was for no small reason that nopony ventured to the surface anymore.
She patiently waited in line, trapped behind a couple holding a small filly. Two guards approached, flanking the couple as they exited. One barked into the father's face, his brow furrowing into a familiar frown.
"Child Permit, please."
The father hastily set his daughter on the floor, searching around his suit for the required permit. He patted down his pockets, casting a worried glance to his partner alongside him.
"I, I can't find it. Just...give me a moment, please."
"Article Seventeen, Sir. No children allowed without the necessary permit, as per the Breeding Laws. Please hoof over the permit, or be taken into custody."
Further flustered, the father dug deep into his rucksack. Finally, he drew out the document, a simple laminated card with his and his daughter's credentials. He passed it to the guard amidst a shuddering sigh of relief, carefully drawing his filly closer with his spare foreleg.
The guard cursively perused the card, before hoofing it back to the colt. They parted, allowing the small family to enter the building without intervention. Twilight sighed, so few couples were able to meet the necessary financial and social requirements to keep a family. The sight of one was becoming increasingly rare.
The guards simply bowed their heads as she passed, greeting her politely. She waved the gesture away with a hoof, replying in kind with a slight tilt of the head.
Her journey through the Alicorn Tower was short, her destination being the precise summit the car had landed her so close to. The entire tip of the tower was a large office, but simply decorated. Wooden laminate floors were sparsely decorated with a reserved selection of furniture. The design of the glass windows allowed a panoramic view of the world that had evolved around the tower. Twilight sighed, the sun still hung in its late-afternoon position, while the moon was still visible on the other horizon.
In one direction, Salt Lick City was bordered by an expansive desert, that long ago in Twilight's fillyhood, had once been a forest until the day the sky stopped moving. The opposing side fared little better, cold and frosted over with decades of snowfall under the moon's pallor.
In the middle lay Salt Lick City. Neither too hot nor too cold, but hardly too comfortable for its inhabitants, either. The whole of Equestria had been crammed into one, narrow band around their planet. The Twilight Band, as it came to be known. Where to stray too far in either direction would be to invite hypothermia or dehydration, the only direction left for Equestria now, was up.
Twilight sat at her desk, a pile of paperwork ready and waiting for her. Requests for amendments to the Breeding Laws, as the farms were still unable to feed all the citizens. A report on a New Lunar attack on a guard armoury. Graphs and statistics on the rate of Magical Ambience increase. So many unicorns and magical objects crammed into one, small area had bathed it in now dangerous levels of magical potential. A force that had unpredictable - but usually negative - results on those exposed to it.
Her entire life and career was now spent taking pony lives into her hooves, and turning them into a simple pile of variables. They were a population, not a pony. A food shortage, not a starving filly waiting at the dinner table.
Twilight had taken so much in the name of frugality. Each day the ponies of Equestria were asked to tighten their saddles further, as more trims were made to the system. Each day, despite Twilight's best efforts and her most emotionless decisions, ponykind slipped another inch towards its own end.
Twilight sighed, her face sinking into her hooves. The world was teetering on the brink, with no safety harness to hold onto the cliff edge with. Decades ago, the uprising had been righteous, a just cause. Tyrants were cast down, and the ponies of Equestria freed.
But of course, the sun had halted at that very moment, and all the towns and cities that had been fought for in that war, were now just ghostly ruins of sand or snow. A world without the Royal Sisters had been a dream for most, but few imagined the nightmare hiding in the shadows.
A final document lay unopened on the table, sealed in an urgent-looking red envelope. Twilight slit it open, finding a small document inside, barely larger than the propaganda pamphlet the envelope had been laid on top of. It was simply titled "Project Caretaker," and as Twilight read more into the facts and ideas held within, the more she experienced a rare feeling. Her heart pounded, blood rushing to her head as she smiled for the first time in far too long. The document had supplied her something she thought absolutely impossible.
It supplied her with ponykind's future.