The first time that I saw Phoebe, the ponies hadn't arrived yet. They were there, I suppose - the infos were full of the little cosmic bubble in the North Pacific, just off Hawaii, it probably wasn't even the size of a parking garage at the time - but the whole thing hadn't truly caught my attention yet. 'Equestria' hadn't even been a word in use back then. No one could even imagine what would follow over the next two years. There was a little bubble, it was cosmic, and they were going to send a carrier and some aerostats out to look at it. One of the Worldgov spy satellites had spotted it.
I didn't know her name was Phoebe, then, of course. She was just this really, really, really old lady, hair as gray as smog, clothes neat but fairly out of date, standing there in the megamart. She was in the middle of the entrance, by the registers, just standing there, crying. Tears dripped down her face. Her hands were at her side, not moving at all. She just stood there, in her sweater, quietly crying, face up and level with the world.
My heart just kind of broke, and even though I was there with Micki - Michelle, but we called her Micki - and she was in a hurry, and she was my only ride home - I had to do something. There was no way I could just walk past a crying old woman. Micki did, she was off with a cart, impatient that I wasn't following but... I couldn't. I felt the pressure to move on, to join Micki, to get the hell out of there, but - there was a gray old woman crying, right in the middle of the entrance.
It probably wasn't the smartest thing, especially not in a city like Los Angeles - the rule of Los Angeles, hell, of any big city is Keep Your Head Down. There are rules to big city life. Don't wear anything bright red or bright blue. Don't fiddle with your hands, someone might think you're making gang signs. Don't look anyone in the eye, but keep an eye on everyone. Above all, Don't Talk To Strangers. These are basic rules - they were ancient before the Great Collapse. It's just how you do things, basic as life. It's like saying 'Remember To Breath' or 'If you hear gunshots, don't go to the window.' Common sense really. So going over to a crying woman just standing there was asking for trouble, but... dammit... there is a point, you know? A point where you just can't stand by, a point where humanity trumps the rules. No offense. You know what I mean. I just had to do something, I just had to.
I went up to her, to that old woman, who I would later know as Phoebe, and I asked her what was wrong. I probably shouldn't have, but I did.
"It's my birthday." The way she said that, it was strange. She said it as though it was the answer to a lot of questions I hadn't even asked yet. There was joy in it - like how a kid might say 'it's my birthday!', but also grief, too, like someone saying 'my cat got run over'. That is what started it all. "It's my birthday." Flat. Just like that.
"Well, then, um, happy birthday!" It seemed a reasonable thing to say, right? Maybe nobody had said happy birthday to her, maybe she had no friends left alive and felt lonely, maybe that was why she was crying. Old people can get emotional that way, about stuff like that. Or so I figured.
"No, you don't understand." She had the strangest look on her face, as if she had been asleep and suddenly awakened in a strange place. I remember that look, it still haunts me. "I'm still only sixteen inside."
Now, I thought at the time, we are getting into woo-woo land, and I was figuring what, Alzheimer's maybe? That prion thing? Brain tumor, what? But she didn't sound crazy. She sounded really lucid, scary lucid. "I don't understand." I didn't.
"I know I'm old." She used some of her sweater sleeve to wipe her eyes. It was hot, even with the air conditioning, it was LA, right? Old people get cold even when it's hot. They like their sweaters. "I'm eighty-one years old today. That's how old my body is. But inside, I'm still sixteen. I'm still sixteen, and it isn't fair!"
You know that feeling, right when the roller coaster goes past the top and the plummet starts, that kind of 'stomach in free-fall' kind of feeling, that is what I felt. I understood. Oh, sweet Jesus, I completely understood. Her bones were old, her hands were all knobby and wrinkly, her face was a shriveled wad of collapsing flesh, she must ache every moment - just breathing probably hurt a little - and inside, she wasn't old. I looked into her eyes, those eyes with the droopy lid on the left side and in that moment I saw myself at that age. She was me. I would be her. Exactly her.
You see, all my life I've followed the idea that a person shouldn't grow old inside. Always stay a child inside, always keep the wonder alive however old you get. I've made that my life's philosophy, I always have. I'm the kind of person who annoys people because I have to stop to look at that amazing rock on the ground, or I stop and stare at the ants crawling up the stucco, because, hey, to me, everything has wonder in it. A puddle is an ocean, all the bacteria and life in it, the way light streams through a crack and dust-motes dance like little worlds... I like rust. Like on old bumpers and broken hinges and such - all the colors of red and brown and the patterns of the cracks and rough crumbly stuff that looks like some Martian landscape... the point is, I always keep that childlike wonder alive in me. That's my credo, my central... whatever it is that a person lives their life by.
And I knew, right there, right then, that Phoebe was the same way. She couldn't say what she did and not be exactly the same. Only she was eighty-one and I was twenty-six at the time. She was my future. For a moment, I actually wondered if she was me, transported through time, to visit a previous self. Don't look at me like that - I think stuff like that, what of it? I know it's just fantasy, it's part of that childlike mind. I can still imagine wonder, and that's one way it comes out, OK?
Her eyes were filling up with tears again. I had to do something. I couldn't just stand there, and I couldn't just walk off. "Can... can I give you a hug, at least?"
"Oh, I'd like that." She said it very quietly, but inside... it was like seeing a starving dog staring at a pile of food. A hug wouldn't just be nice to her, it would be everything to her.
I held her close, but very gently. It was like holding a doll made of glass. She felt like she was made of crackers, like the slightest squeeze and her back would snap with a dusty burst, and then the rest of her would crumble and break apart and just fall to the tiles like a busted sack of dirt from the Garden Department. She cried, then, harder on my shoulder, and I let her weep for a bit. I didn't say anything for a long while, I mean, what could I say to that?
"I was beautiful, back then, when I was young. I really was." I still didn't know what to say. "It's all just so unfair." And it was, and it is, and I agreed with her, and there was nothing I could do, that anyone could do.
Finally, I pulled away - I had to, Micki was off to the side, impatient, and I didn't want to get left behind - and she just seemed so grateful, but also still so very, very sad. "I think... you're right, it is unfair. But I think you're still beautiful." And I did. In that moment I saw her as she must have been, but mostly I think I saw her heart, who she was, who I thought she must be, and that was beautiful to me. In any case, she gave me a little sort of half smile though her tears. I didn't want to go, but I had to go, Micki was being... well, Micki, and I just plain had to go. It was checkout time, and I didn't have enough credits to get home on my own and... well, I just felt so bad leaving her there. When we left, she was still there, right in the middle of the entrance, still crying, and nobody else was doing anything. Not even the store management, nobody. Nobody wanted to get involved, and I understand that, I do. That's just common sense.
So then the Three-Day War happened, and, well, you know how that turned out. Equestria was here to stay, it had a name now, and nothing could stop it and nothing could get through the bubble and it was expanding. It was all there was on the infos - you couldn't find anything else at all. It was bubble this and Equestria that. And then came the news that just before the Three Day War, Celestia had tried to talk to the leaders of the world, and that was why they dropped all the bombs. I guess we'll never know what she said, but boom, Three Day War. And then it was the big turnaround. Suddenly, Princess Celestia was our Best Friend and Equestria had full diplomatic status and the ambassadors were all over the place on all the screens and in public too.
And then, almost a year, not quite, after that day I met Phoebe for the first time, the first Bureau opened up. The San Francisco Conversion Bureau. I remember a lot of people were mad that they hadn't picked Los Angeles, after all we were basically almost as close and LA is just plain a better city. But they choose Frisco. Probably because of all the high tech stuff there, and the big goverment base, but I always figured it was because of the super rich up in Marin. Whatever, the Bureaus started, and people were getting converted, and now there were ponies around.
I remember the first time I saw a Newfoal. Yes, I stared, I gawked like some kid at a carnival. It was rude, I knew it, but I just couldn't stop. I felt really bad afterwards, I figured I probably made the poor thing uncomfortable, I know I would feel pretty weird with people staring at me constantly. But, come on, back then, it was... it was beyond incredible. It was everything I could do to keep from running up and just petting that pony like it was a dog or something. It was bright yellow. She... it was a mare, I realize now, back then I didn't know how to tell pony sexes apart, she was this bright lemon yellow with the most beautiful amber mane. She didn't look like a toy, though, you'd think she would, those bright colors but... she was just amazing. She was wonder and astonishment and beauty to me. Big, green eyes. God they were beautiful. Her tail swished as she walked. Trotted. Whatever. It was mesmerizing. I felt hypnotized, I think I fell into some kind of a trance.
Anyway, the ponies started being around, and when the Los Angeles Bureaus opened, well, more and more ponies everywhere. It is always incredible to me how easily human beings can adapt to anything. I think that is one of our best qualities - humans are super adapters. A new universe expands out of the ocean? Ok. Pony-aliens come out, sure. Clinics open up to turn humans into aliens? Yeah, I guess that follows. That's humanity, right there. Super adapters. Stuff changes, even radically, and maybe we get freaked initially, but once things settle down, well, it's business as usual.
Not for me, though, I guess I'm kind of odd that way. I'm still not able to just blithely accept all of this. I am just filled with wonder every time I step outside now. It's hard to get anything done - not that much needs doing now, except the odd food run but... I don't understand how most people can just walk along and not even see the pegasai overhead. Sometimes I just stop and get this terrible neckache from watching them push the clouds around, clearing the smog away. Once in a while one of them notices and does a barrel roll for me. One time, this green one did a loop-de-loop and saluted me! That was just awesome and... yeah. Sorry. Um... childlike mind? No? You don't have all day. OK. Back to Phoebe.
So I was in the Newfoal Market. Los Angeles had long been called 'Los Pegasus' at that time, as the number of Newfoals had overwhelmingly passed the number of humans in the city. The Barrier had hit land some months ago, and several cities were already part of Equestria. The pegasai had cleaned the smog away, and that big bubble just covered half of the entire sky, it was all you could see. It would hit Los Pegasus in just a few months, and other humans were getting really scarce. You could go days without seeing another human at all. I guess we all had different reasons for not getting Converted, as well as not evacuating. For me... you don't just betray your city, your home, you know?
The megamarts had all shut down of course, and instead, now we had little mom-and-pop, um, 'mare-and-stallion'? little markets, lots of them. This one was inside a former Nanomart, which used to be a grocery store, so it kind of came full circle. It's the one on Sherman Way, if you know the place, North Hollywood, it's the little market with the three Equestrian flags over it - at least I think they're Equestrian. They must be, they have ponies and stars on them and stuff. Kind of pretty, really. Kind of pony 'Pride Parade', really colorful, sort of... no? Nevermind. Anyway, it's our favorite market, Micki and me, and they get in Equestrian produce - not just hay and stuff but real fruit and greens and all sorts of stuff.
We're shopping, Micki and me. Micki went pony a couple of months ago by then. She was all over me to do it, but... I guess I was stubborn or something. Anyway, I got the fingers, so I get sent to pick out some tomatoes, and there's Phoebe! It's rare enough to even see another human and she turns out to be Phoebe! Fate, right? The same old woman, she shops at Flufftail's Newfoal Market. He really does have a fluffy tail, by the way, seriously, it's like hella soft. Nice pony, always compliments me on my hair, which is silly, because I have terrible hair, if I didn't dye it odd colors there'd be nothing to... oh, sorry.
So it's Phoebe, only she's even older, I mean, something bad happened because now she looks like she's really, really old. She's not standing upright anymore. Her hair is shock white and she's all bent over, to the side, I don't even know how she is able to stand at all. She was like ninety degrees, like an upside down letter 'L' bent to her left, head sideways, kind of limping along, supporting herself with the cart. And I'm walking by, that's when I notice that it's her, that it's Phoebe, and she looks up at me, all sideways, and compliments my hair.
"Oh, so pretty! All pink and soft. You have such pretty hair!" And I am just floored that it's her, right? So I try to say something like "Thank you very much!" and I give her a smile, but then I move on, because... what, what else am I going to do? She starts trying to put oranges - I think they were oranges - into a bag, and it's really hard for her, all sideways standing, trying to grip with those claw-like hands, and... I just stare at her. She had her back to me, so it wasn't like she would notice, but I'm just gawking, big steamy gawk time, and I felt awful. Her every movement was jittery and unsure. I couldn't imagine but that she was in terrible pain all the time, but she had smiled at me when she complimented my hair.
Her smile was just... innocent, beautiful. Like a child. So old, so destroyed, so messed up, spine all crooked, barely able to move, shopping all alone, on her own, probably in constant agony, and took the time to compliment my stupid hair. That angelic smile. And then I thought of how little time she had left, either from the betrayal of her body, or from the fact the Barrier would be over the city in just a couple of months.
Well something in me snapped. It was like some restraint in me just broke. I was in her face, asking her why she didn't go to the Bureau, why she didn't go pony, how it would fix everything. Just the fact that the serum resets the... those things on the ends of the chromosome thingies... telomores. Telomeres! Yeah, that. It isn't just that? Well, whatever, the point is that all Newfoals come out as young adult Equestrians, right? Whole new life, much longer life, and everything fixed, that's the point. One drink, and she could be running around like a filly, which, I guess, she would be. I just couldn't stand it. How much longer could she have left, all messed up like that?
That's when I found out her name, that's when I found out she lived alone, that she had no friends, that they had all died on her. She was the last of her group, her family, and I just couldn't take how awful it all was. All alone, independent, sure, but... just waiting to die, suffering every day, and completely kind, utterly nice, gentle and loving sort of person.
And yeah, I did still see her as some future version of myself. I'm not blind to that. I understand that I was also reacting to my own mortality, the horror of getting old myself when I looked at her. Of course, that happened. I wouldn't say otherwise. But - it wasn't just selfish projection or something. I really felt bad for her, for Phoebe herself. I liked her. I liked her from the first moment I saw her crying in that Megamart, and fate had just tossed her back. She lived nearby! I would be seeing her regularly, this was her favorite market. She liked Mr. Flufftail. You can't not like Mr. Flufftail. Seriously. Even for a pony he's sweet.
Phoebe didn't understand. She just... didn't get it anymore. She didn't freak out at the ponies, but she no longer had the processing power to grasp what a Conversion Bureau even was. I'm sure she could have, back when I first met her, back in that Megamart, but now, all bent over and worse off... her brain was going. If she didn't live as close as she did, I don't think she could have made it home at all. I don't know what had happened, but Phoebe had become seriously impaired. She could function enough to shop and cook, I suppose, unless she just ate stuff raw. But she didn't understand a word I said.
She could no longer grasp that she could escape her misery and be young again.
And that is the moment I became... that was the instant I made my decision. That was it. That was the very moment I became... a criminal, I suppose. I know what I did was wrong but... NO! No I don't know that what I did was wrong. Seriously, I just don't know! Yeah, on one hand... hoof, if you prefer, I took choice away from her. But she was fading. She was clearly dying, and she couldn't make a reasoned decision anymore.
Look at it this way - if someone is drunk out of their skull, and they fall into a flooded aquaduct, and they are clearly going to drown, it it wrong to save them? To pull them out even though they are shouting "leemeee alone! I'm swimmin! I'm at the beach! Woo Hoooo! Leggo me!" I mean that's violating their free will, saving their life.
I knew a paramedic, he told me about some of his cases. Strokes were the worst job he had to deal with, strokes in men. A lot of men, when they have a stroke, they are unable to talk, they are not sure what is happening, and they are scared out of their heads. A paramedic has to get them stable, get them into the ambulance, and get them to treatment. But the stroke guy doesn't understand, he doesn't get that he's dying, he doesn't grasp what is going on. So he fights. My paramedic friend, he had his jaw broken, shattered, trying to get one guy into the ambulance. Another time, he got three ribs busted. All trying to save a life, and all the time it was utterly clear that the patient doesn't want to be helped. He is fighting to the death, and the paramedic isn't considered bad for violating free will here, right?
I DO think it's the same thing. At least I think I believe it's the same thing. I mean, if you see someone dying, and you can save them, either you turn your back and let them croak, or you save them. I don't think it is moral, I don't think it is right to just let someone die. Especially if they are so far gone they can't comprehend anymore. I can't anyway. I can't just let a drowning man drown. I can't. And for me that was Phoebe. I cared about her, she was dying, there was something that could save her utterly, give her a fresh new life, and she was so bad off she couldn't even grasp that.
I couldn't just watch that every day until the day she didn't go to the market, and then comes the meatwagon. If what I did was wrong, then... fine. I'll take whatever you decide to dish out, but... honestly... I'd probably do it again. I can't just watch... someone die like that. Not if there is a remedy.
So I sought out the PER. The Ponification for Earth's Resources... Renewal, something like that. I didn't care, I needed potion, and the Bureau sure wasn't going to just give me some. It's illegal to forcibly ponify anyone. I knew that. Of course I knew that. But... I had to save her. I had to save Phoebe. If it was me, I would want someone to do the same, I would want someone to save me. I had to save her, right or wrong.
It took a while, they were a lot harder to find that I thought they would be. The details don't matter, friend of a friend of an acquaintance of Dealer who knew a Banger that had this friend who worked in a Dress Club who knew how to contact a Knight of the LA branch. I get there and before I can say hello, they have me on a table, strapped down and there is potion ready and it's pony time for me.
It took a lot of talking and pleading, and me telling my story, but in the end, they sympathized. I almost ended up a pony right then and there. I had to promise to go back or sign into a Bureau after I was done. I refused to join the PER. I didn't want to ponify people in general, I just wanted to save Phoebe. They didn't like that, but they understood. They gave me five ounces. Two more than I needed, because the Knight, he pointed out that trying to get three ounces down an old woman's throat would probably be impossible. She'd end up choking. I'd need to get it on her, in her, all over her. He reminded me to wear neoplastic gloves. I did more than that. I had neoplastic pants, a slicker... anyway, he gave me five ounces of potion... and three in a vial for myself.
He told me to hide the last on my body, some place it wouldn't easily be found. He said that if I ended up arrested, if I got into trouble, I could pop it down and then I would be beyond the law. Ponies are automatically citizens of Equestria, with full ambassadorial status. Ambassadors cannot be imprisoned, just deported. So the worst would be... well.
I followed Phoebe home from the market. I knocked on her door. She asked me in and offered to make me tea. She was so happy. It was like Christmas for her. I think she thought I was some relative, actually. In the end, I made the tea, she was having a lot of trouble, and kept forgetting what she was doing. I felt really sure I was doing the right thing, she'd never make it out of the city before the Barrier came. I doubt she even knew there was a Barrier by then.
No, I didn't put it in her tea. Not exactly. Not even close. I got it into her. I was... there was no way to be gentle. She literally couldn't understand. But I got at least two ounces down her throat, probably three, and the rest in her as she changed. It was easier... when she was unconscious.
I didn't know she had one of those devices on her. She didn't seem rich enough to me. But I should have known - I mean, she was living alone and was able to afford going to the market and ride in a taxi. Not the jitney, a real taxi. It should have been obvious she had wealth, but... so she had one of those monitors, I didn't even see it until I was cutting her clothing off of her so she wouldn't strangle as she changed.
All the electronic stuff just popped out of her while she was changing. All sorts of stuff popped out. Heart valves and stents and some kind of artificial organ and ports and weird implants, they all just kept coming out. It was pretty horrible. Her tooth implants came out, it all came out as her body reformed and grew young and turned into a pony. She turned out really pretty, too, beautiful, like she had been in her youth. Well, not as her human youth, but... anyway, she made a very pretty unicorn, kind of a deep golden-orange with a soft white mane. Lovely violet eyes.
When she woke up, she was giggling. She didn't know what had happened. The last thing she remembered clearly was from years ago. I guess she was pretty gone. I told her everything I've just described, about meeting her, about her crying, about meeting her again, about how messed up she was. We wandered her house, as she tried to grasp what had happened to her while she grew so old that little made sense anymore. She was just so happy, just bouncy. She didn't seem to care what I had done, she kept telling me 'That's all right dear! You did me a favor! Oh, I haven't felt this good in... forever, apparently!" that sort of thing.
But I felt bad. I had... basically I had jumped her and forced this on her, but at the same time she was barely alive, suffering, and definitely not long for the world and... nobody was helping her, and she could no longer help herself. Also, honestly, I was really worried about getting in trouble. I felt a whole lot of things, all mixed up inside. I wasn't sure if what I had done was good or not, but I figured that she was happy, and she wasn't in pain anymore, and she told me herself that she was grateful just to be able to think again. She said that she felt like she had been saved from a terrible nightmare, where everything was crazy, and she couldn't think straight.
It must be pretty horrible to be like that. Earth life is really hard, when all is said. And to just gradually lose your self, your thoughts, your memories as your brain fails... I just... you see, that's why I can't see that what I did was entirely wrong. It's just cruel to force anyone to live like that, and that is what Earth life does and... well, anyway...
There must have been a signal.
Something from one of those devices, because there was suddenly a lot of noise, and all these Blackmesh types - they're the soldier-police now, they deal with everything, from big Government stuff to riots in the favelas. And they are the paid police for the wealthy, of course, which apparently she was. So in they come, they must have been on the way almost from the moment the potion hit her to get there so fast. Maybe by airship. They're right there, all doing their duty, armed to the teeth, followed by paramedics and god knows what else. It was like an army trying to get into her apartment.
It took some time before they even grasped that Phoebe was their client. At first they thought I was Phoebe, and that I was being menaced by a dangerous pony. As if! But their client list showed human, and I was the only human, so... anyway it got sorted, and the paramedics checked her out and said she was fine, and she said she was fine and the Mesh boys were trying to figure out how to deal with all of it. Phoebe wouldn't press charges, and tried to explain she was grateful to me. The Mesh weren't sure if it was still a crime or not.
That was when one of Phoebe's relatives showed up. He was some high-priced lawyer-looking guy, I don't know if he was a son, or nephew or a great-grandson or what. All I know is that he had expected to inherit something and now that Phoebe was set to live another hundred and fifty years, that really made him angry. He wanted to press charges, on the grounds that Phoebe wasn't Phoebe, and that I had committed transformational implicit rape or some crazy term like that, and he wanted guns on me and me in chains and no two ways about it.
Well, what else could I do? It was exactly the situation that the Knight of the PER warned me about. Besides, the fact was that I felt guilty. I had ponified Phoebe - she had resisted because she didn't know what the hell was going on, pretty much about anything by that point, and, well, it would be kind of hypocritical to think that was all right for her, but that I could just stay human. Not that I could stay human, really. Not in Los Pegasus, anyway.
Besides, honestly, the Blackmesh and that yelling relative scared me. I didn't want to be put in prison. I definitely didn't want to get beat up or dragged off or whatever, I was terrified. So I took out the extra vial, and well... here I am.
So that's my story, princess. I thank you so much for the tea, it was really wonderful. I honestly don't know if what I did was right or wrong. I honestly have no intention of joining the PER, and my only contact with them was just what I said. If you have to punish me, then I am ready to face that. Princess Celestia - I am sorry if I disappointed you, but... whatever you do to me, it was worth it because... I just couldn't sit back and watch... Phoebe... drown. Does that make any sense? I just couldn't do nothing. I don't know what's right, or what's wrong, all I know is that I cared. I still care. Please be good to Phoebe, or whatever name she decides to take. She's a wonderful person, and I just know she will be a loyal mare of Equestria. For what it's worth, I intend to be a loyal subject too. My princess.
I don't know what they will do to me exactly, when I wake up from this. I guess the real world is going on out there, isn't it, while I'm... wherever this is, having tea with you? I really appreciate you listening to my story, and hearing me out. I suppose they will ship me to Equestria and let you sort me out. I'm a citizen of Equestria now, aren't I? Wow, that's just hitting me. I won't be human when I wake up. I'll be just like I am right now, all hooves and tail, won't I? I'll be a pony, just like now, in this dream, or whatever it is. I had no idea these Conversion Dreams could be so... real. This is just amazing, I have to say. This feels like reality to me. I know I must be dreaming but... well.
Princess? I won't beg for mercy or anything, I suppose you get that a lot. All I can say is that, whatever happens, I will try to be the kindest, best pony I can be, even if it's inside of a jail cell or whatever. I'll be nice to the guards and do what I am told. I won't complain. I promise. I can at least do that much. I won't be ponifying anyone again, I can tell you that.
I'll do whatever you ask of me, to make up for things. I mean, you are my official, legal princess now, right? I'll do anything... except one thing. I don't think I can honestly ever feel regret for saving Phoebe. I'm sorry if that makes you mad, I don't want to make you mad, I don't want to make anypony mad. I just... I just cannot... stand by, and let somepony I care about... suffer and die. I just can't. I can't.
I can't help being happy that Phoebe is young and happy again.
Please forgive me, if that is somehow wrong.
Um, oh... oh dear. I think I'm starting to wake up. I can feel it.
It was an honor to meet...