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 She was just this really, really, really old lady, hair as gray as smog, clothes neat but fairly out of date, standing there in the megamart.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...
Los Angeles has always been brown and gray, he thought. The desert hills, the endless plascrete, the thick blanket of smog so heavy that the sun is a pale red polka-dot you can just stare at with no harm done.
But not so Los Pegasus! Manny Delgado smiled, his brown skin shining in the bright sunlight. That's the deal with earthponies, they can't leave gray alone. Even before the name change, while the pegasai were just starting to try to clean the sky, earthponies were out making gardens. On rooftops, in abandoned parking lots, all the way through the favelas. One day, you could be walking down Figueroa, stepping over the garbage and the broken 'crete, and the sleeping homeless, and the next day, somehow, all the plascrete was arranged into little gardens, and the dirt under the city that hadn't seen daylight in a century was already covered in shoots.
When the Bureaus first opened, the Newfoals weren't wanted. They weren't right. They weren't normal. They were freaks, all those unicorns and pegasusesus - nobody knew what to call them, then. Manuel stopped, to sniff a large patch of flowers. They had been grown where there once had been a sidewalk. Everyone used the roads now, for walking. There wasn't much car traffic now. Sidewalks were useless. It wasn't even properly a city anymore. It was more like an endless series of little independent communities, little villages, all packed close.
Maybe Los Angeles hadn't changed that much after all, Manny chuckled.
It was definitely the earthponies that had made the difference. They had made ponies accepted in the city. You don't say no to good food. That was what Manny's Nana had told him. Abuela Juanita had been right. As always. Everyone loves good food, and that is what the earthponies do. Where they trot, there is green instead of gray, and tomatoes and peppers and beans and rice instead of parking meters and plascrete and blacktop.
The earthponies made the Newfoals respectable. They made them desirable to have around. The worldgovernment, it provided free food and water to every citizen of Earth. Out of the goodness of their hearts, and not at all to make up for killing the planet. But whatever the reason, for the first time in history, everyone was fed, just not well. Government ration was boring. It kept the body alive, but killed the soul.
The first time Manny had tasted real enchiladas was when Nana had made them from the things the earthponies had been growing. The corn came from Westlake, the onion and the tomatoes from Downtown. Little caravans traveled now between the sections of the city, carrying real food, not nanoconstruct, but real, living food to all the small markets that had filled the hole left by the end of the global Megamarts.
Nana had cried the whole time she had been cooking. She said the smell, the taste of the ingredients, they all made her so happy she thought she would die. It had scared Manny a little, actually, but she had waved him off, lovingly, with the big knife she used to chop vegetables. Nobody argues with Nana in the kitchen. That was probably true for everyone with a Nana. Apparently, real food was a very emotional thing.
When Manny had tasted what she had made, cheese enchiladas, full of flavor in the way that nanostruct food could never have, he had trouble at first. It was so intense. This had bothered his Nana, so he worked at it, gradually becoming accustomed to what 'flavor' actually meant. Nana said that the ingredients were better than in her childhood, when things still grew, and that the ponies were curandero, all of them, and that their magic made the food better. From that day forward, Nana wouldn't let anyone say anything bad about the ponies. It was that way with a lot of people.
Manny stopped next to the Rancho de Anguiano. That's what people called it. It wasn't a ranch, it was a farm, but because it always had ponies on it working the land, the name sort of fit. The Anguiano's were ponies now, of course, and they had performed a miracle. Where once had been a big parking lot and a burned out megamarket from the riots, now there was a beautiful barn and a huge working farm. They grew a little of everything and they had chickens too, brought from Equestria. Ponies liked eggs, humans liked eggs. Eggs were good.
The Anguiano boy, Gualterio, he was playing his six-string and, as usual, making it sound like several guitars, three maybe, all playing at the same time. He had become a unicorn, and he had once described how the magic from his horn went into the strings, so that he felt them as a part of himself. He could sense the way they moved and the merest thought would pluck them at any point or several, on each string. He could play now, as fast as he could think, and he was not a slow boy. The street was filled with music, bright and wild, straight from his mind and his soul to the strings with nothing in between.
Manuel stopped to listen, for a bit. Nana was expecting him, but she would understand. Music was special, and one stopped for music, especially such magnificent playing as this.
The community had really changed. Once it had been dangerous to walk the street. If you weren't robbed, a Banger might get you for crossing his turf. But now, it was like a proper village. Everyone worked together. They had feasts sometimes. Nana loved the feasts, and she always made something good to share. Everywhere Manny looked, the city was more and more lush. The earthponies could make things grow very fast.
There were orchards down the street, and more in Chinatown. The trees grew up while you watched, stretching and reaching for the sky. Sometimes visitors from Equestria would arrive. They said the closeness of the bubble made the magic strong, so all the earthponies could do things just like in Equestria itself. Los Angeles had turned from a concrete jungle to a pastoral garden. In some places, the buildings almost seemed like rocky cliffs and mountains draped with vines and flowers as the rooftops spilled over in waterfalls of growing things.
More and more people had gotten converted, once it became clear that conversion meant that real food could be grown again. Pretty soon, teams of pegasai were stripping the smog away so that the roof gardens could get more sunlight and better quality rain. The pegasai were able to bring rain clouds from far away, greening the city, and that in turn meant more really good food. Of course, with the smog gone, it was possible to see the big bubble clearly for the first time.
Manny looked up to where the big bubble filled the sky, as he made his way to his Nana's house. Half of the sky was a shining, shimmering dome. Right now, it was nighttime in there, and Manny could see the moon, the Equestrian moon, against a backdrop of stars. Outside the bubble, it was almost noon. Inside, behind that impossibly large curve, it was night. The bubble had touched land several months ago. It had first touched the continent somewhere near Lompoc, and soon the circular curve had taken San Luis Obispo and then began to cover Santa Barbara. It was at the edge of the city now. Ventura and Oxnard were slowly being absorbed.
Nana had a holoset with a big screen. She loved her soaps, her little dramas. All her friends would gather to watch together and share. Sometimes Manny would try to join, it made Nana happy, but he couldn't get into it. So much fuss going on and all of it could be fixed in an instant if someone, anyone, would just tell the truth. How could she still like such things? Apparently, becoming a pony didn't change liking things like that.
Almost everyone was a pony now. The Bubble was coming. Nana was a unicorn, silver and gold, and she used her levitation to cook with. Her magia she called it. She was a curandera now too. She could heal scrapes and bruises with the glow she made from her horn. Everyone loved Nana Juanita.
It was on her holoset that they had watched the images of Santa Barbara having its 'Inclusion Day'. That's what they called it now. They used to call it destruction, now it was inclusion. But then, for ponies, Equestria was home. That was something the converted said they could just feel in their bones. Even just pictures of Equestria made them smile. Home was coming to them. Soon the city, Los Pegasus they called it now, would be Included. And then they would all be home, in Equestria.
The princess had done something when the bubble had first reached land. Originally, the big bubble led to a desert on the other side, and boats would take Newfoals who wanted to go to Equestria out to a floating dock. The bubble was small on the Equestrian side, apparently, no matter how big it was on the Earth side. But when it finally touched land, the princess made a change.
There had been a big ceremony, one of the native pegasai had said. They had built up a big town called 'Welcome Town' on the other side of the bubble, and that had to be taken down. There were speeches and awards. And then the princess had done something, something súper mágico and changed things. The little bubble in the desert in Equestria went away. Now there was a wall, a big wall at the edge of the entire universe over there, in what was called the Exponential Lands. The wall was the other side of the bubble on earth. And it was done so that what was on Earth could be kept, after a fashion, in Equestria. As the big bubble expanded, the Otherside Wall in the Exponential Lands of Equestria receded, and as it did so, Equestria got larger and larger. Exponentially.
They had all gathered around Nana's big screen. The Quiñones' who were now all earthponies, except for little Maribel who turned out a pegasus. The Bautista's every one of them unicorns. Even the whole Quejano clan from the next street over, they had one of every. They all watched together the inclusion of Santa Barbara.
"Oh, look at that!" Nana had been so excited, this was just after she had gotten back from the Bureau, so she was excited about everything. She was a little strange, then, because she still acted like she was old, even though as a pony she was young. It took her several weeks to finally get used to not being old anymore. So she would sit and move carefully, as if her bones still ached, even though they didn't.
The image in the holo was of where West Carrillo met Highway 101. There was a big overpass there, a huge fairy-bridge of pre-Collapse concrete shored up with plascreet and blackfiber beams. Large warehouse-like buildings surrounded the overpass. Most had been empty for many decades, some were hardly there at all, the materials of their construction having been 'liberated' to be used in the favelas. A short way from the overpass was just such a community, a large, complex jumble of hand-made buildings stacked perilously atop one another, vine-like jungles of wires and cables, and countless rooftop gardens overflowing everywhere.
As the Infotainment Ministry aerostat hovered above, several pegasai flew up towards it from the favela below. Some bore gift baskets of fruit and baked goods. Apparently they had been expecting to be on the news.
"Oh, isn't that nice of them!" Nana always liked a good gift basket. All the time Manny had known his Nana, she had been ready at a moment's notice to take something nice over to a neighbor. 'Community is everything, Manuel! Remember that!' she had often said. And it was true - with all the jobs gone, with The Last Harvest having done away with wheat, and the government ration and the Austerity War, it was community that had allowed anyone to survive at all, to make it until the arrival of Equestria.
There were some shots of the bubble itself. 'The Great Barrier of Equestria' the news anchors called it. The Barrier was a shimmering soap-bubble 2800 miles across, almost three thousand. An image from a communications satellite showed the great bubble rising high above the curvature of the planet. Focusing now on the ground below the Infotainment airship, the scene zoomed in on where the edge of the Barrier was slowly moving across a building.
On the Earth side of the division, one of the warehouse-like structures sat amidst a stretch of rubble and abandoned vehicles. Broken concrete and newer plascreet covered the ground - this was not an area the local earthpony Newfoals had gotten to yet. Manny leaned closer to the holoscreen to watch. Mrs. Quiñone smiled up at him and wiggled an ear. Her little filly was fascinated by the scene on the screen.
The Barrier began to sweep across the building, very slowly but inexorably. In close up, the bubble no longer looked round, it was just a big rippling wall looking something like water. Beyond the shimmer lay green fields and rolling hills covered with multicolored flowers. Manny could see lakes there too, deep and pure and blue. The Barrier passed through an old wooden electric pole that had somehow survived the Collapse and the favela builders.
As the liquid wall swallowed the old creosote-stained pole, a tree began to emerge on the Equestrian side. For a moment, just a moment, one side was dead, gray, resin-impregnated shaft, and the other side was lush branches and leaves. The Barrier somehow recognized that the pole had once been a living thing, and when the electrics pole passed through, it was returned to life once more. Now, behind the shimmering curtain stood a healthy, tall tree, green and beautiful.
Everyone in the room cheered at that, some clopping their hooves on the floor, others clapping them together as they once would have their hands. Manny looked around. He was the only person in the room that wasn't a pony. He suddenly felt strange, alien. He was the outsider, now. These were his people, all around him, but he was the exception, the freak now. They'd never treat him as an outsider, of course. But he couldn't help feeling that way. He didn't look like them anymore, and he was almost useless in their new world.
He had one big thing he could do for them. He could fiddle with the electronics. Unicorns couldn't, because magic made electrical things fail and even break. Nana needed him to keep her bigscreen going. She couldn't even change the channel, unless it was set on voice activation. Manny had run a secret cable out to the Worldgovernment lines that fed the public kiosks, so she could reach the hypernet. But the fact was, other than for her dramas, and for things like this, he wasn't useful anymore.
Ponies didn't do things the way humans did things. Humans would use tools to break the concrete, and till the soil. Ponies used tools, sometimes, but they didn't need them the same way. A few hard earthpony bucks and stomps, and the concrete was dust. Unicorns could lift the rocks away by the hundreds in a moment. Pegasai were individual helicopters lifting and carrying supplies and seeds and cuttings where they were needed. An old bit of metal sheet, folded into a 'V' shape, could be levitated to sweep through the revealed soil making rows in minutes. Seeds could be planted in seconds by a unicorn, or dropped from above by pegasai, but it all came down to the earthponies in the end.
They would walk down the rows, singing, laughing, talking to the plants, and the plants responded. They would sprout and rise towards the sky in minutes, and the earthponies left greenery behind them as they walked. Back and forth they would amble, the plants growing higher with every step, fruiting with every song. By the end of the day another vast crop of corn, or beans, or rice, or celery or peppers was ready for harvest.
Manny looked at his hands. He couldn't pick the food fast enough. Hands were useless in a pony world. An entire field could be harvested in half an hour with a unicorn or three doing it. It was so easy, the ponies made games of it. They took their time because they didn't have to worry about time. Eventually, the unicorns were asked not to help as much, so the community could enjoy picking things with each other. It was just more fun. They could talk and play and the foals could run around. They made harvesting into picnics and socials. Magic made everything easier than hands.
Hands were for a world where things and stuff instead of people and fun mattered. Where every little object had to be individually manipulated. In a world where a single unicorn could pick all the fruit off of ten trees at once, hands were primitive. Now the unicorns did construction. They worked with the pegasai to lift beams and place walls and hover bricks into place. Already Manny's favela was looking more and more like the lovely cottages in Equestria - well, as best as could be done with earth materials.
Manny's hands were good for only one thing anymore. Changing the channels on Nana's holoscreen. He had become suspicious about how often the device 'somehow' ended up set on manual instead of voice activation. "It must be loco!" Nana would helpfully offer. Nana was probably finding ways for her favorite to feel useful. She loved him. She'd do such a thing, to make him feel better.
On the holoscreen, the building was vanishing through the Barrier. "Will you look at that!" Eugenio Quejano - no, now he was Hechicería Carmesí, Crimson Sorcery, fast and precise with his horn. "It's becoming barns! It's many barns, a whole farm!" It was true, the one building had been tasted by the magical wall and found to be a structure. Where a broken warehouse stood on the Earth side of the Barrier, on the Equestrian side land stretched out much faster than it was being taken in, and from the one warehouse was dribbling barns and cottages and fences and plowed fields.
"I guess a warehouse is a barn in Equestia, eh ¿mi amigo?" Crimson had turned to his best friend Alberto - now Cerul Azimuth, Pegasus Of Daring. Or at least insensatez considering the foolish stunts he liked to pull off. "Nopony will lack for housing or land I think."
It seemed that for every foot of land the Barrier swallowed up, hundreds rushed out on the other side. It was strange watching the Great Barrier move across the earth - on one side it moved so slowly, but on the other it looked like it was racing, fast as the wind, fast as Cerul playing at racing between the buildings, barely making dangerous turns.
The view on the screen was replaced by one of the anchors. There were two hosting the program, one was a stallion, the other a human woman. The woman was interviewing one of the pegasai who had flown up to the Infotainment Ministry aerostat with a basket of pies.
"We're here on deck with one of the citizens of Santa Barbara below!" The human woman had to sweep her blond hair out of her eyes. Manny wondered if all women on the news had to be blond. It certainly seemed that way sometimes. "Tell us your name, and what you are doing today!"
The pegasus from Santa Barbara was a stallion, dark brown in color, like velvet. His mane was black as could be. He must be especially handsome by pony standards Manny thought - he heard one of the Quiñone mares oohing over the fellow.
The woman anchor laughed at this "You sure are!" Many of the people in the room laughed too, because it was true - the pegasus had some serious flight-mane going on. Windswept finally got the joke himself, and his ears revealed his realization.
"Um, anyway, we wanted to fly up and say hello to everypony from the ponies of Santa Barbara! Hello everypony!" Windswept had a big, goofy grin on his muzzle and he waved a hoof.
Nana and many of the formerly older mares in the room waved back "Hello Windswept!" they said almost in unison. Manny shook his head. He wasn't sure if they didn't do that just to annoy him. They clearly all knew that the holo was only one-way. Manny noticed his Nana winking at him. ¡Demonio! it was just as he thought!
"You brought us some big baskets of goodies today!" The cheerful anchor was followed to where some of the airship crew was already tucking into pies. "It certainly all looks delicious!"
"We thought maybe you might like a treat." Windswept seemed slightly embarrassed. "We're all kind of excited... to be on the news."
The anchor laughed. "So, how do you feel about the Inclusion, Windswept?"
"We're all really thrilled about it down there. We're all going home, and we can really feel it. It's like the air is all tingly as Equestria gets closer. We were a little worried though, so we took precautions." Windswept smiled as the crew clearly enjoyed the pies.
"Worried? What kind of precautions, Windswept?" The news anchor was eager for something potentially exciting.
"Well, we'd heard stories of ponies being separated, sometimes by miles when the barrier passed over." Windswept looked into the lenses. "It gets really big, really fast on the Equestrian side, so you can't count on being in the same village even if you are right next door when the Barrier changes everything. So we all decided to tie ourselves together in one spot, so that when Equestria arrives, we'll all be together and won't have to go looking for each other."
"The whole town tied themselves together?" The anchor looked fairly astonished.
"No..." Laughed Windswept "Just our community. Other groups did the same thing. Our group has about a hundred and forty in it, but I know one neighborhood that tied almost three hundred together!"
"So what happens after the Barrier passes?" The wind had caught the anchor's blond curls again, and she was busy sweeping them from her eyes.
"Once things settle down, we'll try to figure out which village we want to claim and go pick out cottages and farms and stuff. I'm hoping I get to live in the top of a silo, if I can make it work. I guess I'll just have to see." Windswept thought for a moment "I think making a house in a silo would be awesome. Any pegasus can live in a cloud house. I'm going for a silo!"
"Well, I hope you get it. Thank you very much, Windswept, and all the rest of your friends, and thank you for the treats, too! Back to you, Newsflash!"
The scene changed to the control center of the aerostat where the other anchor, a gray stallion, began to describe the history of Santa Barbara. As he did so, additional scenes of the Barrier creating more Equestria played, gray plascrete ruins and small lots covered in rubble streaming out like a river on the other side to become newly manufactured miles of grass and rolling hills and shining, crystal lakes.
"Hey, Calaca, would you come here to your Nana for a moment?" Abuela Juanita hadn't called Manny that in years, not since he was a very skinny young boy. The tone in her voice was strange. Manny stood up and went over to her and crouched down.
"Manuel, it will be here soon. Maybe two weeks. When that happens, the holo will not work anymore. There will be no need to change the channel any longer." Nana's unicorn face was young and vital, her eyes bright and wide, but somehow, inside that youthful face was an entire human life, years and years of experience and wisdom.
Manny looked down at his hands on his knees, where he crouched beside the couch where Juanita lay. 'Deliciosoa' Delicious. Just Delicious. Like the food she made. Nana Delicious. She planned on opening a restaurant or an inn when Equestria arrived. She would keep the spirit of her food alive in the new world.
Useless hands. They had been useless for a long time now. He could not carry as much as a pony. He could not pick as fast as a pony. He could not push a cloud for rain, or shape molten metal in the air with his mind to make a tool. He could not make a tree grow in a day. He could not even plant seeds as well as a pony. He could change the channels on an electronic machine, because he had no magic and would not ruin it.
"I promise, Nana. Tonight, after everyone..." He thought for a moment. "...Everypony goes home."
Nana Delicious gave her favorite grandson a nuzzle. "You know what is not back east?" Manny had been claiming for a long time now that he might, one day, move to the Eastern Northamerizone, past the Great Lakes, to escape the Barrier. He had never made any serious effort to actually arrange for such a journey. He had never made any effort at all toward such a journey.
"What Nana?" She wore a different face, but she was still abuela. Still Nana, no matter what.
"Community." The word was heavy in the air, powerful, real. Manny nodded, his tongue silent. He had been stubborn. His family was here, and family was everything. His life was here, and life was the most precious thing. The world was coming to an end, but there was an answer. He would be more useful to everyone, even to himself, with hooves instead of hands.
When night came, the stars shone down, but they were hard to see because it was day inside the Barrier. It was noon in Equestria. The days and nights passed differently there, according to the whims of the princesses. The immense curve that filled the sky lit up the buildings and gleamed off the glassite of the skyscrapers. Perhaps this was how it had been when Los Pegasus was Los Angeles, before the Collapse, when electric lights ran all night long. The light from Equestria was bright and rich and strange and beautiful in the night.
The sky was like two great rooms, one dark, and the other light.
Manny went to his dresser and opened the bottom drawer. He carefully lifted out the spare pants and the shirts and the hat he never wore and those socks with the toes in them that he got from aunt Imelda. Under the socks and the pants was a box, an old cigar box from long ago.
He stood up with the box. It was taped shut. He sat down on his bed and dug around in his pocket for his knife. Manny opened the pocketknife and carefully applied the blade to the edge of the lid, cutting the tape. He folded the knife and put it back in his pocket. Sighing, he set the box on the bed.
With a finger, Manny opened the lid. The ancient, slightly rotted cardboard flopped back. Inside was cloth, wrapped around something. Carefully, delicately, Manny unrolled the object wrapped in the cloth. In the twilight of Equestrian day and Earthly night, the vial glowed soft purple. The light from it made his fingers look violet where it shone. The tips of his fingers felt hot and tingly, almost itchy as he held it. It would burn them, if he held it too long.
Manny placed the vial carefully back into the box, on top of the cloth, while he got up from the bed. He began to undress, first his shirt, then his socks and his pants. Lastly he took off his boxers. He stood naked in his room, his body bathed in the light of two worlds.
Once more, Manuel Delgado examined his hands. A man's power is in his hands. A man's strength, his fortune, these were in his hands. But that was only true in a world where there were men and no magic, where work meant hardship and every day was a struggle rather than an excuse to savor each moment.
He wouldn't be able to change the channel for his Nana anymore. Manuel laughed. His big job in the world, his reason to live each day while the others grew the most wonderful things and made the most delicious meals and built things by floating them in the air.
Manny crawled onto his bed, next to the box with the softly glowing vial inside. Nana said she would check on him in a bit, once he started changing. She would sit with him and be there when he awoke. She would be his Nana in Equestria, just as she had been on Earth. Nana was Nana, always.
The vial was warm in his fingers now. Manny unlatched the safety seal and opened the lid. A faint scent of artificial grape hit his nostrils, like some cheap soda pop or a very bad brand of candy. He held it for some time, even though his fingers began to ache, like he was holding something very hot.
These were his familia, his gente. La Raza. La Raza de la Poni.
Manny would be an outsider no longer.
Pudding Shenanigans loved her long name. She came up with it herself, and she was very proud of it. When daddy promised she could have any name she wanted when she became a pony, what had first seemed a victory soon became a burden. What name was the right name? It was such a big deal! Even though the nurse at the Bureau had told her that she could change it later, because Equestrians could just do that if they wanted, that hadn't helped one bit. She didn't want to change her name, she wanted the right name from the very start!
For the entire first week at the Bureau, she couldn't think about anything else. She couldn't pay attention in the classes because she was trying to think of the right name. She made lists of possible names on her Flatpad and missed learning all the parts of her body, even though they showed the cartoon twice. She kept bumping into ponies and humans because she was concentrating on possible names.
Then she spilled the pudding. She hadn't meant to, but the big vat tipped right over, and she slipped in it and her Flatpad went splot right into it and she had to find her Flatpad. It had all of her names in it.
She wasn't even supposed to be in the Bureau kitchen, it was off limits, but she had been concentrating so hard on searching the hypernet on her Flatpad that somehow she just ended up there. And then she was down in the pudding, it was lavender-dandelion pudding too which smelled nice but tasted awful except to the ponies and it was really sticky too, crawling around, trying to find her pad when the cook, Cheesebiscuit found her. Cheesebiscuit was not at all pleased and she had gotten a right yelling out for her shenanigans and that was that.
Her eyes got wide and she hugged the startled earthpony cook and danced around in glee, and that made her fall because the pudding really was very slippery. Of course her leg hit Cheesebiscuit's leg and then they were both down in the pudding and between the laughing and the being even more yelled at, everything had finally clicked for her. It was the best mess she had ever made, because it gave her the coolest possible name.
Names were important. You couldn't have cool adventures without the right name.
Pudding Shenanigans. It was like Pippi Longstocking or Podkayne of Mars, it had that cool sound to it that just bespoke adventure and Really Wild Things. With a name like Pudding Shenanigans, it didn't matter what kind of pony you were, you just couldn't help but be caught up in adventures. It was a rule of... well, she didn't know exactly what it was a rule of, but it definitely was, and that was all there was to it.
When she was finally converted, at the Los Angeles Disneyland Conversion Bureau, built on the ruins of the former park, she jumped up onto the table, stood there, and yelled to the heavens "Here begins the epic saga of PUDDING SHENANIGANS!" She then proceeded to choke on her hastily swallowed cup of potion. Next she keeled over and smashed onto the floor - the Physician's Assistant was certain she had literally broken her neck.
Pudding was lifted back onto the table and the attending physician physically repositioned her neck as it reformed, saving the teenagers life.
When she awoke, she only dimly remembered her Conversion Dream, which mostly consisted of demanding first Celestia, and then Luna, make her into an alicorn because "It would be so cool! We could be sisters and hang out for eternity together and you could put me in charge of a second moon, maybe shaped like a cube! It could be the cube moon, and I would be like 'Cubia', princess of the cube moon and we could have parties and invite only the coolest stallions and have them all to ourselves!"
She didn't, much to her disappointment, end up as an alicorn. She did end up a unicorn, which was still pretty cool, but not nearly as cool as being a pegasus. They had published most of the Daring Do books in human languages (with earthpony grainscript alternate text) and Pudding was ready to follow in the adventurous pony's hoofsteps. Still unicorns could do magic, and while they weren't as strong as earthponies, magic was awesome, so it worked for her in the end.
Shenanigans was dark emerald green with a golden-yellow mane and tail. Her eyes had changed from dark brown as a human to a bright almost pink color which she found mesmerizing in the mirror. Pudding decided at length that she found herself both regal and mysterious, perfect for a Unicorn Of Adventure.
Pudding lived with her father and his girlfriend - now a marefriend - in what had once been called the 'Capitol Records Building'. Pudding reasoned that it must have been some kind of storage place for pre-Worldgovernment legal and political documents. It was a tall, circular tower with windows all around on every floor. It had survived the Austerity War intact, and even had old artifacts still inside, somehow unlooted.
The elevators no longer worked, of course not, with only two hours of electricity available every day, but the stairs were fine, and Pudding liked to imagine that she was exploring some ancient temple, prowling like Daring Do through Ahuizotl's territory. She also really loved the way her hooves sounded on the steps inside the ancient stairwell. Each clippy-clop echoed against the walls up and down, completing her imaginary venture into uncharted lands and mysterious crypts.
Pudding's father, Pinstripe, had decided to stay in Los Pegasus because he had heard stories about how the first immigrants to Equestria had not perhaps gotten the best deals. Supposedly, according to the pegasai mail carriers who traveled back and forth across the sea to the dome before it touched land, the first Newfoals got stuck building their own villages from kits. There were even rumors of some problems with that beyond all the hard work. It was supposedly because of all of this that Celestia changed the way the Barrier worked when it finally hit land.
Pinstripe had become quite excited when the new iteration of the Barrier first touched the Northamerizone. He noted with great fascination how the Barrier seemed to work like a kind of artificial intelligence - that it could recognize a building from a rock, and a road from an empty lot. He went on for some time, in fact, prancing around the holoscreen exclaiming that magic had a mind or a will of some kind, that magic could be programmed to do things just like how a quantum set could be given commands in sequence. Pinstripe had once been a software producer for AppleSoft, before they had been absorbed into Intelligent Designs. The way the Barrier worked seemed like something he could understand.
That Pinstripe had ended up an earthpony never stopped annoying him. He felt it was utterly unjust. Although he had given up actual programming for management and 'cubicle farming' - as he used to call it - didn't seem to register with him. Pudding thought that being an earthpony suited her father exactly. He would refer to his job as 'herding cats' and 'milking geekbulls' and other barnyard terms. She had never seen him write so much as an app.
But Pinstripe felt cheated, because Equestrian magic seemed like otherworldly programming to him. It seemed like something he could understand and relate to. "They have libraries filled with the texts of spells! Think about it, a spell is just a recipe, a list, a program! Don't you see? I'll bet you credits to nanobars that Equestria is some big virtual world running on technology we can't even imagine, and the proof is in how magic works - just like a quantum supercalculator!"
When her father ran on like that, his marefriend Lollipop Sweetcheeks - despite the name, she was actually quite nice once she stopped trying to be sex-ayyyy and pouty - would get bored and find ways to distract Pinstripe and that was pretty much time to go play Daring Do in the stairwell.
It wouldn't even be a problem, except that Pudding's father seemed to be trying to live through her. He had gotten every translated book on magic that was available Earthside - all three of them - and demanded that Pudding spend at least two hours every day studying and practicing. He wanted eight full work hours out of her, but there was No Way In Tartarus that was going to happen. After a lot of stern words, they had finally agreed on two hours, which was about all Pudding could stand.
Now learning magic was cool, at least on the surface. Magic! What could be more adventurous than that? Except when one actually cracked open the books. The first hurdle was that not everything could be translated. There were concepts that no Earth language even had words for, and so the study guides that came with each book spent endless paragraphs trying to describe the indescribable. Probably, for a native Equestrian growing up surrounded by magic, all of it was completely easy to grasp. This was likely since the first book was entitled 'Happy Magic For Frisky Foals: A Unicorn Primer, grades 0 to 2'
The book had pretty illuminated scripts - unicorn glyphs - for the untranslatable stuff. Horseshoes and stars and swirls and other symbols that were completely indecipherable. In the study guide these sections would end up reading like:
Only then may (The Delta Of Ontology) be manifested within the (Place Of False Sorrows).
Somehow her father expected her to grasp this, to understand and apply this, without the benefit of a native-born unicorn instructor. Pudding would put up a game effort, after all... MAGIC! but... in the end, she most often just found herself shaking her head while watching the shadow of her horn wave across the pages in the firefly light.
Lightsprite Fireflies were perhaps the most amazing gift from Equestria. Everypony in Los Pegasus used them now. With electricity only being available for two hours a day, and with the difficulty of acquiring candles, or fuel for lamps, the Lightsprites were a Celestia-send. They were easy to keep, easy to feed and water, and they seemed content to hover about in an enclosed space. Best of all, they produced light at a prodigious rate. Frankly, unshielded by some kind of cover, they hurt the eyes to look at.
Pinstripe had waxed long on the little insects - how they produced far more light than could be accounted for by the minute amount of food they ate, how they seemed designed, created specifically for their purpose filling lamps, and how impossibly useful they were. This, he felt, was more evidence that Equestria was an intelligently designed cosmos, and not one that evolved through natural principles. For him, this meant that Equestria must be a virtual world. It was always computers for Pudding's father. He saw the world through Q-bit eyes. All worlds, apparently.
Pudding Shenanigans closed Happy Magic For Frisky Foals: A Unicorn Primer with an abrupt slap, watching her telekinetic field slowly dissipate from around the tome. Pudding liked releasing things very, very slowly sometimes, because it was neat seeing the shimmering glow of her magic waver and dim and fade. Just before it vanished, it wavered very quickly, like a rag in a strong wind if she went slowly enough. She also got a kind of sensual thrill as her field collapsed within the book.
When she held an object with her hornfield, she could sense its mass, how hard or soft it was, and how complex it was as her magic flowed through and around it. If she paid close attention, she could feel the curves and edges of something in her mind, and with a little more concentration, the inside. When she floated an apple, if she tried, she could feel the seeds inside, and the core under the stem as her energies swarmed and flowed through the apple as well as around the outside of it.
Once, Pudding had held her own foreleg in her mental grasp and concentrated the same way. First she sensed her own coat, the silky, emerald green hairs that covered her body. Then she felt inside her own skin, layers of tissue, strands of muscle and sinew, and the eerie webbing of nerves and blood vessels humming and pulsing. Finally she sensed the smoothness of her own legbone, and deep inside the hardness a soft center of marrow, all alive, all pushing strangely back with the magic that flowed inside her pony body.
Suddenly she realized that this must be how medical unicorns learn to heal ponies. A unicorn's hornfield was like a kind of x-ray, only with touch instead of sight. Or maybe there was a way to process all of that visually, somehow. Either way, although interesting, it was also sort of squicky to be able to feel inside her own body like that, so she never tried that again, not deep like that. Not with a living creature.
But objects were different. As she withdrew her hornfield from the magic studies book, she felt the layers of replofiber pages that made it up. She felt the binding, the way the pages all met in the back, overlapping. The staples deep inside, the hardness of the cover. As the last of her glowing energy rippled and winked out, it almost tickled, pleasantly, deep in her mind, sort of. It was hard to say exactly where she felt these things - it was far more than mere imagination, but not something she had a decent word for.
Just like the untranslatable parts of her book. If only she could match what she felt with the lessons in the book, she could probably be good at magic. She certainly liked how it felt.
Pudding stared at the cover, which depicted very young unicorns apparently playing with a rubber ball by tossing it with their glowing hornfields. Behind them an adult unicorn - somehow she just looked 'teacher-ish' maybe it was the way she stood, or the look on her muzzle. Probably it was the glasses - looked on, smiling at her students. Pudding imagined the teacher unicorn going "That's it, pass the ball around! Come on Daisy Meadows, pass the ball to Shimmering Pond! That's a good girl!" Pudding wondered if it was normal to make up names and stories about the ponies on the cover of a book.
Maybe she sort of envied those foals playing in that picture. It would be nice to have someone to play with.
Capitol Records had been untouched by the Austerity War, but nothing around it had. There once had been theaters, stores, restaurants, even what had once been a big radio station long ago. Now it was all rubble, for miles, a result of the riots when the food ran out. That was before the Worldgovernment and the Blackmesh and the Guaranteed Daily Ration For Mankind. It had taken some time to sort things out after the Great Collapse.
There were no other young ponies nearby. Her father wouldn't let her go off on her own - he was convinced that there were gangs out there, with territory staked and watchful eyes for any creature - pony or human - entering their 'turf'. Pudding hadn't heard of any gangs still existing, but her father was adamant, and determined to protect her. That said, getting to go shopping in the favela markets once a week was a boring way to live. There were only so many things a unicorn filly could do in an old tower in the middle of ruins.
The planet had nineteen billion inhabitants, where were they all? In the favelas, where the fun was. Pudding sighed. Some adventurer she had turned out to be. And there was no time left to properly adventure now. It would all be green fields and trees and butterflies soon. So soon. Well, maybe someday, in the scary parts of Equestria - the Everfree was vast, the dragon lands were enormous, and the mysterious griffon territories were forbidden. There were supposed to be ruins out there, in those lands, ruins hundreds of years old. Some claimed there were things from the time of Discord still left in those places. Maybe even things from before Discord. Someday. Someday. But not anytime soon!
Pudding put her forehooves on the low table and lay her head down on her magic studies book. She shifted her weight on the big pillow she liked to sit on when doing her required study time. She sighed, and turned her head sideways, looking out over her own dark green hoof to the sunset beyond the large curving glassite panel of the tower. Earth's sun was setting, Equestria's sun was rising. It was so large, the vast curve of the approaching Shield. The sky was more Shield than it was sky. The only reason she could even see the earth's sun was because the Capitol Tower had great huge windows all the way around.
Equestria was so close, she could feel it inside her bones. She could almost hear it, like music in her thoughts. They said the air pressure changed as it approached. Maybe that was it. The presence of the great wall sweeping towards them was always there, in the background now, like a nagging link call just out of sight, in another room.
It would be here in just two days. Two days - two days, six hours and fifteen minutes before the vast wall rippled over the Capitol Records Historic Monument Tower Building where she sat, according to the hypernet linkset to her left on the table. It was the last one she owned - she had ruined two, one not belonging to her - trying to use the compact device with her hornfield. Magic and electronics didn't mix. Pudding had learned to lip the active surface controls. It was fairly laborious, she needed to lift the link up, look at the display, bend down, touch the edge with her lower lip to find the right corner, guesstimate the correct distance, and then touch the right icon with her lip, lather rinse and repeat. That said, human toys were still useful and interesting, so it was worth bothering with. Two days, and all of this would be Equestria.
She hadn't really explored her part of the city. Daddy had brought them here, and that was that. Once a week they went to the favela about half a mile away and visited the markets. Then directly back, always the same route. It was an honor, her dad claimed, to get to live in a historic monument building. Not that anypony cared. The reason they even could was that historic buildings didn't matter anymore. Most people clustered in the favelas because, now that they were all ponies, they wanted to be close together. Ponies are social creatures. Except for her dad. She couldn't understand why they needed to live isolated out in an old tower in the middle of the ruins. They were ponies now. They should live close, as part of a community, a herd, not all alone!
Daddy was weird, even as a pony.
Two days until Inclusion. Six Hours. Fiftee....no, thirteen minutes now. The number on the display had just ticked over. Forty-eight hours to go, and she had never explored. She was sitting in a tower on the vast ruins of a dying planet, built by an alien race of ape-creatures, and she had never explored a speck of it. Daring Do would snort and look down at her.
Completely! When put that way - dying planet, alien race, vast ruins, weird tower - it all was just positively coated in romance. It could have been the blurb for a Daring Do novel, right there! Daring Do and the Alien Ruins! No, no, no... Pudding Shenanigans and the Alien Ruins! Oh yeah! That was totally awesome! She was practically sitting on the largest pile of adventure any pony had ever known, and she hadn't gone farther than the local favela market.
Pudding clopped her hoof down on the table like the gavel of a judge. There was no way she could live with herself, or be worth her incredibly awesome name, if she didn't explore the last of this dying city. It was right there! Right... there! Six flights down, out the door and... right... there!
Daddy was a scaredy-pony. Gangs. Gangbangers were a human thing. Every citizen in Los Pegasus had to be a pony now. It was forty-eight hours to Inclusion Day for the city. A human would have to be insane to hang around with only two days left until a fatal-to-primates wall of energy hit! That meant the entire city of Los Pegasus was all ponies, all the time, and there could be ZERO danger from anypony. Ponies were safe, all ponies were safe. That was part of Conversion, all the evil got taken out. No evil, no danger. There was no reason NOT to explore as much as she wanted.
Daddy was stupid. "Stay put, whatever you do, sweety, we have to stay together until Inclusion Day. It's very important. Promise me!" Stupid fuddy-duddy daddy. Pudding giggled at that. Fuddy-duddy. Fuddy-duddy.
Pudding raced to her room - up one flight, past the little rooms to what daddy had said was once a big boardroom for big human executives - and right to her treasure chest. Well, actually it was a big box, a small-goods transport container, but Pudding fancied it a treasure chest - and then a quick preparation for adventure!
Saddlebags - a must for exploring. Canteen - de rigueur. Second canteen - ponies need lots of fluids. Compass... hmm, it was a good one, but, it didn't really work. Earth compasses used electromagnetism, and magic messed that up. The barrier was so close, the compass only pointed at it, well, when it didn't just spin wildly for no reason. Still, a compass was the super best fashion accessory for an Adventurer. Into the Saddlebag. Netlink... she'd grab it from the study room on the way. Communication and maps were a basic equipment item. She wished she had a better hat, but her sun hat would have to do. Pith helmets were hard to come by in post-Collapse Los Pegasus. Food?
Oh that was important, rations. She'd raid the groceries on the way down. That was two things to remember... three, she needed to fill the canteens. Important point. Then again, with all the pegasai roaming around, and the greening the earthponies had done, and the favelas everwhere, it wasn't like she couldn't just go ask for some water or food. Still, it was the principle of the thing. Adventuring required adventuring equipment in working order. That was a law or something.
Alright, she had two days maximum to her, and everything would be alright as long as she made it back to the stupid tower before the stupid Inclusion Day for some stupid reason. She'd explore out for one day, and use the other to return. One day out, one day back, and plenty of time to get scolded for ducking out. Perfect!
Lastly, she packed Mr. Skinjob, her little human doll. Human dolls were currently the rage in the favela they went to, they were considered hilarious. Mr. Skinjob was an umber human doll. One thing Pudding always thought about humans, even before she was Converted, was that they were kind of boring. They came in very few colors, and they really did all kind of look the same. Pink, not so pink, kind of tan, slightly brown, darker brown, sorta umber, that was basically it. No blues, greens, yellows... humans were barely different from each other at all. Their manes were the same. Shades of brown, light or dark. Except for the roan humans. That was kind of cool.
Mr. Skinjob was umber with a roan mane on top. Apparently that wasn't very realistic for some reason, but it looked awesome, so that was all that mattered. Mr. Skinjob for luck. Time to head down the stairs.
Pudding walked very slowly, so her hooves wouldn't draw attention. They seemed so incredibly loud now, when she was trying to sneak out. Clippy-clop, clippy-clop. Quiet, hooves!
By the time Pudding reached the lobby floor, she was shaking on her hooves because of the strain of moving so carefully. It was a surprising amount of work to sneak about through six levels of tower. When Equestria arrived she vowed to spend time galloping across the expected wide plains so as to become stronger and to have more stamina. Adventurers needed strength and stamina. They were the base stats in all the online games.
It had been a long time since she had been able to play online games. Dad wouldn't let her have a mindset, so she was stuck with games she could lip. That was the one bad thing about being a pony. Human tech wasn't built with Equestrians in mind. Then again, who really needed hypernet games when there were real live magical lands to explore, filled with real monsters and creatures and mysteries? There was that. The fringes of Equestria were pretty wild, and who knew what might pop up accidentally in the Exponential Lands as they grew? Already there had been rumors of Everfree like anomalies popping up. It was unconfirmed but still...
She wrapped the door handle in her telekinetic field and opened it. The dark lobby was briefly lit up with the glow from her efforts. She did not wait to savor the collapse of her hornfield. She crept away, gradually picking up speed as she felt her hoofsteps would not be heard.
The sky was dark, but the ground was very well lit. Equestria covered more than half of the entire sky, or at least it sure seemed like it, and it was day there. Either early morning or early evening, Pudding wasn't sure. But it was bright, and it was half of the entire sky at least, and everything was lit in the most amazingly colored lemon yellow glow. Pinstripe had once told her that Los Pegasus, back when it was Los Angeles, and before the Collapse, had electricity all the hours of the day. Everything was lit up with electric lights so that even the dark seemed like noon in places. Pudding looked at the sharp shadows and bright gleaming edges of the rubble. It must have been just like this, she thought.
Pudding was galloping now, down what had once been a major thoroughfare. It had been called 'Hollywood Boulevard', according to her dad, although the remains of a damaged street sign only said 'Blvd' at the end, which she thought was pretty weird. "Blivud", she mouthed the sound. "Blivvv...uuud." Humans were weird. Pudding giggled when she thought things like that. She'd been a human only eight months ago. It seemed like some strange dream. She had taken to being a pony like it was her true birthright. Her years as a human were... they had been painful. Mom. The breakup. No. No thinking about that stuff. She was a unicorn, and adventure was calling!
She was moving in the opposite direction as the favela, which had been built around the big fancy buildings further along. She was heading for the remains of the big highway. Highway 101, the 'Kings Highway' the 'Royal Road'. How cool was that? She didn't know who the king was, but where there were kings there were probably castles, or ruins of castles, and that meant ADVENTURE!
The ruins were gradually turning into more and more building-like shapes. This direction hadn't been messed up as bad. The large spans of the highway onramps loomed like golden-yellow fairy bridges in the eerie light of approaching Equestria. Pudding stopped and looked at the scene around her. It appeared just like one of those old sci-fi book covers - the dome of Equestria could be the great curve of some vast yellow gas-giant, and the land around her the surface of some alien moon. The ruins ahead of the highway and the onramps might be some strange, otherworldly city, built by extinct aliens, filled with mystery. It was a thrill just to stand there, head full of fantasies.
As Pudding entered the shadows under the huge structure of the onramps she heard a voice calling out to her. She froze, still imagining weird worlds and bizarre creatures. "Hey, Chiquita, I said, you're on our turf!"
Pudding Shenanigans had barely begun her adventuring career when she had been savagely captured by a gang! The buff, well muscled gangbangers had escorted her to their foreboding hangout. Pudding had been unable to refuse their... invitation. Each wore their gang colors, bright blue, for the gang known as the 'Crips'.
The leader of this 'set' was an imposing character who called himself Woo Boo Sweet. Gangbangers had strange names, observed Pudding. Woo Boo had been explaining to her the history of the Crips and why they wore blue. "They was this dude, he was one of the founders. He went by the name 'Buddha', dig? And he wore all blue. Blue pants, blue top, blue neckerchief, blue shoes. He got shot. Yeah... shot. And so ever since, see, we all wear blue. Blue for da Buddha, blue for the crips, right on?"
Other members of the set replied with a hearty "Right on!" as Woo Boo continued.
"Now for a long time, we be having turf wars, all kinds of serious stuff goin' down. Crips versus the Bloods. Bloods is our opposite, the yin to our yang, the mortal opponent we must prevail over, dig?" Woo Boo stared intently at Pudding, and she shivered slightly at his gaze. She shook her head to indicate understanding.
"Now, everythin' went on like that, with the Crips and the Bloods takin' each other down and jostlin' for territory, dig? But then came Equestria. Right outta the sea, off da coast, the ponies came. An' everythin' changed. Right on!"
Roo Goo, Beary Bones, Doctor Professor and Slippery Noodle all stomped in agreement. "Right on to that, Cuzz!"
Woo grinned, his shining teeth glowing in the golden light of Equestria. "Now we still are in opposition, dig, we Crips and the Bloods, but our methodology is different now. We have our new... tools of the trade, ain't that right boyz?"
The 'boyz' all cackled in anticipation.
"Why don't you show our... little guest... what kind a' surprise we have for the Bloods today, my fine Doctor Profess-or?" Pudding couldn't imagine how Woo Boo could grin any bigger, but he somehow managed the task. His muscles were... they were just huge. All of the 'set' were massive. They were built like shick brit-houses to the last of them.
The Banger called Doctor Professor wheeled out a large metal cart, across the plascreet floor of the hideout. It had something on it, tall and imposing, covered with a sheet. "You wanna I shou'do the honors, Woo?"
Woo Boo Sweet considered. "Yeah, my main, show the little fill-ley what we gots under our sheets!" Woo cackled at that and his laughter was followed by the deep chuckles of the rest of the gang.
Pudding was led forward. There was no thought of fleeing. The covered cart stood silent in front of her, the sheet shining gold in the light of the universe nearly upon them all.
Doctor Professor grabbed a corner of the sheet and pulled it away in one smooth motion to reveal the Los Pegasus Crips secret 'tool' to get one up on the rival Bloods. Pudding gasped in astonishment. How could this gang, these 'Crips' be so... so... epicurean?
The cart was piled high with layers and layers of muffins and small cakes, pies and the most delicious cinnamon buns Pudding had ever seen. Her nose had already identified what must be there, pony senses were thousands of times more sensitive than her old human ones. It had been everything she had to remain sitting while Woo Boo went on endlessly about the history of his gang.
"Please, for Celestia's sake, please, let me just have one muffin. A cinnamon bun, come on, have a heart! Pleeeeeese!" Pudding had lost all reason now, her pony body had taken over completely and it wanted sweet-frosted, grain-based comestibles more than life itself.
"She done like what she sees, my pony!" Beary Bones shook his head in amazement. There was, without any doubt, a visible trail of drool coming from Pudding's muzzle.
"Whaddya's say, Crips, we want to spare some... ammunition... for the little filly?" Woo Boo's tall ears stood up as he cocked his head. His bright blue, freshly dyed mane fell across his withers.
In short order Pudding Shenanigans was scarfing down the most fabulous, most delicious cinnamon bun she had ever tasted. The sweet, perfect sticky delight had gotten all over her muzzle, but she didn't care. It was amazing, wondrous, the perfect blend of cinnamon, butter, and sweet flavors all melting inside her mouth like the living magma of some planet of savor. "MFF GOFFESSS FIFF IF GOOFFF!" she shouted, and despite a mouth full of bun, it was clear... she approved of the Crips secret weapon.
"When we all became ponies, that don't mean we stopped being bangers!" Woo Boo had arranged for some nice tea to be brought. Cinnamon buns needed something to cut the sticky. "Course now, ain't no use for guns and knives and all that human swirl. Pony don't play that, you hear what I'm sayin'?"
Pudding nodded, the tea mixing delightfully with the sweetbun in her mouth... oh, sweet Luna this was good... so... good.
"The rivalry continues - it just takes a new form. Turns out we be good at the bakin' and the makin' and the cookin' and the superior culinary prowess, ain't that right my brothers?" Woo got a thunderous pounding of agreeing hooves at that. "You have tasted of our justice, little filly, so what say you of our battle plan?"
Pudding managed to swallow enough tea to speak clearly again. "Oh, you are soooo going to knock the Bloods for a loop. They won't know what hit them if this bun is any example!"
"Well said, little filly, well said." Woo Boo leaned close, his stallion muscles rippling in the golden glow. "So, miss Pudding Shenanigans, adventuress of the wastelands, we offer you a choice. You can join our little fraternity, and assist us on our little rumble, or you can pay a terrible price for crossing our turf. What shall it be?" Woo grinned wide and big.
"What... what kind of price?" Pudding felt unsure and unsettled.
"You don't help out, you don't get no more buns. Nothin'. Cut you off like a too-long mane. Snip!"
Pudding licked her sticky muzzle, dotted with blobs of cinnamon sweet. "I'm in. Just keep me fueled with buns."
"My mare! Gimmee hoof!"
Pudding clacked her upraised hoof against Woo's.
"An' one on the down low!" Another brohoof, only lower.
"An a clip-clap-clop!" Pudding had some trouble with this one, at middle height, which involved knocking hooves top, bottom and then a proper brohoof, but in the end she managed.
"Right... onfff?" she squeeked, her mouth quickly filled with more cinnamon goodness.
The glowing curvature of the impossible dome loomed upon them. The air itself almost crackled with dweomer, curtains of thaumatic energy drifting by like slices of some land-bound aurora. It had been forty-six hours since Pudding Shenanigans had run away seeking adventure in the badlands of Los Pegasus. She had slept in a very nice 'crib' provided by her new gang affiliates, and been given the gang name Puddy Yum because of her insatiable lust for cinnamon buns. Seriously she couldn't stop eating the darn things. They had to take the cart away for her own good.
But then, that's what gang brothers are for. To watch your back. And your figure.
The wind had whipped up, the result of the onrushing cosmic bubble. But not even the mind crushing vastness of a colliding universe, mere hours from arrival, not even the immensity of Inclusion Day was enough to deter these two mortal rivals, the Crips and the Bloods, from this, their final turf war. This was it, the final battle, winner take all, for possession of not just Los Pegasus, but the entire planet Earth. All around the globe, Banger sets watched, thanks to some clever linkage to the hypernet and an air-tight agreement with the Ministry of Infotainment. The final battle of Crip versus Blood, live from Los Pegasus.
Actually, Pudding was fairly amazed that gang stuff was such a big deal. Apparently they had just grown and grown over the decades to become a serious economic powerhouse. They had stopped dealing in drugs a decade ago, in favor of specialty foods. In a world of government rations and nanobars, food items were where all the wealth was now. And even as humans, both the Crips and the Bloods had forsworn violence, simply because it wasn't good for profitability anymore. Even more especially so, now that the ponies were here.
That said, old rivalries were not simple to let go of and thus it had been decided to declare a winner through a pastry challenge. Ponies loved pastry, and they needed to merge the gangs in any case because of the law of the economy of scale. Being rivals just wasn't working anymore. But would the result be Cripco Savories or Bloodsweet Treats?
The Chairpony of the Pony Chef Competition had been flown in by aerostat to officiate at the open air event, at the insistence of the Ministry. They felt it added gravitas, and also brought in more viewers over the hypernet. An entire arena had been constructed on the surface of the raised highway, Highway Stadium, where the two gangs would battle it out to see who could create the tastiest dessert within the allotted time. Puddy Yum had been given the job of sous chef under Roo Goo and Doctor Professor, but it was Woo Boo Sweet himself that was the star chef for the competition.
The Bloods had brought their best pastry expert, the indomitable Vanilla Sky, a gang leader, a fierce mare, and known across the East Coast for a cheesecake that that was rated in megatonage. She had her homies with her, and they were a fearsome crew, every one of them Julliard in the prison-yard, yo. Downtown doin' it Alton Brown. They brought their Moolia Child, and intended everypony else to have... a cow.
The vast shining arch that was Equestria dominated everything. The light from the Equestrian dawn blazed like golden fire across every counter-top, each preparation area, and every last stove. Highway Stadium was an oasis of pastry brilliance in the middle of the gray and ruined former Empire State of Man, while the hover-cams whirred overhead, robot drones sending the live holofeed to every kiosk on the planet.
Ponies had come from the favelas miles away to watch the event. It was a huge thing, months in the making. Pudding - Puddy Yum for now - had no idea. Isolated in her tower with daddy and his marefriend Lollipop, Pudding hadn't heard one word about a cooking battle so close to her home, and at such a historic moment. The battle for Los Pegasus - could they finish before the Barrier arrived, a race against the very moment of Inclusion, when all the feeds would stop as the drone-cams melted into flowers and all traces of human technology were wiped clean from newly-created Equestria.
"Puddy! I need CLARIFIED butter - ain't no pleasure without full measure, pony!" Woo Boo Sweet was in his element, using the astonishingly perfect sense of balance and control that all earthponies natively possessed to juggle several bowls, pans and implements with a literally unhuman deftness. Eggs were cracked and tossed, several kinds of imported, Equestrian flour - it had to be, what with the Last Harvest and all - were unsacked and mixed, piles of lost sugar brought the illusion of an early winter to the parched road bed.
On the other side, Vanilla Sky was using her unicorn powers to swirl liquid candy into Watts Towers of exquisite confectionery architectural wonder. Only the power of unicorn telekinesis could spin molten sugar into a representation of thought itself, and her thoughts were clearly sweet and beyond the very Ideal of beauty. Her sous chefs scrambled to keep up with her stern, controlled demands - "cherry syrup now! Careful with the Dragée - caramelization comes from the soul, not the pan!" Vanilla was like a goddess of the kitchen, silhouetted against the onrushing curvature, her mane billowing in the rising pressure.
Two commentators, a pegasus and an earthpony, ran a running play-by-play of the events, while a floor reporter, a young unicorn with a mic in his hornfield and a rapid-fire patter, all kept the watching world informed of the events as the City of Los Pegasus began to be engulfed.
Far away, as the two gangs rumbled in the makeshift kitchen stadium, the rippling boundary of the cosmos of Equestria intersected the buildings of Man. Ponies gathered in the intersections, many roped together so that they would remain close as the Great Barrier swept past leaving endless miles of new land in its wake. The yellow light of Equestrian morning bathed everything in a honeyed glow as the liquid wall that reached beyond the sky into space moved inexorably on.
"It's a fever pitch, as the two historic rival gangs battle for supremacy here in Highway Stadium! The incredible determination of both gang leaders, the unstoppable Vanilla Sky, the irrepressible Woo Boo Sweet, each fighting for their color, their gang, and their own honor while in the background Equestria itself waits to make final judgement on us all. It is truly an incredible scene down here on the ground. Back to you, Flaxey-Dun!"
"Thank you, Oats! So, Hinny, who do you think will win this battle of confections?" Commentator Flaxey-Dun was beginning to need to shout over the rising wind. The Barrier was disturbing the atmosphere as it rushed onward.
"Well, Vanilla has definitely shown what a unicorn can do, her sugar sculptures are magnificent, but I fear the wind may prove a hazard to her candy dreams. On the other hoof, Woo Boo has a very sensible strategy, going for flavor and a low wind-loading profile with his choice to make what appears to be a most triumphant cake. I just don't know what kind of cake yet... Oats?" Hinny addressed the little floor reporter.
Oats scrambled over to Woo Boo, fighting the howling winds. "From what I can see, Hinny, it appears to be cinnamon. Yes, cinnamon, I think he is making a cinnamon cake... no, it's buns... no again, I believe Woo Boo is making some kind of cake that has the texture and impact of cinnamon buns - it's cinnamon bun cake!"
"Luna's left hoof! That's just..." but Hinny's response was never heard by the world, because at that very moment the Great Barrier of Equestria hit, rolling over, through and around them. It was a vast, shimmering wall moving impossibly fast, reaching beyond comprehension in every direction.
Pudding Shenanigans was grinding large kernels of nutmeg when the Barrier struck. She wasn't sure what had happened at first. One moment the wind was screaming in her pony ears and the next she felt like she was floating in honey, surrounded by golden light, everything distorted like being underwater. It felt like the entire world had somehow shifted into slow-motion as she tried to raise her head. She saw Woo Boo across from her, an intent look on his face as he used twin spoons, bound with rubber bands to his hooves, to stir a big bowl of what was almost certainly frosting. The quavering, liquid view seemed to last an eternity, everything embedded in an ocean of fluid gold.
Then as rapidly as it had hit, the Barrier passed on, racing at incredible speed away from her. Pudding watched as a wall the size of forever fell away into endless landscapes, leaving behind hills and grass and cottages and the occasional tree.
Pudding remained still for a long time, the shock of the event slowly being processed in her mind. She looked down to where her hooves stood in luscious, summer-green grass. There was a bright yellow dandelion to her left, and more beyond that. Her gaze followed them until she could comprehend her situation.
She was standing on a large, low hill, dotted with dramatic rock edifices. That must be what the Barrier made of the broken overpass and the onramps. Artificial stone had been transformed into natural stone, and grass and field had replaced empty lots and rubble. Hollywood Boulevard had become a lovely country lane, with flowers on the sides, which stretched into infinity in both directions. Pudding tried to establish landmarks of any kind. Far in the distance, so very, very far away, there seemed to be gigantic mountains topped with snow. The Hollywood hills? The mountains that surrounded the city? Los Pegasus had been big. In Equestria, the same land had become incomprehensibly vast. There was room enough for all the billions of the earth right here, and this was just a speck on the fringe of Equestria. Exponential Lands. They truly were.
Pudding became aware that she still had her saddlebags! That was unexpected. They had been under a prep station in the stadium, now they were under the shadow of a vast leaning rock. She trotted to them, and lifted them with her hornfield. The difference was instantly noticeable. For a moment, she had trouble controlling the floating saddlebags. Before, on Earth, it took effort to lift and move things. It took a certain concentration and force of will. But here, inside Equestria, it was almost too easy. Her levitation felt slippery and quicksilver, and she found herself overcompensating.
It was then that she noticed it, in the air, in her own flesh - magic. The stuff of magic was palpable, it was everywhere, in everything. Everything was alive in some strange sense, even the rocks, even the sweet breath she savored in her nose and mouth. It was like the world, no the universe, had been recently scrubbed. No, not even that was enough. Everything felt like beauty itself. Pudding took in a deep breath, her sensitive pony nose filled with the intoxicating scent of flowers, grasses and... cinnamon?
Following her nose, literally, Pudding rounded the rock outcroppings. The scent of cinnamon was getting stronger. Her saddlebags firmly on her back, she made it past the largest formation to find the saddle of the great hill. On the other side of the hill, next to even more rock outcroppings (the other onramp?) there was a pony. It was Woo Boo.
Woo Boo had only been a few hooves from her in the stadium. Now he was at least a hundred hooves away. Pudding began to gallop as she noticed a second pony by Woo Boo. It was Vanilla, the leader of the Bloods. They seemed to be discussing something, heads very close to each other. Were they whispering?
No, they were kissing.
Ah, so that is how the great battle ended between the two most terrifying gangs of earth, now that they were in Equestria. A tie. Perhaps even a permanent bond. Well then, thought Pudding as she approached, a victory for everypony! It was the best of all possible resolutions.
"Puddy Yum! My Mare!" Woo Boo gave the little filly a pony hug, head over her back. "Glad to see you found your bearings. There's a lotta here, here, if you get my meanin'"
Pudding did indeed get his meaning. One hoof of ground on Earth made hundreds of hooves of ground here. Now she finally understood why her daddy had been so adamant about staying together, about not leaving. He was out there, somewhere, but where? Her home could be hundreds, even thousands of miles away!
"Is somethin' troublin' you, little filly?" Vanilla Sky gave Pudding a nuzzle, a kind gesture.
"My... father, my home, I..." Pudding ran to a massive tilted stone and scrambled up the incline. At the top she scanned the horizon, following the country lane that Hollywood Boulevard had become. Wait... no... THERE! Pudding's heart sped up as her mind raced. Thoughts filled her, plans, ideas, notions. This was a new world to make a place within. She was with two of the best confectioners she could imagine, and they were a couple. Somewhere nearby must be all the other ponies, they just had to find them. And ponies loved pastry and confections. She was daddy's girl, she realized. Born to manage, she supposed.
"Come here, both of you! I have a proposition to make!"
In the distance, far, far in the distance, the true brilliance of her father, Pinstripe, became evident. The tower. It had been the Capitol Records building, a tall, round mass of metal and glass. Now it was a shining, decorated spire, reaching into the Equestrian sky, like some fugitive tower from Canterlot itself. It was so far away, but Pudding's powerful pony eyes could make out balconies and spiral staircases and beautiful flags on top. It gleamed in gold and white and bright decorations. It was a castle unto itself. It would become the center of a community, of that there could be no doubt.
It would be a long, arduous trek to that distant spire. And they would first have to find all the scattered members of the former gangs and the Ministry-sponsored infotainment crew. And there would be lost ponies that had just come to watch, wandering aimlessly from grass to pond. All would be useful. Every last one. For her new catering empire. Daddy would be very, very proud.
Oh, it was not going to be easy. Not even for Pudding Shenanigans, Mare of Mystery.
But it would be... an Adventure.
Special thanks to Dalton Trumbo
Johnny felt the tingle on the little spot on his cheek. That was magic, he recognized it now. The ceiling above him approached, and he realized he was being floated once more. Was this the second or the third time? They did it three times a day. The color of the soft glow in front of his eyes told him it was the New day nurse, his favorite. The Regular day nurse was compassionate - they were all compassionate, they couldn't help but be, considering - but the New day nurse was special. She talked to him like he was her special friend.
Johnny floated there, closer to the ceiling for a fair time. He had gotten quite familiar with the ceiling, and the designs and beautiful inlaid wood work were old friends now. Almost over him was a large sun pattern, the symbol of Celestia, done in two different types of wood. Around that were inlaid metal swirls that likely represented either clouds or wind, it was hard to say. This close to the surface, Johnny searched for and found the little error, where the metal design didn't quite align with the wood. It was gorgeous work, but even unicorns weren't perfect. Johnny had overheard some member of the staff talking about how the facility had been built. Unicorns did the fancy details, because they could use magic to shape and form things in ways no other pony could.
Johnny presumed the job of cleaning him must be over, because now he was floating down again. "There we go, see? All better now! Ooh! Would you like a change of scene? I bet you would, I know I would. I could put you by the window for a while, would that be fun? I would get so tired of just the ceiling, if it were me. I mean, the ceiling is beautiful, they did such a good job, but seeing trees and flowers and animals is just so much better, don't you think?"
Johnny was floating again, the soft pink energy once again tinting his view. He wished he could see the nurse. Ah - he must be in the chair. He assumed it was a chair, because he was upright. A large, oval window, crossed by a few branch-like dividers presented itself. The ponies loved their naturalistic aesthetic. That was one thing about the ponies, everything they built was beautiful and filled with character. Magic made everything so much easier, probably even the work-prisons looked like palaces. Did ponies have work-prisons? No, no that was stupid. Ponies would never make an industry out of incarceration. They probably didn't even incarcerate at all. Well, except for... no. This wasn't incarceration, even if it felt like it. It was just caring. Like they always did.
Outside the oval window, the view was strikingly Earthlike. The facility was deep in the Everfree, a strange forest where the normal Equestrian physics broke down and even failed altogether. It was the closest thing to Earth within Equestria. It was a place where the weather functioned on its own, where plants grew without earthpony magic, where strange and terrible creatures did strange and terrible things, just like the wild ecologies of ancient Earth. It was the one place where the princesses could erect a bubble that kept the deadly magic out.
Johnny could see several trees, the leaves blowing in a breeze that must have just happened on its own. No pegasus would dare to try to control the weather here. Beyond the trees, Johnny could see the anti-magic barrier, crackling and sparking in the distance. That was the only thing keeping him, and all the rest of the last humans alive, now that the Earth was gone. How long had it been? Years, several years, certainly. A decade? It was hard to know anymore. A long time. Such... a long time. And such a long time to go. Oh, sweet Jesus in heaven... such a long, long time to go.
"Aww! You do like the forest! I do too! I completely understand. Here! Let me wipe your eyes... such a poetic soul you are. There, there..."
Johnny Gocher-Gunn was a strong man, a brave man, a man of sure words and firm action. The Gocher side of the family had been involved in construction, long, long ago, while the Gunn side were distantly related to a hollywood writer of the pre-Collapse era, James Gunn, the author of 'Deadlier Than a Male', which had been made into the movie 'Born to Kill'. Johnny's roots in Hollywood went way back, and he saw Los Angeles in a special way. Los Angeles was his city, the city of his family, and in a strange way, he felt he owned a bit of it, and that the city owned a little bit of him in return.
Johnny knew all the historic places. He had traced them down from ancient records, the places where old movies had been made, where famous theatres had stood, or still remained, repurposed. He knew where the old stars had lived, and he knew the history of his beloved city. Los Angeles was history, every bit of it, every star on the sidewalk, every dead, dry palm tree, every broken ruin had a story to tell. Here was where the myths and stories that had shaped the world had been created. Here was where humanity itself had birthed their celluloid - and later digital - dreams. Los Angeles was every movie, every show, every dream, shipped out to the rest of the planet, informing the media of countless cultures. Los Angeles was the secret soul of Man.
And Johnny could not abide the fact that Los Angeles had come to be called Los Pegasus. It killed him inside, it burned deep like a belly full of razor blades and Cholula sauce. The ponies. The damn, fucking ponies.
At first, he had been a fan. When the bubble in the sea was announced to the world, Johnny had cheered. It was science fiction coming true. Alien universes, a cosmos in collision. When the aliens turned out to be brightly colored quadrupeds that vaguely resembled earthly equines, that was even better. This was Wizard Of Oz stuff, the aliens were friendly, and they had strange powers and sang songs and told stories - nothing could be better.
Even when it became clear that the alien universe seemed to be expanding, Johnny had not feared - this was science fiction, and in the end technology would provide the solution, it was only a matter of time. But when it became clear that there was no simple answer, that science and technology were helpless against this expanding cosmos, Johnny had leaped at the thought of space. Finally, this would push Man out of the cradle and into the stars. He had thanked Equestria, in his mind, for the push.
But it didn't work out that way. There had never been any real profit in space, near orbit, certainly, but not space, not the moon or mars. Those in power saw no benefit to colonizing other worlds, they never had. The cost was far too great, with no five-year plan for profit. And now the resources simply weren't there. Not enough fuel, not enough credits, not enough rare metals, not enough petrochemicals, not enough anything. And even if ships could be built, who could go? A few hundred of the elite, the rich, the powerful? Space had been squandered, and now it was too late.
Because they only had seven years. Seven years from the moment the bubble was first spotted until the bubble would be all that there was, and the earth would be gone. Space... was an impossibility.
The strange universe of the aliens was deadly to humans, so humans could never cross into it. The planet would be destroyed and there was no place to go. But humans had once created nanotechnology that could reshape flesh. The promise had died, though, when it became clear that the microscopic machines released too much heat. They would cook whatever they altered. Nanotech was good only for making food and goods.
But the aliens wanted to help. The had the problem, of heat covered - thanks to their strange energies, magic. It was called magic, what else could it be called? It violated all the laws of Earthly physics. And it could be used to power the nanomachines in such a way that they produced no heat. They worked faster, too. They became the miracle that they had once promised to be, overnight.
But there was a catch, there is always a catch. The only way to make humans safe was to make them like the native species of the expanding cosmos. Humans had to become... them. And that was the point where Johnny Gocher-Gunn, son of Bill Gocher and Mary Gocher could no longer follow. If humanity couldn't remain human, then that was no salvation. A pony - they had been called 'ponies' the aliens, their own name for themselves couldn't even be said by human tongues - a pony is not a man, and no amount of nanotech or scientific babble could change that.
But nobody wanted to die, and nobody had any other answer, so the Bureaus finally opened, and that was the beginning of the end of mankind. Johnny wasn't especially educated, he couldn't understand all the reasons given for why it was so damn impossible to stop another universe with the technology at hand, but he damn well figured they should spend every last second of the remaining six years trying to find an answer, instead of just giving in to an easy, obvious fix. Becoming alien was not an answer, it was escape. It was too much change in too short of a time. It was giving up out of desperation.
Better to die, proudly, on two legs, than crawl to dubious comfort on four.
Johnny hadn't expected to join the Human Liberation Front. He didn't agree with Conversion, or with the Bureaus, but he did not bear the actual aliens, the 'Equestrians' any ill will. Equestrians were a kindly lot, and they were not violent, they were always polite, and they were honest to a fault. The 'Newfoals', as converted humans had been named, shared in all of these traits and sometimes more - like the new immigrants they were, they often tried harder than the native Equestrians to show their loyalty to their new nation, their new universe. Conversion wasn't just a change of species, it was the very act of renouncing citizenship of Earth and swearing loyalty to Equestria. Humans belonged to Earth and its government, ponies belonged to Equestria and its diarchy. That was how things worked. That was the only way things could be.
Johnny had once talked to a neighbor who had gotten converted with his wife and little girl. They had met a pegasus in a park and it had precipitated their decision. They had moved away to a new home more suited to their new bodies, but had come to say goodbye before they left.
Johnny had asked the newly-minted unicorn stallion that had been his next door neighbor about his change of citizenship, and for that matter, religion.
"Well, Earth has nothing for me any more. Earth laws and rules don't make much sense for a pony for the most part. But most of all there is Celestia and Luna!"
Somehow the blue unicorn seemed to think this answered everything. It did not satisfy Johnny.
"I spent my life believing in things just because I was told they were true. But I met the princesses, and I experienced what really having a soul means. In all of my years as a human, 'god' was just a word. But the princesses are there and anypony can talk to them. You have to make an appointment, but that's only reasonable - they've got to be pretty busy, right?
Plus, all Newfoals get to meet the princesses as part of the conversion process! They say it's a boon for humans having to convert to survive. I can't imagine any pony ever preferring mortal ponies or humans ruling them, and I can't imagine anypony ever settling for a god on paper when they can have two actual, real goddesses that you can sit down with and talk to! Nothing beats real, Johnny, nothing in either world!"
Johnny had shaken his head and waved the new pony family off as they boarded a pegasus-drawn chariot to their new home. All the Newfoals talked like that, or so he'd been told. Meeting those princesses was apparently so profound it changed their lives permanently.
Johnny had looked at the sky and couldn't help but wonder. If there was ever a time that the sky should have split open and Jesus or Jehovah or Allah or Buddha or Zeus or SOME Earthly deity should ever decide to descend and make his presence known, this was surely it. The end of the world, according to all the scientists and the government too. Ponies weren't in the Bible or the Koran or any other holy book Johnny knew of. All the prophets seemed to have missed Equestria in their visions of the future. Johnny had waited there, on the steps, for some sign. For the sky to open up, for something. Maybe the ponies were right. Maybe Earth really didn't have any magic. And without any magic in the world, how could their be any gods?
Over the weeks that thought bothered Johnny more and more. Equestria wasn't just gobbling up the planet, it wasn't just forcing humans to turn into aliens, it was making it hard to keep believing in human things anymore. What government could compete with twin goddess-princesses? What holy book could compete with commonplace, everyday miracles. It was hard to get excited about Jesus whistling up fishes and loaves when the unicorn in the local diner could poach eggs in a floating ball of boiling water just for the fun of it. The mere existence of Equestria had made a mockery of every bit of human history, every human achievement, every human thought or work.
Oh, they said they were preserving human culture - translating books and finding ways to take human music and human movies into Equestria. But what would the ponies choose? It was a fair bet that anything that wasn't sweet, romantic, pretty or gentle would be left behind. Oh, children's cartoons would survive, but Johnny seriously doubted that The Godfather would make it. Humanity would be remembered by Winnie The Pooh and Kiki's Delivery Service, but Kill Bill would die with the planet. No pony could stand Tarantino. They felt too much compassion for the characters. They couldn't accept that talking things over was not the solution to everything.
Or so Johnny had once believed. Now... now he knew he had been wrong. So very, very wrong.
It was feeding time. Johnny had mixed feelings about feeding time. On one hand, he looked forward to it because of the patch on his tongue. The Feeding Unicorn tried to be careful to stream the liquid mixture across his tongue as it went down his throat and into his belly, but there was no way Johnny could tell the talented stallion where the patch on his tongue was that still worked. Sometimes he would get a burst of taste, of flavor, of touch as the food made contact, and sometimes it just went on by. There were several places Johnny could feel things. The patch on his cheek, his eyes, although he couldn't move them, he could feel them. He was very grateful for whatever they had done to keep his eyes wet, since he couldn't blink. When it first happened, his eyes had stung so bad for so long.
There was something with tomato in tonight's offering. Johnny used to not like tomato, but now, well now anything was a treat. There! There was another burst of flavor and sensation. Oh, that was good. But it also hurt, it hurt every time. Not physical pain, it hurt because it made Johnny feel like a baby. He certainly was as helpless as one. He couldn't move, not a muscle not a twitch anywhere in his whole body. He couldn't blink or roll his eyes. If it weren't for some kind of spell put on him, he wouldn't be able to breath. But that had been attended to, with all the effectiveness of human machines, only pony style. Magic was their technology, and it served them very, very well.
In a way, he should be grateful. In a human hospital - if he had been able to afford it, of course - he would never have received such kind and constant attention. He would have been hooked up to machines and pretty much left alone, except when something truly demanded effort. He doubted anyone would have regularly propped him up to watch the forest, or tried to make sure the food touched his tongue. He would have been fed with a tube in a human hospital. But then human hospitals hadn't had unicorns that could levitate a stream of nutrition down a throat without causing the choking reflex.
Of course, the point was moot. There weren't any human hospitals anymore, because there wasn't an Earth anymore, and hadn't been for a very long time. Time was the enemy now, Johnny thought. Time was the most terrible enemy he had ever known, and even that had been extended. The ponies had thought they were being kind. They couldn't fix him - well, except for one treatment and it was too late for that - so they had done what they could. They gave him a longer than human lifespan. He could live as long as two hundred years, they had told him, beaming while they said it. Not as long as an Equestrian, but still better than any human had ever known. They had seemed so sad they couldn't do better for him, when they said that. As though he would actually want the extra hundred years, as though they had disappointed him.
The feeding was over. "I truly hoped you enjoyed that, Mr. Gocher-Gunn! The kitchen staff really works hard to make the tastiest things they can for all of you. Please have a pleasant evening. And sweet dreams!" The unicorn was so happy, so friendly, so upbeat. They all were, perfect little angels, every one of them. They tried so hard, every day, every hour.
The unicorn's head exploded in a star of pink, red, gray and the shining white of bone. Johnny quickly reloaded his Kimber Valier 20 gauge, and drew an immediate bead on the fleeing mare. The first shell took a hind leg and brought her to ground, but driven by fear she was immune to pain. She was up, trying to limp away on her three remaining hooves. She had made enough distance now that the shotgun was insufficient. Johnny switched to his Ruger, the 204 being a favorite. The pistol barked as he aimed with a steadied grip. The bright yellow mare was on the gravel now, shaking and quivering as if she had a vibrator stuffed up her ass.
As Johnny waited for any other target to show, the yellow pony kept vibrating. She just wouldn't stop shaking, if anything it seemed to be getting more and more violent. Perhaps she was having seizures over there. Johnny couldn't keep from glancing over to her. She wasn't making any sounds, not beyond the scrape of what was left of her body stirring the gravel, and the rapid but soft gasps of her breathing. He felt himself suddenly glad he couldn't see her expression - she had landed facing away from him.
Bohnam gave Johnny a pat on the back as he crouched down next to him. "How we doin'?" Dalton Bonham was assigned to the same HLF unit as Johnny. He seemed to like Johnny, though the feeling wasn't entirely mutual. Bonham was not exactly the most... cultured... individual. "Daaaamn... what have we here?" Bonham had noticed the twitching earthpony.
"I bet..." Bonham sounded as if he were contemplating the eternal verities "I bet that if you stuck your tool in that, it would feel like magic. Get it? Magic. Because they're magic, right? Right?" Bonham had a thing for humiliating and degrading his targets, which was only one reason Johnny didn't prefer his company. If you had a job to do, do it clean and sharp. But not Bonham. Already the man was loosening his belt.
Johnny put a hand on Dalton's shoulder. "Hey, why not?" Bonham was upset "It's not like we're in any danger here. I could jump one of these things in the middle of one of their markets, and they'd just cry and complain. Boo hoo! So you miss a few kills, give a boy a break!"
Johnny stared at his comrade. He removed his hand. "All right! Be back in a few minutes. This should be hilarious!"
Johnny took careful aim with his Ruger. The yellow mare stopped quivering.
"Goddammit!" Bonham was pissed. "You broke my toy!"
He had stopped screaming inside his head hours ago. It was pointless. Everything was pointless, now. He couldn't move, he couldn't feel. He could still see, but he couldn't move his eyes. They had finally stopped stinging, oh, sweet Jesus thank you for that. The ponies had done something to keep them perpetually wet. Some spell or magic or something. There was a place along the side of his tongue that itched, only he couldn't do anything about it. It was the only thing he could feel, aside from a part of his right cheek and his eyes, and it itched. It was maddening.
A soft brown muzzle entered his vision. It was a unicorn doctor of some kind, wearing a stethoscope and some kind of white coat. It was almost comical - a pony in a coat! Johnny tried to laugh, but nothing happened.
"...um, Johnny, is it? Yes. I'm here to explain your situation to you, and... I'll be frank, it's pretty serious. You're not in any danger of dying, so that's the good news. We have you stabilized, we've got thaumatic adjuncts to keep you breathing and to take care of those functions you can't do on your own, such as keeping your eyes moist. So you're not going to die."
Johnny knew what was coming, he knew what that stinking race traitor Newfoal doctor was going to say. Potion. It would be potion, the damn alien's answer to everything. They would force potion on him, it was only a matter of time. Johnny wanted to scream, to yell, to kick the filthy monster right in his god-damned snout.
"The fact is that you have sustained severe damage to your brain-stem as a result of blunt trauma. Our best unicorns have traced the nerves inside you, and we've determined that you are what we call 'Locked In'. What this means is that none of the signals from your motor complex, in your brain, can reach any part of your body. That's why you can't move. But more than that, you've also suffered additional damage that has severed the ability to receive sensation from about nighty-eight percent of your body. According to our best scanner, Mindsight, you have some function in your tongue, eyes, and face, right side, lateral. No movement, but some sensation. Does this seem about correct?"
The stupid moron. There was no way for Johnny to respond.
"Oh, actually... let's see... you do have one other... apparently you still have nearly full connection to the sternocleidomastoid. It's a muscle in your neck, on the side. The left side, but you don't seem to have sensation, so... you can potentially move it, but you can't feel that it is there, which presents a bit of a problem. Do you think you could try to move it? Don't worry - our medical unicorns have done a complete healing on you, at least as much as can be done. There are things we just can't fix in a human, because that much magic would literally kill the very tissues we are trying to repair. That's the trade off, really. But you won't injure yourself further if you try, is what I am trying to say. You are as repaired as you possibly can be, right now.
Can you give it a go for me? Just try to concentrate on the idea, the effort of moving your neck to the left. Try to touch your shoulder with your head. Lay your head on your left shoulder, if you can. Just move your head left... anything like that."
Johnny tried. He tried as hard as he could. Left. Left. LEFT! but nothing happened. He could tell because of the look on the unicorn doctor's muzzle. The unicorn shook his head and left Johnny's field of view.
"It appears that you have no means whatsoever to communicate your wishes to us. That is a problem. As you might have guessed, we do know you are in there, awake and fully conscious, so have no fear of being stripped down for your organs. We wouldn't allow that in any case, even considering... your... circumstances." There was a tone of malice in that last part. It was a sound Johnny had never heard from a pony before.
"Ah, we are alone for the moment." The face of the Newfoal doctor re-entered Johnny's field of view once more. It did not look particularly friendly. "You are a very fortunate human, mister Gocher-Gunn. Johnny, is it not? You were found within the four-minute window before brain damage begins. Lucky you, in deciding to attack a mixed-species medical clinic. I presume you and your... associates... thought we were a Conversion Bureau, didn't you? Well, you were wrong. We're just a clinic. We set broken bones and help young mothers with their foals. A medical clinic, mister Gocher-Gunn."
The looming countenance of the pony doctor came close, his muzzle inches from Johnny's insensitive nose. Johnny could smell hay, cinnamon buns and coffee on the doctor's breath. For the first time, he noticed the doctor had red eyes and puffy eyelids, as though he had been crying.
"Let me tell you something, Johnny. Today has been a little difficult for me." The stallion in his face fell speechless, and had to swallow hard. Johnny could see the doctor's eyes watering up, shining in the light. "My..." Again the doctor fell silent and appeared to struggle for a moment. A hardness came over him, and his jaw set, the muscles bulging in his pony face. "My wife," now the doctor was icy calm "was coming to visit me today with my brother. We were going to go to lunch together, just a friendly thing, our wednesday get-together.
They didn't make it. Apparently some humans with guns, members of the HLF, were hiding behind the broken wall on the other side of the street. They shot my brother, then picked my..." The ice began to crack "... my wife apart, and then shot her on the ground. She was a beautiful yellow mare... maybe you happened to see her?" The doctor studied Johnny's paralyzed, immobile eyes intently, finally realizing they could tell him nothing.
The doctor swallowed again, clearly fighting back strong emotions. "I don't know which one of you... apes... murdered her, but it might as well have been you as any of the other filth." The pony medic was shaking slightly now, and Johnny felt frightened beyond all thought. Even if he wasn't 'locked in', he would have been frozen at the terrifying voice and face so close to his own.
"I assure you we have given you the best care we could. We even asked the Gov for ChondroPlast and NeuroGenesin, to restore your severed motor and sensory functions. But the answer was no, of course. But we actually... asked." The doctor in Johnny's face had become utterly professional now, and somehow that was even worse than when he was shaking. "All just to permit you to remain..." The professional calm broke slightly on the word 'permit'.
"You cannot communicate, so we've sent for a thaumatic specialist. One who can do mind magic. It's a forbidden form, you should know, except under extreme situations. We had to get Royal sanction to do it." Johnny did not comprehend. "The primate brain is especially sensitive to thaumatic radiations and fields. Neurons are the first to die, when exposed to magic. That's why we can't heal your brain like we could any ordinary pony in your situation. It should be trivial, something a first year unicorn could do."
Johnny tried to scream at the doctor, to yell at him to tell him where to take his filthy magic and his terrible breath, but all the rage within him could not so much as cause his eyelid to twitch. He had no choice but to stare out at this beast.
"The specialist will be here in about an hour." The unicorn doctor placed a hoof on Johnny's chest. He couldn't feel it, but he could see the hoof for a moment out of his peripheral vision, and his view shook slightly as it presumably made contact. "When she arrives, she will make direct telepathic contact with your mind. The contact can only last for a few seconds, and it can never be repeated. Thaumatic damage is cumulative, don't you know. She's going to ask you..."
The pony doctor's face turned away for a moment as the stallion fought his emotion once more. "...She's going to ask you if you... submit... to ponification. It's the only thing that can save you at this point, I tell you that as a physician. It is your only hope and I recommend that you take it, and I am certain you will, but..."
The doctor seemed to be fighting some terrible internal battle "... there is just enough... humanity..." Another short battle raged inside the stallion medic. He had spat the word 'humanity' as if it were the direst curse imaginable "...left in me to almost... hope that you... you..." The doctor pulled away. For a long time all Johnny could see was the suspended tiles of the ceiling of the clinic, and a firefly lamp. He thought he heard soft sobs for a bit. Then the sound of hoofsteps leaving.
Johnny lay, unmoving, more terribly alone than he could comprehend. His mind floated in an isolation so terrible that he began praying for help, praying hard, praying as loud in his silent mind as he could, but no god came, and his prayers went unanswered.
"Men." Commander Joseph Trumbo was the base commander for the Torrance Human Liberation Front Enclave. He was an imposing man with a thick mustache and a shaved head. He was ex-Blackmesh and highly trained. "And I use that word with respect and as a fact. You are men, humanity, the very last hope mankind has."
Johnny had just finished the HLF version of boot-camp and was attending a real operations meeting. He felt ready and willing to fight the pastel aliens who were stealing his world.
"The government won't help, they have betrayed the planet, siding with their own destroyer. That's why I left the Black, that's why I'm here. The citizens won't help, most of them are only to eager to run away into some happy land of frisky ponies. But part of that probably is our own fault, poverty is a powerful motivator. Part of our job is to get ordinary citizens to turn away from temptation, and the other part is to deny them opportunity, should their resolve fail." Trumbo had been rumored to have been involved in the destruction of the Seattle Conversion Bureau. It had been blown to dust and ashes, and had never been rebuilt.
"We have obtained reports of a new bureau opening up, in El Segundo. Now what makes this new bureau special is that it is small. We have intel suggesting that this is the new plan, now that the large conversion bureaus are seen as targets. Our work has made the large centralized bureaus less inviting, so the government has apparently gone with the concept of many small, widely distributed bureaus." Trumbo slid some graphics around on the holopanel behind him, revealing maps and recon images.
"This is the target. As you can see, it is a small operation, but the presence of enemy agents is clear." The image showed ponies and humans in medical garb entering the building. "Conversion staff - they always use attending physicians, either human or enemy, to assist in the conversion process. Human traitors and enemy work together, as you can see. A common situation is for ambulances and individuals to bring injured humans to bureaus instead of hospitals, offering conversion as an easy cure-all for anything from a terminal illness to the common cold. Questions?"
There were none. "Good. Any volunteers to take out this new bureau? It's a small one, and a good first venture for new recruits."
Johnny raised his hand.
The massive stallion had caught Bonham in the side of the head with a heavy lavender hoof, Dalton went spinning like a rag doll piñata only to impact the railing and crumple. Johnny managed to stun the unicorn with a blow to the horn from stock of his Kimber. His Ruger had been swept from his hand by a light green field of energy and tossed onto the roof of the building. The Kimber was empty, the last shot a gaping hole in a second unicorn who had rushed out of the doors. Unicorns were always primary targets, because of the magic.
The earthpony stallion hadn't waited around after dispatching Bonham. Johnny was spinning, bringing his shotgun up for a blow to the skull of the equine, but the pony was faster and he didn't seem tired at all. Johnny heard an ear-shattering CRACK as the stallion's massive rear hooves contacted his chest. The Kimber had shattered as the hooves broke through the stock of the gun, just before they hit Johnny. The world seemed to rotate around him in slow motion, ground, sky, ground, sky. The impact with the abandoned Electret Moto parked in the street knocked the wind out of him. Johnny smashed into the ground his limbs tumbling like fallen sausages around his confused glare.
Johnny lay on the ground, choking, gagging, his eyes dripping with tears. The stallion was upon him in a moment.
"YOU MONKEYS THINK WE'RE HELPLESS, DON'T YOU?" The lavender stallion's eyes were wide and wild, and his lips were pulled far away from his teeth. "THAT'S WHY YOU COWARDS GUN DOWN MARES AND FOALS IN THE STREET, WELL I'VE GOT NEWS FOR YOU..." The shockingly angry Equestrian was finally out of breath, but it was from screaming, not from the exertion of bucking HLF into the street.
Johnny tried to push himself up, to dig his fingers into those wide, golden eyes, but another blow from a hoof, so fast his eyes failed to see it, flattened him onto the plascrete. In an instant the hoof was at his neck, a lavender muzzle stuck in his face.
"You FUCKERS..." Johnny was genuinely shocked. He had never heard a pony swear, not once, not ever. This was a Newfoal that was clear, but they weren't supposed to be able to swear. It hurt their little tender sensibilities after conversion. Conversion pacified them. This stallion was not the least pacified, likely because Bonham had managed to remove the head of his faggot pony pal just moments before. Johnny struggled under the hoof at his neck.
"You aren't going to stop, are you?" The lavender stallion was weirdly calm now, his voice that of a parent lecturing a child. "I let you up, you're going to just keep hurting innocent ponies, if not today, then tomorrow and the day after. You're just going to.."
"I WILL KILL YOU, YOU FUCKING PIECE OF SHIT!" Johnny had quite enough of this race traitor bastard. He needed to kill it quickly, then get to Bonham. These freaks shouldn't be a threat. They couldn't kill, it was just a matter of getting up and...
The hoof at Johnny's neck shifted slightly and crushed down with a force Johnny could not process. He felt an electric shock run through every nerve in his body, from toe to the tip of his head. Then a terrible tingling followed, like when a leg or arm falls asleep, only he felt it everywhere at once. The tingling faded, and Johnny suddenly felt fine, no pain at all.
"Well, we can't kill you. But we can do whatever it takes to protect our own. You didn't know that, did you monkey? Never confuse kindness with weakness you pathetic little monster." The stallion grinned now. "Enjoy your new life." The stallion turned away.
Johnny had no idea what the enemy traitor meant by that but he knew an opportunity when he saw one. He tried to scramble to his feet, there had to be something he could impale the bastard on, failing that he would just jump on the back of the creature and throttle him. But nothing happened. He tried to get up again, but his legs did not obey. His arms wouldn't move. What was going on? Was this some kind of unicorn spell?
Johnny tried to wriggle, to blink, to open his mouth, to... breath. He couldn't breath. His eyes began to sting, only he couldn't blink or close them. One lid was half down, the other wide open. They wouldn't move. Nothing would move.
It was then Johnny realized he couldn't feel anything. He couldn't feel his toes, or his legs or his body. He couldn't feel his neck or his head. There was an afterimage, an echo of feeling, and of that electric shock, but it was fading. He could feel the breeze on his cheek. Something on his tongue was buzzing, it was driving him nuts. He couldn't move at all. His eyes hurt terribly, like some staring contest gone horribly wrong. They burned like acid had been thrown in them. The tears that were streaming weren't getting swished around because his eyelids wouldn't blink.
Johnny felt like he was floating in a dark hell, peering out of his own eyes, attached by the cheek and tongue, dangling in midnight. He couldn't move, he couldn't scream or yell or cry except inside his mind. The horror of what must have happened began to dawn on him The stallion had done it deliberately. He had done this deliberately, purposefully, with the intent that something like this should be the result. That wasn't what he had been told. Ponies couldn't kill. They wouldn't resist. They were easy targets, except for unicorns, and all they did was pull your gun away and...
There were doctors. Some were human and some were ponies. Oh, god, one of those hairy things was a doctor. Most of the doctors were ponies. Lights were being shone into his eyes, so much noise, all the talking all the screaming around him. Johnny wanted to close his eyes so badly, they just kept stinging worse and worse and there was no remedy.
The New Day Nurse, his favorite, was talking to him. She had just finished cleaning him, levitating him in the air. It seemed a little bumpy today, as it had for quite some time, Johnny realized. His view kind of shook as he floated near the ceiling with all the inlaid designs.
"Johnny, this is my replacement, Tender Mercy." Johnny found himself rotating in the air, his view swinging past dizzyingly until he must have been floating on his side. A young mare in hospital garb stood next to Compassion, the New Day Nurse. She hadn't been new for years, but he had never stopped thinking of her that way. She looked so old. How had she aged so fast? Was there some kind of Equestrian aging plague or something?
"I'm retiring, Johnny. I'm sorry, I know you'll miss me. I'll miss you too. Johnny here is one of my best, Tender. He so loves to watch the trees, and I've always felt such appreciation from him" No! She can't leave, it wasn't fair! Johnny wanted to cry, to scream, to yell, but as always, nothing, nothing.
Johnny was hesitantly rotated and lowered. Had time slipped by so fast? It hadn't been fast at all. The hell always had been, it always was, it would always be. Timeless. Johnny felt timeless, and being timeless like this was hell. And screaming didn't help.
Johnny raged into the nothing that held him. In his imagination, he still felt his body. He felt like he was hanging in some dark, still, lake, attached to the surface by his cheek and his eyes and his tongue. He couldn't tell how long he had been this way but it felt like an hour, maybe two. It was hard to know how long, with the only change from the white clinic ceiling tiles being the occasional pony face staring down at him, and once, a scowling human.
In his mind, Johnny thrashed and tried to beat against the surface of the lake where his cheek was stuck. It would be better just to slip down into the dark horror below, into death, than the quasi-existence he now endured. The ponies, that damned, that god-damned stallion. That lavender devil. He had done this. He had done this deliberately.
Johnny yelled, but no sound came forth. He railed and yelled, but there was only the distant sound of hooves clopping back and forth within the clinic, the sound of sirens and weeping and anger and fear. They were talking about his team, about the HLF this and the murderers that. The damn, the god-cursed ponies. They had done this to him.
A unicorn mare was staring into his eyes. She must be leaning over where he lay. "Al-right, Jo-nee is it?" Her voice had a different accent from that of the Newfoals. She must be a native, directly from Equestria, from behind the Barrier. "Listen Jo-nee. Ai am go-ing to walk into your mind. This is your only chance to make your wi-shes known. Ai can-not do this more than once, because it is dam-aging to your brain. You must be sure of what you want, and make your wi-shes known to me. I will be-gin now, Jo-nee." The unicorn mare closed her strange, silver eyes.
Johnny felt fear, terror. Those monsters had sent a mind control agent from their universe to twist his thoughts. He knew it. This was how they did it. This was how the aliens were able to get the Worldgovernment on their side, how they had gotten the scientists to give up, how they got droves of humans to give up their humanity. This was it, and they were going to do it to him now.
NO! He would not let that happen! He would fight this. The HLF would rescue him in time, they would get him proper medical treatment, not this farce of begging the government and being refused. He would not be ponified! These filth would not get him with such an obvious trick. Wear him down, tell him there is no option, and then bring on the juice. That was how they did it, and Johnny was not a fool.
Deep inside his mind, Johnny was not alone. For a moment he cried, inside, in his mind. He had felt so alone, so lost, but now there was a presence, something, anything other than the dark, the lonely empty. He hadn't realized how horrible, how painful being so alone was until this moment, when he no longer was alone. A mind was there with him, and it was warm, gentle, kindness, like a long lost mother who had finally found her child. Johnny felt enfolded, caressed by the presence. He felt fully alive once more.
"Jo-nee, do you submit to ponification? Do you agree to be ponified to save you?"
It was the unicorn. The Equestrian unicorn witch, inside his mind as she had promised. Johnny recoiled in anger. "FUCK YOU, MONSTER! I'D RATHER DIE THAN SUBMIT TO YOU FILTH! LEAVE ME ALONE! LEAVE ME ALONE! LEAVE ME THE FUCK ALONE!"
"Jo-nee! Understand that by Earth law and the edict of the princesses themselves, we cannot save you unless you agree. That is the purpose of this contact. We are bound to respect your decision. What you tell us here will be your fate. We dare not make this bridge again. Be sure, Jo-nee of Earth. Your condition is grave, and there is no..."
Johnny had heard enough. He would not be brainwashed. The anger and the excitement of the fight was still fresh in his memory. "HEAR, ME WITCH!" Johnny screamed with all of his mental might "GO TO HELL. LEAVE ME ALONE! LEAVE ME ALONE! LEAVE ME ALONE!" Johnny kept chanting over and over, pushing with every ounce of his thoughts against the invading alien mind. When at last the presence shrank and vanished, Johnny began cheering, imagining himself pumping a fist into the air "YEAH! WOO-HOOO!"
After a while, he found himself staring at the ceiling tiles. In the background, he heard the same clopping hooves, but less shouts and anger. Things were settling down out there. He could hear weeping from somewhere, loud, wracking cries interspersed with the sound of someone - or something - trying to comfort the one crying.
After endless hours, waiting, yelling inside his head, thrashing in his mind uselessly, Johnny began to smell something foul. It smelled like old urine and feces. It must be him. There was nothing he could do. It was horrible. He screamed some more, and more, and more and...
He found himself being levitated. He could feel the magic tingling the patch of his cheek that still sent sensation to his brain. He hung in the air for some time. Then he was lowered again. A voice spoke. "Ugh. What are we going to do with all of them? Spitefull Idiots!"
It had worked. Johnny couldn't believe it. It had actually worked. His view had changed. One moment he had been staring, as usual, at the edge of the inlaid solar symbol of Celestia, and the next it was beyond his view. He had felt the shift in his inner ear, too. That still worked - he could tell if he was lying down or upright, or if he was in motion. His head must have moved. He had made that muscle in his neck twitch. The muscle the unicorn doctor had said was still connected, even if he couldn't feel it. He'd been trying for a long, long time. There wasn't much else to do.
His view had bounced, slightly, and he'd heard a dull clonk, like a coconut hitting wood. His head. His head must have impacted something. The side of the bed? Some kind of rail? Johnny tried to do it again. Nothing. He tried and tried. Nothing. It was a fluke that he'd found a way inside his damaged brain to activate that path. But he would find it again. He had plenty of time, and... there really was nothing else to do.
Johnny was getting good at knocking his head on whatever it was. KLOK!.... KLOK! KLOK! KLOK! He had a way to make a sound now! That meant... that meant he could communicate. Finally, after all these years, after the retirement of his favorite nurse, after all the endless years of staring at that damn sun design and those hateful trees, Johnny had a way to communicate!
He couldn't wait until Tender Mercy showed up. He would finally, finally get out of this horrible, terrible hell. Oh, sweet Jesus, sweet loving Jesus he could be free. Johnny began to weep inside, crying inside his mind. Oh, sweet merciful Jesus. Oh loving god.
The seconds dragged on like hours, the minutes like years. The hours were eternities, eons of time that would gobsmack even the immortal princesses. When would Tender Mercy return? Was he really left all alone for such endless stretches of time? It was double the agony, now that he had something to wait for. Of all things, hope was surely the most painful.
Finally, after aching millennia, the sound of tired hooves approached. Johnny immediately set to work. He had learned to do soft hits and hard, loud impacts. The soft hits sounded like gentle 'thunks' while the hard hits sounded like great 'KLOK!' sounds.
thunk KLOK KLOK thunk
KLOK KLOK KLOK
thunk thunk KLOK thunk
KLOK thunk KLOK KLOK
Johnny waited a bit then,
Johnny waited for a response. Then he performed the sequence again. And again.
"What is that, mommy?" The voice of a young filly sounded nearby. Johnny kept up his effort. They had to hear. They had to understand.
"I... I don't know, Gentle Sighs. That's something new! Oh, this is exciting!" It was his new, new day nurse Tender Mercy. She must have brought her daughter to visit. She'd been offering to for some time, to try to cheer him, and to let her daughter see what she did.
Johnny continued to pound out his message. Come on, come on, get it, get it. It's right there. You can do it. You can get this, it's easy, it's simple, it's obvious! Please, please for all that is holy, just listen! Just listen!
"Mommy? I think it has a pattern. Listen... it goes pum, pah, pah, pum, and then there's a beat, and then pum pum pum. See?"
Tender Mercy listened for a bit. Johnny continued with eager anticipation, she was getting it, she was realizing it! In endless years, for the first time Johnny felt hope, real hope.
"Yes! You're absolutely right!" Tender Mercy seemed very pleased. "It is absolutely a pattern, a deliberate pattern, and I know exactly what it is!"
Johnny relaxed inside his mind. Finally. Oh, god, finally. He had made such a mistake. He had made so many mistakes. He had thought the ponies were incapable of violence. Oh, boy, was that a stupid mistake. They wouldn't start a fight, but by god they would finish one. Just because they weren't driven to war, just because they were wired to seek peace and gentleness did not mean that they wouldn't or couldn't protect themselves. Of course they could. Only an idiot would think otherwise, and Johnny had been a big idiot.
They couldn't kill, these ponies. But that lavender stallion had known exactly what he was doing. He made sure that Johnny and his team couldn't be a threat, that they couldn't hurt any pony ever again. He could do it because he knew they would be saved, because they had attacked a medical clinic instead of a Bureau. The stallion had known exactly what to damage, and he had done so. Ponies couldn't kill, but they could use just the amount of force needed to end a threat.
Of course he hadn't encountered resistance before. Most humans didn't know how to fight either. Fighting was a skill, like anything else. Fleeing was natural. Even humans would run from gunshots. It was natural that ponies would too. Especially ponies that had once been humans.
But it was all over now. It would finally end, this nightmare would end. Tender Mercy had gotten his message, just as he knew she would. Dot Dash Dash Dot. 'P'
He would be able to walk again, touch again, taste again, feel the breeze and wetness and cold and warmth. He would be able to change his view, oh that was a big one right there, just to be able to change his view, oh sweet Jesus the horror of having to just lay there, day after day after...
"What a lovely tune!" Tender Mercy was positively beaming in his vision "Johnny here found a way to make music! Did you do it because I brought my daughter today? That is SO sweet!"
"He did it for me?" The little filly seemed surprised.
"I can't think of any other reason! Oh, that is so kind, Johnny. Say thank you, Gentle Sighs!" Tender was always very polite.
"Thank you Johnny Human!" Johnny could hear her little hooves prancing on the floor. Johnny had always wondered if the floor was plain, or if it had designs in it like the ceiling or just what it looked like at all.
Of course they wouldn't know Morse Code. It was a human invention. There was no reason for them to know it. There was no reason for any one of them to know Morse Code. Not ever. Not ever. Johnny wept inside himself, the only place he could ever, ever be. Forever. For hundreds of years, endless nightmare years, kept alive, kept alive, because ponies couldn't kill. Oh god. Oh Jesus.
"Thank you for the little song! Bye now!" The little filly and her mother clippy-clopped off, down the hall Johnny would never see.
And then, he was alone.
His foreleg was held out, almost straight, the hoof at ninety degrees from down, and the old-fashioned canning-jar drinking glass did not fall. Liam didn't dare shake it, of course, he wasn't that sure of himself, but it was absolutely enough that the glass wasn't falling. "See? See? It really works, and I don't even know how I'm doing it - it just works!"
Mairzydoats, the unicorn in the third apartment on the floor below, had sworn that all ponies could hold things with their hooves, and not just by the strange, improbable natural balance that all Equestrians seemed to possess. It definitely wasn't fancy juggling or balancing - Liam's glass was stuck to the bottom of his hoof as if it had been glued there. This was magic, or something like magic, and Mairzy hadn't been teasing them one bit.
She'd been one of the last minute conversions, just before the Los Angeles Bureau shut down and left the city, ahead of the approaching Barrier. It had been all over the media, blaring constantly from every kiosk - the Bureau was pulling up stakes and moving east, and any human not yet converted needed to flee or get ponified pronto.
There were no fourteen days of fine dining and First Meals As A Pony and classes and cartoons about new body parts - it was one big, last, final Conversion Week, and it was come-as-you-are and leave-on-four-hooves, and that was that. Emergency Conversions. They had set up three big tables, labeled 'A', 'B', and 'C', and had a bunch of medics and PA's and any person they could get who could use a medscanner all standing around allergen-typing like mad. Marizydotes had been told she was a 'B', and to go grab a cup and find a place to lie down.
Conversion Bureaus tend to look like enormous used car dealerships after a while - people come, park and just leave their vehicles forever. Ponies don't have much use for cars and trucks and the like, even if they could drive them easily. Even the rich generally don't bother with their AI controlled self-driving models - they get giddy and get swept up in the instant party that so often happens when a bunch of freshly minted newfoals find they are inexplicably best friends. Off they go to play together and form families or ship out to Equestria, and the vehicles just pile up.
Thus Mairzy had some trouble finding anywhere to lay down and drink her cup of purple - finally she just crawled under the plain cloth that covered the table and squeezed in between the others she was surprised to find had thought of the very same plan.
When she woke up, she was a unicorn, without the slightest training or education on how to be a unicorn... much less a pony. But she felt good, and for several days she found herself hanging out with all the other last minute emergency converts in what amounted to a big pony block party. Local businesses and markets brought in free food and drink, and apparently it had been quite the jolly affair.
It was during that big 'Going Out Of Humanity' party that Mairzydotes had both picked her new name, and found out the hoof trick. She had met a native Equestrian, one of the L. A. Bureau staff, who had bothered to tell her a lot of things about being a pony, and about being a unicorn, including stuff they don't bother to teach in the classes, because they only have fourteen days maximum, and they need to concentrate on basic skills that will work for newfoals immediately. The hoof trick takes about a month to learn, minimum.
"So, like, human fingernails are made out of this stuff, and it's the same stuff that, like, hair and junk is made out of, right?" Mairzy had been touring her own apartment building, finally meeting the neighbors for the first time. New ponies tended to do that, their heads suddenly filled with good cheer and a desire for socialization combined with a loss of fear and whatever bigotries they may have had as a human.
"Right...?" Dylan hadn't been sure what to make of Mairzydotes when she had rapped a hoof on the open door and immediately trotted in with a gift of candies in a little bag. She was like a pony social whirlwind - instantly he and Liam had been sucked in, and found themselves sucking on sweets and trying to follow the excited unicorn.
"So, like, ponies are made of different stuff. Like, their hooves and horns and feathers and junk, it's different than that stuff humans have. Pony stuff is... um... I can remember this... um... something-a-corn. Acorn... no, that's not right..." Mairzy wasn't dumb, but she could be forgetful.
"Alicorn! Alicorn, right?" Liam knew all the pony stuff. He was really good with pony stuff. "I remember, I saw a show on the kiosk about it... it was about this human girl going through a Bureau in 'Frisco with her friend. She or somepony mentioned 'alicorn'. I think. I'm pretty sure." Liam stuck his muzzle into the bag and pulled out another rose-and-oat candy "Yuppers! Alicorn. I'm sure of it!"
"Yeah! That's the stuff, thanks!" Mairzydotes had a really nice smile. Dylan thought she seemed nice, but he was still getting used to being social. He thought that was odd, and Liam did too - they had both just expected that Dylan would suddenly be super-social, just like Liam had become. But that isn't what happened. Dylan was more social than he had ever been as a human, but he definitely wasn't as at ease with others as Liam, not by a long shot. It left them scratching their polls for some time.
"Anyway," Mairzy was all excited again "that 'alicorn' stuff is super-magical, right? It's where all the pony powers come out of. On unicorns like me, it's our horn, on pegasai, their feathers are made of alicorn, and for earthponies..." Mairzy had smiled at both Liam and Dylan, who were just that "...it's what their hooves are made of. Actually, all ponies hooves. You, like, get the idea, right?"
Liam and Dylan nodded.
"So, all ponies have hoof powers, and it's like totally cool!" Mairzydotes had stood their grinning, like that statement had settled everything, and there was no more to say. Naturally, Liam and Dylan were quite interested in just what these new powers they had not heard of actually were.
"OK, like earthponies can grow stuff, and pegasai can push clouds and like walk on them and junk, and unicorns... actually I don't know if we get hoof-only superpowers or what. But all ponies can hold things with their hooves if they try." Mairzy had paused to try to remember. A lot of her days partying with the Emergency Conversion crowd had become a blur. "Um... like you got to try, for a long time and stuff, but eventually, you can hold things. No, seriously. I'm not making it up! It's the same as me levi-floating junk with my horn, only hooves can do it too. I saw it!"
Apparently, the native unicorn medic she had been hanging out with had demonstrated the hoof trick, and blown her pony mind. Dylan shrugged with his ears, but Liam had been seriously taken with the notion.
Two months later of everyday practice - with not a few broken bowls - and the drinking glass wasn't falling.
Dylan moved closer and craned his neck to look at the canning-jar glass from every angle. It was just there. The jar was on Liam's hoof, slightly tucked into the hollow of his frog but that wasn't what was keeping it attached. It wasn't that he had somehow wedged the glass between the ends of the 'U' shape of his hoof wall or anything. The glass shouldn't be sticking, but it was.
"Now watch!" Liam grinned, and then thought a bit "Wait! Put your hooves under, and get ready to catch it, alright?"
Dylan sat down on the kitchen floor and raised his forelegs, placing his hooves just under Liam's jar-glass.
"I'm going to stop... uh... holding it. Catch it when it falls, alright?" Liam visibly relaxed.
The jar fell, just like that. Dylan barely managed to catch it between his forehooves, and set the drinking jar down on the floor. "How did you... what did that feel like? How did you make it happen? How did you switch it off?" It really was pretty amazing, also it looked really useful, too. They had both learned how to do everything they truly needed to do with mouth and hoof and the especially incredible sense of balance that earthponies had, but this... this was like having a magic magnet for a hoof, and there were countless uses already forming inside of Dylan's brain.
"Well, I kind of try to 'suck' or 'pull' with my hoof to pick things up, and I sort of stop trying, to let go. That's it. I guess it feels like... you know how you can pick up a maraschino cherry at the bottom of your soda by sucking on the straw and lifting it up? Like that." Liam was very proud of himself, and his vivid green eyes shone with triumph. He had every right to be chuffed, Dylan figured, it was a pretty cool trick, and Liam had been working on it for quite a while.
"I want to learn to do that too, Liam." Dylan put a hoof against the glass and imagined his leg to be a crane with a shiny electromagnet at the end. Nothing happened.
"I'll help you, Dylan! We can try a little every day, if you like!" Liam was happiest in life when he felt he was being helpful with something. "It can be another thing we can do together!" The smile on Liam's face just looked so glad that Dylan would have happily agreed even if he didn't really think the hoof trick was awesome. Which it was.
"I'd... really like that, Liam." Almost as soon as Dylan had said the words, Liam was giving him a quick, happy hug. Liam did that quite a lot, really, and it was only now, months after his own conversion, that Dylan had realized it. In the three years the two had lived together in their third-floor two bedroom, not once had Liam ever given Dylan more than a tentative handshake. It was just plain awkward, two men... touching. But as ponies, all the rules had changed. Dylan smiled at his friend - really his best friend, pretty much his only friend back when he was human. Still his only truly close friend even as a pony.
Somehow, Liam had become a different person as a pony. Before conversion, Liam had been goofy, but quiet. Aloof. Distant. A bit on the angry side. Sometimes he could act like a little bi... bit... b... Dylan felt his mind recoiling at describing somepony he cared so much for in such negative terms. It was mean. He rephrased it in his thoughts. Sometimes... Liam could act... needy and... foal-like, back when he was human. There had been more than once that Dylan had wondered if Liam was gay. He'd always denied it though.
But after conversion, Liam was like day after night. Instantly he had become gregarious, where before he was as withdrawn as Dylan. Being withdrawn was something they had shared. Liam now had many friends, and was interested in their lives, he was giggly and easily excited, and he expressed his emotions almost disturbingly freely. Pony Liam was a completely different being than the human Liam... only not really.
When Dylan really thought about it, there was something about the new Liam that made sense, and that bothered him too. It was like the Liam he had known as a human had been all bottled up. It was as if Dylan had seen, through the glass of the bottle, something of what his old friend really was, and ponification had opened the bottle. The new Liam wasn't exactly strange, he wasn't unexpected at all... who he was now made familiar sense in some way.
It wasn't unpleasant. Dylan still didn't feel... confident? Secure? OK? with initiating hugs, but he definitely did enjoy them. If Liam hadn't hugged him at least twice by the end of the day, Dylan began to wonder if he'd done something wrong. There were times when he was alone, he felt like he wished Liam was there to give him a hug. Being a pony was very, very strange, while at the same time feeling completely safe and normal. It was confusing, Dylan decided.
If it was true that Liam had become some kind of true self by being ponified, a self he had worked to keep hidden all the time Dylan had known him, then things did sort of come together about it all. Becoming a pony had allowed his friend to overcome whatever it was that had kept him bottled up. So what was it about that which was so bothersome? Dylan, reflecting on the issue had come to an uncomfortable realization - it was likely he felt jealous of his friend. Liam had enjoyed such a positive, bright change when he became a pony, yet Dylan felt he had changed very little and truth be told, he had gone into the Bureau hoping to come out as free and uninhibited as Liam.
What really did change, inside, when a human was transformed into an Equestrian? The puzzle of it had begun to nag at Dylan.
Today was another shopping day, and Liam had brought out their saddlebags. Both Dylan and Liam worked as draft ponies, pulling plows and using their earthpony magic to grow food in the new gardens that covered the formerly grey and brown city. They also worked on the Naturing Detail, crushing sidewalks and blacktop with their powerful hooves. As Los Angeles had become Los Pegasus, everything had changed. Hard highways and streets had been smashed and the debris removed to create rustic dirt roads that were much kinder to pony hooves. Parking lots and stretches of cement and plascrete had been removed for gardens and orchards grown to maturity within days. Soil had been hauled to cover the roofs of buildings, or to fill balconies, turning the great city into a vast cluster of ruralized villages and farms. Liam and Dylan had no small part in these matters, and it was how they earned their bits.
Liam carefully placed the two saddlebags on the floor of the shared apartment. Liam's saddlebags had the usual two straps, and the bags were boxy affairs with stiff sides which could stand up on their own. He had chosen teal saddlebags, which he felt went well with his pale violet coat and corn-husk mane and tail. Liam loved color, and he was quite into coordinating its use and application. In truth, the teal saddlebags looked stylish on him.
Liam crouched before the arch made by the two upright, boxy bags and crept forward, low on his hooves. He stuck his head under and through the tunnel made by the two straps and carefully lifted the saddlebags so that the two straps that connected them slid down his long neck, over his withers. By shaking his rump and twisting his body, the saddlebags came to rest perfectly across his back, hanging properly to his sides. He shook out his mane and wiggled his ears in triumph.
"I really think I'm getting better at this, Dylan!" Liam was in good spirits today. He was usually in good spirits, it was rare that he was sad, but when he did become sad, he became fairly weepy, which brought Dylan's heart to his throat, and his forelegs around his friend to comfort him. "Someday, I'm going to do it like Cornflower!"
Cornflower was the native Equestrian that had taught one of the LA Bureau's earthpony 101 classes - apparently Cornflower could slide into saddlebags faster than a human could slip on a T-shirt, and even toss them into the air and catch them on her back without error. It had greatly impressed Liam during his stay at the Bureau.
Dylan approached his own saddlebags with some trepidation. He had yet to get them on without help from Liam. His saddlebags were shiny and black, like his mane - Liam had picked them out, to match, of course - and like Liam's bags were made of the remarkably tough kelp-leather the ponies universally favored. Who knew it was possible to make excellent leather from kelp?
Dylan lay down behind the carefully arranged arch of his own saddlebags. Liam had clearly taken extra time laying Dylan's bags out, trying to make it easier for him. Dylan began to crawl forward, scooting in jerks across the cheap carpeting of the apartment. As he began to enter the saddlebag tunnel, he realized, yet again, that his forehooves bumped right into the bags, knocking the whole thing out of alignment.
Liam was there, on the other side of the tunnel, looking at Dylan with concern, and some amusement. "You can't crawl in Dylan, it's too small. Just stretch your neck through and lift, like a crane, and let it slide down!" Liam had told him this countless times, he felt stupid for forgetting every one of those times. Including now.
Dylan sighed and backed away while Liam set up the saddlebags once more. This time, Dylan tried to mimic what Liam had done, as best he could, crouching on his legs while docking with the saddlebag tunnel with his head and neck alone.
"OK! Great! Now just lift your neck! No... slowly, not so fast... oh... um... here, hang on..." Liam had gone around to Dylan's flanks and began to tug the rear strap back up and over his dock. Next Liam stepped closer to Dylan's shoulder, and with his neck over Dylan's back, nibbled until he grasped the forward strap in his teeth, so that he could tug the saddlebags into proper place. "There! Perfect!"
Liam stepped back to admire the result. "Looking stylish, Dylan! You are quite the bumblebee today!"
Dylan's coat was bright yellow, and with his black mane and tail, Liam had though he looked like a bumblebee. It had become a bit of a pet name now, actually. Bees were another Equestrian import, having long ago perished from the earth, and bee-related designs and patterns and jewelry had enjoyed a recent popularity. Bees and butterflies both, returned to the world from Equestria, now fluttering and buzzing in the green gardens of Los Pegasus.
Dylan hung his head. "I don't think I'll ever get this." He looked so sad.
Liam nuzzled his friend. "You'll get it eventually, don't worry! And until then, you will always have me here to help you get dressed! Besides, it's more fun this way!"
"Really? Is it fun... for you?" Dylan had assumed that his roommate was burdened with him and his ineptitude at basic earthpony tasks.
"Oh, Dylan... Dylan... I really do like helping you. I love helping you! I kind of fear the day you actually get good at things like putting on saddlebags, because then you won't need me anymore. And that would be really sad." Liam had a strange look in his eye, which Dylan couldn't decode.
"So... it's not like a burden or anything?" Dylan gave his rear a shake, testing to make sure the saddlebags were on solidly. It was embarrassing to have them just fall off walking to market. Or worse, back.
Liam crept close and stared directly into Dylan's bright purple eyes. "It's so far from a burden that... it's a pleasure, Dylan. I really, really do like being helpful that way. It makes me feel useful to you." Liam's gaze was so intent, there was no way to doubt it. Dylan felt a strange tingle run down his spine, inexplicable, like electricity. That happened a lot when Liam got all intense and serious like that. Maybe it was some weird earthpony magic thing or something. Dylan shivered to let the tingle evaporate, and grinned, to show he was all right. Liam instantly brightened to his usual bouncy self.
It took a while to leave the building, it always did. Almost everypony left their door wide open now, eager to say hello or share a joke or a bit of gossip with anypony passing by. Liam was popular, and for some reason he could not fathom, so was Dylan. He mostly just stood by Liam and remained silent, but everypony treated him with respect, even when he went out alone. Dylan wasn't a big talker, he wasn't able to be open like Liam was, so he couldn't understand why he would be treated so well. Maybe it was because he was mostly always with Liam - maybe popularity just rubbed off, somehow. Or maybe Liam said nice things about him all the time, during those moments when they weren't together.
That would be like Liam, Dylan thought. He'd do stuff like that.
Dylan liked being well thought of, he just couldn't understand how he'd earned it. He wanted to be able to chat, and joke, and interact with everypony on his own, but... it was so difficult. He kind of choked up when faced with another pony, and couldn't think of what to say or how to say it. He felt afraid he'd say the wrong thing, so he just remained quiet.
When they finally made it out the door of the apartment building, Dylan had learned many things. Mrs. Daisypetal was expecting her first foal, the Raspberry twins had been the ones that ate all the carrots from the roof garden, and had been properly scolded for not fessing up. Loco Mocha had finally learned how to levitate three objects at once with her horn and her mother was oh-so-proud. Spanky and Sweetcheeks and Speckle Dots were all getting married in traditional Equestrian style, they wanted the ceremony before the Barrier hit, but they weren't sure it could happen in time. Scrumpy Custard had nearly split his hoof wide open breaking up concrete for a new garden, and would you boys try to be careful, so the same wouldn't happen to you - no, Scrumpy is going to be fine, thanks to nanoglue, or maybe it was the unicorn medic, she wasn't sure.
Everypony they knew had brand new names. Except for Liam and Dylan. Dylan worried that it was because of him. Before he had been converted, he had a little falling out with Liam. He had left after hearing their favorite grocer suggest a new name for Liam - 'Violet Fetlocks', and Dylan had scorned it, and then run off. Since he had returned, as a pony, the two had never talked about the incident, and Mr. Whitemane, the grocer, had never brought it up since, either.
In the new world of ponies and pony life, in the new Los Angeles that was called Los Pegasus, human names stuck out. They just sounded wrong. Strange. They sounded like somepony deliberately trying to be contrary, refusing to join in, or at least that is what Dylan thought. The sentiment didn't seem to be echoed by others, not if how Liam and he were treated was any measure, but still. Trotting around with crude-sounding, meaningless monikers in a world of Aetherwinds and Flowersongs and Stormrunners and other colorful, meaningful names... it made Dylan feel other, and inside himself, less.
Whitemane's little grocery was just down nine blocks to the south, on Garcelon Avenue. Overhead, a moderately-sized cloud was being pushed by a group of pegasai, doubtless intended for one of the gardens downtown. The pegasai were kept pretty busy now, what with all of the greening of the city. Dylan figured it must be pretty tough being a pegasus right now - Los Pegasus was in desert land, so there was a lot of cloud-pushing to do. He chuckled to himself - somewhere out there, right now, there just had to be a pegasus named 'Cloudpusher'. The name just sounded funny, because it was so obvious. 'Hi, I'm Cloudpusher! I... um... push... uh... clouds.'
"Something funny?" Liam smiled, hopefully. He liked all kinds of jokes and anything the least bit fun.
"Oh, I was just thinking - because of the pegasai up there - " Dylan nodded at the hard-working winged ponies maneuvering the unwieldy cloud above "that somewhere, right now, in this city, there has just got to be a pegasus named 'Cloudpusher'. It's just such an obvious name, you know?"
Liam considered the notion. "I guess so... and?"
"Well, Cloudpusher... he pushes clouds. 'Hi! I'm Cloudpusher and I push clouds!'" Liam wasn't getting it. "It's like a human being named 'Ditchdigger' or 'Trashsorter' - 'Hello there, my name is Trashsorter, and I bet you can't guess what I do for a living!', like that."
Liam and Dylan walked on, Liam obviously trying to see where Dylan was coming from. "I guess it... is obvious, I kind of get that, but... doesn't it just make sense? I mean... if you really love what you do, why not name yourself after what you love? It's true that a lot of ponies name themselves after what they look like, or something they like to eat or whatever but..."
"No, no, Liam - it's... who would actually enjoy sorting trash, right? Or digging a ditch? For a pegasus, what could be more ordinary and dull than pushing a cloud, see?" Dylan felt like he was explaining water to a fish, it should be already understood.
"I do. I like digging ditches." Liam's eyes were without any trace of guile, he meant it. "Well, furrows, anyway, it's kind of the same thing. When we're on plow duty, and we're pulling together, and the ground changes behind us because of our magic, when the little green shoots pop up right after our hooves leave the soil... I love that. All the time, I'm thinking about how warm it is in the sunshine, and how happy I am to be helping to make delicious num-nums, and that you're there beside me and..." Liam suddenly looked off at the group of unicorns galloping down the road, hovering groceries in their horn fields.
The two ambled on down the dirt lane, past the gardens made from the ruins of the buildings that didn't survive the Austerity War, or parking lots that didn't survive the advent of hooves. Dylan didn't know what to say. He had thought it was funny. Cloudpusher, I push clouds! For a living! Liam and he got along like matched bookends all of the time, except for moments like this. They hadn't had moments like this when they had been human together. Liam would just laugh at whatever sick thing - it was usually pretty raunchy - that Dylan would come up with and that was that. Liam acted weird now, sometimes. Like he had a different opinion of things. He never used to, not about stuff like this.
"Liam... did I do something wrong? Again?" Dylan found himself feeling strangely insecure. That was new, too.
Liam's ears folded back, then stood up again. "No, no... of course not, Dylan. I'm sorry. Maybe it's just all the sunshine. Now that there's no smog anymore, it's just so bright, you know?"
The two walked on in relative silence for some time, the clippy-clop of their hooves softly pounding the sun-baked dirt. Dylan found he really liked walking as a pony, there was something soothing and relaxing about it, and on four legs he always felt so stable and sure-footed. Stable! Hah! He thought about telling Liam that one, but decided not to press his luck, since he hadn't comprehended a bit of what had just happened with the last joke.
"Yes?" Liam was smiling at Dylan. It seemed like he had been already, before Dylan had broached the silence. What was up with that?
"Um... I wanted to talk to you about names. And apologize. Because I think I may have... I mean...." It wasn't as easy as Dylan had expected it to be. "I mean, back when, back before I went pony, there was that time when I left, you know, with mister Whitemane and... um..." This was definitely more difficult than he had thought.
"Oh. Ahhh..." Liam nodded, his large green eyes half shut. "'Violet Fetlocks'. I remember."
Dylan winced inside. He'd been kind of a... a... he'd been a little mean back then. He didn't like how that realization felt.
"It's OK, Dylan. Don't worry about it." The voice was believable, but Liam's ears were back against his head, and that told a completely different story. Dylan thought such things were really useful. Pony emotions were difficult to hide and there were countless tells. It really made understanding a lot easier when it was almost impossible to hide how one felt. On the other hoof, Dylan doubted that a pony could ever be good at poker.
"No, it's not alright. I feel... I'm sorry for acting that way back then. I was dealing with a lot of... stuff, and I feel like I kind of put you off on the whole idea of taking a new name. A proper pony name." Dylan studied his forehooves as they walked. Clip-clop. Clip-clop. "And I regret that."
Dylan looked up after he realized there had been no response. "Liam?"
Liam stopped and stood, regarding his friend. Dylan stopped too. "You've told me about what made you change your mind, what made you decide to go to the Bureau. The dream you had, the memory."
When Dylan had run away, after the 'Violet Fetlocks' incident, he had holed up in various abandoned hotels, feeling sorry for himself and angry at Liam, angry at the ponies, just... angry. On his last night, he had a dream, a memory dream about his childhood. At some point, when he was very young, when his mother had still been alive, she had taken him to a street fair in East Los Angeles, a hispanic street fair.
Dylan's mother had been very open to life in Los Angeles. She had seen the mix of cultures as one large buffet to which every citizen had been given a large plate and the encouragement to eat all they wanted. Dylan had loved his trips with her, and in the dream, he remembered dancing, freely, to a mariachi band and being doted on by an elderly woman who had instantly become his nana for the day, for no other reason than he was a child, and he was there.
That dream had changed Dylan's heart. He had forgotten what it meant to be open, both in heart and in the wideness of his arms. He had realized just how closed off he had become, and how much he had lost by becoming so. And then... he had realized how much he was losing in Liam. In the end, that was why he had gone to the Bureau. He could have run, to the east coast, and then to Europe, and then South Africa, as the Barrier closed in, he could have chosen to put it off, or die as a man, but if he had done that, he would never have seen Liam again. He knew, just knew, that Liam would be doing everything to try to find him.
When Dylan had shown up, release bag in mouth, it quickly became clear that this is exactly what had happened. Liam had always been his best friend, his only friend, even though he had never truly understood what a profound gift that was.
"Yeah, yeah, the dream." Dylan studied his hooves again. Shiny, black, they looked like hard, round dress shoes. "Remembering my mother, that fair she took me to, back before... before she was gone, it made me... reconsider my life." Dylan's mother had gone shopping in the wrong part of town at exactly the wrong time, and had been caught in a drive-by. He had never gotten over it, withdrawing into himself, dying inside with every passing day. "But... it isn't what made me go to the Bureau, not really."
"I don't understand". Liam was simple when he should be complex, and complex when things were supposed to be simple. It was frustrating sometimes.
"You're my best friend, Liam. You're the best friend I ever had. Really, the only friend, after what happened to my mother..." Dylan wasn't sure exactly what he was saying, or how he was supposed to say it. "I'm just sorry about running off like an idiot, and I am really sorry if the reason you've never taken a real pony name was because of the way I acted about... about Whitemane's suggestion, is all. Take any name you want. Be Violet Fetlocks if you want. I don't... I just want you to be you because..." There was nothing else in his head to say. His heart wanted to say more, but his head wasn't able to parse it, what did come through was scrambled, like a bad signal. Dylan felt stupid just standing there, staring at his hooves, and the ant that had decided to crawl nearby.
Suddenly his face was in shade and he felt a soft, slow nuzzle against his cheek. "I understand."
Sunshine hit his eyes full on as he raised his head. Liam was standing proud with the sun above and the vast, approaching Barrier cutting the sky in half. "You know, 'Violet Fetlocks' wouldn't do at all!" Liam smiled broadly. "I mean, I'm more than just a set of pretty fetlocks!" Liam put on a pose that looked like something one would expect to see in a Dress Club, where the ponies put on socks to be outrageous and sexy.
Dylan couldn't help but laugh at the display. "Yes, yes you are. Exactly what, I won't say. Besides, you need to get those things trimmed, dude. Your hooves are starting to look like dust mops."
"Um... really?" Liam looked almost hurt. He was freaking pouting. It was a joke, a joke!
"No... NO! Sweet biscuits, Liam, I'm just kidding. I'm the one that trims them, so if they're too long, it's my fault anyway. They're perfect... uh...wait. You're messing with me, right?"
Liam whisked his tail across Dylan's startled face. "Race you to the market!"
"You are SO ON!"
The remaining blocks passed in a flash as the two stallions went at full speed leaving puffs of dust behind them as their hooves pounded the sun-baked dirt. By the time they had made it to the market, both had sweaty coats, and Dylan's saddlebags were partially dragging behind him. Liam spent some time pulling them onto Dylan's back while Dylan panted, his tongue lolling out. Liam had won the race, but it didn't matter.
A strong laugh met Dylan's ears, it was Mister Whitemane, who ran the mostly open-air market. He and his family had converted early and had some kind of a connection with ponies in Equestria, which meant that his was the best local place to go, to get real, imported produce. It had mattered more months ago, now, through strong effort, local Los Pegasus food was serious competition for the imported goods. This had only become more pronounced the closer the Barrier got - more thaumatic energy meant more earthpony powers, and that meant better and better food. The recently grown Los Pegasus apples were competitive with Equestrian ones, which was a great source of pride to every newfoal in the city.
"You two, always having fun! Racing in this heat... ah, what a joy it must be to be so young." This was always an odd thing to hear from Mister Whitemane - physically, he was the same age as Liam and Dylan, because ponification set back the clock. It truly was a fresh new life. But as a human, Mister Whitemane had been in his sixties, and somehow the reality of his new physiological age had not fully registered with him. He still thought of himself as old, despite how he looked, and no doubt felt. Liam and Dylan had learned not to argue the point.
"Well... yeah... Liam whipped my face with his tail... heh... he needed a good... chasing." Dylan was still a bit out of breath - even with the smog gone, and blue skies above, the fact was that the desert climate was hot and today was a scorcher.
"You wild stallions look thirsty, here..." Mister Whitemane set out two half-buckets and filled them with water from a hose that snaked back into the building behind the open air part of his market. Thanks to the diligent efforts of the pegasai, water had been restored to many parts of Los Pegasus, and this is one big reason why the Whitemanes' had chosen to set up shop in the location they were in. "... you can't shop if you're dying of thirst!"
Liam and Dylan dove for the buckets at almost the same time. A second filling was in order, which Mister Whitemane happily obliged. Licking the last drops from his muzzle, Dylan finally had his breath back. "Oh, wow... thank you. I really needed that. Liam too. Thank you Mr. Whitemane!"
"It is no problem, not for my two favorite neighborhood stallions. So, what can I help you with today?" Whitemane's youngest, a little filly currently named 'Froggy' after her favorite toy, a rubber frog, had trotted up and was pressing against her father's legs. She kept peeking at Dylan and Liam, while trying to stay half-hidden inside the cage of her father's limbs. The two had wondered at times if the little filly would keep the unusual name as she grew up, Liam hoping she would, and Dylan sure she couldn't reasonably do so.
Dylan and Liam began selecting produce and treats for the next several days. It was very difficult to shop alone as an earthpony, so the two picked out their items and filled each other's saddlebags as they went. It was important to load them evenly, since the bags had no billet straps underneath. There was no need for carts or baskets or a checkout lane. The two were expected to remember their choices and report them so they could be paid for. Dylan both marveled and felt some discomfort at this matter of trust. There was no question of stealing, it never happened. That part was wonderful, the world had become honest. The disturbing part, to Dylan, was why.
Clearly the brain was altered during conversion. Dylan wouldn't steal from Mr. Whitemane, even as a human, but that wasn't the issue. Nopony stole. It just wasn't a concern. Dylan had once tested himself, to see what would happen. He had carefully slipped a small cloth-wrapped bundle of homemade oat candies (everything now was homemade, and fancy packaging had been replaced entirely with reusable jars and jugs or cloth wrappings which were brought back) into Liam's bags when nopony was looking. His intent was to deliberately not mention the theft, as an experiment.
He had made it as far as an entire block before the guilt was overwhelming. He couldn't stop thinking about Mr. Whitemane's family, about how they depended on honest shoppers, he kept worrying about little Froggy, and whether she would go hungry because he had cheated the Whitemane family. It wasn't at all about getting caught, or what Mr. Whitemane would think of him or being punished in some way. He found himself utterly caring about what his theft might do to the Whitemanes.
Dylan had rushed back and confessed everything to Mister Whitemane, he couldn't help himself. He begged forgiveness, and explained why he had done it, that he was trying to see what the Bureau had done to his brain and... Mr. Whitemane forgave him just like that. He wouldn't even take the two bits for the candy, saying that he understood completely, and that it was a gift... but Dylan had left four bits on the counter, twice the price, because he felt so bad.
That night he had cried in Liam's forelegs, still ashamed of himself. It was only then that he began worrying if he dared ever show his muzzle at Whitemane's market again. Liam had needed to take him back the next day to talk with Mr. Whitemane, just to get it all clear in Dylan's heart that everything was alright.
Caring. That was the disturbing thing. Stealing wasn't blocked by some weird governor or some neurological program or somesuch. Stealing, violence, crime of any sort - it was stopped by one thing alone. Compassion. Empathy. That is what had been tuned up, cranked up to eleven and the knob ripped off, that is what conversion did to the brain. Hooves for the legs, and compassion for the brain. Ponies didn't steal because others meant something to them, personally, constantly, always. Abstractly, Dylan could see it was the very definition of goodness, of justice, of rightness. But it was... it was frankly unhuman. Unearthly. The strangeness of it was uncomfortable to Dylan. But not even a bit, to Liam.
Dylan had been so caught up in his thoughts that he hadn't noticed the pegasus. He was a huge, strapping sort, almost certainly a native pegasus, visiting Earth. Maybe he was one of the mail carriers, or he could be one of the trainers from the Bureau... no, that couldn't be it. The Bureau had up and pulled out of Los Pegasus because of the Barrier. In three days, it would hit and Los Pegasus would be no more. There was no need for a Bureau, because very soon, everything would be Equestria.
Liam was acting like he was a deer caught in the headlights. Dylan had learned that phrase from his great grandfather, who claimed to have seen real deer. The pegasus was the most intense peacock blue that Dylan had ever seen, with a striking mane that looked like flame. His muscles had muscles, and those muscles were getting ready to have grandmuscles. And it was clear that his mesmerizing, golden eyes were intently locked on Liam's suddenly shy green ones.
"...like to have dinner with me? I know a wonderful little cafe, it's at the very top of the Bank Tower - I could fly you there, it would be easy. Ever dine on the top of the world? You can see right into Equestria from up there... all the way in, and they make the most exquisite..." The pegasus was... he was... he was hitting on Liam! Why... that overdeveloped bluebird was asking Liam out on... on a... a DATE!
Dylan dropped the celery he had picked out, unsure of anything anymore. Liam was... he was blushing. By Luna's Left Hoof, his friend was... blushing, and looking down demurely... and his tail was... it was swishing. Ponies couldn't play poker, Dylan reminded himself, and the tells were blatant and obvious. Liam... Liam was interested. Flattered. Really... flattered.
His body moved of it's own accord, Dylan just watched from afar as if he were floating somewhere just over his own left shoulder, he swore it seemed like he could see the back of his own head, his black mane tumbling down over his own bright lemon coat. He heard his own lips speaking, felt his hoof stomp, hard on the ground. "He's taken!"
What had he just done? What had he just said? What prissy pony voodoo was happening to him?
"Ah, well!" The proud blue native pegasus grinned with enormous confidence. "Why don't we let Liam here make his own decision, hmmm?" He knew Liam's name already! The scabby spawn of a diamond dog said Liam's name like he knew him or something!
Liam's eyes were round saucers of disbelief and emotions so mixed that Dylan couldn't even hope to comprehend one of them. After some time, Liam's eyes softened, became gentle, and he turned to the bulky pegasus and spoke, almost in a whisper. "I'm very sorry. Thank you, it's a very tempting offer but..." Liam's eyes, half lidded, glowed warmly in the afternoon light as he studied Dylan "...I guess... that I'm... taken."
The pegasus let out a loud guffaw, before flapping off. He had no purchases to make. "Newfoals." He said the word dismissively, as if he were describing immature children that had annoyed him by raising a ruckus on his lawn.
The walk back was, for a long time, a silent one. During checkout, neither Liam nor Dylan had allowed their eyes to meet. Mr. Whitemane, who had watched the whole thing was his usual jolly self, but it was a subdued jolly, as if he didn't want to intrude in a strange privacy that had momentarily borrowed his market.
Dylan's thoughts raced inside his pony head. Why had he done that? What had he said that? Taken? Liam was... taken? The scene played over and over in his head, and he felt like he was on a boat out in some terrible storm on a sea of emotions all splashing and crashing around him while other emotions lit up the sky in frightening bolts. He wasn't gay. Liam wasn't gay. Liam had told him he wasn't gay. For all the three years they had lived together in the apartment building, and the two years before that in the dorms. And the year they rented the loft together while they finished college.
Why, Dylan had gone on dates. With human women of the opposite sex. Well, one date. OK, that one didn't work out. But who has time for dating? It was a major battle just to try to get a corporate position and stay out of the favelas, that would take up anypony's time. And Liam. He never went on dates. But he got along great with fillies. They'd talk like old friends the minute he'd meet a filly. Like... like girlfriends. Like girls together. Oh crap. Brain Stem to Cerebral Cortex, we have a complete loss of essential understanding, we are going down, repeat, the brain is going down...
Liam was staring at Dylan with a worried look. Mostly because Dylan had suddenly stopped in the middle of the road, legs spread and locked, with his mouth open and his eyes bugging out. "Dylan? Are you... alright? Do you need some water or..." Liam was at a loss.
Dylan began to realize what he must look like, so he began to collect himself. He unlocked his legs, and stood more comfortably. He remembered to close his mouth. He blinked a few times, feeling the sting of how dry his eyes had become.
The awkward silence lasted only a short time.
"Liam..." Dylan's voice was a little shaky, he noted. "Liam, I need you to be straight with me." The humor of that sentence almost made Dylan laugh, considering what he intended to ask. "I know I've asked you this before, as a human anyway, but... now we're ponies and... are you gay? D...Do you like... stallions?" The last part he could barely whisper. "Do... do you like... me?"
Liam thought for a long time. "No, I'm not gay. I don't particularly prefer stallions. Or mares. I've thought about this a lot, Dylan. I... I'm like native ponies, I think. I like who I like." Dylan once again found his hooves to be the most interesting thing in the universe to look at.
"I'm not attracted... because of what sex a pony is. I mean, that pegasus... whoo, you know? He was pretty amazing, and part of me wanted to go with him. That's true. But... a lot more of me didn't want to go, and I wouldn't have in any case. I really wouldn't. Thought about it later tonight, a lot, yes. But I wouldn't have gone with him."
Dylan looked up. Liam showed a new face to him, one he had never seen before. It was serious to the point of tears, almost hard, solid as stone. "W-Why not?"
"Because I was at the market with you." The words were simple but they somehow spoke vast volumes to some part inside Dylan's swirling consciousness.
"Liam... I'm not gay either. I... I have never once thought about a man that way. Not once." It was the truth. Dylan hadn't particularly thought about women either 'that way', but he didn't feel good mentioning that right at the moment.
"What about a pony, then?"
Dylan's hooves had an orange streak down them, a gleam of light from the setting sun. They had gotten scuffed, he'd have to try to polish them. It wasn't that hard to do. He'd mostly gotten it down, though it was easier when he polished Liam's hooves and Liam polished his and... um.
"Come on, Dylan, it's getting late. We can talk on the way. Come on, you silly stallion."
Dylan found himself ambling along, still looking at the ground for some reason. He could see Liam's perfect violet hooves, he just had to stay side by side with them, and he needn't look anywhere else.
"I... Liam... I just..." What could he say? He didn't know what he felt, or who he was anymore. "I am so confused, Liam."
"Remember when you tried to play Slaughterstrike, when you first came back?"
Dylan had refused to accept that he wouldn't like violent games and programs anymore, despite having seen Liam become averse to such things after his ponification. Dylan figured it was just some kind of pony programming that could be overridden with effort. At first, he had slipped right into the online battlefield, and found he could play even better as a pony than he had as a human. His reflexes were vastly greater, his timing amazing. He found he could move, jump, turn, aim and shoot like some kind of bot. He felt invincible against the human players, and it turned out that he was.
He had rounded a ruin in the virtual world and spied, just for an instant, a trooper ducking down. He had leapt up, spinning with precision and landed behind his opponent. It felt like everything was in slow motion, like he was using a hack, which in a way he was - his pony brain was just plain faster. He had deliberately waited for the other player to stand up and desperately turn around, because he could, because it would be hilarious. At the last moment he dropped his gun and knifed the guy right in the face. It was the perfect humiliation kill. It was glorious.
And just as quickly, he had ripped the custom MicroSony Mindset, the one he had bought for Liam, for when he returned from conversion, right off of his new, pony head. He had bawled like a foal in Liam's forelegs, wracked with tears and sobs. He had hurt that players feelings. He couldn't have helped but hurt his feelings, and it was even more obvious when the foul swearing came out of the Mindset external speakers. Oh that guy was pissed. The names he was calling Dylan - but Dylan wasn't angry, he was miserable. He knew he had made another living person, on the other end, somewhere in the world, deeply unhappy and angry. He hadn't meant to. He had just wanted to play, and have fun, and he had hurt another living creatures feelings.
Dylan had pulled away from Liam and tried to apologize, to say he was sorry, that it wasn't sporting, that he felt so bad for stabbing the guy in the face like that, and for a while there was silence on the other end. Then mocking laughter and both teams calling him a faggot and a freak, until he was summarily booted from the game.
But the part that felt the strangest in all that moment was that the feeling of being sad about hurting the feelings of another online player wasn't entirely new. Deep down, way deep down, Dylan had understood that he had felt that before, only it was never loud enough to matter. He would shrug such a feeling off as being embarrassed about using a 'cheap' tactic, of getting a 'cheap' kill. But it wasn't that it was cheap. That was just a deflection. Dylan had felt such emotions before, just not as strongly, and definitely not as honestly. Not even close.
Yes, yes, Dylan remembered.
"I think bodies - even brains - are like a car." They had stopped again, and Liam had his neck over Dylan's back in a pony hug. Even in the warm twilight air it felt good. "You might be in a car with no artificial intelligence, with bad batteries, and bad shocks and maybe it has a bunch of quirks you are really used to. This is all you know, that car, how it drives, how it works, the things that are right and wrong with it. It's an extension of yourself, in a way, but you're still the driver, inside the car."
Liam pulled Dylan close for a moment with his neck and jaw, a quick squeeze. "But one day that car dies, and you get a new car. This car is fancy and strange and has all kinds of new stuff. It has an onboard AI that can drive for you if you want, and a nav system and super brakes and a nightvision HUD and automatic collision avoidance and it runs smooth and fast and it's just amazing, this new car."
Dylan raised his own neck and draped it across Liam's back, completing the hug. "So, you have this new car, but it feels strange. It's different. It drives differently, it does everything differently. Your life changes because of this car in so many ways, and because a car is a kind of extension of your abilities, of your self, you feel different too. But... Dylan... you're still the same driver, inside the car. Maybe your whole life is different, maybe you can drive places you never could or would before, but you are still the same driver, inside that new car."
Dylan was silent for a while. Then he began to chuckle. Liam began to chuckle too. Things didn't quite make it to a full laugh, but it helped.
"It's still me, inside the new car." Dylan said the words with reverence. In them was the answer to all of his confusion.
"Ponies can't be gay or straight or whatever." Liam gave Dylan another squeeze. "They don't even have words in their language for such things, did you know that? They don't even have it as a concept."
"I... I kind of heard that before. Someplace." Dylan could smell the sweat of the day on Liam's violet coat. It smelled sweet.
"Equestrians just like... who they like. They love... who they love. The gender doesn't matter, even the species doesn't matter, remember the film in the Bureau - you must have seen it - where they show interspecies relationships, ponies with griffons, ponies with dragons, ponies with... it doesn't matter. To an Equestrian, to a pony, there is only love. That's all, just love."
Dylan pulled back, with some effort, and faced Liam. The sun was almost down now, the fading light compensated for by the brilliant morning in Equestria, filling half of the entire sky. In two days, it would be here, Los Pegasus would be gone, the world of man would be gone from around them, and the only sun in the sky would belong to Celestia and the only moon would be that of Luna. Dylan stood on his hooves, and felt them, solid in the ground, the strange flow of his own earthpony magic reaching into the dirt, informing him, making contact in ways no human could understand. He could feel the life in the sun-baked dirt, the tiny spores and miniscule seeds. He could feel them growing, sprouting, bursting through the surface because of his presence, because of the strength of his emotion inside him at this moment.
Liam cocked his head to the side and smiled. "Of course, Dylan! Hasn't it been obvious all along?"
Dylan realized that ponification hadn't changed him as much as he imagined. In some ways, it was less a change than a release, like being set free. The basic things about a soul didn't change. Like how dense Dylan could be sometimes.
"I'm..." Dylan hesitated, because the words meant everything. The words held vast weight.
"Yes?" Liam was smiling in the strange glow from two universes, his muzzle orange on one side from the dying light of the Earth's sun, and yellow in the other from the rising sun of Equestria's morning.
"I'm..." Dylan put his heart, firmly, finally, completely into the words. "I'm taken too."
They came in great rafts made of wood and fibers and rope and woven fabrics. They came from what would one day be called Egypt and France and Africa too, and they crossed the great sea despite terrible odds and arrived on the southern continent. They came across the ice bridge to the north from what would one day be Asia, and from Europe in barks and they met and fought and conquered and lived.
In waves they came, each new people staking their claim, the breeds intermingling until new breeds of Man arose. Reddish of skin, or brown, or pale, the took to the plains and the forests and the ice and the jungles and they filled what would one day be called the North and South Amerizones.
Like tides of flesh they swelled and retreated, taking land and lives and all the goods that could be made from each other. At times one people would rise to dominance, only to perish, conquered under another. They carved their gang symbols into the rocks as petroglyphs to mark where other gangs must not go, and they raided and slaughtered and murdered and stole, and in these acts assured their own survival at the expense of those considered other.
They killed and ate the shaggy mammoths and stacked their bones to make cities. They bred by the millions across the two great landmasses, the north and the south, and built their trade and their empires and their vast metropolises and their mysterious mounds.
And to the west of the Northern continent, in what would one day be called the Western Production Zone, in the subsection once called California, in the desert land surrounded by mountains and sea, they thrived and set down their villages and eventually, their cities of wood and reed and thatch and grass.
Their bodies grew and lived and died and went into the earth, endless generations thus, and their blood spilled in war until the next wave came from over the sea in great ships from Spain and Portugal, to conquer the land conquered endlessly before.
In this world so harsh and dire, there was no magic, but only matter. But there are cracks in everything, and nothing is without flaws and holes and breaches, so that tiny rays of color occasionally, rarely, fell through, into this gray and silent realm.
From the warming trickle that came thus, through the cracks in reality, the land took on dim awareness, so dim, so faint. It felt the blood and the pain and the sorrow and the ending, oh, the terrible ending, that washed across it like an ocean of tiny creatures, Men, struggling so against the world, but most of all, against themselves.
Toypurina had seen the Great White Dog Mother in her dream again. Because she was Yo-vaa-re-kam, because she knew the ways and could see the things that others could not, she knew that the dream was important. For eight nights now, she had seen the Dog Mother, thin of leg and tall, with a long muzzle like the fox or the elk, but loyal and true like the dog. The Great Dog Mother was strange, too, for she had a a curious line of what should be hair rising out along her head and neck to her shoulders, but it was not hair, it was light, the colors of morning and dawn. So too was the Great Dog's tail strange, for it was long and flowing, and also made of the same light.
Stranger still was the Great White Dog Mother's paws, for they had but one toe, and were clad in beaten gold. Gold also were the adornments - the Great Dog Mother wore a chest piece and a ring of gold upon her head, where also the creature had a horn. But strangest of all were the wings, white of feather and large, that grew from the sides of Great White Dog Mother, and which could carry her high into the sky of her world.
In the dreams, Toypurina had heard Dog Mother try to speak to her, but the words were strange, they were not the words of the Hahamog'na Tongva, they were not the words of those who lived in Yaa - they were strange words, of strange sounds, but the feelings had much to say.
In the feeling of the Dog Mother's words there was kindness, and love, Toypurina had no doubt of this. And also sorrow too, and concern, though she knew not of what the problem was.
On the ninth night, the dreams stopped, and Toypurina saw the Great White Dog Mother no more. But the dreams inspired her, and she felt blessed as she called to her those who would strike against the Mission San Gabriel Arcángel, and the brown-skinned invaders that had destroyed their crops with their great beasts, and raped the women of the Tongva. The Dog Mother was watching. The Dog Mother one day would come.
General Kearny had decided to act on the report of his scouts, the Mexicans had set up lines at the ford across the San Gabriel. He had made sure that his troops were arranged in a hollow square, a fortress of men surrounding the artillery and supplies in the center. It would be smart, to wait a day, and so he made his orders known.
But Commodore Stockton saw an advantage, the Mexicans could be taken, and the action must be swift. But the crossing was treacherous, because of the quicksand, and because the Californio artillery was well placed. But there was one fortune, despite the blood mingling in the Rio San Gabriel and mixing in the sand - the Californio had not sufficient ammunition, and of what they had, the gunpowder was inferior. Stockton dug in with artillery, while the General began the assault.
It took mud and blood and intestines crawling from open bellies, but in the end, on Wine Street, the Army of the West had secured Los Angeles from the brown people who had taken it from the red people who had taken it from the earlier red people, who had taken it from the brown and black and pale people who had sailed across the vast ocean.
And the tiny cracks that fed the liminal life of the land gave it also liminal consciousness, and so it was that Los Angeles, ever changing sides, was drenched still more in blood and sorrow and pain and loss, the endless lives disappearing beneath the desert land. Los Angeles wept, in its own shadow way, but none could truly hear save the last of the shamans and curendero and brujería who called the land haunted or cursed.
The liminal awareness of the land, fed by the tiny drops of light and life from beyond, had finished weeping, filled now with the bustle and business of millions of consciousnesses, the humans that lived in the tall buildings that set heavily on the ground, and who rode in the poison-fumed carriages that rumbled ceaselessly, through day or night, upon the black ribbons of oil and ground stone that sealed the soil from rain or life.
Millions of dreams and hopes and wishes now fed Los Angeles, a cacophony of wants and needs and power and greed. Gangs roamed and little wars were fought in the streets, even beside moments of precious and innocent joy. The liminal spirit in the land became confused, spun in a thousand directions at once, by millions of minds, a maelstrom of terror and wonder and yearning. Water was brought and grew rice in the deserts, and oranges in the deserts and drink to the millions. The city expanded to the mountains and over the mountains to the sea, and the bowl of the mountains held the fumes of the carriages and the sun vanished behind a poison cloud that never left, a red polka-dot against the gray.
When the economy of the world collapsed, the great technology that sustained the millions began to fail and to wither away, and once again the liminal soul of Los Angeles felt the sorrow and the pain and the misery of the dying and the weeping and the lost.
The starving millions could not flee, for there was nowhere better to go. They fought among themselves as Men do, and once again Los Angeles was returned to tribes raiding and scavenging and struggling and conquering. The Great Collapse had brought the world to its knees, the nations frail and hollow shells, the people lost and desperate.
Then came the Austerity War, where the power of the sun itself melted holes in the ground, and made craters where none could ever walk again. Poisons and diseases ravaged the world, and Los Angeles was drenched, again, in blood, as it always had been, through ancient ages past.
Then came a change.
The world had pulled together, the nations formed as one. The Worldgoverment had risen, and gone were all the feuding nations and all the divisions. The Earth became one great plantation, though little could be made to grow. The Last Harvest and the death of agriculture had not been the end. Tiny machines, the size of specks, could weave molecules to make food and shelter and cloth and machine, and this revolution had changed the world.
The faint soul of Los Angeles felt the return of hope, however small, as the ruins were torn down and the favelas grew. Shacks piled on shacks, home for endless teeming millions, so many voices, all fed, all watered. This was the Golden Age of Man, a time without war, a time without hunger, where the population soared, billions after billions, all crowding together, thanks to the miracle of the little machines.
The bodies were not as often sent into the soil, now, instead they were recycled in vats to become more clothes and food and water and machines, but Los Angeles still felt their passing, the falling into the eternal dark of all the tiny sparks of mind. The foundation of Los Angeles was sadness and conquest and blood, and the developing awareness of the land, fed by those tiny breaks in the fabric of the universe, had grown such that it sorrowed for the creatures that had companioned it.
It had heard their prayers to the empty dark, it had heard their screams as they fell into the blackness. It had listened to the whispers in their minds, of how things should be, could be, would be, if only, if only.
But then, suddenly, offshore, to the north, there was a light. The faint ghost of the land found its almost-awareness focused intently upon it. That shine, that color, it was the very stuff of life, it was bright as the sun above, a concentration of the same energies that seeped through the cracks in reality, the same energies that had brought the soul of Los Angeles into being. It was coming. It was coming. And it was life and light in a dead and dark place.
It grew, the light, the source of life, it expanded and expanded, larger and larger, coming ever nearer. It was a sphere, a great shining globe, half in the ocean and half above, and it was to the west and to the north and it was coming nearer as it grew.
The soul of the land, the spirit of Los Angeles grew greater and more aware with every passing month. The humans, the millions upon millions above had begun to change. Where before they were grey and dark and hollow shades walking in short lived misery and sorrow, now they were increasingly becoming shining stars of the same color and light that Los Angeles had arisen from. They trotted now, on hooves, the very touch of which tingled and tickled the growing soul of the land.
For the first time, Los Angeles felt true joy above it, completely innocent and sweet and growing, and the joy made the spirit of the land yearn to be more. To be more than desert. To be more than concrete and steel and plascreet and blacktop. To be washed clean of the endless ages of conquest and blood and sorrow and loss. To touch the growing fount of magic and become eternal, for now Los Angeles knew that nothing in the dark and gray world lasted forever. Not the planet, not the sun, not the stars above.
But the bright bubble that grew was eternal. In it all things lasted forever. The sphere in the sea was life, and time, and brightness and color.
The will of Los Angeles now moved, unseen, through the streets. It saw the concrete removed, and the soil brought to life. It watched as the heavy buildings became covered in green, and the sky above be swept clean by the colorful new creatures that had once been humans. The humans had changed. They had transformed, and in that transformation had become beings of light and color and life.
Los Angeles now had a want, a desire all of its own. It wanted to transform too. It wanted to be like the humans and be changed into something of that light, that color, that joy that it felt. The shining sphere in the ocean was growing, it would come, it would come, it would come.
Los Angeles was alive now, she knew it. She thought and felt, though none could hear her, or see her. But it was alright. It was enough. Her life was their life, and in each of the ponies that walked upon her, touched her body with their hooves, they caressed her, loved her, knew her. For the first time she felt truly loved, and yet there was more.
The Barrier, the great bubble, the sphere of light and color was at her border, pushing beyond the sea and into the continent itself. Los Angeles felt it, she felt her edges her beaches her substance being transformed. As the golden and shimmering boundary swept over her, including her within itself, she felt her land come alive. Her very soil gained a soul, Her dead rocks were infused with life and began to grow, Her air tingled with the stuff of mind and spirit. The darkness was pushed back as the light came, and Los Angeles gave herself willingly, joyfully, to the advancing wall that filled her with such abundant life, such powerful awareness.
Ventura and Oxnard had already been caressed and taken by the Barrier, now Thousand Oaks was slipping into the honeyed light. Los Angeles felt the despoiled land expand as it entered the sphere of light, she felt her substance exploding into endless tracts of new land, fresh and green and alive - oh the life!
Los Angeles had lived in darkness, suckled only on the most microscopic of teats, tiny drops of life force leaking from outside the universe of night, but the Mother had come, the Great Mother had come, so bright, shining, and past her gates, born anew, the city found every single thing had life within it.
The stones lived, the bricks of her buildings, inside them coursed rivulets of magic, the stuff of life itself. Her soil stretched into rolling hills as it entered the sphere, all alive, all growing, one day the hills might become mountains, the stone become boulders. Thousand Oaks now truly was a forest again, as large as several earthly continents, and yet still she grew, as the loving touch of the great sphere passed over and through her, changing her, transforming her.
The humans, she now understood, had been ponified. It was a pony universe, with pony lands, and a pony soul. Los Angeles herself was joining the humans, she, the land, was becoming ponified too. She was becoming a pony land, made of magic itself, granted a soul, like everything, be it sky, or ground or water or tree within the expanding Mother.
Anaheim, Corona, Riverside, San Bernardino, she was enveloped now, swallowed up, she was no longer part of Earth, she floated no longer on magma, hot beneath her crust. She was Equestria now, and Los Angeles Dreamed.
The Mother, the white and shining and perfect land was there, and with her the enfolding sky and moon too, and they spoke in lithic tones to her stone ears. They sang songs of welcome to Los Angeles, and embraced her new rivers and forests and paths and hills and lakes. There was no sorrow here, no endless layers of bones and blood and grief and horror. No waves of conquest washed over the land in this place, and here even the passing of flesh meant not an end, but a beginning.
Los Angeles wanted to speak her gratitude, but she was only newly alive, and had no words of her own. But she needed none, for in her Dream, her two Mothers, the land and the sky, had only love and welcome to offer, and needed nothing from her but that she relax and welcome her own endless blessing.
The source of life and the sweetness of night enfolded her, and became one with her, and Los Angeles happily gave herself to become Equestria, no longer alone, no longer starving in the dark, but feasting instead upon a banquet that would never end, and never be lost, and always be bright.
Equestria hung within an arch of magic-pigmented sky, growing, for it was alive.
It was shaped like the conical upper half of an egg shell, the apex the location of an ancient ruin in the Everfree, the very place where the Equestria first began to crystallize and form.
Down the curve lay Canterlot, and Ponyville and Manehattan and all the pony lands, and beyond them further still the lands provided to the Griffons, when they arrived, and to the Dragons who none, not even they, seemed to know the origin of.
Farther still, down the curve to the ragged edge of the egg shell that was Equestria, shrouded in cloud and mist were the exponential lands, the growing border, ever expanding the parabolic cosmos. There, laying content at last, vast beyond all comprehension, was that which had once been Los Angeles, soon to be joined by her sisters and brothers, the rest of the sad world lost in the universe of dark. They would all be together soon enough, alive with love and light and magic, land enough for everypony, and every other living creature too, sharing in the joy of beingness together.
And no longer would they fear the dark again.
Jorge Jeitson sat with his mechanical dog in a lawn chair on the sands of Redondo Beach, watching the gray tide roll in. He had made it to the future, not the future he had imagined in his childhood, but a fantastico futuro nonetheless. He had lived longer than he had ever thought possible, almost one hundred and eighty years. That was a respectable time, an increíble time, at least for a man.
He was a proud man, and a wealthy man - a very wealthy man - but money did not matter anymore. He rubbed his thumb over his creditstick like a worry stone, causing the holographic numbers of his balance to flash into existence and disappear over and over again. In the strange light that was both night and day, the green, spectral flicker of his wealth reminded him of a torch burning in his hand. So many numbers, so great an amount, useless now - there was nothing he wished to buy. There was nothing he would buy, ever again.
The mechanical dog was old too, a creature from a different age. It was a robot, and it looked it, not like the new artificial dogs, with their flesh and their blood and their soft fur - no, Astronio was metal and not so rounded edges and when he walked, the old máquina sounded like grinding and whirring and a hard catch in the left leg that no técnico had ever managed to truly fix.
Astronio had been named by Jorge's son, long, long ago. The boy had loved the stars and space and the thought of rockets and beanstalks and going to the moon someday. But there was no will to do these things, no profit for the Corporaciónes, so the poor boy's heart had been broken. He had named his son a king, El Roy, but Elroy had not become a king - in his sadness he had taken to the bottle and his fifth replacement liver had taken him with it to la tierra de los muertos. Only his pet lived on, the machine-dog that had so excited him and spoke of the future to him, the future he had so wanted to live in.
Jorge had kept the dog, it had lived an entire lifetime, if a short one, with his son, and it knew him and in its quantum brain, upgraded every year, it remembered. It remembered everything, perfectly, without flaw, in the way that men do not. Men recreate their memories each time they recall them, until the recreation is utterly different than fact, and without correction, all memories become lies in the end - Astronio kept Jorge's memories true for him, and constantly chided and scolded him, a thing he needed ever more as greater years had been gifted to him.
Wealth buys many things, among them the anagathicos, the drugs and genetic snippets of code that lengthened any life that could afford it. Replacement organs grown in vats, new lungs and heart and intestine and bone too. Jorge was a Ship Of Theseus - he called himself the same man, but every part had been replaced so many times that he sometimes wondered what of him truly was the original. The old paradox was silly, of course, a pastime for foolish philosophers. A man was what he said himself to be, and was always more than the sum of his parts.
Jorge missed his wife. She had lived as long as he, but she had gone with them, with the ponis mágicos. She had begged him to go with her, to have the transformación, the conversión, but he would not, and he would not accompany her to the Bureau, or see her off on the boat. Juana. He missed her, he had loved her, but he could not go. He could not see her that way, as an alien, as an extranjera leaving to the other world. His daughter, too, Yudí. They had gone together to be ponies, to be aliens and no longer humans, and he could not join them.
There were things a man would do, could do, and there were things no man should do.
"Hey, dog!" Jorge seldom called the creature by its name, though it was not out of disrespect. In his mind, Jorge felt that constantly calling the machine a dog somehow made it more so. "Remember the time the maid, she spilled the soup all over the table because she was so clumsy as a pony? Ha ha!" Their maid, who had been with them for so long, had been converted first. She had wanted to, and Juana had thought it a good idea, so that they could see for themselves what the process did, and what it meant. When she had returned, she had become an earthpony, the ones without horns or wings, with a coat and mane the color of red coral, and eyes like sapphires. She had renamed herself 'Rosey', after the color of her body and the roses she had grown in the Bureau, with magic, in less time than it took to make tea.
"R-r-r-aht did not happen. R-r-r-information is in-inaccurate, R-r-rorge."
The speech center of the machine dog was failing again, another thing the técnicos had never managed to properly fix. So much money they took, but the things they could not fix, the leg, the voice. "What do you mean, dog? I remember that as clearly as I remember my wife's face!" He said the words bravely, he always did, but the robot dog was infallible, or nearly so. His leg and his voice may have never been right, but the creature's memory was espléndido.
The metal dog tilted its boxy, plastic and chrome head and stared at Jorge with black camera eyes. "'R-r-r-ros Días Aún Para Venir', episode two-hundred-seventeen, R-r-r-rou are R-r-r-remembering the story where the ponified daughter was made fun of until she proved her worth by R-r-r-rescuing the father. Memory transsfeR-r-r-rence, Jorge."
Jorge hung his head. He had remembered it so clearly. He was sure it was not the holoprogram, but real life. Rosey had spilled the soup all over the table, and that was what had first made Jorge angry with the conversions. The ponies were clumsy, not like men. "Are you certain dog? I was so sure... I tell you this happened to us!"
"R-r-r-rit did not happen, R-r-rorge. I was present at the moment in question. Family membeR-r-r-s also present were: Jorge, Juana, Yudí, R-r-r-rosey. Time 8:22 PM, Thursday the seventh of March. Family was R-r-r-eating dinner, watching program 'R-r-r-ros Días Aún Para Venir', episode two-hundred-seventeen. Jorge R-r-r-remarked on how he was impressed that R-r-r-rosey never dropped anything despite also being a pony like the daughteR-r-r-r on the show. Rosey responded that she was natuR-r-r-rally gifted with balance now. Juana remarked that she..."
Jorge cut the dog off. It tended to ramble. It was pointless, to compete with a machine, with a living camera that caught every moment and never, ever forgot. It was just disconcerting. A man was his memories, was he not? But if even these could not be trusted, then what of the man?
The beer was cold in his mouth, which was good because the night was warm. It was difficult to think of it as night, because it was also day. Jorge raised his self-refrigerating can to the sky, and the ocean... and to the Barrier.
The ocean was gray and strangely quiet, for there was increasingly less of it for waves to form within. Behind and above Jorge was the dark of night, with a few stars not drowned by the golden sunrise beyond the sea. Ahead of him, beyond the beach, beyond the sea, was the impossible arch, the great curve that was the onrushing Barrier. It was the other world, in there, where Juana and Yudí lived now, walking on hooves with Rosey no doubt still attending them. It would be upon him soon. Jorge asked his dog for the time. Barely two hours left to go. Two hours until the strange universe rolled up the beach and over him, over the lawn chair, over the case of beer, over the dog. Two hours for a man and his best friend to live, and to die, together, and not alone.
Before the ponies, before the Austerity War and the Worldgovernment, Jorge had worked at Espacios' NanoEngranaje, a corporation before all the corporations merged and became the government of the entire planet. Espacios' NanoEngranaje made gears and tiny components so small that a stray breath could send billions of them to every corner of the room, or worse, far worse, into every lung. Jorge worked in a chair set into a big black ball that rose from the floor on a dais. Above the ball were countless wires and cables, and the inside of the ball was one great holoscreen.
Jorge was made telepresent into the world of the microscopic, where he operated factories no larger than a speck of dust making machine parts that were dwarfed by bacteria. He was a Digital Index Operator, and with his mind he moved countless graspers and cutters and welders and movers to make sure the tiny factories did their jobs without error. Sometimes, he would play in the tiny world, making sculptures of the parts that failed - statues of his family, of places he knew, of bridges and buildings, all so small that ten thousand of them could sit comfortably on the gaster of an ant.
Mr. Espacios, the CEO, appriciated him, and life was good. He made money upon money, investing in the economy of the small machines, and he was able to provide well for his family. They lived in the exclusive Cieloplataforma Apartamento in the pyramid-shaped New Aztlan Mircroarcology in Palos Verdes, and in those times his son was still a boy, and alive, and dreamed of space and the future.
"I want to be the first boy on Mars! I want to build a colony!" Elroy had pushed the comforter of his bed to form a rough cave, the folds of thick cloth supporting their weight enough for him to set up a miniature mars colony inside an underground cavern of his imagination. There his toys conquered the red planet, the astronaut toys, the space ships from countless programs, the rubbery alien monsters that the boy claimed were friendly Martians.
"And what will you do in this colony, then?" Jorge, like all fathers through all time momentarily had found a second childhood through the eyes of his son.
"Well..." The boy was a thoughtful one, and well read, perhaps overly so, but he was happy, and that made Jorge happy. "First we set up the oxygen converters. You gotta have oxygen!"
"So where does this oxygen come from?" His boy, playing with toys, worrying about such advanced concerns! Jorge felt proud.
"From the ice! There's ice on Mars, papa! Under the sand, so much ice! Because of the oceans!" Elroy was excited, as boys get, at the thoughts of wonder that fill their heads. "Mars used to have big oceans, long, long ago. They all froze and so we get these guys..." Elroy moved some tiny plastic astronauts to a place where the white sheet could be seen through the folds of comforter, doubtless a sheet of ancient ice in the mind of the boy. "... and get them to start turning the ice into water. Then we take the water and put it here..." Elroy moved his toothbrush case into place, presumably as a tank, or as some machine of his imagination, "...and it gets turned into air! Now we have all the air everyone needs! So the cave has air, now, and everybody can take off their helmets and bounce around!" Elroy was now moving the little astronauts in long arcs, as if the Martian cave was one big funhouse with a trampoline floor. "Wheee! Wheee! See? Because the gravity is less. There is less gravity so the guys can jump good!"
Jorge laughed. Oh, his boy was so happy then. He wanted to believe too, what the politicians said, that they would make programs to go to space, to go to Mars. They always said that. But he wanted it to be true, for his boy.
"We should have gone to Mars. We should have gone." Jorge took the last mouthful of his beer and began fumbling for another to open. It was his plan to be well and truly augmented by the time the Barrier hit. He knew it would not hurt, but the beer was not for pain. Even the strongest man can sometimes need for the help of liquid courage.
"Hey, dog! We should have gone to Mars! You hear that dog? We should have gone!"
The plastic and chrome canine studied Jorge with his electric eyes, his quantum chips struggling to determine a correct response, or if a response had been required at all. The dog knew it had been addressed, that the man designated Owner: Jorge was providing input, and that the input had been directed toward the dog alone, but the input was not a command nor was it a question. Briefly, the dog considered whether there had been an implied question as it re-parsed the sentences, but quickly determined that the content was an imperative declarative statement. Here the dog's quantum mind hovered for milliseconds, suspended between two equal options - saying nothing or making a Pleasing Interjection Of Camaraderie and Implicit Agreement. The tiebreaker was a directive from the Mood Assessment subsystem, which suggested that in times of stress, where drinking was involved, Camaraderie was the optimal response.
"R-r-r-rhats right, Jorge!"
The mechanical dog registered pressure along it's dorsal surfaces, it was being petted. "Good dog. You're a good dog."
Astronio initiated tail wagging, the artificial muscle cables moving the silver tail like a tiny flag. This seemed to please Owner: Jorge and counted as a successful Nonvocal Communicative Response. The dog's success metrics became further weighted with the appropriateness of this behavior. They were already at maximum, but Astronio still registered the function.
The Barrier loomed, it actually looked closer now, larger in the sky, taking up more of the sky, blocking out the night. The yellow morning in Equestria painted the beach in golden shades, and made Jorge's beer can gleam. He held his fresh beer up to the barrier, and that is when he noticed the spots.
Jorge's arm looked like a spoiling banana, black patches, streaks and spots speckled across it. He checked his other limbs, they too showed splashes of darkness, as though he had been lightly spattered with ink. It was the Mage Plague, the burning of thaumatic radiation, and he had been expecting it.
Astronio had spent an entire day interfaced with the Worldgov Bureau Mainframe Complex, working out an hour-by-hour detailed map of the strangely fractal way the magical energies pooled and overlapped and cancelled each other. That was how Jorge and his dog could be on Redondo Beach at all, on the last day, in the last hours, before Equestria arrived. Astronio had found the exact spot, the exact place on all the beach where there was a gap in the thaumatic field, a place where the energies cancelled each other right up until the Barrier wall itself hit. A safe spot, a relatively safe spot. If Jorge were to stand up and walk but two meters in any direction now, his skin would blacken instantly, and he would fall to the ground already dead. Where a human could still live, so could the quantum brain of an artificial intelligence. The mechanical dog knew to remain in place and to not wander.
It was at the quantum level that magic killed. It was why neurons perished first. The old scientist Roger Penrose had been right - the human brain was a quantum computer, performing simultaneous Q-bit calculations that were the basis of thought and imagination and awareness, all inside the microtubules deep within all living cells. But the microtubules of neurons were special, and the most vulnerable. Where magic lived, the dice that Einstein had disbelieved in no longer rolled normally, and when this occurred, the signals inside cells faded, and neurons died instantly.
And no biological creature on the earth had more quantum computing power than the primates, and of the primates, chief of all was Man.
To die of magic was painless. The nerves went first, and with them all signal of pain. The spots appeared without warning, at most there would be a slight tingle or itch, and in the elderly, often not even that. Jorge was very, very elderly, though he did not particularly look it, and he felt not even a tingle.
But he did see the colors brighten, and he heard a faint musical sound that was not there. He knew well what that meant. He had researched it all very thoroughly. There could be no more gentle a death than the Plague of Magic, save that which might come in sleep.
That pony princess - she was a wily one. She must know that there would be those that would refuse, no matter what, those that would turn their back on her offer of sanctuary, those who would find the price too high. She came to Earth in compassion, this was what She always said. In the end, there would be no place left to run, and the Earth would be gone, but even then She had made it merciful. Always so terrifyingly merciful. An end without even the hint of pain, an end of bright color and soft music and the giddy feeling of being alright. Oh, but she was minucioso y atento. Even the tiniest details accounted for. A being that could raise the very sun? Of course she would account for everything. Jorge raised his speckled arm in a salute to her. A wily princess. As all rulers must be.
Encarnita, the maid, she had just returned. The family had needed to look after themselves for the fourteen days she had been away at the Bureau. Juana and Yudí had arranged for her return, Encarnita was part of the familia and she had done this also for them. So that they could see, and judge for themselves this 'gift' of the pony princesses. So they could see what it truly meant, by seeing it happen to someone they knew.
In the maids quarters, they now had bales of new hay, and oats and timothy and more. Yudí had always imagined having been born when earthly horses still could be had, so she had treated the return of the maid like the fulfillment of her wish for a pet. A pony was coming, and now the many rooms of the Jeitson apartment had become a tiny ranchero. Yudí had tied colorful ribbons on the bales, and put the Equestrian flag on the wall for Encarnita. It was understood that to become pony was to change citizenship as much as body, that the two were one and the same. Encarnita was legally an ambassador now, no longer human, she no longer was seen as a citizen under the Worldgovernment, but as a subject of Equestria. It was chilling to note that her green card would last beyond the Earth, itself.
When the door opened, they were all there, Juana and Yudí and Jorge and Astronio. Everyone felt that Astronio carried the boy in spirit, where his dog was, so was he. They were all there to welcome home Encarnita.
She trotted in with eyes like blue gemstones and her body and mane and tail the color of sunset, pinkish red, the color of coral. She was shy, at first, worried about what they would think, but Yudí had gotten down on her knees and embraced her and held her tight, and Juana had cried with how great the change was, and then at how pretty her hair had become and how slim and young she looked now.
Only Jorge had not been pleased, though he had tried to be, for the sake of the others. He did not see Encarnita in this strange beast, even though it talked with her thoughts, and knew all the family secrets, and claimed itself to be the person he had known. Encarnita had been a woman, and this was a mare, and that was not the same to Jorge whatever was said, and he knew that without any doubt he would prefer to die a man, than to become that which he was not.
Encarnita had taken a new name, as was the custom of the transformed in their new lives. In her classes at the Bureau, she had used the magic of the earthponies to raise flowers from the ground, and of course both Juana and Yudí wanted to see. There was a plant that the neighbor downstairs could never grow well, and it was sent for, and brought, along with the neighbor and Encarnita demonstrated why she had named herself Rosie Greenbriar - the plant grew suddenly, like a willful thing, green shoots and branches stretching out like verdant fingers as they watched, mouths open. The blossoms opened like little fireworks, pop, pop, pop, and this set all the women to clapping and Rosie swishing her long silken tail while grinning as though she had won the lotería.
No one could imagine how she could still perform her duties, and Yudí wanted to help her make dinner for fear that Rosie would be made to leave, and then there would be no magical pony maid, and life would feel empty then. But Rosie would have none of it, and shooed everyone from the kitchen, but all came back, even Jorge had, to spy on how a creature without hands or thumbs could make the evening meal.
Somehow Rosie had slipped on plastic coverings for her hooves and a cap for her mane, and an apron besides, and she balanced plates and bowls on her head and on her back with impossible grace. Yudí thought it was like a circus show from the old days, and Juana looked on in utter astonishment, for she had thought such things impossible. Rosie had stirred with a spoon in her teeth, and worked dough with her hooves and held a knife in her mouth chopping nearly as fast as she had with fingers. And when a thing was prepared, pony Rosie would flip the ingredients with whatever tool was at mouth into a bowl or a plate as though it were nothing.
Knowing she was being watched - for she could hardly miss it with all the gasps and talk and the door propped open - she talked about her time at the Bureau, and how she had been transformed, and how good the food was there, and how much she had missed everyone. She also spoke of Equestria, and of its beauty and how easy and good the life was there, and how everypony lived in harmony with no poverty or crime or sorrow.
When it came time to serve, she brought their plates on a tray on her back, and placed them without spilling, and it was amazing to watch. It was a gift she had said, and that of all ponies the earthponies were the best at it, never dropping anything if their attention was keen. With the perfect balance of a thousand trained acrobats and jugglers, who needed hands or fingers? To this, there could be no argument, because the evidence was the best show any had seen in their lives, and it was only the first dinner since her coming home.
By the end of the evening, Jorge knew that his family had been bewitched, the joy of running free and fast, of perhaps flying in the sky like birds or doing magic, the granting of peace and health and long life and harmony, all of it was too tempting, too good - and Equestria was coming. That no one could deny. It was coming and it could not be stopped and there was only early death for any who would not take the princess's gift.
Hold a carrot with one hand, but spank the burro with the other, Jorge's grandfather had told him. This was what the princess had done. A wily one the pony princess. Too ingeniosa for the likes of Man.
"R-r-r-rourty-rhree minutes and R-r-r-rifty-one seconds left, Jorge!"
Jorge was on his fourth beer now, he had been sipping, slowly, because he was not trying to get drunk. He liked beer, it was bad for his implants and replaced parts, and he had been forced to give it up for a long time. He was unsure how it would affect him now, and he wanted to take no chances. There was something he wanted to say. Something he needed to say, right to the princess's face, or as close as he could come.
There was a rumor, perhaps it was just a story, that the Barrier itself was somehow part of the pony princess, Celestia, herself. Or that it was connected to her somehow, or that she had made it, and it was hers. There was the belief among some that any person, human or pony, that could stand right near the wall of the great bubble, that Celestia could hear what they said. Even a whisper would be sent to her, close to the Barrier.
Jorge did not know if this was true. It might just be a wild tale, made up for the same reason that ghost stories were, to give a man the feeling that there was something more, that his voice might matter, that the universe was more than it seemed.
He had to pee, now, but he could not leave the area of the lawn chair. Jorge's arms were covered now, in dark splotches. He was amazed to find that some of them itched a little bit. He dared not scratch them, he knew what the black flesh meant, it was dead skin, and he did not want to have it peel like soft fruit from him. The colors of the sunrise beyond the Barrier were very bright now, as was the honeyed light that poured across the beach.
Jorge was not surprised to find that every part of him was covered in the spots, he had expected this too, but he was somehow disappointed. He had hoped that his little torero might have been somehow immune. His urine seemed dark. When he had finished, and straightened himself, he looked around, glad to see that he was alone. He did not want to talk to any ponies now - it could not be other men, not now, not in this place - for they would fill his time with efforts to save him, to change him, to convince him to change. Jorge patted the pistolete with but one bullet in his pocket. He intended no harm to any pony, but if they tried to change him against his will, he would not hesitate to prevent their success by eliminating the target of their concern.
"R-r-r-rorge! R-r-r-rorge!" The mechanical dog seemed almost plaintive.
"What is it my old friend? What has you upset?" Jorge carefully reclined again on the lawn chair, and took a sip from his beer.
"R-r-r-y memory is corR-r-r-rupted. Twenty percent degR-r-r-redation in tertiary quantum matrix. I cannot R-r-r-recover some files. Please advise. Please advise. Please..."
Jorge held his spotted hand around the dog's metal muzzle. It fell silent. "It is happening to you, as we talked, Astronio. Just as it is happening to me. Look, look at my hand my friend, at my arm. Just as this is happening to me, so it is happening to you, but you do not have skin. But you have quantum chips in you, and they die too, just as my flesh. We are in this together, you and I. We face fate beside each other as great men - and dogs - do."
The mechanical dog whirred and clicked for a bit as it wriggled, then it became quiet. "I R-r-r-remember. Conversation, yesterday, two-thiR-r-r-rty PM, I asked about what would happen. You R-r-r-replied..."
"Yes, yes, now you remember. Good. You must expect this to happen. It will happen more and more until the end. Try to be brave, my good dog. Remember, we stand together, here, together at the end, friends. Friends to the end." Jorge saluted the loyal machine with a grand wave of his beer. Some sloshed out and hit the machine animal. "Sorry, my friend. No - on second thought, that is your baptism! Baptized in beer! Ha ha ha!" Astronio was watertight, beer would not hurt the dog who could be immersed entirely, and washed easily for convenience.
"R-r-r-rorge?" The voice of the machine dog seemed strange. It was not overexcited or quiet, but strangely strained.
"R-r-r-rhat will R-r-r-rappen when we die?" The angular dog of plastic and silver stared at Jorge. It was the last question Jorge could imagine the machine would say. He understood that the artificial intelligences operated on the same principles as the human brain did, that they used similar mechanisms to achieve some kind of awareness that was not fully understood even now. But this was the first time the dog had ever described its own cessation of function as dying.
Juana had made a desperate attempt to get Jorge to change his mind and to go to the Bureau with her and their daughter. She had managed to get a unicorn medic to visit, from the Bureau, to try to convince her husband. The unicorn was a native, from the other world, and its name translated into English was Remedy Anodyne.
Remedy had become a medical unicorn after an adventure into a dangerous forest in her youth. There had been a fall, after being chased by a wild creature. Her brother had broken a leg, and she had tried to help. She had found herself pushing her unicorn power into her brother's leg, seeing the broken bone through the skin, and the damage to the tissues around it, and she had set the bone using that power that unicorns have to move things. But then, in the curious trance she found herself in because of her fear and desperation, she had somehow unleashed a power she did not understand and the bone had unbroken and become like new.
After the experience, Remedy had gained the strange mark on her flank that the ponies do when they have found their purpose in life, and thereafter dedicated herself to the noble cause of healing.
"Mister Jeitson, your wife has begged me to show you something that may help you to understand what ponification truly means. I am well trained and capable of complying, but I am concerned about the ethics of the matter. She desires that I show you what I see, as a unicorn with my abilities. I can do this, but I cannot do it long, and I cannot do it more than once. As you must know, magic is dangerous to earthly life, and especially so to human beings. The type of magic I must use is a form of mind magic, and it is generally disallowed except in emergencies. But your wife has convinced me of your intentions, and... well... I am committed to preserving life."
The unicorn mare seemed uneasy, but Juana had clearly worked her over. Juana was not a woman to be easily refused, not even by the strongest. "Mister Jeitson, only with your complete permission, I have the power to let you perceive the world as I do when I use my abilities to heal. Your wife believes that this is the only way to convince you."
Jorge had almost laughed. There was nothing he could be shown that would change his mind, he would not set foot even near the Bureau, and he would not accompany his wife even to see her off. He had made his position clear, but if it would grant her some small comfort, he could comply with this. To tell the truth, he was interested - to see through the eyes of magic! That was something, and he had lived a long time eager for interesting things.
"Do your worst, doctor unicorn, I give my willingness to this thing, whatever it is. But you must understand it will not change my mind, so that you do not get your hopes up, or my Juana's." Juana had smiled at this, for she was certain of very much the opposite. "What must I do?"
Juana nodded to Yudí, who left the apartment to the hallway, returning with two cages. In one cage was an Earthly mutie-rat. The rat was only barely altered, having two tails but being otherwise normal as rats go. It was a simple creature, and it sat in the cage looking up at the humans and the unicorn, before returning to the pile of sunflower seeds it had been given.
The second cage contained an Equestrian bunny - there was no other name for the thing. It resembled Earthly creatures only roughly, as did the ponies themselves - it was a brilliant white, and sat upright within its cage, peering intently at everything with eyes filled with intelligence far beyond any rabbit that had ever hopped upon terrestrial soil. The creature moved with purpose, and seemed disdainful and aloof. Jorge would not have been even a little surprised to have the bunny suddenly speak to him in English or Spanish.
"Mister Jeitson, sit quietly. I will apply my magic to your head, to the back and a little to the front, in what is called your visual cortex, and in the parts of your brain that process visual information. I can only do this for a short time, and I only dare to do it once, so you must pay attention to what I point out, and listen carefully so that you may understand what I am showing you. Do you understand, Mister Jeitson?" The unicorn seemed very ernest, her ears were low to her skull, almost in worry.
"Call me Jorge, unicorn doctor. I am ready, and I will pay attention. I see this as a rare opportunity that I would not miss for all the world. Please, show me wonders." Jorge sat back, his attention fixed on the Equestrian animal. He had seen the ponies before, but never had he seen any other animal from the strange world on the planet's doorstep.
"Very well, Jorge. Let's begin, shall we?" The unicorn medic seemed more relaxed now, less concerned now that he had given his consent and had shown real interest in the procedure.
"I am sending my field into your brain, now... Jorge. You may feel a slight tingle or hear soft sounds, that is normal."
Jorge felt a strange feeling at the back of his head, like the feeling of someone staring at him, only much more intense. He did hear soft, musical sounds, like little bells far away, and the colors of the floor and the room and the animals seemed somehow more intense.
Then it hit, like an electrical shock that moved through his very self, and he saw.
The Equestrian bunny was glowing, inside, like it had a large LED inside it. As he stared in astonishment, Jorge realized that the glow was not uniform, it was brighter in the head and somewhere in the middle of the animal. But most amazing of all were the filaments, like threads or webs of light buzzing and pulsing and moving within the creature and along every part of it. The patterns illuminated the internal organs, and Jorge could see through the creature in some direction he could not point.
Covering the whole of the creature was a layer that matched every contour of it, a thin, glasslike, almost blue shell, as though the bunny had another, translucent bunny superimposed upon it, that moved as it moved and sat as it sat.
"That is life, Jorge, that is the stuff of magic itself. In your language, you are seeing the bunny's soul. What you are looking at is the shadow of the bunny in dimensions you do not know of, a space that is other than either your universe or mine. It is an extropic place where things never end, and never vanish, and all information, however small, is retained. The best I can translate our term for it would be... um... Ideal Space. No, that is not quite right. I don't have a good way to..."
Jorge waved his hand, flapping it so as not to move too much and break whatever link made this possible. "You need not explain further. I understand completely, I assure you."
The unicorn nodded. "Now, look at the Earthly creature, the 'mutie rat', Jorge."
Jorge turned his attention to the little rat with two tails in the second cage. It sat there nibbling seeds. "What happened? Is the show over?" Jorge was gravely disappointed and wanted to see the marvelous patterns and spectral sights once more.
"No, Jorge, compare the two. Go ahead."
Jorge looked, slowly, so as not to break the strange magic, from the bunny to the rat. The bunny was a marvel of glowing forces and energies moving and swirling but the rat was somehow empty. Jorge noticed that everything looked dark, dim, as though the room had been cast into shadow, except for the bunny, which was like a lamp in that darkness.
But there was a brighter light still, and Jorge slowly turned his head to see it and it was bright, bright beyond measure. It was the unicorn doctor, Remedy. She was a blinding mass of rippling colors and nets of energy, and she too had a glowing shadow of not unlike blue that sat as she sat. From her horn, which was almost too bright to look upon, streamers and ribbons of light twisted and writhed as they passed from her into Jorge's own head. He was seeing magic, he was seeing the magic of these creatures, of these ponies, in the way that they, or at least this trained unicorn, saw them.
Jorge looked at his wife, Juana, to tell her of the miracle of these marvelous things, but she was standing in the dark, and she was dark too, like the rat in the cage. Dark and hollow, nothing moved within her, and no light shone. Jorge looked down at himself, sitting on the floor, at his hands, at his legs - dark, empty, hollow.
Astronio was there too, and he was no different. All was dark and hollow, except for the unicorn and the bunny and... Jorge looked up, suddenly, to the window. Light, supernal light, came from beyond the walls. As he looked with all of his attention in the direction of the new light, the walls of the apartment began to become transparent, and he could see a great sphere, half in the Earth and half above, far out beyond the sea. It pushed against the dark emptiness, a lamp in the strange, dim twilight.
Jorge's special vision suddenly ended. The power was gone. His head ached now, like a migraña, and the light seemed too bright and he felt ill, like he might throw up.
"I'm very sorry, Jorge. The magic is... it is toxic to your brain, and... do you have any of your human medicines for headache to give him?" Remedy had turned to Juana and Yudí. "He will likely feel unwell for a few days. Make sure he gets enough rest, and I would recommend fruit and vegetable juices, and tea, as much as he will tolerate."
Jorge was crying now, and Juana fell to her knees to comfort him as Yudí went to the cabinet with the medicines.
"Do you see, my love, my dearest love? I do not want to lose you. You are my heart, my life, how can you do this thing you plan? How can you plan to die, now that you know that in death there is nothing noble? Please, please, please come with your family to the Bureau. Live with me, be my powerful stallion!"
Jorge had pulled himself loose, and gone to his study, twice shaking Juana from his arm as she tried to hold him. He slammed and locked the door, and would not come out. Juana and Yudí both pounded on the door, and yelled and cried, but still he would not come out. A man has his pride.
Soon, the tiny pills were pushed under the door for him, and he was grateful for them, for his head hurt terribly.
When he finally did leave the study, the apartment was empty, save for the dog, and a note. His wife and daughter had gone to the Bureau with the unicorn, and he could join them at any time. But after fourteen days, they would go by boat to Equestria, and if he did not meet them, it would be unlikely they would ever meet again.
Twice, he had almost gone, once after waking from a terrible nightmare, another time when the complete meaning of what he had seen fully grew within him and his heart was crushed in terror. But a man has his pride and a man has his courage, and if a man gives in to terror, then he is not a man, any more than if he breaks his intention.
"R-r-r-ren rinutes, twenty-two seconds, Jorge." The dog had brought him back to the present. His arm felt wet. Briefly Jorge wondered if he had spilled his fifth beer during his reverie. His arm was wet with a yellowish but clear liquid, seeping from the blackened, dead flesh that striped and painted large areas of his limbs. He felt the dampness everywhere now, and with it a terrible weakness. It was hard to concentrate, and he felt like he wanted to sleep. The strange, musical sound was everywhere now, but it did not come from his ears.
"Damage to R-r-r-remory and simulation of consciousness at cR-r-r-ritical levels, Jorge. Functions aR-r-r-re failing, R-r-r-rorge. I am dying. Please R-r-r-elp me. I am dying. Please. Please. R-r-r-rorge. Please, Owner: Jorge."
The dog was shaking now, internal motor systems confused by erroneous signals competing for processing dominance.
"H... How much time, now? Dog?" Jorge realized he had dozed off, or something like that, and his beer had fallen from his grasp to spill on the golden sand.
"R-r-r-ree R-r-r-rinutes, R-r-r-rorge, N seconds, N seconds, N seconds, Threeeeee.... R-r-r-reeeee...." Astronio had stopped shaking, his voice increasingly failing.
It was time. Jorge wondered if he still could do it. He felt so tired, so peaceful. The music sang to him inside his head. Angels and birds lived in his skull now. En la tierra de los muertos, los pájaros hacen sus nidos en los cráneos. No, no... he had to do what he had planned. He had to face her, he had to face her like a man.
Jorge struggled to lift himself from the lawn chair. His efforts left strips of his dead skin behind on the arms of the chair, they looked like burned strips of steak.
He fought to his feet and stood as tall as he could, which was not as tall and straight as he wished. It was hard to think. It was hard to understand anymore. It felt so peaceful, everything was soft and warm, and there was no pain. It was time to sleep. But then Jorge remembered the dark, and what the unicorn had shown him. The fear clutched his heart and it made him more alert.
The Barrier, oh, the Barrier, it filled the world, it filled the senses - nothing could be that large, nothing could be that vast. The wind had picked up, Jorge hadn't noticed when, but he felt it now, howling in his ears. He could see the base of the vast golden wall of morning that approached him now, a rushing wall of light as big as the world, taking the sea away as it came. There was no time left. The wall would be upon him in but a moment now, a moment in which to do what he had to do, to say what he had come to say.
"CELESTIA!" Jorge shouted into the onrushing wind, toward the wall of light and color and music.
"CELESTIA! HEAR ME! I AM JORGE! I AM A MAN AND I LIVED UPON THE EARTH!" Jorge's vision had become blurred and his legs were beginning to shake, his internal motor systems confused by erroneous signals from his failing brain. "I am a... man... and... and... I... I lived... I lived..."
Jorge Jeitson fell to his knees just as the Barrier swept up the beach from the last of the ocean that had been taken into it.
And then the wall of light hit, and everything was silver, and the silver shrank to a point, and then the point vanished.
Inspired by a conversation with Tinandel
LAPD Chief of Police Ronald Chua was the last police officer in the entire world.
He was the only known police officer in two entire universes - Equestria did not have, nor need police. He had been officially designated a Living Planetary Cultural Heritage Treasure by the Worldgovernment just about two decades ago, after a large campaign had started on the Hypernet, the result of a single post by his great, great, great grandaughter, Amy Fong-Torres, who had decided he was wonderful after staying with him for a week.
The Worldgovernment had dispensed with ordinary police and detectives long ago. Even before the Great Collapse, the police of the world had gradually become militarized, folded into the existing military structures of the many nations that existed then. When the Austerity War broke out, the nations of the planet collapsed. The multi-national, global corporations swiftly joined together as one to deal with the angry multitudes, who were incensed to violence at the near total loss of all jobs, wealth, access to food and medicine, and the breakdown of both the social order and the infrastructure that supported it.
The beginnings of the nanotech revolution had come far before the war, and the new World Regularization Forces were clothed in flexible spun carbon nanostructure suits. The pitch-black webbing acted like an advanced non-Newtonian fluid - soft and yielding during normal movement, harder than diamond when impacted with sudden force. The material was invulnerable to all but a very select set of corrosive substances, and made the WRF impervious and unstoppable to the conventional weapons held by the impoverished masses.
When the planet had been properly set to order, the nations of the world had become irrelevant. The corporations, now one planetary corporation, had succeeded where Alexander and Napoleon and Gengis Khan had failed. They had not precisely set out to conquer the world, but had achieved total control purely by default. Thus arose the Worldgovernment, really the Worldcorporation, and its universal peacekeepers and enforcers, the Blackmesh, so named for their nanocarbon web armor.
But through it all, through the Great Collapse and the Last Harvest and the Austerity War, and the rise of the Worldgovernment, the LAPD Rampart Division survived. It survived because of Little Tokyo, J-Town, the famed ethnic Japanese-American district of Los Angeles. Insular, private, almost a world unto itself, it maintained alone, despite the changes flowing around it. When Japan and parts of Korea and China became uninhabitable, refugees from what was called the Japan Exclusion Zone swelled the population of J-Town. Little Tokyo became a fortress, and within it the last remnant of a civilian police force survived.
Ronald Chua had started as a Rookie during the Austerity War, and in the end, he became Chief, because he was the only officer left.
For decades he walked his beat, and because there were no judges nor juries anymore - the Worldgovernment had no interest in micromanaging the impossible masses - personally handling matters of justice for the common man. The Blackmesh could not be bothered with the day to day lives of the nineteen billion that arose all-too-rapidly when universal food and water had been guaranteed. Despite every effort to educate the billions, they bred and bred to the limit of the capacity of the planet and beyond. Justice came at the end of a board with a nail in it, or in local militias, such as they were, or roving gangs, or the fiat of walled communities, or not at all.
And in the vast walled community that was J-Town - not New Little Tokyo, not New-New-J-Town, for it had never stopped, not even for a moment, but had continued, a perennial flower in the garden of what was left of Los Angeles - the fiat was to keep the last policeman, forever, if possible.
Ronald was supported by the community. They had paid for every one of his Total Organ Replacements. They had raised the credits for his augments, his nightvision, his permatech hypernet link, his augmented hearing and strength. On his one-hundred and twentieth birthday, they had a huge celebration and provided him with a new uniform - traditional styling from before the Collapse, yet hidden within it was real blackmesh fiber, rendering him all but invulnerable. Ronald had put on his cap and smiled, and the crowd had cheered. He was a global treasure, but he was even more their treasure, he was the last policeman on earth. He united the former Japanese, Chinese and Korean refugees that now called J-Town their home. Everyone knew him, everyone respected him. Some had committed petty crimes just to have the honor of being arrested by him. It was an honor, and a matter of bragging even in polite circles, to have a framed record signed by Great Chief Chua.
Police Chief Chua walked a different beat for each day of his week. J-Town had grown very large and he could not cover it in a single day. He did not need to, crime was constant but fairly low compared to outside the walls of J-Town, though over the decades there had been some truly ghastly incidents. He had handled them with skill and finesse born of timeless patience and experience. Chua was known as a kind man, a perceptive man, but also a stern man, with a strong belief in the value of order, and of law - tempered by a fatherly wish to see genuine justice before rigid adherence to arbitrary rules.
Thus it was that he was more annoyed than shocked when he approached the crime scene at the New Yaohan Cafe at East Second and San Pedro.
There was quite a host of suspects and Those Involved, and all were either mum or overly eager to rat out someone other than themselves. They were all outsiders, let in through the gates of J-Town, lesser corporate with jobs in the global corporation, except for one, a pony, which no one had any idea how he had got in. There were many ponies now in J-Town, most of the population in fact, but this pony was different. He was clearly PER, Ponification for the Earth's Renewal, and he had been caught red-hoofed in the act.
The blood covered the tiles outside the rebuilt cafe. The citizens of J-Town did not call their reconstruction a favela, and truth be told it was more than that. They had worked hard to make the buildings lovely, the gardens perfect, even the roofs pretty to look upon. J-Town was the queen of all favelas, built with a dedication astonishing to contemplate in the post-Collapse world. So much blood, a crimson pool that reflected the pegasus-cleared sky.
In the blood were drenched clothing, cut and torn, and in the clothing, unconscious in the middle of a Conversion Dream, was a brand new pony. Barely alive, Alex Bennet-Addams, age 28, Caucasian, had been ponified almost beyond the moment of irreversible death. That was the work of the pegasus stallion PER agent Flitterwing, age 24 who had swooped in at the last moment to save the man, apparently.
On the ground was a handgun, a Taurus PT 92, a 9mm clone of the much more famous Beretta, many claimed it superior. It had been fired once, at relatively close range. Who had fired the weapon was a matter of some contention.
Brooklyn Bennett-Addams, human, age 32, African-Caucasian, claimed to be the wife of the newly ponified Alex, and she sat at a table in the cafe, fiddling with a package of Golden Heaven brand Nanotine Rods. She had one stuck in the side of her neck, just under the left ear, near her carotid. The small, dull black cylinder was half gone, attached to her tissues it gradually self-administered a dosage of nicotinic acids, tyrosine, L-phenylalanine, and other 'brain activators'. Nanotine Rods had replaced smoking, because of their greater effect and the lack of any byproducts such as second-hand smoke. Chief Chua felt they were every bit as disgusting though, and the small, reddish welts on neck or wrist were a dead giveaway of a Rod fiend.
"I demand the immediate arrest of that man!" Brooklyn had been going on for some time now about a thin Asian man, likely Korean, named David Dokgo, human, age 26. "That... that monster MURDERED my husband!" Chua noticed instantly that the woman did not seem to be genuinely upset. He had seen authentic grief in his hundred and fourty-six years, and this woman had none within her heart. She was lying, he was sure of it, and she was playing a game, of this he was also sure. It was going to be another soap opera, another drama performed at the expense of everyone for some selfish gain. It was going to be a wretched mess, and Police Chief Ronald Chua did not like wretched messes.
"Are you saying that Mr. Dokgo shot your husband, Mrs. Bennett-Addams? Is this your contention? Did you see him fire the weapon?" Pin them down. Just pin them down. They always fail when things get pinned down sufficiently, and then like a boil the situation is lanced and the often disgusting truth oozes out. Chua waited. If she said she could not be sure, then this was a clusterfuck. If she could be sure, then maybe, just maybe, this wouldn't be the pile of steaming turd Chua felt so sure it was.
"Well... officer... um..." The smell of feces was almost palpable, and it was everything Chua could do to avoid sighing. "... I thought I saw him shoot my husband, but I was returning from the ladies room, and... well, I am pretty darn sure of what I saw!"
Pretty darn sure. It was a clusterfuck.
David Dokgo was more specific about who had gunned down the former human Alex Bennett-Addams. "I saw the bastard blow him away! It was Christopher. Chris did it, that sick fuck, I saw it, he did it, and don't even listen to that stinking fish!" David was gay, and apparently involved with Alex Bennett-Addams. They had sex, he claimed, twice a week, and Alex had been planning to divorce his wife. She was wealthy, and with half of her credits under corporate law, he and Alex could move to South Africa to spend the next five or six years - however much was left for the world - in luxury. Together, until they died, bravely, as men in each other's arms. They were in love, David claimed. Chua had seen love, in all of its forms, gay, straight, and everything in between. David was not in love. But he was worried about losing something, and that something was almost always going to be money. It was always money.
Christopher Cox, human, age 30, Caucasian, very blond, was equally absolute in pointing the finger at David - the two hated each other, that was clear, and it was also genuine. After a hundred and fourty-six years, simple things like true hatred were childishly easy to spot. One of the two was likely the triggerman, but which would be a problem to find. Clusterfuck. "I am telling you, gendarme, that Mr. Doggy over there is the man you need to arrest. Those... people... faggots, excuse the term... are driven to insane acts, and it is no wonder that Brooklyn's husband was shot by the freak. I don't even know why I am being detained. I have corporate business to attend to!"
Cox was a piece of work, that was clear. It was so obvious he had a part in all of this - he was here, at the time of the shooting, waiting as if wanting to be questioned. It was like dealing with children, and considering the vast gap in age, Chua felt like he was in the middle of Murder For Kindergarteners... only it wasn't murder. The victim was right there, still alive, only as a pony. As soon as he had gained his wits, perhaps this could be solved with one simple question: who the hell shot you. Police Chief Chua could not wait for that moment.
Evelyn Esterházy, human, age 19, Caucasian, had a different tale to spin. She had been waiting, she said, because she knew of the plot. Brooklyn had shot her husband. He was divorcing her, and she would lose half of her fortune. Everything the others claimed was all lies, personal vendettas against each other. They were all consumed with jealousy and had used the event to destroy each other. Dokgo hated Cox, he always had, and Cox, he was a closet case, he had always wanted Alex for himself, despite what he said. And Brooklyn had 'stuff' on them both, they would never indict her. She alone knew the truth.
"How do you know these things, Miss Esterházy?" It was a simple question. Simple like a boot kicking over a rock with horrifying insects underneath.
"Because, I was Brooklyn's little toy! She needed a little pussy on the side, and I was her kitty. I loved her! She dropped me like an old sock... but not before I ended up caught in her nasty little web. She did it, she manipulates everyone and everything around her! Put the pressure on those two pricks, they'll cave. Men always do. Give 'em the torture treatment, hear the truth for yourself!" Esterházy licked her lips at this. She wanted to see men suffer. Chua had seen her kind too, over the many years. Angry lesbians unable to separate patriarchy from the males also caught within it. She definitely had it in for Brooklyn, though. Jealousy and spite were more childish, easy to spot emotions. Clusterfuck Soap Opera.
Police Chief Ronald Chua did finally sigh. He took off his cap and ran his fingers up and over his close-cropped, dark gray hair. It had started out to be such a nice day.
Chua had regular deputies he used, they were already helping out, keeping the people at bay, warning the newfoal citizens to not even come near - ponies didn't do well with blood and awful stuff, and this was both physically and emotionally awful - and they kept the suspects in place. No one argues with well built Samoans, and Tasi, Sefo, Aumavae and Mapu - not to mention Big Siliva alone, well. The suspects were going nowhere unless the police said so, which is to say, Chua said so.
Alex Bennett-Addams the newfoal was still not conscious. Chua sat down to check his Flatpad notes, but also to watch, from the corner of his vision, what the clusterfuck did when they thought he was otherwise engaged. Brooklyn Bennett-Addams scraped the last of her Rod from her neck and stuck another in the very same spot. It adhered instantly, dissolving itself at a measured rate through her skin and fat and muscles into her blood. Nasty things.
David Dokgo alternated between staring at the unconscious newfoal Alex and glaring back at Mr. Cox. Christopher Cox, for his part, kept weaponized eyes only on David, as if trying to stare him to death. But wait... ah! A furtive glance at the missus, at Alex's wife Brooklyn. It was only a glance, but the look was old as time itself. The two were in cahoots somehow, and in his ancient, augmented bones, Chua would not have been at all surprised to find the two were secret lovers.
Oh what a mess. He considered his first impressions. Over the decades, he had come to trust his initial assessments, his gut, and it had, with experience, become ever accurate. What then was going on? The wife had money, that was likely the focus and motivation behind everything. David had been probably servicing the former human Alex Bennett-Addams in exchange for financial support, he doubtless was the driving force behind the divorce. Cox was almost certainly bisexual, but closeted, the girl, Esterházy was half right about him. But there was clearly something going on between Cox and Missus Alex Bennett-Addams, and Chief Chua could think of a half a dozen ways that could play out.
Total, utter, clusterfuck.
Worse, with no judge, no jury, and the Blackmesh uninterested, it was entirely up to him, Police Chief Ronald Chua of J-Town, to work it all out, figure out who did what, and meet appropriate justice as he alone saw fit. He thought briefly of just having them all shot. Legally, he could do it. The Worldgovernment would not care, and the only local law was himself. Damn, but that would just be so damn nice. Kill 'em all and let God sort them out. That was still a popular phrase, each new generation thinking they were clever to say it. Idiots the lot of them. Chua's head began to ache.
Police Chief Ronald Chua needed a break. There was still one involved individual that he hadn't talked to. The pegasus. The PER agent. That might be worth a laugh. At least the ponies were usually fairly straightforward. No big dramas with the ponies. They had a purpose, they drove towards it, and they were not often shy about talking openly about it. Yeah, the pony. It would be refreshing, and despite the fact the pony was a PER terrorist, comparatively clean.
The foodlocker had no windows, and only one door. It had once been a refrigerated locker, but that was long ago, when there was more than two hours of electricity per day in the city. Everyone dealt in fresh items now, which were easy to come by thanks to the conversion of the vast majority of the population to Equestrian form. The earthponies had turned Los Angeles - they called it Los Pegasus now, Chua felt he would never get used to that - from a gray on gray urban sprawl into a lush green cornucopia of fresh produce grown in minutes or hours. No one bothered with the guaranteed government ration any longer, and there was no need for refrigeration in a city where a new crop could be created in less than an hour.
Tasi and Sefo had put the PER pony in the foodlocker, which, living up to its name, could be locked. There was a hole for air to get in, where the old refrigeration system used to be, but it was far too small to be used for escape. Outside, on the prep-table, they had set the saddlebags the newfoal agent had worn. Chua checked them, they contained a wide assortment of weaponized ponification devices.
With his white gloves on, Chua examined the devices. There were eggs, the four-ounce neoplastic ovoids that could be tossed with a flick of a pony head, or used with devastating accuracy in clusters by unicorns. Chua found a selection of vial-like cylinders, presumably also for throwing. All of these were designed to impact and break, covering a single target in more than sufficient serum to ponify them.
Also in the saddlebags were several gas grenades - a recent advance had permitted 'potion' to be distributed in an effectively aerosolized form. The reality was more complex than merely misting serum, some kind of rapid nanostructed metamaterial created a false liquid, a sort of gas-like nanofoam that acted like a fluidic mass that did not dissipate for hours. He had heard it described as a stable cloud that filled every corner yet would not evaporate. It could be scooped, as though it were heavy soap suds. After a programmed time, the nanofoam self-destructed, collapsing to a slick on the floor. It was very effective at converting large numbers of humans relatively safely, the humans falling under the calibrated anesthetic while being exposed to sufficient serum.
Flitterwing, the PER pegasus, had clearly come with the intent of mass conversion of the few remaining humans in J-Town, but had been caught because he had stopped to save the life of the shooting victim. Curious villains, these PER.
Chief Chua straighted his uniform and his cap. He glanced at his white gloves, still spotless. Then he headed to the foodlocker. He rapped his knuckles sharply on the metal door three times, then opened the self-locking door.
Sitting on the floor, in the back, was the PER stallion, Flitterwing. He had only given a short statement to Chua's deputies - his name, that he was PER, that he had saved the life of the injured man. He had given up without a fight, which was a pleasant surprise - that meant he wasn't one of the twenty or so 'special' ponies that led the PER, the genetically altered ones that retained a human mind, and the human capacity for violence and even sociopathy.
"Hello, son." Chua tried to take a fatherly approach whenever possible, and it seemed appropriate here as the young stallion was sitting legs splayed out like a clumsy foal, sucking on a candied carrot. He'd apparently been taking advantage of the place he had been confined, and Chua couldn't really blame him. He was surrounded by tasty treats, the temptation would be too much for anyone, really. "Would you be willing to talk to me?"
The pegasus looked up at him with guileless pony eyes. "Sure! It's kind of lonely in here." Flitterwing gobbled the candy carrot and smiled. He seemed nice enough for someone classed as a criminal in two universes.
"Flitterwing, is it?" Chua did not doubt his deputies, but it was a simple way to put the subject at ease.
"Yes sir! Just Flitterwing, I didn't take a last name. No real need, unless you are part of a clan or something, or so I understand. Once I learned the basics, I just couldn't stop flitting about, I'd even hover in the halls. So... Flitterwing." He smiled again. "Want a candy carrot? They're really good!" He nodded to the box he was sprawled next to.
Chua shook his head, but smiled back. He liked the talkative ones. Not the ones that blathered, or tried to hide behind a screen of babble, no the genuinely open ones, the ones that just couldn't help themselves because they were just that way. It made everything so much easier.
A few things had already become clear, just from this short exchange to the old policeman. Flitterwing must have been converted fairly recently, fresh newfoals tend to talk about their time at the bureau a great deal because it is still new and exciting to them. They like to explain their names and talk about why they converted.
That meant that this was probably Flitterwing's first mission - or close to it - for the PER. He wouldn't have had much time to do anything if he had only recently been converted. He might have been recruited only a week or two ago. He certainly hadn't been trained not to talk to his captors. Either the PER was more disorganized than everyone imagined, or this poor kid was just raw meat to throw at the world.
"You saved a man's life today, at your own personal risk. Did you expect to be caught?" Chua studied the stallions eyes and body language. He had become familiar with the ways of ponies now. Most of J-Town was ponies, now.
"Um..." The pegasus looked down at his forehooves. "I... I kind of didn't give it any real thought. He was hurt!" Flitterwing's eyes went wide with the memory as he looked suddenly up at the Chief. "He was hurt really, really bad! It didn't even look like he was breathing, and there was blood... blood everywhere... and... and..." The pony's eyes were very watery now, and a tear was beginning to trace a trail down the stallion's cheek. The increased compassion and empathy made the sight of violence all but intolerable to Newfoals. To natives too, probably.
"There, there, son, he's alright now. I checked him, he's still dreaming, but he'll be fine. A unicorn, but fine. Really." The gentle words seemed to relieve the young pegasus, and he gradually managed a small smile. "Can you tell me what you were doing in J-Town today son?" The answer was obvious, but Chua wanted to hear how the fellow would describe things.
"I was here to save everypony, before the Barrier comes. It's coming, you know, less than a month away! There's still so many who haven't converted yet... like you! And you have to, because when the Barrier comes, when Equestria gets here, if you haven't converted..."
Chua interrupted the excited pegasus. "Or moved away."
Chua repeated himself. "Or moved away."
The pegasus stallion seemed almost confused by the statement. He appeared to be pondering it, as though the very concept had never been a part of his understanding. "I... I guess that's a possibility. Though it wouldn't accomplish much. I mean, maybe a few more years, five, six at the most... I hadn't...."
"So you were here to convert any humans you could find then?"
The stallion snapped back to reality. "Yes. Yes sir." He had said the words as if it were the most matter of fact thing in the world.
"Have you been converting humans a long time?" Chua knew what the answer must be, but he could be wrong.
"No sir, this was only my third mission. It's my first solo mission. I just did support on the first two. I figured it would be easy, and it probably would have been, if... if I hadn't gotten caught immediately." The stallion's ears drooped and his head hung. "I completely failed J-Town."
Interesting. It was always interesting how ponies put things, Chua thought. A human would be likely to say something along the lines of 'if that guy hadn't gotten shot' or 'if I'd just ignored that guy'. The first found blame for failure, the second covertly demanded additional praise for bothering to do the right thing. Ponies always tried to do the right thing, they didn't expect to be praised for it. It was just what they did. And they didn't need a scapegoat for their own failures. They'd reject putting false blame on another in any case, because they'd feel so much empathy that it would be like blaming themselves anyway. Ponies were refreshing to interrogate.
"I'm sorry, sir. I'm really glad I managed to save the guy that got... that was hurt, but I'm sorry I failed you, and everypony." The stallion was deeply sad.
"Failed... us? In what way?" Chua was taken aback.
"All the unconverted humans, all the nice people are going to die now, because I failed!" The stallion was almost wailing. "If they were going to convert, they would have by now, I mean, less than a month! And there's so many left, and a lot can't afford to travel, and it's all hopeless now because I failed! I failed you all, and now you're going to... going to..." The boy had a lot of tears in him, but interestingly, not for himself.
"Son, son... listen... come on..." Chua had come closer, and gave a few comforting pats on the stallion's poll with his white gloved hand. "It's their choice. The Bureau is throwing that big emergency conversion thing right now, and I know for a fact a lot of the remaining humans here intend to go later this week. Others intend to move back east, so you can relax. Nobody is in any danger, not even now."
"But they are!" The pegasus looked up with his tear-streaked face. "Stormcloud says that a lot of humans just ignore things until it's too late, and the loss of even one life is too much!"
"He's the head of our barony. Baron Stormcloud of the Los Pegasus Crusade. We... oh... I'm not supposed to talk about all of that. I'm really sorry, sir, but... I promised, and I always keep my promises!" Flitterwing hung his head again, at the realization that he had already said too much, if only by a little. "Or at least I really, really try! Oh... fooey."
Chief Chua had to stifle a laugh at that. 'Fooey'. Even when he was growing up, ten year olds would regularly use 'fuck', and here was a twenty-something swearing, and his word of choice was 'fooey'. He'd asked a newly converted member of the Fuschidas about such language. Apparently a lot of profanity was concerned with violent, angry, or negative matters, or used positive things in negative ways, implying they were somehow wrong. There were all kinds of connections to violence in most profanity, and this made ponies feel uncomfortable or even sad. Human swearing had no payoff for them.
Big Siliva had once said that conversion turned everyone into Quakers. He probably wasn't far wrong.
"Ok, son, I won't ask any more questions about your PER background, alright?" It wasn't really relevant anyway.
"Oh, thank you! You're really nice, and I don't want you to be mad at me." He was a sweet kid. Misguided, but sweet.
"Here's the big question, and it would be a really big help to me if you could answer it. Did you see who shot the man today?" Chua noted that Flitterwing jerked ever so faintly at the word 'shot'. The ponies really were incredibly empathic.
"No sir. I'm sorry, but... I heard the... loud sound... and I knew what it was. I was on a roof, getting ready to, well, you know, when there was this 'BANG', like a firecracker, but I knew what it was, and so I went to look, and I saw the man on the ground, and he was... he moved a little, but then he stopped moving and all this blood kept coming out, more and more and..." The stallion was trembling now. It couldn't have been a pretty sight, that's for sure.
"Do you know any of the humans involved, or have any other connection to this situation at all? Tell me the honest truth."
"I... I wouldn't lie to you, sir! I mean, I won't talk... more... about the stuff I promised not to talk about, but I won't lie. It... it would be wrong, and it would impede your investigation and..." Chua interrupted the pony again. The kid had been pretty shaken by today's little... event. "Sorry, sorry. No, sir, I don't know any of those humans. I'm not sure I would want to know them, really. They didn't seem very nice."
Truer words had seldom been spoken. Chua sighed. It might have been so simple, if only the kid had seen the shooting. It could have been any one of those freaks out there.
"Thank you son, you've been very helpful. Don't eat too much of the candy - I don't think they'd appreciate you being sick in here, alright?" Chua stood up, preparing himself to face endless questioning of a bunch of people who pretty obviously were all connected somehow, and in ways that were not nice. He'd already built up a likely set of connections, just from his long experience.
The daylight was bright, and he shielded his eyes with a gloved hand as he studied the suspects. The victim, Alex, was awake and marveling at his new hooves, swishing his tail and testing his new ears. He seemed happy at least. They always were, right after conversion, all smiles and laughter, wide eyed like children. Innocent, happy. Chua wished he could feel even a tenth as happy. When constabulary duty's to be done, to be done, A policeman's lot is not a happy one. Chua sighed yet again, under the hot sun.
Alex, the victim, was almost certainly involved sexually with David, and was probably supporting him. David wanted financial security, so he wanted Alex to divorce his wife Brooklyn, and it was clear she didn't want that because she'd lose half of her wealth. That Cox guy... he was certain that there was something between him and Brooklyn, and the Esterházy girl was a jealous and spiteful little thing. Any one of them could have pulled the trigger. Brooklyn because she didn't want to lose half her fortune, Cox because he was in with Brooklyn and they wanted to be together, Esterházy because she was jealous and spiteful... hell, even David could have shot his own mealticket, if Alex had refused him brutally enough.
It would take days to worm the truth out of them. And who really cared? Seriously, what was the point? The Worldgovernment didn't give a crap, in a month the entire city would be gone... who really cared at this point?
What was even the point?
Police Chief Ronald Chua, human, age 146, Chinese, stared at his spotless white gloves. Underneath the fibers, his old hands ached, even with the rejuvenation treatments and the anagathics and the implants. Sour bones. That's what his Grandmother had said. She had sour bones. Oh, to have sweet ones again.
The Cox man was in his face now, blond and impatient. "I demand to be released from this farce! I am an important employee of the WORLD CORPORATION! I can't be held in this run-down bandit stronghold filled with squinty-eyed... ah... you know what I mean. Beside the point. You WILL let me leave this INSTANT or I swear I will hold you personally..."
Somehow the wife, Brooklyn had darted away from Mapu's watchful eye, and had joined Cox, competing with him for volume. "I WANT THAT DOGFUCKER MAN ARRESTED FOR THE MURDER OF MY HUSBAND!"
In the distance, Alex Bennet-Addams, now a Newfoal, raised the argument that he was right there, very much alive. No one seemed to care.
"My name is not DOGFUCKER, it's DOKGO - that's DEE OH KAY GEE OH you lousy, stinking bitch of an excuse for a beard!" David Dokgo did not seem at all worried about Alex, any more than was Brooklyn, Alex's wife.
Esterházy was struggling against Mapu, who had run and grabbed her when he realized what was happening. The rest of Chua's deputies began pulling the enraged suspects away from the Chief, apologizing profusely for not being more alert.
"Just one moment." The words were quiet, but it was enough for his deputies. Big Siliva made everyone shut the hell up. Nobody messes with Big Siliva. Nobody.
"Just one moment." Chief Chua repeated. "I'll be right back. Aumavae, Tasi?"
The two massive men ran up.
"I think this is a community matter. Would you round up everyone... no, wait. Murder isn't a matter for ponies. Only round up the humans left in the community. Could you do that for me?"
Aumavae and Tasi looked at each other. A trial. Of course. Chief Chua was going to have a proper trial. Ponies were useless for human trials. They were nothing but forgiveness and compassion, and that was fine in a world without violent crime. But in the real world, the human world, a jury needed to have the edge required to deal with real issues, with serious issues, with human issues.
Issues like attempted murder and conspiracy.
Ronald Chua walked back into the cafe, into the shade, back into the kitchen. He thought over his many, many long years of service as a policeman, the last policeman in all the world. All the cases. There were so many petty ones, of course, but this was Los Angeles, or at least it used to be. In Los Angeles, the crimes were as big as the movies that once were made here.
Crimes of passion, of terror, of greed. Violent nightmares of butchery and depravity. Men and women turning on each other over the most trivial of reasons, Chua had seen it all. He had broken up snuff holography rings, slavery rings, blackmail and murder, serial killers, rooftop snipers, and wife slashers. The gang of religious nutballs that melted the faces of women with acid, the cult that poisoned an entire school system, or just the occasional person who, for reasons they themselves could not understand, just one day picked up a gun or a knife or a board and just killed a stranger. Just because. Just because.
A policeman's lot is not a happy one. Chua had always loved Gilbert and Sullivan. They'd survive Equestria. Ponies would be performing Gilbert and Sullivan, thousands of years from now. The Worldgovernment had been busy, transferring the works of Man, if approved by the princess Luna, to blank Equestrian books that would survive the Barrier. He had recently learned that Gilbert and Sullivan had passed approval. They had made it to Equestria, those songs, those plays, they were in a library there right now, somewhere. Many libraries. Gilbert and Sullivan would live forever now. Forever in an eternal land, even when the Earth's former sun had gone dark, even when all the stars had faded into endless night, some future pony would just be discovering, for the first time, The Pirates Of Penzance.
The locker opened easily to human hands. Ponies had to work a little harder, so there was a string now that pulled the catch. A small convenience for the majority population forced to work with objects not designed for them.
Chua stood there, his hand on the locker door where Flitterwing sat, and doubtless was eating too much candy. Ponies had an insatiable sweet tooth.
It was Aumavae. How long had he stood there, hand on the handle of the foodlocker, daydreaming about Gilbert and Sullivan, about good things from his long, long past?
"Yes?" Chua did not move, it would look silly to startle now.
"Everybody's here. Collected, I mean. Quite a little crowd. They're all waiting."
Chua thought for a moment. "Go out and make sure they are sitting and comfortable. I will be right there. I just need to collect a few things, alright?"
"Yes sir!" Aumavae left, excited at the prospect of a proper trial. Maybe there would even be an old fashioned hanging!
The old policeman thought of the approaching Barrier, of Equestria, of what ponies were. He thought of how they acted toward each other, how they spoke, how they treated the world around them. He thought of how there was no Equestrian word for 'police'. Sefo had told him that. They didn't even have the concept of an enforcer. They just didn't need such things.
Murder and blood and butchery and theft and greed and endless angry faces screaming at each other. A policeman's lot is not a happy one.
Police Chief Chua released the catch and opened the locker door. Flitterwing was, as expected, stuffing his face with candied carrots. He looked ashamed as he swallowed. "I'm... I'm sorry! You told me to be careful, but I've eaten almost all of them. I got carried away! I'm sorry!" And he really, genuinely was. It was obvious and clear. Even a rookie could have seen it.
"It's all right, son. Would you come here, please?" Chua smiled warmly.
Flitterwing got up on his legs and trotted immediately to stand in front of Chua. He made no effort to run past him to freedom. Of course he wouldn't. Ponies.
"Are you willing to help an officer of the law, duly appointed by the former Los Angeles Police Department and the Worldgovernment of Earth to maintain peace and dispense justice howsoever he deems fit?" The Worldgovernment had actually given him a plaque on his hundred and twentieth birthday enshrining those very words into planetary law.
"Yes sir?" The pegasus looked confused, but willing.
"Then I now officially make you my one and only deputy, with all legal rights and privileges and constabulary duties as defined by me, the only extant Chief of Police in the world. Congratulations, officer Flitterwing!"
"Yes SIR!" Flitterwing stood proud and tall. Chua took off his cap and set it firmly on the pegasus' large head. It might stay on.
"We do not have much time, deputy Flitterwing. Your first duty is to show me how all the things in your saddlebags work, to make sure I understand them, especially the gas grenades." Chua smiled, his face the face of a man ready to go home.
The pegasus flicked his tail, uncertain. "Sir?"
"Do you.... do you like Gilbert and Sullivan?"
"How could you just go and do this, Patrick?" Amber was upset, very upset. Her hands clenched and unclenched even as they shook slightly. "You say you're going to be gone one day, just ONE day, and then it's three days, and you show up... you show up like this!"
Patrick shifted his rump on the couch, his tail kept sliding between the back and the cushion and it felt weird and sometimes hurt if he failed to notice and moved at all. His own weight would pinch his tail or bend it at some odd angle, and that felt uncomfortable as swirl. He knew he'd be more comfortable if he just lay down on the couch on his belly, with his legs folded, but he was trying to sit upright, like a human would because... because he was trying, in his own way, to bridge the sudden gap he now felt between himself and Amber.
They had been a couple for six years now, much longer than the two years it usually took a relationship to move beyond the passion stage into something serious. It was no longer sex holding them together, it was the real, deep bond of friendship and mutual engagement that marked all successful long-term relationships. But this... Patrick had known that this would be a risk, a big risk, but something had to be done. This had to be dealt with, and he was no longer willing to put it off. He had seen a short future of doing nothing but that, until things ended up such that it would be too late. That was... that was not tolerable.
"How am I supposed to relate to you? Huh? Do you mind telling me that? What the hell am I supposed to do with you now? You have really gone and done it this time, you have really..." Amber and Patrick had been going round and round in circles over this for over six hours now, ever since Patrick had gotten home. "That time. That time you got us involved with the - what was it? Oh, yeah, that stupid investment in trying to bring back industry, 'Little Manufacturing' - all our credits, and we had to live off the Government Ration for almost a year, A YEAR! Goddammit, Pat! What the fuck?"
Amber was crying again, it was impossible to remember how many times she had broken down to tears. They had been through so much together, and then the big jerk pulls something like this! This was way worse than the investment thing, that, that was something where everything could go back to normal, more or less, it just took time, but this, this was something that couldn't be reversed. "You're CERTAIN this can't be reversed?"
They both knew the answer, the question had only been asked and answered dozens of times in every possible way over the last many hours, but Amber just couldn't keep from asking. It was like the question had a life of its own. She felt stupid for saying that, but dammit... just... dammit!
Patrick's ears were low, pulled back against his skull, now they drooped down, almost like dog ears. It was uncanny how expressive the damn things were, Amber thought. It was creepy, like being able to read his mind or something. At least he couldn't hide his feelings anymore! That made her laugh, she couldn't help herself, but then she felt like crying again, and she couldn't seem to help that either. "Why? WHY DID YOU DO IT? GODDAMMIT ANSWER ME! Answer me..."
She'd asked, and been answered multiple times on that one too, but it was like the answer was slippery and wouldn't stick inside her head. She knew she already had heard his explanation, but... it just wouldn't stick. It was like her mind didn't want it inside, causing trouble. It was like the answer kept running away.
Patrick was exhausted now. Even with his new body and new brain, there was a limit. "BECAUSE I DIDN'T WANT TO DIE! What the cinnamon swirl don't you comprehend about that? HUH? DIE! D-I-E, dead, dead, rotting in the ground, gone forever, not there, deceased DEAD! Which is EXACTLY what is going to happen to YOU if you don't wake up and face this and get your stubby tail the FUCK down to the Bureau!"
Amber stared at the unicorn stallion on her couch. Her mouth fell open, instinctively she put a hand over it in shock. "Did... what did you just... you just said 'fuck' didn't you?"
"I'M SERIOUS! You MUFFIN need to get your..."
"You DID! You freaking said 'fuck' to me, just now!" Amber had a look on her face like she'd just discovered the winning golden ticket to Wonka's Chocolate Factory.
"I MEAN IT, Amber... wait... seriously? I said... uh... um..." Patrick's ears went out sideways, an emotional statement that neither of them was sure what it meant, but it made his ear muscles ache to do it.
"Fuck. You said fuck. Just now - I mean a little bit ago." Amber leaned forward in her chair, her hands between her legs propping up her weight. "You were going on about death and dying and crap like that and you said 'fuck', Patrick. I thought you couldn't say words like that anymore?"
The mood had instantly changed. Amber was in one of her 'I gotta understand this' situations, and for the moment all the tears and anger had evaporated. It was the most bizarre thing, but Patrick had gotten used to it over the years - they could be in the middle of the worst fight they ever had, and something would catch Amber's attention and it was like the fight was on hold, as if the fight was some kind of hologame and somebody had pressed the 'pause' button to go make a sandwich or something. "I thought I couldn't too!" Patrick wasn't sure, had he really said...fu... that... that word? Out loud? He couldn't even think it at the moment, and he was trying really hard, too. "Are you sure?"
Amber leaned even more forward, her mid-length dark brown hair dangling. "Oh, you said it, all right. I give you my word. You said 'fuck', loud as can be. Hell, you even shouted it. It was pretty impressive coming out of a pony mouth, let me tell you." Amber sat up and leaned back. "Huh. Well that's interesting at least. I guess your fancy new brain hasn't changed as much as you think it has. I guess you're still you, somewhere in there. Oh GOD!" The tears and the anger were returning like some storm rolling in within her mind. Patrick could see it coming from the expression on her face. Suddenly Amber's expression became hard and distant, cold and removed.
"I want you to tell me exactly why you did this, without asking me, without discussing it, just did it, and I will listen this time, and I will do my DAMNEDEST to try and... and listen." Amber crossed her arms over her chest and sat with her face like a plascrete dam holding back a flooded valley's worth of tears.
"I'm really getting tired, Amber, I don't know if I can do this anymore tonight... I... I just got back, and the only rest I had was during my Conversion. I'm..." The look in her eyes made Patrick feel like he might start to cry, again, so he decided to try. One more time. "...alright, alright. But understand, I am really exhausted, so I might not make as much sense now."
A tear ran down Amber's cheek. Patrick sighed and tried to swallow. His throat felt dry. "Equestria is coming. It is going to roll right over the top of the city, and keep on going. Equestria will engulf the entire world in five years. Six years. I don't know anymore, I... I'm just... anyway, running isn't going to work. We could move to your mother's on the east coast, but that would only give us another year, maybe two. Then what, run to the Eurozone? South Africa? There'll be no place left to run after that. It's over. The earth is done. I don't want to die. I don't want you to die. But you just keep putting things off and off and..."
"YOU STATEMENTS!" Amber's eyes flashed with fire. "No more 'you' statements! Make 'I' statements!" Her lower lip quivered with fading rage. Exhaustion and the lateness of the hour were getting to her too. 'You' statements were the thing they had been trying that they had learned from Dana, a friend that was into couples counseling and psychology stuff. The idea was that saying 'You did this' or 'You did that' was a form of emotional attack, and that real communication couldn't happen when there was attacking going on. So the notion was to stick to 'I' statements - 'I feel' and 'I think that' and so forth. It supposedly kept people on track with what they really mean, too, or somesuch.
"Sorry... sorry. OK, then... ah... I... feel like... the matter of dealing with the issue of Conversion needs to be... dealt with. Now, not later. And since I don't want to die, and the only way to live is to convert, the answer is blatant and obvious. But we... I feel that we... keep putting it off with all the talk of moving and moving again, trying to outrun the bubble and... that just plain isn't going to work." Patrick's tail was aching like a dog was trying to chew it off. He'd had enough of trying to sit like a little mock-human. He was a pony now and he was too tired to keep pretending he wasn't in order to try to somehow please Amber. Patrick carefully moved his tail free as he slid down the back of the couch onto his belly, pulling his forelegs and hindlegs under himself. Ahhhh... oh that was better. Sooooo much better. The couch was soft under him, his tail had stopped cramping after a few swishes, and he let his head down onto the cushions. "Ohhh... sweet Celestia... oh, Luna that's better... nnnngh..."
"Why were you sitting up like that then, if it was so uncomfortable?" Patrick startled, suddenly aware that he must have very briefly nodded off. Amber was in inquisitive mode again. It was better than angry mode.
"I guess..." Patrick worked to open his newly ruby-colored eyes. "I guess that I was trying to look more human... um... so that... you would take me more seriously. I was afraid that if I lay down like this... that you might... think less of me."
There was a pause. "Whoa. That is so weird." Amber seemed abstractly fascinated. "That is your new pony-brain talking, isn't it. I don't think I've ever heard you just say what you felt inside like that." She didn't sound displeased, exactly. Surprised, definitely. "Usually I have to yank that out of you."
"Um... well we have been at this for... lots of hours." Patrick sighed. He felt so tired. It had been a very long day. He'd been at the Bureau for three days. They'd told him he could be converted the same day he went in, but then there was some kind of confusion about whether that was actually allowed or not, because the person in charge was new because the old person had gone pony and they were worried about... whatever the case, it wasn't until five in the evening that Patrick had finally been allowed to drink a cup of purple goo. An hour later he was on his way directly home, still trying to be comfortable with his brand new body. One of the neighbors, a pony, had seen him coming in and had brought over some proper pony food while he waited for Amber. Then she had come home, and after the initial warm-up yelling, the fight had begun in earnest.
"But, yeah." Patrick used the last of his energy to lift his long neck up so that he could look at his love. "I kind of don't see the point of holding my feelings in anymore. I don't even understand why I used to do that now. It was pretty stupid, really. It caused a lot of fights with you. I'm sorry about that, by the way." He gave her a tired smile. "I wish I could have had this brain back three years ago, when we had the first 'hell year'. I wish I'd always had this pony brain. I would have treated you better." The first hell year happened before the investment hell year, and it was just stupid stuff that never should have even happened. It was an embarrassment just to bring it up, but somehow, in this context, neither of them was shuddering.
"You should have told me, Patrick! Before you went. You should have told me what you were doing. That was wrong." Amber looked severe once more, her arms again crossed and her legs too, one big fortress within her chair.
"Maybe it was." Patrick was too tired to fight now. "And I'm sorry. I'm very sorry. I figured that if I told you, we'd have a big fight about it right then, and I would have lost my nerve and never have gone at all."
"DAMN RIGHT! You didn't even give me the chance to stop you!" The way she said it was like he had broken the rule to some unnamed game.
"No, no I didn't. Because I knew this needed to be done. I had to do this, and I knew that I would hate myself, and hate you too, if you somehow got me to not go. I would end up blaming you, later, when we were stuck in South Africa waiting to die with all the idiots, and I didn't want to die being angry at you." He jerked slightly after saying that, he shouldn't have said that, it was a dumb thing to say, oh Luna's Left Hoof, stupid, stupid, stupid thing to say...
But the reaction didn't go the way Patrick expected, because suddenly Amber was out of her chair and down on the floor in front of the couch, staring into his eyes. They were huge, Patrick's new eyes, and not blue anymore but the most incredible shade of ruby red. Amber felt a tingle down her back staring into them. They were just mesmerizing. You'd think bright red eyes would be creepy, she thought, just really weird and creepy, but somehow they looked gentle and kind, and like jewels... no, not like Jewels, like... like that soda drink, the red stuff that their pony neighbor Stucco liked. Patrick's new eyes were the color of Red Pop and oh, that was so weird... 'Patrick's new eyes', you don't get to say something like that very often. Oh, hey there, have you seen my Patrick's brand new eyes? Yeah, they're the color of soda pop! No, really! You gotta see them!
'My Patrick'. No doubt about it, she'd said that to herself. Amber tried to see if she could see him, see the man she loved inside those bright red eyes. His face was completely different, it was a stallion face, an equine face, but... somehow, it still kind of looked like him. That was so weird. How could that even be? There was just something... Pat... about that new face. Yeah, she decided. He was in there, somehow, impossibly, he was in there. Inside a stallion, on the couch.
Patrick suddenly wanted to kiss Amber. He wanted it more than life itself. Her face, her beautiful face was right there but... he just couldn't. She already had problems with his new form. New species, if we're being honest about it - he almost chuckled at that, inside - strange, strange world where it was possible to even say such a thing, much less be it. She wouldn't want to kiss a pony. That would be too weird. That would be a very weird place to go right now. But he didn't want to kiss her for sexy fun times reasons. Patrick just wanted to feel her lips against his, just in love, just to feel safe and loved. This... all of this felt too much like breaking up talk, and Patrick didn't want to lose her. Not Amber. Anypony but Amber. What had he done? Oh, Celestia, what had he gone and done?
"Pat?" The tears were streaming now, down the stallion's dark brown face, the droplets making the soft cheek hairs damp. "What's the matter, honey? Sweety? What's going on?" Amber was beyond exhausted, it had hit her now, and she had no defenses left. Patrick was crying. He was crying!
Amber found herself trying to wipe the tears away, but she was rubbing the wrong direction and making the hairs stand up, so she reversed her movements, and the cheek hairs smoothed down again on the stallion's head. It felt very soft, not like she had expected. This was the first time she had touched Patrick since he had come home. She found herself petting him on the top of the head, like a dog. She couldn't help herself, she began scratching behind his ears. This seemed to please Patrick very much. Amber found herself relaxing, strangely. It was nice to see such a small thing make him so happy. It was a little moment of simple, animal closeness.
Patrick drifted in a sea of contentment. Amber was scratching his ears and it felt so good, oh Celestia's sparkling mane it felt good, right there, yes, oh yes, please, right there behind the left ear... oh, sweet goodness that was nice. He realized his head was down, he couldn't help it, it just felt so good, and he was so tired. He could tell he was smiling from cheek to cheek.
"Hey... remember... remember that time went to the beach, Long Beach... or was it Oceanside? I forget. Anyway, that time we decided to walk the length nude and I got burned on... on... " It had just popped into his head, he couldn't for the life of him figure out why, but it was making him laugh because it was just so stupid and he was so tired. The smog was so thick, it was always thick back then, and he couldn't imagine getting burned, not with the sun a dim red polka-dot, but apparently you could get burned even if the sky was solid grey. He laughed again. Luna, but that had hurt for weeks. Oh, that was a mistake!
Amber gave a small laugh. "Oh you were so fried. You even had trouble peeing. God, that was such a stupid..." Amber stopped, the laugh in her voice ending abruptly. "Listen. It's late, I am too tired to think anymore. Let's hit the bed, and maybe we can be more civil in the morning. I assume you still sleep in a bed, or do I need to make you a cardboard box with a blanket and a clock to keep you company?"
Patrick giggled at the thought, he too was beyond exhaustion. "Yeah, and a hot-water bottle so that I'll think you're there with me and..." Suddenly it wasn't funny and more tears came. "I don't want to lose you Amber! I sleep in a bed. I'm still a person, even if I have hooves, even if I have a tail and eat hay. I'm still me, and... and I don't want to lose you. I don't want... I'm so afraid... I'm so afraid..." and then he was weeping, and she was holding him, Amber was holding him and he felt a kiss on the top of his head, and it felt like hope because it felt like caring and love.
"Come on, pony-boy, let's get you to bed. Me too." Patrick made his way off the couch with Amber's help. He felt really wobbly and dizzy from being so tired. He felt like he might just drop. He almost did, so Amber laid a hand on his withers and held on, to keep him upright. "Are your hooves clean? I don't want dirty hooves messing up the sheets."
They both stopped, at the absurdity of such a statement. They looked at each other and giggled briefly. "I'll, I'll wash them to be sure, OK?" Patrick headed shakily over to the bathtub and stepped in. He found himself facing the handle, completely unable to figure out what to do.
Amber's hand reached down and turned the handle, water spewed out. The Pegasai had brought clouds and water to Los Pegasus, so now things like bathing were dependable in a way they hadn't been for a very long time. Patrick easily rinsed his forehooves, but felt confused trying to reason out how to wash his hind hooves. His sleep-deprived brain finally worked out that unless he wanted to sit down and get his tail and bottom wet, he needed to rear up, use the wall for support, and turn around. That done, he easily rinsed his hind hooves. He clambered out, then turned to shut off the water. He pawed at the knob with a hoof - he hadn't had any training or education about how to be a pony, because he had wanted to get home immediately. "Um... little help?" He felt very embarrassed asking. Some Equestrian he was.
Amber came over and turned off the flow. Then to Patrick's surprise, and finally delight, she had a towel down and was drying his hooves. "Purely selfish, pony-boy. No wet hooves in my bed." Amber gave Patrick a mock scowl. "Ok, get your ass to bed. If you can. At least you don't smell bad."
It was true. Patrick was quite surprised that he didn't smell... like an animal. He smelled clean, slightly flowery, slightly... spicy, almost. But not like an animal, or at least not like an earth animal, including a human. Patrick approached the bed, the top of which was about level with his muzzle. He reared up, hooves on the mattress, and considered trying to crawl onto the bed, but dismissed the notion. Finally he gave a big leap and threw his new body onto the sheets. His hind hooves were hanging off the edge, but most of him was on the bed. With a little twist of his body, he was entirely on the mattress, partly on his belly, his back facing Amber's side of the bed, and partly on his side, at least as far as his hindquarters were concerned.
Patrick lay his head on the pillow. "Oh! Muffins! I forgot to brush my teeth!" The thought of climbing back down and dealing with that, when the mattress was so soft and he was so tired was overwhelming. "I don't even know how, yet. Forget it. Sleep first."
Amber crawled into bed beside him. He could feel her weight change the mattress and bounce him about in tiny ways. It was nice to be in bed, to have her there. Just to know she was there. It was everything. Everything.
"You were converted, just today, right?" Amber stared at the equinoid body beside her, at the long silvery-gray mane. She had brought the blankets over Patrick's body, hiding his flanks and tail. She was in bed with a horse. No... not a horse, and not a pony either, not really. Equestrians didn't look like earth animals, except in passing. The head was huge, to house a large brain. The eyes were gigantic. Maybe light worked differently in Equestria. The body was built differently, with more mobility in the joints, more freedom of motion. A human range of motion. No, Equestrians weren't really ponies. It was just the closest word humans had for the extraversal beings, she finally decided.
Patrick lay still under the covers. He felt a little hot, actually, but he didn't want to kick the blankets off because Amber had covered him. He wanted to cuddle with her, like always, but the situation was awkward now and he was glad enough to not be forced to sleep on the couch. That she had thought to cover him was an act of recognition, an act of concern for him, and it meant a lot right now. So he lay quietly and began to sweat. Having a coat of hair was like having a blanket already. "At about five. When I went in, on Monday, I had been assured they would convert me that same day, that I would be back by dinner, breakfast at the latest. But they had this new guy in, running the place, and he wasn't sure what was what at all. He was constantly afraid of getting in trouble with the bureau authority, and so I was told 'tomorrow for sure!' but that didn't happen. Finally I screamed and yelled enough and somepony invoked some kind of 'three day rule' or something, and I ended up getting my conversion slot at five. Then I came straight home."
Patrick was really feeling hot, he couldn't take it anymore so he lifted his head and took the blankets between his teeth and gave them a flip down. Ahhh.... much better. Maybe Equstrians don't use blankets, or maybe they use less or... it finally dawned on him just how little he knew about what he was now. He had wanted to get back to Amber so much he had completely blown off all the training at the Bureau. "Whoo... I'm all fuzzy now... I get hot quick. But it was nice of you to cover me. Thank you for that. I mean, that was kind. Thank you." He'd sounded fragile and clingy, and inside he shrank a little at the realization.
"So your plan was to dash in and come back the same day, then?" Amber had felt abandoned. She had been so mad at Patrick. Three days and no word! But then, to be fair, communication wasn't so good anymore, and there was no kiosk near where they lived. Even if he'd tried to reach her, how would she have heard him? She found herself staring at Patrick's new, long mane, and now at the base of his tail. His hair was amazing. Silvery-white, it looked like moonlight in the dim glow from the window. Amber knew women who would literally kill for hair like that. She found herself running her fingers through Patrick's mane. Soft, too. It was like silk. No, better. It was really great hair.
Amber pulled her hand back. That was dumb. She didn't want to be too familiar with this... this thing in her bed. It was Patrick, but it wasn't Patrick and... it wasn't human. But if she closed her eyes, it was Patrick, mostly. His voice was almost the same, a little higher, a little more nasal maybe, but it sounded like him. "Yes, Amber! I never intended to leave you hanging like that. They just had a change of management or whatever and that... guy... was just... ugh. He was scared of his own shadow, and they just kept me waiting. I'm really, really sorry I didn't leave a note or something, anything. That was wrong of me. And stupid too. You must have been worried sick."
He sounded genuinely remorseful. She had been worried. Even with most of the population ponies now - the Barrier was only a month and a half away - there were still some humans left out there, skulking about, many up to no good. Some were looters, others were die-hard HLF picking off ponies, there were a few rapists, too she had heard. Anything could have happened to Patrick. The Bureau was in a bad part of the city, made so because the Bureau was there, and that attracted the anti-bureau types, who tended to be violent little shits. "Yeah... I was... of course I was worried about you! I had no idea where you had gone, and now I find out you went there... "
"If it's any help, they told me all the HLF has pulled out now. The Barrier is too close for them to want to deal with. They've written Los Pegasus off. I only saw a hoofful of humans my whole time there, and all of them were there to be converted too. So... there's no danger anymore. If that helps." Patrick wasn't sure if saying that would comfort her, or just make her mad again. He felt so insecure, like anything he said might be the wrong thing, and he only wanted to say right things!
"Um..." Amber shifted in the bed, unsure of how to be with Patrick now. She missed him, yet he was right there. It was confusing, and it made getting to sleep difficult. "What... what is it like? To be a pony?"
"It's like wearing shoes to bed."
Amber started giggling at that, then Patrick started giggling too. The giggles turned to laughter. They were too tired, and too upset, and that made it far funnier than it should have been. Encouraged, Patrick carefully rolled over, releasing his legs from the covering blanket. He had to twist slightly and flop to make sure his tail wasn't bent in an odd position. It was still sore from trying to sit upright on the couch for hours.
Patrick stared into Amber's green eyes. They had felt so exhausted, but now it was like they couldn't sleep. He wanted to reach out to her, to stroke her cheek, to hold her, but... hooves. It didn't work that way exactly now. How did Equestrians show affection? How was he supposed to act? He decided it was better to just remain still. It was amazing Amber was even tolerating him there in the bed in the first place, considering how she had reacted when he had first come home, release bag in mouth.
"They're shutting down the Bureau. In two weeks. That's why they had a new guy who didn't know anything. It's already mostly packed up in there." Patrick felt and heard his ears twitch on the pillow. "That's kind of what made me... what caused me to force things. Two weeks, and then there won't be any more way to convert in the city - unless there's still some PER or something around. I heard they're pulling out too."
"Patrick... I... I just... I don't know." Amber reached out and took Patrick's hoof in her hands. She carefully felt the tough hoof wall, followed the wrinkles and bumps of the frog inside, swept her fingers over the curve of the hoof, and the arch of the coronet band, where the nail met the soft, luxurious hair of his foreleg. She wrapped her index finger and thumb around where it all narrowed in the pastern. She felt the muscles move as Patrick articulated his hoof while she held it. "It is kind of like a little shoe, isn't it?"
"It kind of feels like one too. I can feel pressure, and impact, but not touch on the... hard... part of it. But I could feel you touching inside, in the soft part." Patrick tried to smile, at least they were talking, gently.
"Frog. It's called your 'frog'. I don't know why. Jesus, Patrick, you don't even know what your own body parts are called." Amber had an almost pitying look on her face.
"I wanted to come home. They wanted me to stay, and learn all that stuff - they were real adamant about it too. 'We've only got two weeks left, this is your last chance to get the full benefit of what the Bureau has to offer' and stuff like that." Patrick looked down at Amber's hand, holding his new hoof. "I wanted to come home. To you. I just wanted to... to..."
"Shhh.... come here you big dodo. Christ, what am I going to do with you?" Amber wiped the new tears that had appeared on Patrick's cheeks and pulled him to her. He felt warm and smaller, and all legs and muscles and coat, and he pressed his muzzle into her chest and wept like a child. Amber gently stroked his back, running her hands through the long, soft hair of his withers, patting him. "What the hell am I going to do?"
When Patrick's sobs ceased, he almost immediately fell into a very deep sleep. Amber remained, her arm around his fluffy back, his nostrils tickling her chest slightly as they flared with each breath. Once, he snorted in his sleep, a very equine sound, probably a bad dream. She patted his flank and he shifted slightly, cuddling closer, and half smiled as his breathing became slow again.
She felt a little bad now, about the fight, but she had just been so shocked when she had come home to find him there, standing on all fours, like a dog come to greet it's master at the door. Then the permanence of it hit her, the irreversibility, and then she had gotten angry, because Patrick had gone and changed their life together, just like that, bang. It felt like she imagined being shot must be like - not the physical pain, the horror, the sudden 'it's not going to ever be the same anymore' feeling.
Amber ran her fingers up Patrick's new ear. It was no longer a human ear, in placement, in shape, in feeling. It twitched in her hand, even as he slept. She had known a dog like that, when she was small. Its ears would twitch just like that, even when it slept. Her hands moved to his unicorn horn. It was short and twisted into a spiral. It wasn't sharp, but it was hard. She felt it, it felt like hoof, like fingernail, only solid. Patrick was a unicorn. He had a horn on his head. He'd always wanted to be a wizard or a mage or some such. He'd always played characters like that in his games.
They had been planning to run. To go east. Hadn't they? Wasn't that the plan, to up and move away? The more Amber thought about it, the more she realized... they hadn't packed at all. There had been no real effort. She certainly hadn't prepared a damn bit. Just a month. A month and two weeks, more or less. That's all that was left. The scale of it finally hit her. That big old bubble was rushing at them, rushing at this very bedroom, right now, right this minute. A month and a half, and it would all be gone. Just... gone. The apartment, the bedroom, the cracked roads, the earthpony gardens - she wondered if they would stay, because they had been made by ponies. By her neighbors. All of her neighbors.
Did she even know anyone human anymore? Jose, the guy who ran the taco stand! No, he had gone pony, that's right... that's why they had stopped going there. The tacos were all vegetarian now, and she wanted meat in her tacos, dammit. Yeah, that was right. That was why they didn't go there anymore. What about Melissa? Last time she'd called... no, she'd gone pony months ago. It was just easy to forget when it was just a voice over a link. Was there anyone, anywhere in the entire neighborhood that was human anymore?
She began to realize that for some time now, it had just been her and Patrick. They were the only humans left in Garden Grove. She couldn't even remember the last time she had seen another biped. They'd just gotten used to it - she'd just gotten used to it - everyone was a pony, that was just life. God, what the human mind could adjust to, accept as ordinary. She hadn't even thought about it, it had happened so gradually. Now... now she couldn't stop thinking about it.
Every single person in her life was Equestrian now. All the neighbors, every shop, every store. All the gardens, the pegasai that kept the weather now, Janice in number twelve - wait, she was... what the heck did she call herself now? Lilly Flower? Lilly Song? Something with Lilly in it. All those new pony names to learn. She'd made an effort, but there was just so many to memorize.
Because every single person was a pony. That was why.
For all Amber knew, she might very well be the last human person in the whole of Los Pegasus. It sure felt like it.
She could leave Patrick, of course. She could go back east, stay with her mother - god, that would be hell - and then move again when the bubble arrived in a year or three or whatever it was. Maybe Patrick would go with her, they could move together, they could start a new life and...
South Africa. Amber held Patrick-the-pony tight for a moment. The tip of South Africa, that was supposed to be the last part of the earth that would be left, before Zero Point. Before No More Earth. No more...
Somehow, she knew she was dreaming, but she couldn't wake up. She couldn't change things. Semi-lucid, not fully lucid. She was an observer in her own dream, but she couldn't change it. The events flowed like a normal dream, and she was carried along with them.
She and Patrick were there, only Patrick was still human, he wasn't a pony. There were thousands and thousands of people, all crowding together, close to the ocean. She could tell they were close, because she could smell the mix of industrial chemicals and salt. The heat was unbearable. The sun was merciless. "Patrick... oh god, Pat, this is it, isn't it, oh god, this is it!"
All around, in every direction, the vast and shimmering wall gleamed. It was like being in the center of some great glass doughnut, half the sky was taken up everywhere she looked, rippling and shining. There was no where to run, no where to go, and the people kept crowding together closer and closer, trying to back away from the approaching Barrier, only there was no place to back up to.
Amber heard the screams, people were being trampled on, crushed together in the center where the crowds kept pressing in on each other, instinctively fleeing, no longer in their right minds. "Patrick! Oh god! Patrick!" In the distance she saw a low flying aerostat, it was spraying something on parts of the crowd. A purple mist, it... it must be potion! They must be trying to save people at the last minute, but it wasn't enough, it wasn't even close to enough. "Patrick! We have to get over there!" She tried to point, to indicate where the Aerostat was spraying, but there was no way to push through the crowd. They would never be able to get there. It was too late now.
Amber heard a man, dressed in a fancy suit, as if he had just come from a party. He was drenched with sweat, everyone was, and he was screaming and holding up a creditstick. "My fortune! My entire fortune! I'm fucking rich! I own a third of Applesoft! I'll give it all for just one vial of potion! All of it! Somebody, anybody! I'll pay billions of credits, BILLIONS! Just one dose! Just one..." and then he was crushed under the feet of the crowd, smashing together, mindlessly, terrified.
Amber wanted to scream, to run, but there was no place to go, no place to move. Just people, sweaty human bodies pressing in from all sides, making it hard to breath. "Patrick, we have to leave, we have to get out of here, Patrick!"
Suddenly, there was a space, room to move. It was about ten feet around. The sides were people, packed closely together, but somehow they had all moved away, because she had screamed, and now there was room. "Patrick?" Patrick wasn't human now. He was a pony, brown with silvery mane, standing in the clearing of people.
"I'm sorry. I am so sorry." Patrick was crying, big pony tears dripping down his muzzle. "I loved you, I loved you so much. I am so sorry. I just am so damn sorry. Fuck, just... fuck it. Fuck it all!" The pony stood there, swearing and cussing as the crowd began to smash in, the clearing shrinking.
She was going to die, she knew it. The walls of the Barrier were like a large tube now, the eye of a hurricane, towering above. At the top of the tube of shimmering light, she could see a circle of sky, the last moment of Earth's original sky. Around her people were turning to ash. They were turning black and flaking away in some terrible wind, the mage plague, thaumatic radiation, burning painlessly away, the ashes like leaves swirling around her, the skeletons dropping in dry rattling heaps. Amber looked at her arm and started to scream as her skin turned black and began to peel, to flake and fly away into the wind. She saw her gleaming bone, and still pony Patrick was swearing, swearing, saying the most obscene things...
"Amber? Amber!" Patrick was shaking her with a hoof, his stallion face close to hers, calling to her. He was propped up on one leg using the other to wake her. He looked frightened.
Amber was dripping with sweat. The bed felt damp from it. Her breathing was hard and her heart was pounding in her chest like a hammer. "Pat? Patrick?" She felt tears in her eyes and on her cheeks, apparently she had been crying in her sleep.
"You were having a really bad dream, love. It must have been a doozy." Patrick collapsed on her, hugging her waist with his forelegs, his head pressed hard against her side. "It's OK, It's OK, I'm here, I'm here."
It was just like a thousand times before, when she had really bad dreams. Only now he was a pony. For a moment, Amber seriously wondered if she really had awakened, or if this was still more dream. Ouch. She realized that her belly hurt. "You're hugging too hard!" Patrick might seem a little smaller than he had been, but apparently he was a lot stronger.
"Sorry! Oh, Luna, I'm sorry, I didn't mean to hurt you..." Patrick let go, carefully moving his head so that his horn wouldn't scrape her.
He was over her, holding himself up on his forelegs. His eyes studied her in the morning light, red, such a bright red, glowing, almost. His face was so concerned, his ears back and slightly drooped.
Amber raised a hand and traced the contour of his cheek and muzzle. She felt his new lips, lost in the curiosity of the moment. Her heart was still racing, but at least it wasn't pounding. The last of her horror was passing, now, as the nightmare evaporated.
Patrick felt Amber's fingers prying at his lips. He opened his mouth slightly, and her fingers entered, testing, touching. He worried about his breath - he had been too tired to brush last night, and he must have the most awful hay-mouth right now.
Amber ran her finger tips over the strong, flat teeth. They were wide in the front, like molars, and there were no canines, no chisel-teeth, just strong, flat, powerful pegs. His tongue pressed against her fingers, so she caught it between her index and middle finger, which forced him to open even wider. Amber brought her thumb to bear and pinched Patrick's tongue and gave it a slight pull. "Gotcher tongue! What now, huh?" Amber found herself giggling at the absurdity of it all. "There you go, letting some strange girl stick her fingers in your mouth, and now what? Your tongue is mine, mister. What's that? I can't hear you? You say you want me to pull harder?" With an evil smile, she tugged gently at the long tongue, finding herself astonished at just how far it was able to come out of Patrick's new jaw.
"UNG UF OOFF UMMNGGH!"
"Holy... good god Patrick, does this thing ever stop, or do you have a roll of tongue in there? Holy crap..." By now she had what looked like a good four or five inches beyond his lips and he was clearly in some pain. She let go and he pulled his tongue back inside his mouth. It looked like a hot pink snake trying to escape into a grass-covered cave.
"What in the name of biscuit are you trying to do to me, mare?" Patrick was more shocked than angry. He had gotten used to Amber being... Amber over the years. Still, yanking his tongue out of his head was a new one.
"I just... I mean I... well..." Amber began to giggle. "It was... it was just there!"
"Sweet Celestia I should hope so! GACK ACK Unggg... um... aah, that felt weird. It hurt the underside too, on my teeth, see?" Patrick opened his mouth wide and tried to show off the underside of his tongue where apparently his own teeth had scraped it. "THHEEE?" He moved his head a bit. "IGHHT EERRE!"
Amber found her hands near Patrick's sides, and she decided this deserved a tickle, so in no time her fingers were deep in pony coat, and Patrick was failing to scramble away because he was laughing too hard. "Stop it! Stop it! No! Noooo! Augh...!"
Amber had stopped tickling, and rested her head on Patrick's chest. The hairs tickled her nose, so she had to raise a hand to flatten them - blowing didn't help. There were no nipples now, just muscle, bone and hair. Her head went up and down as Patrick breathed. In front of her eyes, blocking part of the light from the window, was his right hoof, his leg up and curled above him as he lay on his back. "Your nipples are gone."
"I said your nipples are gone. You are without nipples. You are sans-nipples, your nipples have taken a hike." this brought laughter to both of them. "Where the hell did you put your nipples, Patrick?"
"I have no idea what you are... what do you mean my... you have completely... what the?" Patrick was still trying to get his breath back from the tickling, and it was clear he was completely unaware of this change to his body.
Amber ran her fingers up and down the part of his chest - barrel, on ponies it was called a barrel, she remembered - that her head wasn't on. "You used to have nipples. Right.... here. And another where my ear is. But you don't. They're gone. I hate to inform you of this, but my examination has indicated that you have somehow lost your nipples. I don't think they are coming back anytime soon."
Patrick laughed. "You are the weirdest little pony I have ever met, you know that Amber? Flying koo-koo and out the window. Gone squirrel. I have no words." Patrick ran his other hoof, the left one, down her back.
"OH! Right there!"
"Rub, right there!" The command was absolute, her ladyship must be appeased. Patrick dug his hoof into her back, just under the bone plate where her shoulder muscles attached. "Oh, oh god, oh god... holy fuck that's good. Ohhhh, wow, Pat. Yeah, now... just a little higher, right under the bone. No, closer to the spine. No! Not that close. Yeah, there. Now down a little... ooohhh... ho... ahhhh.. that's the spot. Yeah. Oh, right there. Hold it! Just hold, right there!"
Patrick pressed his hoof in with as much force as he dared. He was still getting used to the things and he didn't want to hurt her.
"Annnnd RELEASE!" Patrick yanked his hoof from Amber's back. She relaxed completely with a sigh. "I'm a puddle now. Damn that was good. OK... score one for hooves. I am... impressed."
Amber made a slurping sound, apparently she had forgot herself and drooled. Patrick felt the wetness in his chest hair. "Oh, god, that's been bugging me for days, Pat. Seriously, I had a crampy muscle there for days. Thank you. Wow. Thank you so much."
"Anything for milady." Patrick used his grand butler voice for that, which made Amber smile.
"You called me a pony. And a mare. You called me a mare and a pony." Amber was running her fingers through Patrick's coat, savoring the softness.
"Don't you even know what you are saying?" She gave a patch of Patrick's coat a sharp tug.
"Ow! What is with you today? No, I've always made it my policy to never listen to what I say. That way I don't have to hear how stupid I am!"
Amber laughed at that. "Well you did. I bet you say 'everypony' all the time too. All the ponies do that. Everypony does that. Everypony."
"Everypony?" Patrick lowered his forelegs and wrapped them, as best as he could, around Amber, holding her.
"They say stuff like that. I've paid attention. They get converted, and then they say things like 'everypony' and call everyone 'stallions' or 'mares' even if they're human. Is that something they tell you to do?" Amber shifted her head, so that the rib under it didn't hurt her earlobe.
"I don't know. I didn't get any training at all. I watched one holo about how pretty Equestria is, but mostly I was just trying to get them to convert me. Nopony told me to say anything in particular."
Amber scritched idly at Patrick's thick coat. "Hey! Waaaaiiiit... that was deliberate, wasn't it?"
"You! I'm serious. How much of you is you in there, anyway?" Amber tried to blow farty noises on Patrick's chest, but she found it was hard to do with the thick coat of hair on it. She put her head back down.
"You tell me. I may not be the best judge, since I'm... I'm really close to me." Patrick smiled at that.
Amber seemed to be thinking. "Say 'fuck'."
"Just say it. Swear for me."
"So, what am I now, your pet? I'm supposed to perform tricks for you?"
"Come on, just say it. Say 'fuck'. Just say it." Amber seemed insistent.
"Fine." Anything for laughs. "Fuuuuuu.... Fuuuuu.... Fa." Something inside didn't want to say the word. Everything in Patrick's memory associated the word with times when something bad happened, or when there was anger or hurt. The word meant sex, but... now there was a conflict inside his mind. Sex shouldn't be bad. It shouldn't be something associated with violence, or pain, or anger. That was stupid. That was... it wasn't one bit pleasant. It felt bad. It was a really stupid thing to use to swear with. It was too precious, too tender to use that way. "Huh. I can't. I mean... I probably could, if I really fought hard, but... I genuinely don't want to."
"That's different." Amber had her intrigued face on again. "Why? Why don't you want to say that word?"
Patrick explained, as best he could.
"Hmmm... That is really kind of interesting." Amber seemed lost in thought. "Tell me, Patrick, and be really honest. You love me, right, still, that hasn't changed, right?"
Patrick felt a swelling wave of love inside him. Amber heard his heart speed up inside his chest. "I love you, Amber. Oh, sweet Luna but I love you. If anything... I love you more now that I ever... I didn't even know I could feel it this strongly. Seriously." Patrick's heart was pounding under Amber's ear.
"If I wanted to, if I really wanted you to, would you fuck me?" Amber was very quiet, very still.
"Um... ah..." Patrick felt nervous, almost afraid.
"I know what you said!" Patrick's heart was racing.
"Then would you? Tell me if you would. Tell me what you would do, if I asked you, if I begged you. Please? Just tell me?"
"I would happily, lovingly fuck you all day long and all night." Patrick's eyes grew wide at his own words. It had been easy to say.
Amber raised her head and lifted herself onto one arm. She looked Patrick in the eyes. "Fuck you. Say it. Tell me to fuck off. Go on, DO IT! NOW!" Her voice was a command.
"Fuuuu... fuu... No! I wouldn't ever say that to you!" Patrick felt upset. Why would she ask such a thing of him?
"Interesting. Very, very interesting." Amber thumbed her lower lip B-b-b-b. "Context. It's context. It has to be. It's like you have some kind of... what did you feel when I asked you to tell me to 'fuck off'?"
"Um... bad. Sad. I was shocked you would expect me to be able to do that."
"But you've definitely said it to me before. Remember hell year, remember the fights we had? Oh, it was like your favorite phrase back then. If you weren't telling me to 'fuck off', you were shouting at me to 'shut the fuck up'. You had a nasty mouth on you, boy." Amber grinned.
"I'm... I'm really sorry about that. Yes I remember. And I feel terrible. I've... I realize I've done a lot of bad things over the years. I don't feel happy about them. I'm sorry." Patrick's eyes were filled with contrition, it was as clear as speech to Amber.
"You seemed happy enough to shout at me at the time."
"That was... I was a different... I'm not like that now." Patrick was clearly embarrassed.
"I believe you. Huh." Amber lowered her head again, and rested on Patrick's chest. He tentatively put his foreleg over her again. "Well, Patrick, you're you, and you aren't you. You are everything I remember about you that was good or nice or fun or pleasant - you still let me be... me... you're the same easy to talk to, easy to be with lugnut that I've loved for the past six and quarter years. You are ticklish in the same places, and you are goofy in the same ways, and you worry about the same things. I feel like it's 'you' here, with me.
But... you also aren't exactly the same, either. Frankly, you kind of used to be a bit of a dick sometimes. And you had a temper on you, especially when you didn't get your way, or things didn't go the way you planned. I can't say I exactly liked those things, but... they were, well, you. It's like you grew up a little or something. It's kind of disconcerting, to tell the truth."
Amber crawled off of Patrick and sat up on the bed, looking down at him as he lay on his back. He suddenly realized that he was laying there... exposed... and rolled onto his side, then when that wasn't entirely enough, rolled his flanks so that his hindquarters were belly down. Amber giggled at that.
For a long time she just sat there, looking at him. Patrick didn't know what to think. He tried smiling, but that didn't seem to make any difference one way or the other. It made him nervous to just be... looked at... like that. Like she was studying him, or like she was expecting him to do something. What the muffin did she want now? Was he supposed to do a trick? Tell a joke? Go away?
Patrick had a flash of how he would have acted before if she had given him such a critique and then the silent treatment. He'd be yelling at her by now, demanding for some kind of explanation, or critiquing her in return, likely harshly. Normally they got along well, but sometimes Amber could be cold and analytical in ways that finally did get on Patrick's nerves. It was like she felt she had some right to sit in judgement over all things.
But he didn't feel that way now. He knew he should, he knew he would have before, when he was human, but now... now it wasn't a big deal. That was just her way. She did that sometimes. He tried to figure out why it had annoyed him so much before. It was like it was a threat, somehow. Only now, he didn't feel threatened by it. Her words... she hadn't been mean, just... honest. Tactless, perhaps, but not angry. He couldn't disagree with her description of how he was now versus how he had been before. He had been a jerk sometimes. He had already felt bad about that, earlier. It wasn't like it was false.
Huh. He couldn't get angry about it. There just wasn't a reason. He agreed with her. That felt weird. He had gotten used to getting angry. It was like he didn't know how else to act. It was almost refreshing to not... act that way.
Patrick looked up at Amber, realizing he had kind of drifted off there, thinking about it all. He really loved her. He found himself smiling again, only this time because seeing her made him feel happy. Before, he had been worrying about what she wanted of him. But now... he just felt glad to see her there. It was enough.
There was a sound. Whip-Whap. Whip-Whap. Huh? Patrick gradually became aware and looked back over his own flank. His tail had been swishing, slapping the sheets. He gave a small laugh. He'd been wagging his tail, basically. Oh, goodness...
"Hey, fuzzy flanks. Get your hooves on the floor. We need to get going. Hup Hup!" Amber was up and off the bed, grabbing fresh underwear out of the drawer and putting on her bra.
"Huh?" Patrick couldn't remember anything on the schedule, but then he'd been gone for three days. Was this market day? It was probably market day. Amber liked market day, and so did he, really. It was kind of fun, and nowadays, with all the hard-working earthponies, there were a lot of delicious things out there. Market day. Patrick realized he would need to ask about what kinds of foods he needed for himself, or if ponies were required to eat special things or whatever. There was so much he just plain didn't know.
Amber was dressed now, and had her bag. "Well, are you going to lay there all day, or what?" The expression on her face was mock exasperation, but there was a smile in her eyes.
Patrick rolled entirely onto his belly, then stood up. He felt a little unsteady, because he was still new to being quadrupedal, and because the bed was soft and yielding. The floor looked too far down, and he realized he didn't know how to jump off exactly. It wouldn't do to break a leg because he had no idea how to use his own body. Embarrassed, Patrick lay down again and backed off the bed, pushing himself with his hooves until his lower half went off the edge. With his rear hooves on the floor, it was easy to twist his top half and land properly. He grinned up at Amber, who giggled.
"Maybe we need a lower bed." Amber seemed to make a mental note of the fact, which Patrick found interesting. "Come on, let's hit the road. Also... breakfast. I am freaking starving, how about you?"
Patrick nodded, enthusiastically. "I'm as hungry as a..." He deliberately did not finish the sentence.
Amber gave a perfunctory scowl, then laughed. "I see your sense of humor hasn't been improved by ponification. Hey - let's go all out and have pancakes at Blintzy's." Blini Blintze made the best pancakes in the entire area, and sometimes Patrick and Amber enjoyed the earthpony's creations as a treat, though always at night. Having pancakes for breakfast - or was it lunch? - seemed almost sacrilegious or something. Still... pancakes. Or even... haycakes. The ponies seemed to love those, and well, Patrick figured, he was a pony now, so, he might as well start trying the cuisine.
The walk to Blintzy's was filled with brief meetings, it seemed everypony was eager to say hello, and marvel at, what was to them, the vast improvement in Patrick. There were many questions about what new name he was considering, how he had enjoyed his First Meal As A Pony - truth be told, he couldn't remember what he had eaten when he had gotten home yesterday. There had been more important things going on at the time. Or at least louder.
And of course there was the constant pressing question of when Amber was going to join her stallion in hooves. Amber just smiled at that and changed the subject.
Blini Blintze was completely taken aback when the pair showed up at his restaurant. "Oh my goodness, oh great Luna, just LOOK at you, big strapping stallion you are now! And look at that mane, and those eyes! Bright, red, strong eyes there, what a good fortune for you, and a unicorn no less! So, have you been entertaining Amber with all sorts of tricks and spells already?"
Patrick hung his head. He was forced to admit he had no idea how to use his horn, and he hadn't even tried. "Oh, that won't do, that won't do. Here, let me take your orders, and I'll get Autumnfire to come out and at least get you levitating. Shush! It's nothing. When he has a break. Now what do you two want already?"
Amber ordered big, eggy German style pancakes with lemon and sugar, and tea to drink, while Patrick dared to try haycakes with banana slices and maple syrup. He went with coffee, and soon Blini was busy in the back, working with Autumnfire in the kitchen. The two made a very complimentary pair, Blini was an earthpony who knew food, and Autumnfire was a unicorn who was astonishing at cooking. They had been together before they converted, and naturally, as Blini had put it, not a thing had changed as a result.
"Haycakes, huh? You're really getting into this 'pony' thing aren't you? Is this going to be a long-term deal, you think?" Amber sipped her tea and smirked.
"I'm trying it out... giving it a fair chance... I figure that as long as I'm wearing hooves, I might as well try to blend in, you know? If this works out, I might try trotting, pulling plows, or even taking a dump in a barn. The sky's the limit, you know?" Patrick couldn't keep from laughing, despite struggling to sound casual, and Amber joined in.
"Dump in a barn? Sounds positively thrilling!"
"They say the first one's the hardest, but after that, if you eat enough roughage you can make it big time."
"Big time? What's that - taking a dump in a farmhouse?" Amber couldn't stop giggling.
"I'm thinking a career here. 'Manure..... To Go'. Whaddya think?" They were both laughing now, and Amber had gotten a stitch in her side.
"You two seem to be having fun." It was Autumnfire, the unicorn chef. "I understand we have a unicorn here who doesn't know where his horn is?" The orange and red chef winked at Patrick. "A hint: the horn is the one that can't sense the presence of mares."
Amber put her hand over her mouth as she laughed and Patrick's ears drooped in embarrassment, followed by a sheepish grin. In the back, mixing the batter, they could hear Blini snort.
"OK, bucko, here's my cheap-as-free lesson." Autumnfire levitated a disposable neoplastic cup within the glowing field from his horn and placed it on the low table. "Make it move."
Patrick stared at the cup, then at Autumnfire. "How?"
"Inside your noggin, there's a place, an organ, it's part of your brain, right under your horn. Think of it like a muscle, that's as good a notion as any. Now try to work that muscle. Put your will into it, feel it, push with it. Make your horn glow. That's step one."
Patrick felt inside his new head, trying to feel his own horn. He tried to feel where it joined his skull. He gave his head a quick nod, to feel the mass of his horn. He reached up a hoof and gave it a tap. That he felt, the slight shock inside the bones of his head.
He lowered his hoof and began to concentrate, with all of his might at that place, at where he still felt the tap he had given himself. He felt... something, something flowing, almost electric, and then, suddenly he felt the hairs around his horn stand up. It was the strangest sensation, all the little hairs standing on end.
"Well done! That part is the easy bit though. I'm surprised you didn't figure that out on your own. You didn't, right?"
Patrick shook his head.
"Yeah, that was the impression I got. Alrighty, then - do that again, but this time try to send that feeling to the cup. Enfold the cup, contain the cup, make the cup an extension of you. Whatever works, just put your stuff into that cup." Autumnfire grinned, and Patrick, encouraged, tried again.
Amber watched as Patrick's horn once again began to glow, a soft reddish light that waved and glinted with tiny thaumic sparks. She could see him trying, pushing, willing at the cup, his eyes squinting in concentration, his brow heavy with effort. "I believe in you, Patrick. You can do this." She wanted to see him do it. She wanted to see the cup move for him.
Tiny blurs of pink light began to puff like miniature clouds around the cup. Patrick was beginning to sweat from the effort. The bursts of light began to try to reach out to each other, to englobe the cup, glowing now more red than pink, as the... forces... became more dense.
With a palpable thrust of his body that shook the table, Patrick jerked forward pushing inside himself, trying to make the cup move. Ghostly light swarmed around the cup until, for just a moment, the cup was held within it and the cheap cup slid about an inch across the table.
The light stopped, both on cup and horn, and Patrick slumped slightly in exhaustion. He was panting, and a drop of sweat slid down his nose.
"That was really impressive, Patrick. Good job. But enough for now. You don't want to strain yourself." Autumnfire captured the cup effortlessly in his own hornfield, and carried it away with him back to the kitchen. "You know what to do now, just practice. But take it easy for now, OK?"
Amber was impressed. "Oh my god, Patrick, that was amazing! Magic! You did real magic, right out of your head. Damn, I mean... damn. I think you impressed Autumnfire there, too. You impressed me. Wow!"
Patrick felt a kiss on the bridge of his long nose. He opened his eyes in surprise, from where he had closed them resting from the strain. Amber had sat back, and was smiling at the arrival of their food. Apparently Blini could cook, too.
As far as Patrick was concerned, this, this was his first meal as a pony. This was the one he would remember. Yesterday had been all shouts and whatever the neighbor had brought over, but this, oh, this.... was heaven on a plate. Haycakes were everything the ponies said they were and more, and the sweet, crisp hay made the pancakes sing like nothing he had ever eaten before. And the butter... sweet loving Celestia, and the syrup... oh... oh.
"Enjoying our food, are we?" Amber looked a little taken aback by the level of pleasure Patrick seemed to be having with his haycakes. "I have to try this, now." A fork-full later, she made an indifferent face. "I guess you have to be a pony. I'll stick with my own." After a bit, she leaned over again. "Are they really that good? To you?"
"Oh, ahh... Amber, Amber... you have no idea. No idea at all. I can't even..." Patrick sipped his coffee and made what Amber was certain was his 'O' face. When he recovered, he was finally able to speak. "I thought I understood smell before. I thought I knew what taste was, before. I don't have words. I literally do not have the language. I can taste this pancake's ancestry, I can taste its Ideal Form in Socratic space, and it isn't the pancake, it's me, it's being a pony, and... I am going to get fat like pig. That's it. I will end up a sad, 600 pound pony that the fireponies can't roll out of the building because the door isn't wide enough. Holy hooves this is... I get food now. I get it. Food." And with that, Patrick was lost to the haycakes again, experiencing something that Amber could only marvel at, and envy from afar.
When the haycakes were gone, Patrick was in bliss, and it was at that moment that he suddenly understood three things. One was that Amber was staring at him with a bemused and slightly shocked look on her face. The second was that he had frozen noticing the first thing, in the middle of licking his plate. His long tongue had been sliding up and down the simple, white plate, trying to get every last schmear of flavor from it. The third thing was that he had originally simply dived in, face down like a dog, the moment the haycakes had been served. He hadn't even thought, the aroma had been so delicious, he had been so hungry, and it had been the most natural thing to do. Patrick had no idea how to properly eat as a pony, he'd seen ponies eat before, of course, and they did, for the most part, chow down face in bowl or plate, except for the unicorns which often made a point of using silverware as humans did, levitating the implements grandly. Some simply levitated the food directly, but somehow there was a thing about the additional pride of controlling an implement and being able to balance food upon it.
"I have to say... that looks like fun." Was Amber mocking him, what with his face in the plate? No, it didn't seem so, the look in her eyes appeared... earnest. Odd.
"It... it kind of was." Patrick decided to roll with it, and treat her statement as legit. "No, that's not right. It was a lot of fun. I... I have no shame now. It was too good for shame. It was delicious, and somehow having my face down in the plate just made it even more delicious. It... it was like being a foal, only better." Patrick sat up on the plump pillow, and licked his lips and muzzle with his long, long tongue. He felt empowered by the pleasure he had just experienced. He did feel no shame. In a moment his muzzle was clean, the last taste swept up by his searching tastebuds.
Still, he brought a napkin to his mouth. It just seemed the right thing to do.
Suddenly, he found himself being hugged, Amber's arms around him. "You're just my big kid, aren't you?" She gave him another squeeze and sat back. "A big colt, I suppose. Proper terms and all."
Amber picked up her fork, and took her last bite, finishing her meal. She sat and stared at her hand, holding the fork for some time. She tapped the plate with the fork, then set it down. She drummed her fingers once, each finger moving in sequence. Then she turned her attention back to Patrick.
"Wait here, sweety, I... I need to send a message. I'll be right back. Here, have the last of my tea if you want." Patrick was thirsty, he had finished his coffee, but water wasn't enough. Tea was nice. Message? What message, to who? But by then Amber was in the back, in the kitchen, talking to Autumnfire, the chef. Why? Oh... a memory surfaced in Patrick's mind, something he had read or seen a while ago. Unicorns could do all kinds of things, not just make stuff float. They could do all manner of magic, depending on their talents and interests and education. Probably they could send messages, apport letters or use telepathy or something. Equestrians didn't need phones, they had magic.
Patrick supposed that someday, he would be learning stuff like that. He hadn't expected to be a unicorn. He had figured he would be an earthpony. Most humans became earthponies. But he was a unicorn. He was secretly glad he hadn't become a pegasus. He was deathly afraid of heights. He would have made a terrible pegasus.
"OK! Half an hour!" Amber was back, being mysterious and Patrick didn't know what to think now. But, it was probably better to just go along with the herd, so to speak, with Amber, because, well, things seemed to be going better today. It was a nice day so far. Whether she stayed with him now, or left, he needed this, this nice day. The chilling thought ran through him - maybe that was exactly what she was doing. Giving him one, last, nice day before she broke up because he had become a pony. That made his heart very sad.
"Are you OK?" Patrick didn't feel OK now, not after that thought, but... he put on a smile anyway, and soon they were out the door, on the way to a tack shop.
Patrick found himself trying on saddlebags. "You're going to need a way to carry stuff, love. Groceries, books, tools, whatever. Even when you get good with that horn of yours - you'd get exhausted trying to levitate things all the time!" It made sense. Eventually he settled on a nice brick red set of kelp-leather saddlebags. They felt good, they matched his eyes, according to the shop pony, and Amber said they looked handsome on him.
She had liked a green set, done up in Celtic knot-work patterns. He had thought it was nice, but not really his taste. As they left the store, he was surprised to see she was carrying the green saddlebags, she had bought them both. "Can we really afford two? I only need the one, Amber. I mean it's nice but..."
"I like these. Come on, how many times does a girl get to buy saddlebags, hmm? You just don't worry about it. If you really don't like them, if you think they're ugly, she says we can take them back as long as they aren't damaged, so no worries!"
That... was bad. One set of saddlebags, fine. But two, especially one she liked, as if to remember her by, that was seriously smelling of Final Date territory. A nice meal, presents, oh, this was kiss-off time. So long Patrick, thanks for the six wonderful years, remember me when you wear the green saddlebags, if it's too much, take them back... oh this was getting pretty obvious now. Patrick wanted to cry. He wanted to cry really, really badly, but he sucked it up. It wasn't easy, his damn pony brain made all of his emotions really clear, really easy to understand now. He knew exactly what he was feeling, and it was loss and grief and shame, because it was all his fault.
If he'd just fled with Amber, he could have gotten another three or four, maybe even five years of life with her. Maybe that would be worth dying horribly, later. He needed Amber, he loved Amber. But... you can't force someone to stay. That was why they had never married. It was stupid, they both agreed. A contract. Making their relationship a business arrangement. No. They were together because they loved each other, because they were the best friends they would ever have, because they were partners in life. No marriage contract ever kept anyone together. Choice kept people together.
Apparently his own choice had precipitated hers. He had no one to blame but himself. He had genuinely figured that she would join him once he forced the issue. He had believed with all of his heart and soul that she would.
But if she needed to leave, there was nothing he could do. Patrick felt miserable, but he resolved to try to smile for her, to let her have that last, good day. It was probably as much for her own piece of mind as his, and... he loved her. If it would help, if it would help her happiness, he would be brave.
"So, they fit? You like them?" Amber was almost beaming now. It was hard to look at. But Patrick forced himself to smile and he could honestly say that he liked the saddlebags. He really did, they were solid, strong, they felt like a hug across his back.
"All I need now is something to put in them!" She laughed at that, and began digging through her shoulderbag.
"Here." Amber held out the pouch of golden Bits from her purse. "Go on. Take it. No? Alright, here we... go!" The pouch of Bits dropped with a thunk in his right saddlebag. It felt like a phone hanging up.
"My grandmother always said that when you get a new bag..." Amber shook her shoulderbag "...the first thing you should do is stick some money in it. Now she lived back in the day before creditsticks, when there was still some actual money, but the ponies have brought back coins again, so there you go! An old tradition from my grandmother, to you!" This seemed to make Amber happy, but with every word, Patrick felt his heart sink. They don't talk about family traditions like that unless they intend to dump you. It was over. Oh, sweet Luna, goddess of the night, protector of foals, protect this little foal, because I have lost the love of my life and it hurts so... much. It was everything Patrick could do not to just sit down and bawl.
"Oh! Look! Here they come! Just in time!" Amber seemed excited. Patrick couldn't make out what was in the sky because his eyes were filled with barely restrained tears. Something landed, near them, and he found himself escorted into what seemed to be a sled, or an open-air carriage of some kind. It was of roughly Equestrian design, but then most things were now.
They took off with a jerk and Patrick could feel something in his horn that sang and tickled. The wind and the strangeness of it pushed the tears down and away, and he could see clearly now that he and Amber were in a carriage taxi being pulled over the city by two large pegasai. Amber was marveling at the view, like a little girl. Suddenly, she wrapped her arm around Patrick and pulled him tight. "Isn't this amazing - oh fuck, but I wish we'd done something like this before now. We're flying, Patrick, flying... through the sky... on magic!"
Patrick had taken a taxi just like this one to get to the bureau four days ago. This ride was not making him happy. It just reminded him of the choice he had made that had pushed the love of his life away. This would be their first and last ride together through the sky. When they landed - most likely at the jitney caravan grounds, it would be goodbye, and Amber would be headed back east to her mother, and Patrick would be left to face the oncoming Barrier in a month, alone.
Equestria couldn't be paradise without Amber. He briefly considered jumping from the carriage, but he was instantly stopped. He was flooded with compassion for his own poor body, so new, just beginning life, in some ways a baby, born just four days ago. He couldn't kill his handsome body in some selfish wish to end his own pain. It wasn't kind.
Patrick sat back, grumbling inside at his body. Demanding thing. If he had still been human, he could have jumped the rail and been halfway to splatter-town before anypony even noticed. But no, he was a pony now. Suicide was selfish. All the ponies he knew, in the apartments, Blini and Autumfire, they would all be horrified to find that somepony they knew had killed themselves. He would be tearing a big hole out of the web of all those other ponies. And he would be hurting Amber, too. She would feel terrible if he up and killed himself that way! Patrick felt utterly ashamed. That had been his human part talking inside him, making him think of jumping. He was a pony now, and ponies didn't think that way. The conflict hurt. He felt so ashamed, so very ashamed.
It was while he was lost in his dark, sad thoughts that the pegasus taxi touched down. The jitney caravan. Time to say goodbye. No Dear John letter for him, he was getting it right to his face. He ambled out, head down, his eyes on the cracked, ancient blacktop.
He waited while Amber paid the Pegasai. Patrick stared at his hooves. Everything was ending. His relationship with the love of his life, six years together, was ending. Los Pegasus itself was ending, in only a little over a month. Humanity was ending, in less than half a decade, and with it would also be Amber. She would be ending too, dying with the death of the last humans who would not change.
The tears were rolling down Patrick's face now, and he had to sniff to try to stop them. The snort that was the result jerked his head up, where his blurry eyes were filled with shining red. Metallic red. With chrome and big air vents. It was a car, a very fancy, wealthy car.
Patrick looked around, more cars. Cars and buses and motorcycles and mopeds and even a downed aerostat. They were in a vast graveyard of abandoned vehicles. There was only one place like that. Only one place where humans got out of their precious vehicles and left them and never looked back.
Suddenly, Amber's face was in front of his, she was crouching down, her nose an inch from his muzzle. "Patrick??? What the hell is going on with you? I mean... pegasus taxi! Hello? And new saddlebags, and now you're crying and you've been sulking since the saddlebag shop!" Amber shook her head and gave him a loving caress on the ear. "Listen, you don't have to wear fucking saddlebags if you don't want to. We'll take them back. Hell, I'll just toss them, right now, maybe somepony will want them. I don't get it, you seemed happy with them at first. Are they too 'girly' or something? Is that it? Did my comparison to having a purse bother you? That's it, isn't it! You think wearing saddlebags makes you less of a stallion or something. Christ. Fine, here, let me get them off you and..."
His lips pressed to hers, insistently, firmly, almost commandingly. She froze. It was the first time they had kissed since Patrick had become a pony, and it was pony lips against human lips and it was strange, yet nice, but also kind of kinky too.
"Pat?" As he pulled away, she sat down on the blacktop, confused.
"I thought... oh, Celestia, Amber! I thought you were leaving me. Because I changed. I was afraid we were flying to the caravans, and you were being so nice to give us one last good day before you... before you..." Tears spilled out, and Patrick couldn't stop them.
"Oh, you goddamn foolish, stupid stallion. Christ, Patrick!" Amber hit the blacktop with a fist, and then immediately regretted it. She spent quite some time cradling her injured hand, Patrick trying to help, but not being able to do much more than kiss and lick it. She said the licking kind of helped, actually.
"Six years, Patrick! You just thought I would leave? You've been my life. We've had our ups and downs, all couples do, but fuck, Pat, I mean... god dammit. I wouldn't leave you." Amber had grabbed the hair of his coat under his throat, at the top of his chest and gave it a shake. "I go where you go. Duh."
"But you were so angry! I'm not even human anymore!" Patrick didn't know what else to say. It seemed obvious enough.
"No one is going to be human in a few years - I'm not stupid, Patrick. Dying on some beach in South Africa is for losers and morons. I can see the writing on the wall. You were fucking right, Pat - I was acting like some goddamned schoolgirl, trying to wish it all away. I was in denial, you saw that, and you gave us both a push. Yeah, I was mad at you. Of course I was mad at you. Nobody likes to have their denial shattered!" Amber had her arms around Patrick's long, Equestrian neck now, and she pulled him close to her, tight, tight like not even eternity itself could tear them apart.
"I love you Patastrophe, you're my little disaster of love!" That had been her pet name for him, back when they had first met, because he was so clumsy, then, and they had more than their share of misadventures. But she had always come back, she had stayed, even when he had been so inept.
"I love you so much, Amber, precious jewel... oh... oh I've been stupid again, so stupid. I just, it just seemed so..."
"Shhhh.... shhh...." They cried for a while, in the hot sun, on the blacktop, surrounded by the abandoned cars and buses and motorcycles.
"Yeah... yes, Amber?"
"You say there's two weeks before they up and leave?"
"Yeah, I think the Bureau leaves in two weeks."
"They still owe you all that training, right?"
"Um... yeah. They said I could still take advantage of it, I could come back for it."
"Great!" Amber grinned from ear to ear. "That puts my mind at ease. I didn't want you to have to wait outside while I did my two weeks. I've heard about the food they serve at Bureaus. No way I'm missing that."
"Why you... selfish little..." Patrick had traveled back to her immediately. He hadn't even had so much as a single Bureau sandwich.
"Pony boy! Race you to the Bureau!" And with that, Amber was off, winding her way through the endless lot of abandoned vehicles.
This story is a gift to anyone who enjoyed Code Majeste
1. Roll For Initiative
The grey pegasus mare bounced out of the small blue shed, her cornsilk yellow mane and tail swirling behind her. As she galloped around the tall, dark-blue structure, she trained one golden eye on the grass below, and the other on the shed itself.
The pegasus giggled as she ran, because it was all so silly. From the outside, the little blue shed was so small, barely a pony wide on all sides, with little windows near the roof, and a funny little light on top. All four sides had a little sign that said:
Even the side with the double barn doors with the little horseshoe shaped hoofgrips on them. She giggled again, as she rounded the box back to where she had exited it. Inside were rooms and rooms, more than within the whole of Canterlot Castle, more than all the shops and stores of the city of Canterlot itself. It was possible to get lost inside the small box, and she had once, and her special friend had taken almost two days to finally find her.
His coat was light brown, his mane a messy tussle of dark brown spikes of hair. He bore the cutie mark of an hourglass, in gold, on his flank. He was an earth pony, but he was not a native of Earth. Neither was he a native of Equestria. He had been called many things, but after the accident, after he had become a Newfoal, he had taken the name 'Time Turner'.
Turner lipped the oddly shaped key, and locked his little blue shed. After many years, he had become adept at using hoof and lip and tail, and it was nothing to secret the key inside his ruffled mane with a twist of his long neck. The stallion checked his tail, briefly, to see that the object he had tucked within its flowing form was intact, then turned his gaze to his companion.
"Derpy Ditzy-Doo Hooves! I dare say you seem to be in an especially perky mood today! Perky! I like that word, perky. It's so.... darn.... well... perky. A perky little word, is 'perky'!"
The grey mare trotted up to her Very Special Friend and laughed at him, her eyes rolling in opposing directions as if they were playing tag inside her head. "Yourr very silly, tha's why! Silly pony! Time Turner is a silly, silly pony!" Her voice was ever so slightly slurred, but filled with merriment. Some thought that she was not very bright, but Turner knew very well that there was something special, and very clever about her. That was why of all ponies, the little pegasus was his Very Special Friend too.
"Now my good miss Hooves... why would you say I was silly? Charming, I could see. Dashing, perhaps, clever certainly, but silly? I just cannot grasp how you could... possibly.... ever..." as he spoke, Turner began walking sideways, using alternate pairs of legs as if he were a crab. Years ago, when he had first changed, he had great trouble adjusting to the life of a quadruped. Now, he practically danced as he sidled sideways.
"Hee hee hee hee!" The grey pegasus was forced to stop, because she was laughing so hard, and this made her trip. She fell down on the soft, flat plain of grass in a heap of hooves, feathers, and whipping golden mane. "Oof! I fell down!" This set off another round of giggles.
"Are you alright? I'm ever so sorry, Derpalina, please, take my hoof." Turner was such a charming stallion, Derpy thought. He was the nicest stallion she knew. And she always had such wonderful adventures with him.
"I'm OHHH KAYYY!!!" She shouted the words with a great smile on her muzzle. She fell down a lot, so she was used to it. But it was alright, especially around her Special Friend. He always helped her up, and he never laughed. Well, at least not at her. Just with her. "Wherr ARE we, 'Fessor Turner?" Derpy figured her friend must be some kind of professor or scientist or doctor or something because he was so very, very smart.
When Derpalina had first entered Time Turner's little blue shed, it had been sitting where it always appeared, when it appeared, just behind the barn of her farm. She could hear it coming, it's scratchy yet musical wheezing announcing that her Special Friend had come to see her. She would make arrangements for her beloved daughter, Dinky, to stay with her neighbor Carrot Top for an hour, and then the fun would begin. No matter how long she was away, somehow it was always exactly one hour later that she would return. There had been times she had been away for months.
This was not Ponyville. There were no mountains in the distance, and her barn and house were gone. Everything she knew was gone. This was typical, and Derpalina had easily gotten used to such changes of scene. That was one of her special charms, Turner had told her once - she was the accepting type, a pony that was never shocked or upset by anything, however strange or odd. And it was true. Everything always seemed new to Derpalina, and everything changed all the time anyway, and the only thing to do about it was giggle in any case.
The land was flat, flatter than anyplace Derpy had ever seen. It was like an endless room covered in a green carpet of grass and flowers. There was a forest in the distance, and another in a different direction, and a third even farther away, so far that the green of the trees looked pale blue from all the air inbetween.
Three other things sat on the endless, flat carpet of grass, three cities. They seemed to be fairly large cities, too, and each had a strikingly different architecture, not one of them like Ponyville, or Canterlot, or even Manehattan. Not even like Ancient Roan, or Medieval Unicornia, or the height of Tacksworn, when it was a vast trading city where dragons and ponies and all manner of beings mingled. The three cities were unique in Derpalina's experience... as best as her memory could tell, at least. Derpalina's memory was not the best. Turner often told her that this too, was a special charm, though she never completely understood what he meant by that.
It was true, though, that more than once her faulty memory had spared them both, when they had encountered Celestia or Luna in the past. Or the future. With Time Turner, things could get confusing quickly. But it was OK. It was always fun, if sometimes a little scary.
Turner had been studying the three strange cities. "Ah, Princesses... it seems your empire did indeed become too vast for even you. But then that's only reasonable, I suppose. Even goddesses can't be everywhere or know everything. Perhaps that is for the best, really."
Derpalina followed Turner across the endless green, and they trotted on for what seemed like a very long time before they approached the nearest of the three cities. One of the distant cities had been built with the oddest roofs, curving and pointed, with walls that looked like metal and wood. Things were painted in bright red and gold, with banded wooden columns. Another city featured brightly decorated spires and minarets, but not like the simple designs of Canterlot. Rather, everything was incredibly detailed, with countless artistic flourishes and strange combinations of colors.
The city they were headed for was the most fascinating of all. The buildings were incredibly tall, a dozen or more stories at least, and made of gleaming metal and shining glass. Many were blocky and geometric, others used mysterious sweeping curves, but all were smooth and unadorned, the perfection of them being the only art they seemed to need. Curiously, the odd city looked familiar to Derpalina. The feeling nagged at her. How could it seem familiar? It was the strangest city she had ever seen. Even her memory ought to recall such vast and unusual buildings.
"Are you alright? Is something amiss?" Turner was studying her carefully. It was only then that Derpalina grasped that she was sitting down.
"Uhhh... um... sorry, Time Turner. I don't know what went wrong. I was walking an..." The little pegasus blinked and stood up. "I guess I just forgot to walk!" She couldn't help but giggle at that. Forgot to walk! That was a new thing! She was being extra silly today!
Turner nodded and smiled. "Sometimes I have that happen too!"
"Really????" Derpy was incredulous. Her mouth hung open in surprise.
"Yes, indeed. Especially when I..." Time Turner looked at Derpalina with a strange expression for a moment. "...when I have something important on my mind. Hmmm." Derpalina felt Turner give her a friendly nuzzle, and then they continued unto the odd metal city.
2. Standard Action
"You really aren't from either New Chengdu or Neo-Volgograd? You certainly don't sound like you come from either city, but... you don't sound like you are from here, either..." Prime Minister William Banister brought his hoof to his muzzle in confusion and astonishment. "Jamie!" The Prime Minister looked to his assistant "Fetch me the grand map, the big one from the hall!"
Jamie, a copper colored unicorn stallion, dashed off down the shining, paneled hallway, nearly bumping the fine, inlaid table by the door in his haste.
"You truly won't find Ponyville on any map you possess, Prime Minister Banister. Hee! That rhymes! Minister Banister!" Time Turner grinned at his pegasus companion.
"Thaa doesn't rhyme at ALLL!" Derpalina was unconvinced. "Minister Baninister.... Misterer Bananaster Maninister... wait... tha isn't right. Mimister Biminer... no..."
The frown from the stately silver stallion with the fancy black coat and tails made Derpy suddenly fall silent. She looked at Turner and they both looked Very Serious Indeed. Then they looked at each other looking Very Serious Indeed, and suddenly burst out laughing.
"I fail to see what is so very..." The Prime Minister began, but he was interrupted by Jamie, who was back, a large and ancient map held within a glass-covered frame hovering in his telekinetic grasp.
"I have it sir!" Jamie panted, a bead of sweat running down his muzzle.
"Ah... very well then. Let's have a careful study, then." Banister gave Turner a heavy gaze and motioned him closer. "Do the best you can, sir, where would this 'Ponyville' be in relation to what we do have mapped!"
Turner began walking to the window. When he reached the vast glass rectangle, he looked back at the map which Jamie had carefully laid upon the Prime Minister's large and dutifully polished desk. Turner gazed back out across the tall silver spires and shining twenty-first century Earth buildings. It could have been any Northamerizone City, or any great city anywhere on the old earth for that matter, though the culture somehow seemed to be strongly influenced by either Canada, or perhaps Great Britain. It must have been quite a jumble, there, at the very, very end of everything.
"If you consider the map to be to scale, Prime Minister, as it sits there on your desk - really beautiful desk by the way, great wood, someone must really take care of that, it's a work of art is what it is - "
The Minister smiled slightly at that.
"Then you have your three cities, fair Lost Angeles... oh, that's a fun name, I must say. Lost Angeles, because when the Barrier closed in, your ancestors were dropped out in the middle of nowhere, literal light-years of land from Equestria proper - not that light years work here, of course. Not that light works the same way here, come to think of it. Goodness, what fun any scientists among your ancestors must have had, what with the opportunity to start the study of physics over entirely from scratch, only with completely modern sensibilities, why it just boggles the..."
"Mister TURNER!" The Prime Minister was tapping his hoof. Jamie stifled a chortle as best he could and shot Derpalina a conspiratorial glance. The ridiculous fuss that the two strange new ponies had made to finally get an audience with the Prime Minister had left him less than glad when they had finally met. It had, however, delighted several within his overworked staff.
"Oh, sorry. Got carried away there for a moment." Turner stood to attention. "Right, then. Lost Angeles, New Chengdu and Neo-Volgograd, all so very, very new, sitting bright and beautiful in the middle of..." Turner trotted back, briefly, to the map for a glance "... Greater Earthlandica. Earthlandica? Really?" Turner gave a silly expression, causing Derpalina to giggle. "Moving on... AH! So three brave cities, a Brave New World - a little reference there which... yes, you didn't get. Good. Fine. Three cities, a dozen forests, a rather large lake - good job there, by the way, you must have some excellent pegasus teams, the thing is almost an inland sea. Wow. And miles and miles of well kept grasslands. Practically a little continent, in it's own way."
The Prime Minister tapped his hoof more loudly.
"Well, if we are here, there really..." Turner pointed a hoof at the map on the table "... and everything is precisely to scale, then look over here, Prime Minister Banister!"
Turner waited until the silver stallion came to the large window.
"See that building waaaay over at the edge of your fine city?"
The Prime Minister looked carefully at the shining modern apartment complex near the monorail. "THAT far?" The look on his face was troubled.
"Oh, dear me no." Turner reassured the stallion. "Look beyond that, out to the grasslands, then out to the forest, there, the one that is nearly faded from view by atmospheric scattering? Now take the distance to the farthest tree you can possibly see, way, way out there, and then multiply it by the largest number you can think of, then double the result. That is how far away Ponyville is."
Derpalina couldn't stop giggling even as the guards were pushing them bruskly away down the long, wood paneled hall.
3. Free Action
"Where are you from? I've never heard an accent like that before. I mean... not ever." The waitress was a pale blue earthpony with a white mane, she wore a little hat to keep her locks from falling into things, and an apron-like saddle with pockets for her order book and pencil.
Derpalina was eagerly enjoying a stack of raisin-cranberry muffins and a glass of pineapple-guava juice. She had never tasted guava before, because it didn't exist back in proper Equestria. Somehow it had survived, intact, in this vastly distant, utterly forgotten part of the Exponential Lands. At the very end, the Barrier had swept up and through South Africa, finishing off the Earth. The last agents of the Worldgovernment had desperately worked to convert and save the millions of humans that had flocked to the last remaining bit of land.
By this point, the Exponential Lands were growing so quickly that even the princesses could not track what was being created anymore. One meter of absorbed Earth was likely generating hundreds of thousands of miles of new Equestrian spacetime, and anypony swept into that vastness would truly be on their own, almost certainly forever. There could be no pretense of the Newfoals adopting the culture of Equestria, of being known citizens subject to the rule of Celestia and Luna.
Here, the transformed former humans would have to create their own civilizations, their own governments, and their own cultures, because the scales involved were simply too vast. The princesses sadly returned to what was actually possible to manage. They had released a formal statement of regret over this issue, with an open ended wish that someday, somehow, the many distant newfoal civilizations might be rejoined to the herd. For several centuries, after the end of Earth, the princesses repeated their statement of regret during the centennial celebrations. But after six hundred years had passed, they stopped. There were no original Newfoals left, and no direct children of Newfoals that remained to care anymore. At the end of a thousand years since the end of the Earth, even the princesses no longer thought of the lost Newfoal civilizations that might potentially exist, somewhere, out in the truly incalculable distances beyond proper Equestria.
But Time Turner had no empire to run, and no troublesome draconic civilization to deal with, he had no burdens to keep his attentions confined. And he did have a very special machine that could go anywhere, and anywhen, a living machine, that was very, very good at finding things that were impossible to find. Some might say it was a goddess itself.
"Well, the last time we tried to explain..." Turner glanced at Derpalina and offered a half-smile - she giggled mouth full of muffin and juice "...we had some problems. Let's just say that we come from very, very, VERY far away. So tell me, um... OH! We haven't been properly introduced, have we? I'm Time Turner, and this beautiful mare here is Derpalina Ditzy-Doo Hooves. How do you do miss..."
"McCulloch, Lilly McCulloch, Mister Turner was it? Is your first name really pronounced 'Time'? Is it a variation of 'Timothy' perhaps? And your friend there, goodness, such a long strange name!" The waitress smiled at Derpalina, who smiled back with a mouth happily full of pastry.
"So, any terrible events or strange situations I should know about, Lilly McCulloch of shiny towered no longer lost Lost Angeles?" Time Turner asked
"It's Lillian, actually, Lilly for short of course..."
Derpy suddenly choked, violently, on her muffin, spewing crumbs and raisins across the polished stainless steel countertop.
4. Unarmed Attack
The hotel room could have existed in any large, western megacity of old Earth, save for the fact that the bed was lower to the ground, and the bath and shower and toilet were all created to accommodate pony bodies. Derpalina was enjoying the bed, which was vibrating furiously. Time Turner was half under the bed, marveling at the strange device that was powering the movement of it.
"It isn't a bloody Bevelmeiter tube. This isn't even close to his thaumatic engine. It must use magic, there's no electricity here, the physics are completely different! Oh, you clever, clever apes... oh, well, I guess they aren't really apes anymore. Former apes. Still right clever. You've thought of something no pony has ever thought of, haven't you? Humans... steal their planet, put it back, scatter them to the end of the universe, gobble their planet into another universe, turn them into ponies. Irrepressible! Just irrepressible and amazing the lot of you! Becoming ponies hasn't dimmed your light one bit, has it? Better watch out Celestia, you've got some double clever super-ponies out here.
Hmmm...It certainly isn't steam, or any kind of mechanical spring system... it's self contained. I haven't a clue! It's positively brilliant. I've never seen anything like it in proper Equestria, and that's saying something, because I've seen Equestria from when it was just insane chaos all the way until it... " Turner wiggled out from under the bed and found himself staring up into the golden eyes of his companion. "...are you sure you are alright? You stopped giggling."
Derpalina lowered her head, and set it between her gray hooves as she sat peeking over the edge of the bed. "I... kinda got sad again, only I don't know why. An' then I felt really happy, and I don't know why that, either. An' then I felt like I sorta 'membered something. I've been feeling tha' a LOT. An' then I felt all..."
Time Turner rolled and sat up, then put one hoof next to Derpalina's foreleg. He leaned over and gave her a soft nuzzle. "Tell me... tell me about what you think you remember, could you?" His muzzle displayed a concerned look, his eyes soft with affection.
Derpalina Ditzy-Doo Hooves gave a great sigh, and closed her shining, strabismic eyes. "Ever since we came to this weird ol' city, it felt... familiar, sort of. An' then it kind of dint. Nuh-uh, thas not right either. It's like I know but I don't know but I DO know but it's impertant and not at the same time. An' that muffin-lady who gave us the muffins?"
"That name! Lilli... Lil... There's somethin' about that name and I don't know what it is, but it makes me feel funny! Help me, please Time Turner!" Derpalina's eyes were filled with tears, a very rare sight since she had met her Very Special Friend with his funny blue box.
"Hearing it hit you pretty hard, didn't it, my sweet Princess Hooves?" Whenever Turner called her 'Princess Hooves' it always made Derpalina feel giddy inside. But somehow, this time, it just made her feel uneasy, like there was something bad, or scary, and Turner was trying to spare her or keep her safe, which meant it must be very scary indeed.
"Yeah. It... That feeling of 'membering stuff from the past, that got really strong then." Derpalina opened her eyes and tried to focus on Turner, who was still sitting quietly in front of her. "I wish... I feel like I wish tha... that I could know what it is?"
"What what is?"
"The thing that keeps flitting just ou' of sight. It's just there, and then it's gone, and it's like... it's like..." Derpalina looked genuinely frightened, so Turner brought his head in close, and lay it on the bed next to hers.
"It's like there's a pink Diamond Dog hiding in my head! Get it out!" Derpalina was upset now. "Get the scary Diamond Dog out of my head!"
Turner sat up again and stroked Derpalina's cornsilk mane with a hoof. "I can help you, I can. But it might be frightening, and you might not like everything you find out. So I need you to think about what you really want."
"I WANT THE PINK DOG OUT OF MY NOGGIN!" Derpy practically shouted the words.
5. Cast Spell
The slim cylinder hummed a soft tone as Time Turner held it in his mouth. He kept it always tucked into his flowing tail - nopony ever checks the tail - and adjusted the frequency with his tongue. It had been months before he had learned to use his mouth as well as a hand, but now it was just... normal. The tip of the device glowed a soft blue, as Derpalina's eyes began to widen, hypnotized by the precisely calibrated light and sound.
As the gray pegasus mare fell into an altered state, her wings shuddered and lay flat on the bed, her legs flopping to the sides, and her muzzle relaxing into an open-mouthed gape.
Then Turner noticed her eyes, her uncoordinated eyes, as they began to drift, rolling into alignment. Derpalina's golden eyes now looked together at the light fixture in the ceiling, Turner's device utterly forgotten.
Turner carefully lay the humming cylinder down on the pillow, so that the thrum could maintain the curious mental state that his companion had fallen into. He sat back and studied her for a moment, watching her close her mouth, as her gaze narrowed further, her expression gaining in both severity and focus. This was a face Turner had never seen on his Derpalina, a face utterly different than the giggly half-empty look she normally showed.
"Surrey. I've... I've got to get to Vancouver." The gray pegasus swallowed, then blinked, slowly, dreamily. "No, no, this isn't Surrey. This is Vancouver. I'm here. Tomorrow. Tomorrow, finally..."
"Tomorrow, what? What happens tomorrow?" Turner said his words softly, almost at the limit of hearing.
"The Bureau. Vancouver... Conversion Bureau... Finally. My birthday... nineteen. My present. It's my present." The mare's wings twitched, briefly, on the bed, then lay still.
"Who's the present for? Who is it for?"
"Me! Mom says no. Mom is such an ass. I want to be a pony. I'm an adult. I deserve to live in a better world. Nicer world. Flowers and trees. Smiles. Happy..." Her soft gray muzzle spread into a wide grin "...pretty princesses. Pretty."
"The princesses are pretty? Celestia and Luna?" Turner tried to keep his voice even as he shifted his weight to the other haunch. He was sitting on the floor, and it was not as soft as the bed.
The pegasus blinked again, slowly, and mouthed something that Turner couldn't make out.
"What was that? What about the princesses?" Turner was losing her, she was going too deep and would rapidly fall asleep. He raised his voice slightly. "Tell me about the princesses, Derpalina! What about the princesses?"
"Who...?" The look in her eyes was quizzical, confused. "Derba...who? I'm Lillian. My name is Lillian. Lillian....Fo.. Foga... something. Fogarty. That's my name. Lillian Fogarty of Surrey, plain old Lill....Lill...."
Time Turner adjusted the frequency of his little device once more, then sat back. "OK, Lillian. Tell me, Lillian, what about the princesses? You said they were pretty?"
The gray mare's eyes briefly began to drift apart, then suddenly locked again into focus. "Pretty. So... very pretty. Regal. Like when there was a queen back... back before... before the Collapse. I wish... I wish..."
"What do you wish, Lillian?"
Lillian's muzzle contorted, and her expression appeared upset. "No, it's arrogant. It's wrong. No. No. Just a simple life for me. That's all I want. Just a kind, simple, nice life. Just a regular pony. Just a..."
"Tell me your wish. It's alright. I won't tell anyone. I promise. Please tell me?" Turner hovered close to Lillian's head, whispering into her tall ears.
"I wish... wish that I could.... be... like them... no, silly, it's just silly OH!" Suddenly fear and shame swarmed across Lillian's pony features "My fault! My fault, what if it was my... fault! Oh, CELESTIA! I shouldn't have wished, I shouldn't have thought... I couldn't help it! So pretty! I just... I didn't really want... not really, honest, honest, please believe me! Please forgive me! Celestia! Celestia!" Tears were now running down the little pegasus' face, onto the bed. Her limbs were moving, weakly, as if she were running, as if she were trying to flee some nightmare only she could see.
"Shhh.... shhhh... it's alright. You are safe. You're safe now. All safe. All safe." Time Turner reached into himself and used a special energy he possessed, and briefly touched Derpalina's mind, calming her, reassuring her, and also briefly tasting her thoughts as well and -
The flash was as bright as Celestia's sun. No. It wasn't a flash. It wasn't light. It was all mental. Not real.
Turner picked himself up from the corner of the room where he found himself. It was as if he had been blasted back, away. He nursed a small bump on his poll with a hoof. "Ow!" Turner ruefully stared at his own limb. "Twenty-five bloody years as a pony so far, and I still forget HOOVES ARE HARD!"
6. Drop An Item
Turner's injury from last night still ached as he and Derpalina Hooves walked around the city of Lost Angeles. Turner was well aware of the security agents that followed them, the black coats and dark glasses instantly gave them away. Same old humanity, even a thousand years into the future past the end of their world and all turned into ponies. Turner gave a soft chuckle. The usual, then.
They were running down an alleyway, within the maze of tall buildings when they came to a locked gate. Behind the gate was some small compound or loading area, and from the lack of sound, currently devoid of activity. Time Turner began to fuss with his tail to get out his little 'toy' - it was particularly good against locks of all kinds - when he suddenly found himself high in the air, then just as promptly back down on the ground, inside the loading dock compound.
Derpalina was softly giggling at him. She spread her lovely gray wings, the sun dancing on the feathers. Ah. Yes. Pegasus. The look on Turner's face was more than enough to force Derpalina to press her hooves to her muzzle to silence what would have been loud laughter.
Suddenly her rolling eyes went wide. The sound of rapidly clomping hooves drew near outside. Derpalina and Time Turner huddled low, bodies pressed together, as the lock on the fence was tried. The sound of the hooves passed on, then and faded into the distance, and from the echo, around a corner in the maze of buildings. They had lost their watchers.
Turner remained where he was, and thought. Derpalina didn't seem to mind the interlude, she pressed harder into him, enjoying the closeness. Time Turner thought about what they had learned so far. It just didn't make sense.
They were a thousand years into the future of Equestria, a thousand years after the last of the planet Earth had been devoured by the cosmos of intelligent ponies. Lost Angeles was an entire civilization unto itself, started by forgotten Newfoals that had never been found. The same was true of New Chengdu and Neo-Volgograd. Each great city had its own culture, its own language, customs and government. They got along perfectly well, the very best of friends, delighting in each other's exotic joys. That was the pony part right there. But the human aspect was the differences. Such diverse takes on life. Such unique technologies.
The former humans had gone in directions native Equestrians would never think to. The strange engine under the vibrating bed was proof of that. Apparently the ponies of New Chengdu had developed a way to double the lifespan of the average pony, all three civilizations made use of that. And Neo-Volgograd was the source of an astonishing effective system of distributing some form of energy that Turner had never heard of, something not used in proper Equestria. It was what had made the lights work, and the automatic door in the hotel, and many other earthlike devices within the city. Clever, clever humans, now working their special gifts on magic itself.
Turner wondered if these distant, forgotten ponies could have discovered things that even Celestia and Luna did not know. That would be interesting, indeed.
Celestia had taken a bigger risk, perhaps, than she had ever imagined when she had saved the human race from its inevitable extinction. Oh, she had done as much as she could to make sure that her never ending problems with the dragons and the diamond dogs and the gryphons and all the other species she had let in as refugees... she had such a soft heart for the doomed. This time she had tried to not make the same mistake. No more carnivorous, unmutual, or aggressive species, no... she made sure that this time the price of salvation was becoming kind ponies.
And they were kind. Kind and gentle and loving to a fault, just like the native Equestrians. The Newfoals had been stripped of all of their negative traits, all the potential for evil, all the sickness, all the cruelty and the desperation of a species evolved to survive in a universe of scarcity. No more dragons, definitely not.
But she hadn't changed them beyond that. Their true humanity, the best of humanity had been kept entirely, wholly intact. The clever, searching, questioning, curious, never-satisfied mind of the primate remained, even in pony form. And these descendants of Newfoals had made their own Equestria, in their own image, after their own imagination.
Not a one of them knew a single word of the proper Equestrian language. Their holidays were terrestrial, not Equestrian. Few even knew the names 'Celestia' or 'Luna', they did not know that their sky was painted by goddesses, or that the sun that shone upon them was the personal hoofwork of a living being.
During their exploration of Lost Angeles, Derpalina had stumbled down a narrow pathway, and Time Turner had been forced to find her before she became desperately lost. He had found her inside an ancient building, at least five, maybe six hundred years old. It was not made of shiny metal and glass, but instead stone and wood. It had stained glass windows, and Turner instantly recognized it as a cathedral. Small by human standards, but impressive for ponies.
The images on the windows, and the carving on the altar were clear. Celestia and Luna, depicted in the one way they did not want to ever be shown: As the goddesses they were. Turner had once experienced a long talk with Celestia where she had made the matter very clear - the two pony sisters did not want to be deified by their little ponies, because it was already lonely enough being immortal, all powerful beings. They wanted, desperately, to just be accepted as a normal part of the life of Equestria, approachable and safe, and even this was difficult to maintain. Ponies constantly tried to make more of them than they wanted to be perceived as, and it was an ongoing effort for the both of them to decrease the elevation that others forced upon them.
This was the source of Celestia's prankish nature, and Luna's efforts to be accepted as just another pony. It was why they allowed themselves to be called princesses, but grew fierce about anypony calling them queen, or worse, empress. If anything in Equestria could be called blasphemy against the living goddesses of the pony cosmos, it was this very church that Derpalina had stumbled into. Celestia would have been furious... or heartbroken, Turner thought.
Derpalina was sitting with the high priest, an extremely elderly pony, in the empty cathedral to Celestia and Luna. That was her most special of special charms - whatever was the problem of a place, whatever was the most dangerous, or the most critical, whatever was the thing that was wrong, somehow she would stumble into it, as if guided by some impossible power. She was much like Time Turner's living machine, his blue shed - always it would take him where he was needed most, so that he could fix what needed to be mended. The universe - any universe, even a pony one - was a great clock, and Time Turner was very good at fixing clocks.
His beloved shed would only take him so far. Derpalina always took him the rest of the way, straight to the actual problem itself. She was invaluable, utterly, utterly invaluable, especially inside this new and strange pony universe.
But now Turner was confused.
There was no great plot ahoof to spread Celestism to the rest of Equestria. This church was the last one, anywhere, and the priest was the last of his kind. Nopony had worshiped here for over a hundred and sixty years. Celestism was no threat, and it would perish with its last priest. If any detail was off, Time Turner would expect that this was it, this was the big problem he was here to fix, the one that his shed had brought him here to take care of.
But no. Derpalina had found it, as she always did, and perhaps once it might have been a danger to the wishes of the princesses, but if that time had ever existed, it was long, long since gone.
Derpalina was giggling, the priest was balancing grass wafers on his hooves and being silly for her. There was no threat here. Just a moment of comfort and joy for an old stallion, in the last days of his faith.
7. Move Five Hooves
Time Turner was used to being frog-marched places, at least as used to it as he was to running about while being pursued, which is to say, very used to it.
Ponies did do the 'We Need You To Come With Us, Now' routine uniquely, however. In his past, Turner had often been roughly treated, threatened, marched at gunpoint, or cuffed and bound, this had to be the most unusual 'We've Been Captured' scenario he had ever experienced.
Derpalina was smilling happily, eyes rolled back into her head - though in opposing directions - as she slurped noisily at the Strawberry-N-Cream Triple Yum Ice Cream Soda that now occupied her entire attention. The ponies in the black suits and dark glasses had found them, and it had been made clear that the Prime Minister Wished To See Them Again.
That said, the path to his august halls was a winding one. Derpalina was still eager to see the delights of the city, and the tough, severe, and terribly taciturn Agents Of Lost Angeles had found themselves involved in a random tour of their city, with treats, all on the tab of Prime Minister Banister. There were several bakeries that would never quite be the same again, a toy store that would need extensive repairs, and this was the third soda shop that was discovering Just How Much A Pegasus Can Slurp.
Time Turner could not help but grin.
As humans, the pony agents would have brooked no such antics. But, thanks to the vastly hypertrophied social functions of the brain of Equus Sapiens Thaumatica, the capture of a questionable individual was no reason not to have fun and make friends. This was easily the most pleasant capture Time Turner had ever experienced. And the strangest.
As the delightful Miss Hooves exuded joy downing her fifth soda, Turner thought back to when he had not been a pony. Twenty-five years. Nothing, really, to his kind, but still of note - it was only the beginning. He would be a pony forever, there was no going back.
He had fallen through a metadimensional flexture, an unusual and rare form of charged vacuum emboitment, only without any charge, or means to detect it. Normally his people fixed these flaws in reality as humans might fix potholes in a road - but his people were gone, long gone. The strange curvatures of the hole in space had acted as an indeterminacy mirror, and Turner and his grand machine had been split into two identical versions of themselves. His experience was that of falling onto the earth of the Conversion Bureaus, where an alien cosmos was rapidly devouring the planet.
He wondered if his ontologically equivalent alternate self was even now, busily solving the ecological crisis that threatened the extinction of all humanity in the version of reality where there was no Equestria. Undoubtedly. Of course he would be doing that. That is what he did.
Turner had crashed, materialized, in what turned out to be called the Northamerizone in this bizarre version of reality, in a place called St. George, in Utah. He had gotten involved in the affairs of the Bureau there, and learned of the unique cosmic crisis that was the expansion of Equestria.
His people had a great tolerance and ability to resist radiation of all kinds, and this had convinced him that he could pass through the Great Barrier, the interface between the two universes, and easily survive the thaumatic energies within Equestria that were deadly to human beings.
But he had been wrong. Thaumatic radiation, as the humans called it, was not radiation in any normal sense of the term, and Turner had been forced to take the nanotechnomagical suspension that the Bureaus called 'potion' to survive. It had been a gamble - his kind were not human, and it was not a sure bet that the strange, thaumatically powered nanomedicine would even work. He had awakened as a pony, with a scrambled memory and little idea of what had happened to him. If it had not been for Derpalina Dittzy-Doo Hooves being so concerned for him, he might never have regained himself.
She always seemed to be where she was truly needed - that is, when she was not causing some disaster of her own entirely by accident. There was something strange and magical about the gray pegasus mare, something magical even within an entire cosmos of magic. He had suspected early on that she had been a Newfoal. But there was something more.
For this new cosmos, Derpalina was the perfect companion. She led him directly to what he needed to do, like some kind of Crisis Bloodhound. She forgot things and became confused at precisely the correct times to prevent the ever curious princesses from discovering his efforts to preserve and protect Equestria, behind the scenes. They had even searched her mind, once, and found nothing at all that would show that she traveled in time and space with him. No ordinary pony could block a living goddess, it was unthinkable... but Derpalina had done just that, even if she had no idea what she had accomplished.
A great burp followed by loud giggling roused Time Turner from his reverie. The two dark-suited agents laughed despite themselves - Derpalina had that effect on even the most ornery of Equestrian beings. She had made no less than Lord Sapphire laugh, back during the signing of the Pax Equestria. That dragon was a real piece of work, even for dragonkind.
The black suits paid the fairly steep bill, and in short order the frog march to Number 10 New Downing Street resumed, if trotting along slinging jokes and puns back and forth while giggling can be called such.
The wooden panels of the walls were, as before, impressive. The desk was just as polished, but the Prime Minister was much more reasonable.
"You seriously claim that this mythological entity, this... Celestia... really exists?" The Prime Minister was incredulous, but clearly willing to listen for some reason.
"Oh, yes, absolutely real. Celestia and Luna both. Celestia really does raise the sun, and Luna controls the moon and stars. I have stood in Canterlot and watched them do just that. I've dined with them - Derpalina! Remember our dinner with the princesses?" Time Turner gestured at the gray mare, who was busy trying to remove the vase that had somehow become stuck on her head.
"No?" Her voice sounded hollow and muffled by the porcelain. One of the black-suited agents rushed over, and began trying to help her. It wasn't going well.
"Derpalina... it was at the castle. In Canterlot! We sat with the princesses, the bloody princesses of the whole of Equestria!"
"Um... not really. I kind'a 'member the castle. It's BIG!" The other agent was now involved, both using their hooves to try to extricate the wriggling pegasus from the large, beautiful decorative jar.
Turner thought hard as the Prime Minister began to frown. "AH! Brilliant! The Zap Apple Jelly Muffin Surprise!"
Suddenly the vase and the agents and Derpalina crashed against what moments before had been an intact - and beautifully inlaid - end table, with the result being a mass of legs, manes and tails, splinters of wood and shards of former vase. "OH! THOSE princesses!" The agents looked sheepish as they tried, impossibly, to regain their dignity. "Are we going to go see Celestia and Luna again? 'Cause I want MORE JELLY SURPRISE!!!"
Turner repressed a smile as he faced Minister Banister once more. "There, see? Celestia and Luna put on a great spread, by the way. Top marks!" His grin was not, apparently, appreciated.
"It is true... that our astronomers and scientists have found... certain..." Banister seemed uncomfortable "...anomalies. With the world. We have kept this information a matter of the greatest security, mister Turner."
Time Turner raised a hoof and swept it across an imaginary sky. "Let me guess, Minister Banister. The days are an arbitrary length, as if each one were determined at whim. Nights too. The stars sometimes change, and occasionally form pictures or form new patterns, or even seem to be some kind of writing you've never seen before - well, outside of that little church down there, between the skyscrapers."
William Banister looked very disturbed at the last part of Turner's statement. "You won't succeed. We will never let that happen again! I knew you were one of them - now it all makes sense to..."
"One of who, Minister Banister? Just what happened with that little church down there?" Turner stared intently at the Minister.
"You still claim to be from... an impossible distance away, ignorant of everything that..."
"Yes indeedy, far far away Prime Minister Sir! Why don't you fill me in, why don't you inform my ignorance so I won't be ignorant any more?" The look on Turner's muzzle was devoid of guile.
"Hmph. Perhaps." Minister Banister ran his hoof over the polished marble tiles that made up the floor. "In return, perhaps you can inform me about what we can expect... if myths were somehow to come true."
The doors were closed to the room, and the agents were instructed to wait outside. There was a moment of tension regarding the presence of Derpalina, but Turner made it plain that he and his companion were a team. Finally, the Minister began.
The records of the three civilizations were incomplete, because their early days were a struggle for survival. Gradually, through hardship and trial and error, a large population concentrated, all composed of the last survivors from the last bit of land and sea of the human homeworld.
They divided into three groupings, based on common cultural affinities, and discovered how to make use of their pony abilities and talents to control the world around them. The first generations born from the original Newfoals from earth climbed from desperation to mastery, and the foundations of the three massive cities were begun.
But one thing divided the growing population - the issue of whether their existence as ponies, and the events that led to the destruction of the earth were a blessing, or a conquest. It became clear that they had been abandoned utterly by the princesses that had claimed to offer them salvation, and the struggle of their lives made them bitter and angry.
Without any contact or guidance, the forgotten ponies did their best to build a new earth, to continue what they knew and understood within the alien cosmos. The three great cities that became Lost Angeles, New Chengdu and Neo-Volgograd deliberately limited contact with each other, when they could afford to, in order to preserve and concentrate what was left of the earth cultures they felt aligned with. The princesses had betrayed them, so they would make a new earth of Equestria.
But there was another viewpoint within the three civilizations, that clashed with the feeling of betrayal. The princesses would come. There were just so many billions of former humans that it was impossible even for godlike beings to attend them all. In the end, it was the last holdout's fault that they were lost - they could have converted at any time but they had waited until the very end of the earth. They had ignored reality, like spoiled children, and these were the consequences.
Celestians - that was the name they gave themselves - believed that the lost ponies of the three cities had really abandoned Celestia, and her gifts. The princesses would come. But only if everypony rejected anything terrestrial, and worked to live and express proper, native Equestrian culture. And that is where it all broke down, because all they had of native Equestrian culture were stories and things the original Newfoals claimed to have learned inside the Bureaus long ago. Much of it conflicted with each other, and none of it was even faintly complete.
The Celestian Faith became a political and social problem for the governments of the three new civilizations, and so a concerted effort began to eradicate it. In the human world, this would have meant pogroms and 'ethnic cleansing' - murder and suppression. But there were no humans, and such concepts were now impossible for the ponies that had descended from the original Newfoals. So they used a far more terrible method. Shunning and social ostracization. Entire generations suffered isolation and sadness. For ponykind, it was horror.
"I cannot have such division, such misery return, Time Turner. If what you say is a lie, then you threaten our peace by risking the return of the Celestian Faith. If what you say is true - that would be even worse. If Celestia and Luna truly do exist, then it would mean the destruction of three entire cultures, perhaps the only remaining essence of the world we originally came from." The Minister called to his agents, standing just outside the door. The agents promptly returned. "Mister Turner and his friend will be leaving shortly." Doubtless this meant more being followed and observed.
"There was a botanical team from Neo-Volgograd who happened to be filming a documentary on the flowers that grow uniquely between our three cities. While you've been touring Lost Angeles, I was shown images of your arrival. That is what convinced me that you were more than you had first seemed." Banister went to his desk and sat down on a cushion behind it. He placed his perfectly manicured hooves on the polished surface. "Right now, teams from all three cities are arranging to entomb the odd blue box the Volgograd team discovered. It is regrettable to lose access to what surely must be some strange and powerful magic indeed, to bring you such a great distance as you claim. But we cannot take any chance that you might reveal our existence, and location, to any... potential deities. 'Hominis Convenit Constitus', mister 'Time Turner', if that is your name. The shared motto of all three of our civilizations. I don't expect you to know it, the words are native to earth."
Time Turner stood firm and locked eyes with the official. "Latin, mister Bannister. 'Human We Remain'. And you won't get away with any of this I assure you."
8. Delay Action
"I can't believe they got away with it!" Time Turner was acrimonious, pacing back and forth inside the very pleasant apartment that had been allotted to Derpalina and himself. They would be supported by the state for life, in comfortable fashion, but they would also be watched, and they were forbidden from speaking of anything they knew. It was better than many situations that Time Turner had found himself in, before he had become a pony, but it was not freedom, and Turner coveted freedom above all else.
The Minister also had no idea of just how long 'for life' meant, with regard to a Timepony. And, as Turner was beginning to suspect, a certain gray pegasus as well.
Turner and Derpalina had the run of Lost Angeles, though they were not permitted to leave the borders of the great city, and the site of the entombment of Turner's Pony Box was utterly off limits. Celestia's little ponies were constitutionally incapable of killing, but there were many other unpleasant things that could be done to punish transgression, and Turner did not want to risk his companion suffering because of any rashness on his part. Especially now.
Unable to leave, Time Turner's thoughts bent towards the unusual events that had happened within the motel, especially the strange burst that had tossed him like a rag doll when he had touched Derpalina's mind. There was one other moment when he had experienced something very much like that - in Canterlot, when in a moment of recklessness, he had foolishly tried to probe the mind of Celestia herself. The urge to see the thoughts of a purported goddess was just too great, and he had learned that such thoughts are too much even for one such as himself - something that quite shocked him to his core.
Turner had insisted on a return to the little cafe where Lilly McCulloch worked as a waitress. The cafe where Derpy had choked on her muffin and which had led to strange events in the evening. Derpalina was not eager to return, but promises of haycakes and more muffins swayed her chimeric whim.
"Muffins! Muffins! Ooh! An' juice! I wan the juice too, Turner!" The lovely miss Hooves was at her bounciest, and utterly unaware of the black coated followers who always remained just barely out of sight. "Can I have th' same juice? PLEEZZZ???"
Time Turner smiled and nodded, and this set his companion into paroxysms of glee. "Juice! Juice! Juice! And MUFFI.... oh."
The pale blue waitress with the white mane smiled and greeted them, but the pleasantness was not returned. Derpalina looked down, avoiding eye contact, and stared at her own gray hooves on the countertop.
"Derpalina, Derpy, tell me, what's the matter? Miss McCulloch just said hello. She seems happy to see us. Don't you want to say hello back?" Turner studied his companion carefully. She remained steadily fixated on her own hooves. She shook her head, then appeared to grimace.
Finally, Derpalina spoke in a strangely shy, moody voice. "Hullo."
Lilly McCulloch set about trying to take their orders. Turner was forced to order for Derpalina, and made sure to get every item he had promised her, including the juice she wanted. Gradually her mood improved, as she was tempted to begin gobbling the feast before her.
While Derpalina enjoyed her food, Turner shifted his attention to the waitress. "Miss McCulloch, Lilly, wasn't it? Could I ask you a few things?"
The blue earthpony stood by the counter and wiped a portion with a hoof. "I guess. What sort of things?"
"About your city, about your past - actually, I really want to ask you about your name." Turner had entirely ignored his order of haycakes and syrup.
"My name?" The little waitress stopped wiping the counter and began counting receipts.
"Well, you see, where I come from..." Turner tried to be careful, so that the handlers outside, who would doubtless question miss McCulloch later, would have no violations to report "...which is... somewhere else, where I come from, nopony has names like ponies here. They don't have names like 'John' or 'Julia' or 'William'. Many don't have last names, and when the do, it's nothing at all like 'McCulloch'."
Lilly leaned her head forward a bit. "What kind of names do they have then?"
"Oh, names like 'Butterscotch' and 'Apple Dumpling' and 'Cloudhammer' or 'Snowflower' or 'Honeydrizzle'. Like my own name, 'Time Turner'. It's because I fix clocks and timepieces, you see. See my cutie mark here?" Turner rotated on his low stool to show the golden hourglass on his flank. "Time is my specialty, you see, so my name is Time Turner."
The waitress laughed. "Don't tell me, 'Butterscotch' makes candies, right?"
"Yes, as a matter of fact she does. Very good ones, actually. They make you feel joy. It's her specialty, so it's also her name."
Lilly McCulloch adjusted her waitress-saddle and looked back at Time Turner with a disbelieving expression. "So... what does 'Snowflower' make?"
Turner smiled. "In that case, I think her name probably just refers to her beautiful white coat. Some names are merely descriptive, or even poetic."
"I assume 'Cloudhammer' bucks unruly clouds?" Lilly apparently thought proper Equestrian names were hilarious.
Time Turner grinned. "Sometimes. But he's more likely to save your life or protect your property. He's the head of the guard for... a very important... um... pony."
"Where did you say you came from?" Lilly the waitress half laughed her words, and her muzzle betrayed that she clearly figured she was being put on.
"Actually, I'm not at liberty to say. Literally." Time Turner glanced back at Derpalina, who was happily plowing through his unattended haycakes without a second thought. Or a first, he reckoned. That mare could eat. "Tell me then, Lilly McCulloch, cafe waitress of the shining city of Lost Angeles, how you got your name?"
Lilly winked at Turner, and chose to play along. "Well, way out here..." She stressed the word, as if her city were somehow exotic in any way "... we do things a little bit differently. See, our last names are 'family' names, they are handed down, and just sort of come with getting born. There are McCullochs in Lost Angeles all the way back, and I'm one of them. It doesn't have any meaning that I know of, it's just my last name."
"Alright, what about your first name then? What's the story behind that?" Turner snagged a bit of haycake before his companion could, she stuck out her tongue at him and giggled.
"Well...." The pony waitress closed her eyes briefly in recollection "... I was told that my mother chose my name because my great, great grandmare, on my father's side had that name. She wanted to get in good with his relatives, and apparently the original 'Lillian' was quite some important..."
Time Turner wasn't looking at Lilly McCulloch any longer. His gaze was locked on his companion, who had suddenly stopped eating. She sat eerily still, looking straight ahead at nothing, and both of her eyes were equally and perfectly focused in the same direction.
A bite of haycake dropped onto her plate from her open mouth.
"John, what on earth are you up to?" Derpy spoke in an odd voice, devoid of her usual slight slur, a strong voice, clear and sharp. "What are these for? They're kind of pretty."
Lilly the waitress stepped forward, in concern. "Your friend. Is she alright?"
Turner waved a hoof and motioned for Lilly to step back. "What is pretty? Tell me what you are looking at? What are you looking at Lillian?"
"I'm looking at your friend! I think she's having some kind of fit or something. Should I call a medical unicorn?"
Turner shook his head at the waitress. "No, no, please... she has the same name you do, only she doesn't know that it's her name."
"She doesn't know it's her...?" The waitress rolled her eyes. "I don't know what game you two are playing but..."
"Shh!" Turner gave the waitress a pleading look, then turned back to Derpalina. "Go on, what is so pretty, Lillian? Tell me."
Derpy was still staring with both eyes into infinity. She sat still as a Canterlot Maze Garden statue. "The balls. The little glass balls. I think they are glass. They look like glass. I've never seen anything like them before."
"Where are you, Lillian? Can you..." But Derpalina cut him off. She was no longer hearing him.
"My ring feels warm. On my forehead. Would you check it?" Derpalina squinted, as though she were in some discomfort.
"Ring? On her forehead?" Lilly the waitress leaned forward again. "Only unicorns wear rings on their foreheads. She's a pegasus! I think she really needs help."
"No, not now, Lilly! I think I'm really close to..." Time Turner put a hoof across the countertop to hold the waitress back. She was starting to try to get help.
Turner looked back at his companion, Derpalina. She was shaking now, and foam was coming out of her mouth and nose.
"OK, now! GO! GET HELP! HURRY!"
Lilly the waitress ran into the back of the cafe to make use of yet another of the unique devices the clever citizens of the three cities had independently developed. But she had been superseded already by the dark-coated handlers outside. The medical unicorns were already entering the building.
9. Drop prone
The heart monitor bleeped. It actually bleeped, and the sound was exactly, precisely the same sound used in a hundred different medical dramas that the humans once loved so much. Here, in the magical universe of Equestria, a thousand years after the total obliteration of the earth and the end of the human species, in a cosmos where there was no electricity, where the physics were thoroughly alien, a boxy little machine bleeped and displayed numbers, and the sound it made was a long forgotten noise.
Time Turner never failed to marvel at these little, improbable coincidences. It didn't matter what universe, or what time period or what planet. In the strangest of places, in the oddest of times, always there would be little things, familiar things, that defied any explanation. The real mysteries of the cosmos were tiny and easily overlooked.
Dwelling on this helped Turner as he delicately held Derpamina's limp hoof in his own. She lay on a hospital bed - it could only be a hospital bed, for it was the sort of bed convenient to everpony but the one laying upon it - still and staring. Occasionally her golden eyes would blink, slowly, but at the moment, there was nopony home.
They had scanned her. It was not like medical imaging in Ponyville and Equestria proper. They used a machine. The device had been attended and operated by a unicorn, but it was not the unicorn doing the scanning. In all of his quarter century of being a pony in Equestria, Time Turner had never experienced such a un-pony way of practicing medicine. Magic at a distance, perhaps. Or perhaps the ponies, clinging to their human origins, had discovered some strange energies or fields that would boggle the minds of even the Royal Corps Of Unicorns... on second thought, Turner grinned to himself, that was too easy, really.
"Um... mister Turner, was it?" The doctor was a bright orange unicorn wearing a white coat and a stethoscope. His name was Phillip Southall, and he was a specialist in matters of the head and neck.
Time Turner nodded.
"We have discovered... something extraordinary about miss Hooves, here. Something truly unexpected, I would dare say unbelievable. I am not certain how to explain this to you, but..." Dr. Southall faltered, clearly at pains to accept his own findings.
"Well then, let's take a proper look at the matter, show me the scans, and we can go over them doctor to doctor, alright?"
"You... you are a medical pony?"
"Among other things, yes." Turner smiled and followed Dr. Southall down a corridor of the hospital.
The images were not entirely unlike the results of magnetic resonance scanning, save that the entire basis of such technology would be impossible within Equestria's physics. Time Turner slowly rotated the melon-sized crystalline orb that held within it a three-dimensional image of the interior of Derpalina's head.
The lower two thirds of her brain appeared intact, but the upper third was missing, replaced by what appeared to be hollow spheres of some transparent material. It looked like glass. Specifically, the objects looked exactly like the glass fishing floats once used to provide buoyancy to large nets. Derpalina's words in the cafe came back to Turner - the pretty, little glass balls. Somehow, his companion had seen these, before they had been placed inside her skull.
"But here is the most interesting part of all of this..." Dr. Southall gestured with a pencil held in his hornfield "...absolutely no damage to the skull or soft tissues. The brain itself appears to have grown around the glass spheres, filling gaps between them fully. There is no way I can think of for this to happen, not even with the use of the most refined magics, at least as I understand such matters." Southall lowered the pencil and released his telekinetic grasp "I cannot understand it. In theory, teleportation might have been used to place the spheres there, but it is a rare talent among even the brightest of unicorns, and we still have no real understanding of such matters. There is certainly no unicorn in the world that can use teleportation at will, it only happens as a reflex in..."
Turner thought of how astonished these isolated 'Hominis Convenit Constitus' ponies would be, if they knew what the native Equestrian study of magic had achieved.
Dr. Southall went on at some length about how the glass spheres could not have been inserted in Derpalina's foalhood, which ruled out that particular means for her brain to have grown around them. These ponies did not have regenerative magic to the extent that native Equestrians possessed, so Southall was unable to consider anything that would cause an adult brain to be made to fill space without flaw. Derpalina's skull represented an impossibility to Dr. Southall, and it was clear that he felt shaken by the fact of what had been revealed.
"I do think I have discovered the reason for miss Hooves seizures, however." Dr. Southall grasped the pencil once more in his telekinetic hornfield, and used it to indicate the areas between the glassine bubbles inside of Derpalina's skull. "I think something, likely some kind of vibration, such as a focused sound wave, precisely matched the resonant frequency of one or more of the objects in the patient's skull. This caused the spheres to vibrate, likely hitting repeatedly against each other. It is my belief that this induced inflammation of the neural tissue, eventually resulting in seizure when the swelling reached some critical point."
Time Turner hung his head - the little toy he had used to induce the hypnotic state in the hotel operated on just those principles. He himself had unknowingly caused Derpalina's current crisis.
"Not to fear, though. We're using both telekinetic treatments and a powerful anti-inflammatory agent to treat miss Hooves condition. I have a reasonable confidence that she should enjoy a full recovery, well, at least to whatever normal is for such a truly unusual case." Dr. Southall shook his head, causing his stethoscope to swing back and forth across his forelegs.
It was evening now. Once or twice, when getting something to eat, Time Turner had seen his handlers standing in the hall. They were making no attempt to hide, now. One had even come up to him and paid respects and wished for Derpalina's swift recovery. They weren't bad sorts, Turner decided, they were just doing their job of keeping an eye on him.
Turner suddenly startled. He had drifted off, hunched over the low hospital bed where his companion lay. His tail had gone numb from having been sat upon too long - he hated when that happened, it tingled with little needles that just drove him insane.
"Before I landed on that building, I was shot by some humans." Derpalina was talking, softly, almost a whisper. Turner couldn't tell if she was asleep or in some kind of coma - Dr. Southall had been just as unable to define her cognitive state. She must be describing events before she came to Equestria... but after she became a pony, from the way she had phrased things. It almost certainly must have been before the glass floats had been put inside her skull. For what purpose? Why would glass fishing floats ever be put inside the skull of a pony? It was inconceivable!
Worse, it surely could not have been humans who did it, and they were the most likely suspects. Terran medical science was well developed by the time of the Bureaus, but there would have been some trace if surgery had been performed. Even if trained, native, Equestrian medical unicorns of the highest caliber had been used, there would have been some trace, some indication of where the skull had been opened and resealed, of where the brain tissue had been encouraged to grow. In his years in Equestria, Turner had learned enough to know what to look for, and the scan earlier had showed nothing.
Not knowing what else to do, and unwilling to try touching her mind directly again, Time Turner decided to try to coax more from her. It was a risk - the last time, in the cafe, she had a seizure from just such an effort, but... at least they were in a hospital right now, and he could think of nothing else to try.
"Lillian." He began "Lillian Fogarty..." that was the name she had given, back in the hotel room. "Lillian, you were saying... you had been shot?" Turner was leaning now, over the bed, watching Derpalina's muzzle intently for the first fleck of foam, or the first sign of twitching.
"But it healed. Actually, I made it heal in an instant." Derpalina was not shaking and there was no foam, yet. "They blew out my side. But it would have healed on its own. Actually, I made it heal in an instant. I could be blown to pieces, John, and the bits would crawl or teleport back and form me again. No, I cannot be killed. I cannot be killed. I will never die."
Turner felt himself shiver, a cold feeling ran up his spine. Derpalina - Derpy Ditzy Doo Hooves was a very special little pegasus. Clumsy. Accident prone. Cute as a button and twice as charming. A loving and doting mother. Astonishingly good at finding trouble, like no companion he had ever known, and he had known some brilliant, amazing ones. She was a little light upstairs, just a touch impaired, the only such pony he had ever met. In all of Equestria there were no birth defects, no congenital disease, no mental retardation. No pony was truly disabled, not permanently. Not one, except for Derpalina. She alone. Why?
Only now, in this moment, despite the impossible glass balls filling her skull, Derpalina was not the least impaired. Her voice was still unslurred, precise, and clear. It was her tones, but not her mannerisms. Time Turner struggled to put what he had learned together, but it only raised more questions.
Derpalina was really a Newfoal, named Lillian Fogarty. She had been shot by humans, apparently, before she emigrated to Equestria. The damage should have been fatal, but she had somehow healed herself, in an instant by her own words. She claimed she could not ever die. Her head was filled with terrestrial fishing floats, which she had seen before they had been installed. She apparently knew someone named 'John', who was involved in all of this. A thousand years ago, on a world forever lost. Even the 'Pony Box', as it had named itself, could not breach Zero Point, the moment where the last of the earth vanished forever. Going back in time to see what had happened was not an option, even if he could get to the old girl.
"Lillian. Lillian. Why..." Turner struggled to think of what to ask, what would give him any sort of clue or answer. He might never get such a chance again when Derpalina recovered. If she recovered. He very much wanted her to recover. "Lillian... why? Why are you here? Why can you heal yourself? Why can you never die?"
"Celestia... She is coming. Coming for me. Help me, John. I never wanted this. I just wanted... I wanted to be an ordinary pony. John..." Derpalina's voice was fading, the strange mental state that allowed this could not last indefinitely.
Time Turner looked about the room, at Derpalina, at his own hooves. What was the useful question? What was it that he really needed to know?
"Lillian Fogarty..." Turner began "Why are you not a normal pony?"
The voice of Lillian Fogarty spoke once more before Derpalina Ditzy Doo Hooves fell into a quiet sleep. Turner heard her clearly, but had trouble accepting the fact of it. Instantly, things made sense, horrible, terrible sense. Two words. Just two little words were all that she said, but it was enough. It was enough because Time Turner had worked at the St. George Conversion Bureau. He had returned through the Barrier, after he had been converted, and worked as a conversion doctor, and he had been given the special briefing that all Bureau doctors are given. The special briefing that carried the Official Seal of the Diarchy of Equestria itself.
Just two little words, impossible words, the likelihood being one part in several trillion. So unlikely as to be unthinkable, but of such a terrible threat that even the impossible needed to be addressed. Two words that could literally obliterate both the mundane universe, and the universe of Equestria from existence itself.
10. Draw a weapon
Derpalina Hooves was sleeping, Dr. Southall felt convinced that the inflammation inside her head was reducing satisfactorily, it would simply take time. Time Turner had learned that the two handlers who had the job of watching over he and his companion were named Simon and David, and that they were decent chaps who enjoyed the odd doughnut and were genuinely concerned about Derpalina's condition.
There was nothing to do but wait, so Turner decided to see if the Lost Angeles Mercy General Hospital had a gift shop. A decent hospital should always have a gift shop, and Turner felt guilty for causing his companion's illness, even if it was an accident. When she finally awakened fully - if she awakened fully - he dearly wished to see her smile and giggle again. Perhaps he could find some gift that would delight her.
As the ancient Timepony walked the corridors, the weight of what he had learned began to settle into him. If Derpy, if the former Lillian Fogarty of Surrey, Northamerizone had truly been a real life Code Majeste... how was it that either Mundis or Equestria had survived? The briefing had made it clear - a newborn proper alicorn would be capable of destroying worlds with the slightest of random thoughts. Oceans could boil at the slightest spark of anger, or entire universes collapse at the merest hint of depression. Lillian would have been a living bomb that the tiniest thing could set off, killing untold billions in an instant, and destroying every material and immaterial creation save the two deific princesses and herself.
She had been stopped then, somehow. The glass fishing floats in some manner had prevented a multiversal apocalypse.
The horn. Her horn. It was almost obvious. Derpalina Hooves was a pegasus, a silly, happy gray pegasus. But if she had ever been an alicorn, like the princesses, she would have possessed a horn. Derpy had no horn. Her beloved daughter, Dinky had a horn, the little foal was a unicorn, but Derpalina was...
Derpalina had said, once, that she had no idea who the father of her foal was. As far as Time Turner knew, Derpy wasn't sure what sex even was.
The implications filled him with both wonder and horror, as he walked the hospital hallways. Derpy doted on her daughter as if her foal were the most important thing in her world.
No, there was something else.
Twenty-five years. Time Turner had been in Equestria, as a pony, for twenty-five years now. And over all of that time, Derpy had always taken care of her little Dinky. Her little, baby, tiny foal. For twenty-five years.
It was easy for a Timepony to overlook things like that, he mused. He traveled in time, he saw the world in snapshots and glimpses, he did not move through the world as ordinary ponies did. There was no reason for it to occur to him.
No wonder the princesses were so interested in Derpalina. No wonder there was a special allowance granted her for 'service to the crown'. The standing rule was that no pony could refuse her employment, despite her many clumsy accidents and even catastrophes. It was the royal decree that Derpy must never be denied a job if she wanted it. She would hold jobs until she was let go, but always she would have another the same day.
How much did the princesses know? Turner had thought that they were interested in him, that they suspected his manipulations of the timeline of Equestria, but that was wrong. They were interested in Derpy, and even from a distance watched the company she kept, and made sure her needs were always met.
The pony trying to hold Time Turner back was getting annoyed. Turner finally noticed the little fellow, only then realizing just how far into his own thoughts he had drifted. He was nowhere near the gift shop. This was some section of the hospital he had never seen, and it did not look like the rest of the structure.
"How did you even get in here? I insist that you leave, now!" The medical attendant was trying to block Turner with his entire body. "Sir! Sir! You are in a restricted area! No visitors are allowed here for any reason!"
Before Turner was a curious room, round and covered in large, square white tiles. From the round central chamber opened numerous doors to small rooms, each with a heavy, soundproof door. The sweeping, circular, hanging sign that floated above the large, curving nurses station caught his attention.
"I said, I really must ask you to leave!" The attendant was adamant.
Turner stood tall on his legs, and raised his head, using his carefully practiced Important Person Gaze. "Oh, hello! I didn't notice you there, sorry. I'm doctor... Turner. I am a colleague of Dr. Southall's. He asked me to check in on..." Time Turner rummaged through his memory for the very most common proper English surname. Ah! "Smith. I believe you have the patient here, I apologize for not having my coat or credentials, but old Southall's tied up with a patient and called me in rather unexpectedly, really. Could you be so kind as to direct me to the correct room?"
That was the thing with the culture of the terrestrial English, everything was attitude, because social station ruled their world. If that part of humanity survived here, then...
"Oh, sorry, I am so very, very sorry - without the coat, I just... oh dear, Nurse! Nurse!' The little attendant rushed to the desk in the center of the oddly designed room. "Smith, we have a doctor here to check on a patient, name Smith..."
It resolved that there were several 'Smith's' in the Mercy Hospital End Of Life Isolation Centre, but with a little fuss and nonsense, Turner found himself at the bedside of an ancient looking stallion, shriveled and pale and very white of mane.
"You can go, now. I would like to be alone with the patient for a bit, if I may." It was not a question.
The attendant left, and Time Turner noted that the heavy, soundproof door was being pulled shut "Hen ooo 'ant ou, uss oohe ee utton on ee 'all" the attendant mouthed around the heavy handle he held in his mouth. As the door sealed, and was locked, Turner noticed the mentioned button on a panel by the door. Buttons and switches and beeping machines, in Equestria, he thought. Clever, clever former humans. Descendants of former humans, he corrected himself.
"Ohhh... 'ello there. Didn't 'spect no visitors. Not allowed, you know." The dessicated old stallion squinted through rheumy eyes at Time Turner. "You're no doctor. Not that I mind. I'm glad you ain't one 'a them."
"Why is that, mister Smith?" Turner placed a gentle hoof next to the dying pony's own, and gave a comforting tap with it.
"Cuz they don't give no respect to the dyin', you know. Spend a whole life workin' hard, doin' your best to keep your muzzle clean, and at the end, they seal you up. It's like bein' in a tomb before you're even dead." Mr. Smith seemed terribly lonely, and not a little bitter.
"Don't you have any friends or family, Mr. Smith?"
"Course I do! Lot's of 'em. Got grandfoals comin' out the whazoo, and more mares'n I can count who still... ah, what's the use. It's all over now, ain't it. Good run, though. I got an award, once, from the Prime Minister herself. Not the current one, 'e's an ass. The old one. Long time back." The aged Smith reared and coughed for a while, his rickety frame shaking with he effort. Finally he lay back again, utterly exhausted by the activity.
"They don't let anypony visit? Ever?" Turner was incredulous.
"Nope. Not ever. Tha's the point a' that door o'er there, ya silly pony. Shut out the sound. Shut out anythin' I might say, anythin' I might see. Anythin' that might happen." The wrinkled muzzle smiled, weakly. "A hell of a lot a' fuss for somthin' tha' don't exist, don't you think? Heh, heh, he..." another fit of coughing followed, and when it had passed, Mr. Smith was left gasping for air, unable to speak for a while.
When the old stallion seemed able, Turner spoke again. "What is it that doesn't exist, Mr. Smith?"
Smith stared at his unexpected visitor with unsure eyes. Eventually he decided it wasn't a trap, or a test. "Celestia, a' course. Or Luna. Sometimes they say it's Luna. They come, you know. At the end, an' you see 'em. An sometimes so does anypony around. Sometimes." The eyes were defiant now. A curious strength rose in the fading Mr. Smith.
"You've... you've seen something, in your past, haven't you mister Smith? Tell me about it." Time Turner leaned close, fascinated.
"Wha' the hell. Ain't like it matters no more." Smith sighed and closed his eyes. "Was when my great great granstallion went. We were out sailin' on the lake. No doctors, no way for any 'a them to mess it up. Just a foal, I was, but I saw her. I saw her come, and 'Ol Gray Smith spoke to her. Jus' before. An somethin' just came out'a him, peeled right out like a banana from it's skin. Somethin' young, an' faint, an' sparklin', and it went with her. Down a tunnel o' light."
Suddenly the rheumy eyes opened, fierce and determined. "I know wha' I saw!"
"I believe you, Mr. Smith." Time Turner gazed evenly at the fragile stallion on the bed. "What I don't believe is that they..." Turner motioned beyond the door with a jerk of his head "... don't."
"It's pride. Pride an' power. An' a big heap a' bitterness, too. Some ponies keep a grudge a long time. They know. 'Course they know. Jus' pride and power and grudge. Silly ponies the lot o'..." Mr. Smith had used up what reserves he had, and had fallen into what appeared a rattling sleep. Briefly, Turner considered simply waiting with the perishing stallion, to see what might come to visit him, then remembered how far in the future he was, and quickly made for the button on the wall.
Celestia and Luna did not know about his nature as far as he knew, and he was not sure that they would approve of his meddling in their universe. Celestia especially could be a little... grim... about such matters. A meeting here, now, might not go well.
The door, at last, was dragged open. Unfortunately, on the other side of the door, Time Turner was surprised to see the face of Dr. Southall. "I think..." Dr. Southall said to the nurse behind him "... that my colleague is immediately needed elsewhere at the moment."
11. Damage Resolution
Derpalina Ditzy-Doo Hooves was bouncing up and down on the somewhat worse-for-wear hospital bed, and the large tray of muffins and various juices flipped spinning up into the air just as Time Turner and Dr. Southall entered the room. Bits of three different flavors of muffiny goodness exploded about the room as the walls were painted in peach-mango, banana-strawberry and blueberry-fescue. Derpy, in her joy, had accidentally bounced right on the edge of the metal tray, making a catapult of it.
"Uh-ohhh." Derpalina's ears drooped as she became suddenly still on the bed, a sodden section of muffin oozing down from the top of her poll.
"Well, it's good to see things are back to normal!" Time Turner happily observed, casually digging peach and mango soaked raisin muffin from his ear with a practiced hoof. "How are you doing today, Derpalina?"
Dr. Southall looked around the dripping room with a mixture of shock and surprise. He shook his head in concern for the poor cleaning staff, then shook it harder to get the bits of pastry out of his mane.
"I'm feelin' BOUNCY!" Derpalina grinned. "Maybe a little tooooo bouncy. SORRY!" Her muzzle instantly became the very essence of regret.
"Well, messy is best, you know. Oscar Wilde once told me that. You would have liked old Oscar, Derpy, he was a lot of fun at parties. He tended to make a mess too, only it was more social than physical, STILL, it's terribly good to see you up and around!" Time Turner smiled and gave his companion a brief nuzzle.
"I have no way to explain her recovery, mister Turner, but I thought you should see. Normally inflammation of the brain is a very serious concern, which may take days or weeks to resolve. There are sometimes deficits, but... somehow, just a short time ago, miss Hooves suddenly sat up apparently completely well." Dr. Southall shook muffin from his stethoscope. "I would like to keep her here under observation for a few more days, perhaps run a few tests... also..." Southall tapped the floor with a hoof "I would very much like to bring in a specialist I know from Neo-Volgograd. I rather hope he might be able to shed some light on the issue of miss Hooves... unique... situation."
"We'd love to stay and play doctor, but... places to be, things to do. I really want to thank you, and all of your staff for all of your fine work, and sorry about the mess." Turner helped Derpalina off the hospital bed with his forelegs, his hooves tickled her ribs, which made her giggle.
"But mister Turner, I cannot in good conscience sign release papers for a patient with undiagnosed seizures and cranial abnormalities which defy..." Dr. Southall sputtered his words as he watched the long yellow tail of his patient trot off down the hall.
"I'll recommend you to the BMA! Great work, Southall!" Turner and Hooves were already halfway to the stairs.
"The what?" Dr. Southall suddenly noticed he had stepped in a squishy pile of soggy muffin.
"The... British... Medical... Associa...." the last was lost as the pair rapidly descended the staircase.
"The who?" Southall shook his head once more, then looked around the dripping room. "Never heard of them."
12. Assign Experience
The four ponies galloped, tiny specks lost in a vast field of green. The gleaming metal and glass towers of Lost Angeles was behind them now, as they made for the incomplete construction work ahead. Countless carts and wagons surrounded the structure in the distance, each filled with cut stones and mortar. Several crews of ponies from all three cities were busily cooperating to finish the pyramidal structure in time, and under budget.
"I... tried... to... explain... " Simon, the dark-suited pony agent left of Derpalina panted as he struggled to keep up "...that access ... to ...the site... is..."
"I know, I know." Time Turner galloped on, wishing he had wings like his companion. Derpalina smiled and winked at him and did a casual loop, giggling at the fun of it. She wasn't tired at all. "Blah blah, Prime Minister."
"Sir! we really... need... you... to turn... (pant)... back." David, the other agent, was falling slightly behind, but gamely trying to catch up.
"Can't do that!" Turner increased his speed a little "Got a capstone to beat!"
The pyramid in the distance was nearly finished. Ponies were remarkable beings, Turner thought. No fingers, just hooves, tail and mouth, but they worked together better than any species he had ever seen, and he had seen a lot of different species. Of course having unicorns with powerful telekinesis, and pegasai who could extend their power of flight to large masses... not to mention the almost terrifying power and raw strength of earth ponies... together, he couldn't imagine anything Equestrians could not do. The really impressive bit was how quickly they managed to actually do it.
If they could only get to the pyramid before the capstone was placed, it shouldn't be too difficult to just jump into the great tomb. Derpalina could catch him and lower him safely, she was accomplished at such things. She might be clumsy in other ways, but she had never failed to catch him in mid-air. Not even the time they made a break of it from the balcony in Canterlot Castle.
Turner smiled as he ran. Actually, they'd tried that little stunt twice. The first time was about, oh... fifteen hundred years in the past, more or less. The other wouldn't happen for another thousand years or so. So maybe it was more accurate to say they'd only done it once, at least from the perspective of the moment, though of course from their own, personal timeline it...
"DRAAAAGONNS!!!" Derpalina was still going on about the statue. Of course she was. She'd been terrified of them back when they had helped make sure the Pax Equestria had been signed, but by the end she had become quite taken by how cordial and proper some of the more civilized ones could be. When they had returned from that adventure, Turner remembered her and her little daughter Dinky drawing dragons in crayon together on their kitchen table. And the dragon-shaped cookies they had made later. Quite good cookies, really. Though the mess while making them was appalling.
Time Turner had always thought Celestia played chess. Neat sides arrayed on opposite parts of the board. Black and white and clear, sharp squares. Now he knew he was wrong. Celestia was a poker player. Just when he thought he had the princess figured out...
The statue had stood not far outside of the hospital, though on the opposite side from where they had originally entered. It depicted a team of ponies using a strange, imposing sort of machine to drive away a dragon, all done in what looked like bronze. The machine was shooting some kind of projectile, the trail of which supported the form of the dragon. The ponies wore helmets, not that unlike the helmets soldiers once wore on old, lost earth.
"That's our proudest moment, you know." Simon had given a very tiny little stomp with his forehooves, chuffed to be able to explain. "Dragons! Who'd have thought, you know?" It was clear that any information that had been given in the Bureaus a thousand years ago about the other species that lived in the universe of Equestria had not been remembered by the citizens of the three forgotten cities. Seeing dragons must have been a terrifying shock.
More importantly, what were dragons doing so far away from the small range they called their own? How had they traveled such a distance - it literally could not have been flight. Even the lifespan of a dragon was not so long. Turner had heard rumors that the dragons possessed unique and quite secret magics of their own, and relics from whatever cosmos they had originally derived from. No wonder princess Celestia was so very careful in dealing with them.
There were only three dragons. From the story Simon and David told, they must have been scouts - but this far away from Equestria?
Celestia had allowed humans to escape to Equestria out of compassion, and to fulfill a promise, true. But she had also taken in so many billion refugees to alter the balance of political power. The dragons would quickly understand this - they must have taken measures to verify just how much they had lost. The dragons had long held Celestia under the very real threat that they could, in a single day, render extinct the entire race of ponykind. Celestia was powerful enough to stop them, but the application of such awesome force would likely tear the land apart, and result in the same end. They had her over a barrel. But if there were more ponies, far too many for dragons to threaten, then they no longer had any leverage over her.
But how had mere ponies, utterly ignorant of the countless high-level magics of Canterlot, repulsed three mature dragons?
The answer was as clever as the human race that had become these outlier ponies.
The device represented in the statue was an incredibly advanced launcher, and the ordnance had been large sacks of orange juice. Lime juice, lemon and any citrus they had. Time Turner had noted what citric acid did to dragons once, far in the past, when he had dined with one at Celestia's table with Derpalina at his side. Derpy had spilled her juice - she so loved muffins and juice, and it had gotten on the young dragon ambassador.
Dragons were naturally lithovores, devouring stone and precious gems, but they could choose to eat almost anything. Historically, dragons had sometimes enjoyed eating ponies before the Pax Equestria. Dragons could survive the heat of magma, or the terrible chemistry inside volcanic vents. Most acids were a bath to them, or a delicious beverage. But not citric acid, not that one, single organic compound. They were, as a race, allergic.
The young ambassador had scratched at his scales in obvious torment, as shocked as anypony else at the table that he was feeling such pain. He seemed as if he had never truly felt pain before in his life. Only a mixture of soda cured him, and even then, he had been uncomfortable for days. He was a good dragon, but young and with temper barely controlled. A leap from Celestia's balcony had been a desperate but reasonable act at the time.
Human ingenuity in the pony world. How in Equestria had they discovered such a thing? Had they merely flung whatever they had, iteratively, until something worked? The battle with the dragons had happened thirty years in the past of Simon and David. They simply did not know all the details.
Ponies with highly developed anti-draconic technology. Non-lethal, of course, for they were ponies, after all. According to Simon, anti-dragon weapons platforms surrounded all three cities. The original design had been vastly enhanced.
Time Turner had felt the pieces fall into place, in that moment, by the large bronze statue. Celestia, he had thought, you have been keeping hidden cards inside your sleeves, haven't you?
Because she must know. If she and her sister acted as psychopomps for the dying and the dead, ferrying souls to whatever afterlife they had created for their little ponies - then they would already know about this city. They would absolutely already know of it, and all of its secrets.
Celestia had let these remnants of former human thought and culture alone. Her ace in the sleeve. Because without Equestrian culture to shape them and model them, here were ponies that could do countless things no culturally assimilated pony would ever think to even try.
"Clever Old Girl."
"Who? Me? I'm not very clever. I know it. But that's OK!" Derpalina had overheard him as the four ponies continued their long walk across the wide, flat green. "Not everypony needs to be clever, 'cause together, ponies can do anything!"
Turner roused from his thoughts. "You are absolutely correct, my dear Queen Of Muffins!" Derpalina giggled at that. "And, if I may say so, you are quite clever to mention that!"
"But I just said that I wasn't... I mean... because it... um..." Derpalina rolled her eyes, confused.
"Trust me, you are far more than you think you are, and I am very, very glad that you are my very, very best friend." Turner winked at his companion, which made Derpalina blush, and also made her feel even more confused than before.
13. Level Up
"I tried to tell him!" Simon was upset because David was upset - both had taken off their dark black glasses in acrimony - and David was upset because the head of security at the entombment site was very upset, and all of it was because not a one of them could stop Time Turner and Derpalina.
On the long walk from the city, Turner and Derpy had joked and laughed and heard the life stories of the two Lost Angeles agents, and they had all become quite chummy with each other. That was another special charm Derpalina possessed, Turner often noted, she made friends easily, if they could just get past her strange-looking strabismic eyes. If the old universe that earth had inhabited was still accessible, Turner could not help but recall, there was this one planet he could take her to visit where such eyes were the very definition of beauty, and synchronized gazes were considered repulsive. Ah, well, there was no path beyond Zero Point.
Thus it was that the two poor agents could not bring themselves to attempt to restrain either Time Turner or his companion, because, well, they had become friends. Celestia had been wise to make the Barrier impassable - ponies as a race were completely incapable of surviving against any species that had evolved within a universe of scarcity and competition. They could be conquered and enslaved by the simplest of ruses, indeed merely by the claim of affection. In their own universe, they were perfectly adapted for a system of physics based upon friendship generating magic. They would have perished entirely within a fortnight, had they been forced to survive in the cosmos Man came from.
By the time the forestallion and the head of security had agreed on what to do, Turner and Derpalina had made it almost to the top of the scaffolding that surrounded the nearly complete stone and concrete pyramid. A couple of workers made a weak attempt to buck at the galloping pair, but Turner was an old hoof at avoiding such things and Derpalina, well, she could fly when she remembered to.
The capstone was not in place, but it was being moved to cover the top. There was only one thing to do, and Time Turner did it. As he fell into the vast, empty, pitch dark chamber, he trusted that Derpalina would grab his tail in her teeth, just as she had long ago - or was it yet to be - during both of the plummets from Celestia's balcony.
On the ground, it looked and felt like night, save for the dim, square light of day shining above. The chamber was cool, and the ground was damp from condensation. Time Turner reached around and dug through the thick fibers of his tail. There it was. His little toy. It could do many things, but right now it was most useful producing light.
Turner and Derpalina trotted back and forth, scanning this way and that, until in the dark a glimpse of blue wood was seen. The little shed sat quietly in the artificial night.
Turner leaned and passed his device to Derpalina, mouth to mouth, and for a moment lingered, which made the gray pegasus blush visibly even in the dim light. Turner fetched his special key from his mane, and opened the door. Light spilled out from the vast room beyond the door. The ponies outside the pyramid were still arguing about what exactly to do when the blue shed began singing its musical, wheezing song. The blinking light on the top faded from view as the little blue shed vanished entirely, as if it had never been.
14. Character Advancement
The picture on Derpalina's mantle always caught Time Turner's eye. It had been... how many years? since the photograph had been taken. Derpalina looked just gorgeous, and Dinky was captured in mid leap, the little foal excited beyond capacity. But the face that truly stood out was that of Celestia, right there, looming over Turner's own shoulder, with her sister Luna opposite, next to Derpy and Dinky. Celestia, not looking at the camera at all, but instead caught studying Time Turner himself, and with such a curious expression.
As they sat down to eat, Dinky was bouncing on her cushion, and Derpalina, ever the attentive mother, nuzzled and settled her daughter down. "It's supper, honeymuffin! Honey Muffin! Oh, I love honey on muffins! I gobble 'em up! I gobble em'up!" She was nipping at her daughter then, and the two were gigging together completely lost in the moment, all thought of settling down vanished in the simple joy of play. They were like two halves of the same pony, which now, Time Turner realized, they literally were.
Turner grasped the wide-handled tongs in his hooves, and began to mix the mainsalad he had prepared for their meal. The dressing was one he had learned from Antoine Careme in eighteenth century Paris. The tongs were metal, and shone like silver. Turner found himself remembering the shiny buildings of Lost Angeles, and the strange non-adventure they had experienced there.
He had wondered for a long time why his beloved, living machine had taken him to such a place. Normally it always took him to where there was trouble, where something that was wrong, or unjust, or dangerous needed to be corrected. And Derpalina, since he had become a pony, Derpalina was double that, leading him straight to the exact issue itself.
But in Lost Angeles, Turner had found nothing that needed fixing. The potentially dangerous worship of Celestia was all but gone. The practice of isolating dying patients to prevent knowledge of the princesses guiding souls away was unpleasant, but not actually a threat to anypony. The three cities were at peace, and the only time dragons had somehow ventured near, they had been repulsed without a single pony eaten or harmed. There was simply no problem to solve, and nothing that needed his skills to fix. His machine had never led him on without purpose before.
But it gradually dawned on him what the problem was that needed fixing. It had somehow managed to get through even his hard head.
The problem was... himself.
Time Turner, before he became a pony, had lived centuries upon centuries in emotional isolation. He had enjoyed many companions, but not one of them could ever be more than that. Because other beings, other species, were mortal. They always grew old, and they always died. There was simply no point, and the pain was simply too great.
But his loneliness was also great, and it had become ever more of a sorrow as the centuries increased.
Lillian Fogarty of Surrey. This was what his living machine wanted him to know. The old girl hadn't lost a bit of her magic. Lillian Fogarty, the one and only one-in-several-trillions anomaly in the billions of Bureau conversions. The one impossible event, a Code Majeste, the creation of the single intolerable abomination - an uncontrolled new alicorn, a being like Celestia or Luna, capable of the power of a god, but without any means to control or understand that power.
Somehow, Lillian had been saved. Her horn and likely the upper part of her head had been removed. Old glass fishing floats had been installed within the cavity of her skull for some reason. Turner suspected it was to prevent her remarkable ability to heal from any wound from restoring that horn. In this manner, Lillian had been given the life of an ordinary pegasus. Well, perhaps not entirely ordinary, but close enough that she could be allowed to live at all.
A tissue test inside his blue box had confirmed his other suspicion - Dinky, despite being a lavender unicorn foal, was genetically identical to Derpalina, to the ponified Lillian. They were not just mother and daughter. They were the same flesh, the same body, the same original self. As Athena had budded from the head of Zeus, so must have little Dinky somehow leapt, fully formed, from the upper skull and horn of ex-alicorn Lillian Fogarty.
Now Lillian giggled as Derpalina, 'Derpy', with her beloved daughter. The princesses kept a distant but definite eye on her, and saw to her needs behind the scenes, because they knew she would be around a long time.
Derpy could never be hurt such that she could not heal, she would never grow old, and she could never die. There was still some faint trace of alicorn about her - her special charms, her uncanny fortune, both for good, and for catastrophe.
Since the journey, the name 'Lillian' had never bothered her again. She had healed even from that. That was why they had been taken to Lost Angeles too. The only place in the whole of Equestria, where the English language was still spoken, and where ponies had completely human names. Lost Angeles, the silvern city that had, Time Turner realized, healed them all.
"Who's a silly pony? Who's a silly pony?" It was hard to see which was giggling more, mother or daughter.
As Time Turner finished with the mainsalad, Dinky turned to him, with the same golden eyes as her mother, only focused and sure. "Daddy is!" And that set all three of them laughing.
Yes, thought Time Turner Hooves. Daddy truly is a silly pony. A very silly pony. But in the end, he had been smart, and since there was no end, for any of them, it was about time.
Turner leaned over and kissed his wife long and lovingly. She would never die, she would never age, just like him. And whatever happened, she would not mind, and wherever they traveled and whatever adventures they had, she would somehow always stumble in just the correct, exact way to make things right - or at least hilarious.
"Yes, little muffin?" Turner had joined Derpalina in using the little nickname for their daughter.
"Will... will we always be a family?" Like all little foals, Dinky had moments of insecurity.
"Yes, little Dinky Doo Hooves, we will always be a family." For a moment, he savored something perhaps no other father in the whole of the multiverse would be able to say without lying. "Forever."
And then it was all laughter and smiles, and the salad was delicious.
One: The Big Respawn,
Two: Euphrosyne Unchained,
Three: Letters From Home,
Four: Teacup, Down On The Farm
The Conversion Bureau Novels:
27 Ounces: A story of eight and one half ponies
The Taste Of Grass
The Conversion Bureau: Code Majeste
The Conversion Bureau: The 800 Year Promise
The Conversion Bureau: Going Pony
Recombinant 63: A Conversion Bureau Story
HUMAN in Equestria: A Conversion Bureau Story
The PER: Michelson and Morely
The Reasonably Adamant Down With Celestia Newfoal Society!
The Short Stories:
Her Last Possession
The Conversion Bureau: PER Equitum
The Conversion Bureau: Brand New Universe
Tales Of Los Pegasus
The Poly Little Pony
Friendship Is Optimal: Caelum Est Conterrens
I.D. - That Indestructible Something
The Non-Conversion Bureau Fanfics:
The Ice Cream Pony Summer
Around The Bend