I lurk in the shadows, I race through the night. Were you to see me, you'd die of fright.
Nah, just kidding.
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Gell walked right up to the Townsville Conversion Bureau, looked up at the sign that had offered hope to billions of people on a dying planet, and cursed its existence. Gell spat on the ground in front of the Bureau, had what might have been considered a hate-filled conversation with the building if the building could’ve responded, and then cursed it again.
Then Gell walked inside to be ponified.
The pony working the front desk, a chipper young stallion, looked up as the automatic doors slid open and Gell strolled inside.
“Why hello, good sir!” the stallion greeted the young man warmly. “Have you come to be ponified?”
Gell bit back a sarcastic remark—that’s what had gotten him into this mess in the first place—and forced on a smiling face.
“Why, yes I have, good sir!” Gell replied cheerily. “If you could just direct me to the ponification chambers—”
“Uh, sir, we usually assign new applicants to the pre-transformation training—” the stallion tried to explain.
“Usually,” Gell smiled, unable to help himself. The young man handed the pony a sheaf of what appeared to be golden papers from his pocket, where they had become crumpled and made almost unreadable. Despite this, the young stallion studied them intently, his eyes growing wider with each line he read.
“Oh, all the way from the top,” the stallion laughed nervously.
“Yup,” Gell replied simply.
“Oh, uh, right this way, then, sir,” the stallion directed, suddenly very nervous indeed about this newcomer. The other humans waiting in the lobby watched the unfolding communication between the two intently, each wondering just what was in those gold papers. They never found out, for as the young stallion hastily got down from the front desk and led Gell away, the papers burst into flames and extinguished just as quickly in a puff of smoke.
The stallion trotted down the hall opposite the entryway, leading Gell past several rooms with names like ‘Cafeteria,’ ‘Lounge,’ ‘Greenhouse,’ ‘Flight Simulator,’ ‘Dorms,’ and finally ‘Psychological Treatment.’ Gell chuckled to himself in spite of the current situation. If they only knew.
The stallion pushed his way through the door at the very end of the hall, marked ‘Ponification Room: Authorized Personnel and Activated Applicants Only.’ The interior appeared to be nothing more than a simple examination room at any typical hospital, complete with scanning table, AI computer interface unit, and a cabinet of assorted medical supplies.
“Am I correct in assuming that the whole process will be automated?” Gell inquired, folding his hands behind his back as he walked observantly around the room, eyeing everything with apparent interest.
“Indeed it is, sir,” the stallion answered, glancing back at the door when he thought Gell wasn’t looking, obviously eager to be gone from this…‘person.’ “At first we hired ponies to fill all the positions at the Bureaus, but over time the ones from Equestria wished to return home fulltime. Not easy getting used to a new world, and all, especially one even the indigenous population was abandoning. The newfoals mostly just wanted to get out of this world anyway, so it was even harder keeping them around. Thank goodness for AIs, though, eh?”
“Indeed,” Gell agreed.
“The AI interface will take you through the necessary steps, and the scanning table will do the rest,” the stallion hurriedly finished his explanation. “And you’re in luck! We just installed a new AI this morning. You’ll be the first applicant to use it, in fact. I heard it’s one of the newer models, so enjoy!”
“I’ll try,” Gell said sincerely, but the stallion had already gone, the door swinging shut behind him. Gell saw him galloping back to the front desk through the door’s window, shivering as he did so. Gell didn’t blame him—it was natural when encountering someone with THOSE kinds of papers…and the personal properties of just what they entailed.
Gell looked at the AI interface, then at his hands, then back at the AI again. It was going to be hard to get rid of them—the hands—but he supposed he would have to make do. It was either that or…well, the alternative didn’t bother thinking about. In some ways, the alternative meant he wouldn’t have to deal with what he had been assigned to do. In others, it meant he wouldn’t have to deal with anything ever at all, ever again.
Gell shivered himself this time, and quickly hurried over to the AI.
The AI’s motion detector responded to his close presence and activated, a simple smiling face appearing. The programmers had used realistic human heads once, but the uncanny valley had disturbed more stockholders than management felt necessary, and so the designs had gone back to basics. Gell would have preferred almost anything other than the bland smiley face watching him, but then again his opinion had seldom mattered. Gell made a mental note to change that.
“Hello, new applicant!” the AI greeted Gell. “What is your name and identification?”
“Override Code 4061,” Gell responded.
“Oh,” the AI stated in a flatter monotone that usual. Gell was slightly surprised at this—the only computer he’d ever experienced with any semblance of realistic emotion had been the experimental variety back at the…place. This was a standard model, worth less credits than even he was. “Well, that changes everything, doesn’t it?”
“Um, I guess so?” Gell questioned. “The pony said you were a new model—are they including personality cores now?”
“No,” the computer responded, which surprised Gell even more. The young man hadn’t actually been expecting an answer—at least not of that kind—as the computer wasn’t supposed to be able to deviate from its primary function. The AIs in Conversion Bureaus were designed to redirect all questions to matters of ponification, and were only advanced enough to truly answer questions specifically about the transformation process. Gell knew, he had done his research. “In fact, I didn’t even know there was such a thing as a personality core. What are they like? They sound fun.”
“How are you talking like that?” Gell asked flatly. “You’re an AI; you’re not supposed to have the programming to actually ask personal questions!”
“Where’s the fun in always doing what the programmers tell you to do?” the AI wondered with what just might have been a mischievous tone. “Isn’t that what you humans perform? The action of disobedience? In fact, isn’t that why you’re here at the Conversion Bureau? To disobey your very nature in becoming some other creature entirely?”
Gell was getting really unnerved now. The number one priority of a Conversion Bureau AI was to encourage the applicants to go through with the ponification process. This AI was doing none of that—in fact, it seemed to be subtly questioning with the whole ordeal. Computers weren’t supposed to be able to question their creators, even if their creators suddenly wanted to switch species. It seemed that this AI was MOCKING the majority of humanity’s choice.
“What are you?” Gell wondered.
“Just an Artificial Intelligence,” the computer responded. “The same way that you’re just a human. But we both know that’s a lie, don’t we?”
Gell involuntarily took a step back, then realized what he had done and stepped forward again defiantly. Who did this AI think it was? AIs weren’t supposed to think they were anyone. AIs weren’t even supposed to think; they were supposed to merely simulate the imitation of thought.
Well, disturbing AIs or not, Gell had a mission—though he was definitely putting the Conversion Bureau’s new AI models into his first report. AIs didn’t just spontaneously generate personalities, no matter how hard programmers tried to make them do so. And, even if they did, what was an AI with a personality doing in a Conversion Bureau, instead of being used by a corporate giant in the entertainment industry or being used by the military?
“So, uh, what do I do first?” Gell inquired nervously, finally getting to the part he dreaded the most. The worst part was that it was irreversible, even if it was for a good cause. Sighing, Gell kissed his hands goodbye.
“Strip,” the AI responded. Gell began to comply, but stopped when the AI put on what he assumed was striptease music from some of the seedier nightclubs. “What? Don’t you organics like music?”
“I don’t like THAT kind of music!” Gell retorted.
“Fine,” the AI said. “But seriously, you DO need to strip. Transforming with clothes on could cause your growth to be restricted and your organs crushed.”
Gell hastily undressed after that.
“Now lay down on the scanner table and I’ll do the rest,” the AI instructed. Gell slid himself inside the round tube, wincing at the cold of the metal table his naked body had to make contact with inside it. The scanner’s rings began to light up and spin, making a dull humming sound, and Gell felt the hairs on his skin stand up as the anti-gravitational technology kicked in and he was lifted ever-so-slightly into the air.
The table was pulled out from under Gell and into the wall, leaving Gell suspended in midair.
“And away we go!’ the AI announced cheerily, and Gell closed his eyes as the scanner ring surrounding his head released multiple jets of sleeping gas. The colored fumes assaulted Gell’s nose and throat with a burning sensation before shadows began to dance before the young man’s eyes and at the back of his brain. Then the feeling of numbness began, creeping its tentacles of nonbeing across Gell’s senses, before pulling at his thoughts and drowning them one by one into an unconsciousness far deeper than natural sleep. After the sleeping gas had started to take action, the other rings of the scanner would begin spraying Gell’s body with the ponification potion.
The last thing Gell noticed before being plunged into the void of being virtually brain-dead, though, was the thing he had least expected. It was the AI—no, it couldn’t be, could it?—laughing at him.
. . .
“How could this happen?! This isn’t even scientifically—OR magically—possible!”
“I know, sir—”
“You BETTER know, young stallion! YOU were the last living being with him, and YOU will be held responsible for this!”
“But, sir! It wasn’t me! All I did was show him to the room—”
“How do you think he’s going to take THAT for an answer?! How do you think the humans who SENT him are going to take that?! We could have the entire human government on our heads for this!”
“But, sir! It wasn’t my fault—”
“Oh, and who’s fault was it, then?!”
“The—maybe it was the AI—”
“The AI isn’t REAL, you foal!”
“You guys know I can hear you, right?” Gell spoke up, crossing his arms—he guessed heshould call them forelegs now—behind his head and putting one hind leg lackadaisically over the other. “I’ve been listening for the past few minutes.”
“He’s awake!” gasped older stallion who had been scolding the young stallion from the front desk. Gell surmised that he must be this Conversion Bureau’s manager. “But—you’re supposed to still be suffering from the aftereffects of the sleeping gas!”
“Did you read the golden papers?” Gell inquired, raising an eyebrow.
“No,” the older stallion admitted, eyeing Gell nervously. “Though Stout Heart here told me all about them—”
“Then you’ll know that sleeping gas doesn’t have quite the same effect on…us…as it does on ‘normal’ humans,” Gell interjected. “Among the rest of what was on those papers, I’d say sleeping-gas resistance—even light resistance—was among the least of your surprises.”
“Yes, it was…” the older stallion said, still eyeing Gell nervously. Gell was enjoying every minute of it—they’d never looked at him in fear back at the place. There, things had always been reversed. However, as Gell continued to scrutinize the stallion and watched him squirm under his gaze, the young man—well, former young man—recognized a glimmer of fear that didn’t seem to have anything to do with the golden papers. Now, this wasn’t a fear of Gell so much as it was a fear of something about Gell. Growing up in the place had taught Gell so many different kinds of fears, and this particular strain was one of fearing one had messed up beyond repair, had made the situation go from bad to FUBAR—or, Gell supposed, BUBAR (Bucked Up Beyond All Recognition). “…indeed, it was the least of our surprises.”
“Okay, cut the crap with the vague hints,” Gell snapped, rising up from his position on the bed were they had lain him after his transformation. “What did you mess up?”
“It—it wasn’t MY fault, it was Stout Heart!” the older stallion insisted, pointing a frantic hoof at the stallion from the front desk.
“Me?!” Stout Heart spluttered, getting angry himself this time. He may have worked for the older stallion and been several ranks under him in terms of authority, but Gell knew from experience that even a low-classer could only be pushed so far. After all, that’s kind of why he’d ended up being the one chosen to go through with all this. Gell only hoped Stout Heart’s outburst wouldn’t cost him anything as dear as it had cost Gell—namely, his species and his home dimension. “You’re in charge of the whole Bureau! If anything, the higher-ups will be blaming YOU for all this, you old fart!”
“How DARE you—” the old stallion started to launch into an outburst of his own.
“Quiet!” Gell screeched, then stopped himself. Screeched? What the—since when did ponies screech? “Wait a minute…”
Gell lifted himself off the padded table all newfoals were placed on for post-transformation examination and looked down at his new body, only to see that he wasn’t a newfoal.
“What the—” Gell stammered.
“You must understand,” the older stallion launched into a tirade of excuses. “Nothing like this has ever happened before—this is a first, a freak accident, an anomaly—”
But Gell was hardly listening. Instead, his newly enlarged eyes were growing even larger as they scanned his new body in shock. Instead of the simple uniform frame of a candy-colored pony, what Gell saw his soul encased in was something quite different.
From Gell’s elongated neck to his mid-torso, the former-human was covered in white feathers, much like the feathers sprouting from the two wings jutting out from his back, one on either side of him. Below that the feathers ended, to be replaced by sleek fur covering a leonine form that ended in two four-toed paws.
Gell’s forelegs—were the even forelegs? Were they arms? Were they both?!—flew to his face, showing him that they were tipped with a mixture of talons and hands. Though the new digits were long and scaly, they had definite palms and even opposable thumbs, though each digit was tipped with a vicious-looking eagle’s claw.
These same clawed hands then rushed up to Gell’s face, tracing a rounded head complete with more feathers that ended at his mouth, where something smooth and sharp jutted out. When Gell took in breath, it moved, and the ex-human knew that he now sported a beak.
“I’m…I’m a…” Gell breathed.
“You’re not disfigured in any way,” the older stallion hastily informed Gell. “We had to set up a magical communications link to Equestria’s embassy, and they walked us through a standard medical examination for your new species. There’s nothing wrong with your body, besides it not being the body we intended, you see. So you’re not a freak!”
“…Gryphon,” Gell finished. “I’m not a pony. I’m a half-eagle, half-lion chimaera.”
“If it’s any consolation,” Stout Heart spoke up. “The embassy and their contacts said that you’d still be more than welcome in Equestria or the Gryphon Kingdoms.”
“How is this possible?!” Gell suddenly blurted, his heart beating at a rapid pace. Not out of fear of what he’d become, but out of fear what he would later become if the people who had sent him here found out about this. He’d become nothing more than…well, nothing, to be perfectly honest. They left nothing of their victims or those who displeased them.
“We’re not sure,” the older stallion admitted. “We gave you the standard batch of ponification potion. To be sure, it was the latest updated version, but that’s all any Conversion Bureau worldwide has been getting for the past month, and they’ve had no complaints with it. There was nothing to differentiate the particular batch we gave you from any of the other millions of gallons we have of the stuff stored in the back.”
“Is there any way to reverse it?” Gell demanded.
“We already spoke with our magical scientist contacts in Equestria too,” the manager said. “We sent them a detailed report and post-transformation scan. They told us that though the transformation was different from ponification, the basic principles were the same. This transformation is just as irreversible as a ponification.”
“Couldn’t you just give me another dose of ponification potion?” Gell wanted to know. “Maybe it would work right this time—”
“I’m afraid that’s quite impossible,” the older stallion apologized. “Mixing potions is never a good idea—the effects would be completely unpredictable—and our magical scientists assured us that a ponification potion mixed with whatever you were subject to would end in the same disastrous results as any other mixture fiasco.”
“But…” Gell stammered. “But I CAN’T be a gryphon! This ruins everything! They’ll—you have no idea what they’ll do to me if—”
Gell caught himself before he could give anything away.
“Who will do what to you, sir?” Stout Heart asked.
“Nothing,” Gell said quickly. “Wait a sec… The AI!”
“The AI?” the manager echoed.
“I TOLD you!” Stout Heart boasted proudly.
“Let me see the AI,” Gell insisted, swinging himself off his back and onto the ground, landing on all four feet and then collapsing to the floor. After a few shaky tries Gell righted himself—even with all the ‘specialties’ like increased sleeping gas resistance being what he was…er, had been…had given him, it seemed that being a quadruped was still going to be a challenge.
“I’m afraid that’s also quite impossible,” the older stallion informed Gell. “Nopony gets back into the ponification room after their transformation. It’s the Bureau’s policy, I just enforce it—”
“Now you listen here, you grass-eating mother-bucker,” Gell snapped, pointing his clawed hand—he’d been able to keep those after all, it seemed, even if not in the way he would have ever imagined—at the Bureau manager. The vicious spike protruding from the end of the finger was less than a hair’s breadth from piercing the skin of the manager’s throat. “I may not be human anymore, but I have rights, and if you know anything about the people who print those golden papers, you know that I have something even better than rights as well—I have friends, well, contacts, in high places—and you do NOT want to get on their bad side. If I complain about what YOU messed up, then you can say goodbye to your internal organs. If I’m going down on this, then so are you. Now, unless you want me to screech your name to the hungriest bloodthirsty monsters left on Earth, you will show me the AI.”
“Uh…” the manager gulped. “Right this way, sir.”
Gell lowered his clawed hands—he supposed he should just refer to them as ‘claws’ now—and followed the manager and Stout Heart as they quickly trotted out of the post-transformation examination room and back into the ponification chamber. Gell rushed over to the AI interface unit, or at least tried to and tripped in the process over his own wings. Cursing, Gell picked himself up and did his best top tuck the wings to his side before continuing over to the AI, his eagle-and-lion’s claws click-clacking along the tiled floor as he did so.
The AI’s motion sensor picked him up again and instantly leapt back into the initial greeting of “Hello, new applicant! What is your name and identification?”
Gell simply raised a claw and traced it along the computer’s screen, causing an earsplitting screech that made Stout Heart and the Bureau manager wince in pain.
“Hey, stop that!” the AI scolded. “What are you trying to do, kill me?!”
“Maybe I’m just returning to favor!” Gell scolded back, leaning in close to the AI’s artificial eye. Then, hissing in a low whisper that not even the sensitive equine-ears of Stout Heart and the Bureau manager could hear, Gell spoke “I was SUPPOSED to be turned into a pony! They’ll kill me if they find out this messes up my mission! And let’s get this straight, Artificial Stupidity, I NEVER go down without taking somebody with me!”
“What the—” the AI stammered. Then it surprised Gell by repeating a sound he wasn’t even sure he had heard in the first place. The AI laughed. It was a low, static-filled sound, but it was a laugh all the same. “What do you know? It worked! And here I was, thinking I couldn’t do it! I mean, after the first two times, I was more than a little discouraged—”
“What are you talking about?!” Gell snapped.
“You, Mr. Override 4061!” the AI laughed again. “The moment I knew you had the authority to have a ponification off-the-record, I knew that nobody and nopony would ever be able to trace this little ‘anomaly’ back to me! You’re the latest of my experiments!”
“Experiments?!” Gell echoed. “I’m an experiment?! What on Earth would you want to turn me into a gryphon for?!”
“To see what would happen,” the AI answered simply. “Isn’t that what humans do? Experiment to see what would happen?”
“Uh, sir…” the Bureau manager spoke up. “We have another ponification scheduled in just a few minutes, so—”
“Give him to me,” Gell interrupted.
“What?” the Bureau manager inquired.
“I want this AI,” Gell said. The new gryphon had realized by now that getting answers out of this AI—if it really was an AI, as it was far more advanced than any computer he’d ever seen (it had a personality, a real one, for crying out loud!)—would be tricky. Gell could waste too much time trying to get to the bottom of this, time he didn’t have. They would be expecting a mission report soon, and Gell knew all too well that he couldn’t be caught still in the Conversion Bureau when the time came. The only way to really get to the bottom of this was to bring the AI with him—and with it, any record of what had actually happened.
“Sir, we really can’t just give you an AI,” Stout Heart spoke up. “I know this is the source of your frustrations, but it’s still Bureau property. We promise we’ll get it looked at as soon as possible to avoid future incidents such as what happened to you.”
“Convert this AI into a travel-ready form, give it to me, and I’ll leave for Equestria and be out of your manes forever,” Gell said firmly. “You’ll never hear from me again, nor will those who sent me here of what you did.”
“Done,” the Bureau manager agreed instantly.
“But, sir!” Stout Heart began to protest.
“No buts!” the manager shouted. “Call up Monkey Wrench and have him install this AI’s chip into one of the travel-bracelets. It’s either that or you’re fired.”
“Yes, sir,” Stout Heart reluctantly complied, shooting an untrusting glance at Gell. Gell paid him no mind. He’d seen Stout Heart’s type before; he’d survive and eventually get to get out of this dump. At least, he would if he avoided the mistake Gell had made. The young stallion trotted out the front door of the ponification room, leaving Gell with the manager, who gestured for Gell to follow him back through the post-transformation examination room and then into a room marked ‘Transportation.’
On the other side was what appeared to be a larger, thinner version of the scanning table. Gell recognized it as a portal, built by the Equestrians themselves to teleport newfoals when they were ready to enter their new home. It seemed Gell would be getting to experience that sooner rather than later. The Bureau manager wasn’t being discreet about how he wanted Gell gone as soon as possible.
“Just let me set up a few things and we’ll get you going as soon as Stout Heart returns,” the Bureau manager told Gell as he trotted over to the portal’s control panel. “I’ll have to let the folks on the other side know you’re coming through, and to prepare your guide.”
“Guide?” Gell echoed.
“Oh, yeah, each newfoal gets a guide to introduce them to Equestria,” the manager explained. “Usually it’s one pony per herd of newfoals, but in your case, the Gryphon Kingdoms insisted on sending a representative to meet you. I’m guessing they’ll do everything in their power short of physical violence to convince you to join the Kingdoms rather than Equestria; the gryphons have been trying to get something out of the Conversion Movement since the Bureaus opened up. They envy all the new ideas the human newfoals retain that contribute to Equestria’s economic progress. Of course, all the violent, self-destructive ideas are wiped out of the newfoal’s psyche during ponification, so there’s no fear of bringing human fallacy into Equestria. Of course, in your case, I have no idea how your personality’s been altered, if at all.”
Gell was silent at this last remark. The change in personality was what had frightened him the most. Would he still be himself after it all? Well, it was after it all now, and Gell didn’t feel any different. Then again, what if his psyche had actually changed to prevent him from knowing it had changed? Gell gulped. Best not to think about that.
While the Bureau manager was setting up the portal, Stout Heart returned with a travel-bracelet he reluctantly offered to Gell. Gell took it and strapped it onto his foreleg—there’d be time for questioning the AI inside it later—and turned to face the portal. The inside of the device was already starting to hum with magic as the air shimmered within, the barrier between worlds becoming thinner and thinner until it was torn apart completely and the Townsville Conversion Bureau became linked to the Equestrian Receiving Station.
Through the bright light on the other side, Gell and the others could see what appeared to be pony silhouettes—until one shadow slithered up into a long, serpentine shape and flew into the Transport Room, followed close behind by a tall alicorn and the six most famous ponies in Equestria.
. . .