95w, 6dThe Conversion Bureau
"Irene?" Michael called out into the black.
"I'm here, Michael... Come find me!"
Michael wanted to go to her, but he didn't dare step out of the safety of the light. Outside the light there was nothing but black and cups on the floor filled with a strange amorphous liquid. He didn't know what was in them, but only that it was dangerous to drain even one of them of their contents.
Suddenly, more lights began turning on, erasing the cups beneath them and creating a safe passageway, but not in the direction of Irene's voice. At the other end of the hallway of light was a metal door. Michael walked to it and reached for the handle.
"Don't open that door!" shouted Jack's voice.
Michael turned around to face the distant voices, "Why?"
"If you open that door, you'll never see us again." replied Jack.
"Never again." said Irene.
"I- I'll find you!" Michael shouted back into the abyss.
"Find us?" The two voices spoke in unison, "How? You don't even know what we look like."
"But you still sound the same!"
"Do we, Michael? Are you sure?"
Suddenly, the space filled with the sound of neighs and whinnies.
"NO! NO! Change back! Please, Change back! Please!"
Michael's eyes bolted open and darted around the room. It was still dark, but not the same darkness that woke him. He calmed himself, and sat up. The floor was hard, but the center had supplied him with enough blankets and pillows to make himself comfortable. They had offered him a room of his own, but he declined. It's not that he didn't want a nice, warm, comfortable bed to sleep on, but he was here for a reason and he wanted to make sure there was no monkey business when it came to Jack.
He grabbed his pocket watch from the chair he was using as a bedside table and pushed the release, letting the silver lid swing open. It was only quarter past five. This was the second night in a row since they arrived at the center that his nightmares had woken him up. And with the amount of adrenaline in his bloodstream, there was no way he'd be going back to sleep. Michael let out a sigh of submission and got up. He grabbed a change of clothes and his toiletry bag from his suitcase and meandered over to the shower room.
In the room, there were at least a dozen showers, each one its own private stall. As Michael moved towards one of the ones on the far side of the room, he bumped into something.
Michael looked down and saw a brown pony with a tousled blonde mane sprawled across the floor. He helped the colt to his feet.
"Oh hey, sorry."
"You better be!"
"Whoa, take it easy."
"Well next time watch where you're going."
Michael had just about enough of this, "Dude, It's five in the morning, I just woke up, and you're all of three feet tall. Now, I already apologized to you; you think I can go take my shower now?"
The colt snorted and walked away. Michael shook his head and approached the shower stall and stripped down, putting his clothes in the top cabinet of the corresponding locker. The control knob for the water was both surprisingly and unsurprisingly, low to the ground. Like most shower knobs, it had only one position where the water was anything but either searing hot or pneumonia-inducingly cold.
After the shower, Michael dressed and inspected himself in the floor to ceiling mirror of the shower room. A decided break from his usual jeans and t-shirt, he straightened the collar of his red button-down shirt, tucked it into his black slacks, and put on the matching black suit jacket. It was a red letter day.
Today, he was finally going to meet Twilight Sparkle face to face.
Michael grabbed a bowl of oatmeal, an apple, and a white plastic spoon from the food counter in the cafeteria and placed them on his tray. It was day three of his stay at the ponification center. Jack's results had been consistent with the baseline so far, but he had insisted on continuing the testing. Despite that, Michael knew that there were only two tests that mattered now; just before ponification and just after.
Carrying his tray with him, he left the cafeteria and made his way to the garden. Michael had spent the day before asking people, ponies and humans alike, about Twilight. Using the word "people" cause a bit of cognitive dissonance within him. Despite his suspicions and his accustomedness to other animals, he had to recognize ponies as sentient beings and, thus, people. It took some getting used to, but Michael was a humanist not humanocentric.
He sat down on the bench and leaned back, waiting for his oatmeal to cool. Watching the purple glow of the sky as the sun peeked over the horizon, Michael reviewed his mental notes. From the information he gathered, she was the librarian in Ponyville and, despite her busy job as the center's administrator, old habits die hard and she would often be found in the library.
"So she likes reading; she’s probably an intellectual. Well, at least there's some common ground between us."
"Oh, hello again. I didn't expect to see anyone up this early."
It was the same pegasus pony from two nights before. Michael looked up and saw her hovering a good six or seven feet above him.
He smiled, "More an accident than intent." She floated down and sat on the bench next to him, "What about you? Why are you up at the crack of dawn?"
"Oh, I'm always up this early. Somepony has to put out food for all the little animals."
"Ah, I see," Michael picked up the fruit from his tray, "Apple?"
She thanked him and grabbed the apple with her mouth.
"You know, I was actually hoping to run into you." he said, eating a spoonful of oatmeal.
"Yeah, I wanted to ask you about another pony who works here. You might know her; Twilight Sparkle?"
Fluttershy beamed, "Twilight? Oh, yes, she's is one of my best friends from Ponyville!" she said excitedly in her usual quiet voice. Michael wondered why she always spoke as if a group of librarians hushed her half to death, making her unable to speak above a whisper from that day forth.
"That's nice. So, what, the two of you just decided to come out here to the center?"
"Oh, no! Princess Celestia asked her to run the Ponification Camp. The rest of us just came to help her."
"Rest of you?"
"Oh, yes. Applejack, Rarity, Pinkie Pie, Rainbow Dash, and me."
He ate a couple more spoons of his oatmeal as Fluttershy finished her apple, "So, tell me more about her. What is she like?"
"Oh, she’s very smart and brave and very, very, organized. She also loves to read; she was the librarian back in Ponyville."
Michael smiled; her story matched with his intel and what he had been told by Pinkie Pie the day before. However, this business about Princess Celestia was new.
"She must really know what's going on if she has a direct line to royalty."
He finished up his oatmeal and got up, tray in hand, "Thanks for your help, Fluttershy. I'll see you around."
Michael sighed, and looked at his watch: only ten o'clock. Time seemed to pass slowly in the library, but Michael busied himself in reading books about Equestria. Despite the long standing isolationism of the country, which had only changed within the last decade or so, it seemed that, culturally, ponies weren't much different from humans. Compulsory schooling, similar trades, crafts, and philosophical schools of thought; all those among the many things ponykind had in common with mankind. This made him wonder why, then, was Equestrian society so much more stable and, apparently, happier?
"Maybe it's just the amount of control that they have over their lives? They can communicate and reason with the other animals, they control the local weather, and Princess Celestia controls the movements of the sun."
He didn't give much credence to the last reason: There had been centuries of human scientific research to the contrary and, besides, there was a high possibility that it was a "Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court" type scenario, where a person knowledgeable in natural patterns can frame themselves as powerful beings.
"Or, it could be the opposite. It could be a lack of control that spurs them to be peaceful. Cutie marks eliminate worker surplus in any particular field, or a lack of high technology in the more base level fields, such as agriculture, makes it so they have to work together efficiently to survive." Michael wrote out his notes on his notepad.
"Interesting," commented a familiar voice. Michael raised his head to see Twilight, standing at the other side of the table, reading the spines of the books spread out in front of him. "You're certainly doing some heavy reading for someone who isn't being ponified."
"Well, it doesn't help that I tend to read more than one book at a time."
She laughed, "I have the same problem. I don't believe we've been properly introduced; I'm Twilight Sparkle. You must be Mr. Frost."
Michael got up and shook her hoof, then sat back down, "Michael is fine. Tell me, Ms. Sparkle, do you typically know the names of all the people in the camp?"
She took the seat across from him, "You can call me Twilight. We don't usually have a guest with us who won't be leaving as a pony."
Michael nodded slightly in concession, "Fair enough."
"So," Twilight asked, "What did you want to speak with me about?"
Michael smirked, "If memory serves, you were the one who approached me just now."
"That's true, but you have been asking quite a few questions since you got here and Fluttershy told me that you were asking about me this morning."
"Looks like someone's been doing her homework."
"Well, you did catch my attention."
"The other night, Fluttershy shared a bottle of Apple Cider with me. I liked it, so when I asked her where she got it, she said she got it from a man name Michael and that he wasn't getting ponified. As I said, this is quite out of the ordinary, so I looked into it. You seem to have created quite a rapport with her."
Michael gave her a confused look, "A rapport? We've only spoken twice."
"Well," Twilight said with an air of frustrated submission, "Fluttershy isn't what you'd call a very sociable pony. She's very nice, but it usually takes a while for her to open up with anyone. She did say something odd when I asked her about you, though."
"Oh, what's that?" he asked, curious.
She paused, "Well, she said you seemed like a wounded animal."
"I tend to agree. You seem anything but wounded."
Michael got up and stretched, "I've been sitting for a while and I need to stretch my legs. Would mind walking and talking?"
"Not at all."
They left the library and began roaming the corridors.
"So, Michael, Tell me about yourself."
"Well, I'm 28 years old, and I was a grad student in the field of Applied Mechanics."
"Was?" Twilight asked.
"Well, during my graduate studies, I was teaching introductory physics at an undergraduate level."
"So you were a teacher?"
"Yeah, but as more and more people got ponified and industry collapsed, less and less people enrolled for college. Eventually I arrived at my lecture and no one was there. Even my advisor was gone, so I stopped pursuing my degree."
"But how do you live? Don't you need to work to make money?"
"Nah, At that point the university was so desperate for teachers that they were giving PhDs and tenure to anyone who could demonstrate that they knew enough about a field to teach it. So I get paid a decent living and just wait until they have a class for me to teach."
"Well, yeah, that's what happens people a given a free ticket out. They stop caring."
She stopped, "Is that why you want to stay human? Because you resent the people who stopped wanting to learn?"
"What? No. Hell no. People with the drive to learn will learn. People without the drive won't. I'm fine with that."
"Then why do you want to stay human?"
"Because I don't trust you."
"Tell you what,” he said, “meet me in front of the ponification center in two hours, and I'll show you."