A story of eight and one half ponies
Chapter One: The Red Case
Dr. Roselyn Pastern could just make out the shining curvature of the Barrier, and she thought to herself that it looked like nothing so much as one of those gigantic, impossible moons that rise over illustrations for science fiction media. The howling wind from the hurricane had cleared the thick, bitter smog from the entire Bay Area, and this is what made seeing Equestria possible at all.
Hurricane Misha had been brought under control before it could reach land, it had involved something about fuel-air devices, or maybe they were tactical nukes - Dr. Pastern really couldn't remember, and frankly didn't care that much. It was sufficient that the sky was clear enough now that she could see the enormous, shimmering bubble, rising up above the curvature of the Earth. One and a half years since it had first appeared, the great Barrier, constantly, if slowly expanding, had touched the edge of space itself. The shield that bound Equestria was hundreds of miles in diameter, perfectly spherical, and utterly impenetrable except to Equestrians alone. The orbits of satellites had needed to be adjusted to accommodate this new fixture upon the planet.
Dr. Pastern finished her morning coffee, and turned away from the railing. In an hour it would be 8:00, and the doors would be unlocked. It was another day at the Conversion Bureau of San Francisco, located in the Westcorp Presidio Complex, just off the Lombard Maglev, in what remained of the AppleSoft campus, which once, long ago, had been a building called the Palace Of Fine Arts.
The Presidio Complex was mostly empty now, with no industry or business to support it. In the ruins of San Francisco, a vast favela - more than a mere slum, but less than a true city - had risen up, sheet metal and plascrete shacks stacked atop one another, somehow managing to shelter nearly two and a half million people. They were kept alive thanks to the power of nanotechnology; their daily corporate government ration of food and water supplied by the molecular reconstruction of human waste.
The stairs down from the vast roof were long and winding, and several times Roselyn had to step over and around parts of the structure that had collapsed, filling the corridors. The gigantic, ancient AppleSoft building was considered structurally sound, or so she had been told, but the fallen beams suggested another point of view. Dr. Pastern at last entered the lobby of her clinic, just in time to see two armed agents, guarded by four blackmesh armored troopers, make an expected delivery.
An armored red case sat on the admissions counter. Bulky and built to survive bullets and bombs, the case first needed to be unchained from the wrist of one of the agents. Dr. Pastern signed the several electronic forms and handling contracts, finally placing her thumb on the digital pad offered her, and then allowing the same device to scan her retina.
"All yours! Have a good day!" said the taller Bureau agent. The troopers grunted and followed the agents back out to the dark, armored transport they always arrived in. Dr. Pastern set her coffee cup down and gave the case a short, fast drum roll with her hands.
"Not bad, Doc - I think I almost heard some rhythm there." Bethany, the receptionist at the counter, had been with the clinic since it had opened, just under six months ago. "Maybe I should finally go Pony today, whatcha' think?" Beth said this every time a red case was delivered; she had yet to actually seem serious. "It'd certainly take care of these things - they're acting up like crazy today!" Beth suffered from multiple advanced verrucous carcinomas of her temporal bones. Like most people in the world, her various cancers were kept in stasis. It was trivial to halt cancer, but very expensive to have it cured.
Almost every human being had some form of malignancy, this was normal. Thus every human being regularly took some variant of Malignostat. The nanotech derived treatment was ubiquitous and sold from vending machines pretty much everywhere. Popping a 'stat was a fundamental part of getting up in the morning. It kept all cancer in check, and was a gigantic moneymaker. Some considered Malignostat to be a universal tax on the whole of Mankind. Being cured, however, was a dubious proposition. It was inevitable that some new cancer would appear soon after, so the only real reason to bother with such an impossible expense was in conjunction with cosmetic surgery to repair disfigurement, itself incredibly costly.
Beth rubbed the ruddy, lumpen bulges on the left side of her neck and head. "They really itch today, Doc."
Dr. Pastern swung the bright red case around, so that the handle faced her "Then come along, Beth! You can be my first ponification of the day! Equestrians never get tumors. They never get sick, as far as we know. Trade in that damaged old flesh for a fresh set of hooves! Whattaya say?" Pastern leaned over and leered at the receptionist. She knew full well that as much as Beth talked about Conversion, she loved complaining more.
"Maybe, one day I'll up and do that..." Beth began busily using her holotouch, entering application updates "... but maybe I'll keep these fingers a little while longer."
Roselyn Pastern dragged the heavy, armored case off the counter and grunted under the weight. "Sooner or later, you'll be mine!"
"Sure. Any day now." replied Bethany.
Dr. Pastern made a whinnying sound as she marched off down the corridor leading to the Conversion Room. Beth harrumphed in return.
Once in her sanctum, the 'Pony Room' as she liked to call it, Roselyn set the heavy red case down on a stainless steel platform. She entered her unique code upon the active surface near the handle, and the case politely unlocked itself.
Roselyn struggled carefully to work the cover away from the body of the case, finally revealing the most valuable thing in the building - her life included.
Tenderly packed inside dark gray, shock-resistant foam, was a single, large, capped Erlenmeyer flask. The flask was graduated and labeled with an iconic representation of the Equestrian form, and assorted text was printed on the flask describing its contents.
Inside the flask swirled a translucent, viscous, shimmering purple fluid. It almost seemed carbonated, but it was not; the apparent 'bubbles' were actually microscopic metallic reflections and tiny bursts of supernal light. It was a nanofluid, of course, composed of trillions of tiny molecular machines that could break down and reconstruct matter.
But the purple fluid was far more; infused throughout it was the very stuff of 'magic', a strange, unearthly energy from an entirely alien cosmos, the emerging universe that was Equestria. Inside that eight hundred mile sphere embedded in the Pacific, a different set of physical laws operated. Somehow, those laws had been melded with earthly technology, creating a hybrid of two universes, thus nanotechnomagical plasm, a blood bond between Equestria, and Earth.
Some called it Ponification Transmogrification Serum, or more simply 'Potion'. And it effectively was a magic potion, a notion that still made Dr. Pastern feel giddy inside. But then, so many things of legend and magic had been made real through technology, one way or another, so why couldn't there exist a substance that for all intents was a true elixir?
The power of the serum was formidable. Applied to even the most severely damaged human, the result would be a total and complete regeneration of every part. Lost eyes would reform, lost limbs bud and regrow out, destroyed internal organs would be entirely replaced. Even if an entire head should be lost, as long as the cells of the body had not yet suffered apoptosis, the subject would live - though in that event, the patient would be devoid of all memory, equivalent to a newly born baby.
Or, more precisely, a foal. For all the regenerative miracles that the serum could perform, the end result was always the same; a human subject became a full-blooded Equestrian. The price of life and survival was humanity itself.
It took three full ounces to accomplish Conversion; though there had been rumors of successful Conversions using only two, Pastern did not believe them. A failed Conversion was a horrific event; the two violently dissimilar biologies, Equestrian and Human, could not coexist within the same body. Death came in a screaming, writhing agony of battling morphology. It was utterly advisable to use the extra ounce.
The flask held twenty-seven ounces, 798 milliliters (and spare change), which meant that one Erlenmeyer could transform nine human beings to Equestrian form. Every three days, the San Francisco Bureau was sent one red case per clinic, and nine more humans would cease being human. One thousand and ninety-five humans a year, three per day, with no days off. There were one hundred clinics total within the gigantic San Francisco Conversion Bureau building, scattered all over the AppleSoft campus, each makeshift clinic identical in purpose to the one that Dr. Pastern worked in.
The rush was on. The rush to save what could be saved of the human race.
Roselyn gave the flask a gentle swirl. It sparkled in the light. Then she put the flask carefully back into the padding. It wasn't wise to hold the actual Erlenmeyer for too long; it generated considerable amounts of thaumatic radiation, and distance from source was an issue. That said, Roselyn knew she was being contaminated every day just being around the material, and if her exposure continued long enough, "Mage Plague" would eventually kill her. 'Magic', it appeared, was inimical to human life. There was only one available treatment; Conversion. Equestrians were more than immune to thaumatic radiation - they thrived on it.
Dr. Pastern set about her morning routine. She filled out the required hypernet forms, set out the vials of anesthetic, each grouped according to allergen sub-type, and put on her clean, white lab-coat. The lab-coat wasn't actually necessary, but Roselyn thought it added a certain professional esthetic to the proceedings. Also, she frankly didn't want to get anything on her new pants. Pants were expensive.
It was eight. By now the rest of the staff at her clinic - number fourty-two of one hundred - were busy making breakfast for the applicants. Applicants for Conversion stayed in the clinic for around two weeks, sleeping on-site in simple barracks. This was so that they could be given a proper, full orientation. Applicants were shown media, given lectures, and engaged in specialized physical exercises and training to prepare them for their new lives.
Each day, three applicants, having served their two week orientation, would be called into the Conversion Room, and transformed. When they awakened in their new bodies, they returned to the barracks for final orientation, before choosing to trot out the door, or report for transfer to Equestria. Most simply went out the door. Almost half of the population of San Francisco was now ponies. Soon it would be the entire population.
And that was the plan. Thaumatic radiation killed humans, and the great shining, growing bubble that was Equestria broadcast the stuff all over the planet. It pooled in random locations, creating deadly traps. It flowed in invisible channels creating corridors of lethal exposure. Above all, it increased with time, growing as Equestria itself grew, and nothing could block it, nothing could stop it, and there was no way to even detect it, except by the effect it had on human flesh.
It started with distortions of perception. The subject saw colors as being brighter, smells more intense. Mentation gradually became affected, with some reporting visions or hallucinations. Then patches of skin began to die, leaving necrotic scars. Finally, the organs of the body began to fail, as more substantial tissues perished. Death followed, unless the exposure was ended, or Conversion was offered.
Nothing could stop the emergence of Equestria. Not even all the weaponry of the world corporation; they had made the dead Pacific boil for three whole days, and seethe for weeks after to no effect.
In the end, there was simply no other choice. The earth was already dying, Equestria offered at least a form of survival, for those that wanted it. And after the shining monarch Celestia offered refuge to any who wished to Convert, virtually every single human craved her salvation.
Where the earth was a blackened, burned ruin of extinct forests, dead, radioactive oceans, a universal sky of dark grey smog, and nineteen billion people scrabbling in the endless slum that covered every landmass, Equestria shone brightly as a verdant paradise of blue skies and endless fields of living flowers. Beyond that impenetrable, shining Barrier lay a perfect land bursting with life and opportunity, but the only way to cross that barrier was on four legs.
A short, brutal life of desperation, poverty, and filth as a human, or a healthy, abundant life of running through green fields as a party-colored equinoid? The choice for most human beings was no choice at all. Even so, there were some, people of means and power, that found the Equestrian option a blasphemy against Mankind, and to them any means was legitimate. Clinics had been bombed, entire Bureaus vaporized. It was a risk that every Bureau faced.
Dr. Pastern set out three simple, white, plastic cups. She checked today's list of applicants. The first was listed for ponification at ten o'clock. The morning transformation was everyone's favorite part of the day, at almost every Bureau. The applicants loved to cheer the first Conversion of the day, and the ritual of the First Meal As A Pony seemed a universal lunchtime spectacle. No one ever seemed to tire of asking the new Convert what hay and alfalfa tasted like to them now that they were Equestrian. The lure of the strange, Pastern guessed.
Dr. Pastern sent a message to Dispatch, and soon, over the clinic loudspeakers, would come the name of this mornings first Conversion.
Roselyn wished she had time enough for a second coffee.