A story of eight and one half ponies
Chapter Ten: A Cup Of Responsibility
The very young girl crept from building to building. She scrambled from broken window to broken window, always remembering to keep her head down. It was difficult; she had to be careful not to trip on broken beams or rotting furniture, her arms were full, and she was terrified of falling down upon what she carried.
So far, her newborn baby had remained asleep. This was good. She had followed the advice of her friend and given the infant a quarter of a spoon of slum booze. If the baby cried, it could be bad. She had a small bottle of the drink with her in case the child needed more. Lombard was not a safe street; it sometimes acted as a staging area for foolish gangs intent upon assaulting the blackmesh base at the Presidio.
She cut across the street to Fillmore and eventually to Cervantes. If she could make it to Marina, she knew that street went right by her goal. Marina would take her straight to the old AppleSoft building, and that was what had been used to create the San Francisco Conversion Bureau.
She wished she could go with her baby, but she had two other children already, and she could not leave them. Her man would never allow her to join the ponies, for he was a leader in the Human Liberation Front. "Human for Life, Human In Death" that was their motto. There was no way she could get her other two children out of the militia compound. But she had found a way to escape with her tiny newborn.
He would punish her, of course. But he would never really harm her, that was impossible. Her children needed her, he would just hurt her a little. He would just smack her around a bit; maybe she would have to go into the hot box for a while. But it would be alright in the end, even if it hurt for awhile. Of course it would; he loved her.
But her baby, her precious little girl - she would have a better life. She would see the green place, with the pretty ponies. Her little daughter, her first girl, would have the life she wished she herself could have. It was too late for her of course; her man was a Liberation man. It was her place to be at his side, whatever came.
The complex was in sight. It was so large, the largest intact building she had ever seen. It must be dozens of floors high, and many blocks wide. There had been skyscrapers, once, downtown, but they had broken and fallen against each other. They had tumbled like dominoes when the bay had been bombed long ago. It was dangerous to even approach them. Somehow the AppleSoft complex had been left unscathed.
She was almost there.
Alexi did not want to face breakfast. Caprice would be there, and she would want to sit with him. It was nearly seven, the hungry animals would be lining up already. And Alexi, he did not want to face Caprice.
He was in trouble, voi rähmä, was he in trouble. Worse, Caprice had sworn to protect him, and that is the last thing Alexi wanted to happen, because one does not bring hooves to a gun fight. Or in this case, most likely, an execution.
"Perse, perse, perse!" Swearing wasn't helping. Alexi tried to think about how he should deal with the issue of Caprice.
He could just tell her that he didn't want her to get hurt; that these men who wanted payment would come with weapons and that her hooves were useless. He could forbid her to interfere! No, that would not be the way, it was clear that in their relationship, Alexi would not be doing any forbidding. Caprice would not stand for any forbidding by Alexi. Voi, if anyone in their household did any forbidding, it would be Caprice doing the forbidding. Alexi sighed. Such is life.
Älä ole hassu! What household? Alexi, you fool, already you are talking as if you are married to this Caprice! Alexi was shocked at his own mind. When had he started thinking like this? He had only met Caprice on Tuesday, he had known her all of two days and two nights. It must be the dreams he was having, both nights. They were wonderful dreams, beautiful dreams, but it was all very silly. This sort of thing happened in ridiculous stories, not to ordinary people in the real world.
No woman had ever affected Alexi like this before. He could not stop thinking about Caprice. Not for one moment. And she wasn't even a woman! This was insane. Alexi was insane now, poor, poor Alexi. So, reasoning with Caprice would likely just make things worse. He could not forbid her; she would just resolve all the more to protect him.
Alexi did not want to take his other option; the choice he was so sure he had decided upon last night. He did not want to tell Caprice to leave him alone, to go away. To tell her... that he had no interest in her, that he would never have any interest in her, that there was no reason for her to wait for him.
Every Friday, a ship left for Equestria, taking the newfoals to their proper home. Some went as soon as they could, others stayed at the clinic for their full allotted week of physical training, others just turned and walked out the door, still attached to the Earth. Tomorrow the boat would take another load of the Converted to their new home.
If Caprice truly believed that Alexi had no use for her, he felt certain that she would leave on Friday. He knew that the only reason she was staying at the clinic at all was to give him time to decide whether to be Converted and to join her. She had almost said as much. If she left on Friday, then she would be safe.
The men would come. They would come and it would not be good. Alexi intended to go with them, without a struggle. What else could he do? They would kill everyone in the clinic without a second thought if he refused. That is what these men were. Their job was to make examples, so that no one would dare to cross their employer, and Alexi had definitely crossed their employer. This would be Alexi's last mistake. Stupid Alexi. Foolish Alexi.
The worst part was that he would never have made such a mistake, normally. Alexi knew what had happened. In his heart, in his mind, unconsciously, somehow he had been trying to show off to Caprice. Show that he was a good provider. And he had done this without even considering that Caprice would likely not even know of his efforts for Dr. Pastern! Alexi had just gotten caught up in everything.
Stupid, Alexi. Foolish, lovestruck Alexi.
He would take care of it. If he knew where to go, he would go to them, these men. But he did not. So they would come to him.
Caprice must be gone by then.
The girl crept through the security door. It scanned her and recorded her appearance and physical statistics, sending the information directly to the Bureau central data core. Her entrance was noted on Bethany's holodisplay, causing her to look up.
The girl ran over to Beth's desk. She couldn't be more than sixteen. She looked Beth directly in the eye, staring at her without saying a word.
Suddenly she placed a bundle of cloth on the counter, turned, and ran out the door.
Bethany blinked. What the hell?
Beth looked at the ragged bundle of cloth. No. It couldn't be. She stood up from her chair. She carefully lifted the edge of the cloth. Pale white skin, blotched by patches of pink. A tiny nose. So tiny. It couldn't be more than two weeks old.
"Security! Security! Young girl, leaving the building, ragged green and brown clothing, head covered with a cloth. Possibly fifteen, sixteen years old. Stop for questioning! Repeat, stop her!" Beth hoped the blackmesh at the main complex entrance were on the ball.
Beth turned back to the baby on the counter. It was very quiet. She checked the poor thing, it was breathing but... it smelled of alcohol. A drunk baby? The girl... must have used booze to keep the baby quiet. Of all the stupid things to... "This is Security. Subject left building before call. Unable to apprehend." Bethany swore under her breath. "Uh, sorry there." Well, at least they said they were sorry. Humph.
They hadn't had a drop-off in over two months. This was the youngest drop Beth had ever seen. The last child was four years old. But this child, maybe not even two weeks. This was a problem. She needed Dr. Pastern here.
Bethany carefully picked up the small bundle, and went in search of Dr. Pastern. On the way, she noticed that the newfoals, Logan and Elijah were finally waking up; they had apparently spent the entire night on the common room couch. "Morning boys! Listen, I've got a... package... for Dr. Pastern. Do you think you could keep an eye on the front desk for me while I go deliver it?"
Elijah blinked, surprised. "Certainly, Bethany. Logan and I can do that for you!" Elijah gave Logan a nuzzle on the head. "Rise and shine beautiful, duty calls!" Logan groggily began to stir. "Huh? Do what?"
Beth went on past the cafeteria, where hungry applicants were already milling around, waiting for seven o'clock. Roselyn wasn't there, so she must have already gotten her morning coffee. Beth decided to try the infirmary and the Conversion Room, it was almost certain that Roselyn would be in one of those two rooms. She hadn't seen the doctor leave to go up on the roof.
The infirmary door was open, and the light was on, an encouraging sign. "Dr. Pastern?" Roselyn was sitting at the hypernet terminal, entering something furiously. "Oh! Hi, Beth. Just putting down the basics for a paper on... um, something I accomplished yesterday." Pastern still hadn't looked up from what she was doing.
The unmistakable cry of a baby shattered the air. Apparently little Jane Doe was finally off the booze.
"W-WHAA?" Dr. Pastern was eyes front and staring at Bethany, no longer absorbed in her notes. "That's a baby!"
"Pretty much, doc." Beth tried to calm the infant with some gentle rocking. The crying lessened.
"Where... how... is it... visiting?" Pastern asked hopefully. She dearly hoped is wasn't a foundling or something.
"It's a foundling, Ros." Crap. This was going to screw up the entire schedule. Pastern frowned, but Beth went on. "Girl came in and plopped this one right down on the counter. Then she turned tail and ran for the hills."
"Did you call security?" Roselyn saw hope shine in the form of those wonderful, jolly, black-suited thugs. Go, thugs!
"No use. She was out of the building, and they aren't paid to pursue off site." Was Bethany enjoying this?
"Those useless, cowardly thugs!" There definitely went the schedule for the day, poof! Roselyn sighed. Oh well. "How old is the little bundle of joy?"
The baby, little 'Jane Doe', who had up until now been mollified by Beth's rocking, finally realized that she had a precious little infant hangover. What had once been crying returned as screaming. Ah, screaming, the perfect way to wake up in the morning.
"She's..." Beth began trying various ways to soothe the poor child. "...probably just a week or two old. About as young as you can get." The screaming increased in pitch, making Roselyn's head begin to ache. "So..." Beth placed the infant over one shoulder, hoping that would help. "... do we convert her, or put her down?" Beth paused for a moment. "Or, do you want a baby of your very own?"
Those were the choices that the world corporate government provided for the Bureaus in the case of foundling children below the age of reason. There were no social services anymore, only the guaranteed basic ration. It was a firing offense to try to place foundlings with the slum dwellers; not only did it take up time and resources, but it could cause all manner of problems in terms of public relations should something go wrong. That left only three choices: conversion, termination, or personal adoption. The latter was heavily discouraged; adoptions by Bureau staff was a sure ticket to No More Promotions. It was professional suicide.
Baby Doe was making a strong case on her own for termination. Monstrous lungs that powerful should not be allowed to live; it was clearly an affront to Nature herself. It was absolutely an affront to hearing. Bethany was beginning to wish the young mother had left whatever she had used to drug the child; the omission was terribly thoughtless of her.
"I CAN'T THINK WITH THAT... THAT... THING SCREAMING LIKE THAT!" Dr. Pastern seldom lost her temper, but right now her head was pounding, she hadn't had much of her coffee, she was hungry, and that blasted creature was very likely permanently deafening her. Why, of all the one hundred clinics in the San Francisco Bureau, had that little bitch chosen clinic 042 in which to drop her spawn? Pastern had her hands over her ears now. It was horrifying.
Beth had the baby off of her shoulder now, and had lowered herself to the floor of the infirmary, her ears ringing. Sitting on the floor allowed her to lay the baby down, so that she could check it; maybe the problem was that it simply needed a change of...whatever the mother had wrapped its bottom with. Oh, it's a girl. But, no mess, so that can't be it.
She felt something soft push past her shoulder. A peach-colored shape had entered the room. It was Caprice. Caprice lowered herself, folding her legs. Then she started -ever so gently- licking and lipping all over the skin of the child, making soft cooing noises.
Beth just sat, stunned, watching Caprice.
The infant girl stopped crying. She seemed mesmerized by the repetitive motions of the pony's lips and tongue. Soon, little miss Doe was making little happy sounds. Caprice was licking her hands and cheeks now.
Bethany and Dr. Pastern just stared. It was fairly astonishing, really. Caprice had calmed the child, that was clear, but it was quite fascinating that a former human, just two days Converted, could so completely embrace her new animal nature. It was uncanny. For all the world, Caprice seemed like an ordinary terrestrial animal right now, without any inhibition or human revulsion. In her mind, Roselyn couldn't help but think how very little she would ever want to lick some strange, abandoned baby. God knows what filth might be on the thing! Suddenly, being a pony seemed not quite as attractive as it had, before.
Jane Doe had fallen asleep again. Caprice carefully, softly tugged with her teeth at the rags around the newborn, covering her to keep her warm. She continued making little soft noises for a bit, then looked up with a tender smile.
Bethany spoke very, very quietly. "Um, thanks for that, Caprice, but... ewww." Beth shuddered a little. Then she stood up.
"I am a pony now, Beth." Caprice seemed almost cross. "How do you imagine ponies comfort their young?" Caprice gave Beth a short, hard look. Then she softened, looking down at the sleeping child, now between her hooves. "I overheard you as I came here. Dr. Pastern!" Caprice looked forcefully at Roselyn. "You must convert this child. I will not permit her to be terminated, and it is clear that neither of you are willing to take her as your own. As a newfoal, she will easily survive. I will take responsibility for her, since no one else will."
"Caprice..." Dr. Roselyn whispered as loudly as she dared. "You are just starting a new life of your own. I understand that you feel compassion, but I don't think you grasp the severity of what you..."
"I will NOT let you terminate this innocent creature." For the first time, Dr. Pastern saw anger in the face of the sweet, peach pony. "Convert her immediately. I cannot be expected to take care of a human baby, but I can care for a foal." Caprice thought for a moment. "If you fear that whoever was scheduled for first Conversion will object, I will convince them for you."
Somehow, Dr. Pastern did not feel that Caprice was boasting. Caprice seemed to possess an almost disturbing power of will when something was important to her.
Caprice was right about the relative ease of care; newborn Equestrians had vast advantages over humans in terms of development. Terrestrial horses are born with the innate ability to stand and walk. Equestrian pony newborns also seemed to have inborn abilities, just like their terrestrial counterparts. Equestrian foals could stand and walk on their first day of life, and the beginnings of functional speech started within mere weeks. These abilities would begin to arise in the infant almost the instant Conversion was complete.
The simple truth was that an Equestrian foal would be vastly easier to care for than a helpless human baby. Dr. Pastern had to admire the practicality of Caprice. And, it was corporate policy to automatically convert presapient children. But Caprice did not grasp the whole story.
Roselyn got up from her chair, and moved closer to Caprice and the child. She bent down, and then sat on the floor next to the pair. Caprice looked at her in curiosity.
"Caprice, there is an issue you are unaware of. Remember how you wanted to experience your transformation? I would not allow it, because the process is unimaginably painful. I... have seen grown men go through it, without anesthesia. The memory of that... I still have nightmares, Caprice." The pained look on Dr. Pastern's face spoke more eloquently than her words.
"I don't have an anesthetic for an infant this young." Dr. Pastern gently ran a finger across little miss Doe's tiny cheek. "Infants react differently than adults to anesthetic, and the risk of death is just too great. If I were to convert her, I would have no means to protect her from pain. It would be the worst fifteen minutes any being could endure." Roselyn Pastern looked into Caprice's vast, green eyes. "Termination... would be painless, merciful. She wouldn't suffer." Pastern dropped her gaze, down to the tiny bundle between Caprice's forelegs.
"I really think it is the right thing to do, Caprice. I'm sorry." Pastern was firm.
Caprice sat frozen for a moment. She gave the tiny baby girl a small, gentle nuzzle. Then she carefully got up. "Very well, then kill her, noble doctor." Her words were surprisingly flat. Caprice turned and left, without looking back.
Pastern sat on the floor, stunned. She wasn't sure what response she expected from the elegant peach pony, but that absolutely was not it. Bethany looked shocked. After her stern words, how could Caprice just turn and leave like that? Then again, what exactly was Caprice supposed to say?
Roselyn felt confused. She felt bad, like a monster. Just a moment ago, she was fully ready to peaceably terminate this small life out of mercy, and it would be a mercy. But now, somehow, the way Caprice had just left like that, had made Roselyn feel like the most evil creature on the planet. Like an alpha killer ape on a planet of murdering beasts.
Pastern had expected Caprice to put up a fuss, to have to be consoled; a whole script had waited in the doctor's mind. None of that had happened. Roselyn's expectations had been destroyed. Now she was alone, faced with a small patient she could no longer abstract.
Damn that Caprice.
Bethany leaned down "I... should be getting back to the desk now, doctor Pastern. Um..." Beth was at a loss as to what to say. What could she say? "...Um, bye." Now Dr. Pastern was alone, sitting on the floor of the infirmary, little miss Doe sleeping still, a smile on her tiny face.
Dr. Roselyn Pastern's hands made fists, which she leaned on, rocking her body forward and back. "Then kill her, noble doctor." It was like Caprice knew exactly where to strike her, exactly how to throw her off balance. Damn her!
William Duke Culpepper, 'Billy' to his friends and 'That Culpepper bastard' to everyone else, paced up and down the dirt path that ran through his open air compound. Billy was the Commander In Chief of the Folsom Street Freedom Fighters, a local San Francisco militia branch of the Human Liberation Front.
Billy was proud of his position, proud of his men, and proud to be a Human Being.
But today, he was not proud of his youngest wife at all. Charlene had betrayed him, she had betrayed the cause, and above all, she had betrayed her race - the human race.
Billy Culpepper stopped pacing. There was no way around it. He was the leader here. It was up to him to keep discipline, to keep order. Without cohesion, there would be no hope against the alien bastards. It broke his heart, she was so young. But youth could not be an excuse. Not for betraying her species itself.
Ever since the world of the monsters had risen out of the sea, William had seen the danger they represented. The green lands and perfect smiles of the beasts were seductive traps. Humanity had made a mess of the world, Billy was no Pollyanna; he knew the difficulties that mankind faced. But Man had overcome every other obstacle that had faced him, and now he was on the verge of finally making a golden age. Nanotech had shown what was possible! Nineteen billion people, and every one of them fed!
What some saw as a nightmare, Billy understood was a triumph. Never before in the history of the world was there a time when all human beings had food, all of the time. Nobody seemed to grasp what an achievement this truly was.
And this was just the beginning. Now that no human went hungry, more could be done. It was only a matter of time. The dead world could be brought back to living Nature, eventually, and in time, Man might finally reach the stars.
But Equestria had come, an unwanted intrusion, instantly stealing Man's future away from him. Sickly sweet invitations masked a sinister agenda; the equinoid aliens wanted to assimilate the human species, to absorb the world itself, to devour the human spirit and feast upon it for their own nourishment.
It was dog-eat-dog even at the level of the cosmos itself, and Earth was being gobbled up by a hound from hell. How could the government not see this? How could humanity sell its very soul to these invaders? How could they fall for the siren call of such gruesomely large-eyed monsters?
Fortunately, there were men who were willing to oppose this violation of Mankind. Strong men, willing to save humanity despite itself. Men, like him.
Billy took the revolver out of its holster. He had loved that gun ever since his father had given it to him on his 20th birthday. He had kept it in perfect condition; he knew every part, every component. He had personally machined a replacement cylinder stop for the ancient weapon. He had learned bullet swaging in order to make ammo for it, now that there were no factories anymore. Each round for the weapon had been hand crafted by him. He had inscribed each one with a short quote from a human writer. Every bullet was truly a work of art.
Billy felt the weight of the gun, the mass of it. After this, he would no longer be able to see his treasure the same way. But it had to be done.
He began to stride back to the middle of the compound. Nearly a hundred people had gathered there, forming a big circle in front of the buildings. They had built that compound together, out of the ruins, raised the thick walls that surrounded their fortress. They had repelled gangs and fought blackmesh armored troops. They had executed race traitor newfoals for their unspeakable crime. They were the last true human resistance against the brightly colored devils from over the sea.
Charlene was crying. She had been beaten and bruised, her left arm broken. But that was not enough, not enough for a woman that would willingly hand her own baby over to the alien enemy. She had handed over her own flesh and blood, she had given the child of William Duke Culpepper to the greatest threat the human species had ever faced! And she had done so willingly, without shame, without remorse.
Charlene was begging now, begging for her despicable life. Now she was ashamed, now she had decided to show remorse. Too late. It was far, far too late.
Billy raised the heavy revolver, and thumbed the cylinder release latch. He anchored the gun in his hand, and reached down to unsnap the pouch on his belt. He felt around for one of the custom bullets. Taking it out, he squinted in the morning light. He flipped down the jeweler's eye-loupe perpetually clipped to the right side of his glasses. He could just barely make out the inscription on the hand-crafted bullet: 'We cannot despair of humanity, since we ourselves are human beings. - Albert Einstein' The letters were very tiny, but as perfect as he could make them. He was proud of his work. It was human work.
Billy guided the round into the chamber and carefully, gently closed it. He gave the gun a little waggle to make sure that the cylinder was properly aligned.
Then he assumed his firing grip.
Charlene looked up at him, her dark, bruised eyes swollen with tears and pain. Billy could feel the crowd staring at him, looking for any sign of weakness. He would give them nothing but strength.
Charlene's head became a red flower, splashing onto his hands and arms and his beloved revolver. Her body hit the dirt with a soft rolling motion, what was left of the back of her head flopped up and over her face, covering the hole in her forehead. "Goodbye, beloved." He said softly.
Standing tall, he addressed the crowd. "You have seen how a MAN deals with a traitor to the species, even if that traitor is his own KIN. This is a war for the existence of MANKIND itself! There can be NO tolerance for those who would sell out the proud history of humankind for the false promises of alien devils!"
The crowd slowly began to clap, at first hesitantly, but with increasing vigor. William Culpepper was truly a leader, and he was their leader.
Daniel, one of Culpepper's lieutenants, took a step forward. "Whatcha gonna do about the baby, Bill?"
Billy eyed Daniel, he knew what the man was really saying. "By now it is likely too late to get her back. By now that little child will be one of them. But that doesn't mean that there will be no reprisal." Culpepper turned to the crowd. "This very day, I SWEAR I will take my vengeance on the clinic that has my child. I will SHOW you how a MAN, a HUMAN man represents his species, his family, his cause. By the end of this day, clinic forty-two of the CORRUPTION BUREAU will be no more, even if it should cost me my LIFE!"
The crowd was cheering now. Billy drank in their adoration. He bathed in their admiration, and let it wash his troubled feelings away. He was the hero of Mankind, and they knew it.
He could never hope to attack the entire Bureau complex, not even if all the cowards that served him were willing. But a single man, if he were the right man, could easily perform a raid and come out alive. Charlene's betrayal would serve him; after this, he would never again have men like Daniel daring to question him. His dominance would be assured.
Billy was absolutely the right man.
Alexi knew what he must do. He stared at his waffles and eggs. He did not feel like eating them. Even if they had bacon, which they never did, he could not eat. His stomach felt hollow and cold, and his heart felt so heavy it could crush a mountain. Caprice would come for breakfast. She would sit down with him, of course. And she would be gentle and sweet and he must turn her away.
Alexi rehearsed the inevitable in his mind. He must do this correctly. Caprice would come, and sit across from him at the low table, as before. Only today, Alexi would not get her a tray. He would not pile that tray with delights just for her. He would tell her, "Get your own tray, pony! Alexi is not paid to feed the animals!" And she would begin to cry, confused, of course, but still loyal, because that was how she was. She would get a tray and come back to the table, and sit and she would ask Alexi if she had done something wrong. Yes, that is how it would be.
Then Alexi would tell her that she had done everything wrong, because she had become an animal. Alexi could not care for an animal except as a pet. He would say that he had thought about her request, and that he intended to never Convert, he would die a human being. He may work at a Conversion Bureau, but he did not agree with Conversion for himself. Maybe he would even hint that he had been reading Human Liberation pamphlets. Yes, that would do the trick.
Alexi would tell her he never wanted to see her again, that she should get on the ship tomorrow and go to Equestria so she could go live with the other animals! Then Alexi would storm out, shoulders square and fists strong, a big bear of a man, his broad shoulders the last thing the weeping peach pony would see of him. Yes, that too is how it would be! Alexi could see it all so clearly. This is how it must be. Caprice would cry, but she would be safe, thanks to Alexi. And when the men came, and took him, and they put Alexi on his knees, and put the gun to his head, he would think of his beautiful Caprice, and shout her name as -
"Alexi! We're going to have a foal!" A tray full of food had slammed down on the table beside Alexi. Caprice sat down beside him, and took a big mouthful of baked hay glazed with honey. "Mmmph mmm... I haven't decided on a name for her, but I'm sure something will come to me when I finally see what she looks like. Mmm... mmnn... This is pretty good, Alexi. I think even a human would enjoy this!"
Alexi sat, his mouth open. This wasn't how it... "What? What do you mean we are having a foal? I never even..."
"Don't be silly, Alexi. Goodness, I will have a lot to teach you, won't I?" Caprice took another bite of honeyed hay. "Mmnph...mmmm... Listen, Alexi, I know this is kind of a lot to spring on you like this, but someone brought in an abandoned human baby this morning. Just dumped it here. Dr. Pastern wanted to kill it, but I couldn't allow that, now could I?"
"Ah... um.." Alexi felt like somehow the room was spinning and he might fall over at any moment. "I... I suppose not, but you see, I had this thing to.."
"So, anyway.." Caprice took a bite of reconstructed banana, Thursday's fruit of the week. Real bananas had gone extinct on earth decades earlier, but it was still possible to nanoreplicate a decent copy of the favored treat. "...I think I got old Pastern to try a little harder. She'll find some way to Convert the little sweetheart - she's a newborn, Alexi, just a couple of weeks old, cute as can be, and she even tastes like sugar. Maybe I should name her sugar? What do you think?"
"A newborn...tastes? What? How do you know what this baby tastes like?" Alexi had sudden terrors involving cannibal ponies. Only they wouldn't be cannibals because they weren't human were they? The spinning of the room had turned into a gyrating ball of confusion, and Alexi was no longer sure he wasn't just having a strange dream at this point.
"Well, somepony had to properly comfort the poor little thing. Roselyn and Bethany certainly had no idea what to do. I groomed her a bit and she settled right down; it was like she knew I was going to be her mommy." Caprice ate some more of the hay 'n honey. "Mnnmm... mnph, anyway, sorry for putting us in the family way so soon, but we were going to have foals anyway, so why wait, right?"
"We were going to have... foals?" The room was now a fast car, maybe a nice red Lamborghini Electric, and it was racing off of a cliff... no, it was a tall building, built over a volcano. That was it, over a big volcano. And the moon was exploding for some reason. Alexi let his head sag down, and stared at his cooling waffles.
"Of course, dear Alexi." Caprice was really enjoying the hay and honey. "It's not like I expect you will be able to ignore me when I go into heat in the spring and summer. And it's not like I would want you to." Caprice's soft smile instantly brought Alexi a warm, safe peace, and banished the racing car and the bubbling volcano. Strangely, he felt as if he were in a field of flowers now, butterflies above his head, rather than in his stomach.
Caprice was somehow already standing. "I'm sorry for having to trot off like this, but I feel that Dr. Pastern is going to need me soon. Smile, honeyflanks! You're going to be a daddy!" With that, Caprice leaned out and kissed Alexi full on the lips. The moon somehow exploded for a second time.
Then Alexi was alone, with the faint taste of hay and honey on his lips.
When he could think again, he saw that she had left her tray. No problem, Alexi would take care of that for his precious peach princess. Then he noticed how quiet the noisy cafeteria was. It had been utterly quiet for some time now, come to think of it. He looked up.
Around him, at every table, large round eyes stared, the crowd looking like stunned fish floating in an aquarium. Human and Equestrian mouths alike hung open in shock and disbelief. Alexi looked back at them. Oh boy. Well, what else could a man do? Alexi Venäläinen defiantly stood up and roared, as proudly as he possibly could: "WELL, CONGRATULATE ME! ALEXI IS GOING TO BE A FATHER!"
The clapping started very slowly at first, a few nervous, frightened smacks, then gradually built to a stomping, yet rather puzzled, cheer.
Dr. Pastern went over her concept with Lynn. She needed a sounding board, and Lynn was the best PA she had ever worked with. "The problem is pain. I can't use the anesthesia we have, because it is unsuitable for a newborn. It isn't even recommended for use below age six. We almost lost that four-year-old, remember? It would take weeks to get Central to respond to a request for something appropriate, even if they would. I already know the response I would most likely get; terminate the child immediately and move on. With nineteen billion people to convert, one baby is beyond expendable."
Lynn was feeding little Jane Doe; Miriam had put together a bottle and nipple using a drinking glass and a rubber glove. It worked surprisingly well. "So what exactly is your plan, then, and how worried should I feel?" Pastern had that look in her eyes, the determined look that usually meant she was more intrigued than she should be about something that bordered on Mad Science.
"We've seen Conversion do miracles of regeneration, Lynn." Pastern was excited, and she began to speak more quickly. "We've seen multiple amputees come through here, quadruple amputees, and they came out the other side with all four legs, perfect ponies every one of them. The blind regrowing eyeballs, the dying snatched from the very edge of death itself. I just read a credible report of a decapitation victim regrowing his head; the body wasn't dead yet, and they just dumped serum over the remains. Complete blank slate, zero memories, total death of personality, but the result lived. A perfect newfoal, beginning a brand new life!"
Jane Doe needed to be held now, so Lynn put the bottle down and cradled the child in an upright position on her shoulder. "OK, Ros, I'm properly horrified because I think I see where you are going with this."
"We cut her spinal cord! Slice that sucker right after the potion goes in. Pretty much anywhere we want, right up to the C1!" Pastern was leaning forward, hands on the infirmary examination table, eyes wild. "Slish, slash and zero pain! The conversion process occurs without any transmission of pain, and would probably regenerate the spine right near the end of the job. Especially if we introduce the serum rectally. It doesn't even matter if she stops breathing; she has no memories, none, so nothing would be lost should damage occur to the brain! She's already a blank slate! So, whadaya think?"
"I think that you are a great doctor, and that you truly want to do good in the world, but that sometimes..." Lynn rocked gently from one foot to the other "...you are the scariest person I have ever met. Brilliant, but creepy."
"I appreciate the sweet words of affection," Pastern squinted at Lynn "but what I really want to know is: do you agree this should work?"
Lynn looked down at the little baby in her arms. She tried to imagine taking a scalpel to the back of it's neck. She shuddered. "It would work, I can't say it wouldn't work. But Jesus, Roselyn. I mean, seriously. Jesus Hellfire Christ."
"Do you have a better solution? Would you rather I just let the baby suffer? Can you offer any alternative?"
Lynn thought for a moment. "Actually..." The idea was odd, but...then again, compared to the alternative... "I do have a thought."
"I am absolutely all ears here. Please." Pastern waved her hand.
"Little Jane here came to us an unconscious drunk. Her mother kept her quiet by dosing her with whatever booze they make out in the slums. She probably feared some kind of attack or discovery should her baby cry." Lynn unconsciously gave the little girl a light kiss on her head. "It seems to me that unconscious is unconscious, right? And we already know that Jane here can tolerate the stuff. The damage from booze seems much less than a cervical dissection, at least to me."
Dr. Pastern seemed both chastened and embarrassed. "Uh... well, um, yes. I suppose you have a point there. Alcohol is a very ancient anesthetic tool, and one that has been used on infants for centuries." Lynn tried not to smile. "And it would be... less dramatic, I suppose." Pastern always meant well, Lynn thought, but sometimes... well she gets a little elaborate.
"Would it be enough?" Lynn began to doubt her own plan now. "I mean, would being passed out from alcohol be sufficient to counter the kind of pain we are talking about here?" There could possibly be a reason why Roselyn jumped to such a drastic solution.
Dr. Pastern looked grave. "Not... entirely, no. That is a valid concern. It would blunt it, but we are pretty much dealing with the maximum amount of pain possible here. Think about it, Lynn, you've seen what happens to our patients - every part of the body is in flux, changing growing, writhing and twisting. I can only imagine what it must be like. The closest thing I can think of is that it would be like a whole-body muscle cramp combined with having your internal organs run through a meat-grinder. I mean, you've seen it, three times a day, nearly every day, for the past six months!"
Maybe cervical dissection wasn't such a horrific notion after all. Lynn looked down at little miss Doe. She was half-asleep. It was impossible to wish any pain on the little girl. "Whatever you think is best, Dr. Pastern, I will support. I... don't know which is the better choice. I'm sorry."
Pastern thought for a moment. "How about this; we dose her with alcohol, based on body weight, to the point of apparent unconsciousness. Then we initiate conversion. I can have my scalpel ready. Only... damn. If I don't sever her spine immediately, I wouldn't dare to later, once the conversion kicks in fully." Pastern sighed. "Frankly, Lynn, I guess just don't feel good about the spinal dissection. It seemed sound in theory, though."
"Yes, it did. It probably would work, just as you described. But..." Lynn was rocking the child again. "...I personally couldn't face cutting her up. It's OK, Roselyn. You may be a doctor, but you are a person too, and cutting up healthy babies is... a little out there. Even if your intellect tells you that it will be alright in the end."
Pastern felt weak. She knew she was weak. That was why she never went into surgery. Internal medicine, specialization in nanotherapeutics. But not surgery. Roselyn sighed. "Let's get her started. What have we got in the way of useful alcohol?"
Baby Jane Doe soon lay on her back in the Conversion Room. She had a short length of surgical tubing inserted into her rectum, and a peripheral venous catheter in her arm. Jane was quite unresponsive, thanks to a carefully administered level of ethanol in her blood.
Dr. Pastern had consulted her terminal, finding that one and one half ounces of ponification serum was considered the standard dosage for children from four to ten, the full three ounces for ages above that. There was no data at all on children younger than four. Pastern found that strange. Surely someone had converted a baby before now! Then again, conversion had only existed in the world for seven months, and only applied to the ordinary population for six. These were the very first six months of the Conversion program. If any other clinic had ponified a newborn, nobody had written about the fact.
Maybe, so far, every other clinic had simply chosen termination, following the preferred corporate choice. That was certainly possible.
Pastern settled on using one full ounce. It seemed a reasonable choice, considering the small size of her patient.
Someone was pounding on the Conversion Room door. Lynn opened it; it was Caprice. "I need to be here, Lynn."
Lynn let Caprice into the room. "Dr. Pastern, I absolutely need to be here for my child. If I am to be her mother, I should be present at her true birth."
Dr. Pastern had finished measuring out exactly one ounce of the precious serum. This would wreck hell with the accounting, but if necessary, she could just flush the two useless extra ounces and say nothing to the corporation about any of this. Maybe that is why there was no record of other infant conversions!
"Hello, Caprice." Pastern carefully filled a syringe with the purple nanofluid, and attached the syringe to the rectal tubing. "I have to commend you on your tactics; you managed to successfully shame me into attempting this crazy stunt. I bow to your superior abilities." Roselyn did feel a little manipulated, she was perhaps a touch raw about it.
Caprice thought about that for a moment. "I... kind of don't plan stuff like that anymore. I used to. All the time. I was... very manipulative once. I don't mean to be that way now. Honestly, I just kind of operate on intuition. I just do what feels right in the moment, and I kind of go where it feels right to be." Caprice walked up to Roselyn, and looked up at her. "I just felt helpless, and maybe a little angry, when I walked out. But I am very glad that you chose to save her." Caprice pointed her nose at little miss Doe.
"Let's hope I know what I am doing, then." Dr. Pastern began steady pressure on the syringe, purple fluid shot up the tubing and into the child on the table. "Initiating Conversion. Time, Lynn?"
"11:24 AM, a little late, but hey, it's a special situation." Lynn gave a brave smile. Looking down at the baby, "Good luck, little one."
The last of the serum had entered Jane Doe's colon. For a moment, nothing happened. Then, suddenly, her pale skin turned waxy, and the flesh of her tiny body began to ripple and squirm. Dr. Pastern pulled the tubes free from the body of the child.
Caprice stepped closer to the Conversion Table, and leaned her neck over to be nearer to the newborn infant. "This... this is what happened to me!" The peach pony's eyes were filled with wonder as she watched the tiny human body of Jane Doe gradually alter in shape to become an equally tiny foal. Silently, Roselyn, Lynn and Caprice watched as a miniscule sharp point rose up from the crown of the tiny head. Jane Doe was a unicorn.
The most delicate pale yellow sprouted and covered the naked creature, her coat the color of fresh butter. The mane and tail flowed forth, an even more subtle shade of yellow. "She looks like buttermilk!" Caprice seemed pleased.
"You've seen real buttermilk?" Lynn asked doubtfully.
"I've had real buttermilk." Caprice had hinted that her human background had been a wealthy one. Apparently very wealthy. "That's her name! I knew I would know her name when I finally saw her for the first time. My little Buttermilk. My sweet little Buttermilk."
Roselyn could see such love in Caprice's eyes. How could she have ever considered terminating the little unicorn?
Buttermilk was now, surprisingly, fully awake. The nanofluid must have deconstructed the alcohol as it went through her blood. If the foal had felt any pain, it was impossible to tell. Buttermilk opened her eyes. They were a bright, shining golden yellow. "Goodness!" Lynn seemed amazed. "That's one for the records. Her colors are uniform. That's what, only our third uniform coloration ever, Ros?"
"Congratulations, Caprice." Roselyn gently stroked the tiny foal, who had begun to plaintively squeal. "You're a mother."
Caprice looked up at Roselyn and Lynn, beaming. Then she began licking the little foal, soothing it, calming it. Soon the little unicorn began making cooing sounds of joy.
Alexi was at his microphone, more nervous than usual. This was perhaps the strangest day he had ever experienced at clinic 042, and he had experienced many strange days. He still could not begin to process everything that was going on for him.
On one hand, he was a marked man, singled out for death. On another hand, he was apparently still with Caprice, who had made it impossible for Alexi to even try to make her abandon him. Somehow.
On a third hand, this meant that she was still in danger because he knew she would do anything to protect him, only she could not hope to succeed, leaving Alexi to have to find a way to protect her instead. Somehow.
And now, a fourth hand, Caprice had adopted a tiny foal, which meant that he, Alexi, was now a daddy, because he, Alexi, was for all intents basically married to the tiny foal's new mother. Somehow.
That was too many somehows and far too many hands; he should count on hooves, perhaps. But all of that must wait. It was lunch now, and Dr. Pastern had asked him to introduce little Buttermilk to the animals, and ask them to be nice and quiet so that the little foal would not be frightened by the noise of the crowd. That was her name, apparently Buttermilk. Not a name Alexi's mother, god rest her soul, would necessarily have approved for a grandchild, but, what is one to do?
And the very strangest part of this very strange day? Alexi somehow felt very proud and happy to be a daddy. To a foal. Whose mother was a pony.
Feeling all of this had allowed Alexi to finally see, to finally fully understand the obvious truth about himself and Caprice, and their new daughter little Buttermilk as well. Everything was perfectly clear now.
Without question, Alexi had gone completely, utterly mad! Alexi was insane man now, beyond all help. Wave to the men in the white coats, Alexi! They are nice men. They will come and give Alexi happy pills and then comes the basket weaving. 'Ilmatyynyalukseni on täynnä ankeriaita', "My hovercraft is full of eels", Alexi will say.
So, Alexi has just decided to give up! There is no fighting the heart, that was now clear. If he was insane, at least it felt wonderful. Alexi no longer knew what was right or what was wrong. But he did know what he wanted, that, at least, was something.
"Shhhhh! Quiet, all my little animals!" Alexi spoke close to the microphone, his whispers booming through the cafeteria. Everyone stopped and listened to the strange, whispered announcement. "Shhhhh! Today we have a very special newfoal joining us. She is a baby unicorn, tiny and yellow, and her name is Buttermilk. She is only two weeks old, and so we should all be very very quiet, like little mice today, so she is not frightened. In a moment, Dr. Pastern will be taking Buttermilk through the cafeteria to her mother's room, so that is when to be quiet."
Alexi thought for a moment, then whispered "Thank you for this, it is important to me, Alexi, personally. And if you are very very VERY quiet, perhaps Caprice and I will let you see our little foal. That is all."
When Alexi entered the corridor to the Conversion Room he found Dr. Pastern, Lynn, and Caprice standing there, apparently waiting for him. Dr. Pastern held Buttermilk in her arms, wrapped in one of the blankets that Alexi had acquired for Lynn. He approached, and Caprice pushed up close to him and nuzzled his side and stomach with her head.
There in Dr. Pastern's arms, bright yellow eyes gazed up at him, innocent and wide. Alexi asked in a very low whisper "May I?" Pastern looked at Caprice. Caprice nodded with the largest smile she had ever shown. Roselyn carefully handed the little foal to Alexi, showing him how best to hold her.
Caprice looked up at Alexi, her big emerald eyes shining at him. Carefully, so carefully, he crouched down to be level with her head. Suddenly she was kissing him again. Let Pastern and Lynn think what they will. So, his lady happened to be a pony. She was a pretty pony.
He looked down again at the bundle he carried.
Alexi felt the small warmth in his arms, and saw the tiny, trusting, beautiful face. So, his daughter was a pony. Well, she was a pretty pony too.