A story of eight and one half ponies
Chapter Two: A Cup Of Contrition
When Carmine Rosalita Guadalupe Vasquez had first entered Bureau clinic 042, Bethany the receptionist couldn't help but feel affection toward her. She was almost painfully shy, her voice that of a softspoken little girl even though she was clearly in her twenties, and she was easily the most polite applicant Beth had ever seen.
Carmine needed help filling out her application, but Beth was happy to assist - like nearly everyone in the North American Zone, she was at least familiar with enough Spanish to get by. Carmine was given a room to share with another applicant, shown to her cot, provided blankets and a pillow, and given a tour of the facility. She showed great hesitation when Dr. Pastern performed the basic allergen scan and entrance physical - but aside from a few anomalous tattoos that contrasted with her demure personality, she was remarkably intact.
Pastern had noted some scars, one from what must have been a lateral incision to the sternum with possible pneumothorax. The injury had not been stitched by a professional, but it had fully healed, albeit with some keloid development. Roselyn felt sad that this shy girl had been slashed with a knife in her youth, but then again, such injuries were not uncommon in the planetary favela.
"It looks like you had a pretty difficult time before you came to see us, Ms. Vasquez" Dr. Pastern palpitated the dark keloid that had developed from the scar.
Carmine had her eyes closed and kept lowering her head as if in shame. "Life is difficult everywhere, Dr. Pastern." Carmine's voice was soft and almost squeaked.
"Well, all of these scars - and the tats as well - will all vanish after Conversion. You'll have a fresh new body, with no injuries, no disease, no scars, just perfect and healthy. I've seen applicants come in missing limbs, and they just grew back." Dr. Pastern turned and carefully removed her gloves. "OK, we're done here. You can put your clothes back on."
"Doctor..?" If the room had not been so quiet, it would have been hard to even hear her question.
"Yes, Ms. Vasquez?" Dr. Pastern had finished disposing of her examination gloves.
"Why... if everything is fixed by the Conversion... why do you bother to give us examinations?" The girl looked up at Roselyn, peeking through her long, dark hair.
"I'm required to look for implants and enhancements. Ponification rejects technological devices, and there can be complications if an applicant has a replacement organ or valve. Also, the HLF is out there, and there have been a few cases of Bureaus being destroyed by false applicants who had explosives installed inside their bodies."
"H-L-F?" Carmine had apparently never heard of them.
"Human Liberation Front. They believe that Conversion is wrong, and they will do anything to stop it. They think it is better to die as a human, rather than live as an Equestrian. I think they also imagine they can find a way to stop the expansion of Equestria, even when the world corporation could not. But try not to worry - we have pretty good security here, despite things not being very fancy."
"I am not an HLF!" Carmine sounded like a little girl afraid of being misunderstood.
"I never thought you were!" Dr. Pastern gave Carmine a reassuring smile "I'm just doing my job. It's all part of procedure. You're fine, and I didn't find any implants, so there's no issues there, either."
"What if you find implants?" Carmine was putting her blouse back on.
"If they're small, we leave them. They just pop right out during Conversion. But with large implants, sometimes it's recommended to remove them, just to be safe. I personally haven't seen any problems even if they are left in, but it's in the Bureau guidelines. Conversion pretty much takes care of everything all by itself. Implants just break down, if they aren't excreted during ponification. But... we do our best to follow the guidelines."
"Thank you, Dr. Pastern."
Roselyn gave the girl another quick smile. "You're welcome, Carmine. I'm sure you'll make a fine pony."
Carmine Vasquez settled in quickly at Clinic 42. She always had a smile or a cheery word to offer, and everyone, both staff and applicants, liked her. One event, early on, demonstrated her helpful nature. It happened at the unique Bureau ritual that was The First Meal As A Pony.
He had picked out his 'pony name' before he had even entered the Bureau. His human name was known only to Bethany and Dr. Pastern, he had asked for that courtesy. Thus it was that the tall, muscular black youth, 19 years old, scarred from countless fights in the streets, missing one eye, three fingers, and half his teeth, was known from his entrance simply as 'Silverbell'.
Silverbell wouldn't explain his choice of name, except to say that it meant something to him. Despite his fearsome appearance, Silverbell was soft spoken, and astonishing well read. He was intensely well mannered, and was well liked from the moment he joined the applicants. It was uncommon for most people to know much more than what might be gleaned from a corporate holokiosk; in a world of zero opportunity, no jobs, and horrific overcrowding, education was thoroughly understood as a luxury only for the elite. But Silverbell was different.
The young man would often quote Shakespeare, he had memorized several plays. He fancied himself a street actor, and on the night before his Conversion, drew almost everyone in the clinic to his room. Excited by his tranformation in the morning, he had begun dramatically reciting poems to entertain his barely adolescent roommate, Joshua. The performance was loud and grand, and soon a number of applicants stood outside the door to listen, followed by the clinic staff. All were entranced by Silverbell's on-the-fly, heavily modified version of the bard's 'A Fairy Song'.
"Over hill, over dale, Thorough bush, thorough brier, Over park, over pale,Thorough flood, thorough fire! I do wander everywhere, Swifter than good Luna's sphere; And I serve the Fairy Queen, Whose name, Celestia, doth warm my heart!" Silverbell was standing in the center of the small room, between the two cots provided, with fifteen year-old Josh staring up at him from the leftmost bed. Outside the door, applicants and staff crowded around, entranced by the power of the unexpected recitation.
'Silverbell' was in fine form, his long arms wide in gesture, the light flicking off of his handmade eyepatch, his voice deep and mellifluous. "To dew her orbs upon the green; Four cowslips tall her ponified be; In their cutie marks you see; Those be rubies, fairy favours; In those symbols live their savours; I must go seek some dewdrops here, And hang a pearl in every pony's ear." Silverbell made a grand bow, met by furious clapping.
"Hey, everybody! It's gay pirate pony poetry night!" Josh giggled loudly at his own joke.
The motion was both instant and swift. Joshua's neck was pinned to the wall, high above the cot, by an incredibly strong hand. His trachea gurgled as he tried to breath. Blood sprayed with each gasp from what remained of his front teeth. Like falling kernels of corn, several incisors and at least one canine dropped down Joshua's sweater, to fall onto his knees, or into the wrinkled folds of his blankets. In front of Joshua's face a dark, gleaming fist, knuckles scarred, hung in space.
For several seconds there was no sound, the clinic frozen in time.
Silverbell let go of Josh. The boy sank to the cot, still not sure what had just happened. He unconsciously spat a dangling tooth out, as he would an wayward insect.
"Please excuse me." Said Silverbell in a quiet, utterly emotionless voice. He sat down on his own cot, body rigid, head down. His hands lay at his side, open, palms down.
Josh was rushed to the infirmary, down the same corridor as the Conversion Room, but just prior and to the left. Dr. Pastern applied her more conventional medical skills to the situation. She briefly considered having the missing teeth recovered for re-implantation, but dismissed the notion. There was no point. Joshua was scheduled for Conversion in only two days; he would have a completely new mouth full of strong healthy teeth immediately after.
When Josh had been treated, he needed to be assigned a new place to sleep. Bethany attended to that matter while Dr. Pastern went to have a talk with Silverbell.
The man had not moved since the incident, sitting on his cot, his head still down. Roselyn shooed the frightened, shocked crowd of applicants away from the room, entered, and sat down on the other cot, facing Silverbell.
"They say Conversion cures all earthly ills. Is that true, wise physician? Silverbell spoke without looking up.
"As far as all available research can demonstrate." Pastern was unsure what else to say.
"It cures the mind and salves the heart, this is also what they say."
Dr. Pastern understood. "'Conversion's glory is to calm contending kings'"
Silverbell looked up at that. "Not bad, doctor, not bad at all."
"I have never seen a newfoal display even the tiniest violent tendency, Silverbell. Conversion seems to take all human aggression away forever. In its place is a peace and a joy that... I envy very much." Roselyn could not relax, but she did feel that the situation was stable.
"So, why is it that the good doctor has not joined the noble equine race, then?" A faint smile played on Silverbell's lips.
"For now, at least, it is my job to ferry others across the Styx. But someday, someday we all must. There are days I just think, to hell with it, and I seriously consider making the next dose my own. I'm too responsible, I guess."
"Shall I still be so ferried, in the morning then, Dr. Charon?" Silverbell's face had become a mask, it was impossible to read it.
"If you like, we could do you right now." Immediate Conversion would put everyone's nerves at ease.
"The morning will do, if you please." Silverbell stared at her with his single eye, his face still a mask. Pastern felt a chill in her spine. Behind that eye she felt no human pity, and no human compassion, and she realized just how good an actor Silverbell truly was.
The next morning, Silverbell was Converted on schedule, and into the lunchtime cafeteria area stumbled a sky-blue, earth pony. But the usual cheers and celebration were missing that day, for everyone was still traumatized by the night before. Pony Silverbell was looked upon with suspicion and fear; the applicants were unsure whether all ills truly were cured by Conversion.
Silverbell sadly hung his head, and ambled slowly to his room. Carmine Vasquez noticed this and left the cafeteria. Eventually, she and Silverbell returned to the cafeteria. The room fell silent, all the applicants and staff staring at the pair.
"Come on, Silverbell!" Carmine's voice was gentle but firm "It will be alright. It will."
The blue newfoal trotted to his former roommate Joshua, whose toothless jaw dropped open, unsure of how to react.
"Joshua, the human that hurt you last night is dead. He is as dead as if he had never lived. He never should have lived at all. That human was a very broken man. He was incapable of love, or compassion, or real feelings for anyone or anything." The newfoal began to cry, tears rolling out of his huge, new eyes "Please accept my apology for him, and please forgive me for not having ended his awful, terrible life sooner." At this, the blue pony collapsed to the floor at Joshua's feet, crying like a foal, unable to stop.
Carmine stood by Silverbell now. "Joshua, I know last night was hard. I know you were hurt, bad. But we are all here for the same thing; for a new life. A better life. You understand what I'm trying to say?"
Joshua looked at the sobbing Equestrian. The newfoal version of Silverbell looked up with innocent eyes filled with sadness and regret. "Ith okay, Thillverbell. I'll hath new theeth the day after tomorrow anyway." Silverbell clutched Joshua's near leg between his own and nuzzled his head against Josh's knee, a pony hug.
Josh reached down and scratched Silverbell's ears. "Hey, come on, let'th get you thum lunth. Ith your firth meal ath a pony, rigth?"
"I'm really proud of you both!" Carmine beamed, and soon the cafeteria was back to the usual happy ritual of enjoying a newfoal's first meal of equine food. "Come on, Thilverbell, what'th it thaste like?" Joshua was curious to know.
Throughout her two weeks of orientation, Carmine became increasingly confident. She enjoyed helping applicants and newfoals alike, and, until they left for Equestria, she had become close to both the new Silverbell and the new Joshua, now a dark purple and gold pegasus, who Silverbell had named 'Midsummer Night'.
Thus it was that it came to be her day, and at Dr. Pastern's request, she was scheduled for the coveted Morning Conversion.
The loudspeaker filled the air "Helloooo all you animals! We're going to have a new pony in the stable today, so big cheer for today's lucky contestant! Carmine Rosalita Guadalupe Vasquez, the girl with a name for each leg - " That got a chuckle from the breakfast crowd - "It's POOOONYYYY TIIIIMMMMMEEE!!!" Cheers erupted, and Carmine got up from her simple bowl of oatmeal and bowed to her fellow applicants.
"If any of you ask me what alfalfa tastes like when I come back, I'll whip you with my new tail!" Carmine grinned.
"You can whip me any day!" came a voice from the crowd. Carmine stuck her tongue out at nobody and everybody.
Inside the Conversion Room, Dr. Pastern carefully measured out the correct dosage of Anesthesone Beta, which the database had presented as the safest option. Conversion was painful and disorienting, dreadfully so, thus appropriate anesthesia was a normal part of the procedure. The anesthetic agent was mixed into the ponification serum just prior to its administration to the patient. Time was a factor, because the serum itself would begin to break down and convert the agent fairly rapidly, rendering the anesthetic function useless.
Dr. Pastern waited while Lynn, Pastern's physician assistant, had gotten Carmine ready for Conversion. Lynn made sure that Carmine was aware of what was going on, that she was fully committed to the procedure, that she understood its permanence, the usual patient prep. Carmine was asked to undress fully, and to lay on her side on the table. At this point, Dr. Pastern measured out precisely three ounces of the nanotechnomagical plasm from its Erlenmeyer flask, then mixed the purple fluid into the Anesthesone already in the usual small white cup.
"Dr. Pastern?" Carmine was doing her best to show modesty despite lying naked on a table "How many times have you done this?" Patients often asked odd questions just before the administration of serum, it was just nervousness.
"Oh, gosh... Lynn?" The PA shrugged. Pastern couldn't remember exactly either. "It's been hundreds. I do three a day, on the days I work, and I've been here for almost six months. Hundreds. I've seen a lot of people become ponies." Pastern carefully brought the white plastic cup over to the table. "Just swallow this and the process will begin. You will fall asleep, and when you wake, you will wake to hooves and maybe even a horn, or wings."
"I actually never thought much about what kind of pony I'd become. Do you know what I will be?"
"There is no way to predict it. It is determined by genetic factors, so we'll just have to see. Ok. Are you ready?" Pastern saw the girl nod, and so she handed her the cup.
Carmine lifted herself slightly, in order to drink more easily. "It... it tastes like grape. Sort of."
"That's what they say." But by then, Carmine was already flat on the table, and the serum was beginning its work.
Carmine's flesh became first waxy, then shiny like melted plastic. Her fingers drew together and melted into each other as her hands stretched and swelled. Her toes vanished into the thick blobs that had become the end of her legs. Dr. Pastern and her PA Lynn watched as Carmine's head expanded and her neck thickened and elongated. Her eyes submerged briefly, only to return as rapidly growing globes, just under unbroken skin. In minutes they were almost the size of cantaloups, still completely sealed by flowing, rippling flesh.
As the blobs that terminated her legs formed into fetlocks and coronets, hooves grew and took shape. Carmine's huge skull solidified, and her new equine ears began to open up as auditory canals appeared. The fleshy, equinoid shape autonomically gasped and snorted, fresh new lungs tasting air for the first time. Creases appeared at the base of the eyes, as the lids unsealed themselves from the surrounding skin.
The final stage began. Lynn was the first to notice the small bud that had appeared on the dorsal surface of the bare cranium. A small horn began to express itself, growing with each passing second. Carmine was going to be a unicorn.
Suddenly, sprouting across the entire surface of the nearly complete newfoal, a rich coat of a lovely cerise grew. The tiny hairs protruded as the doctor and her assistant watched. When Carmine's coat was fully in, then came her mane and tail.
Long, strong fibers spun out from the flesh of her thin, naked tail, and also from her crest and poll. Carmine's new mane spooled out faster and faster, a curly mass of brilliant golden yellow; the color of sunflowers.
What was once a young woman, was now a healthy cerise and gold pony.
The time was 10:15 am. 'Conversion complete' noted Dr. Pastern on her hypernet terminal. Her terminal fed into the central Bureau quantum core, and this in turn fed into the hypersecure world corporation database. Roselyn noted the usual details; coat, mane and tail hues, pony type, eye color -wait, she hadn't determined that. "Lynn, would you check her eye color?"
"Sure... let's see," Lynn gently lifted one of the huge eyelids of the unconscious newfoal with a gloved hand. "Whoa... gold. Really gold. Shiny gold. That's a new one."
"Mmmm...no, I was going through Bureau statistics the other day, and I noticed gold in there. It's uncommon, but not actually rare." Roselyn entered the information.
"Well, it's the first gold iris for me."
"Then congratulations, Lynn. It's your golden opportunity!"
"Cute." Lynn made a face. "Hey! I just thought of something!"
"What?" Roselyn was busy finishing her report.
"Her name is Carmine, right?" Roselyn turned to face her PA "Yeah, so?" Lynn looked playful "Well, look at her. She's kinda red, sort of. Sort of a shade of red."
"Huh." Roselyn pondered "A bit of bluish in there, but mostly red. Yeah, that's neat when that happens. Remember that guy, last name was 'gray', and he turned out gray?"
"I love co-inky-dink." Lynn smiled "Coincidence is fun."
Sometime around eleven, the first signs of consciousness began to return to pony-Carmine. Her first sensations were of her hooves feeling heavy. Then her left ear itched; automatically she flicked it. Interesting, she thought, her ears could move. She felt good -different of course - but better than she ever had before in her life. Her mood was bright and she felt healthy and increasingly energetic.
Dr. Pastern and Lynn were there, and helped her to her hooves, when she was ready to try. Standing seemed automatic, but it took some work to feel confident when walking. It wasn't that different from the motions used in crawling as a baby, Carmine thought. This was going to be fun. She had a bright new life to live.
And then it hit her.
"Lavincompái....lavincompái...Ay, Celestia mío!" Carmine stood with her legs spread, her eyes wide with pinpoint pupils. Her ears had flattened against her skull. "No. No. NO."
"Carmine? What's the matter?" Dr. Pastern was concerned. It was clear that her patient was in a highly agitated state. This was beyond unusual, Pastern had never seen this before.
The newfoal backed into the corner, head looking from left to right as though in fear of an attack "Stay away from me! Aléjate de mí!"
"Why? What is happening, Carmine?" Dr. Pastern squatted down, speaking in a quiet voice. "I am here to help you. You need to tell me what is going on."
"NO ONE CAN HELP ME!" Carmine screamed at Pastern "Ay, Celestia mío! What I have done! I don't deserve this! I don't deserve this!" Carmine's eyes dripped with tears, but she was not crying from sadness, but from horror "You don't have a clue. Oh mí médico, you have no idea, you have no clue at all!"
"Carmine, whatever is going on, I promise I will try to help you. But I don't understand." Dr. Pastern was beginning to fear psychosis -it had never happened before, but considering just how profound a change this was...
"I am not what you think." Carmine was furious now. "I am not your good girl, I am not some sweet girl. I don't deserve any of this. Oh, Celestia. oh madre mía - I came here to escape from my gang. I am the worst sort of person. I killed without mercy, I loved to kill and torture any who crossed me. I stole and killed the inocente. Then I stole from my gang, I killed my brother, and they marked me, they marked me for death. Pinche puta, that is what I am. Caquita de la vaquita - that is what I am!"
"Carmine?" Dr. Pastern had no idea what to do. "Carmine. I don't know about any of that. But I do know that you have a new life. Equestrians aren't like that, they physiologically cannot do the things you describe. Even if you were like that in the past, you literally cannot be like that anymore!" Carmine just stared at her, breathing heavily, every muscle rigid "Carmine, please, the body you now inhabit is innately kind. Conversion installs some kind of... ethos. Some kind of hardwired conscience. We've documented it. All newfoals become peaceable, incapable of violent.."
"SHUT UP!" Carmine had returned to rage "Cállate! That is just what has happened, you imbécil - I never felt anything before. NEVER! I could cut the eyes from a child's face and feel nothing! And I did! I did whatever I wanted and I felt only for myself. But now! NOW!" The flood of tears had begun once more, and Carmine began shaking with uncontrollable tremors "One such as I does not deserve this new life!"
Suddenly Carmine leapt for the door. Her unsteady hooves skittered on the floor, and if not for her body impacting the doorframe, she would have fallen. She pushed through the door, and half-ran, half fell down the hallway before Dr. Pastern could get up from where she had crouched.
Dr. Pastern ran after the newfoal. "Lynn! Call security!" Pastern made the door and set out down the hallway. She saw the yellow tail of Carmine pass through the entrance to the kitchen.
The triumphant cheers of the lunch crowd were cut suddenly short as Carmine burst through, dashing for the lobby. No one knew what was going on. Dr. Pastern ran after, yelling "Security! Security!"
Carmine made the exit, and forced her way through. The lobby door was unlocked during daytime, to permit new applicants to enter. Bethany saw Dr. Pastern run into the room, breathing heavily. "Did she leave?"
"The newfoal?" Bethany had no idea what was going on "Yeah, a newfoal just went out that door. Like the devil himself was chasing her!"
Dr. Pastern, hunched over, with her hands on her knees, tried to regain her breath. "He was." she said between breaths.
Carmine found that she couldn't jump off the ruins of the Westcorp Golden Bridge. Something in her new brain somehow prevented her. Now, against her will, she cared for all living things, even for her own despicable life. It was the work of the ponies, the work of the great Princess she had seen in her Conversion dream. This could not be her, at least, that is what she told herself. The dead water was there, and the sharp rocks, but she could not destroy the beautiful thing that housed her soul now. Eventually she had no choice but to leave.
She shuffled slowly along, head down, wretched. Her long, golden tail dragged through the soot and grime, likewise dragged the tips of her golden mane, so low was her head.
Once, her tail became tangled in some twisted rebar. Carmine pulled and tore and ripped herself loose, her tail now ragged at the ends. She knew that she deserved no better.
Inside her, all of her victims screamed in her memory. She could feel her new flesh working hard to censor the horror of the memories, to limit the darkness of her recollection, but in her human life, she had been very, very dark indeed. She had been a consummate actor. As a born sociopath, it was either that, or have a very short run. She had carefully learned to mimic the other kind, those who clung to each other like children, those who were so alien to her, so stupid, so easy to prey upon.
She had painstakingly learned their manners and their mannerisms. She could mimic the behaviors their strange compulsions made them perform; altruism, kindness, courtesy. These tools only enhanced her fun, and made her existence vastly easier, and infinitely more secure.
But now, for the first time, she actually felt all the emotions that she had taught herself to mimic. The emotions, the feelings overwhelmed her. She hurt for every life she had snuffed, she burned like hellfire inside at the memory of what she had done, how she had been. Between rage and tears, she felt some kind of feeling like wrongness, guilt it must be, and she was driven by a consuming need, a hunger to somehow... do something to make up for it all.
And this compulsion seared her. She could not bear it. Life was now torture, she was in some kind of hell, and if she just could end it, within the peace of oblivion, she would be free. But she could not. This damned new flesh wanted to live, it wanted her to live. It was like a child, like a dog, it knew only love, even for such as her.
The idea must have formed during her long wandering through the radioactive lethality zone that once had been Noe Valley. She would return to her territory, to the Sombra Sangre. She knew the paths no one else would dare, the secret ways into the heart of the nightmare that once was Paradise Valley. There, she would find an answer, one way or another.
She remembered the days that she, Alejandro and Baldovín would hunt the ponies. The stupid newfoals had lost the keen edge that allowed for survival in the real world, and sometimes went where they didn't belong. They had kept score, shooting errant pegasai from the dark skies, with the highest honors for clipping their wings, causing them to smack onto the ground. Then the real fun began, after the screaming, broken things had been bound, and the knives sharpened.
She would stop all of that. She would go to Alejandro directly, and convince him to go to the Bureau, convince him to free himself of his demons, of the devils that possessed him. And if she could not, then, he would in his twisted way, do that which she no longer could.
Carmine had become more able of hoof with each passing hour. She had always been fleet and swift; this had been retained in her. Now she could walk softly even with her new hooves. It was not that different from the high shoes she had worn, in the days before Alejandro recruited her, when she rolled johns, slitting their throats so as to take their money and possessions.
The way was long, and she continued to travel even at night, spurred on by her great need to end her guilt. When the night became so black that she could not see her own hooves, her frustration awakened something within her, and a burst of light came from her head. She found the abandoned wreck of a half-melted automobile, it's windshield still somehow intact. By the light that came from her forehead, she learned that she was a unicorn pony, her horn the source of the illumination.
With effort of will, she tuned that light down, enough to see, but not so much as to draw unwanted attention. Onward she went, her need outweighing any tiredness. As morning light broke through the twisted ruins, Carmine found herself crossing the no-mans land that was Hillside. She followed the hidden path that led to the fortaleza of the Sombra Sangre.
She waited in the main room, the salas del trono of the fortress, where all the members met, where she could be sure to meet Alejandro. She sat awkwardly on the floor, proud that she still had the skills to come and go, even in this new flesh.
"Qué chingados!!!" Alejandro stood, in his boxers, his hair unkempt, staring at the brightly colored intruder. "I don't fucking believe this. I don't... Baldovín! Salomón! Come here! NOW!"
Soon Carmine was surrounded by familiar faces. All were shocked and incredulous at the creature in their sanctuary. How had it gotten there, what did it mean? Many now had guns, all pointed at her. And there was Alejandro, his favorite long knife in his hand.
"What you doing here, pony?" Alejandro acted fierce, but Carmine could see that he had been rattled by the unexpected invasion of his home. "In the end, you will tell me anything I want to know. Who put you there? Are they still here?" Ah, Carmine realized, Alejandro thought she was a warning from one of his rivals.
"Alejandro! It is I, Carmine! I have returned as one of the Converted. I have come to save your soul, Alejandro!"
Alejandro stared, dumbfounded. The chamber was silent; what could be said to such a thing? Then Alejandro began to laugh, first a nervous chuckle, then building to a roar. The members of Sombra Sangre joined in, and the room howled with laughter.
"I speak the truth, Alejandro. As a woman, I knew no pity, and I had no conscience. There was no person I would not hurt if it furthered my wishes. But now I am no longer a woman, I am a mare, and I am no longer the same. Now I feel. Now I know what it is to care for the lives of others, to feel shame for what I have done." Carmine was standing now, her head raised and defiant, her ears tall. "I come to you to tell you of this; Conversion cures all evil inside, it makes the uncaring care, the unloving know love. I come to ask you all to join me, to go to the Bureau with me, and give up this life of sin and darkness for one free from the call of satanás."
Carmine had won. She had beaten her new flesh, and the control it had over her. It would not permit her to kill herself, but it had no inner prohibition against helping others, even if the result would be the same. She admired her own cleverness.
Again the laughter, and again the roaring. "So... you come back to us, little puta, and you stand in my home and you tell me that I am evil and that I should follow you to become a tiny potro, and give up everything to do so?" Alejandro stood over Carmine, waving his knife. Carmine waited for the blow, for the flowing blood. "I do not think so." Alejandro turned away, and took a seat nearby.
What? Where was the killing blow? Carmine was surprised.
"No, I know you. You cannot speak truth. I know why you are here, puta. You know you are marked, that you are to die, why would you come to the one place you should never come?" Alejandro tapped his knife angrily on the arm of his chair "I will tell you why."
This was not going the way Carmine had planned.
"You are not happy, being a pony. I think you are even more miserable a pony than you were a woman. You have come here the coward, to have us do what you no longer can do for yourself. Again you use us. Again you manipulate and take what you need. You think you will die here, that your troubles will end here." Alejandro smiled. When Alejandro smiled, nothing good ever happened.
Carmine felt the wind. It blew sour and bitter, and carried with it the scent and taste of heavy metals and industrial poisons. She had been left somewhere in the blasted ruins near the Conversion Bureau. She could just see the edge of the roof of the gargantuan AppleSoft building, through her remaining eye. The pain she felt transcended interpretation, and between waves, she would pass out, her consciousness retreating from what she could not bear.
They had enjoyed themselves with her, but they had been careful, so very careful, not to let her die. They had left her where she would be easily spotted, easily found in the morning.
The short stump of her right leg was bandaged. They had left the severed hoof in front of her, where she could see it. Flies covered it. She could not feel her tail. Her back felt as if it had been skinned. She fell into blackness again. It was too much.
When she became aware once again, it was still night, yet her lone eye could see. A bright glow emanated from her forehead. For whatever reason, Alejandro had left her horn intact. Perhaps he had feared that messing with it might kill her by harming her brain somehow.
Carmine no longer wanted to suffer. The guilt in her was still there, but now some part of her felt sorry for her own flesh. Her new pony body should not suffer because the soul in it was evil. She felt a new guilt; she had ruined a precious gift, given freely. She had destroyed something beautiful just to satisfy her own selfish needs.
Something must be done. She must atone somehow. This could not stand.
The glow grew brighter. With all of her new heart, Carmine cried for the poor pony body she inhabited. Only now did she realize how pretty it had been. It was just another innocent she had destroyed. Carmine wept not for herself, but for the life of the ruined, innocent flesh that she had been given.
She felt an electric shock run through her flank. A strange, almost musical sound caressed the air. What was that? She could not move to see. The glow from her horn became blinding. She shut her eyes, one lid flapping down over a wet, fly-infested socket.
Suddenly light poured out of her remaining eye. Her mutilated body glowed, every remaining hair tipped with light. Bolts of some strange force lashed out around her as her bulk lifted off of the burned earth. The ruined mass that was Carmine Vasquez hung in the air, surrounded by lightning, beams of light streaming from every orifice, her horn as bright as the sun.
Carmine's body melted like hot wax, and running streams of tissue flowed over it. Her ruined leg swelled and burst its bandages, a new leg and hoof already taking shape. A round mass began to fill her vacant periorbital cavity. The many lacerations that covered her were washed away by tides of liquid flesh.
The glowing bolts that writhed around her diminished and vanished even as Carmine sank back to the earth. She found herself standing on four healthy hooves, seeing out of two eyes again. She was complete and whole.
The light from her horn dimmed, but before it flickered entirely out she managed to catch a glimpse of her flank: a red caduceus inside a white, five-pointed star.
Carmine had heard something of the Equestrian races. The pegasai could fly and command the weather in some manner. The earth ponies, which referred not to the planet Earth, but rather to the ancient concept of elemental earth, had subtle abilities related to plants and animals and strength. And then the unicorns, possessed of control over the strange energies of Equestria, that which was called 'magic'.
Nothing in what she had heard of those powers included what had just happened to her. It was known and understood that some Equestrian unicorns specialized in healing, they were the medical unicorns. Once, when Salomón had been shot, Alejandro had him taken to see just such a unicorn - the ponies were everywhere, and a médico was a médico. This one was close by, and Salomón needed urgent help. Carmine had gone with them. She had seen what a medical unicorn could do, and it was far shy of what she had somehow just achieved.
Salomón lived, the hole in him was caused to stop bleeding, but he was not made instantly whole. He required several additional treatments before he could be made useful to Alejandro again, and months to completely heal. This was what Carmine knew of normal unicorn magic, but she had just regrown hoof and eye and the hide on her back, and much more besides, all in an instant.
Carmine knew she was somehow powerful; extraordinarily so. She could feel it, and the mark on her flank somehow spoke to her, deep inside, of some destiny she could sense, but not know. She could not explain why or how she had become so gifted, but she could not deny that it was true - her own dead hoof, sticky with drying blood, had still been there, in the dimming light of her horn.
There was nothing she could do about Alejandro, and she was powerless to end the terror of the Sombra Sangre. She could never give back the lives she had destroyed, nor ever forgive her previous life.
But she could make some effort to atone, now. She would never go to Equestria, and live in green fields. She would not escape the dying, miserable Earth. She would stay, and wander this world, and she would help any soul in need. She would heal the sick, and remake the crippled, lift the dying from death's door, and give sight to the blind. And she would do this asking nothing in return, disappearing into the night, nameless and unknown, and she would do this to the end of whatever days she might be allotted.
This was how she would try to be worthy of such a gift, and perhaps, if she embraced this path with all of her heart, something of her soul might possibly be redeemed.
Carmine stepped for the second time on fresh new hooves. But this time, however, she would strive to one day be worthy of them.
Security had turned up nothing, when Carmine Rosalita Guadalupe Vasquez had run out the door to vanish in the ruins. They were paid to protect the clinics, not to chase after wayward clients. Dr. Pastern had even messaged the Bureau controller to see what could be done, but there was no funding for followup or for pursuit - the plan of the world corporation was to convert as many humans as possible within whatever time remained to Mankind, and that was all.
When Dr. Roselyn Pastern finally returned to the cafeteria, she had missed lunch entirely. It was 1:00 now, and whatever fate awaited Carmine, she would never find out. Roselyn wished that the poor girl would find friends out there - she had been so upset, and had said such terrible things about herself. Never before had Pastern seen such a disturbing reaction to Conversion.
She dearly hoped that she never would again.
Miriam, the head cook for the cafeteria, was kind enough to slap together a simple sandwich for Pastern. Roselyn was very grateful, for she was terribly hungry after the events of the morning, and she had her second Conversion of the day scheduled for two o'clock. Three per day, every day, at 10, 2, and 4 o'clock. Dr. Pepper time, she thought, from long, long ago.
Carmine was gone. There was nothing to be done about that. But, Roselyn thought to herself, the next Conversion was always a new opportunity to seek redemption.
And in Dr. Pastern's past was reason enough to seek redemption.