T H E C O N V E R S I O N B U R E A U :
Richard stroked his son's light brown hair. The boy smiled up at him, then rolled over on the grass and gave his father a long, gentle hug.
His son was thirteen now, and that meant that the little boy's breasts were rapidly growing. Richard could feel them pressed against his own.
"Ow!" Dylan pulled away and instinctively rubbed at his chest.
"You really shouldn't do that in public like that, you know." Richard tried to be gentle about it. Breasts for men was new in the world, and while it was universal now, there were still issues about the matter that led to embarrassment and even shame.
"They hurt, dad." Dylan slumped, staring off at the other children playing jump-rope in the wide open part of the park. A boy was chanting for the others "I had a little puppy, His name was Tiny Tim, I put him in the bathtub, to see if he could swim..." As he watched, one of the boys jumping missed and fell. The other boys went to him and helped him up, telling him it was OK, and that they would try again. "They have hard things in there." Dylan frowned and looked at his growing breasts. "Plus my nipples hurt."
"I told you to wear your bra, Dylan." The boy just wouldn't learn. "The reason they hurt is because they are growing. Those 'hard things', as you call them are 'cores'. The milk ducts grow from those cores. They're like little seeds that grow into the parts that make your breasts work."
"It's weird, dad. Can't somebody do something about this? I thought boys weren't supposed to have breasts!" Dylan was being even more moody than usual today. "You said you would tell me how this happened. You said you would explain it to me. So explain! I want to know!"
"I have explained it. Many times. Why do you keep asking?" Richard had explained, again and again. For some reason no explanation ever seemed enough for the boy.
"You never tell me the hard stuff. You only tell it to me like I'm a little kid. Tell me the stuff you work on. Tell me it like I'm an adult!" Dylan pouted. He looked like he might cry. There were the beginnings of tears in the corners of his eyes. His sister had made them up the way he liked; if he cried, the mascara would run. Then there would be more tears because of that. Boys were so fussy with their looks. Now at least.
"Dylan, It's not that I'm treating you like a child. Not one bit. What I tell you is what I would tell anyone off the street. You have to remember that I have a doctorate, and that what I work with is pretty technical. There are a lot of terms and words that most people, even people my own age, would not understand." He'd said this before too.
"Try. Just try me, dad. Pleeease?"
He looked just like his sister when he did that. It melted Richard's heart. "Alright. Alright. I'll try. It may be a little slow going, though. If there is something you don't understand, just ask, OK?"
"OK dad!" Dylan had sat up attentively, cross-legged. He looked like a puppy waiting for someone to throw a stick.
"Alright. Ten years ago, no man on earth had breasts. Most men were also fairly muscular, compared with most females, and they had a very strong sex drive too. You remember how I explained all of that before, right?"
"Yeah, yeah. I know how it was, I want to know how it became how it is." Dylan drew lazy circles with his finger in the grass.
"There was a virus. It was an artificial virus, and it infected the entire world. It was called PNY-1, for Polytranscriptase Nuclear Y-chromatin, and the one was because it was the first, and hopefully only, virus of its kind."
"So that's why they call it the Pony Virus?"
Richard lay back on his forearms. They had lost almost all of the long hairs that had once adorned them. His hands looked like his wife's, now. "No, actually. The acronym was chosen because it fit 'Pony', not the other way around. Sometimes scientists have a weird sense of humor."
"So... why is it the Pony virus? Did it come from horses?" Dylan lay back on his arms too, imitating his father. Richard noticed this. Dylan needed a male figure, what was left of maleness, anyway, to look up to. The boy often mimed his father's stance and little behaviors.
"No. PNY-1 did not come from horses. It did sort of come from ponies, but not the real-life kind."
Dylan thought for a moment. "I don't understand."
"Once upon a time, about two decades ago, there was a television program. It was a cartoon. It was called 'My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic.' It ran for two or three seasons, and there was a movie. But during the short time it existed, it made a huge impact on the world, especially over the internet, and especially with men. This was unusual, because the show was originally intended for little girls." Richard looked down at his arm. A little ladybug had begun crawling on it. It tickled. Carefully, he let the tiny creature crawl onto his finger, then transferred the insect to a nearby dandelion.
"So the virus was named for this show?" Dylan leaned over and studied the tiny, red, spotted beetle.
"Actually, yes, it was." Richard smiled at his son. He liked the fact the boy seemed cheerier. "There was a fan of the show, or maybe a small group - that part is not known for sure - that had a lot of smarts. He, or they, understood biochemistry and genetic recombination. Whoever it was called themselves 'The Conversion Bureau'. They were kind of like computer hackers, only they hacked biology instead. A lot of people in the early decades of the century had laboratories in their garages, and played around with home genetic engineering, hacking DNA. The 'Conversion Bureau' made the virus because of that show."
"Why? Why did they do it? And what does any of that have to do with..." Dylan dropped his eyes "...With boys having to wear bras?"
Richard scratched his head. Dylan mimicked him. "The show was about friendship. And kindness. That was the basic core of the show, that was what the point of it was. It was about a bunch of intelligent pony beings that lived in a world where everyone was more or less nice to each other. They didn't have war, or crime, or poverty, and they took care of each other. Whoever made the Pony virus wanted to make that world come true, for real."
"How does having tits make the world nice?" Dylan seemed sullen again.
"Dylan! I told you not to use that word!" Richard felt sorry for his son. It would be easier for the next generation. Change was always hard, especially a change like this.
"Sorry, dad." Dylan looked properly shamed. "But still, how? How does it help anything?"
"Breasts were a side effect, son. There were a lot of side effects. I used to have hairy arms, can you imagine that?"
Dylan stared at his father's arms. "How hairy?"
"Pretty darn hairy. But not now. I also used to have a hairy chest, and a hairy back." Some aspects of the change wrought by PNY-1 were not all bad. His hairy back was less than charming. At that thought, Richard smiled.
"Gross!" Dylan seemed genuinely disturbed "Wait, were you like a bear or something? Did men used to be like bears?"
Richard grinned. "In some ways, maybe so. Come to think of it... um, probably. More than most would like to admit."
"That would be kind of yucky, I think. So the Pony virus got rid of being hairy?"
"Yes. It did a lot of things, some planned and some not. Things like breasts and not being hairy, those were probably unplanned. They weren't the point at all. Just side effects, Dylan."
Dylan scratched his knee. He noticed a grass stain on the skin, and licked his finger and began to erase the green mark. "So what was the point? Why'd whoever did it, do it? What does the virus do?"
"It's more what the virus did. It's gone now. Except in laboratories, like the one I work at, there is probably no Pony virus left. It's probably mostly gone from the world. There might be a few enclaves... it infects some rodents and pigs too. The virus spread around the world, but it didn't make anyone sick. Instead it infected people and changed their DNA. Permanently and forever, even for their offspring. It changed humanity forever."
"Deoxyribonucleic acid. It's the stuff inside the nucleus - the center - of a cell that tells it what to do. It's like a computer program that runs every cell in your body." Richard didn't know how much of this the boy would understand, but he had asked for it. "PNY-1 was a reverse transcriptor that used reverse-transcribed single-stranded cDNA to degrade and then replace the original cellular mRNA with a complex of RNaseH activity that..."
"Wait, wait, STOP!!!" Dylan waved his hands in front of him. "OK, OK, enough. Say it simpler. I'm not one of your boring geek friends."
Richard chuckled. Dylan and his sister Megan always wanted to be excused from the table early when one of his friends from the institute was over. It must seem like babble to them both when they talked shop at the table. "Ok, OK, son. Let me try it this way.
If the DNA is like a computer program that makes your cells do stuff, then the Pony virus got in and rewrote part of that program for nearly every person on earth. It changed Mankind. Converted all humanity into... what we are now. Understand?"
"So what are we now?" Dylan shifted, a small expression of pain crossing his face. His breasts were probably bothering him again.
"A lot gentler. A lot kinder. A lot more concerned with the feelings of others. The Pony virus changed a lot of things, Dylan. It increased the amount of oxytocin all bodies make. That's a hormone that helps make us care and be nurturing. When mothers care for their children, their bodies are flooded with the stuff. But men used to have very little of it."
"Were men mean, before the Pony virus?" It was a difficult question.
"Well... I guess they were. There were hundreds of wars, all over the planet, all the time. Every single day, there was about one hundred wars going on. Now we don't have any. There aren't any armies anymore. Nobody sees the point of having an army, because all of the money to make weapons and train soldiers is used to feed people, and clothe them, and make sure everyone has a place to live." The world was pretty scary before the Pony virus, Richard had to admit.
"And war stopped because of that oxy hormone?"
"No. Not just that. Oxytocin was only part of it. The virus changed the part of the genes that controlled territoriality and aggression too, and it also... cut the level of testosterone by two thirds. Testosterone is the male hormone. It makes men hairy... or it used to anyway... but it also made them extra aggressive, and extra territorial, and... well... horny all the time. So men were pretty frustrated, and they also were... I guess... a little more mean and prone to anger and violence." Richard decided to leave out the old statistics that showed that 98% of all violence was committed by males alone. Testosterone was probably a very big factor. Maybe the creators of the Pony virus had intended everything after all.
"So... the virus basically made men... less like men." Dylan was a smart kid. He'd pretty much hit the nail on the head.
"Um... yeah. Pretty much. Having breasts is just incidental. The real point was to make males act more like females, to make them more caring, more concerned with feelings, less violent, and less aggressive. That's why there are no more violent contact sports, no more wars, and no more hunger. No man can stand to let another man die in a ditch anymore." Richard watched the boys playing jump-rope. A smaller child wanted to play. They had welcomed him in, and took the time to gently teach him how to play. He couldn't imagine boys doing that when he had been growing up. "But the virus also affected women too, son. It made them even more nurturing than they ever were before as well. Both men and women were made less violent, aggressive, and more caring overall. And it only took eight weeks to spread to every human on earth."
Dylan sat up, hugging his knees to his chest, gently. His painted toenails matched his sisters, they had painted them together the night before. "So basically, the world sucked before the Pony virus."
Richard had to think about it. Decades of masculinity fought in his mind with the reality of the new world he now lived in. Gone was Hockey, Rugby, American Football. Gone was being macho, tough, and hard. The old action heroes and the old war heroes were all monsters now. Being a man was defined more by being pretty than by being rough and tumble.
But there was no war. The world shared, now. It was unthinkable to let people starve. It was even more unthinkable to invade and kill anyone. Rape had ended almost overnight. A night at the pub ended with singing, and not with a fight. And women finally had real and lasting equality in the world. It was like living on a different earth.
But it was a better one. Even though his background, everything he had been taught screamed inside of him, he was a scientist, he was a smart man. Richard had to admit. It was better.
The world had been converted into something new and strange, but it was a safer world. A friendlier world. A less violent and more nurturing world. Whoever those gene hackers were, or whoever it was, had done what all of the philosophers and pundits and saviors had all failed to do. They had made the Earth a planet of peace and relative harmony.
"Yes, son. The world really did kind of suck before the virus. And if a little discomfort during puberty is the biggest problem we suffer from that, then maybe we should just deal with it. That's one thing about being a man that hasn't changed son."
Dylan stretched out again. "What's that?"
"Being strong when things are tough."
Dylan thought about that for a moment. "I'm sorry I kind of... whined... about my little pains. I'm gonna go see if they'll let me play, OK?" Dylan pointed at the children still playing jump-rope.
"Ok, have fun." Richard watched his son get up and run over. Of course those boys would let him play.
Of course they would welcome him. It was the kind thing to do.