T H E C O N V E R S I O N B U R E A U :
Agent Ralph Vitoni led his team through the castle gardens. They crept from hedge to topiary, from fountain to statue. In the back the incredibly ancient, tall hedge maze stood sharp-cornered in the night. The moon shone down with an implacable, yet loving light.
This was the Royal Maze Garden of Canterlot, in the capitol of a magical universe of intelligent ponies ruled by twin compassionate goddesses. Here the law was friendship, the natural order was cooperation, and the very physics of the cosmos both supportive and gentle. Here no pony went hungry, war could not exist, and every living thing had purpose and meaning. Green and lush forests covered a land where joy and abundance were the rule and not the exception.
It could not be tolerated. The price was too high.
Vitoni's team was efficient, capable, and divided. Half of them were operating on the basis of carefully constructed lies, certain of the truth they believed, but working utterly against their own interests. It was, perhaps, the most important and delicate covert operation in the history of humankind.
The four PER unicorns stopped, just short of their goal. Ralph's side had nothing like them. They were powerful beyond belief, and with that power came also control, both fine and strong. Sunflower, Peanut, Melon Candy and Starfoal waited for the signal to begin.
Ralph sent Reginald to check the perimeter. They could not afford to be hasty, they had to be sure. Reggie skulked to the edge of the low hedges and topiary animals, searching and scanning in the dark the entire time. Occasionally ponies wandered the gardens at night, once in a while a palace guard would stroll through, more to sniff the flowers than on actual patrol. Security was lax in a world without crime. That was their greatest advantage.
Samuel offered to do a quick recce by air, but Ralph stopped him. Low and slow was the order. If Sam used his wings, their chances of being spotted would be much greater. Ralph shook his head. He had explained this before. Several times.
It was annoying to him that the PER side was able to listen well and follow orders better than his own team. His men - he refused to call them 'ponies' - were the Human Liberation Front's best. They were military, every one of them, and they should know better. Maybe it was the process, the gene alteration that had kept their brains human even when their bodies had been changed. The PER, the Ponification for Earth's Rebirth - those teat-sucking slaves of Celestia - their alterations had only permitted them human violence and freedom of action. They still ended up with the uniquely 'pony' herd mentality. They followed orders to the letter.
Orders from everone except, of course, Celestia herself. What a strange joke they were.
The target was in sight. The answer to all the prayers of all the nations of Mankind. The cure for the invasion of Equestria, or so the science boffins claimed. All they had to do was take it, and deliver it. The rest would come shortly.
The statue stood tall in the moonlight. A curving chimera of mismatched body parts cast in stone. Discord.
Reggie waved a hoof. All clear. Ralph gave the signal. The four PER dupes used their incredible powers together, in unison. The statue was wrapped in their combined levitation fields and gently began to float, just above the base upon which it stood. A long, wide cloth was floated from beside Ralph, and carefully wrapped around the statue that was Discord. Ropes leapt like snakes under unicorn control, and tied themselves neatly around the cloth.
The statue tilted over and floated low to the ground. So far, everything was going perfectly.
An hour later found the task force deep in the valley beneath the castle of Canterlot. The PER unicorns needed to rest. Reggie and Samuel stood on watch. Ralph scanned the skies for signs of pursuit, from his vantage on a small hill nearby. Marcus lay beside him, watching the cloth-wrapped statue, which had been covered lightly in branches and dusted with leaves as camouflage.
"They do a good job."
"What?" Ralph glanced at his lieutenant.
"The PER unicorns. They do their job well." Marcus sometimes talked too much.
"I suppose they kinda do. What's yer point?" Ralph stared at the castle and the sky near it. Only a bird. Or a bat. Did Equestria even have bats? Probably a bat.
"What do you think they'll do when they find out they helped to end Equestria?" Marcus grinned in the moonlight.
"Shut up." Ralph never felt square about using the PER, but there had been no choice. They had the most powerful unicorns of all the genegineered newfoals. The genetic alteration that allowed human nature to survive ponification tended to rob the pony bodies that resulted of their full heritage of magical power. The clumsy, partial alteration of the PER retained more of that power than the perfected form used by the HLF to create infiltrators. They needed the PER unicorns to carry Discord.
The PER believed that they were helping Celestia, that the governments of the world had come up with a way to destroy Discord once and for all, inside an underground chamber, with a nuclear device. That this was Man's gift to Celestia, to rid her of her greatest enemy, something she was too kind, too compassionate, to do herself. Ponies, after all, could not kill. Not normal ponies, anyway. But humans could. And so could the genetically altered PER and HLF infiltrators.
When morning came, one of the PER unicorns claimed that she knew that the theft of Discord had been noticed. Ralph had learned not to discount what the unicorns had to say. It was as if they were somehow tuned into some hidden system, some magical connection to events and other ponies. Fortunately they had made it all the way to Team Beta.
The unicorns were surprised when they died. The advanced silencers barely made a sound. They had finished loading Discord onto a cart, pulled by strong earthpony HLF agents loyal to humanity. All of the HLF team were earthponies except for Samuel. It had been argued that they needed one pegasus in case of pursuit to act as a decoy. Unicorns were always suspect. Magic. Magic made connections that could not be seen, and could not be blocked. If they were going to be found, it would likely be because of magic, and unicorns were natural focal points for the stuff. They could sense each other. That was why the PER ponies had to die. They were a security risk now.
The cart traveled the back roads until it reached the desert. This was the tricky part. The desert was wide and their goal, the Equestrian side of the sphere that linked the two worlds was surrounded by Welcome Town, a great encampment that served to process the newfoals sent by the Conversion Bureaus.
But Ralph Vitoni was good at what he did, and so was his team. They would make it. They would make it for the sake of the earth, and for all Mankind.
General Llewellyn Gwynne Price-Davies read the report carefully. Discord had been successfully transported to a carrier which had brought it to the Canadian mainland. Discord had been transported to the site, and completely pulverized with no surprises. The resultant particulates had been mixed into a composite material, and the initial tests showed that the result, Substance D, had been shown to entirely block, and then nullify, thaumatic radiation. It had been tested on the Barrier itself. A suited human, coated with a paint made from Substance D, had successfully penetrated the Equestrian Barrier and returned nearly unharmed. Apparently the subject's transparent faceplate had permitted fatal levels of thaumatic radiation to enter through his helmet aperture. But he had managed to stumble back to the retrieval vehicle before collapsing, despite the lack of a face or eyes.
Substance D worked.
Already the missiles had been coated in it. For additional assurance, the payloads, hypernuclear devices, had likewise been armored in Substance D. Research and Development had checked their sums and were certain of the progression of events. Once inside the Barrier, the detonation would be contained by the Barrier itself. If not, it was likely that the Earth would lose a third of its atmosphere and become, over time, virtually incapable of supporting complex life.
But the alternative was unthinkable, unacceptable. It was either Project Eris, or the end of Mankind through total ponification. General Price-Davies had no intention of becoming a goddamn pony, and he would not allow his granddaughter to end up transformed, foaling monsters in some inhuman, alien world.
Project Eris was Go.
The two shiny, silver cylinders drifted down from high orbit. It had to be a high orbit, Equestria was now nearly 800 miles in diameter, and the half of the extradimensional sphere that rose above the Pacific extended far out into space. Silently, in vacuum, the fruits of Project Eris gleamed in the bright sunlight of Earth's natural star. When they were but a few miles from the great, shimmering dome, rockets fired, driving the missiles directly into, and through the very top of the Great Barrier of Equestria.
Two minutes later, the Barrier dome lit up like a lightbulb. High Command, in orbit reported the glow as being brighter than the sun. The robotic probes at Tycho and Tranquility showed the view from the moon - the earth looked like it had a glowing eye embedded into it.
At the moment that the detonation occurred, Project Catch was in full swing. Posing as a pan-governmental effort to help humanity accept Equestria, the top agents of several nations worked together like a precision machine. The timing had to be perfect.
"Your majesty, we would like to get a photograph of you just peeking through the Barrier. Just in the process of stepping through, just your head coming out... our marketing research has determined that this would be seen as 'cute', but also as connoting the willingness of Equestria to step forward and reach out to humanity in kindness. Do you think we could get such a shot from you?"
"Of course, my little pon... good humans. I would be happy to oblige this request. It sounds like a delightful image." Celestia stood, peeking through the barrier. Several cameramen checked their watches. "OK! That is excellent, your majesty! Could you please hold that position and smile for us?" The seconds counted down.
"Of course! A smile gladdens every heart!" Princess Celestia smiled a gentle, loving smile, filled with welcome and peace.
Three. Two. The cameramen slammed the goggles over their eyes and ducked low. Celestia stared at them as the Barrier exploded with light.
Even with the metal goggles in place, the agents were nearly blinded from the light coming through the back of their own skulls, shining through their flesh, into their retinas from behind. The pigment was seared from their clothing, from their equipment, and from their very skin. But the Barrier held against the impossible forces of the twin hypernuclear reactions.
When they finally could remove their goggles, the Great Barrier was already beginning to shrink. They knew they had minutes in which to act. They grabbed the head and stuffed it into the Treasure Chest, the special container made from Substance D, and locked the device down. Already it was sending a tracking signal to Eris Command. The Treasure Chest was locked into the retrieval bunker, and the door sealed.
By now the Barrier was shrinking with increasing speed. The wind was becoming impossible to fight. One of the agents had already been sucked into the horrific vortex that surrounded the diminishing sphere. The other agents tried to find shelter, instinctively. But they knew it was too late. The damage done to them from such terrible light was already done. They were dead men walking.
The photographer who had asked Celestia to poke her head out from behind the Barrier stepped forward and let the wind take him. He spun into the vast cavity where once an alien universe had threatened to devour the entire world.
Ralph Vitoni stood on his brown hooves next to General Price-Davies. The vast screen that covered the front wall of Eris Command displayed views from air, space and ground of the end of Equestria. The hypernuclear hell that had been unleashed inside the Barrier must have annihilated every part of the alien universe. It could only be plasma now, or what passed for plasma within the strange physics of that strange, green realm. It could not be green now, unless it was the green of superheated particles that could no longer even properly be called atoms.
The hyperdimensional sphere was shrinking at an exponential rate. Effectively, it was creating a vacuum which was tugging at the atmosphere of the planet. The damage to the world would be terrible, even catastrophic. But sometimes the body is damaged when a cancer is removed. This was understood by everyone involved with Project Eris.
Assistant Adjutant General Montgomery stood behind Ralph Vitoni. He looked at the small brown earthpony. There was no way to change such agents back to human form. They would be ponies for the rest of their lives. A soldier expected that he might give his life, but to give up his very species... it was a courageous thing.
Montgomery took the small vial from his pocket. It was less than half an ounce of ponification serum, sealed permanently in a plastic container laced with Substance D. The thaumatic radiation from it was negligible. But it could be seen, inside the vial, purple and sparkling with tiny fairy-lights of magic.
As Montgomery watched, the lights inside the tiny vial went out, one by one. The fluid began to lose color, turning less and less purple, until it became a dull, drab gray. He gave the vial a swirl. Dull, leaden gray moved sluggishly within the vial. He had no doubt whatsoever - the magic was gone.
He looked up to see a commotion, Ralph had collapsed. Staff stood to allow the medics to carry the brown pony agent away. Price-Davies looked at Montgomery and shook his head. Then he turned back to the screen.
An 800-mile wide scar cut deep into the crust of the Earth. Molten magma was already filling the cavity, as the ocean poured into it. From space, a vast cloud of superheated steam was being frozen even as it flowed into the retreating sphere hanging over the magma at the center of the great wound. The final vanishing of the burning hell that was Equestria was not visible, as it was lost in the horrific rush of air, ice, water and molten rock all competing to fill the void where once the hyperdimensional sphere had been.
The earthquake from this shook the planet. It was the largest quake ever recorded, and it went on for almost an hour. When it was done, a quarter of the underground hardened base for Project Eris had collapsed, and the rest was without power. It took the survivors a week to make it to the surface, and they had to cut their way out.
There was not a single intact city anywhere on planet earth. There were no skyscrapers now. There were no dams, no electrical power, entire continents had buckled. But Equestria had been vanquished.
In the past decades, the preparations of the world's elite had paid off. The survival ships at sea, floating artificial cities where the rich and their minions had ridden out the catastrophe in relative comfort, the bases in Antarctica, the underground cities in China, the open air survival camps in the Australian Outback, the secret base 'Uluru Command' under Ayers Rock, the Canadian Survival Centre - all had assured the return of human achievement.
New cities had risen, under old governments preserved through careful planning. Already the banking system was restored, and with it the old families. Now a new earth could be made, better than the old one. This new earth would be planned, controlled, organized properly from the start. It had been the dream of the elite for centuries, Equestria had made it all possible.
The earth had suffered greatly. In the end, one sixth of the atmospheric volume of the planet had been lost. The darkness that had shrouded the planet for a decade had effectively wiped out almost all life, and killed the oceans. But this too had been prepared for. The survival arks began replanting the world as the cloud cover cleared, and once again the brown, dead land was becoming covered with green. Forests had been placed, and ecosystems were being restored.
There was labor for this, labor that was suited for such work. Intelligent, stronger than a human, docile and obedient. The perfect labor force.
The Treasure Chest had been recovered early on. It was then that what had been suspected was proven true, the real source of ponification serum. The contents of the chest needed to be vented from time to time. That was the thing with magic. It was extropic. There was always more, not always less. So every month, a tiny valve was opened on the Treasure Chest, and out poured a concentrated purple fluid. It sparkled with light and glowed in the dark. Mixed with human nanomachines, it became ponification serum. Celestia's blood. Never ending. Never ceasing.
It was said that if you put your ear to the side of the reinforced, Substance D infused casket that was the Treasure Chest, you could hear Celestia screaming, screaming forever in the dark, just a head, sliced off at the neck, bleeding endlessly.
Criminals, miscreants, those who the elite simply disfavored - all were sentenced to but one punishment. Afterwards, the docile, obedient earthponies would willingly tend the land. The perfect tool for restoring the ecology of the world. It was always earthponies. Never pegasai, never unicorns. Never again. Only earthponies.
They retained their intelligence for decades. It was only after fifty to seventy years that it began to slip. By the time they were a hundred, there was nothing of the original person left. They just became strangely shaped ponies, then. But they still had many good years left in them, at least fifty, and made obedient beasts of burden. From the ashes of Equestria, came the perfect worker. They could be trained even to work in factories. They never complained, and they always got along. They would never form a union, or rebel against authority. They were perfect. Naturally, it was only human to make almost everything illegal for the common man.
In less than sixty years, the world had nearly recovered. Most of humanity lived in agricultural complexes, but large cities now existed too, where the wealthy kept order and made sure that the world worked properly.
The first wars had returned to the world as well, as rival communities fought for scarce resources, or control of lands, or rebelled against the elite who had made survival possible at all. Naturally this was encouraged. It was good for business, and of course, the defeated made for more of the seemingly perfect, ponified workers. There had been rumors that the ponies were changing, of course, evolving perhaps, losing their docility. That would be dealt with, if necessary. It was not an immediate concern. Finally the world was in good hands, supported by strong hooves. But even without hooved workers, the world would remain as it should remain: ruled by human beings.
Man had stayed Man. Humanity flourished. As the tanks rolled over the brown waste of what had once been the Americas, Geoffrey Sachs watched the battle from the surveillance screens that covered the walls of his office in his family's shining steel and glass tower. One of his companies had made those tanks, and the tanks of the opposing Western Alliance, too. It was a great day for business. A great day for his family.
But above all, it was a great day for Humanity.