The bunk was not overly comfortable, but it would do, and in any case Alyssa knew she would only need to use it for a week at most. The rate at which Conversions were being performed had been recently stepped up, the news of Equestria's expanding magical barrier shrouding the very last of Los Angeles - 'Los Pegasus', she corrected herself – generating a rush on all of the North American Conversion Bureaus. Here in Lansing, far from the west coast, the crowding was not as bad, but her room, built for two, now slept double that number.
She rifled through her dufflebag, her last earthly possessions. The conversion process was free, as was placement afterwards, and all the training, room and board, paid for by both the inexhaustible Equestrian treasury and government assistance, but it was the rule that an applicant leave everything behind. Alyssa had liquidated her meager funds, and given the money to her neighbors, what few remained, keeping only enough to make it to the Lansing Bureau. She had left her belongings in her apartment, as most did, and her car was abandoned on a side street eight blocks from the Bureau. She could not park closer because other abandoned vehicles covered every open place, clogging the streets as well.
This was the way of things in post-Equestria earth, abandoned human possessions a silent testament to their owners abandonment of their biological humanity. Now, five years after Emergence, most of the human race had 'gone pony', as it was called.
There was no real alternative, of course. Alyssa had spent a great deal of time on the hypernet researching the effects of thaumatic energy on primate biology. Something about the magic emanating from Equestria destroyed human cells, damaging the mitochondria, ravaging liposomes, causing demylination of nerves and... “Stop.” she thought to herself “Enough. I'm tired of that.”
And she was. She was very tired of books and diagrams and journals and carrying a head heavy with too much knowledge too incompletely understood. She was tired of who she was, how she had hid from the world, the face she presented as much to herself as to the world.
Bookworm, little scientist, braniac, know-it-all – this was her childhood, and she had never grown up. Feeling weak and picked on, she had developed the defense of appearing smart, smarter perhaps than she really was. It had worked for a long time, but the older she grew, the less effective it seemed, and the more annoying to herself, and everyone around her.
Hannah pushed open the lockless, swinging door, and cocked her head at Alyssa “Soups on, Aly!” Hannah was one of Alyssa's three roommates at the Bureau, a gregarious older woman who had come all the way from Oregon. She had family in Michigan, and Lansing was as good a place as any to have her conversion. Alyssa had become friendly with her almost immediately.
The dining hall was bustling well past limits, what with double the number of applicants at the Bureau, and many people were sitting on the floor, holding their trays in their lap, or on one knee. Mixed in with the humans were over a dozen newfoals, recently converted humans, either awaiting transfer to Equestria, or still receiving training on how to live as an Equestrian, before returning to the streets outside. Alyssa followed Hannah to the line.
“Whatcha want?” asked the pony behind the stainless steel foodservice counter. Her name -her new name, Alyssa hadn't met her before her conversion- was Flower Meadow, which Alyssa had thought sounded more like a Chippewa name than an Equestrian moniker. Flower was a soft, pale yellow with a forest green mane, all of which somewhat evoked her name. It was doubtless why she had chosen it.
“Um, I guess the carrot salad and the tofu look good..” Flower skillfully used the serving tong in her mouth to dish up first the carrot and raisins, and then used a wide scoop to deposit tofu in some sort of sauce onto Alyssa's plate. Alyssa always marveled at such maxillofacial dexterity, and worried whether or not she would be so able... after.
“Oh! You have any of those Equestrian apples left?” Equestrian fruit was a huge hit with everyone, equine or human in the Bureaus, and was brought in as a cheery indication of the future, when there would be only Equestria, only Ponies, and the dying earth renewed. Equestrian apples tasted like the ideal of what an apple should be, and had no taint of genetic modification, nanotechnology, or chemical waste. Alyssa often wondered if terrestrial apples had ever been as good, before the industrial, atomic and nanotech ages, or, in lacking Equestrian magic, no apple in history had ever been so delicious.
“I'm really sorry, sweety” Flower seemed deeply regretful “What with the rush of new applicants and all, they're all gone.” Alyssa couldn't help but pout, the apples really were that good. “Tell you what – next shipment I'll set one aside just for you to make it up!” Flower really was a particularly nice pony.
Hannah had found a patch of floor by the trash bins wide enough to sit down amidst the throng, and called Alyssa over. Alyssa set her tray down first, then clambered to sit tailor fashion on the concrete. Setting the tray in her lap, she noticed Ella and Chloe -her other roommates at the bureau- enter. She waved to them over the din, then scootched over to make extra space for them to join, when they had gotten their trays.
Ella was from Boston, another victim of unemployment. Homelessness had ceased being a problem for her as ponies outnumbered humans, and for a while she had enjoyed living in the abandoned homes of the wealthy. Eventually she had come to the decision that a life of raiding empty stores and markets could not compare to life in a bountiful fairyland, even if it meant walking on four legs.
“So, how's tricks?” Ella had been in classroom B most of the morning, Alyssa hadn't seen her since wake up call and breakfast.
“We got basic Equestrian etiquette and customs today, bow to the princesses, say please and thank-you a lot, that sort of thing. How about you?”
“Same, actually. So, you think those princesses are really goddesses, like real goddesses, all powerful and all?” Ella picked unhappily at her tofu. She really missed meat, and particularly disliked that it had been discontinued entirely at this Bureau.
“They can't be!” Chloe had joined them, a tray piled high with cupcakes and muffins – she really liked her carbs – and was struggling to squat down without dropping her load “I mean, like seriously. Goddesses? No way. That part's just fantasy!”
“I'm not so sure” Alyssa began “We are talking magic here. Real magic, whatever magic is. This is Gandalf, Harry Potter, Sorcerer's Apprentice stuff. We see it every day – the unicorns for example. Levitation, illusions, transformations, heck, remember when Whirligig pulled off that Restoration spell on that cup the other day? I mean, that was a direct violation of physics, that was true...” Alyssa paused thoughtfully “...thaumaturgical extropy!” She smiled at her own feeling of cleverness.
“Thama-what?” Ella was always annoyed when Aly showed off; she secretly suspected the girl deliberately choose kilocredit words knowing nobody else would understand them.
“Thamaturgy is magic, and extropy is the opposite of entropy. So there, Alyssa.” Chloe was more educated than she often let on, and she too felt that Alyssa tended to show off a bit much.
“What I mean is” continued Alyssa, oblivious, “is that putting a cup back together like that, perfectly, is impossible. It cannot be. You can't un-spill a cup of tea or un-break an egg. Not by just willing it to be so. So we are dealing with real, honest to god... goddess... magic here. If that is possible, then what is the limit? Maybe these princesses really can literally shape reality itself. Maybe that stuff about them raising the sun and moon in their world is literal fact. Any being that can whistle up day and night by sheer force of will... well, that would be a god, or rather goddess, to me!”
“I was raised New-Catholic.” Hannah had turned her attention to some pudding that Alyssa felt sad to have missed “I believed in god for a long time. But in the end, it's just about power. Government or church, they all use fables and stories. I figure Celestia and Luna are no different. Yeah, we see magic. So what? One fixed cup doesn't mean immortal, all-powerful beings actually exist. Just the story they use to stay on top.”
Ella was disturbed “So, what, we're getting into some kind of weird cult as well as being turned into ponies here?”
“It's not so big a deal -” Hannah was wiping her hands on a napkin now “Egypt had god-kings, and they did alright for themselves, it's just whatever story works to keep order. You don't have to worship them or anything. Just bow and go about your business, and it's no different than meeting one of the Popes.”
Suddenly a tone sounded.
Next came a voice over the loudspeaker “HELLLOOOOoooo!!” the voice giggled and made raspberry noises for a while. It was unfamiliar. “This is Ground Control to Major Tom! Woo-Woo Woo-Woo! Alert! Alert! We have some special ponies here today!”
Alyssa looked at her roommates, Chloe shrugged back.
“All the way from Equestria, well, actually from the former Bureau in Los Pegasus, by way of Albuquerque, Memphis, Bloomington, Hamtramck...” another voice cut in “PINKIE!”
“Yes?” The original voice responded.
“They don't need to hear the entire itinerary, just introduce us!”
“Maybe they'd like to know. Maybe they NEED to know. You never know.”
“Excuse me, everyone” the second voice seemed to have taken over at this point “We're here to check out how things are going in the various bureaus, and today we are here in...” the voice paused “Lancing. Lancing, Michigan. We'll just be here for a while, but I would like to meet and talk with some of you in order to get your impressions of how we are doing and where we might improve things. My name is Twilight Sparkle, by the way, that was Pinkie Pie, and we may be observing some of your transformations as well. Don't mind us, we're just here to make sure your experience is as good as possible. Thank you.”
Everyone, by now, knew those names. When Equestria had first emerged from the sea next to what was rapidly unbecoming the west coast of North America, the first emissaries were six pastel-colored equinoids. Then came their sovereign, the one called Celestia. There wasn't a human or pony in Lancing Bureau that wasn't excited at the thought of catching a glimpse of the original emissaries. They had been all over the threevee, and in all the newsfeeds for a long time, so they were the closest thing to universal pony celebrities. Alyssa wondered if all six were here, or only Sparkle and Pie.
The next class was a special event, and saw everyone - everypony, Alyssa corrected herself: it was her intention to think as much like a pony before she actually became one as she could - crowded, as best as possible into Classroom C, the largest of the three. It served best as a meeting hall since the cafeteria area was surprisingly smaller.
Alyssa and her three roomies sat together on one of the several long benches that filled the room. They had made a beeline there suspecting that today's schedule might be special, and managed to get third row, right side.
A purple unicorn took the simple podium, and she needed no introduction, but she got one anyway, a simple “Miss Twilight Sparkle, Emissary of Equestria, wishes to address you.” Alyssa thought it was probably instructor Silverspark, the serious-minded newfoal unicorn that did basic Equestrian History on Alyssa's first day at the bureau.
“Ahem. Hello. I am Twilight Sparkle.” Clapping and cheers broke the silence, a spontaneous reaction to seeing a celebrity. “I guess you've heard of me.” This was followed by laughter.
“I've been asked to present my original orientation speech by... some of the faculty here. I really didn't want to, because it wasn't very good, as I have found, and caused a little unintended distrust at the time. I was still learning your language and nuances, and well, it just wasn't as good as it could have been.”
“But,” Twilight's horn glowed as papers shuffled on the podium in front of her “it seems that for some, it has some value, and, anyway, here it is:
"Now, I'm almost positive all of you are here because you want to become a pony. This is a fact. You don't come here because you don't want to be a pony, unless someone forced you at gunpoint, but that's a different story."
Twilight looked out over the quiet, attentive crowd. No human had ever laughed at her first attempt at a joke using human language, and it seemed certain that no human ever would.
"I may not fully understand your reasoning behind your choice to become a pony, considering I was born one myself, but I can understand what we have been facing in the past few years. Humans such as yourselves have brought your world to shambles, all because of the selfish greed of big business, and the horrible health habits of the majority of the population."
The papers shuffled again. She'd had such trouble with this part, having written the entire speech in a cold panic while being transported on one of the humans noisy and terrifying flying machines. Most of the content had come from a flight attendant who had explained her own view of how the human world worked.
"Ponykind faces overpopulation, in ways that the tiny isle of Equestria simply can't keep together for long. That's why we moved into your towns and cities."
This part wasn't even true, but it was the best she could do at the time. Only later had she learned that the word 'isle' did not mean a universe, and that 'overpopulation' referred to an increase in the number of individuals, rather than an cosmological expansion. It had all seemed to make sense, back when she was still struggling with basic human grammar. Worse, the whole thing made it sound like the ponies wanted human land. No wonder so many humans were upset. If only she had been given more time to learn the language.
"Our plan is to ponify you, the sooner the better. Expect this to happen when you least expect it. You'll get used to our culture, our food, and our lack of thumbs. Trust me, it's easier than it looks. Because humans can't handle the magic radiating from Equestrian borders, becoming a pony is crucial to expanding the peaceful, friendly aura that surrounds Equestria every day of every month of every year. Thank you."
Raging applause and cheers met the purple pony's conclusion, though Alyssa could tell that miss Sparkle was uncomfortable with it. Reflecting, Alyssa could see how the speech did seem a little sinister in composition, but nothing the Equestrians had ever done, nor anything she had ever seen in them personally (ponifally? Equisonally?) had ever been anything but guileless and kindly to a fault.
In their room, later, Chloe was being silly, something Alyssa envied. Alyssa had never been able to feel free enough to be silly in front of others. “Ooohh! We will PONIFY YOU when you LEAST expect it! Here I come to turn you into a PONY!” She had cornered Ella against the wall beside her bed “Wibble-wobble zappity-zap! You're a pony now!” Both young Chloe and the older Ella giggled like children at this. Hannah was doing her best to ignore the noise. She was writing in her diary.
“What do you think it will be like?” Alyssa abruptly asked.
“Like, we already know. We've heard it from the others who already did it.” Chloe sat down on the bed next to Ella. “You go to sleep, you wake up a pony.” She shrugged and gave a quick derpy look at Alyssa.
“No, what I mean is, what does ponification actually do to consciousness. Does it change our mentation? I mean, this is total physiological transmogrification here. The brain changes. It isn't just like growing some hooves and developing a craving for hay. What will it be like inside?” Alyssa tapped the side of her head for effect.
“God, you fuss, don't you?” Chloe glowered.
“All I know is that everyone we've seen changed so far came back the same person.” Hannah closed her diary “well... mostly.”
“That's what I mean!” Alyssa sat in a rigid stance “There is a world of difference between exactly the same and 'mostly'. What do you mean 'mostly?' Be specific!”
“I noticed that everyone comes back...” Ella considered what word to use “...nicer? Certainly more happy. I saw a guy go in - he looked like he'd never had a friend in his life – and when he came out he was... happy. He smiled. He trotted around and talked to everyone. I hadn't heard him say a word up till then.” Ella had been there the longest, her orientation week was basically up. “That's a big change. That's not just 'mostly the same', it was like night and day. But..” The Bostonian looked thoughtful “It's a difference I could really use.” She looked almost like she might cry.
“Yes, yes, happier, nicer, more polite, but... what else changes?” Alyssa seemed almost frantic in some internally controlled way “Do you think that, well, that you might become REALLY different, even another person entirely? Do you think that is what happened to that guy?”
Everyone seemed concerned by this. “He remembered people's names. He seemed to know who he was and how he had gotten here. Maybe he just got to be who he always wanted to be. Before life kicked him to the curb.” The way Ella said this, it seemed that she felt some identification with the man.
The next day, after oatmeal and fruit, the women were returning their trays when a familiar sound – the tone of an incoming loudspeaker message – peaked their awareness.
“Attention everyone!” It was Dr. Pastern – yes, her real, human name, and the joke of her name being part of horse anatomy was well worn at Lancing Bureau – “Due to crowding concerns, and recent news events, we will be performing ongoing, immediate conversions today. For those of you who feel ready, no further waiting is required. After Conversion, there will be direct transfers to Equestria, with all necessary training and assistance provided there. This is an excellent opportunity for those that feel themselves ready to take the plunge.”
Everyone in the cafeteria area was abuzz at this news. “Maybe it's because of having Twilight here!” someone said. “What if you don't feel ready yet?” asked another with some emotion.
Chloe looked at Ella who looked at Hannah, and they all looked at Alyssa. Alyssa stared back, her eyes strangely wide.
“Simply report to Classroom A if you are interested. You will be processed shortly thereafter. Thank you.”
The women went immediately to their room as if in some unspoken agreement.
Chloe seemed nervous “What do you think this means? I haven't heard about any 'news events'! Do you think it's the HLF?” The Human Liberation Front were dangerous terrorists, opposed to the conversion process, rabidly opposed to the very existence of the Equestrians, and they had made horrifying attacks on Bureaus in the past.
“It could be, maybe that's why they are moving the converts directly to Equestria right after! Maybe we're at risk here!” Ella fumbled for her hypernet compact. She began scanning for Bureau related stories.
“It could just be to show off to our pony celebs here.” offered Hannah. “I mean, maybe they just want to get a good rating or something.”
Alyssa said nothing. She stared intently at her hands, clutching her knees as she sat on the edge of her bunk. Her heart pounded inside her chest. Briefly she worried about tachycardia with resultant circulatory collapse. She caught herself. She always thought too much about such things. She wished she didn't even know those words. She wished she wasn't... who she was.
“It's the HLF!” Ella almost hissed the words “they've made a direct threat against THIS bureau. They intend to destroy the Lancing Bureau. There's nothing on how or why, but I bet it has something to do with our special guests!”
Killing off a high profile Equestrian ambassador or two would fit their intent well.
“Why not just evacuate everyone?” Chloe was rocking on her bunk, worried.
“Because there is no place to go.” Alyssa said the words flatly, coldly. “We've all cut our ties and just come here. No money, no home to go back to. They can't just tell us to just go live on the street. They don't do that.”
The women stared intently at Alyssa.
“There's no telling when or if the attack will occur, right?”
Ella nodded agreement.
“Then there's no way to know how long to kick us out for. That's how terrorism works. They win even if they never attack. They want to stop the conversions. They want to shut the bureaus down. And it might work.”
This was a serious issue. Most of the human species had become Equestrian. There were perhaps less than one and a half billion humans left in the world. If the bureaus shut down, what then for those that were left? Nothing could stop the expansion of Equestria. Nothing could cure the creeping death of magical radiation spreading across the planet as a result of its emergence. In the end, there would be no place left to hide, not even the other side of the globe itself. To remain human was a certain death, even if groups like the HLF were convinced they could find a way to stop it all.
Alyssa was thinking, rapidly, in the back of her mind, about how people were affected by thaumaturgical radiation. First the skin seemed to shrivel and the person became gaunt. Hallucinations and loss of coordination, eventually patches of necrosis. Finally total organ failure. There were zones, near the barrier that separated Equestria from the rest of the world, that could kill within minutes or hours. There were patches all over the world that had become no-go areas for anyone other than ponies.
It could be now, or never.
Alyssa did not want to miss the chance to survive. She'd been there three days. That was enough. What else was there to know? Besides, she always over-analyzed everything. Following her usual ways, she would have haunted the Bureau for weeks, trying to become expert on every little detail. It was her way of hiding, her mask, her wall. The little professor that could avoid facing things because she had things to study.
She stood up. Her hands were balled into fists. “I'm going.” Chloe seemed surprised.
“I'm going to room A.”