Alyssa was glued to the threevee set, at turns fascinated and horrified at what she saw. She flipped from newsfeed to newsfeed, trying to get the best view of the barrage. For the moment, the attack had ceased, the ocean boiling around the enormous, shimmering, opalescent dome.
The scale was hard to take in. The dome, the shield that surrounded this newly arising land of 'Equestria' was easily two and a half miles in diameter. It had grown to this incredible size over the course of the last year, slowly but steadily expanding into the open north pacific.
The barrage had begun with conventional ordinance, brought forth by numerous zones and corporate states, including both Eurussia and the North American Alliance. The Panasians had had their turn as well, bombarding the shield with some sort of neutron-based weapon. Even airbursting nanoheads had failed to destroy the new island, and so the news was reporting the debate on whether to use hyperthermonuclear warheads, and just how badly finally daring that ultimate of ultimate weapons might permanently damage the earth's atmosphere.
Alyssa hadn't felt that the offer of the Equestrian princess was sinister. She hadn't really taken it seriously, at first. It seemed so absurd, but then everything was absurd, now. In only a single year, her comfortable understanding of reality had been demolished by the appearance of a factual world of fantasy. Suddenly, there was a land of magic and strange creatures in the world, and like most people, she was simply living day to day in a kind of fugue.
The Three Hour War, as it would soon be called, had come without warning. Somewhere in the halls of power, the leaders of the world corporations had decided that the threat of Equestria was bad for business, and so the sham remains of the earths nations bowed obediently to their owners.
But nothing had affected the otherworldly intruder. Nothing, apparently, could pass that shining barrier without the permission of Celestia herself.
Alyssa paged through her hypernet compact as she waited for some sign that either the ultimate weapon would be used or not. She came across images of the first probes that had entered the new land. The robot drones had been allowed to penetrate the barrier, and the world marveled at images of green fields and endless forests, curiously archaic villages and thatched-roof cottages.
But what brought the world to a collective shock was the first sight of the inhabitants of that unearthly eden – brightly colored, sapient equinoids. Small like ponies, with large craniums and huge, vast eyes. Their feet -hooves- were odd and huge, and their manes were large and astonishingly well groomed. Some carried tools in their mouths, others had elements of clothing, and some even had short wings and flew. It was insane, it was impossible. It was literally impossible. At least within the physical laws as known.
The newsfeed finally had something, and Alyssa turned her attention back to it. There would be no use of the hypernuclear weapons. The risk of permanently damaging the atmosphere was too great. This did not surprise Alyssa – she understood the risk better than most. She prided herself on such matters, she liked being very, very smart.
On the threevee, the ocean still boiled, as it would for some time, and now the talking heads and hair-with-teeth were moving into the usual endless reframing of what everyone had just witnessed. The war was over.
Today was the second anniversary of the emergence of Equestria. The powers that be had finally given in to the gentle, but constant, insistence of the princesses of that land. Now, it seemed, there were two, Celestia and Luna, and now their ambassadors traveled the world. There were six ambassadors, each a pony-creature, and like Celestia, could speak and use tools. Two could fly, another pair could perform amazing feats of telekinesis and other strange powers. They were astonishingly seductive. Everything about the Equestrians was seductive, and the only word for them was adorable. That was what ultimately won over the planet.
It was an invasion of the adorable.
The first Conversion Bureau had been opened, and the first few volunteers had been transmogrified into Equestrians. Alyssa studied the holoscenes over and over, trying to find any clue that they could merely be special effects. She watched a loop of an unconscious, naked man, lying on his side on a metal table. The man begin to ripple and ooze, as though he were made of pudding. The limbs shrank and thickened, the head swelled and the eyes enlarged. Hair sprouted all over his pale skin, a pastel cyan hue. His proportions altered dramatically, and she was particularly fascinated by the sudden spooling out of a bright blue and white tail. Long, ropey strands burst out of the nub of his vastly enlarged, external coccyx, falling in curling swirls over the edge of the platform. It took all of fifteen minutes.
Later, a groggy equinoid stumbled and fell, unsure of its footing.
She couldn't believe that this was being permitted to happen. Things must be much more serious than the newsfeeds indicated. Perhaps the strange radiation -magic- from Equestria really was as dangerous as the on-net rumors claimed. Was this really the only option the worldcorporation could provide?
She was alone, as usual. But she had her books, and her games, and what did it matter if everyone else was having fun on the floor down? She had never liked Christmas, just another stupid consumer holiday, one filled with a particularly annoying blend of greed and false closeness. All year, people treated each other like crap, but when presents were involved, when acquisition was at stake, suddenly the neighbors became chummy.
She understood that it was all a sham. But she still felt lonely, and the rest of the building seemed to be having fun. A part of her wanted to try going downstairs. But it just seemed foolish. It seemed silly and weak. She would only just sit in a corner surfing the hypernet, anyway. She could do that from here.
She went to the window and watched as a pegasus pony soared lazy circles overhead. Three years after Equestria, and already newfoals were commonplace. She bought her morning bagel from a cream-colored pony. The girl in 223 was a pony. She was bright red.
God, it was amazing how the human mind can get used to anything. She made a note in her compact to research adaptive cognition, or something like that.
The coast of North America was now being covered by the edge of Equestria. People suffered, to varying degrees, from the 'Mage Plague', many zones and areas evacuated because of the high concentrations of thaumatic radiation. Alyssa's home city of Petosky was a Thamatic Desolation Zone. She had moved to Lancing. What else could she do?
Some mathematicians had claimed that there was some kind of fractal pattern to the way that the magical radiation pooled and collected across the globe. But for all intents it appeared random; one patch of earth could be fine, and another blasted with whatever it was that magic consisted of.
Alyssa had seen her hometown, from a distance, before she left. It had just started one day. She woke up and had noticed that the colors seemed 'louder' somehow. At first it was pleasant. The perpetual smog seemed less oppressive. The dark slime of the lake seemed almost blue. Even the industrial plants that had replaced the old tourist waterfront seemed strangely dramatic.
Then she noticed the patches on her skin. By that time Michigan Corporate was beginning evacuations. There was no device that could sense 'magic', but the evidence of its effect was well known by now. She didn't know how large the Desolation Zone was for Petosky. No one could be absolutely sure – but there was no question of staying in or near the city.
The strange thing was that magical radiation only seemed to destroy primate cells. No one had an explanation for that.
Other creatures, the common mutie-rats and insects of the cities, flourished in the Desolation Zones, which slowly began to revert to nature. It seemed the DZ's became more beautiful every day. Some had claimed that flowers -real flowers- had begun to grow in them. Alyssa had even heard a report of a butterfly, alive and free, existing outside of a sealed environment sanctuary.
Only primates -higher primates- were killed by magic. Monkeys were safe it seemed. But the great apes, Gorillas and Chimpanzees and humans, they alone felt the mage plague. Strangely, there was never any mainstream coverage of this fact. It was never discussed. Alyssa would not even have known if not for the tin-hat fringe sites on the hyperweb. Clearly it was a deliberate genocide initiated by an invading, alien cosmos.
But then, that day, she saw the bunny.
It was white, like in a picture-book. It looked alive. It was real. It wasn't a hallucination – she had recovered from her exposure in Petosky. She saw it out her window, right by the perpetual garbage pile on the corner.
She ran down the moldering stairs. She burst out into the plascreet roadway, tripping over a discarded quantum rig. By the time she made the corner, it was gone. But she had seen it. She knew she had seen it.
A rabbit. A bunny. White and clean. And alive. It wasn't a mutie-rat. It couldn't ever be one of those nano-infested things. It looked like something from an old 2D movie. It looked like what they would show in school to explain what the natural world had been like. It almost looked like something from behind the Equestrian shield, except... that this was definitely a terrestrial animal. It was not a magical bunny from a magical realm, just the type of lagomorph that once was common, back when there had been real fields and vast forests.
Alyssa searched all day and into the evening. It was safe, now, to be out that late, because most of the humans were gone, now. Occasionally she would see another person, more often a passing pegasus or a group of sightseeing ponies or unicorns. The changed humans never attacked anyone. They never stole, or killed or raped. They were almost disturbingly polite.
Alyssa knew her only danger had ever been from other humans. That said, Equestria was an invasion. She wasn't simple, it was obvious to her. Equestria intended to conquer and assimilate the earth. Resistance was futile. She smiled at the ancient reference.
But until now, she had feared the ultimate purpose of this obvious conquest. In this moment, under the yellow-grey glow of night, she felt she understood.
Or, if she did not understand, she no longer cared. She had seen a bunny. She had seen undamaged life, unsullied nature with her own eyes, for real, and reflecting on that, she broke down in tears.
There were endless rolling hills of flowers in Equestria. Blue, blue sky. Water that did not swirl with oil and cesium. And butterflies and bunnies were as common as... as the broken quantum desktop sets that littered her street.
And the ponies themselves... once they may have been human, with all the drives and greed and selfishness and violence of the great ape... but as ponies, they trotted together, gentle, always close, and ever kind to all things.
Alyssa realized just how lonely she was, and how lonely she had been, even back when the world was filled to overflowing with far, far too many people.
Chloe and Ella were right behind her as Alyssa broke into a run. She followed the short hallway, narrowly avoiding other bureau applicants just emerging from their rooms. Through the cafeteria, she banged her hip, hard, on the edge of a table. Through the entry on the left, and there was Classroom A.
She was one of the first to enter. Panting, she recognized the guy who always hit on her from the room at the end, and the two women she could never get the names right with. The pony ambassador, Twilight Sparkle was there, as was the bubblegum-colored Pinkie Pie, who kept bouncing back and forth at the back of the room. A lab-coated human was conferring with Sparkle, Alyssa knew she was Dr. Pastern.
More curious were the four Black Nanomesh-clad, armored soldiers stationed at the entrance and rear of the classroom. These hard-faced men stood still and alert, scanning everything and everyone for anything suspicious. Alyssa had not seen them enter the bureau, and their sudden existence within somewhat shocked her.
It was clear that the government was taking this threat seriously.
“Come in! Don't block the door!” Dr. Pastern waved in Alyssa, Chloe, Ella and a few more who had gathered near the door. Curiously, Hannah wasn't there yet. Maybe she was on her way.
The room began to fill up.
“Alright, everypony!” Twilight spoke commandingly “As stated, we will be doing batch conversions, starting immediately. This is an unusual situation, but I can assure you that everything will be taken care of. Please stay orderly, stay in line and we will be taking you in groups of three. It is a bit abrupt, I know, but we are well prepared for this, and there is no better time to welcome you to the herd than right now!”
Chloe turned to Alyssa “Expect this to happen when you least expect it. I guess she really meant that part, huh? ”
Alyssa looked past Ella, trying to see if Hannah was visible in the increasing crowd. She couldn't find her. It would have been nice to have all four roomies together for this, she felt. She'd only known them for a few days, but, in this place, they were the people she knew at all.
“Chloe, Ella, we need to get into line!” Alyssa had begun to notice that their position wasn't the best to be first, and she was feeling driven now. The three women shifted into place behind The Fat Guy and the Two Boys With Zits. No way around it, those three would be first today.
But that was Ok. Second suddenly felt better for some reason.
In the pit of her stomach, Alyssa began to feel fear. Her belly seemed impossibly hollow, and impossibly lower within her body with every second. This was happening. It was going to happen. Now. Conversion. Right. Now.
Fat Guy and The Zit Twins were lead by Pastern, Pie and Sparkle through the door in the back of the classroom. Alyssa knew it led down a corridor that connected the three rooms, to a big metal door marked 'No Admittance' featuring a sign that looked like the silhouette of a pony. There were also other signs, warning-type signs, possibly for nanohazard and radiation. She couldn't remember entirely, she'd only peeked once.
Chloe, Ella and Alyssa were now at the head of the line. “Do you think Hannah is in here?” Ella seemed to share Alyssa's concern over their fourth roommate.
“I thought she was right behind us.” offered Chloe.
“I've been looking, but I haven't seen her. At least yet.” Alyssa scanned the crowd again, darting her eyes from face to face. “There's a lot of people. It looks like everyone turned out, no holdouts. She's probably out by the trash bins somewhere”
“Yeah. Probably better off too – it's getting hot in here!” And it was. Probably thirty applicants were in the room now, and Classroom A normally only held ten to twelve. It was getting a bit stuffy.
Alyssa wondered if the other two classrooms had also been appropriated for immediate conversion, or if this was the only one. It wouldn't make sense to use more than one if they were only converting the people currently at the Bureau. There wasn't more than fifty applicants in the entire facility.
On the other hand -hoof- Alyssa corrected, what if the soldiers had brought more applicants in from elsewhere? The soldier had showed up suddenly and unexpectedly, so it wasn't impossible that they had come in trucks filled with conversion-cleared people. That was a thought. That would explain using the smallest classroom for the on-site applicants. Or, it could just be bad planning.
Twenty minutes had passed, and the door in front of Alyssa suddenly opened. It was Ambassador Pie, pink and bouncy “ALLLLRIGHT!” she winked “YOOUURR UP!”
Alyssa's stomach suddenly plummeted to the center of the earth, burning in the molten, iron-nickle core. Chloe blanched a pale shade. Ella just looked stern.
There was a strange burst, like a rapid stream of firecrackers going off. It happened again, for longer this time. The crowd started screaming and pushing against the walls.
Alyssa was shoved through the door, several people falling onto her legs and her bruised hip. Chloe had leapt back at the first sound and was pressed up against Ambassador Pie. Ella was helping Alyssa up.
There was red on the wall, at the other end of the classroom. It looked like a spray can had exploded there. Alyssa caught a brief glimpse of a black-armored soldier raising his rifle. She saw people ducking flat to the ground.
Everything was moving in slow motion.
Before she was dragged away, she briefly saw Hannah, something black and metallic raised high in her hands. She had a blank, empty look on her face, devoid of all feeling, devoid of all emotion. It was unearthly, hellish. Hannah looked like a mannequin or some pre-quantum human avatar.
Alyssa stumbled and instinctively turned away from the doorway to the classroom, in order to prevent a fall in the concrete hallway. Ella was dragging her towards the NO ADMITTANCE door, past the doors to the other classrooms.
Three sharp firecrackers sounded. One. Two, Three.
By the time Alyssa could glance back, the classroom door had been shut, but the noise of screaming and crying echoed in the hallway. There were no more firecracker sounds after that.