Alyssa froze. Hunched over, supporting the still wobbly Chloe-pony, her arms wrapped around the filly to help keep her upright, Alyssa's eyes stared like those of a deer, caught in the headlights.
Earlier, she had envied Chloe, with her soft yellow hide and pale blue mane. She had envied how beautifully she had turned out, and that she had gone first. And Ella, now a striking coral and crimson pegasus. She had envied the wings and what they meant to her.
But now, it was her time, and fear once again gripped her stomach with a clawed hand. What would she become? She knew what she did not want to be.
“Please hurry, we're kind of in a rush here.” Twilight was kind, but insistent. The shock of what might be going on outside the Bureau reemerged from the oily lake of Alyssa's mind, momentarily sharp and not the least slipping away.
“It's OK, 'Lyssa!” Chloe's voice sounded somehow younger and, well, charming “Just help me down and you can be a pony too!” Alyssa steadied Chloe as she folded her legs close to her body, lying down in that curious, folded way that ponies sometimes do. Alyssa wondered if it was really that comfortable – if she tried to fold her arms and legs that way, all the blood would be cut off. Chloe sank her head onto her front hooves, eyes drooping shut. She was clearly still sleepy, whether from the sedative, or from the transformation itself. She seemed very comfortable, so Alyssa stood up.
Shivering slightly, Alyssa undressed mechanically, barely aware of doing so. Her mind was on her primary worry; she was concerned about what kind of pony she would become.
“Wheeee!” Pinkie cheered her as Alyssa sat up on the steel table. “IT'S PONY TIIIME!”
Alyssa's head fell. She stared at her hands, clutching at her knees. Dr. Pastern lifted her left arm and began wrapping the cuff of a sphygmomanometer around it. She rapidly squeezed the bulb of the device in a practiced manner. As the pressure was released, she noted “A little high, but good enough.”
“Wait.” Alyssa had to say something. She had to know. She had to try.
“What is it?” Twilight was clearly impatient now.
“Is there any way to control what kind of pony you become?” She already knew the answer, she had studied the available information on the hypernet long enough. Pony 'race' in newfoals was determined by genetic and epigenetic factors, the same factors that affected the development of personality and talents in human beings. There was nothing that was available to force a conversion to one type or another, if it even could be done at all.
“Every human asks that!” Twilight was exasperated, the stress of the previous hour showing “Every human wants to be a pegasus or a unicorn, they want to fly or do magic, it's always the same thing with you creatures!”
“NO! That's not what I mean!” small tears started to form in Alyssa's eyes. “I DON'T want to be a UNICORN!”
Twilight's mouth gaped. She stared for a few seconds, her huge eyes wide. Her head dropped and turned to one side. “O....K... I see.”
There was silence for a moment.
“All my life,” Alyssa half cried “all I have done is worry and hide. I lived in my books, I read and read and read until that's all I was. A walking wikipedia. I never had any friends, because I was too afraid to make any. The stuff I know only makes me unhappy – I worry about every little sniffle, I overanalyze every little thing, I don't know how to just.... to just be. I haven't a clue how to be alive in the world. I just.... I...” Her voice trailed off, a tear spatted on her knee.
“In your pony world” Alyssa continued flatly “unicorns do all the complex stuff, right? They do the fine detail, all the things that people with hands do here. According to what I've read unicorns are the craftsmen, the scientists, the thinkers and the students. They do all the fiddly stuff. Right?”
“It...it's true that we unicorns are good at certain tasks that other ponies can't do. That's what we're for, I guess. But it's a great thing to be a unicorn! Everypony has something that they are good at. Magic lets us, um, yes, well, basically...You're right. We do the fine work. We're highly respected!”
“I don't want to do that. More than anything. I'm not afraid of becoming a pony, heck, I welcome it! I've never liked being human. I've never fit into the human world. I just... I just don't want to be the same kind of... I don't want to make the same mistakes in my new life. I want to be a Pegasus, sure, but I would be just as happy to be an Earth Pony. I just want to be something that can run, or fly, or be out there in the world, and not... shut up in some library or something.”
Twilight shifted uncomfortably at that.
“I'm sorry, Alyssa” Dr. Pastern put a hand on her shoulder “but what you become is entirely up to your genes. We don't control that.”
“I KNOW!” Alyssa sat upright “I just had to ask. I had to try. I figured, maybe, you could add some DNA or something, maybe something new had been developed, I don't know... something.”
“It'll be OK, Alyssa.” Twilight's voice was calm and gentle “whatever you become, you can still choose whatever you want to be. Unicorns aren't required to do or be anything. And there is only a one in three chance you would become a unicorn anyway.” Her voice faltered just a little “That's pretty good odds, right?”
Alyssa wiped her eyes, and shook her head. “I'm ready. Sorry. I'm.. I'm sorry. That was selfish of me. Let's get me changed.”
A cup, glowing with faint purple light, hovered in front of Alyssa. She reached for it and held in in front of her. Inside, the thick purple semi-liquid seemed to swirl by itself, and Alyssa could see the metallic sheen of what must be clusters of nanotech, swimming through it. She felt an itch in the magic scars on her forearm. The cup almost seemed to be singing in her head.
“WAIT!” It was Pinkie Pie, bouncy as could be “I know JUST WHAT TO DO!”
Pinkie reared back making the most awful gurgling, hacking noise in her throat. The noise got louder, sounding like someone choking horribly “ACCCCCHHHHHH-CHHHH-CCHHHH...”
“PTUUI!!!” a white-flecked translucent splotch was expulsively deposited in Alyssa's cup. “And a hair for good measure!” Pinkie had somehow snatched a short strand of shining pink from her mane, and it somehow ended up, curled, on top of the splotch.
“EWWwwww! PINKIE!” Twilight was... not approving in tone.
“What? It's got DNA in it!” Pinkie winked at Alyssa “Think Pink.”
Alyssa stirred the mixture with her finger. The spittle faded into the nanogoop, the bright pink hair broke down as she watched, chopped up, she imagined, by innumerable submicroscopic scissors, knives and scalpels. No, not those things. Atomic fields did the cutting, with electron charges performing the necessary...
God damn. God damn, even now. Alyssa hated what she had done with her brain.
When she pulled her finger back, it was almost unrecognizable. The tip had become pale wax, and was rapidly swelling. It looked like it had become a blob of weirdly rippling glue. Oh, she thought, of course.
In a single motion she downed the cup. She couldn't help but instinctively feel a slight gag in her throat at the thought, but then again, it wasn't like there was any disease she could get from Equestrian spittle. It was just the... idea. Hardwired revulsion, she had once read an article about just that. Primates had evolved the reflex of being revolted by such things as a protective mechanism to...
And then her head hit the table, as she fell over backwards. Dr. Pastern had tried to catch her, but she was a little too slow.
A cold wind was whistling loudly through her ears. She flicked them because it bothered her. The flicking didn't help. Wait, that was cool. She could move her ears. Half asleep, she giggled softly, moving them left and right, trying to make them dance in unison. In her dreaming mind, her ears were bunnies, and they were doing a little dance. Left, right, left, right. She smiled, her lips spreading wide around her long face.
She startled. She could feel how different she was. It didn't feel bad, but it did feel strange and new. She tried to take stock of it all. She remembered playing with her ears. She gave them an experimental twitch.
“Are we waking up, Alyssa?” It was Dr. Pastern. She was close by but speaking loudly to compensate for the howl of the wind. Alyssa tried to open her eyes. Her lids felt heavy and slow. Gradually she lifted them.
She was looking at a pair of shoes, and the legs of the pants above them. There was the edge of a blanket wrapped around the pants. Alyssa looked down. It seemed like her head was resting on two aquamarine-colored hills. They were covered in short, fine grass. The grass was rippling in the strong, howling breeze.
Alyssa rolled her gaze down to study the hills. They stretched out in front of her, dropping precipitously off at the ends. She could feel the weight of her own head from them. It felt like her head was on the back of her fingers, sort of. She tried to move her hand. One of the hills, the right one, jiggled. She was laying just like Chloe had been, back in the room, and the grassy hills were her own front legs. She raised her head slightly, with great effort, and clopped her right hoof. She remembered that a hoof was equivalent to a human fingernail. Weakness overcame her, and her head plopped down onto her knuckles -fetlocks?- again.
She was bluish green then. Pale aquamarine. Aquamarine was a good color. Not her first pick, but, what the hay.
She giggled. What the hay.
When she awoke again, the wind was still blowing through her ears, and it was much colder. It seemed thinner, too. She was warm, though, pressed against her side was a soft comfort. She turned her head to see that it was Chloe, sleeping. Chloe's body was pressed close to Alyssa's, and tight in next to Chloe was Ella. All three were lying down, huddled together in the small... space?
It was like an open-topped rectangular box, made of finely polished wood. It seemed about as wide as a car, and about as long. One end was higher than the other, and she could see something like the tops of brass fixtures along the edges above her. But what really caught her attention was what was outside of the box, or rather, what was not. No plascrete walls, no towering buildings, no... nothing. Anything. Just a deep shade of greyish-blue.
She couldn't make sense of it. She looked for some texture, some structure to it. It took her still sedated mind several moments for it to dawn on her that she was looking at sky, sky that must be mostly above the perpetual smog layer. The air still smelled a bit of the smog, but it also smelled of the metallic tang of saltwater and oil. Her thoughts reeled. Were they somehow over the sea? How long had she slept?
It must have been hours, it was late, perhaps early evening. Alyssa couldn't believe how cool the air was. They must be above the smog, above the world. The box was not steady, she realized. She thought at first it had been her. They were flying, and the box was being buffeted by the winds.
Alyssa tried to stand on her front hooves, to raise her head above the edge of the lip. She caught a glimpse of the backs of four hard-flying pegasai, white, with some kind of helmets on. She was in a carriage of some kind, being pulled through the air at a fearsome speed. The blasting wind punished her face, and her hooves, unsteady, slipped forward. She flumped to the floorboards with a gasp.
“That's why we're all crouching down!” Dr. Pastern seemed concerned “We've been trying to outrun an angry bird.”
“How... long?” Alyssa's voice sounded strange to her, slightly higher, and it had more throat to pass through.
“About five hours. You've been out almost all of that time. You seemed to wake a few times, but it didn't last. Do you feel alright?”
“I...” Alyssa tried to take stock of her body “I feel... drowsy, but good. Really good. Really.... Good.” And she did feel good. She felt wonderful, other than a bit disoriented. Everything about her felt fresh and new, as if she had been manufactured just that day. She giggled. In actuality, she had been.
“Well, you're laughing, that's a good sign. Any dreams?”
“Why do you...” Suddenly Alyssa remembered. She had the most vivid dream. She only barely remembered the details, but the emotional power of it somehow reached the very core of her.
“Yes! I had a dream. It was really... beautiful. I usually have nightmares, but this was a good dream.” Alyssa couldn't remember the last time she had ever had a good dream.
“Could you tell me about it?”
“Really? It was just a dream.”
“Every single newfoal I have ever spoken with has had an unusual dream during their conversion. They all shared common elements. Humor me.”
This was surprising to hear. “Alright... um..” Alyssa struggled to pick the fading details out “I was running, over grass. Green, green grass. I was already a pony in my dream, I remember that – well, not quite a pony, but... something like the... essence of... being one. Then I was surrounded by others, too many to count. We were all running together, and... it felt really free. It felt happy and free, and like all the others were family, or... like best friends.”
“Yes, yes, go on...” Dr. Pastern seemed to be waiting for something.
“I was running with... the herd, I suppose, and then suddenly, I was in a vast hall. It was gigantic, I mean, as big as the sky. It was gorgeous. The curtains were like... pictures of the aurora, back in the old days, and the windows were made of stars.
Just then, I knew there were two... others... there. I remember! It was the two Equestrian princesses, Celestia and Luna. And they looked at me – they were gigantic too – and I felt.... I felt...”
“What?” Dr. Pastern stared at her “What did you feel?”
“I... I felt... loved. Wanted. Welcomed. I felt like they were the most perfect mother figures you could ever imagine, and they actually wanted me. Not like my mom, they wanted me. They approved of me, and when I looked up at them, into their eyes, I... w-well..” Alyssa looked down, she felt like the memory was too precious to describe any more.
“This is actually pretty common stuff, Alyssa, what you have described is essentially universal to newfoals, in one form or another. Please tell me the rest. It's alright. I really want to hear.”
Dr. Pastern sounded strangely sad. Alyssa couldn't leave the doctor hanging. “When I looked at them, I felt such love, I felt such gratitude, that... I don't know how to put it exactly. I... gave... myself to them. That's the best I can describe it. I knew I had a choice, even then, and in that moment, the only thing I wanted, the thing I still want, is... to be theirs.” The way she said the words was nothing short of reverent. The feeling overwhelmed Alyssa, and she fell silent.
“Thank you.” Dr. Pastern said, after what seemed a long time. Her voice was just barely audible over the roaring wind. The stars were becoming visible in the deepening blue.
After some time in silence, Alyssa noticed that Twilight and Pinkie were not with them. She also noticed that Ella and Chloe were still sleeping. “Doctor? Where are the ambassadors? And why aren't Ella and Chloe awake? Are they alright?” It seemed worrisome, since Pastern had said it had been five hours since leaving the Bureau.
“Ella and Chloe are pretty heavily sedated. The government goons made me do it. They insisted when all of you were packed up for transport. We were evacuated in an armored troopcarrier. Very hush-hush stuff. You were already unconscious, but they wanted you injected too. I was concerned about interactions, so I cut back on your dose when they weren't looking. Even so, you gave me a rough time.”
“What do you mean?”
“You stopped breathing a few times. That's why I'm here. It was too risky to leave you.” Pastern patted a grey-white medical kit resting on the wood floorboards by her side. Next to it was a larger, bright red case, which Alyssa remembered was the storage unit that had held the original Erlenmeyer that contained the nanomagical solution that made Conversion possible. “I'm part medical doctor, and part veterinarian!”
Alyssa giggled at that. “Stopped... breathing?” That was more than a little disturbing.
“'Fraid so. Anesthesia is a dangerous thing. I'm sorry. Government goons are too scary even for me. I did what I could under the circumstances.”
“It's... OK. I made it. Thank you for keeping me alive.” Alyssa felt very grateful; although she had experienced little, so far, with her new body, her new life, already she could tell she was going to like it. Inside, she felt happier than she had ever felt, for no reason at all. The warm pressure of Chloe at her side made her feel safe and content in a way she could not explain. 'Part of the herd?' she wondered to herself. And her senses... she could hear and see more clearly than she ever did as a human, and the smells... she realized in that moment that the wood of the chariot was wonderfully warm and complex – hints of summer flowers and delicious grasses... oh, being Equestrian was strange, but it was good-strange.
But above all else, the thing Alyssa loved the most about her new state, was the peace she felt, inside, in her heart, in her ...soul? She knew, with a certainty that she could not explain, that she would never again think a truly dark thought. She knew she was now incapable, in some fundamental way, of daydreaming about hurting an enemy, or exacting revenge for a slight.
All the scary, dark, cruel, violent parts of her had been washed away. She keenly felt their absence, and she felt as if she were lighter for it, almost floating as she lay there on the floorboards. It was as if the most enormous tumor had been surgically excised from her essence. Thinking about that feeling made tears come to her large eyes.
“What about the Ambassadors?”
“Ah. Yes. They are why we are being chased, Alyssa. Because Twilight Sparkle and Pinkamina Pie are on board, hundreds of meters over the Pacific Ocean, racing to reach the safety of the Barrier of Equestria before they can be assassinated by the Human Liberation Front.”
“But they aren't here!”
“No, Alyssa, they aren't. But the HLF doesn't know that. Consider this flight as your first official service to the Crown of Equestria. We are a decoy. Sparkle and Pie are being transported via other means. They are not expendable. So cross your fingers, girl.” Pastern looked uncomfortable “Sorry. You know what I mean.”
“The HLF is after us?”
“Not far behind by now, I should think. That is what all of todays... excitement... was about. They wanted to take out the ambassadors. They still do.”
“How far are we from Equestria?” For the first time as a pony, Alyssa felt fear.
“Let me check.” Dr. Pastern took out a handset from under her blanket, and huddled low to the boards to hear over the wind. “Nimbus? How much further?” Alyssa guessed Pastern was probably talking to the racing pegasai with the odd helmets, that were pulling the cart they were all in. The helmets must have radio links in them.
“OK, Thanks. We're fine. Yeah. I understand. Thank you, Nimbus.” Pastern put away the handset, and sat up, wrapping her blanket more tightly around her. “If we dared to stick our head over the rail, there, the Barrier would be very visible. About half an hour, more or less. He says there might be some turbulence coming up, so I wouldn't recommend taking a peek right now.”
Equestria. She was going to see Equestria in less than an hour! Alyssa's heart sang inside her body. She wished she could wake Chloe and Ella for this. She bent her head and nuzzled the sleeping yellow shape of Chloe. “Chloe? CHLOE! Wake up! Equestria!”
Suddenly the loudest noise Alyssa had ever heard screamed past behind her, on the right side of the cart. She felt the noise through her haunches and tail, where they were pressed up against the wall. The chariot bounced and bucked, caught in a terrible wake. Alyssa smelled some strange, burning, chemical fumes. The noise slowly wailed into the distance ahead of them.
“WHAT WAS THAT?!” Alyssa screamed over the ringing in her ears.
“POORLY AIMED, I SHOULD THINK!” Doctor Pastern did not look at all like she was trying to make a joke.