"Thank Celestia!" Perspicacity was beyond relieved; the sleeper car room that she had reserved was for one couple alone. She had considered purchasing the significantly cheaper Herd rate, but at the last minute she had decided that -considering what she was putting her husband through with this wild chase to find manuscript pages in the first place - the least she should do is give them a private room. Perhaps she could make things up to him for the disruption in... other ways.
Those other ways were far from both their minds right now. It was enough simply to be alone, and separated from the dreadful Ralph Vitoni, Barely A Pony. That had made both of them laugh, when Wildfire had stated it - but it had also led to an uncomfortable discussion.
"He does seem... strange. Like he's not really... I don't know. Like he's not..." Perspicacity was checking the drawers in their compartment to see what amenities came with a private sleeper room on the Friendship Express.
"Not really a pony. I suppose it's strange for you. Actually, it must be completely alien to you." Wildfire seemed sad, saying this, something his ears and tail confirmed at a glance. "It's because he is alien, Pers. Ralph Vitoni isn't a pony. Not really."
"I'm not sure what you mean, Wild. That would be silly! Of course he's a pony; he's a little plump, but he eats hay like anypony, he stands on four hooves." Perspicacity had found a copy of The Book Of Friendship in the bottom drawer; she shut the drawer and decided to try the thin wardrobe built into the wall. "It's just that, well, when we're around him, I almost feel like I am next to a manticore or something. Or a griffon, from the days when they supposedly ate ponies. It's like he's a predator, almost."
"Pers... Perspicacity..." This was not going to be easy. Wildfire was laying on the narrow bed in the tiny private room, so that his wife would have room to check things out. "...Ralph is a predator. A dangerous one, I think. And I know him. I know him so well."
"What?" Perspicacity seemed surprised and turned her head to stare at her husband. "You know this pony? Why didn't you say something? It didn't seem like you knew each other!"
"No, no, no..." Wildfire shook his head. His blue mane dangled down over his eyes, so he used a hoof to sweep it up and over his poll and crest. "I don't know him as a pony, I know his kind, his sort. I know what he is." Wildfire Starshine sighed deeply.
"Pers, a long time ago, you asked me about what humans were like. You even had me draw you a picture, remember?" Wildfire was staring intently at his own front hooves, on the bed.
"Y-yes. I remember." It was something she regretted in retrospect; it had made Wild so sad.
"Well, that picture showed you what humans looked like. More or less what I used to look like." Wildfire's eyes never left his hooves. "Ralph Vitoni is a human. Inside. In his personality, his behavior, his... soul. Ralph is what humans acted like, how they thought, how they felt and dealt with the world. Some humans, anyway. A lot of humans."
"He's very... talkative." Perspicacity could see that Wildfire was having a hard time, it was the kindest thing she could think of to say.
Wildfire smiled, slightly. "No, I'm not talking about how mouthy Ralph is. That's kind of just... him. What I mean is, that sense of feeling hunted, stalked. Like he's a predator, trying to attack at some level. Like just under the surface is the possibility he could do something bad, that... he can't be trusted completely. That's human. Very human."
"Were..." Perspicacity was afraid to say it, but she had to. "Were you... like that?"
"No!" Wildfire looked up from his hooves; a wounded expression on his face. "Well, I don't think I was." His hooves regained the attention of his stare. "Not like Ralph, anyway." Wildfire's ears lowered. "You have to understand, Pers, that humans didn't have all the... grace... that being a pony provides. Humans weren't made, they evolved - changed over time - in a world where most stuff was dangerous, or poisonous, or trying to eat them. They often had too little, and the way they got smarter over the ages was learning to band together to take what they needed... often from other humans, violently. That created a chase of sorts, between different groups of early humans, a chase where the prize was intelligence."
Perspicacity nuzzled her husband, leaning her neck over the bed to do so.
"Pers... not all humans were bad, at least all the time, and most weren't constantly violent. But all humans had the potential for violence in them, and all humans were just a little bit scary. Human civilization was like... a thin, barely held agreement not to attack each other, and it held, historically, only as long as there was more than enough to go around. Even then, humans would go to... war... at the slightest hint of profit or advantage. Humans would kill each other for even tiny benefits, and we had this thing called 'crime'. Wildfire looked with an eye back at his wife, hovering over him, concerned.
"Crime was where some humans would attack others, randomly, just to get stuff, because they were greedy. Ralph reminds me of that kind of human. I can see him in a dark alley, waiting, just waiting..." Wildfire trailed off.
"Waiting? For what?" Perspicacity was genuinely confused.
Wildfire smiled a sad sort of smile, half longing to be so innocent, and half sad that he could never, ever, hope to be thus. "Waiting as a manticore waits, in the Everfree, for some animal to pass by."
"Ralph Vitoni ate his own kind?" The look on Perspicacity's muzzle was such that Wildfire struggled not to laugh.
"No, no, love. But... to hurt another human, even kill them, for what bits they had on them, yes. Humans really did that. Sometimes not even for bits, sometimes it was just for daring to enter their 'territory' or for looking at them wrong. Not all humans, but some."
Perspicacity did not look entirely well, but she had to understand what they were dealing with, so Wildfire went on. "Even the nicest humans kind of still did that sort of thing, only in subtle ways - they might not kill another human for the coins they had, but they would take their place in a line, or steal their job, or take their savings or find a way to advantage themselves at the expense of another human they did not know. They would excuse that by claiming that they were taking care of their own family, their own small group. Everything was a kind of quiet war, for humans, pretty much all the time."
"You... lived this way?" Perspicacity was looking carefully at her husband now, and the flatness of her ears, and the droop in her tail spoke volumes.
If nothing else, he would be honest with her. "Sometimes, Pers. Sometimes I did live like that, when I was a human, and at the time I thought it was normal. I thought it was the only way to survive and to get some little scrap of what I needed to exist and be happy. And... frankly, Perspicacity, in that world, back then, that really was what one had to do. The whole world was set up like that, like one big fight for everything and anything." Wildfire desperately tried to maintain eye contact with her. "I did what I had to do to make it through, because that is what Earth was like. When I understood what being a pony meant, when I had the chance, I turned my back on the human world, and I got myself converted as soon as I could, and I've never once regretted it."
It was too much. Wildfire buried his head between his forelegs. "Forgive me, Pers, please... forgive me for my past. I gave it up as soon as it was possible. I'm sorry for all the things I did back then. There just wasn't any other way to be; you had to fight for a job, you had to fight for a place to live, for the last box of cereal, for the last ticket to the concert... for everything. It was all competition, all the time. I'm just so, so sorry. I never wanted any of that. Even when I was a child, I couldn't... I didn't want any part of..."
"Shhh.... shhhh..." Perspicacity crawled into the narrow train bed beside Wildfire, pressing her body into his. She could only get half on, because he was in the middle, but that didn't matter. Half on, and half off, she could still touch him, warm him with her self. "I forgive you, I forgive you. I'm sure it was very difficult back then, in that world, and I am sure that you only did what you absolutely had to do to survive, and no more. I can't imagine you ever being like Ralph."
Perspicacity licked Wildfire's eyes and ears, she tasted salt from his eyes. "You're a pony now, completely a pony now. You're my wonderful stallion, and I love you, and I never doubt anything about you. Except maybe letting you haul heavy things up the stairs."
This made Wildfire laugh, and sniff. "I love you so very, very much, Perspicacity Starshine." He kissed his beloved mare, warm, and soft and long.
"I love you too, Wildfire Starshine." Perspicacity struggled a bit; her outside rear leg was going to sleep. "But could you move over a bit? There's not enough... bed resources... and I'm... humaning my share now. Scoot!"
Wildfire laughed out loud at that.
The Friendship Express streamed on through the night; a great metal and wood snake winding around the dark desert bluffs, slithering under Luna's shining moon. They were traveling deeper still into the Southern Desert, passing whistlestops along the way.
They had been snuggling for some time, quietly, listening to the hypnotic clickity-clack of the train on the rails, the distant chugging of the engine far ahead. Outside the window by their narrow bed, the stars shone brightly, each a carefully placed part of the design on princess Luna's vast canvas.
Wildfire had been reflecting on this, between soft kisses and sighs, that above them was a sky not of infinite space, and countless galaxies born of random fluctuations in the state of some ancient rupture in a universal chaos, but instead it was a deliberate sky, created by a being that could be met, and talked to, and... smelled, he supposed. What would a moon goddess smell like? A pony? Perfume? Green cheese? The latter had made him chuckle just a bit.
And what was that sky made of, above them now? A great crystal dome, as the ancient humans once believed of their world? The thought caught in his mind. Their world. Their... world. He really was Equestrian now, a pony through and through. The feeling made him smile, then grin.
"What are you thinking about, Wild?" Perspicacity had noticed his wide smile. "Something good, obviously."
"You. I'm thinking about you." That made Pers smile in return. "And also, I was just feeling glad, really glad... to be your stallion. I am very happy to be that. I am grateful to be a pony, Pers."
"I'm pretty glad of it too, I have to say." Perspicacity snuggled closer into the pit of his foreleg; that was where the best smell of him was. "Wildfire? If that awful Ralph is still a human inside, how can that even be? I thought Conversion was... well complete. Total. That was what Celestia told us it would be. She said we had nothing to fear from the humans because after Conversion, they would be true Equestrians, just like anypony."
"I've been thinking about that. There were things my old... friend... Stephen told me. Rumors, I supposed, but now... there were a lot of groups battling it out on Earth back then. Some were for ponification, and others opposed it. One was called the HLF, the Human Liberation Front. They were... scary, dangerous types that would hurt anypony to stop ponification from existing at all. I guess Stephen was part of them." Wildfire was momentarily sad, but recovered quickly.
"The other big group was the PER, Ponification for Earth's Rebirth. They were newfoals that went against Celestia's edict that ponification should be entirely a matter of free, personal choice and never forced on any human. The PER believed that the end justified the means, and so they forcibly ponified humans at every opportunity. I mean, they'd just burst into a house or a building or a stadium and start hosing humans down with serum."
"Wait." Perspicacity was confused by something. "You're saying newfoals - the converted - disobeyed Celestia and - violently - converted humans against their free will? How? How could they even do that?"
"That's what Stephen explained to me once, before I was converted myself. I didn't believe him at the time - I thought it was just a story, I actually didn't even think the PER were real back then - what he said is that they had been messed with. Genetically altered somehow."
"Why? How?" Perspicacity snuggled closer, breathing in the scent of her stallion for comfort.
"The human government thought they could make pony agents that would still think like humans and remain loyal to the human side of things. According to Steve, the idea was that at a special signal, these special agents would assassinate the princesses, take over Equestria, lower the Barrier, and open Equestria to direct exploitation by the humans. It's what they wanted all along."
"But it didn't work. Not the way they expected." Wildfire used his foreleg to give Pers a squeeze. "Apparently, when the genetically altered government agents were ponified, they ended up with only sort-of human minds. They were all the scary things humans were, but they were fanatically devoted to princess Celestia and Equestria, and not the government. It was like only part of the alteration worked, and it was messed up. So they figured they were Celestia's secret agents, and not the human government's agents, and they decided it was their job to ponify the world for Celestia, behind the scenes."
"What happened to these groups, Wildfire? Do any of them still exist?"
Wildfire scratched his flank with his hoof. "I expect there just aren't any more HLF; they'd rather have died than turn pony. As for the PER, well, I suppose Celestia would have caught all of them and... I don't know, maybe fixed them somehow. Gave them back a proper pony mind and pony soul. Made them well again. I mean, I can't know it for sure, but, really, wouldn't that be what you'd expect the princess to do?"
"Listen, Wild, there's... something we unicorns... consider from time to time. Don't talk about it to anypony, alright?" Perspicacity stared at Wildfire briefly. "There's no way that the princesses, goddesses or not, can know everything. It's a big argument I won't go into here but... basically any being that can do anything, can't know everything, and vice versa. One excludes the other. So... that means that even goddesses can be fooled or make mistakes. In theory, at least."
"So, what you're saying is, that maybe Ralph is part of a group of PER agents that... Celestia hasn't managed to find yet. Uncured agents. Still dangerous, still human, and... still loose." Wildfire held Perspicacity close. "The way he acts, the way he talks... it just fits too well, love. I think you're right. Ralph Vitoni must be a genetically altered agent, a pony with a sort-of-human mind."
"Perspicacity?" Wildfire's hold went tighter still.
"We have to be really careful around him, then. He's dangerous, and he probably has friends who are dangerous too."
"So... what do we do, Wildfire?"
"For now, we play along, I suppose. We're way out in the middle of nowhere, far from Canterlot. Unless you know a way to contact Celestia directly and beg her for help, we're kind of on our own." Wildfire thought briefly. "Um... You don't know a way to do that, do you? To contact the crown?"
Perspicacity sighed, sadly. "No. I don't. I'm just a telescope maker, Wild! I'm... I'm not all that magical, for a unicorn, really. I just know stuff that helps me do my work. I'm sorry." She looked so sad.
"You are the most magical unicorn I know, and everything about you is magic to me." Things may be a little scary right now, but Wildfire was glad that if he had to face scary things, at least he was with the love of his life.
The loud shriek of the whistle woke Mr. And Mrs. Starshine, groggily they set about getting up. The tiny bed was not particularly comfortable, but it had been, in a strange way, romantic, and drifting off to sleep huddled close, watching the moon definitely had a certain charm they had agreed, as they readied themselves for the day.
Outside of their sleeping car, daylight filled the train from countless windows, and the first thing they noticed was... no Ralph. He didn't join them in the dining car for breakfast. He wasn't all over them the moment they had gotten up. At the end of breakfast, both Wildfire and Perspicacity had a dire thought, and made their way to the baggage car that held their great steamer trunk.
A quick check reassured them; the locked, metal box was still in the Luggage, and a quick check with the key around Wildfire's neck demonstrated that the manuscript was still inside. Now that Wildfire knew they were dealing with a human mind, the lack of blackmesh mercenaries and security scanners in Equestria had for the first time become a problem. The baggage car wasn't secured because ponies didn't steal. There weren't any guards for the same reason. Normally, everypony could be trusted. That was what being part of the herd meant.
But Ralph wasn't part of the herd. He had a human mind; clever, devious, and with an often faulty moral compass.
They put everything back, not knowing what else to do. Wildfire briefly wished he wore clothing again; he thought of hiding the manuscript on his body, inside an imagined jacket. An Indiana Jones jacket, yeah, with a secret pocket in the back and a whip in his teeth and...
"Dear?" Perspicacity was wondering at the fierce, excited look on her husband's face.
"Uh... ahem. Yes. I was... thinking about... well...." It would take forever to explain Indiana Jones to her, and even then the Nazi's would require a separate explanation, and as for the whole 'Man of Action' genre... "Stuff from Earth. If we're going to deal with Ralph, wherever he's gotten to, it probably behooves me to try to remember something about how such creatures think."
"Oh." Perspicacity looked uncomfortable. "Please don't try TOO hard."
By noon, the train finally pulled into the station at Salt Lick City. There was still no sign of Ralph the Human-Headed Pony, but he was not far from their thoughts. When their Luggage was unloaded, Wildfire resumed his position as draft-pony and harnessed up once more, was soon pulling both Luggage and Perspicacity through the streets of the large desert community.
The Great Salt Lick was a vast mountain of salt, a gargantuan shining mass of crystals reaching to the sky. It looked like some fairy castle, or perhaps an upside-down chandelier of sparkling edges and blocks. It was the biggest mass of salt that Wildfire had ever seen, or could even imagine, and the city had been built at its base.
Much of the salt for all of Equestria came from that vast mass of crystal, and the land near it had never known rain. Indeed there was a Royal prohibition on rain within ten miles of the Lick. The city was a tourist destination, and there were tours a pony could take which threaded all the way to the very top of the gleaming translucent-white mountain. The scale of it boggled Wildfire's mind; to a pony who had once been a human, it was an impossibility, a thing of fantasy and wonder.
Just off the train, Wildfire saw a drunken pony stumble and fall down near the station house. He was attended to quickly; ponies naturally took care of each other. Apparently drunkenness was a constant problem in Salt Lick City, owing to one of the more unusual - or so Wildfire thought - aspects of Equestrian biology.
Nothing within the boundaries of Equestria - that which was under Celestia's direct control and will - could be poisonous. Everything was safe to eat, and although some things would not make a pony happy, and might even make them feel ill and throw up, not a single thing could kill or cripple if it were eaten. A side effect of this universal gastronomic grace was that some things, when eaten to vast excess, would produce unusual reactions. Unusual from a human -or former human- perspective, at least.
Over-consumption of salt did not cause seizures, stupor, coma and death in ponies, rather it caused a state not unlike drunkenness. Salt bars existed for those ponies that chose to indulge, and salt parties were a 'thing' with the upper classes.
Where on Earth, too much of the wrong thing could kill, in Equestria, if it didn't cause brief, harmless illness, it tended to create harmless psychotropic effects. This was the greatest, most terrible danger presented by food poisoning of any kind in Equestria; indigestion or getting high.
Wildfire had once had a human friend who had died from food poisoning. Under the gleaming reflections cast by the incredibly large mountain of salt, Wildfire could only plod along, wondering silently to himself why he had to have been born human, and later had to convert, instead of just having been Equestrian all along. So many wasted years on such a wretched planet.
Aunt Aspherica's house was somewhere down Nacle Street, but Perspicacity couldn't remember what it looked like. They had stopped briefly and purchased a map of the city; after several false turns and some tricky maneuvering on one crowded market street, the Starshines finally managed to reach the residential area, and somehow found Nacle Street.
The house was wide and sprawling, and looked like a pile of cubes, somewhat in the style of the mountain itself. Salt was, after all, the primary source of everything in Salt Lick City, and this was reflected in everything from architectural motifs to the cubical lightsprite lamps that lined the streets. Salt is a cubical crystal, and so cubes were big in Salt Lick City.
Perspicacity hadn't seen Aspherica in well over a decade. She hadn't actually written to her either, since the loss of her grampa; frankly, she was so caught up in her own grief that she had been useless to her aunt. This weighed heavily on her as she rolled off of the Luggage, and began to help Wildfire out of his harness.
On the way to the front door, Perspicacity noticed the neat garden of desert plants; little cacti and strange blooming cones... Yucca, she thought they were called. In the back, Aspherica seemed to have made a little fenced off area to keep pet tumbleweeds in; the tan balls rolled ceaselessly back and forth, instinctively seeking roadways to cross.
The steps to the oddly-shaped house were extra wide and broad, the vast open space of the desert permitted extravagances of design that were comfortable to pony hooves.
At the door, Perspicacity turned to Wildfire. "Wish me luck. I kind of wasn't there for her when grampa joined the Great Herd, and... well." The silver-white unicorn grasped the large golden door knocker with her magic, and gave a few short, loud rapports.
The sound of hooves on tile came from behind the door; a dim 'yes, yes, just a moment' could be heard, followed by 'such a busy morning, goodness.'
The door opened wide, and a rather elderly mare, pale blue with a white mane stared at them through large, square glasses. Her coloration made Wildfire think of her as a cloud; wispy and frail, hanging in the sky.
"Oh, it's you." Aunt Aspherica stared first at Perspicacity, then at her husband Wildfire. Perspicacity hadn't even told her aunt she had gotten married. "Well, you'd better come in, you two. Come on then."
Perspicacity shrugged her ears at Wildfire, and he followed her into the dwelling.
"Not a bad hunk of stallion you caught yourself; a little light in the brainpan though, from the look in his eyes." Wildfire hung his head slightly at Aspherica's words. He didn't think of himself as a clever pony, but he wasn't dim. He was sure he wasn't dim. He had managed to do a lot of translation, after all.
Of a really old document, too!
"You look like roadapples though. You really should stop stayin' up all night with those fool telescopes and take a run in the sunshine. Do ya good." Wildfire saw Perspicacity shrink slightly at this; it was becoming apparent why his wife had lost contact with her relative.
They had passed the kitchen of the rambling house, and now entered a main room, pictures covering the walls, a large grandstallion clock dominating one wall, and overstuffed couches filling everything that wasn't knick-knacks and little, decorative collectables.
"Here, Persy-Pants, you deal with your friend; I've had it up to here with 'im. Want some iced tea?" Aunt Aspherica headed back to the kitchen. "Oh, and by the way, you ain't gettin' nothin' more than tea out of me, just so's ya know."
Just as Wildfire was about to ask what 'Persy-Pants' was all about, a familiar voice addressed them from the depths of an overstuffed couch.
"Wild! Persy-Pants! Hey, my favorite couple in Equestria! Come give your ol' cousin Ralphy a big Starshine pony smooch, already!"