Ralph Vitoni would never, ever, ever be a pony. This was the one thing that gave him strength, the one thing that permitted him to rise each day, eat pony foods, do pony things, and live among pony people. Ralph knew he was human, that his heart was human, that his mind was human and that his destiny was human, even though he walked on hooves.
Ralph also knew his soullessness was human, which is why he made every effort now to stay away from unicorn medics and pony clinics and pony hospitals. It was the one thing that could give him away to the Equestrians around him, and he guarded his hollowness as his greatest secret. He had gradually discovered earthpony healers who employed practical and nonmagical means to treat the bumps and scrapes and the odd broken rib that came of his various activities. Unicorns were a problem, they were always a problem, and Ralph especially despised them.
Vitoni had been humiliated by ponies, and now that he was forced to live among them, he resolved to make them pay. It would not be soon, but he had time. Somewhere, out there, in Equestria, would be others like himself. When finally the Earth was done, and all was quiet and over, he would contact them, and together they would act. Celestia had brought down the reign of Man, and one day, Ralph vowed, he would bring down the reign of Celestia, and deliver Equestria to ruin. Already his mind formulated schemes - Celestia had enemies, all rulers had enemies, and there would be ways to tilt the balance and destroy her peace. All he needed to do was to find them, and find the others with human minds in pony bodies, and there would be vengeance enough for all.
Ralph stopped at a restaurant and ordered a very large lunch. Eating, at least, was a pleasure he could enjoy even in this overly candied world. His enhanced senses made every meal a banquet of ecstasy, and he indulged himself, because it would be the only ecstasy he could ever know. Women were gone for him now, and with the end of the Earth one day, gone forever altogether. His unaltered human brain found nothing attractive in the animals around him, and when mares flirted with him, he shuddered and felt like retching.
He was bitter, and angry, and he trotted the land, never staying in any one place long. He yearned to cause mayhem, but kept himself from it - in this new world, even a brawl might reveal him and he dared not ruin his future chance for revenge. Ralph made himself the most pleasant of ponies to the natives, always fast with a smile, and polite to a fault, while inside he wished for the feeling of crushing the throats of the gentle monsters that he walked among.
There were no proper human bars, no proper human night-clubs, no human vice or rackets to be involved in. There was no joy in defrauding or conning any pony, because there was no challenge to it, and the result was always predictable. He was in hell, a nightmare of never-ending cooperation, honesty and essential goodness that made him feel constantly judged and found wanting for the thoughts in his head and the desires of his heart.
Vitoni paid for his feast, and left, burping. One day. One day he would bring this treacle paradise down, and on that day, when all of Equestria was in ruins, he would stand atop Celestia's broken body and cry out 'I am a Man! I am Human! Look upon me and despair that you ever dared to tangle with my kind!' The thought made the chubby brown earthpony smile. One day. One day they would know suffering, and in that moment, he would finally be able to cry, because he would not be crying alone.
Leonard Reich walked past the covered wagon on the dais, and moved on to the two incomplete quantum chromodynamic weapons. Their shells already had their names painted on them: Sköll and Hati. They would never be finished. The cost of completing them was no longer defensible. Weapons were useless against the Barrier, and continent-killers would only harm humans and the earth, to no gain, and no point. The notebook was gone, and so were the three traitors that had taken it.
Gone also were four squads of Frontsmen, an entire platoon, handed over to the Worldgovernment as statues. Reich had little doubt of what the Worldgovernment would do with his men. They would be returned to flesh and summarily converted. Changed into ponies, they would no longer wish to continue the war against Celestia and her empire. They would suddenly see how 'wrong' they had been, and feel 'shame' for how much 'suffering' they had caused. They would tell everything in an effort to atone. The base was already busy with the evacuation effort. They had perhaps two days at most. Project Gypsy Traveler was over, forever. They would have to start again entirely, somewhere else.
In Leo's head, the dream briefly lived again. It would have worked, he was as sure of that as he had been when the project had begun. With that map, they could have identified the exact location of Discord, the greatest threat Celestia had ever faced. They could have drawn up plans to take the statue and transport it out of Equestria. Within an old nuclear testing facility, underground, the statue could be pulverized, and the fine dust used to coat Sköll and Hati entirely, protecting the missiles from the Barrier. In an instant, Equestria would have become strangelet plasma, hotter than any star, and the incursion would reverse. The Equestrian bubble would have collapsed, shrinking away beyond the universe itself, back into the multiversal spaces and dimensions that it had come from.
The Earth would have been left with a scar, and terrible damage, but it would have lived. Earthponies could have been forced to serve mankind, restoring the world, and healing the damage. There had even been a plan to secure the means to make more earthponies as needed. It would have been the answer. It could have saved the Earth, and preserved the dominion of Man.
But now, that dream was gone. Vitoni had failed, and he too was gone. To Equestria, apparently, beyond all reach.
Leonard Reich patted the unfinished casing of Sköll, and walked on. Around him the sounds of evacuation raged. He had thought, briefly, of remotely releasing the neurotoxin some time after the HLF had escaped, but in the end, he had simply shrugged. It might be possible to collect it, or some of it, later, and it could prove valuable. Every asset possible needed to be preserved, now. In losing the base, the HLF had lost much. It would take a long time to recover, and there was not much time remaining.
Damn, Leo thought. It would have worked. It absolutely would have worked.
Derpalina Ditzy Doo Hooves hugged her little unicorn daughter Dinky, and kissed her poll and muzzle. The foal squealed with delight and happiness at the attention. "Di... did the bad man like my drawing? Did he Mama? Papa? Did he like my drawing?"
Time Turner Hooves sat down and embraced his wife and daughter with his forehooves. "I dare say he found it... unforgettable, my dearest Dinkums. Wouldn't you agree, Derpalina?"
"Hmmm?" The gray pegasus had already likely begun to forget the details of the day's adventures, beyond the happy feeling of having been on an outing. It was for the best, really, thought Turner. The princesses tended to visit Derpalina at odd times, and the less she remembered the less she might accidentally blurt out. Her forgetfulness was a blessing, really. Turner loved Derpalina dearly, and she was always there when she was needed, with an absolutely uncanny luck to her. The most outrageous mistakes might be made, but somehow, they always ended up working to Turner's advantage. It was positively Taoist. Or possibly Zen. He never could get those Earth philosophies straight.
"Haycakes!" Dinky Doo was bouncing in her hooves. "You said we could have haycakes tonight, when you got back! Haycakes! Haycakes!"
"We've had haycakes every day this week, Dinky!" Papa Turner ruffled Dinky's mane. "How about a nice vegetable stew? Or hay almondine - that's good! Or maybe pumpkin puffs in mushroom gravy? How about that? Mmmm-mmm!!!"
"HAYCAKES!" Dinky was adamant.
"We're spoiling her, you know that don't you?" Turner moved to the kitchen and began measuring flour.
"How abou' I tell you abou' our amaze-ing aventures while papa makes haycakes???!!!" Derpalina jumped onto the couch and patted it with a hoof for Dinky to follow.
"OK, mama!" Dinky clambered onto the couch, her little tail flicking about as she pulled herself up and onto the cushions.
"Well, there was this big scary Nanny-Fac'ry! An' a whole buncha lockers an' we had to find JUST THE RIGHT ONE!" Derpalina rolled her eyes, which always made Dinky laugh.
The sound of an egg hitting the floor came from the kitchen. "Oh, swirl! I'll get that, no worries!" Turner's hooves made sharp noises, as he likely worked to clean up the mess.
"How'd you find the right locker?" Dinky was enthralled. She'd never seen the human world, so anything about it sounded dangerous and exciting.
"NUMBERS!" Derpalina clopped her hooves together in excitement "Daddy knew the numbers they use there and foun' the locker on the secon' floor! It was really BIG! An' really SCARY! An' it was all made out of metal and it was dark, too!"
Ditzy shivered. "Were you scared?"
"Naw... well, maybe a little!" Derpalina held her daughter close. "But daddy was there, so I knew everythin' was OH-KAY-DOH-KAY!"
Dinky laughted at that.
The sound of a pan dropping in the kitchen was followed by Turner shouting "Not to fear! Forgot to use a pot holder. Mouth's OK! Dinner might be a little late, that's all!"
Dinky looked up at her mother. "Daddy's silly."
Derpalina shook her head. "No, Daddy is wunnerful. Daddy is always wunnerful."
Dinner was a little late though.
Paige reared and stomped her forehooves, making little puffs of dust in the dirt road. The dust sparkled in the light, because of the tiny gemstone fragments within it. "WHOO-HOO! I have HOOVES!"
Inkwell shook her head, but grinned. "Yes, Paige. You have hooves. And they are awesome."
"Muffin' RIGHT!" Paige was prancing now, as they walked to the train. She was trying to be fancy and stumbled and almost fell. "Oops! Hee hee hee!" She giggled for some time at that.
"She's got it bad." Petrichor sighed.
"Bad? Oh! Of course..!" Inkwell nodded.
"CONVERSION EUPHORIA!" Pet and Inkwell said together.
Paige was galloping now, in circles around them. Other ponies were avoiding the scene for fear of being trampled.
"Was I this bad?" Inkwell glanced at Petrichor.
"Naw. You were positively sedate. Intellectual about it. Hardly affected you at all." Petrichor called to Paige, to get her to settle down.
Inkwell considered that for a moment. "I've read that conversion euphoria affects every Newfoal differently. Some become almost drunk on it, others it hardly affects at all. It has something to do with individual genetics and brain chemis..."
"I AM A POOOOONNNNAAAAYYYY!!!!!" Paige yelled at the world in general - some of the ponies on the street giggled and waved, other just shook their heads and muttered something about Newfoals being silly.
"I feel cheated now." Inkwell watched as Paige gamboled, leaping and hopping, over to her.
"OH, you should have seen Pet, Inks!" Paige was breathing hard from running and jumping about.
"Don't listen to her, Inks!" Pet shook her head.
"Pet ran around the whole apartment! She bounced on the couch - that's why it had that saggy spot! She bucked the door open - those two broken bits on the bedroom door? That was her!" Paige was smiling and grinning at all the cottages as they made their way down the street.
"Why'd she kick the door?" Inkwell tried to imagine the event.
"Because she could!" Paige grinned wickedly. "After being in that wheelchair, she was a wildpony for almost a week! We got so many complaints for noise - she went muffin' nuts!"
Petrichor hung her head and ruffled her wings.
"So... how's it feel now?" Inkwell and Petrichor had been asking Paige for updates on her experiences as a brand new pony since they had been rescued and transported to Equestria in a burst of light. They only talked about meeting Luna in hushed tones, late at night. It was just too special, too sacred an event to speak of casually during the day.
"I feel POWERFUL!!!" Paige's shout startled a pale violet pony carrying a basket of flowers, she jumped slightly, so Petrichor waved at her in apology and Inkwell looked briefly down, ears flat, in embarrassment. "I may have lost Lil' Slugger, but now..." Paige stopped in the street and bucked the air with her back hooves "...now I've got two new Lil' Sluggers and I feel like I could buck down a fluffin' archology!"
"I bet you could!" Inkwell was impressed with the sheer stamina and power that Paige possessed. She had become an earthpony, well muscled, sky blue with a darker blue mane and tail. She was magnificent.
"Fluffin'???" Petrichor was incredulous. "That's new."
"Yeah, fluffin'! Like it?" Paige danced about, giddy. "Oh! And I am not 'Paige' anymore! I am Shinyhooves!"
Petrichor stopped and facehoofed. "No, you are NOT 'Shinyhooves'."
Paige held up her right foreleg "But LOOK at them! They are SOOOO shiny!"
Inkwell sighed again. She felt like she had been sighing at one thing or another the entire day. "Yes, they are very, very shiny, but 'Shinyhooves' is not a good name. Seriously. Wait until you are over the worst of the euphoria before you try to pick a pony name, OK?"
"Oh come on, party pooper!" Paige - or Shinyhooves - nickered and tried to strike a dramatic pose. "I can always change it. No law in Equestria says you gots to keep your name. I could change it tomorrow!"
"She has a point, Inks." Petrichor unhappily agreed. "She could have a different name for each day of the week and it would be cool here. Annoying and confusing, maybe, but totally cool."
"I am... 'Joy Shinyhooves!' Because that is what I feel, and that is what these are!" Paige - Joy - bucked, then reared, waggling her hooves and laughing the whole time.
"I think we finally have an explanation for all the crazy Newfoal names now." Inkwell commiserated with Pet "They pick them while high on conversion euphoria."
"I originally wanted to call myself 'Brightwings Lightningflash' but Paige talked me out of it." Petrichor half-smiled at Inkwell as they continued towards the train station.
"JOY!" The blue earthpony interrupted. "I'm JOY SHINYHOOVES!"
"Oh, sweet Luna..." Pet looked aghast "...She's serious about it, isn't she?"
"I'm JOY! I'm JOY! I am soooo filled with JOY!" Paige was bouncing now, on her hooves, her eyes little inverted smiles of ecstatic happiness.
"I guess she's 'Joy' now, but that 'Shinyhooves' part has to go." Inkwell was getting very good at sighing today. She was thinking of going into it professionally. "Humor her, until the euphoria wears off."
Petrichor had to pull away from a big sloppy kiss from the overexcited earthpony "IF it wears off!"
"I hope it NEVER DOES!" Joy Shinyhooves, the very silly blue earthpony romped around, seemingly tireless.
"Earthpony stamina. It will destroy us, you know that, don't you?" Inkwell shook her head as they walked. "I feel exhausted just watching her. I'm already eager for bed, and the day isn't half over!'
"You actually think you are going to get any sleep tonight again?" Petrichor yawned. "Earthpony stamina! There are good points too, you know." Pet gave a wicked, naughty grin. Inkwell returned it.
"Yes, there are compensations, I suppose." Inkwell turned to the prancing Joy. "So, 'Shinyhooves'... you still happy?"
Joy stopped in the street and thoughtfully considered, hoof to muzzle, pondering. "No. No I am not happy." She suddenly beamed like a star going nova "I AM SUPER-DUPER UBER-HAPPY!!!"
"Oh for Pony's sake!" Inkwell had no more head shaking or sighing left, and had to resort to emergency facehoofing instead.
Petrichor laughed. "Come on, Inks, let's get her to the train. Once we're relocated, and in our new house, we can tie her down on the bed for a while."
Joy Shinyhooves suddenly spun and grinned broadly at Petrichor and Inkwell. "Promise???"
Rose Cottage sat at the intersection of Branmash and Kimberwicke Lane in Clydesdale. It was a lovely, rambling Tudor-style cottage, with a wide, green lawn covered with thick, tasty grasses. Near the road grew flowers of every flavor, and in the back was a well-kept vegetable and fruit garden. The sides of the cottage had trellises upon which grew roses which climbed nearly to the top of the two-story home.
The garden and the grounds were the work of the younger earthpony mare that Rose had taken in. Rose had felt lonely for some years since Petal had gotten married to a nice group of ponies and moved away. Rose had spent several decades with Petal Confetti, until the little teal unicorn had gone off on an adventure with a pony named Teacup. The two had become the best of friends, and over the years had become a family, but Rose had never felt comfortable with their little group. They were so much younger, and when they took over the Provender farm, well, Rose had elected to stay in her cottage. Rose loved her cottage. It was more than just a house, it was her proper and true home, and she knew that with every fiber of her being.
When after a few decades of living alone - or was it longer? It was hard to tell, what with how long the living was in Equestria. The years just flew by, and... well, anyway, when Rose had met the sad peach-colored earthpony and heard her story - her beloved husband had died and she was so very alone - the only thing to do was to bring her home. It just seemed the right thing to do, since they were old friends and all, and truth be told, they got along as if they had been close and loving sisters their entire lives.
Rose flipped through her scrapbook. Caprice had one too, it seemed most elder mares basically came with scrapbooks, it was like some kind of requirement. It was also a comfort. A scrapbook could hold the details of a life, long after the events were history, and it could awaken old feelings, good and bad, precious treasures each and every one.
It didn't seem to be there. Rose began flipping the pages, using her right wing to whip them over. Wings were for more than flying, Rose often said. Of course, using them for all sorts of things meant occasionally losing the odd feather, and a copper pinion fluttered down onto the current page. "Ah." Rose took her lost feather in her teeth and set it aside. There were uses for feathers, and she had a strong 'waste not, want not' ethic, likely derived from her life back on earth, long, long, long ago. That was a place of scarcity, old earth was. Never enough. Not like Equestria. Still, habits are hard to break.
"What are you looking for?" Caprice ambled in. She was old now, and her peach coat was streaked with touches of gray, and her mane with white. Rose's mane had turned almost entirely white long ago, though she was proud of her copper-red coat. Somehow that still looked young, even though she was older than Caprice. Her bright coat was a matter of some pride to Rose.
"Oh... I can't find anything in here about my days on the potion project. I worked on it, you know. Had top-level security clearance and everything!" Rose continued to flip through her scrapbook, brushing the pages with her wing and occasionally using her lips when a page was stuck or didn't want to behave.
"I remember. You told me much later, after we met again in Equestria. You said you did something that made potion possible." Caprice curled up next to Rose on the wide, old sofa.
"Yes. I did something or other to the nano... stuff. Because the mighty chondria were acting up or something. I don't remember anymore, not that it's the least bit important, but... I was just sure I had something about it in here, only..." Rose was nearing the end of her scrapbook, but it only contained things from her long life in Equestria. Cards and letters from her patients, pictures of the Clydesdale Clinic, back when she worked there, the certificate from the College Of Unicorn Medicine citing her as an exceptional physician. That was quite the honor - not many pegasai went into medicine. It was not as easy without magic and a horn. But then a knowledge of herbs and medicinal plants, not to mention a good understanding of physiology took care of most things. Not every clinic had to fix every problem. It had been a grand career.
'Wasn't there a notebook? Something you wrote during that time?" Caprice had left for a bit, while Rose was lost in her memories. She had returned with tea and sweet fennel biscuits.
"Oh... thank you darlin'. What a sweety you are! Tea... and biscuits too! Oh, that's nice!" Rose took a nibble of biscuit. Just right, not too sweet. Rose had never liked the super-sugary things most ponies seemed to enjoy. She had always been a savory-favoring pony. "You know... you were always my favorite conversion, back in the Bureau. Always my favorite."
"I know." Caprice sipped her tea. Rose had told her that probably hundreds, if not thousands of times over the decades. There was no way it could not be true.
"Notebook, huh?" Rose seemed lost down the corridors of her memory for a long time. "Yeah, there was a notebook. I don't know whatever happened to it, though. I think they made me leave it behind. I think we weren't allowed to take anything with us from the project. Too many secrets. Too many things they didn't want to have known. Humans always were like that, you know. Miserable piles of secrets the lot of them." The copper pegasus sipped her tea. "Mostly because they were always doing naughty things they needed to keep secret, if you want to know the truth of it!"
"I was human once too, Rose." Sometimes the older pegasus seemed to forget that fact. Caprice wasn't sure whether it was sad that this was so, because it suggested that her dear friend's memory was fading, or it was a glad compliment, suggesting just how well she had turned her life around. Caprice had worked very, very hard to be a proper pony, and to leave her less than kindly or good origins behind.
"Oh, that's right. Sorry dear." Rose closed her scrapbook. Nothing. Nothing remained of her human days except her memories, and those would not last forever. "Caprice? Do you ever miss it?"
Rose stretched her wings and folded them. "The old world. Earth, I suppose. Being human, maybe. It's hard to remember being human now. I remember I didn't like it much, but after all these years I can't remember why. Maybe it wasn't as bad as I think it was?"
Caprice put down her cup. "I don't miss it. Not a bit. Not the Earth, not being human, not any of it. I remember, Rose. I remember it very well, still, and I wish I didn't have to. Trust me on this, you were right. You were right to not like it, because it was hard. It was difficult, and stressful, and filled with worry and sadness. And it was far, far too easy to be mean or to be bad." Caprice took another biscuit and chewed it thoughtfully. "Time can pave over the pits and cracks in our memory, and make traumatic things seem better than they really were. Earth was a sad place, most of the time. It doesn't do to think about it overly much."
"I suppose you're right. But... there's ponies I miss. Lynn - I wonder whatever happened to her? Oh, she was such a good friend. And... and... the receptionist. I can't recall her name. So many good ponies. The ponies were good, even if the place was hard, I'm sure of that." Rose almost dropped her tea, but managed to stabilize her foreleg grip with the help of her wing.
"They weren't pon..." Caprice started to correct Rose, then smiled and let it be. Ponies. Let them be ponies, they certainly must have become them at some point.
"Do you think any of it survived?" Rose carefully, carefully set her cup down again.
"Oh, my old notebook, the records of the potion project, all of that stuff?" Rose eyed the last biscuit and contemplated whether to take it or not. Last biscuits were always such a problem. Then it hit her that she could just share it. Bite half and leave the other half for Caprice. "Did I have something that I felt bad about back then? I almost seem to recall that..."
That made Caprice start, briefly. Rose had never entirely made peace with herself. It was best not to bring up matters better left buried. Forgetfulness was very, very rare in the pony world. It was almost as if Rose had been strangely blessed with it, for it had put her pain to rest long, long ago.
"I can't see, really how it would matter to anypony now. No offense, it was the most important project ever. But now, after it's all over, with the earth gone for... what is it now? Two centuries?" Caprice took the half of the biscuit that Rose had left her and savored it.
"About. I guess. Time's funny here, you know?" Rose reached out for a last sip of tea.
"It is, kind of." Caprice swallowed the last of the last bit of biscuit. "I always thought that what matters isn't what we've done, but what we have yet to do. And we still need to go to the market today. I hear they're opening a 'Starcolts' in town, eventually. Someday. Maybe they'll be starting construction on it. I want to see that."
"You always like to see things being built!" Rose Pastern drank the last of her tea and dropped her cup. "Oops!"
"Nothing to worry about." Caprice eased herself off the sofa and picked the cup up with her teeth and set it down on the little low table. "The tea's all gone, so no harm done."
The notebook, every atom of it personally converted into E-matter, was lowered into the ornately carved chest. The chest was made of something not entirely unlike wood, though there had been no tree, and it was bound and finished with a material not entirely unlike black iron, but the metal had not come from any mountain.
The chest, like the ruined castle far above, up the wide, curving stone staircase, had been brought into existence from swirling chaos long, long ago. Everything here had been made thus. Everything but the forbidden treasures and horrors stored here.
Princess Luna of Equestria released the notebook she had converted and closed the lid of the chest. There was no need to lock it, nopony knew of the crypt under the Everfree Castle, and nopony ever would. She stood by the bricked-up wall, the wall her sister and she had built. The wall that sealed off the black ribbon, and the place that existed through it. The place from whence they all had come - Celestia, Luna, and Discord.
So many treasures and horrors, but the most terrible of all was the truth. Discord had been contained, and someday he might even be redeemed. He had recently been showing signs of sanity. His redemption might even be soon. They were the oldest, the three, and the first, but of all of them, Discord was the most powerful, and the most dangerous. He had made the castle, and the chests, and the stairs, and he had unleashed chaos until he could finally be confined in stone.
The notebook was just one more legacy. Luna's sister tried so hard, so very hard, to help others. First the dragons, and then the gryphons. The diamond dogs just somehow found their way in, but Tia had let them stay, and granted them succor as best she could.
And her latest, the humans. Equestria had been built upon glimpses of their world, Discord had sought any structure he could find, in the beginning, and the universe of Man had been there, within reach, nearby. Tia had simply continued, using what was available to her, when Discord had been imprisoned. She felt such gratitude to that harsh world, for the structure it had provided. It was only natural, perhaps, that she would save those that lived there, in their final hour.
But she had heeded Luna's counsel, just this once, and made a price of such salvation - peace. Peace was the price, and it could only be assured through a change to Equestrian form. This had been done, but it had not happened easily, or without regrets.
Luna chose to walk the steps, up to the surface, in order to experience them. When one could bend time and space to meet one's own hoof, little moments mattered greatly. Perhaps it was pointless, to have preserved the notebook, along with all the other materials from the salvation of humanity. Only the future would tell.
She stood now in the dark Everfree, the scar on Equestria that could never heal. The castle had once been the only solid, unchanging thing in a universe of chaos. It had been her and Tia's safety, and prison. It had been their cage, when they were the pets of their brother, Discord. He had brought it into being as a ruin, ancient from the first moment of its beginning.
The princess of the night lowered the metal seal over the well that housed the staircase, so that the rain would not get in. The rain came and went as it would, here. There was no order in the Everfree, only randomness, so like the Nature of that world called Earth.
Her wings spread, Luna soared into the dark, star-filled sky, the sky she and her sister had crafted together, she the night, her sister the day. Earth. They had taken so much from Earth. Now, they had finally given something back.
The Conversion Bureau Novels:
The Short Stories:
The Non-Conversion Bureau Fanfics: