The chemical cocktail was a heady mix of glucocorticoids, alpha-adrenergic agonists, 2,6 diaminopurine and advanced forms of propranolol and cortisol. The mixture waited for the transformation to be complete - it was the nightcap after a terrible wakefulness. The purpose was to prevent the formation of memory and thus to eliminate post-traumatic stress disorder.
The gurgling screams and punctuating shrieks of agonized horror indicated the awful necessity of the after-conversion cocktail. The subject was undergoing complete ponification sans anesthesia.
The thing that had once been Ralph Vitoni writhed and shook and squirmed and gurgled incomprehensible syllables. The sound of snapping bones and tearing muscles spoke of Vitoni's efforts to fight or flee the waking nightmare he was trapped within. As soon as one tendon snapped, it would be regenerated, as each muscle tore from the former man's violent reaction, it sealed shut again, instantly growing together. The little nanomachines and their etherial ghosts had their work cut out for them, and there was a frightening chance they might fail altogether.
"Introduce a degree of paralysis into the mix - he's a fighter!" The technician wore a white, clean-room bunny suit with a transparent window in the head to peer out of. He worked quickly, jabbing steel-tipped tubes and sensors into the doughy mass that only minutes ago had been a middle-aged man of Italian descent.
"Keep that goddamn wire in his brain!" There were four tableside technicians, all in cleansuits, standing around the squirming, screaming mass on the metal table. They were overseen by a fifth bunny-suited techie ensconced in a room at the back of the trailer. Already the former human's arms had become rounded bulbs, the skin white as snow, pulsing and rippling like an ocean of milk. "I need to make sure he doesn't enter REM. The bastard enters REM, and we have to burn him! Keep the wire in!"
"I'm trying! He keeps rejecting it!" The swarm of nanomachines worked tirelessly, powered by arcane energies from another universe. They pushed anything foreign or artificial out of the forming pony body. In a container to the side sat the implants and permatech that Ralph Vitoni had acquired after a lifetime within his age - the holographic chronometer that had once been bonded to the ulna of his left arm, the skull port that had allowed him to directly access the hypernet and skulk through virtual reality, the deluxe NewLiver unit that had saved his life and been a gift of a wealthy corporate lord who had made use of his unique talents. One of the technicians had noted the inscription on the artificial organ and laughed. "Drink one for me, Ralphy V!"
A fifth technician sat in the back of the trailer and watched monitors both holographic and antique. He was checking to see if at any point the subject on the table entered, even for a second, any kind of dreamlike state. Such a state would signal communion with Celestia, the eldritch abomination from beyond time and space. Should that happen, Ralph Vitoni's life would become instantly forfeit, for he could never be trusted to work for the good of his former race alone.
"More calories, we need more fat and protein, too!" While the wires jabbed into Ralph's shifting brains monitored that he remained conscious, the tubes provided the overworked nanomachines with extra raw materials to make up for the former human's agonized contortions. "And more potion, too!"
Converting a human agent in this manner took far more than three ounces of the purple nanofluid. It was an expensive effort to create a fully functional sleeper agent whose loyalties had not switched. Initially, Ralph's brain had been infused with an artificial RNA transcriptase complex bound to a nanomachine agent. The initial treatment had prepared his neurons by closing off receptor sites that 'potion' would use to gain entry in order to alter specific regions of his brain, such as the amygdala and thalamus. This would prevent Ralph from being cured of his useful psychopathy and vicious temper. He would not lose his ability to kill, or torture or harm, and he would not gain either conscience or compassion. Ralph would remain the man he had always been, inside of the body of an Equestrian.
By eliminating communion with Celestia, the error of the Worldgovernment in trying to do the very same thing would be prevented. Ralph would have no conversion dream, he would not be fed the treacle lies of that alien monster, he would not sell his human allegiance in exchange for the ridiculous paradise the equinoid creature offered. He would remain a dog loyal to racially pure human masters, as he should be.
Hooves, brown and shiny, burst through the bulbs at the end of the shrieking pony's forming limbs. The most critical phase was beginning now, as the eyes were dissolved and absorbed, so that new, better eyes could replace them. Inside the waxy, rippling mass, temporary vasculature and biomechanical scaffolding held tissues away from the rapidly forming eyes. Soon, the grapefruit-sized orbs would float to the top of the living sea of flesh, and take their place as skull formed around them, and muscles and connective tissue anchored them. It was during this time that Ralph Vitoni would be most likely to lose consciousness and enter a forced REM sleep, despite the unimaginable pain he was suffering.
"Stimulant!" More chemicals slid down the tubes into the increasingly pony-shaped body on the table. The technicians gloved hands worked frantically to keep the tubes and wires from being pushed out. The eyeless body jerked and spasmed as the powerful excitotoxin forced it to neverending consciousness and a state of constant panic. The amount would have killed normal neurons, but Ralph's neurons were being repaired even as they were being overstimulated, thanks to the army of tiny, submicroscopic machines working ceaselessly.
Finally, Ralph's new eyes found their proper place, and the shape of his new, pony skull began to solidify. "We're good, no REM! Copy? No REM! We have a keeper, so far!" The technician monitoring the transformation was excited, he had lost three in a row the past week, and was on notice. He needed this one to work.
"We have awn hairs... looks like he's going to be brown, brown, brown. Um... maybe cut back the calories, we've got some precompletion fat forming... he's gonna be a chubby little pony right from the start." The technician at the table prodded the shaking, panting abdomen with a blue-gloved finger. "You're a little fatty, ain't ya! Hey, little fatty, fatty, fatty!"
"You're in trouble if this bastard remembers that. He's a vicious one, according to Reich." Another of the white-suited techs jammed a wire deeper into the brown pony's head.
"He won't. Worst experience of his life, and he won't remember a moment of it. That's what that's for." The prod-happy technician jabbed a digit at the 'cocktail cylinder' and grinned beneath his suit's transparent window.
The bunny suit in the monitor room checked a parameter and pressed a square on the active surface in front of him. "OK! Looks good, looks good, he's basically cooked, so pull the plugs and dose him. We're done here." He crossed his fingers for luck, the blue neoplastic squeaking as he did so.
The four technicians at the table inside the trailer began pulling the wires and tubes out of the brown pony. The pony was almost complete - mane and tail were rapidly spooling out from the body, while a mature coat sprouted between the initial awn hairs. The bunny-suits removed every tube but one - and down that now flowed the chemical cocktail that would prevent permanent memories from forming for the next few hours. Ralph Vitoni had suffered more pain than any human being in the history of mankind, but he would not be permanently crippled psychologically by a bit of it. The experience would be washed clean, along with whatever thoughts and curses he may have screamed during his torment.
By tomorrow, after a long sleep, Ralph would be completely unaware of what he had gone through, and he would be still capable of human violence, and in a triumph of the HLF over even the Worldgovernment, he would be utterly untouched by even the faintest whisper of the eternal grace, forgiveness, and compassion of princess Celestia of Equestria.
Inkwell had spent the morning bothering Ace Bandage, the medical unicorn, to the point of distraction. She had showed up at his apartment, and grilled him about how to get her hooves on potion for Paige. Inkwell had reasoned that the unicorn intern would be the most likely pony she knew to have connections, contacts, or maybe a working security key card to the hospital.
"I'm quit, Inkwell, they won't likely even let me through the doors at this point. If it weren't for the automatic change of citizenship conversion brings they'd have the Blackmesh after me. I stole that potion, just up and took it, and I feel so guilty you can't... I mean, I'm glad I did it, I'd do it again in an instant, you're alive, right? But... I just feel guilty because I did steal it. I've sent six hypermails trying to apologize as it is!"
Inkwell understood. Conscience was an loud taskmaster as a pony, far more so than as a human. The drive to be fair and do what was right, to be honest and true was very strong. "Thank you Ace. Thank you for doing that, I know it cost you, but I am very grateful for my life. Please try to let it go - that emergency potion was for emergencies, right? It was an emergency!"
Ace shuffled his hooves. "Yeah, I know. It was, you were... bad off. It had to be done. It's just that, the very first week, they really hammered home the rule that hospital materials were for paying customers and staff only. Only, only, ONLY. They really were a pretty selfish bunch, and I kind of feel bad for going along with it all too. I feel guilty for stealing from them, and bad for having worked there for so long. Gah!"
Inkwell tried any other angle she could think of - did Ace know of any other sources of potion? Was there some connection a medical unicorn might have with the Bureaus themselves that could help? Did he know of a way to contact the PER and beg them for potion? Was there any other connection he might have with the Worldgovernment that...
Oh. Inkwell herself had a sort of special connection all on her own. She had been part of the LAASTT project as a human. The Literature And Arts Survival Triage Team was a project of the Propaganda and Infotainment Ministry, and that was definitely up there in the government. Plus... she had also secretly been a member of the Underground Bookmobile. That was sponsored by princess Luna herself! Surely one or either of those connections should lead to acquiring potion to help Paige!
The problem was... Inkwell was still effectively hiding out. The HLF couldn't find her, that was clear, because they hadn't. Her sudden and under-the-radar change of life had effectively rendered her utterly invisible to them. But that could last only as long as she made no contact with her previous life. The second anything connected her to her life as Gwen, the baddies would be on her tail, possibly literally, now that she had one.
Her single best lead on potion would have to be the one thing that could get her caught. And being caught by the HLF was not an option - not just because that notebook held dangerous things that might help them, but also because it would hurt Paige and Pet to lose her. Plus they might get hurt too, themselves.
It was so annoying! If only she could get word to Luna, she could... oh. Oh sweet chocolate it was right there, wasn't it? In the little lock-box, the self-mailing magic scrolls. Sign on the line, and green fire sent them straight to Luna herself. Nopony she knew had ever used one, but they were there - all the Underground Bookmobile groups had a few. To provide information on hidden book caches. To warn of immanent discovery of the project. For emergencies. It was so, so tempting.
But they'd be watching, wouldn't they? The HLF would never take their little spy eyes off that building, now that they knew what it was. They would be waiting for 'Gwen' to return there, because that is where she had escaped from. They'd be silly not to watch that warehouse from now until the end of the world, which was just four years away.
Of all the places on all the earth, that was the one place Inkwell realized she must never go. A thousand novels and stories drifted through the little unicorn's mind. In each and every one, the protagonist always ends up going to the one place they absolutely must not go, sure that they could get away with things, and always caught and menaced by whatever was after them, because that was the way with drama. Unless ponies did foolish, foolish things, where could all the frightening captures and terrifying escapes come from? Sensible just wasn't good storytelling, now was it?
Inkwell laughed, as she continued the thought, on the way downstairs to the street. This was clearly the place in her own personal saga where it was expected that she should make a terrible decision, driven by the need to help her new friends and lovers, to help her family - oh what a fine motivation that was, always a favorite in stories - and thus end up putting herself and everypony in exciting and terrifying peril! This was the point in the story where she would surely be captured and her friends would have to risk their lives - and prove their love - attempting to rescue her and what a load of horseapples and drama to be double chocolate cursed because Inkwell Quillfeather the unicorn would have not a bit of any of that.
Inkwell stomped her hoof on the dirt road outside the apartment. 'No! I'll have none of that! Those mystic scrolls can sit right there till doomsday, because that warehouse it the last hoofing place you will ever find the likes of me!' She grinned at that. Being a librarian and a lover of stories gave her an advantage, she reckoned, because in knowing what was the dramatic thing to do, she had an edge in knowing what to avoid. In real life, drama was nothing but pain and sorrow. Drama was always to be avoided in real life. Leave it for the silly stories.
So, she pondered as she passed the Parking Lot Farm - it used to be the apartment's main lot, until the earthponies got to it - what would be the least dramatic way to get potion for Paige? Hmmm... she thought... well, where is there potion to be had?
There was the Bureaus, obviously. There was always talk of increases in potion availability, but the fact was that unless you lived near a Bureau in a high-priority zone, you were lucky to get in. It had been obvious since the beginning that not every last human on the earth would be saved. The scale of the matter was just too large. It was terrible and sad. That said, Bureaus did have potion in them.
The PER, the Ponification for the Earth's Rebirth, they had potion, sometimes more than the Bureaus. Nopony knew where they got it, but there were rumors of secret factions within the Elite supporting them, and a huge secret base somewhere in the NorthAmerizone. There were even rumors that they had a means to make potion themselves, somehow. There were always rumors about everything.
Hospitals had potion, that was how she herself had been saved. But they clearly were not just giving the stuff out freely. At least not here.
The Taikonauts, up in the Friendship Station, they had potion, but not even a pegasus could fly in vacuum. There was no hope there to ask for a nice cup of the purple from near earth orbit.
The Blackmesh. They probably had emergency potion kits, just like the hospitals did. Blackmesh troops faced dangers, they could be mortally wounded, conversion was a swift universal cure for all wounds. The thought crossed Inkwell's mind what it would take to beg the Blackmesh to spare a dose. It wouldn't hurt to try, she supposed. The worst they could do was boot her out and tell her no.
The elite had potion, no doubt, but they were further removed than the Taikonauts up in orbit. Who else? Anypony else?
Gwen had potion. Inkwell startled at the thought. Her old self had a guaranteed ticket to Equestria. All the government workers got that, even Green-Level. Guaranteed. Any Bureau had to honor it. Paige could walk in and claim to be her former self, and get converted. And the Bureaus were protected by the Blackmesh!
No, that wouldn't work. The doors scanned everypony that entered. It would never work. The A.I.'s could not be fooled. Every metric of a person was their living identification. Pretending to be someone else was a trick for a long lost age before Universal Security Awareness.
"What's the matter?" It was an earthpony stallion, one of the Parking Lot Farm group. He must have noticed Inkwell standing at the corner, staring off into space, or more precisely, at the dirt, looking dejected. "Can I help at all?"
Inkwell felt a brief warmth in her heart. That was the way with ponies. Just like that, 'can I help?' - and they meant it too. "I have a..." Inkwell smiled "... a spouse... that needs to get converted. She's tried and tried, and it's just never worked out. I want to help her so much and... I don't know how."
"Ah! You're the one I've seen out and about with Paige and Pet for the last two months, aren't you? So you've become family now - good on ya! Congratulations!" The gray and blue stallion grinned through the dust and dirt on his muzzle. He'd been working hard to grow an entire field of strawberries by the end of the day.
"Thank you. Yes... it's Paige. She wants to go pony so badly, but there's a shortage of potion. She's tried everything - she's on the waiting list to get on the waiting list for the Bureau, and she's even tried to contact the PER! It's terrible how hard it is to get your hooves on three little ounces when you really need it." Inkwell sighed.
"I don't know where to get potion, I wish I did. I was part of the first wave of potion when the Bureau first opened. They had a lot, initially, which is where most of the ponies around here got their hooves. But it's become scarce lately. It's the HLF, doncha know - they blew up the storage facility down south and now they can't distribute it fast enough, that's the real problem. Oh, there's potion, just not here, not in quantity. We're not exactly a big deal Zone, you know." The earthpony stallion flicked his tail. "Tell you what though - I can't get you purple, but I can get you some red - red strawberries. I should have these fruits mature by sundown - I'll set aside a box for you and yours, it's the least I can do. I'll have it sent up, later, right? It's not the answer to your needs, but strawberries are always happy, right?"
Inkwell couldn't help but smile. "You are nothing but kindness... um... I don't even know your name. I'm Inkwell, by the way."
"Fourleaf. Fourleaf Clover - and before you go 'oh, that's a twee name' I'll have you know that I didn't pick it out of desperation or lack of imagination. When I was really young, I actually found one. A living clover, and it had four leaves."
Inkwell stared. The earth was nearly dead now. Grasses and clovers were believed extinct, along with most life other than the odd dandelion, cockroaches and mutated rats. And whatever plants the elite had squirreled away in Antarctica or in guarded malls. "Really, a real clover?" The fact of seeing a clover at all outweighed the fact of it having four leaves.
"Yes, a proper clover." The stallion looked briefly sad "And, much to my shame, I picked it. I was young, and I only knew what my grandmother had told me - that four-leaf clovers bring luck, and you can make a wish if you pick them. I've often wondered if I picked the very last clover on earth. It's troubled me my whole life. "
"What did you wish?" Inkwell couldn't help but be curious.
"You'd never believe it if I told you."
"Yes, I would. I promise." Inkwell meant it. Whatever the wish, she would believe it. There was no reason to doubt such a nice pony!
"I'd been reading old cowboy books. My grandmother had some in a trunk, in the attic, see." The stallion pawed at the dirt with a hoof and grinned to himself. "I wished for a pony."
Inkwell laughed and Fourleaf laughed and it did seem like the sort of a wish a human foal would make. "I guess I got my wish. Looking around... " the stallion gestured with a foreleg "...there's pretty much nothing but ponies now. If it was the last clover on earth, it must have had all the power of every clover that ever was or could be within it, because Equestria appeared and, well, how do you do, miss pony?"
"Now that's a thought, isn't it?" Inkwell had a moment of wonder and wildness "What if the emergence of Equestria, the Bureaus, all of this right now, all of it happened because of a wish on the very last truly lucky clover? What a notion! Someone should write a story about that!" This made Fourleaf laugh again and then look concerned.
"If I did somehow do it, if that wish called all of this into being... well, that's a bit of a burden on me, isn't it? Was it the right wish, do you think?"
Inkwell flicked her tail and felt the slap against her hocks. It felt wonderful, so she did it again. She stomped her right hoof down, and felt how solid she felt on her four strong legs. She thought of her new family, and how grateful she was of them. She thought of magic and how incredible and wonderful it was to simply use it at all! And she thought of the newly greened earth, saved from the ravages of pollution and population and exploitation. An earth gradually being renewed, if only for a few years.
"If that wish did create all of this, then Fourleaf - " Inkwell regarded him with gratitude " - I think you are the true savior of the world and every living thing left upon it. You didn't waste the last wish on earth one bit. Thank you, good mister Clover, for making exactly the right wish!"
This made Fourleaf look briefly misty, before he regained himself. "You'll have strawberries tonight, miss Inkwell. Everypony knows where Paige and Pet live - and now you. 'Better be getting back to work then. I hope you find your potion!"
As the stallion ambled back to his fields, Inkwell thought to herself 'I hope so too. I dearly hope so too.'
Around the corner, across the street, deep in the shadows, a pony watched. He leaned against the wall of the building, a pair of saddlebags slung across his pudgy brown body. He tried to walk, but stumbled and slammed against the wall with a thud and a grimace. He tried once more, and managed to keep his hooves, though he swayed a bit. "Stupid goddamn 'tards, always check the goddamn hospitals. Always. It's not fucking rocket surgery. Counting beans and protein and whatever shit - just check the goddamn hospitals if you want to find out if anything fucked-up has happened. Jesus, what a bunch of cazzaros."
The pudgy brown earthpony watched where the ivory and black mare went, and then staggered back into the alleyway, into the shadows. "Fuck these goddamn clumsy hooves, too. Fare una figura di merda..."
Later, that evening, snuggled between her two wives, Inkwell used her horn to neatly turn through the pages of the notebook. Reading the 'Forbidden Notebook' had become a family ritual for the three, and Petrichor would not be satisfied without even a short reading from the thing.
"Wait! Go back!" Paige pointed at the notebook, as it rested between Inkwell's forelegs.
"What? Where?" Inkwell's hornfield held a page upright in mid turn.
"Back a page, or two!"
Inkwell used her magic to flip back first one page, and then another. "Stop! That's it! Look!"
Petrichor crawled forward, so that her head was even with Inkwell's. She stole a quick kiss. "It's a map. Cool. I like maps. They give a sense of place, you know?"
"That's... hmmm... that has to be Canterlot Castle - I don't know of any other big castle in Equestria." Inkwell studied the hand-drawn map. "That has to be the plinth or whatever where Celestia raises the sun. And look - that dotted line - that's the path that Mule Two must have taken. Redhead the Author must have tried to make a map of the locations from the video tour. Probably to try to understand things better!"
Page was leaning over now, her head also close. She too stole a kiss. "That... that looks like a maze. You think the princess has a garden maze, like they used to have in the old days?"
"Why not? Equestria has all sorts of plants and life, why not a maze garden? Oh, look!" Inkwell pointed with her hoof "Those must be statues - see? They all have little bases on them. Pony statues! Only makes sense, for a garden, I guess. Maybe they are statues of famous ponies from history."
"Except for that one. What the swirl is that? A snake statue?" Petrichor couldn't make out what the drawing represented.
"Maybe it's a dragon? Equestria has other species than ponies. I'll bet it's a dragon. Our Redhead just did the best she could. Dragons are complicated, that's all." Inkwell tried to be diplomatic about it.
"Hey... check it out - everything is to scale. She really is a scientist! The whole thing is gridded, and at the edges she has scale and direction values. She really tried to be precise about this. I'm impressed." Petrichor sniffed at the map. "ooh... she was eating chocolate when she drew this. Chocolate would be nice to go with these." Pet bent her neck back and brought the basket of strawberries forward, and placed them beyond the book, so everypony could have some.
Inkwell levitated a pair of berries out of the basket, and carefully directed one near Paige's mouth, and one right into Petrichor's.
"You are really getting good at that, you know?" Paige opened her palms and Inkwell let the strawberry drop. It was not an issue to use her hornfield on, around, or even inside Petrichor's body, but the same was not true for Paige. Inkwell did not want to burn her with thaumatic energy by accident, especially in her mouth. Paige gobbled the berry, smiling around the delicious fruit.
"OK, the map is cool and all, but I want to hear another entry!" Petrichor was petulant.
"Yes, yes, princess Petrichor must have her story. Read on, Page Inkwell!"
"No, you're Paige. I'm Inkwell!" The ivory unicorn grinned.
"Silly filly. You know what I meant." Paige scritched behind Inkwell's right ear.
"Oh. Ohhhhh..... um... storytime can wait... just a bit... oh my sweet Celestia." Inkwell's eyes were shut in pleasure. "Oh, right there, yes, yes...."
Petrichor sighed. "Well, if there's free ear-scratching going on, then I'm next in line!"
"Help! Help!" Paige looked griefstricken "I'm being held captive, a slave to the carnal pleasures of itchy-eared ponies!"
Inkwell and Pet giggled. Inkwell used a commanding voice. "Yes. Yes you are. Scratch harder, Mistress!"
Pet looked perturbed. "Inkwell... you... what is it with you and 'topping from the bottom'?"
Inkwell sighed. "I can't be expected.... to... to... get my terms... correct... with this level of ear scritchies... going on."
Pet grinned. "Scratch her well, my human slave! Then you can do me!"
"We'll see about that attitude later, PET." Paige stressed the last word carefully.
"Promise?" Said Petrichor.