The apartment building had been magically swept and scanned by whispering unicorns moving past silent ponies and the few humans that still remained. Because ponies cannot help but be social and cooperative, the building population was more than happy to work as one, especially with the threat of the HLF described to them in soft, barely audible tones. Patches of sparks flew from the ragged tiles of the hallway leading away from Paige, Pet, and Inkwell's apartment, and more were found scattered in the stairwell and the lobby, but that was it.
Sure that the building was clean, the residents had a meeting together and Inkwell described her plan, and how they could help. Not a one was unwilling, not even the humans, touched as they were by the constant social camaraderie the ponies had created within the complex. Within hours, the simple scheme was ready, and with nightfall, it began.
The two HLF Frontsmen in the upper left window of the old Tacksworn Corporation building reported in first. Groups of ponies, and ponies and humans, were leaving the target building. All were draped with sheets or comforters, making them unidentifiable. They looked like cheap Halloween ghosts, sent out by uncaring mothers. They disbursed always in groups of three, and then began to walk, or run, in every possible direction. Some ambled north, others south-west. Three headed towards the old nanotech plant. Three groups of three moved in the direction of the distant Bureau, but that meant nothing because other reports began to come in of groups suddenly abandoning their initial vector and changing direction radically, and apparently at whim.
The HLF A.I. 'Monitor', was fed the information and came out with a pattern - all were following a Drunkard's Walk that occasionally changed it's attractor. In short, they were all moving essentially randomly, with a slight bias towards three locations - the direction of the Bureau, across town, the direction of the warehouses also across town but in different area, and the Blackmesh base, in yet another section of the city.
Things heated up when the groups began to use any available transportation to move more quickly.
Some of the sheet-covered groups took Pegasus Cabs, and flew through the sky, others took earthpony carts, which were encouraged to run swiftly. Still more began to dart and move through other buildings or down alleyways in the most suspicious manner possible. The HLF agents soon began to suspect that the groups were changing sheets when they could, and some were deliberately wearing outlandish hats or other items over the sheets to set themselves apart.
Ralph Vitoni, 'Cloudypuff Moonypants' stomped about his own observation command post in a room across the street from the apartment building and cursed his mother and god, shouting epithets and kicking the walls with his hooves. This was impossible. He had done miracles of wet and dry work in his career, and always he could count on how humans naturally behaved to predict where to move and what to do and how to manipulate events.
But it was hitting him, for the first time, that these ponies, these Newfoals, were not humans, not anymore. They were not socially isolated or distrustful, they showed no hesitancy to assist, they could not be expected to mind their own business, and they could not be expected to sit in the background and avoid getting involved.
By the time the first reports of other apartment buildings disgorging masses of sheeted ponies and humans arrived, the little 'sheet game' spreading across the town like a disease, he knew the situation was hopeless. Everybody wanted to play, it seemed, like happy children, even if they did not understand why.
The HLF Frontsmen, scattered about the city, found groups of three, covered in sheets, that had no idea what was going on. They knew nothing about Paige, Inkwell, or Petrichor, or why the game was happening. Someone had simply arrived, explained the rules, stated that it was important, and the entire building had turned out to join in. It was 'important' after all, and it just wouldn't be Pony to turn down a chance to help. Plus... it seemed pretty fun giggling about trying not to be identified. It was like a city-wide costume party!
They cooperated without a second thought, these freaks, thought Ralph. They weren't human. They were monsters, creatures, they weren't human any more. They had no dignity, they weren't embarrassed or ashamed or inhibited. None of the human traits that could be exploited were valid anymore. They were like happy children, ready to play, but laughing at their own silliness like Buddhist masters. It was crazy. The world had lost all context, and gone completely insane.
The HLF did the best they could - they sent teams to rip the sheets off of the groups that arrived at the Conversion Bureau, doing their best to intercept any who approached it. But the numbers kept growing, and the Frontsmen couldn't handle how many groups in sheets approached. They were spread too thin. So the order came to shoot, to keep the groups from approaching. It was a dangerous, desperate act. The response from the Blackmesh was immediate, and very costly.
Ralph made the call. The groups heading towards the warehouses were an obvious distraction. Inkwell, 'Gwen', had clearly taken the notebook with her when she had originally escaped, it would be pointless to return the book to the place she had found it. It wasn't there currently, the warehouse had been searched top to bottom. That was just the kind of pathetic distraction that he expected from the three. Whoever they worked for, they had not been trained well, Ralph was convinced of that.
There were only two logical places that Paige, Inkwell and Pet would need to go. Either to where the notebook was hidden, or to Equestria, to escape. Since a mass of the sheeted groups were headed towards the old nanofabrication plant, it seemed reasonable that this could very well be the place where the notebook had been hidden. It even had a kind of sense to it - potion was a nanofluid, so hiding the notebook that described its creation in a nanofab plant had an obvious and simple connection - nano to nano.
He sent the remaining available Frontsmen to the nano plant, it was stupid to waste resources on an obvious distraction that would only be a trap in any case. If the three mares - or mare to be, in the case of Paige - were to head to the warehouses, they would be cut off, isolated, and trapped. When the HLF returned to their command center, all routes away from the warehouses would be blocked. It was a deathtrap. They were undertrained, not stupid.
The Frontsmen worked through the night, intercepting as many sheeted groups as they could, which was not many because the game had gone exponential. By midnight, Monitor had estimated that half the city population was involved in the 'Sheet Game'. Ralph spat invectives. Ponies. God-damn ponies.
He ruefully moaned that if humans had that level of instant cooperation, the threat of Equestria would have been beaten in the first year. It was disgusting, horrifying, a nightmare. Ponies just helped each other, without a second thought. It was 'important', somehow, so... they just went along. Because it was a way to cooperate, and because it was fun. That was the key, he realized, to manipulating ponies. Make it sound useful, make it sound fun. They weren't motivated by wealth, or power, or fear or threat. They were motivated by helpfulness and fun.
If anything in all the world was Ralph Vitoni's Achilles Heel, it was to wrap his mind around anyone being motivated entirely by helpfulness and fun. It was alien, freakish, horrifying. It wasn't his world, or his species down there. He couldn't grasp them, he couldn't predict them, and they terrified him.
"Ralph! What the hell are you going to do about this?" It was Leo - Leonard Reich, the head of the HLF, and he was not a happy man. His voice was clear and angry over the pony-sized headset that Ralph wore to communicate with his teams.
"Leo! You tell me! The whole damn city is trotting around like show-ponies in sheets. It's like a Klan rally for ponies or somethin'. They're goin' everywhere, and there's no way to tell which is which or who is who. What? Do all ponies get radio transmitters in their skull? Are they telepathic? Where the hell is my radio then?" Ralph felt like everything was going south, and it was, and it was the first time he had failed so spectacularly since his very first job, and even that wasn't this bad of a mess.
"Listen, Ralph. Gypsy Traveller can't happen unless we know the precise location of the subject. We have no idea where it is, but that notebook supposedly has a map in it. You know we need that map, Ralph. If we have the map, we can get the subject, and if we get the subject, we can penetrate the Barrier, and we win. We win, just like that. Boom, Ralph, it's all over, Equestria is over, the nightmare will be over, it's all over. You have to get that notebook Ralph. I don't care what you have to do. Kill every fucking thing in the city if you have to. I'm authorizing final sanction. Do you hear me Ralph? Final. Sanction. If you can't do the job, tell me. Then you just get your teams to safety, and we'll release NV-US1 and sort through the city after. Can you do the job?"
Ralph stared out the window. "Jesus Christ." Below, the parade of sheeted ponies and humans filled the streets, laughing and dancing and strolling. It looked like the entire city was involved, and it probably was. The HLF had placed NV units all over the city - in sewers, on roofs, in buildings, on kiosks, everywhere and anywhere that could access the greatest population possible. The most deadly nerve agent ever developed. It had been created before the Collapse, and had never been surpassed. A single molecule killed, causing a cascade reaction that induced apoptosis in virtually every nerve cell in the human body. It worked on ponies, too, though not in the same way. It just killed them, brutally, though nobody could figure out why. They just turned bodily to sludge, their skeletons shining through dripping ooze. The HLF had obtained nearly every ounce of NV-US1 ever made.
If Leo used it, any person or pony in the city would die, within minutes. It would take twenty-eight hours for the agent to degrade to a harmless state. Then they could unseal the doors, and come out of the underground HLF base. Every living being. Every pony or human in the city.
Ralph Vitoni was a hard man. He did messy jobs, and he did them well. But this - this was too much even for him, it was just too much. Final sanction was only for troops marching on the city, for some terminal, apocalyptic assault on the headquarters, for a final stand, not to find a stupid notebook. Leo apparently really did believe that some map in some notebook would save all of humanity. A wooden wagon, two QCD warheads and a notebook. Gypsy Traveller. Ralph was no fan of the ponies, and the city was mostly ponies now, but that was really worth killing every living thing in an entire city for?
The fact was, he'd been outsmarted. There was no possible way to find two ponies and a human, or three ponies and no human, when the entire city had been somehow mobilized into running about randomly with sheets and blankets covering their identities. All the scanning equipment, all the face recognition, all the Frontsmen down there - it was all useless to such a simple thing. The scale was too large to manage. The scale was too large to do anything about.
The decision sat there, hanging in his mind. If he told Leo he couldn't do the job, all those people and ponies down there would die. The whole city hung on four words: "I can't do it."
If he told Leo he could find the notebook, a whole city would not die. But the fact was, he couldn't find the notebook. Nobody could. Not unless the city were empty, and they could take their time checking every corpse, until by elimination, they found what they were looking for.
Provided the targets were even carrying the notebook. Leo assumed too much with that one. What if they left it stashed somewhere? They couldn't search the entire city, not everywhere. Leo was panicking. He was an asshole, and he was losing his shit. Ralph kicked the floor with his hoof. Hoof. For the rest of his life, he was stuck with hooves. Fuck Leo. Leo was an asshole.
But Leo would have his guts for garters if he called this wrong. And the fact was, there was no way he could find that damn notebook.
"Ralph! I need an answer here. I am not fucking around. Can you do the job, or not?"
Ralph slapped his own flank with his tail. It stung, and somehow that helped. "Gimme a moment, there Leo. I'm checking a lead. If it pans, we don't need to go nuclear, OK?" There. Time to think. That's what was needed. Time to think, time to breath.
"Five minutes, Ralph. Five." And Leo was off the line.
Ralph stood in his dark, empty room, looking out at the laughing, dashing ponies and humans in their sheets. The city was having an impromptu party. It did that sometimes, because the ponies just... did that. Tonight the theme was sheets. Ralph began to wonder if maybe he had underestimated his three opponents. He had certainly not considered pony psychology in his own calculations.
This moment was one of 'those' moments. Five minutes in which a single decision would make all the difference. Live or die, yes or no. A possibly world-changing moment of decision. Ralph looked around the empty room, piled with junk and boxes, dark, illuminated only by the candles and alcohol lamps from outside, the dim yellow, reflected glow on the thickening smog layer - damn lazy pegasus bastards - and the distant lights of the holosigns in the twoper district.
Suddenly, something beeped in the corner. What?
Ralph approached the sound cautiously. It was a Pre-Collapse clam-shelled 2D computing device. A... a Lap Top. Yeah, that's what they were called. Lap Tops. The damn thing looked... it looked brand new. Where had it come from? The thing was open, the screen, such as it was, suddenly lit up with a picture of the notebook, the very thing that Leo wanted. It had to be - the title on the overstuffed notebook was very clear in the image.
Umbra-Cosmik-Magik Clearance ONLY
Ultimate Sanction For Loss Or Exposure
Below the image of the notebook, was text. Ralph stared at the text, his mind incredulous, reeling at the impossibility of it all. This could not be happening. It could not be happening, but it was. Another group, maybe? Something parallel to the HLF? Worldgovernment elite breaking ranks to support the HLF? Ralph stared, his eyes wide at the message below the picture of the notebook.
Attention Ralph Vitoni:
In three minutes Leonard Reich will call you and he will say
"Alright you oat-stuffed bag of sh*t, which is it? Can you do your f*cking job or not?"
When he says this, tell him you can.
The notebook is hidden in locker 222 on level two
of the Espacios NanoEngranaje fabrication center
just as you suspected. Hurry, there are others after it.
- Turner and Fogarty
"Turner and Fogarty? The hell?" Ralph goggled the message, unable to tear his eyes away. "I... don't know anyone with those names. What they fuck do they want from me in exchange for this? Goddammit, I can't even diddle with this damn thing because of these goddamned hooves!" Ralph shook his head, but the antique computer remained, sitting on a box, displaying the picture of the notebook, and the text message just below it.
"Alright, you oat-stuffed bag of shit, which is it? Can you do your fucking job, or not?" It was Leo, his voice angry over the headset. It had been the exact words. Ralph had read the words almost as Leo had said them. He felt a chill run down his pony spine, and his breath stopped for a bit, from the strange feeling of his entire mane standing up all along his withers.
"Well?" The voice in his headset was not at all pleasant.
"I can do the job, sir. I know exactly where the notebook is. Imma.... Imma gonna go get it right now. Shouldn't take me more than half an hour. Stand everyone down. No need to croak the city or nothin'." Ralph memorized the address for the third time. Locker 222 on level two of the very nanofabrication center he had suspected when the sheet ponies started heading that way.
"You OK, Ralph?" Leo sounded almost nice, almost concerned. That was usually a dangerous sign.
"Y-Yeah. Yeah, I'm great. For a FUCKING PONY! Goddamn you, by the way. I'll get your notebook, fucker. Vitoni out." Ralph twisted his head violently so that the custom headset flew off and hit the wall. His now superior hearing could still make out Leo asking if he was there, and demanding he respond.
The antique device went dark. Ralph had no way to manipulate it, the keyboard was made for human fingers, not clumsy earthpony hooves. That... was that. Ralph's hackles fell, the hairs relaxing along his neck. Locker 222, level two.
The decision had been made. The city would live. The notebook would belong to the HLF. Ralph Vitoni gave the Lap Top a nudge with his hoof, and it fell over, off the box, with an unpleasant crinkling thunk. "Fuck!"
Then Ralph headed out of the room, and down the dark hall, towards the stairs. It was a fairly long trot to the old nanofabrication plant.
Petrichor followed behind Paige and Inkwell. Inkwell led the group, she knew where they needed to go. Not once had they seen a single human, and certainly not a pony, since they had entered the warehouse district.
Inkwell came to a halt, which made Paige and Petrichor stumble slightly as they avoided crashing into her. The sheet and the two comforters had made travel difficult at times, and they couldn't run easily. Petrichor had grumbled several times during their trek about how much easier it would have been to have flown, and how she could have certainly carried both Paige and Inks on the pallet which still lay on the roof of their apartment building. But Inkwell had refused that entirely. The last thing they wanted to do, after all of that, was to be the one anomaly that stood out.
"That's it. That's the warehouse I used to work at." Inkwell saw that the lights were entirely out, and that the loading door was still wide open. It had been weeks. That was not good. She had been hoping that it would be staffed once more, perhaps with an even bigger group of Blackmesh security protecting it, making it a safe haven. At least safe enough for her to get to her goal.
Now she was uncertain that her goal would even still be there. The fear that she had made a terrible miscalculation began to creep into her feelings, and her stomach sank within her.
"Is it safe?" They were talking in whispers, Paige's question was quiet, almost inaudible to herself. She had learned that Equestrian ears were far more sensitive than human ears, and so knew how amazingly softly she could speak and still have the two ponies catch her words.
"I... I have doubts, Paige." Inkwell studied the area around the warehouse. The bodies were gone, all the bodies of the Blackmesh that had tried to protect the place. The warehouse looked abandoned. It looked like LAASTT had just pulled out after the incident entirely. This was not good. This was not good at all.
Inkwell turned to her mates. "Listen... I may have made a mistake. I honestly expected them to stay, to have more guards. There were tons of books in there. It's really expensive to move that, books weigh a lot. But... I think they just up and left. I think they're gone." Her face was worried, and so was her scent, which Petrichor picked up on instantly.
"So... what do you want to do?" Petrichor nodded at the empty, dark warehouse.
"We won't be left alone after this. I'm certain of that. We lucked out that we were given as many hours as we had, and that only because Cloudypuff thought we were agents of some group like the PER or a branch of the Worldgovernment." Inkwell's muzzle wrinkled in thought. "We can't go back, and they will be all over the Bureau. We escaped only because we were able to make use of the fact we're a herd species now. The oldest trick in Nature, at least on Earth - the anonymity of the group. But I'm out of tricks. I look at that warehouse, and I just think 'trap'."
"We can't stay here, Inks. Whatever we do, we can't stay here." Paige reached out from her sheet and patted Inkwell. "We have to do something, anything. Indecision is always fatal."
Inkwell looked lost. "I just don't know what to do!"
"There's only two choices, Inks." Petrichor leaned into Inkwell, pressing close. "We go in, or we go anywhere else. So, do you think it's still there? All we have to do, you said, was get to it. If it's there, we're saved. Is it worth the risk?"
The warehouse sat, dark and empty, the loading bay door open, doubtless the other doors as well. There was no sign of power in the area.
Inkwell began looking around at the various security towers and poles. "No power." The entire area was dark. Electricity was costly, and cities rationed it strictly. The majority of the population only enjoyed two hours of electricity a day, and only the Twopers, the two percent with jobs, enjoyed electricity through most or all of the day. If the government project here had entirely pulled out, there would be no power in this whole section of the city.
The HLF had a base somewhere near, but they would not likely be using city power, or, if they had control of the city ministry, their power would come through buried, private lines. It would not be wasted on the warehouse region in general, and that meant the surveillance system would be down. If the HLF was still watching the warehouse, they would have to be doing it with Frontsmen, stationed around or inside the building.
Inkwell turned to Petrichor. "Pet - we need to know if there are any humans anywhere nearby. Paige - sit down, and be as quiet as you can. Sit downwind, over there." Inkwell pointed with a hoof to a spot behind her. "Pet, we've got these amazing senses. Let's put them to use. Are there any humans, anywhere nearby?"
Petrichor and Inkwell stood still, legs locked and sniffed the air. They carefully listened, scanning with their tall ears. As she concentrated, as she focused on her senses, Inkwell began to hear first Pet's heartbeat, then Paige's behind her, under the sound of her own. She smelled the scents of the area - plascrete and old steel, the tang of ancient concrete dust that predated the Collapse, heat baked and chemically degenerated spills of oil and other chemicals from before her birth. The smell of gasoline-burning vehicles still staining broken sections of wall and road, the ghosts of a more prosperous age.
But nowhere in the complex symphony of scents was any fresh, current scent of Man. She smelled Milner, the owner of the warehouse, but he hadn't been there in well over two months. She could sense those that had come and moved the books and everything away. There was the scent of death and urine and feces from several spots on the plascrete, mixed with the bitter chemical sting of Blackmesh fibers. She could almost pinpoint where the guards had dropped. But despite all of this, every sense she possessed told her that there was not a single living human beyond Paige in the area.
Could it truly be that the HLF had no presence here now? Perhaps it made sense - they would use their limited manpower to block and search the most likely places to go, like the Bureau, uptown. They would be frantic now, dealing with a city of sheeted ponies and people. They would not know about the secrets of the Underground Bookmobile. They couldn't. And neither would the WorldGov team that had emptied the warehouse! It had to still be in there! It had to be!
"Paige! Pet! Follow me!" With that, Inkwell let her comforter slide entirely off her back, and strode forward confidently towards the warehouse.
Ralph Vitoni stared at the contents of Locker 222 on level two of the nanofabrication plant. He said nothing, but his entire body shook with rage. He wanted to smash the locker, he wanted to stomp the floor, but he was afraid he would shatter his own hoof doing such a thing. Besides, there were men watching.
He'd made the call, he'd made his decision, and he'd have to live with it. His three concerns, Paige, Petrichor and Inkwell, could be anywhere by now, and with them, no doubt, the notebook. It was lost forever. Leo would probably kill him. Even despite all the resources used in his transformation. It wouldn't be wise to return to base. There was only one place for him now, and he hated that fact. There was only one place he could be safe from Leonard Reich. Equestria.
The fact of that burned Ralph, it seared and cut and tore at his emotions. Ponies. Ponies had done this to him, ponies had ruined his life, ponies were stealing his world. And now his only refuge was among them. He could only go to Equestria. Only there could he be certain of his life, and Ralph Vitoni was very fond of staying alive. But most of all, he would never give that bastard Leonard Reich the satisfaction of taking out his own failure upon him. Reich was incompetent, he should never have been allowed to run the HLF. 'Gypsy Traveller'... a wagon and two bombs that could never pass through the Equestrian Barrier! The man was insane.
"We've been had, gentlemen." Ralph announced the fact quietly, evenly. "The operation is a bust. I need to contact Reich to confirm things, but my guess is a return to base."
Ralph made a show of putting a hoof up to his head. "Leo? Hey! Leo! What? I can't hear you! Yeah, listen... hang on. I'll try outside, I think it's the building. Yeah!" Ralph looked at the armed Frontsmen filling the lockerooms. "I'm gonna try outside, hey - just to be sure, do a level one search of the building, OK? I just want to be one-hundred percent about this, capiche?"
A Frontsman nodded. "Understood." He began giving orders to his men. Ralph took to the stairs and went down to the ground floor, then out the door. He walked around the building, then across the street, into an alley. Then he turned a corner and galloped rapidly into the night.
One of the Frontsmen, searching all the lockers one by one, stopped to check locker 222 out of curiosity. He pointed his hand-held torch into the locker. There, taped to the back of the compartment was a drawing. The drawing was in colored markers, and it showed a brown earthpony stallion with a wild brown mane and a blond-maned, gray coated pegasus mare with wildly divergent golden eyes. Both of the ponies had their tongues stuck out, and the gray mare was waving a hoof.
The crude lettering said "YoUr PriNceSs iS In AnoTher CasTle!!!"
The Frontsman shook his head, then moved on. The joke was lost on him. It had come from a Pre-Collapse video game, one that he had never seen, one that nobody of his generation had ever seen. It was the sort of thing really old people would have enjoyed, and such things held no interest to him.
Though they searched until morning, there was no notebook in the fabrication plant to be found.
As the sun rose, Leonard Reich called the commander of the Frontsmen to ask for the whereabouts of Ralph Vitoni. Unhappily, he had no answer to give.