She startled to wakefulness, her heart pounding. She'd been having a bad dream, but she couldn't entirely remember what it had been about. She sort of remembered, the first seconds after waking up, but the unfamiliar surroundings and the aching throb in her side had torn the somnolent terrors from her grasp.
'Sweet Jesus!' The events of last night returned to Gwen. The men. The flight. She carefully moved the covers and gingerly examined the gauze wrapped around her naked belly. Someone had undressed her, and treated her wound. Sweet Joseph - she had a hole through her, right through her side. It had been cauterized, so she hadn't bled, but it couldn't be a good thing to have a hole punched through like that. It burned, it stung, but it didn't hurt as bad as she imagined. Maybe they had given her something for the pain. That seemed likely, because she felt a little woozy, now that she thought about it.
She was laying on a foam mat bed, covered with a comforter. Of course - pegasus. Ponies living on Earth tended to like foam mats for beds, because they were easier to get up from on hooves than extremely soft mattresses were. Mats were more stable, more solid, and it was also possible to sleep in certain positions more easily. It wasn't a universal, though - Gwen's cousin Muirne - now a fine unicorn by the name of Shadeweaver - swore by her extra soft mattress. She admitted some trouble climbing out, in that she felt unsteady on her hooves, but it was worth it, she said, because of how she could sleep on her back so easily. It was harder for an Equestrian to sleep on their back, unless their bed was very soft - it was just how they were built.
Her side ached. Gwen looked around the room, unwilling to try to get up, what with having a hole in her side and it hurting and all. The door was open in the little bedroom. There was a dresser, and a closet, which was closed. A nightstand stood by the bed with a glass half filled with water. Oh... that's right. The pegasus and her roommate had put that there for her. It was starting to come back now.
They had flown for some time across the city - or at least it had felt like a long time. Perhaps any time spent clinging to a fake wood pallet flying hundreds of feet off the ground with a serious injury always felt long. Almost certainly, really, Gwen thought. Even without an injury, most likely. It had been quite a ride.
They had landed on a rooftop, somewhere. An apartment building. There was a blur of laying there while the pegasus went to get her roommate. Stairs, and being helped by a human woman and the pegasus mare. Gwen remembered starting to shake, as if she were cold. The waterglass. She couldn't remember undressing, but then she was fairly out of it by the time they landed. Getting shot was not a small thing.
The notebook! Gwen's heart leapt and began to race. She looked about frantically, trying to see the book. It wasn't on the nightstand. It wasn't on the bed, it wasn't on the comforter. She couldn't see her green jumpsuit either. Or her shoes and other clothing. "Hello?" Gwen tried to get up but the hole in her side would have none of that. It spoke with words of pain, and it had a very commanding tone of voice. "HELLOOOO???"
The sound of hooves and bare feet approached. Gwen hastily pulled the comforter over her lower body for the sake of her modesty - though clearly whoever had undressed her last night had pretty much seen all there was to see - and the action made her wince. Ow. Getting shot really did hurt. 'Imagine that!' Gwen's own thoughts mocked her.
The brown pegasus mare with the pale golden mane trotted into the room. An equally brown woman peeked around the corner, her dark hair gleaming in the morning light. "Are you decent?" she asked, a hand grasping the edge of the doorframe. The pegasus didn't seem to care. Newfoal or native, nakedness seemed to not be a part of pony concern.
"Hello? Thank you for saving me." The woman, seeing the comforter covering Gwen's lower extremities, entered the room and stood at the foot of the bed beside the pegasus. "Both of you."
"How are you feeling?" The woman walked around to the right side of Gwen and indicated that she would like to check the gauze bandages. Gwen flipped back some of the comforter to allow her access. It seemed clear from her attitude that this woman had been the one to treat the wound.
"I've been better, honestly." Gwen tried to smile, but the pain she felt made it more of a grimace. "My first time being shot. Hopefully my last, honestly."
The woman laughed at that. "Hello, by the way." She was examining the bandage, noting some slight leakage. There were reddish-brown spots where the hole was. During the night, the wound had wept a bit. "I'm Paige. Paige McQuillen. This feather-duster over here is Petrichor, just call her 'Pet' though. She's a pretentious little thing."
Gwen couldn't help but smile, pain or not. "Petrichor? Petrichor the Pegasus?"
"It's the smell of rain!" The little mare complained.
"It's alliterative and pretentious, is what it is." Paige grinned at her winged friend. "Don't worry though, she's right enough, if you don't let her get too bookish on you." Paige pulled the comforter over Gwen once more, then lay a hand on Gwen's forehead. "Hmmm... any chills?"
Gwen noticed that she did feel strangely cold all of a sudden. It was always somewhat warm pretty much everywhere except Antarctica now, though only the wealthy elite would know that for sure, as they were the only sort allowed down there. "Um... yes, I do, kind of. Oh dear."
"Oh dear indeed. I would like to have our resident medic check you later, if that would be all right." Paige sat down on the floor, leaning her back against the bedroom wall. "We have a proper unicorn medic two floors down. Well, not entirely proper, he's still studying what he can Earthside before moving to Equestria. He was an intern before he converted, and he's still pulling shifts even now, bless 'im. World may be ending, but he's in no hurry to leave it. Good thing, too. We still need help on this side of the fence."
"Oh! You don't even know who I am!" Gwen shivered slightly, under the blanket. "I'm Gwen Boik. I'm a bit of an old fashioned librarian, I'm part of the 'LAASTT' team - Literature And Arts Survival Triage? There isn't much call for librarians these days, so I'm glad of the work. I guess I'd... be dead... without Petrichor here. Thank you Petrichor."
Pet seemed pleased - and surprised - that Gwen used her full name, and smiled at being addressed thus. She adjusted her wings, fluffing them slightly with pride. Gwen noticed that Paige grinned at the pegasus for that unconscious act. "Why were the HLF after you?"
"Pet! Goodness, let the girl get to things at her own speed. No need to start 'grilling the suspect' so early in the morning!" Paige clicked her tongue at her friend. "How's your pain level, Gwen? I have more pills, if you need them."
Gwen very vaguely remembered swallowing pills last night. "Actually... it's starting to hurt quite a bit. I could use something, to be honest."
"Right! Back in a jiff!" Paige was up in an instant, and out the door. Petrichor walked around to Gwen's left and sat down on her haunches, a concerned look on her muzzle.
"Petrichor... I had a notebook with me. It would have been tucked into my jumpsuit, is it still... I mean, did you see it? Is it..."
"All of your stuff is in the other room. Well, except your clothing. It should be dry by now. We figured it would be nice to get it washed. Your notebook is in the other room, on the kitchen counter. It's a little worse for wear though..." the pegasus looked briefly down, her ears flicking. "...there's a bit of a notch taken out. It's a bit singed there. Whatever gun they used..." The way the pegasus said 'gun' made it sound like a swear word. This instantly confirmed for Gwen that the pegasus was almost certainly a Newfoal and not a native.
Native Equestrians visiting the Earth had no understanding of the vast and inventive ways that humans had created to kill other creatures and each other. The very concept of mass murder was utterly alien to the ponies, unthinkable. Equestrians that learned abstractly about guns, bombs, tanks, battleships, nerve agents, bioweapons, warmechs, molecular blades and such had no emotional connection to their intellectual understanding - unless they themselves had been attacked. Only Newfoals displayed such an emotional reaction as Petrichor had shown - shame, horror and guilt at having been part of a species so very, very clever at slaughter.
"I suspect they used an electomechanical rifle. Shoots so fast that the bullet literally burns the air itself. That's what cauterized my wound, I expect. Good thing too. Considering I was shot in the abdomen, I likely would have bled out."
The little pegasus cringed at this. "You sure know a lot about this stuff."
"I'm a librarian. Books are my life. I read everything, about anything." Gwen shivered again, and the shaking made her wound hurt more. "Though I do have my preferences. I like stories about elves and fairies and ancient magics, myself."
"Ever read any Lord Dunsany?" The pegasus looked up, cautiously hopeful.
Gwen smiled broadly. This was her sort of person. "Book Of Wonder, The King Of Elfland's Daughter, Beyond The Fields We Know..."
Petrichor was estatic. "Gods Of Pegana, Sword Of Welleran, Fifty-One Tales..."
"Oh wondrous! You are quite the extraordinary individual, my good miss Petrichor!" Gwen seldom came across a single soul who had even heard of the other direction fantasy could have taken, if Tolkien and his ilk had not stolen the stage.
"I can't believe you know Lord Dunsany! Wow!" Petrichor was on her hooves now, almost prancing. "It was really great that you were on that roof!" Instantly the brown pegasus looked deeply ashamed. "I mean... it wasn't good... not at all... oh sweet Luna... I... I mean..."
Gwen gave a soft laugh. "Hush! You saved my life. If it weren't for you, I would be so completely dead. Thank you, by the way. For saving me."
Petrichor sat down once more. "I'm just glad it worked. I'm still learning."
"The trick with the pallet? That was amazing, truly amazing!" The shivering was getting worse, also the pain.
"I've mastered basic flight, and extension of lift... but I've never tried it before with anything as heavy as y... uh... that heavy... before." The muzzle of the pegasus betrayed a slight grin. Her catch was a faux slip. She was a caution, and to be sure.
"I've got your pills, it took me a bit because I forgot where I put them last night, in all the fuss... oh dear..." Paige was back, a bottle in her hand. She placed her other hand on Gwen's forehead, noting the dampness. Gwen's teeth were beginning to chatter now. "Here, let's get these in you, no reason for you to suffer. Then I am getting that unicorn, Ace in here, pronto." Paige opened the bottle and shook out two pills, handing them to Gwen.
"Ace? Don't tell me... Ace Bandage? You have to be kidding me!" Gwen swallowed the Endorphinol tabs with the help of the glass of water on the nightstand.
"The one and only. I know! These Newfoals and their pony names, am I right?" Paige laughed, but her eyes betrayed worry. "I'll be back as soon as I can round him up. Stay warm. The WC is just to your left outside the door, Pet will help you. Back in a bit love!"
Petrichor nodded. "Kisses!"
Gwen noted the fond looks. "Are you... a couple?"
Petrichor grinned. "That obvious, huh?"
Gwen found herself curious. "Um... why isn't she... I mean... usually, in couples, when one partner... I mean..."
"Why isn't Paige a pony already?" Petrichor grabbed a pillow from the closet, then lay it on the floor to sit on. "The usual assumption we get is that I must have been hit by the PER, smacked with a bottle of potion in the street or something. Nope! Nothing so dramatic. Or that she doesn't intend to convert, and our story will be a tragic one. No, she's booked for the Bureau, there's just a list right now. The rush is on. We've actually been trying to find the PER, to avoid having to wait so long. But that isn't the whole story, I mean, she could have gone in with me at the same time, right? The registered couples exception." Petrichor blushed, under her coat. The hair was very thin and delicate on pony faces, which made such things as blushing visible. "The real reason is... um... well..."
The pills were kicking in. Thank the saints and angels for heavy drugs, Gwen thought to herself. "Yes?"
"We... well..." The blush got redder. "We are kind of a little... kinky. Just a bit, mind you! Nothing really out there! We don't have a dungeon in our bedroom or anything... not much, anyway... it's just that it's a once in a universe opportunity to explore... um..."
Gwen giggled as she shivered. "Say no more! Nudge nudge, a wink's as good as a nod!"
Petrichor's muzzle opened, her jaw dropping, her ears leaning forward. "M-Monty Python? You know..."
"A library holds more than just books, you know." Gwen felt kinship with the pegasus mare. It was rare to find any person these days who knew Lord Dunsany at all, and almost as rare to find a person who had ever heard of Python. "Did we used to be friends in a past life?"
"There's a colliding universe out there, and I'm a pony now. Sure. At this point they could reveal the flying teapots they've been hiding from the public, and I wouldn't flinch." Petrichor's tail was wagging, almost like a dog. "Glad to meet you again, Gwen! Funny meeting you in this life of all places!"
Her teeth rattled but she grinned. "You look different, somehow."
This made them both laugh.
When Paige finally returned, a construction-yellow unicorn stallion in tow, she found a very worried Petrichor greeting her at the door. "What took so long?"
"Ace here turned into a fetch quest. I've been all over the building twice. How's our foundling?" Paige ushered the unicorn medic into Gwen's room as she spoke.
"Not so good, now. She's got some kind of fever, that's pretty clear, and she's not as sharp as she was earlier." Petrichor brushed up against her partner, and leaned into her for comfort.
"Hello miss Gwen, was it? I'm Ace, I'm a second-year medical intern - not my choice, mind you, I had a bit of a change of life and they made me do a second term. Actually, it's been instructive. I understand you have a pretty serious wound. Can I examine you?"
Gwen was all shivers and chattering now, and it was harder to concentrate. "P-Please. I'm-m not as g-good as I w-was."
Ace Bandage took up a position on the right side of Gwen's bed and closed his purple eyes. His yellow horn began to glow, and under his eyelids, his eyes moved as if he were dreaming. Paige hunched down low, her arm around her companion, and gave Petrichor a warm kiss. They remained quiet, waiting for the medical unicorn to finish his scan.
"Well, you have quite a hole through your abdomen. The tunnel passes through several loops of your small intestine, and exits in the front through your liver. The charring fortunately stopped any bleeding, but there is an infection growing in there. We're looking at sepsis too, and all of that demands immediate attention." Ace opened his eyes, and the glow of his horn ceased. "According to Paige here, you have Green-Level benefits, which means we can probably get you into the teaching hospital where I work with little trouble. I'm going to make arrangements, and we're going to have to move quickly on th..."
"W-WAIT!" Gwen almost shouted the word.
"No, there is no wait, here. Septicemia is a critical condition. It's easily treatable with the third gen microbial inhibitors, but it used to be touch and go even back in the golden age of antibiotics. Those holes, plural, need to be closed. Gwen, do you think you can you afford an ambulance? It's that serious!" Ace turned to Paige. "If she can't afford an ambulance, what options for transport do we have? If necessary, we can..."
"I could fly her! I've already done it once. I can do it again, I'm positive!" Petrichor was eager to help, almost desperate. She very much liked her new, learned friend. "I've still got the pallet from last night. I can fly her! And..." Petrichor looked back at Gwen "...it won't cost you a credit!"
"I'M BEING HUNTED!"
Ace, Paige and Petrichor stared at the outburst. Gwen winced from pain, because she had tried to sit up as she yelled. "P-Probably. The HLF, remember? They are after me, I am certain by now they know who I am. But it's w-worse than that! They're local! T-They have a base really c-close. I can't just s-show up at a local hospital!"
Paige shook her head. "Gwen, honey, this is serious. This is not a time to worry about the HLF. The hospitals are all protected by Blackmesh, nobody messes with..."
"They k-killed all of the B-Blackmesh protecting me. At the warehouse. K-killed them all. They are after me. These aren't the usual idiots. It's the Echelon, the top assholes. Y-you can't let anyone know I'm here, they'll kill you t-too." Gwen sagged back, dripping with sweat, dizzy and sick.
"Girl, what did you bring home this time?" Paige stared at her pegasus lover. Petrichor's ears flattened against her skull. "I didn't know! I mean... I didn't know it was like this! But what else could I do? I'm not ever just going to leave somebody to..."
"There's another option." Ace had a commanding presence, the room was quiet. "I've been in that rich-human hospital for too muffin long. The world's ending. It should be the first option, every time. Swirl, we should be using it to treat colds and minor cuts!" Ace leaned his long neck over the bed, his head close to Gwen's. "Untreated, Gwen, you have hours to live. How'd you like to add three hundred years?"
"Paige told me you were with the WorldGov Literature And Arts team. You know the score. I have to wonder why you don't already have your hooves on. Religious objections?" Ace's purple eyes filled Gwen's view.
"N-No! J-Just never got around to it. K-Keyboards and records need h-human hands, you know?" Gwen had known it would have to happen. It was the only way to survive. Earth was sinking, and Equestria was the only lifeboat. It was a miracle the princesses were willing to take in so many refugees at all. But Gwen had always imagined going to a proper Bureau, on her own terms, when she felt ready. Fourteen days of that legendary real food all the Newfoals went on about. All the holos and lectures and maybe even a special speaker or two...
"So no objections?" Ace was insistent.
Gwen felt like she was dying, her body shook and the pain just kept getting worse despite the pills. She felt cold almost all the time, and sounds felt 'wrong' somehow. "N-no... no objections!" Every time her body shook, it felt like a mutie-rat was chewing at her side.
"Paige, keep her going. Pet!" Ace trotted over to the pegasus. "You carried her last night, you said. On a pallet. Think you can "Firemare's Carry me to Mercy and back?"
Petrichor nodded vigorously. "Roof. Let's get going!"
"Gwen, hang in there, OK? You'll be laughing on hooves in no time." Ace and Petrichor dashed out of the room, the sound of the apartment door being opened and hooves galloping receded and stopped as the door swung shut.
"Here... let me get you a damp towel. It might help with the fever sweats." Paige turned toward the kitchen.
"P-Paige? H-How about more of t-those pain pills? It's not like my l-liver is gonna care long!" Gwen tried to smile through frighteningly pale lips.
"Yeah, sure." Paige had no more smiles left. The speed at which sepsis advanced had begun to horrify her.
It was almost an hour later when Gwen was awakened. Paige was holding her hand, patting it to bring her to consciousness. "Gwen? Gwen honey? It's time. Ace and Pet are back, and they've got your medicine."
"W-What happened? They just l-left! Huh?" Everything was strangely distorted when Gwen opened her eyes. She felt like she was looking through a fishbowl at the world. She felt heavy and uncoordinated. And hot. Very, very hot, like the world was on fire.
"You drifted off a while back. I figured I'd let you sleep a bit. But now it's time to wake up. You need to drink your medicine." Paige had a cup, filled from a three-ounce government issued emergency transport flask. The flask had hung around Ace's neck, the same kind of flask the Taikonauts on the World Friendship Orbital Platform carried in case of a sudden Equestrian de-orbit. The carbon-fiber flask sat on the night table now.
Gwenhwyfar Boik had never felt so sick in all of her life. Then again, a part of her scrambled thoughts noted, she'd never actually been so sick in all her life before. Sepsis was fatal, unless treated. The medicine would fix it. The medicine would fix everything. The little cancers she took Malignostat to halt. The cut tendon in the ring finger on her left hand - no... that wouldn't so much as get fixed as simply be absorbed away. That annoying scratch on her right cornea, that made the letters look broken sometimes. Brand new eyes, clear and perfect.
She looked at her hands, while the room swirled from the fever slowly killing her. It was hard to focus her eyes. Bye-bye hands. No more typing. No more computers. Have to write with a quill and ink now. 'Sweet Joseph, my whole life's been typing and clicking, hasn't it? Not really much of a life, come to think... oh god... I hurt... medicine. Medicine.' The face of her grandfather seemed to hover in front of her vision. "I'm goin' ta join the fairies now, Eachann. I'm off ta join the fairies..."
The cup was at her lips. Someone was telling her to swallow every drop, it all had to go down. Gwen did her best, but it tasted like metallic grape and it smelled the same. It wasn't something a body would drink for enjoyment. It felt too thick, going down, and it numbed whatever it touched. Somehow she managed to get it all in. The cup was removed.
Gwen lay back, the ceiling squirming, the sound of Ace the medical unicorn trying to tell her something about what version the potion was. She tried to tell him about the woman in the notebook, who had helped make the stuff, but that was the moment that she found herself falling into an infinite dark abyss, and the room went away entirely.