Inkwell walked through the marketplace, keenly aware that unfriendly eyes must be watching her every hoofstep and the every flick of her tail. She had read enough pre-Collapse spy thrillers to imagine the humans ensconced in little dark rooms, peering out with imaging equipment, or perched on rooftops - perhaps hidden inside of false water tanks or air conditioners - scanning her with advanced espionage equipment.
Or... it could just be that idiot across the way with the dark glasses not really watching the news on the public holokiosk. Maybe Petrichor was right, and these HLF types were not entirely professional. Goodness, but that human is just plain poor at spying! Inkwell laughed and trotted on to the open-air cafe.
Casablanca Corner was run by a pair of earthpony Newfoal stallions who had a love of old media. The place had a vaguely Moroccan feel to it, and an eclectic menu. Inkwell settled herself down onto a low stool at the third table from the left, the one with the 'reserved' card on it, and waited. When Greenstreet took her order for carrot coffee, he nodded and took it back to Maltese, who set about filling the order.
It wasn't long before Cloudypuff Moonypants showed up.
The sweaty, rotund stallion awkwardly settled himself onto a low stool across from Inkwell. "OK. Shoot."
"I was converted without my permission. Paige and Pet did it to save my life, and I cannot fault them for their good intentions, Celestia love 'em. They're my wives now, and I will protect them with every fiber of my being. But that does not mean that I agree with everything they believe, or that I share their views about the inevitability of the future." Inkwell gave the fat brown stallion a hard and determined look, to underscore her words. She wanted him to buy the notion that she was completely willing to go behind their backs. It was difficult trying to lie, as a pony.
"Go on, I'm listening." It was a warm day - the pegasus teams had not cleared the sky in a while and the global smog layer had begun to close in again. The sky was white, and the heat was climbing. Cloudypuff was dripping and looking very uncomfortable.
"Tell me what you need the notebook for. I may be willing to cooperate, provided my friends are left alone and we are guaranteed to be left to go on our way." Inkwell stared levelly at the stallion across the table.
Cloudypuff cleared his throat. "Now... that could be a problem. It is not in the interest of my employers, or yours, for you to know our business. We need to have a look at that notebook, and I meant what I said, we don't even need to keep it. You can have it back. We just need to see the thing. I've been informed that we could do what we need to do in an hour. You could have the book back before your friends even knew you had taken it. They would never need to know." Cloudypuff looked right, then left, before returning his attention to Inkwell. "Your not knowing a damn thing is your guarantee, you see, that you can go free. There would be no further interest in you after that point. That would be the end of it. The less you know, the better off you are, capiche? Simple as that."
Inkwell frowned. "But that's the problem - what if your intention is to use something in that notebook to hurt me or my friends down the road? I think of engineered viruses to kill ponies, or nanomachine plagues to do the same thing. It's no escape for my family and I, if the HLF just kills them later."
Cloudypuff seemed indifferent. "I never said we were HLF, miss Inkwell. I have to say I'm a bit disturbed that you would think such a thing, and a little concerned, because that might - I'm not saying you are right or nothin' - just might make you and yours a matter of additional interest, if you were to truly hold to such a view. Just sayin'."
Inkwell groaned and rolled over on the bed. "Cinnamon!" she barked at the ceiling.
For hours since she had awakened, Inkwell had been running scenarios through her mind.
The latest one, meeting Cloudypuff on the sly in order to feign making a deal, in order to find out what was really going on, was another ridiculous little fancy. Even if a meeting could be arranged, Cloudypuff would never divulge anything. And in the end, he really didn't need to. Inkwell felt reasonably sure that the thaumatically deficient pseudo-pony just had to be working for the HLF, and that meant that anything they wanted the notebook for was going to be very, very bad.
What bothered her was that she couldn't find anything within the notebook that was actually as dangerous as she had first imagined. The diagrams of nanomachines were not useful. They were far too simple, and there were plenty of similar designs available to examine just by searching the history of nanotechnology. The author of the notebook hadn't dropped any super-secret clues about the making of potion that Inkwell could imagine being truly useful to anypony. Not even the stuff about the purple fluid, the revelation of 'fairy blood' - there was no indication of how to acquire the stuff, or how to manufacture it. There were words about how the nanomachines needed careful programming, but in the whole tome, not a scrap of actual programming was to be found.
The bit about seeing Celestia raise the sun, and the tour of Equestria was interesting, but try as she might, Inkwell could think of no value to the HLF in it. If anything, the knowledge that Celestia was a living goddess who could manipulate reality itself tended to work against their attitude that she was a monstrous alien creature out to conquer the world. There was nothing in that notebook, now that she had time to completely look it over, that held any truly dangerous secret that would benefit the anti-pony cause.
They certainly wouldn't be making bioweapons from the sparse information in the book. Of course, maybe she was missing something, she must be, considering how much they wanted the thing. Or, maybe they simply didn't know that the notebook was useless. That could easily be. Inkwell sighed. She wished she could be rightly quit of the whole nasty mess! She rolled over onto her other side, and stared at the wall.
Cloudypuff and two humans in dark suits and dark glasses stood in the alley.
"So... what's it gonna be, miss Inkwell?" The stallion shifted his bulk, sweat dripping down his unkempt brown coat.
Paige, carrying 'Lil Slugger', looked at Inkwell, and then at Petrichor. Inkwell reached back into her saddlebags with her telekinetic field and brought forth the notebook and held it, floating, in front of herself. "The deal is simple. We give you this, and you leave us the swirl alone. We only want to get to Equestria. The potion kit you left behind makes that possible. You let us go, and you never need to see us again. We have no intention of staying earthside. The moment we do this, we start off for the nearest bureau and emigration. Do you have any problems with that?" Inkwell stared at the stallion. Paige clutched her bat.
"My dear, dear miss Inkwell, I can personally assure you that our interest in you ends with the acquisition of that notebook. I and my colleagues here will happily turn and leave, and you may go to Equestria, or straight to hell, for all we care. I promise you that you are just not interesting beyond what you are carrying in your little magical glow there. Why should we care? There's nothing we need to keep secret, and no loose ends. We don't even care if you stay or go. So, what's it gonna be?" Cloudypuff grinned, a very unpleasant sight.
Inkwell floated the notebook over and laid it upon the stretch of intact plascrete of the alley. One of the dark-suited humans bent and picked up the notebook, checked it, then nodded at Cloudypuff.
"There. That wasn't so hard, now was it? I like it when people are reasonable and intelligent about things. It was very nice meeting youse all, and now we bid our leave, and I personally wish you all the very best. Good day, miss Inkwell, Paige, Petrichor." The three sinister individuals turned and left, exiting the alleyway. Pet, Inkwell and Paige were left alone, the sound of the marketplace filling the empty alley.
"That was easy. You were right, Inks! We are safe, and free! This is fantastic!" Pet was excited "Paige! You can go pony! We could do it now, in our room, or at the Bureau - I'm sure they'd let us have the use of a room or something for twenty minutes. Then... it's off to Equestria! This is just... It's so WONDERFUL!" Pet began prancing about, her hooves clacking on the plascrete.
"Damn, girl. You did it." Paige rotated the aluminum bat in her hand. "Come on, let's get out of this alley and head for the Bureau. I'll get my hooves on there. I've got our bits with me, we don't need to go back to the apartment... so... let's go."
The three made their way to the Bureau, making only a single stop for lunch. Finally, after several hours of crossing the city on foot and hoof, they made it, and entered through the security arch.
The Bureau staff were nonplussed at offering the use of one of the rooms for Paige's conversion, and even had a PA sit through it with them, just in case. They were even willing to do a quick test on the potion in the kit to make sure it was normal and untampered with. As Inkwell had suspected, it was perfectly standard version 3.2 potion, complete with anesthetic built in. Fifteen minutes later, Paige was a pony, and while Pet sat with her as she slept, Inkwell made arrangements to get them transferred to Equestria.
The next day saw them on a boat, and by the end of the day they stood together within Equestria itself. Green fields and trees surrounded them, and they hugged on the green grass and cried with relief and joy. "We did it! We made it and now we are safe and sound and..."
At that point the sky above began to crack. Shards of blue fell through the clouds like pieces of a broken mirror, leaving an eerie, terrifying blackness beyond. Bolts of electric force began to reach down from above and scour the landscape, burning and destroying everything in their path. Princess Celestia suddenly flew up to meet the challenge, but a bolt of force struck her, exploding her body. Bits of meat and feathers drifted down from where she had been. Suddenly, the holographically projected muzzle of Cloudypuff Moonypants filled the blackening sky. "HELLO, MY LITTLE PONIES! OR SHOULD I SAY - GOODBYE. OH! AND THANKS TO YOU, MISS INKWELL, FOR YOUR INVALUABLE HELP AND ASSIST..."
Inkwell was breathing hard, her heart racing as she lay on her belly, head upright, on the bed. There was no way to know what they might get out of that notebook. No way to know at all. It would be the height of arrogance to assume she knew enough to decide the notebook was useless. Inkwell worked on calming herself, and wished that Paige and Petrichor would get back from the marketplace. They had gone to stock up on supplies, should the three need to make a run for it, and Inkwell had stayed behind to guard the apartment, and to destroy the notebook, if it came to it.
She felt thirsty. Inkwell moved to leave the bed, backing off the edge because she was still not confident leaping like Petrichor did to the floor. The bed that they shared together was very different than the pony-safe mat and comforter in the guest room. Paige preferred a deep, soft, tall foam bed for her human body. The bed was wonderfully comfortable, but very unsteady for unpracticed hooves. Inkwell slid backwards until her rear hooves met the floor, then pulled the rest of herself down until she was safely on all fours.
In the kitchen, Inkwell levitated a bowl - the red bowl, her favorite - from the rack and filled it with water from the sink. She held it in front of herself with her hornfield, and drank the contents. That was much better! Inkwell rinsed the bowl and set it in the rack once more, then returned to the bedroom.
This part she had down. She set her hindquarters firmly, wiggled her rump, and then gave a run and a jump, landing mostly splayed over the top of the bed. Squirming and kicking, she returned to the center of the comforter, and the notebook that lay there. She pulled her legs under her, folded, the notebook under her barrel, hidden by her body. She stared at the sky, through the blinds behind the bed. In the distance a pair of pegasai flew past.
Paige set the metal box down on the roof of the apartment. The steel half-cube would protect the roof. A bucket of water stood nearby, as well, just in case. Inkwell levitated the notebook down, into the metal box.
Petrichor poured the alcohol over the book. It was pure, the sort used by the caravans to power their vehicles. As Inkwell brought the mechanical lighter to the box, the pounding became more frantic on the blocked door to the roof garden. The HLF had been watching them, and now they had figured out what was going on. Whoever was on the stairs began slamming the door with their body, trying to break it down.
"Hurry!" Paige clutched Lil Slugger, and faced the door.
Inkwell carefully manipulated the lighter, sending sparks into the alcohol soaked paper of the notebook. Flames shot up, blue and yellow, as the pages blackened and crinkled. The roof door was partly open now, and the angry faces of dark-suited humans and a portly brown pony could be seen desperately trying to force the door completely open.
Suddenly the aged hinges gave and the three HLF agents spilled onto the roof. They picked themselves up and ran towards the fire in the metal box, heedless of Paige and her bat. "It's OK, Paige! It's gone! Let 'em through! Paige!"
Paige backed up, grinning, as Cloudypuff and his two lieutenants shook their heads over the mass of dying flames and powdery gray ash that now filled the metal box. "Oh, you shouldn't have done that. No, no, that was a mistake, there." Cloudypuff had an angry expression on his face and muzzle, one that no proper pony could ever possess. It was a look of barely restrained human rage and violence, of unrepentant vengeance and emotionless cruelty. "See... that was your only bargaining chip right there. And now it's gone, and that has made us very, very unhappy. Now, you could have just walked away from this situation, because your lives don't matter, at all. But no, you had to go and piss off the HLF. Not a smart thing, considering our stance regarding ponies in general."
"You're a pony!" Petrichor jabbed a hoof at the plump, sweaty brown stallion.
"That, my friend, is where you would be wrong." Instantly the monomolecular blade, tossed by a remarkably accurate muzzle, was inside of Pet's left eye, the shimmering blade poking out the back of her skull as she collapsed. "I think the boss won't mind a little effort to bring the city in line with statistical averages do you, boys?"
The two humans nodded and advanced, guns in their hands. Paige stood over the shaking, dying body of Petrichor, and raised her bat, only to drop it as the first bullet severed her spine. As she lay on the roof, involuntarily vomiting from the horror and pain, Inkwell gathered her thaumatic energy and focused small balls of the magical force directly inside the middle of the skulls of the two humans and the pseudo-pony Cloudypuff. One tiny jerk, one tiny expansion, the most minute twist and...
She couldn't do it. Her friends gurgled their last breaths at her hooves and she literally couldn't avenge them. The two humans were only fighting for what they believed in, and they probably had family, children, and pets, too. They had lives and those lives were precious despite what they had done. Inkwell loved Paige and Petrichor with all of her heart, and the wives or husbands of these two humans would love them just the same, and killing the humans would break countless hearts.
And Cloudypuff... he was such a sad creature. He didn't even have a soul. If he died, here, now, he would be annihilated, consigned to oblivion, and the thought was so sad, so terrible... Inkwell couldn't do it. Any of it.
But neither could she stand by and let them do any more harm. They had hurt, maybe killed both of her spouses and she would NOT let that just go! Maybe she couldn't use magic to instantly turn their brains to mush, but she could muffin' well show them the power of hoof and horn! Inkwell charged, insane with grief and she did not feel the bullets tear through her as she fell...
Inkwell was rocking back and forth on the mattress, crying. "Oh... oh sweet Celestia... oh my sweet Luna!" She was horrified, shocked that her new brain could even think such thoughts! She became afraid - what if her conversion had been botched? What if she were like that awful Cloudypuff, still capable of human wrath and evil, what if...
"Inkwell? Inkwell?" Petrichor had leaped onto the bed, and had her forelegs around the ivory unicorn. "What's the matter, Inks? Inkwell? Speak to me!" But Inkwell just kept crying and trying to roll back and forth, desperate to shake the awful thoughts from her mind.
Paige rushed in from the kitchen, were she had placed her sacks of groceries on the table. "What? What happened? Did they come here?" Paige turned to run and fetch Lil Slugger from behind the couch.
"No, no nopony came here!" Inkwell said between sobs "I... I just had terrible thoughts! I think I'm broken! I think I'm like Cloudypuff! I'm a monster-pony!" She broke down once more, wracked with sorrow.
Now both Paige and Petrichor were holding her, as she rocked in their embrace. Eventually she relaxed into her lovers limbs, sobbing. "I... I was trying to think... of what we should do, how we should handle this and... and... I thought terrible things! Awful things! I shouldn't be able to think things like I have been imagining! I'm supposed to be a pony now! Something is wrong with me!"
"What? What are you talking about, Inks? What things could you have thought that were so bad? What?" Petrichor was utterly lost. Paige just shrugged.
Inkwell told Pet and Paige about the possible scenarios she had considered, and how vivid and intense her daydreams had been when thinking them. She stuttered when she described the horrible endings, and agonized over how it was she was even still able to imagine such terrible scenes. "Conversion is supposed to change the brain! It's supposed to make us better, and nicer, and free us from cruel and vicious thoughts and..."
"Wait, wait, wait...." Petrichor shook her head "I think you misunderstood a lot of stuff, Inks. That isn't what potion does to the brain. Trust me on that."
Inkwell wiped her eyes with her forelegs and sniffed. "W-What do you mean? I've been told that..."
"People say a lot of silly things about conversion and what it does or doesn't do." Petrichor nuzzled the ivory and black unicorn. "That's the anti-ponificationists favorite trick. Lies, Inkwell, there's a lot of misinformation out there."
"I shouldn't be able to daydream... horror!" Inkwell sobbed briefly, then sniffled and tried to clear her sinuses.
"Potion changes the brain, no doubt about that. You've felt it. More compassion, more empathy. We end up caring about others and ourselves more than we ever imagined we could. We can't be mean, because we don't want to be mean. Our better angels are made ascendant, and our devils are put to sleep. But Inks..." Pet nibbled her ear, gently, comfortingly. "...Inks, we... all that doesn't mean we turn into zombies or anything. You've still got your imagination, and I will grant you, negative, scary thoughts are harder to come by as a pony, and much, much less common - but that doesn't mean you've been stripped of the ability to think them."
"But it happened so easily, Pet!" Inkwell sniffed again. "It was awful!"
"I'm sure it was." Pet gave a quick nuzzle to Paige, then continued "You'd probably never, ever think stuff like that if we lived in Equestria, in some nice little village with other nice ponies. But we're here, on Earth, and we are being harassed by butt-heads and meanies. It's scary right now. Moonybritches was scary. And we don't know what to do. Also, you're a Newfoal, like me - we've grown up here, on Earth, we know what goes down here. You don't suddenly lose all of that just because potion fixes the broken parts of your brain. It doesn't erase experience, or memory, or who you are or how you think. Duh!"
"Pet... I don't think that's her issue, really." Paige ran her fingers through Inkwell's mane, combing it with soft motions. Inkwell began to relax. "I think the real problem is that Inks was hoping to not ever have to experience thoughts like that again. I think she was hoping that potion would cure all her negative thoughts permanently. That's it, isn't it?"
Inkwell looked up with sad, almost betrayed eyes. "Yes! I wanted to be free from dark and scary thoughts! I wanted all of that to just be gone! Forever! I wanted.... I wanted peace, Paige. I wanted... peace... inside me."
Petrichor was thoughtful for a moment. "Inkwell, you can have that. I am sure you can have that. We get to Equestria, and I have no doubt you will NOT spend your time daydreaming horror stories. I'm positive of that, because I've heard from ponies on the other side. I've read letters from other ponies beyond the Barrier, right? And they don't have scary thoughts. Not commonly, anyway. They just don't!"
"Then why did I? Why do I?" Inkwell was on the verge of crying again.
Paige scratched Inkwell's ear and looked her in her dark eyes. "Like we said, Inkwell. It's scary, here, now. Just because you are a pony, doesn't mean you got lobotomized. In a scary place, you can still think scary thoughts, because sometimes you need to, to know what is dangerous, and how to avoid it. If ponies were completely incapable of scary thoughts, they wouldn't survive at all, anywhere."
"Yeah!" Petrichor gave Inkwell a tight hug. "Even Equestria has scary stuff in it, you know! The Everfree, the ruins of Gryphonia, the dragon weyrs, The dragon migrations, the scary dragons of the southern desert, the scary dragon slavers of Stalliongrad, the scary lava pools that the scary dragons like to go to, the occasional scary dragon that just shows up, the..."
"I think I'm seeing what worries you, more than any attempt to comfort me!" Inkwell was able to laugh now, which cheered both Petrichor and Paige.
"Well... Dragons are scary!" Pet looked terrified, then laughed. "Come on, they are!"
Paige shook her head and used a hand to ruffle Pet's mane. "Being a pony doesn't mean being useless, Inkwell. And it doesn't mean a head full of cotton candy, either. I'm sorry you were disappointed by not being completely freed of dark and scary thoughts. But I've never heard of a pony dwelling on such things the way humans do, either. Worry, yes. Horror, no. So just try to take it on faith that being capable of something does not mean you are doomed to think terrible things all the time."
Paige disentangled herself from Pet and Inkwell, and began to get up, off the bed. "You should be glad, really. We need to think our way out of this mess, and if going pony took away the ability to think, we might as well just give ourselves up for lost right now, because I certainly can't carry all of this just by myself."
At the door to the kitchen, Paige turned to her spouses cuddling on the bed. "We need you, Inks. You're the best read pony here. You know the drama to avoid, right? Use your scary thought powers to help us find a way out of all of this. Right now, the fact that ponification doesn't remove that ability is probably our best hope. I'm going to put stuff away, alright? You going to be OK?"
Inkwell sniffed and smiled. "Yeah. I'll be OK. Thank you, Paige. You too, Pet." She kissed Pet on the nose and snuggled close. "It was just so intense, you know?"
Petrichor kissed Inkwell back. "Yeah, actually I do. Right after my conversion, I had those bad dreams, remember? The ones where my hooves crumbled and I was back in the wheelchair?"
"Oh! I remember!" Inkwell looked a little ashamed. "I guess you do know don't you? Even better than me. Sorry. I guess I was just all wrapped up in it all."
"That's how it is. I felt the same way. Scary stuff does that." Petrichor shouted to the door "You need any help, Paige?"
The sound of a cabinet opening and closing came from the kitchen. "Nope! I got it! Just snuggle!"
"Sounds like a plan." Petrichor giggled and held Inkwell tight.