"Ralph Vitoni - cyberembezzler, confidence artist, gigolo - how on earth did you pull that one off with a face like that?" Leonard Reich was acting uncharacteristically whimsical, which made everyone in the underground facility desperately uneasy.
"Cute. I'll have you know that in my youth I was only half as ugly." Ralph followed the leader of Echelon, waddling beside him like an overly well fed, brown-suited bulldog.
"To continue, cleaner - though a bit brutal, from what I hear, what ever happened to 'efficient, polite, and quick?', kidnapper - quite a feat bagging that little girl from Antarctica, considering she was probably the most monitored and watched human being in the history of the human race - "
Ralph stopped in the corridor and straightened his loud, striped tie. "I can be very quiet when I need to be. An' I deserved every credit I pulled from that little job. That brat was a pain in the patootie - she was 'pony' this and 'Celestia' that, and 'I wanna watch my show' - no shittin' ya, I suffered on that one, Leo."
"I only have admiration for your achievement, I assure you, Mr. Vitoni. The corporate elite are no friends of mine, for the most part. We do have a loyal, if small, cadre of supporters within their ranks, but beyond that, I consider them vastly worse than the converted traitors - because it is they who have sold us out to the wolves. Wolves who walk in the skins of ponies and bear not teeth but the most dangerous threat Mankind has ever faced - an easy way out." Leonard and Ralph passed through the final security check, and submitted to a number of scans and verifications before being admitted into a vast, gleaming white circular chamber with a domed roof.
"What - they scan you too? Come on... yer pullin' my leg here, Leo. You're the ass-bitin' head of the entire shindig!"
Reich managed a restrained laugh. "You are a very colorful individual, Mr. Vitoni. I would think that anyone capable of that Antarctic caper would know that anyone can be compromised in this age of nanotechnology, and that no individual can be assumed to be free of tiny spies or embedded influence."
"From what I hear, you never leave this joint. You can't get compromised if you don't do nothin.'" Ralph covered his eyes briefly against the reflected glare of the powerful overhead lights.
"You would be surprised where I get to, Mr. Vitoni. Now, let me show you the centerpiece of the project that very well may end the problem of Equestria once and for all. May I present to you, the potential salvation of the human race, project Gypsy Traveller." Leonard Reich waved his hand at the object in the center of the vast chamber. It sat on a large, round, movable dais. To the right, a team of technicians in white cleanroom bunny suits stood to attention. To the left was a portable containment and support trailer camping on the floor of the room.
Ralph Vitoni blinked, looked at Reich, and then returned his vision to the object on the dais. "What?"
The wagon was perhaps eighteen feet long, and clearly built of Equestrian wood. The wheels were wood, with six spokes each, with rims adorned with something not unlike brass. A simple floral design graced the sides of the low wagon, while a Conestoga styled top was supported by upright bands. Traditional Equestrian spritelight lanterns hung from the side near the front. The wagon had harnesses for six Equestrian ponies.
"This is a joke, right?" Ralph tried to smile, but his thin lips faltered when he realized that there was not a speck of humor to be found in Leo Reich's face.
"Eighteen feet long by eleven high, made in Equestria, by Equestrians, adapted by us. Naturally. It features the first prototype trans-universal communications system based on principles we barely understand, and we have no idea if it will actually work." At this, Leo smiled. Briefly. Ralph shuddered.
"The interior features compartments for hidden weapons designed for pony use, and a system of..." Reich found himself cut off, a very rare circumstance that quite took him aback.
"Wait - now I know you are shitting me. Weapons? For ponies? The little fuckers may be stealin' our planet, but they aren't exactly the type to get into a rumble. I know. I've offed my share, and they'll kick and bite, they'll seriously fuck you up to protect their children, but even the unicorns won't use a machine pistol right in front of them. They've got fight, sure, but as a species, no balls, not even the stallions." Ralph was sweating, Ralph always sweated.
Leonard studied the squat man dispassionately. Ralph felt like he was being considered for dissection. He wasn't far from wrong. "Sometimes, Mr. Vitoni, a pony is not always a pony."
Ralph laughed. "Hey! That rhymes there! Good one, Leo. I didn't know you for the poetic type." There was something else, something trouble going on here, and Ralph was feeling the special feeling he would always get when it was time to run, only there was no place to run or hide in the huge, circular room.
Leonard turned to the support trailer and spoke to the air "Send Mister Phillips out please."
Ralph's face lit up with recognition. "Phillips? You got Phillips in there? Hey, Leo, that's a good man there. Damn. Phillips! The only bastard nearly as hard as me. Love the bastard. Hey! Phillips! It's me, Vitoni!"
The door to the support trailer opened. Two bunny-suited techs pulled out a ramp and set it down.
From out of the trailer ambled a pony. It was a ground-type stallion, dull red with a brown mane, and large pink eyes. It reached the bottom of the ramp and carefully turned, apparently still unsteady upon its legs. Ralph watched in mounting horror and disgust as the creature approached. The eyes were pink, but the expression was not kind, or fluffy or filled with friendship and laughter. The pink eyes were hard, the eyes of a killer who loved his work, and the muzzle was nightmarishly familiar.
"No. Noooo. No, no, oh god no no no..." Ralph didn't want to admit what his brain was telling him, what his gut was shrieking at him "Oh fuck no. Not Phillips... oh Jeeze... fuck, not Phillips."
The red stallion stared at Ralph from only a few feet away. "Fuck you too, you greasy sack of shit."
Ralph stared at the pony. He stared at the creature's mouth. It had moved while those words had come out. The pony had said those words to him, and it had said them in Phillips usual, cruel voice. "Phillips... what... it's a robot, right? He's back in that trailer! Damn good job, Leo, damn..." Ralph reached out to touch the pony robot only to nearly have his fingers bitten from him.
"Keep your filthy monkey paws to yourself, you damn, dirty ape. I know the kind of things you do with them." The pony wasn't a robot. It was alive. It was Phillips. It was still Phillips in there.
"How... I don't understand... how is this..." Ralph was too shocked to put anything together, much less the pieces needed to comprehend what he was seeing.
"We've duplicated - and improved - on the Worldgovernment's little attempt to stab Celestia in the back. Only we didn't end up with another P.E.R." Reich stared at Vitoni as if he were an object in the room. "We have cracked the 'Celestia Factor' that turned the Worldgovernment's best agents into puppets of that whore of Babylon. Conversion that retains the human capacity for violence and deceit, but also conversion without dreams."
Ralph shook himself, trying to take it in. "What, you're telling me that you can make sleeper agents that don't change their allegiances? Phillips here still..." Ralph turned to the little stallion. "If you're really Phillips, what would you do if you were alone with Celestia, huh?"
The red pony's face twisted into something that only a madman could call a grin. "Before or after I fucked her severed trachea?"
Ralph slapped his own cheeks with both hands. "Goddamn. Just god fucking damn. That's my boy in there, that's Phillips. That is abso-fucking-lutely Phillips in there. Dammit, man, what the hell happened to you? Why did you let them do this to you? Shit... Phillips..."
Leonard Reich motioned to the clean-suited techs. "Mr. Phillips volunteered for project Gypsy Traveller for the same reasons you will. Because it is the best single hope of ending Equestria forever. Because it will save the world and all of Mankind. Because it will put paid to that bitch Celestia and her entire cosmos in a single, bright - oh so very bright - new day."
Ralph struggled against the technicians, but the Tranqui-Patch was already feeding relaxants into his neck.
"But above all, Mr. Vitoni, you will do it because you are a man who cares deeply about his world, a man who is willing to sacrifice himself to save his race." Leonard Reich rarely smiled in a natural way. It was never good when he did. He was smiling, and it was not a false smile.
"Fuck... fuuu... " Ralph was losing his ability to remain conscious, but he fought the encroaching dark with every bit of his formidable will "I'll... see... you... in... h-he-hel..."
"Of that, Mr. Vitoni, I have no doubt." Reich waved the bunny-suits to take the squat man into the trailer. The pony Phillips followed them, laughing bitterly, but no less humorously. "But I think... you will feel the flames first."
Ralph Vitoni briefly glimpsed another dais far behind the one containing the wagon. His mind was leaving him, and he could not be sure, but for all the world it looked like the platform held two partially completed quantum chromodynamic weapons, 'hypernukes' as the media had mislabeled them. He'd seen such weapons before, in Antarctica. The adrenaline shock briefly gave his fading mind a few seconds longer of consciousness.
"I wan you guyse to nooo..." Ralph was unable to use his lips correctly, because they were numb. "...Iyam naw th' fogivin' type..."
Then the blackness hit him, and no voice was calling.
Inkwell carefully, slowly, willed the end of the ribbon through the loop held in her hornfield. The pale, silvery glow sparkled and rippled as she pulled the very tip of the ribbon so that the bow was completed. With a blast of held air from her nostrils, she finally relaxed, her hornfield collapsing, the glow fading. Success, at last!
She turned her rump this way and that in front of the mirror, looking over her shoulders, down her back, admiring her work. The bright red ribbon with the enormous bow was tightly set at the base of her tail. Almost a little too tight, she felt the squeeze a bit in her tail muscles. Her horn glowed once more, and Inkwell carefully felt inside the coils of ribbon for a section that was not under stress. Performing an act impossible to fingers, she rippled the slack in the ribbon along its substance, until it was distributed such that the bow was just loose enough that her tail felt fine. The bow was snug - it would not fall off or slide down her tail, but not so tight as to constrict circulation.
Inkwell had wanted to surprise Paige and Pet with the bow - not only to show off her increasing competence with her telekinesis, but also because she hoped they would like it on her. She dearly hoped one of the two might think it was cute, and not silly or something. She wiggled her flanks in the mirror, making her tail shimmy like a shiny black snake, and adjusted the bow so that it would be just right. Perfect!
Her horn dark once again, Inkwell swung her crane-like neck back to the front, and spent some time bending and twisting it to get the kinks out of her muscles. Pony necks were long, flexible, and very muscular, their range of motion was surprisingly large, but looking back over her own rump had very nearly resulted in a neck cramp. She had managed to escape that particular sorrow so far, but this time she had come close, and it seemed clear that it was not a desirable thing to have happen.
Inkwell swung her head close to the floor, and on a whim looked between her forelegs, her view upside down. She could see her tail hanging up to the floor, or so it seemed, and she could see her own flat bosom between her legs. 'Oh, that's different!' she thought, staring at her undercarriage. She understood the pony body schematic, she had certainly felt the new location of her breasts laying on the bed, but it was somehow different seeing her new configuration with her own eyes.
She gave her tail another shake and watched as the plume of raven-black tail hair swished against the floor, upside down. The view was making her feel a little disoriented now, and a bit as if she might fall 'down' onto the ceiling, so she whipped her neck up bringing her head high and level. This action was ill advised, because the combination of G-forces and sudden change of scenery made her stagger on her hooves, which produced irregular clippy-clop noises until her head stopped feeling spinny.
"Ooh, note to self - no whipping your head about like a cat-o-nine tails. Goodness!" Inkwell went to the bed and lay her head and neck down across the comforter for a bit. She pretended that the dark blue comforter was a vast ocean, and she was in a boat, floating on it. With her muzzle and eyes level with the surface, it was easy to perceive her own muzzle as the prow of a boat, and she found herself sliding her head across the fabric, pretending to traverse an imaginary ocean.
Suddenly she stopped. "Luna's socks... I haven't done anything like this since I was a foal! Goofing about all silly like, playing pretend with myself... it's like I've gotten the stick out at the very least, and regressed to a second foalhood at the worst! What's happening to me?" She raised her head as she spoke the last, unsure of her own feelings. On one hoof she was having fun. On the other hoof, was that... alright to do?
"Oh... you stopped! I was going to putter up next to you and call out 'Ahoy!'" Petrichor was standing at the doorway, smiling.
Inkwell blushed, suddenly ashamed. She'd been caught being very silly indeed. She found herself staring intently at the comforter.
"Hey! Hey! None of that - I sail the comforter sea myself, Inkwell! That blue looks just like the water in the pictures of Equestria. Hey..." Petrichor had walked from the door and laid her neck across Inkwell's withers, hugging her. "You're embarrassed? Come on! We're ponies now! We're supposed to have silly fun. I think it's actually in the Equestrian Canter or Constistallion or Magna Carthorse or whatever. Page three: 'All ponies must be silly and have fun, so sayeth me-ith, Celestia-ith of Equestri-ith!'"
Inkwell giggled. "Sayeth me-ith, huh?" Pet's warm embrace felt wonderfully comforting. "So this is all very official-ith. I can trust you on the veracity of this matter then?"
"Oh, absolutely. If you don't perform at least three hours of silly activities per day, oh... you are in so much trouble in Equestria. I think they sentence you to chocolate cream pie fight or something. It's pretty nasty. Sticky, at least. Best all around if you just get silly now, and make it a part of your routine. Saves on soap and towels." Inkwell swore she could sense the grin on Petrichor's muzzle. It was palpable.
"Hee hee! I do feel... oh, I don't know... free, somehow. I've been feeling like a child again, it's like all the gloom and seriousness just got sucked right out of me." Inkwell and Petrichor parted as they raised their heads together.
"Well, it can't be conversion euphoria, because that only lasts a few days at most." Petrichor motioned with a nod of her head and a jerk of her ears to follow into the kitchen. "So, I think it is a permanent thing. I think you just might be happy. And you know, that's OK. It's better than OK! It's how things should be. It happened to me too, though it took a little longer because I had rocks for brains. Just play and be silly, Inkwell! What's the point in being a pony if you can't gambol and prance like a silly filly, huh?"
Paige sat at the table, with a little thin tablet of smartglass and a stylus. There were three cups set out, and a fresh pot of tea, Mr. Windsong's special stuff, the tea that he grows on the roof of what once was old the Morgan-Sachs Universal Bank. The high altitude is what he claims is the secret, though Paige had suggested that the real secret was two crates of soil from Equestria he had shipped in. In any case, the smell was wonderful.
"Hi! Have a seat, Inks, we're having a little family meeting! Oh!" Paige got up and went to a cupboard, then returned with a plate and a bag. "Cookies! Gotta have cookies with family meeting tea. Try these, they're the ones I made the super-sly attempt to hide away on our last shopping trip. Autumn Glory makes them. They have a trace of a very special, magical jam in them. She got a jar sent to her by her pen pal near Canterlot. I hear tell they're something special."
Inkwell sat on her little pillow at the low table, and sniffed the tea. "Oh, that does smell wonderful! I love Windsong's special tea!"
Petrichor sat on her stool across the table, and took a cookie in her teeth. "Mmmm... oh wow... OK, this is special. It feels like sweet... electricity... in my mouth or something. This is amazing. Have you tried this already, Paigey?"
"AHEM!" Paige sat up straight. "I call to order the... hmmm... I suppose the first official family meeting we've ever had, really, so... welcome, everypony!"
Inkwell was confused, and let loose a nervous half-giggle, then took a sip of her tea. Petrichor took another cookie, clearly in love with the treat.
"It has come to my attention... " Paige made a show of holding up her smartglass pad and pretending to check off points on the document currently loaded "...that we have arrived at quite a special date. Today marks the fourth week since the introduction of miss Inkwell Quillfeather - you did decide to go with the whole thing right?"
Inkwell swallowed the last bit of cookie, her mouth abuzz with appley-electric sweetness. "Um..hmmm...." she took a sip of tea, so she could speak more clearly "...um yeah, sure, I guess. I have to admit it's kind of grown on me, so yes. The package deal, both names. Thank you by the way, Pet - I really like my new name. Names."
Petrichor fluffed her wings proudly and sat up all self-important and proud. Inkwell stifled a laugh.
Paige studied her glass. "Being that we of the first part do hereby and forthwith do therefore lastwith... by bandwidth in excelsius by way of Fresno... have come to the conclusion that ye of the third part - Oh! I guess that makes us the first AND second parts then - that ye of the third part, being one dead sexy black and ivory unicorn mare with a love of tea and cookies as is evident - see example A, there..." Paige pointed grandly at Inkwell leaning her head over to take another of the delicious magic cookies "... who goes by the rather lovely name of..." Paige smiled at Petrichor, who grinned back in return "... Miss Inkwell Quillfeather, have been found and judged to be of greatly companionable status and altogether delightful in every regard and metric available to us, the first and second parts - you do concur on these points my dear Pet?"
Petrichor nodded vigorously while grinning like a maniac. Inkwell was even more lost, and had no idea what was going on, but the tea was good and the cookies were great, and in any case everything seemed happy enough.
"So it is agreed then, by the first and second parts that the third part should henceforth - if it be her choosing to do so - consider herself another part which is appended to the first and second parts, in these here parts, where we are currently located, and not feel in any manner A-Part, but instead Be-Part of... well... us." Paige placed her smartglass down on the table, and looked gently at Inkwell, as did Petrichor. Inkwell found herself staring into the eyes of her hosts, who looked at her with great earnestness and some expectation.
An uncomfortable pause followed. Was she supposed to respond somehow? Inkwell hadn't followed most of what Paige had said, though she had a vague notion that...
"What we're trying to say is... we like you. A lot." Petrichor held out a hoof to Paige, who took it in her dark brown hands. "Every moment you've been with us, here, it just felt natural, you know? Despite what you may have heard in the marketplace, we don't let just anypony into our bed, and from the moment you crawled in on your first day, well, it's just been how things have stayed. That doesn't happen very often at all. That's rare. Really rare."
"Um... are you..." Inkwell looked from Petrichor to Paige and back again.
"We're proposing, Inks. Basically. Basically this is a proposal. Wanna get hitched?" Paige laughed at the last and Petrichor giggled and so did Inkwell because the whole thing was so absurd.
"W-What? Are you having a go at me?"
Petrichor held out a hoof across the table toward Inkwell, and Paige reached out her free hand. "No. No joke. You feel it too, don't you? You must!" Paige smiled. "It's like we've always been together, like it's only an irrelevant detail that you officially arrived four weeks ago. It feels like forever and never and like it was meant to be. We feel like family together, don't we?"
"Is... is it OK? Can we do that?" Inkwell felt like her head was spinning.
"DUH!" Petrichor was flailing with her hoof until Inkwell finally took it in the crook of her pastern. Her other hoof was held by Paige now. "I thought you were the well-read librarian. Traditional Equestrian families are groups, like equine harems from back when earth had horses, only with no patriarchal 'we gotta have a stallion' thing going on. Ponies naturally have group families, we ponies aren't the nuclear 'mom and pop and two-point-godawful children' sort like humans have made themselves into. In Equestria, couples are just considered to be a dating pair who aren't ready to really settle down yet because they have no third, fourth, fifth or sixth spouses."
Paige nodded "But even if that wasn't true, we don't give a flying frog, do we love?" Petrichor shook her head as if she were trying to fling her eyeballs across the room.
Inkwell's jaw dropped. "I... I don't know how this would... what is my role here... how do... do you expect...?"
Petrichor giggled. "Calm down there. Hold your horses!"
"PET!" Paige was not amused.
"Sorry." Petrichor tried to look chagrined. "There's no pressure here. No one is expecting you to jump into our wild and crazy three ring sex circus - though honestly, how could you not, I mean, just look at me, and Paige, come on, she's gorgeous, and we've got toys literally coming out the..."
"PEHHHTTTT!!!!" Paige had taken her hands back and used one to give the little brown pegasus a cuff on the poll.
"What we're really saying is that we consider you family, and we hope you feel the same way about us. That's how things work now, as ponies. Family forms easily because there just isn't distrust in the way humans have it." Paige looked sad. "Well, there's me, but I am doing my best until I can earn my hooves." She made an effort and brightened. "The ground rules are simple: we're family. You don't do anything you don't want to, and if you never want to play with us in bed, you don't need to. There's no requirements, there are no expectations, and no demands. But, if you do decide to give yourself over to absolute pleasure, ahem, there's no jealousy either. Because we would be family, and we'd all be agreed on that point." Paige leaned over and gave Petrichor a kiss on the poll, which soothed the pony's grumbling for being cuffed. "Does that make any sense?"
Inkwell stared at her hooves as they sat on the top of the table in front of her. She'd never been happier in all her life save here in this silly little flat. For four weeks she had been crawling into bed with these two amazing individuals, and snuggling to sleep as if it were the most ordinary and proper thing to do - as if she's been doing it her whole life. It was a unique and precious thing. Not once, since that first night, had she felt like a guest or a burden. In all of her experience, she had never felt anything like it. The fact was, she realized, she already thought of Paige and Pet as family.
She wasn't sure exactly what family they were - sisters, lovers, aunts or mothers, or some of all at different times, but Paige and Petrichor were closer than anyone had ever been to her in her memory - except for grandfather Eachann who would have found all of this the work of the fairies to be sure. It wasn't that she couldn't go anywhere else - it would have been trivial to just escape to Equestria. In her new body, she could have done just that the second day after her conversion, if she'd wanted to. It would have been nothing - a trip across town to the Bureau, and then simply ask for resettlement. It was her right as a citizen of Equestria and a subject of the crowns.
But she hadn't done that. She realized she couldn't even imagine doing that. Not without Paige. Not without Petrichor. She had been so afraid of the HLF, and yet she had stayed. She hadn't even thought otherwise, not until this very moment. It had just never been an option. Inkwell giggled, from nervous tension and release. What a bizarre thing! To just meet someponies and... fit. Just like that. Like they were waiting for you all along, and you had been waiting for them. Four weeks later, you just wake up and realize you've been family all that time and never even questioned it, because it just worked.
"I... I think..." Inkwell felt fear. How could she say such a thing? Just like that? After only Four weeks? It was absurd. "I mean, I think that... what I mean is..."
Paige leaned closer, a concerned look on her face. "What, hon?" Petrichor leaned in too.
Inkwell swallowed and closed her eyes. Her heart beat hard in her chest. "I could have just left, off to Equestria, but it never crossed my mind. I could not for the life of me even think of being anywhere else. There's a whole universe out there, and easier and safer it is too, and yet I could only wish just to be here. I can't even imagine going there without you two. Every time we climb into bed I feel utterly safe and happy. When we're doing stuff, just little stuff - the dishes, mucking out the bathroom, folding the laundry, making lunch - I feel like I've always been here, with... with you."
Inkwell squeezed her eyes shut harder, it felt easier that way. "I wake up in the morning, and my day is you. I go to sleep, and I smell... you two. I haven't had a thought that wasn't us, together, and the thought of going anywhere else feels like death to me. I guess... oh Celestia, it just seems goofy but... I can't come up with any other word for it but... that... I think, in some way, I don't know how... I just... I think that, simply put..."
Arms and forelegs surrounded Inkwell, as she sat on her pillow, holding her tight. In her ear, she heard Paige whisper. "We love you too. Welcome home."
And the tears were warm, and the tears were good, and the kisses that followed were even better.