T H E       C O N V E R S I O N       B U R E A U



By Chatoyance


Chapter Thirteen: A Game Of Pones

"You have GOT to be kidding me!" Petrichor was upset, her wings flapping as she stomped around the main room. "That guy was totally incompetent! If I'm going to be stalked and menaced in my own muffin' apartment, I expect better chocolate swirling professionalism from my threateners! I mean REALLY!" Pet finished this outburst with a sharp stomp of her hoof, which made Ladybug Summer in the apartment below give the ceiling a whack with her broom. "sorry..." whispered Petrichor to nobody.

Paige and Inkwell stared at Pet, briefly, for the strange sentiment.

"Alright, we are clearly in danger now, somebody is after us, and..." Paige was hushed up with a gentle hoof over her mouth. Petrichor, who was about to bellow another rant - having thought of another objection regarding the behavior of Cloudypuff Moonypants the earthpony heavy - caught on and fell silent too. Inkwell removed her hoof and waved it over her muzzle, indicating that nopony was to discuss things further.

Inkwell waved her hoof to the corner by the couch. "Pet? Paige?" Her voice was casual as she could make it "Would you mind checking out the corner there? I thought I saw a spider, and I am soooo scared of spiders!" she wiggled her ears and pointed repeatedly with her hoof. Paige and Petrichor gave her an odd look, but remained silent and moved to the designated part of the apartment.

A glow began covering Inkwell's horn. Suddenly a blob of telekinetic light expanded in the air in front of the ivory unicorn. The mass of thaumatic force moved to the low dining table and began sweeping it, until it had covered every portion. She paid special attention to the carbofiber case that held the emergency ponification serum. Inkwell kept her concentration going as she used her hornfield to scan the lamps, the overhead light, the bookshelf and most of the couch, though she was careful to avoid allowing it to approach too closely to Paige.

Paige and Petrichor watched this, confused. "Inkwell?" Paige began, but a sharp motion of Ink's foreleg bid her to be quiet.

The rippling blob of glowing energy settled on the floor of the apartment, and began sweeping in curving arcs from where Inkwell stood, moving outward toward the now closed door. As the searching glow passed over the area where Cloudypuff had been sitting and rummaging in his saddlebags, tiny bright flashes, like miniscule sparks, pipped and popped audibly.

Inkwell stopped her scanning and flattened her hornfield, making of it a puddle as she had when she had lifted water from the kitchen floor. She began moving the puddle of light in larger and larger circles, causing more and more little popping flashes. A smell of ozone began to irritate Petrichor's delicate pony nose.

Inkwell followed the trail of flashes and pops to the door, then searched with her telekinetic field the areas near the doorway, then the door itself. Inkwell finished by sweeping the walls and a bit more of the floor beyond where Cloudypuff had sat. Finally she seemed satisfied. "OK... I think it's safe. We can talk freely, at least I am pretty sure."

Paige and Petrichor moved to her and sat down with her on the floor. "What... what did you just do? What's going on?" Paige still had 'Lil Slugger', which she finally put down on the floor and released. She flexed her brown fingers and rubbed them, she had been clutching the bat with all of her might.

"Smart Dust. Cloudypuff must have had his saddlebag stuffed with Smart Dust. Yeah... it makes sense. It makes sense now." Inkwell stared into some distance only she could see.

"Inks, mind filling us in? What is Smart Dust - those sparks? They smell like broken electronics or something." Petrichor wrinkled her muzzle, unhappy with the scent of ozone in the air.

"I read a lot." Instantly Inkwell thought better of that statement, but carried on "...basically, Smart Dust is little machines that act like tiny radios. They're listening devices, spy gadgets. They're so tiny that just one is useless, but if a lot of them are scattered over an area, they network and act like a big ear, catching soundwaves sort of like receiver dish. I figured there would be bugs or something but... I couldn't find anything anywhere else in the room. Just the stuff he spread when he dug around in his bag - remember when he made all the fuss about not having hands, rooting around in his saddlebag?"

"How... how did you know to even look for stuff like that? How did you know how to bust it?" Paige was imagining that Inkwell was some fancy super agent in disguise all this time.

"I didn't. Not really." Inkwell grinned sheepishly. "I... just sort of figured that... OK. Cloudypuff storms in here, right, and he puts on this big crazy show, making it completely clear that he's a Newfoal. But what's really odd is that he doesn't even TRY to pretend that he is what he claims to be. He wanted us to know he was an altered pony, a genetically altered pony, like all the rumors about what the Worldgovernment tried to do. You know, they say that's how the PER got started!" Inkwell became excited, because she was on a roll.

"And that's not all - he deliberately messed up the name for the PER - I don't think he said it right once - Ponification for the Earth's Rebirth. It was like 'Renewal' and 'Restoration' and I don't know what all. He tried to make it seem like he was incompetent, but Cloudypuff is not the least bit incompetent. You wanted a professional, Petrichor, you got one, really!"

"Really???" Petrichor was clearly very doubtful.

"Oh... I am convinced of it. He's a pro. At whatever it is that he does... and whatever that is, it is NOT nice." Inkwell looked momentarily upset. "SO - he made a point of swearing, a LOT. Ponies don't do that, at least not that way, because, well... we get hypertrophied compassion and empathy. It just... feels really icky to even think of yelling real expletives at somepony because..."

Pet leapt in "Yeah... because it might hurt their feelings. I used to swear like a sailor, just ask Paige..."

"Oh, she had a mouth on her, that one. Especially when she messed up skateboarding. Lord, did she have a foul mouth on her. Took me a while to get used to all the candy and dessert references after she converted, to be honest." Paige gave Pet a few ear scratches.

"I... just don't want to be that way anymore. I could, I suppose, if I really, really tried... but why would I want to? It would just hurt somepony, and I don't want to do that. But cloudybottom there... he was really..." Pet's muzzle looked like she had tasted something awful.

"Exactly!" Inkwell grinned "He swore to make sure we knew he wasn't right, and the swearing was threatening to us, he knew it would bother ponies, and he did it deliberately. He was letting us know that he was dangerous. That he could do bad things, that he could do really bad things that ponies can't do!"

"So, what about all the little spy gadgets?" Paige was still secretly hoping Inkwell would turn out to be a super secret agent and save the day.

"Oh... I figured that if Cloudypuff was a genetic agent - and I found out he definitely was, I'll tell you how in a moment - I reckoned that there would be bugs and stuff. I was expecting bugs in the lamps and behind the bookcase and in the sofa, you know? But then I swept the floor. It IS the big age of nanotech, right? So I swept the floor and whoo! Did you see all the sparks - well, yes, of course you did, but wow... it really worked, didn't it?"

"Worked?" Paige was losing hope that their family had a secret James Bond.

"Magic kills electronics! That was one of the biggest reasons why I hadn't already converted - I felt I needed to use computers and holographic displays to be a good librarian and do my work. I figured that if I converted, either I would become the sort of pony who couldn't work tiny keys or little iconobjects, or else I would end up a unicorn - Ta Dah!!! - and everything I tried to work would short out. It struck me that I didn't need to be a posh unicorn with fancy spells to disable spy stuff. All I had to do was just burn it out with my horn field, and it worked! Just like magic!" Inkwell grinned "Because... it basically is... magic. But the point is, it proves he's a professional!"

Petrichor scratched her poll with a hoof. "Wait, why? Because he has spy stuff?"

"No... well, yeah, that's part of it, sure. But the real deal is how blatant he was. He deliberately gave himself away to us, just stuck it in our faces. And that tells me what he, and whoever is behind him, must think of us, you see!" Inkwell had a very smug look on her face.

"Wait... Inks, I am getting confused. Maybe you'd just better spell it out for us clearly, alright?" Paige looked impatient and uneasy, which was only reasonable, really.

"Sorry..." Inkwell shifted how she was sitting "I think mister Cloudypuff is a gene-freak pony, one that has the body of a pony, but the brain of a human. Only he's not like the ones they claim started the PER. I don't think Cloudypuff serves Celestia in some twisted way. I think he is against Celestia, and the Bureaus and everything. He isn't a pony. He isn't even alive."

"Uh... what? You have really lost me now." Paige began grooming Petrichor's mane as they sat.

"I really, really studied that pony when he first came in. What I did was, I sent just a little magic into him. Not a lot, I tried to keep my horn from glowing too obviously, just a touch, right? And there was nothing in there. Nothing. He was as empty as a hu... um... well..." Inkwell looked at Paige with a troubled expression. "That stuff you hear from medical unicorns, like Ace, downstairs? It's true. Cloudypuff looks like a pony, but he doesn't sound or act like one, and he doesn't have a... a soul."

"Seriously? Hey... I did see you staring at him. Really intently. That was when you did it, isn't it?" Petrichor was impressed and a little disturbed. "You... you never said you could see magic inside living things. You should have told us!"

Inkwell looked down at her hooves. "Sorry. I... I guess... It was kind of special, and it's kind of intimate, and I felt weird about it to be honest. I didn't mean to figure out how. I mean, Ace didn't show me or anything. It just happened. A few days ago. I've been playing with my hornfield a lot lately, you know? And I've been using it on a lot of stuff... including... me... and... you two as well... and..."

"Oh... ho ho ho! I get it!" Petrichor laughed in delight "Three nights ago - Paige! Remember when I practically woke up the building because she was using her magic inside me? Oh, that was a-maz-ing! So, when you were doing me, you saw, didn't you? You saw my... you saw my soul, didn't you?" The look on Pet's muzzle was awe.

Inkwell blushed. "Yeah." She smiled "It was incredible, Pet. I could sense your body, inside and out, and then all of a sudden there was this other layer. It was like... I don't know how to describe it.... OK. Imagine that everything you can see and know is flat, like a sheet or a flat screen, right? And material things are images on the surface. But some of the images are 3D, they stick up, like a bas-relief, they aren't flat. Now make that all magic and glowy and filled with streaming ribbon-like stuff that is really complicated and swirling like... like blood vessels only... more orderly. More deliberate, like they were meaningful. Oh, and colors. That's what it was like, only... in a direction you can't point. It's kind of hard to describe."

"And that is what mister poopypants lacked, is that what you are saying?" Paige had her head resting on her hands, her elbows on her knees as she sat tailor-fashion.

"Yes! Exactly!" Inkwell looked proud as she smiled at Paige, and then looked a little sad, and looked down again.

"Same as me, right?" Paige sat up straight. "That's why... that's why you didn't say anything about learning how to see this stuff. And that's why you've been a little skittish around me for the past few days, isn't it? You tried to hide it, but I could tell something was wrong. I thought I'd made you mad. Earth life doesn't have magic. So I just look... empty to you, don't I?"

Inkwell stared at her hooves. Her ears were flat against her skull.

"You learned how to do that when Petrichor broke the sound barrier and woke up half the building, and that was why you were kind of moody after, and we couldn't figure it out... damn." Paige sighed. "You didn't say anything because there wasn't anything to do about it. It's OK, Inks, come on... come here, that is, if you can stand being hugged by a flat thing?"

"Always, Paige! Always! I'm sorry!" Inkwell scooted over to Paige and the two embraced. Paige waved a hand to Petrichor who joined in, for one big group hug.

"Hey, we have potion now. So, we can solve that problem! Paige, you could go pony, right now and..." Petrichor was excited - finally their hopes had been fulfilled!

"No." Paige's voice was hard. "No. I can't. Not now, not yet. Somebody needs to stay human and feral in this family. Poopypants is dangerous, and I bet he wasn't kidding about having backup. One of us needs to be able to use Lil Slugger if it comes to it, or worse, if necessary." Paige set her jaw. "We're still on human turf. We need at least one human to deal with human stuff, and that's me."

Paige suddenly turned her head to look at Inkwell, in her arms. "Inks - if poopyhead has backup, why aren't they here, right now, busting us up and applying the clamps?"

"Because they think we're more than we are." Inkwell pulled away and looked at her spouses. "That's why Cloudypuff acted the way he did. He made no attempt to try to fool us, he was very clear about what he was, and what he was capable of. If he'd thought we were just ordinary ponies, he would have tried to play the proper part of a PER knight - he would have been very nice, very pleasant. I have no doubt he could do just that. I bet he can be very charming, and put on an act when he wants to. But he didn't. He let us know."

"I'm not getting this. It still seems sloppy to me." Petrichor got up to double check that the door was locked. They hadn't used the lock in at least a year. With the city almost all ponies, it hadn't been an issue.

"He didn't think we would have the notebook here." Inkwell nodded toward the bedroom, where the notebook lay open on the bed. "I'm positive he reckoned we have it stashed somewhere, hidden, and his group wants that book. If they just swarm us, they would never find out where it is. It would be lost to them."

"Yeah... that means they're smart. So we aren't dealing with dumb people here." Paige nodded. "He was spooking us. That was his angle. To spook us."

"Wait! Why does any of that make that pony smart? Why wouldn't it still be better to capture us and... do... bad... stuff... until we talked?" Petrichor shivered slightly.

"That never works, Pet. Only stupid or sick groups torture." Inkwell had trouble saying the last word. She seemed momentarily fascinated by that fact.

"It's true, Pet. Torture never works." Paige stretched out her legs, because they were starting to fall asleep. "If you get tickled, just relentlessly tickled, what will you do to make it stop, what would you say?"

Petrichor thought for a moment. "Anything?"

"Exactly! You'd say anything to stop the tickling. Anybody would." Paige rested her self on her arms, leaning back. "That's why torture is pointless. You can never get anything useful by torturing anyone. It's always in doubt, because people in pain will always say anything at all to stop the pain. You can tell the moment a civilization or oldstyle nation or group has lost any reason or moral credibility the moment they sanction torture. That's the indication a society has failed, right there."

"Why do they do it at all then, if it is completely useless?" Petrichor was confused.

"Um... well... " Paige studied the wall. "How do I put this - if a society becomes corrupt enough, the most twisted and sick people rise to the top. A human society, obviously. Really twisted humans have... really evil kinks. They... have fetishes, sexual fetishes that revolve around pain and power, and when things fall apart that far, the twisted people in power arrange to have their needs met... under the guise of things like national security or defense or protecting secrets or whatever they can sell to the public."

Petrichor looked at Paige in shock. She turned to Inkwell... surely the librarian would refute such a thing, such a terrible thing... but Inkwell just looked down at the floor, and her ears drooped. "Sorry, Pet. That's just how things... never mind. None of that concerns us, because this group is smart." Inkwell looked up, putting on a brave face. Having to think about such things had hurt her new pony mind. "They won't do that to us, and we are going to Equestria in any case. Right Paige?"

Paige nodded. "The only place to go, now that we have that kit. It's legitimate, you're sure Inks?"

Inkwell looked at the table, where the carbofiber ponification kit sat. "Yes. I ran my field through it, and the contents are potion, and the seal has not been broken or tampered with as far as I can feel. I think he just took a kit off of some shelf somewhere. It's in his interest that you go pony as soon as possible, because that reduces any threat you might represent. You are the... dangerous... part of the family right now, just as you said."

Paige wrapped her fingers around the aluminum bat. "Yeah. I'm still human, and that means I'm still dangerous. Dangerous as hell! Fucking dangerous!" Paige smiled a little vicious smile when Petrichor and Inkwell cringed at her words and how she said them. "If that little brown bastard shows his muzzle around me, he'll end up a flat-face again."

Petrichor thought for a moment. "So, let me get this right. These ponies - whoever they are, probably HLF, or at least something bad - think we are some kind of... agents or something. Something more than just ordinary ponies living together in an apartment. They think we have the notebook hidden somewhere, and they sent that... mean pony... to scare us so that... what?" Petrichor looked from Inkwell to Paige and back "We'd get spooked and go to where we had the notebook hidden and try to move it or take it somewhere? Or that we'd talk about where it was... which would be the reason for the spy dust stuff, huh?"

"Pretty much." Inkwell looked around the room. "I would guess we will be watched for a few days. Nothing more will happen to us, at least for a while I should think. But I would put bits on our every movement outside of this apartment being watched, and we'll never see who is doing it, either, or how many there are. We have a few days, anyway."

"They've basically shaken things up, to see what falls out." Paige stood up, stretched, and went into the kitchen "Tea? Pet? Inks? Three for tea it is."

"You're making tea?" Petrichor was incredulous.

"Inks is right, I think. Might as well have a nice cuppa, because we've got some serious thinking to do." Paige began fussing with cups and canisters. "We need to figure out our next move. It's like a game. They think we are playing at their level, only they got that part wrong."

Inkwell looked up. "I guess we're just going to have to... not surprise them... then!" That made Paige think for a moment, then laugh.

"Yeah. Let's give them exactly what they expect!" Paige set out the large, bowl-like cups, and looked to see if they had any biscuits to go with the tea. It was going to be a long evening of planning. Somehow they needed to out-think a group of very dangerous men, in order to find some means to escape to Equestria with their lives. There was also the issue of the notebook, and what should be done about it - rightly, it should be destroyed, something they all agreed upon. The problem was, Paige suggested, it might be their only hope to survive what very well might be the full wrath of nothing less than the Human Liberation Front.

Project Bucephalus - Laboratory 012

January 28th

I found out today, that I am going to be transferred. I don't want to go, but I don't have any choice in the matter. None of us has any choice, now. We do what we are told.

I don't know why this is happening. We are showing such success, putting the pieces together from all the other teams. It's been confirmed that of the six vanguard groups, the Zero-Twelvers have the edge, by far. The R-22 conversion was proof, and it has been acknowledged from the higher ups - conversion is possible, it is close, and all we need to do now is refine the process.

Maybe I have really overestimated my value to the team. It is true that almost all the work I did was completely rewritten or redesigned, but I thought that was reasonable. Work like this can't be done perfectly by only one person. It needs to be cleaned up and triple checked and generally polished beyond what any single person, or even group can accomplish.

I don't know what I did wrong. I don't even know where I am being transferred to. I was almost tempted to contact that general, but - no. I don't feel good about doing that.

I'm going to miss the rest of the team. We've only been working together for a few months but it's been very intense. I'm going to miss So-yeon and Chawla. Even Baasch, the 'exobiologist'. I never did find out how he got a degree in that, of all things. I guess I won't be talking to Comet Tail again. Actually, I didn't really expect that anyway.

I'm going to miss Raindrops and Buttercream, too. It's amazing how fast the Equestrians can grow on one. Even with all of us walking on eggshells around each other, I felt like we could have become friends, if there were time, and space and the ability to speak freely. I wanted to learn more about them, about their lives. There is something very attractive, very entrancing about the species.

Then again, if this project truly succeeds, there will be time enough for all the learning one could hope to do. And not just because we will all end up being ponies ourselves one day.

I found out something extraordinary the other day from Raindrops. Her age. She is seventy-three years old, roughly. The Equestrian year seems to be about 400 hundred days, and one of their days averages between 20 and 30 hours, earth time. The variation is up to the whim of the princesses.

Raindrops is considered to be fairly young. She's at a quarter of the Equestrian maximum lifespan. Twenty-ish in human terms, if I understand things correctly. The benefit of joining their species is more than mere survival. It is more than being able to move objects, or grow things through will alone, or fly like a bird. It is a vast increase in lifespan.

It makes me wonder why we deserve this at all. Why are we humans being helped? Why bother with us?

I saw Celestia move her sun, the sun in her sky, one doubtless copied from our own, on earth. Does she really owe us so much? We have ruined our planet, killed our oceans, destroyed our skies, exterminated entire branches of biological phylogeny for no other reason than they were inconvenient to our plans. The Equestrians are so incredibly nice - the old unicorns on level three notwithstanding. Actually, even they have been nice enough, just never really satisfied or content with us, and maybe, who can blame them. I can't say we've treated them well, keeping them penned up underground when they do visit us. I assume we're all underground.

There's something else I want to put down here. I'm a little hesitant to do so, but it's something I want to remember. Maybe it's due to constant, low level exposure to thaumatic radiation, maybe its just stress. I don't know.

I've been having dreams. Strange dreams, where I am walking through Equestria, as I saw it on the video from Mule One and Two. Only, I see places that the two probes never went to. That I know of, anyway. Wide, rolling fields of flowers, and a fairly frightening forest that looks very jungle-like and wild. I feel dread inside it. One dream took place in a rocky desert with high peaks, and I saw dragons soaring overhead. Another dream took place in a large city, with brick buildings very unlike the Tudor-styled cottages that the two Mules witnessed. My mind is inventing things, filling in gaps I suppose.

But always, in these dreams, I see someone following me. Peeking at me. It is as if I am being watched. I don't feel threatened, if anything I feel safe in the dreams because of the mysterious watcher. She - and it is a she - is always just out of my field of vision, though a few times I have caught a glimpse of dark blue. I think she is a pony, an Equestrian, but different. Taller, thinner, and there is a strange feeling about her, whoever she is.

I would discount this all except that it is remarkably consistent. Night after night, I have these dreams, what I call my 'travel documentary', and in almost every dream, there is that watcher, the blue lady. Mare, I suppose. Blue mare. Dark blue, very dark. But not scary. She feels very kind, like a friend looking out for me. I've never had such vivid dreams, and never dreams with a reoccurring mysterious character like this. I assume it is my subconscious trying to work something out.

The dreams started right after I burned my finger on a vial of wizard wine, the purified form of the purple fluid. I lost the tip of my finger, and my whole hand tingled for days. The weirdest part was I kept hearing distant music, or something like music. Like chimes, or bells. Others have experienced this too, when they spend too much time around thaumatically active materials. Mayoss has a grim theory - he says it is probably our neurons dying from exposure. Our brains are interpreting the random loss as vaguely musical tones. He is a neurochemist, so I don't discount his expertise but - it just doesn't seem like the most reasonable explanation. We get examinations every three weeks, and so far, no deficits. I would think losing neurons would kind of show up as functional loss. Then again, he suggests that we have reserves, and that it takes time to be depleted to the level of dementia, so it's probably only a matter of time. Wonderful. I've decided I don't like neurochemistry as a science.

I've been afraid to ask any of the others if they are having dreams like mine. I was tempted to ask Saulnier, she got burned too. Lost some skin on her arm, it made a bit of a scar. The way she looks in the mornings - I can't help but think, maybe she's having strange dreams too, and then I think something very unscientific.

I wonder if she has a blue watcher, like me.

How do I relate to all of this? We call it 'magic' and 'spells' and I have seen the princess of this colliding universe raise her sun into her sky. The nanomachines we are working with have ghosts in them that do most of the work for us. There are unicorns on level three, and we recently turned a chimeric human body into a teal pegasus with multicolored hair.

I feel like Alice, and the rabbit hole just keeps going on down.

And I keep thinking about how Comet Tail and how the old unicorns relate to the princess, Celestia. As though she were sacred. As though, she were a living god.

And atheist me, here in Lab 12 - though not for long - has doubts about whether I have been hasty in deciding what is real, and what is not, and whether or not I need to reexamine what I truly believe.

I hope wherever I am transferred, these dreams don't stop. I really like the dreams.

Oh - and in the dreams, when I walk through these beautiful landscapes?

I walk on hooves.