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



By Chatoyance


Chapter Twelve: Recombinant 22

Project Bucephalus - Laboratory 012

April 16th

We are up to R-22 now. My diddling with the instruction set and the biomolecular manipulators was helpful, so I feel good about that, but, sadly, not one of my designs survived intact. By the time my work got back from the review and reiteration teams, it was difficult to find anything I had personally done. Still, I solved the problem of the mitochondrial issue, so I can take some pride in that. Sadly, though, I will never get an actual credit for it, that will go to the team that finally made it all work right. But, hey, my idea at least was valid.

It was pretty simple, really, I thought. Animal cells are actually two cells coexisting. Sometime back in the primeval soup, one cell ate another and couldn't digest the poor thing, so they set up housekeeping. Over time, the devoured cell lost parts of its genome that accomplished what the larger cell did, and the larger cell lost the parts of its genome that covered the job its houseguest did. They both kept their own reproduction separate, though, and that was the problem.

My solution was to append the mitochondrial DNA to the human genome, thus eliminating the old alliance entirely. So, one of the first steps in conversion is to betray the ancient deal with the mitochondria and make them superfluous. That makes human cells vastly more similar to Equestrian cells, and solves the problem of the nano's choking on the double workload. It also makes the tissues vastly more compatible with each other.

I guess the best way to put it would be to say that my solution was to make human cells look more like how they should look if humanity had indeed had some intelligent creator designing it, instead of the haphazard mess that evolution made. With that done, the reconstruction of the body becomes much simpler and smoother.

The NorthEurozone  group furthered this by streamlining the human genome to a basic, functional minimum as well, getting rid of all the little inclusions. Human DNA is littered with bits of ancient viruses, bacteria, and temporary fixes for countless problems. There is no malaria in Equestria, for example, so we can just dump the hemoglobin variant Hb S with extreme prejudice. The same goes for countless little memorabilia of the human passage through time.

They used a linked group of quantum machines to work out the ideal human genome, and it is small. I am shocked at how small the thing is. We picked up a LOT of garbage over the eons. Of course, our new Ideal Genome, if we made a baby out of it, would be a marvel that would last about three days before dying of something - anything - in the world. Perfection can't survive the thousand slings and arrows of uncaring Nature.

Fortunately, once a human subject has had a DNA oil-change, they only have to stay alive for about a half an hour. The EastAsiaZone group thinks we can bring conversion down to fifteen minutes. I will believe it when I see it.

We started calling the iterative steps R steps. Recombinant Steps. The first five were pretty pathetic. Back then, we were nowhere close to converting a whole human being, of course. But we could convert sections.

They've adapted a nanofabrication plant somewhere in the Eurozone, I think in what used to be Belgium, but I don't know for sure, where they build us living, part-humans. Last week we got a torso, nearly complete. Legs and arms are easy to come by, heads take forever, and of course the brain inside is simple, unwrinkled, and silent. Thankfully, of course. R-11 through R-14 were golden moments - we nearly successfully converted several of those heads right then, and we found we could easily get 100% conversion on the limbs. Forget kidneys, like when we started - nothing beats seeing a leg convert, or the best of all, a head.

Converting the head has been the toughest issue. The basic structure of Equestrian and hominid physiology is close enough that most of conversion, once the cells are altered, is basically rearrangement. The parts are all the same, eerily so. These Equestrians are not alien. Not in the way you would expect from a creature from another universe.

I am robustly convinced now that Celestia and Luna constructed their biosphere based on examinations of ours, and that they based the Equestrian form on a weird blend between primate and equine. I cannot explain what we are seeing any other way. I've tried to get some confirmation of this - I've even sent a message directly to the Equestrian embassy and another to Celestia herself - but there has been no response. I am not alone in my conclusion. It is blatant, I think, when one is dealing with things at this scale.

I have heard a story. It came from Buttercream, one of our resident ambassadors to Lab 12. She told us about Equestrian history. I am not sure she was supposed to tell us what she did - she disappeared for a week after telling us, recalled to the embassy, and seemed shaken when she returned. She has been a great deal less forthcoming since.

According to her, Equestria has only existed as it currently is for a thousand years. We are unsure if this is factual - some cultures, like the ancient Chinese, used to magnify or shrink values by a factor of ten for political reasons when recounting history, to it may have been more like ten thousand years. We didn't press the point, but there were aspects that made us wonder. In any case, at least a thousand years ago, there was no Equestria.

And by no Equestria, I mean literally that there was no physical land, no sky, no world, no place. According to Buttercreme, there was a terrible age where reality itself was swirling chaos. The princesses were the playthings of a creature that sounds like an elder god from the tales of H.P. Lovecraft, though a trickster god, rather than an overtly malevolent one. The princesses beat this creature, and were then faced with a cosmos devoid of order.

Now here is where it all feeds into our theories in Lab 12 about the nature of Equestrian biology. Buttercream claimed that the princesses looked into other worlds and drew order from them to make Equestria. My mind instantly leapt to the idea that they must have been peeking at our world, if any of this is true, and built themselves a version of what they saw or perceived.

I seriously think that this may be the only rational explanation for how our nearest neighbor in the multiverse has so very much in common with us. And, despite the different construction of matter, it has almost everything in common with us. It is just too overwhelmingly close to be otherwise. Equestria is a copy of earth. Improved, fixed, artistically reinterpreted, but without any doubt in my mind, cribbed from our universe.

This assumption explains everything we are seeing, the fact conversion is possible at all, and perhaps even why Equestria is here to save our bacon. Maybe the princesses feel they owe us.

And they are saving our bacon. I found out just how close to the brink we are, here on earth. In short, most of the economically accessible energy and manufacturing resources of the planet have been depleted. Oh, there is tons of stuff down there, we just don't have the energy or resources to go get it. And space is out for the same reason - we don't have the resources to begin any real push in that direction. The biosphere is shot. It's far worse than I imagined. If the public knew just how bad things really are, they would panic. It would be chaos. Earth is on life support. If Equestria had not arrived, the best estimates are that humanity would live for possibly two more generations before extinction. Humanity is grandchildren away from the end of the road.

Finding this out has spurred my drive to work harder to make conversion succeed. It is literally our last chance. If we fail this, humanity fails life itself. Nature only has pass-fail grading, so - we need to win.

By the time we got to R-18, we were beginning to sweat. We had reached stagnation. We could mostly convert heads - the secret was to build a great deal of temporary scaffolding and support structures inside the cranial mass. But then things just failed. The nanobots became lost in the complexity, and we couldn't get them to finish the job. Basically, we failed, because the eye problem was too hard, and the neurological integrity issue seemed hopeless. So, in desperation, we decided to beg the ancient unicorns on level three for help.

Three days later we got what we needed, the majority of it woven into the etherial program that lives inside the nanomachines - the machine geists. Here's the interesting part. The grouchy unicorns claimed that the solution had been designed and created by the other princess, princess Luna herself. The way they treated the issue, it was as if they expected us to bow down in humble supplication for this special grace.

I know very little about the other princess. But if she is at all the equal of Celestia, then I think my teammates do not fully grasp what just happened there. Later, I went down to level three on my own. They are creepy, I cannot stress that enough. They are old, the oldest Equestrians any of us have been allowed to see, and quite large and imposing too. They are not little cute unicorns. Some of them have little tufts of hair on their chins, and all of them are shades of white or gray. I begged entry, and they allowed it.

I was not very erudite. I think I annoyed them with my stuttering and rambling, but I tried to put across something of what I have learned about what Celestia and Luna are, what they represent, and that I was grateful for their help - and that above all I understood what a profound thing such direct assistance was. That actually got me a nod of approval from the older female that seems to lead the group. I looked her up, her name translates out to Comet Tail, and she is apparently the head of whatever team in Equestria studies P-Tec. Spells, basically. I guess she is the grand sorcerer or wizard of Equestria, something like that.  

That nod made my day. Nobody else has gotten any acknowledgement out of the ancient creatures to my knowledge. I don't think Comet Tail and I will be sharing lunch any century soon, but - basically I felt better after that minor connection.

So with the apparent help of Luna herself, we got past the block we had at R-18 and moved to our great success. The R-20 attempt.

R-20 was our first effort to convert an entire, cohesive body. Truth be told, the body in question was a chimera, built up of separate components from the biofab center essentially woven together. 'Patchwork Bob' was quite a sight when he was delivered. Every limb was a different skin color, and the head lacked teeth. But it was alive, if you can call cells respirating life, and Bob had every organ except the appendix and testes, and he even could breath on his own. It was a true Frankenstein moment.

It took ten ounces of nanofluid pumped through old Patchwork, along with nutrients and support chemicals, but he changed from a human-ish body into a proper earthpony mare. That's the new official name for the ground-types. They walk on soil and deal with agriculture, so the label is 'earthpony'. It's a little confusing, I thought, because it almost sounds like they are Earth ponies, that is to say native terrestrial equines, but I am not in charge of the names here.

The result was a brain-silent, bright pink earthpony with long, flat, bright pink hair. Mane. Tail. We didn't expect the result to be conscious, and a good thing it wasn't too, because we made an error in the routine that handles removing the temporary scaffolding and so the creature died within hours. But it worked. It looked like a native pony, with every component intact and in place. Oh, we whooped and cheered over that, though we all felt sad when the thing finally perished. Not that there was any other better end for it - there wasn't any awareness in it, it was just a mass of cells. Still, it's easy to anthropomorphize things, and we had given the result a name - 'Pink Lady'. We shouldn't have done that, really, that just made everything harder.

We also lost our medical unicorn - I never knew his name - over this. He was brought in to verify that Pink Lady was a complete pony. He started doing whatever it is he does - his horn glows, and little patches of light appear on the body, as if scanning it - and suddenly he just stopped. He walked up to Pink Lady and placed a hoof on its barrel and said some words in his native language. He then announced that he was quit with the project, and that he wanted to go home. He seemed visibly shaken, almost as if he was going to cry.

I talked with him while he was waiting on the old unicorns on level three. They come and go as they please, and they can take others with them. I tried to comfort the stallion - I felt someone, at the very least, should - and asked him what he had said over Pink Lady.

He told me that it was a thing they say when a pony dies. He tried to translate it for me, because I think he could tell that it bothered me too. I admit I kind of got attached to the R-20 attempt because we made the mistake of giving it a name. Big error that. The basic jist was something like "I will run with you, I will run beside you, and if you should stumble, I will wait for you, and together we will find the greenest fields, and eat the greenest grasses, and be together, loved by the sun." I think that was it, as best as I can remember. It made me tear up, and I didn't really know why. He seemed to appreciate that it affected me, and gave me a hug - my first hug from an Equestrian.

And then he went in, because the old unicorns were ready, and the door shut. We were informed in a memo that we will get a new unicorn medic on Monday. Judging from his reaction to the kidneys, I can only guess that Pink Lady had a lot more of that strange 'thickness' he was talking about. Maybe too much.

We still do not know why the result was female. Patchwork Bob was male, the nanofluid should have built a stallion. We have six Equestrian genomes sequenced now, so we have a wide variety, and we have incorporated the unique elements of all six to cover every variation. It should have made a stallion. That said, it was still a success.

I would NOT want to have the current serum used on me, mind you, but we are really advancing at an incredible speed here. Of course, we are getting constant help from the other side, from Equestria, and they have knowledge and powers way beyond us. I am not sure how much of our conversion in R-20, 21, and the latest, R-22, is our technology or Equestrian spell weaving - I cannot think of it otherwise, 'P-TEC' just sounds stupid now - but at least the process shows promise.

R-20 produced a pink mare. We tried with Patchwork Bob-2, 'the Re-Bobbening' as Mayoss called it, and got a purple unicorn mare. It too, lived only a few hours, for the same reason. According to the autopsy, the temporary scaffolding failed to deconstruct. R-21, on Bob-3 resulted in a yellow pegasus mare. Always mares. However, an analysis on sections of R-21's brain finally revealed the problem. The nanobots were struggling to keep the brain alive, but the brain did not have any astrocytes or glial cells. Nobody noticed until R-21. We had no reason to think that was the problem, we trusted the nanofab group.

Astrocytes and glial cells work to keep neurons alive - they remove wastes, clean up excess neurotransmitters, and generally do support and grooming work. Without them, neurons perish, poisoned in their own wastes. The nanomachines were not removing the biomechanical scaffolding, because the artificial vasculature was trying to compensate for the missing astrocytes.

The nanofab guys got a raking over the coals, and the next chimeric body we got had everything intact. Even testes. It was complete, so we called it 'Total Bob'. This became Recombinant-22 in the series.

We inserted tubes and began conversion, late in the evening, almost midnight. Total Bob had a fully loaded brain, scans showed it even had a few wrinkles in it! We started the flow, and conversion began. The limbs became pony legs, the tail extended from the spine without a hitch. So-yeon had added some additional code just hours before Total Bob arrived to correct a problem with cervical fusion, so she was ecstatic that the tail was coming in correctly now. The head went pony smoothly, and we even got correct eyes with no irregularities. But the best part was the scaffolding entirely dissolved and reabsorbed, leaving a perfectly formed, though mindless, pony body. It was another pegasus mare, blue this time, with the most colorful and wild mane we had ever seen. It was quite a sight.

The body lived until the higher-ups decided to terminate it for dissection, and I personally think it could have been kept alive indefinitely, not that anyone would want to do such a thing, of course - but the result was solid. This conversion worked. It was indistinguishable from a native Equestrian, it breathed on its own, and it did not self-terminate. R-22, our golden moment. This was it. This was the attempt that has finally shown that project Bucephalus is going to work. It did work. Though, again, we ended up with a mare, brain dead, but breathing.

After this, I got a strange bit of mail. It was from General Ridgway, my mysterious supporter. It simply said 'Keep it up. Knew you were the one.'

I have no idea what the hell Ridgway is thinking. I helped a very small amount with a few tiny issues. I'm nothing here. Insignificant. He's been helpful - I would never have seen the truth about Celestia, never have seen her raise the sun without his help - but there is a creepy aspect that I just can't define here.

Chawla thinks we are really close. I agree. But we will have to wait for the results of our parallel team to see which approach is better. There are five teams doing the same thing we are, 'Bob' bodies and all. Each has a slightly different take on things, but from what I hear, we are in the lead.

Who knows, maybe my silly solution to the mitochondria problem really did give us the edge. That would be one hell of a thing, if so.

Paige carried the plate with the last of the pepper loaf to the compost bin and carefully dumped the scraps in. The vegetable loaf had become a favorite over the past three weeks, and the three tended to make it on Wednesdays. The recipe came from a neighbor down the hall, Mrs. Creamsoda (don't ask - Newfoals and their names) who seemed to have a decent grasp of interesting vegetarian dishes. The loaf used oats and other grains as a base, with many varieties of sweet peppers and succulents to provide a rich flavor. Even Paige liked it, though secretly she craved a nice slab of replicated meat protein after. Late at night, sometimes she would fry up an egg or three as compensation, and sometimes Pet and Inks would join her. Ponies liked their eggs.

"Hey! I have an idea!" Petrichor had just brought the stack of bowls to the sink, Inkwell was levitating and washing them. Having a unicorn in the family had turned out to be very useful, and Inkwell, for her part, enjoyed dishwashing for the first time in her life. Levitating anything was intrinsically fun, because magic itself was fun, and being able to stack bowls in the air, then tilt them to create hovering fountains, was basically beyond cool.

"Inks! Careful!" Paige had almost slipped - some of the impromptu floating fountain had splashed on the floor.

"Sorry!" Inkwell lowered the bowls and reached out with her glowing field and grabbed the mop from the corner. The mop raced out and weaved between Petrichor and Paige and began wiping the floor. Several little blobs of light held it as it worked, they were Inkwell's magic 'hands'. "Wait..."

Inkwell moved the mop to the side, and lay it against the wall. Paige and Petrichor stepped back, curious as to what Inkwell was up to.

The blobs of light vanished from the mop handle, and reappeared on the floor as one large puddle of light, covering the spill of wash water. The glowing field pulled together into a hollow ball, filled now with water from the floor. Inkwell lifted the small sphere of water to the sink, and let it hover over the drain.

Paige moved forward to see. On the way she checked the floor with a finger and noted it dry. Pet moved in too, all three clustered around the sink.

"That's kinda cool, Inkwell." Pet, at least seemed impressed.

"Is that a new thing you learned or?" Paige marveled at the floating, glowing ball of dirty water.

"No, I just... I just thought 'why can't I pick up water like anything else', right? I mean, water is a thing, and magic doesn't just have to sit on the outside, it can go inside things too. I reckoned that if I put my glow into the water, I could lift it all up and just leave the floor dry, and it worked!" Inkwell felt a thrill of awe and wonder at what she had just done. She was holding a ball of water in the air, with her mind. The ball of water spun lazily, the tiny particles in it drifting as it did so. It was mesmerizing.

"Maybe you should... let it go now?" There was no doubt that floating balls of water were unusual, but the blush had worn off the rose fairly quickly. In a world of Newfoals and Equestria approaching, magic was an everyday thing. Paige often marveled at how easily her human mind could adapt to such wonders.

"Sorry! It was just kinda neat, you know?" Inkwell let her field collapse, the glow departing her horn, and the ball of water splattered into the sink and slipped down the drain. "I'll get the dishes done now. But it was neat, wasn't it?"

"I thought it was really neat, Inkwell!" Pet gave the ivory unicorn a smooch and went to take the mop back.

Paige kissed Inkwell on her poll, careful not to get an eyeful of horn, and scratched the unicorn's ear. "I'm sorry, if I spoiled the moment. It's just that I like to get things cleaned up so I don't have to fuss, you know?" Paige tended to have a bit of an efficiency bug, sometimes, and she liked to get work done quickly, rather than to linger at a job. Petrichor had once suggested to Inkwell that this was a new development, that had happened since Pet's conversion. Pet's theory was that Paige was always a little on edge, waiting for her own turn to go pony.

When the dishes were washed, and dried and put away, and the table had been cleaned (Pet was an eager eater, and there were always little bits to clean up) Petrichor finally got to describe her idea for the evening. "OK, OK, why don't we play a board game? Seriously? It would be fun! I know we've got Carcassone in there, and Catan, too. They're a little old and beat up, I admit, but they are great games from way back, and now that we've got a unicorn in the family, little pieces won't be a problem, right?"

Inkwell was game, and Paige, while underwhelmed, was willing to give it a go. Just as Pet ran for the storage closet, a pounding sounded at the front door.

"Visitors!" Petrichor was always excited by company. "Maybe they'll want to play too!"

Pet had the door open in an instant, but the pony behind it was new.

"Hey, can I come in, it's urgent." The brown stallion was unusually pudgy, and his darker brown mane seemed unkempt. He wore saddlebags, but the smell of them was odd - they didn't smell like kelp leather. "I have a gift for ya, too." He had a strange look in his eyes, oddly flat, yet overly friendly.

The stallion waddled in, a little unsure on his hooves. He kicked the door shut and smiled broadly at the three mares. "Ah... nice digs. Comfy. I like that. Not ostentatious. Lived in, that warm, homey feel."

Petrichor backed up, and stood next to Inkwell. "What the...?"

"Can... we help you, mister..." Paige was keenly aware of the old aluminum baseball bat she had stashed behind the couch. She moved casually towards it. There was something off about this pony, and she didn't like the way he had invited himself in, and closed the door. That wasn't how ponies acted. Something was wrong.

"Actually, I'm here to help you. You're Paige, aren't ya? They told me the human in the group would be named Paige. Howya, doin' there Paige? I don't know what you got behind that sofa, but I assure you, it isn't necessary. I'm not here to cause trouble, I just need to be discrete. That's why the bargin' in and all." The brown pony sat down on the floor, and offered innocent eyes and a gentle, if crooked, smile.

"Sorry." Paige felt embarrassed. "Old habit. Before Equestria... you know how it is." There was no question the brown stallion was a Newfoal. Fairly new, for a Newfoal too, from the way he moved. He had not yet settled into his pony body. "... You seem to know my name. Who are you?"

The brown stallion shifted awkwardly on the floor, trying to free his tail. First he leaned one way, and then another. Finally he had to partially stand up on all fours again, before lifting his tail up and sitting down. This caused a yelp of pain as his tail was bent backward. "God friggin'..." Eventually he managed to sit mostly on one flank, his tail curving around the other.

"Oh! Excuse my manners. Please let me introduce myself." The plump, unkempt stallion grinned at Paige. "You've been trying, apparently for some time now, or so I'm told, to get in touch with the PER - The Ponification for the Earth's Renewal. Not so easy to do, is it, in this town, and you probably know why - the place is crawling with those lousy-ass HLF freaks, am I right?" The stallion nodded at Inkwell and Petrichor, and shifted his clearly uncomfortable posterior once again. "Well, it so happens that I just got assigned to bring the PER goodness to you. That's why I didn't want anyone seeing me scoot in here back there, capiche? I certainly don't want any trouble from those HLF bastards, and I'm sure you don't neither. So, my name is, ah, Cloudypuff Moonypants, right? and I've got something..."

Petrichor practically gagged. "Cloudy... puff..." She tried to hold back laughter "M-Mooneypants?"

"Yeah, that's my name. Friends call me, ah... Cloudy. Or Moony. Take your pick. You got a problem with my name?"

"No. No, not at all." Petrichor felt ashamed, in a sort of vague, unsure way. "I... it's just... it's a very colorful name, that's all!"

"Yeah, well, I'm a colorful guy." Cloudypuff stared at Petrichor for a moment, then continued. "So, what I am trying to say is that we got a call - at the PER headquarters, see - that somebody needed some potion. And guess what?" Cloudypuff Moonypants dug about with his muzzle inside his left saddlebag. "...goddamn fuckin' sons a whore lack 'a hands..." Petrichor looked at Paige, who shrugged, nodded at the couch - indicating the availability of the baseball bat - and then motioned towards Inkwell who seemed to be studying the strange stallion intently.

"HRERE!" Cloudypuff said around the black carbofiber container he held in his mouth. It was instantly recognizable. It was a standard emergency ponification kit, like the one that had been used to save Inkwell's life. The very same kind that Blackmesh medics carried, or that the Taikonauts on the International Friendship Station possessed.

Cloudypuff Mooneypants spat the impact-proof package down on the floor. "Courtesy of the Ponification for the Earth's Restoration, one dose of primo-quality pony juice. For you, Paige, and for the rest of your fine family here. You can all be together now, happy ponies romping in ponyland. Don't say the PER isn't there for you when you need us! It may take a while, but... " Mooneypants winked at them "... we get there in the end. Viva la P-E-R, am I right? Hey? Right?"

"Uh... right." Petrichor looked at Paige, then leaned her head down to take the sealed, emergency ponification kit.

Instantly a heavy, brown hoof came down on the small, rounded black case with a clomp. "Of course... it wasn't easy getting this to you, what with the HLF everywhere, constantly buggering our operations, trying to destroy us, and generally causing all manner of troubles. I'm sure you hate those guys as much as we do, and so am I right in thinking you would want to help us, if you could? You know, for all the help and support we provide, doin' Celestia's work for her and all?" The smile on Cloudypuff's muzzle might be considered sweet, if it didn't seem like the poor stallion was unsure how to smile in the first place.

Paige did not seem surprised in the least. "OK, I've seen this game before. What is it you want in exchange for the potion, Cloudy-ass? Credits? We don't got any. Bits? OK, that we can do, we got bits - Pet! Get the family purse." Paige waved her hand at the bedroom and Petrichor started off in that direction.

"Wait, wait, WAIT! - you got me all wrong!" Mooneypants looked personally devastated, insulted to the core. "I don't want your bits, I don't want any credits, I'm not here to take anything that belongs to you at all. Scout's honor."

Paige was not impressed. "The Scouts were disbanded during the Collapse, Moonpants. So what is it that you do want from us? It isn't going to be tail, I can promise you that right..."

"JESUS! Come on lady... Christ on a biscuit... man... just... oh, that isn't..." Cloudypuff looked positively ill. "... no, no, no... I mean... " the stallion did his best to put on a contrite face "... I'm sure you are all lovely as can be, and it is not my intent to intimate otherwise, but I am NOT interested in any... favors... not of that nature anyway." Cloudypuff swallowed and grimaced.

"The PER did a raid on the Worldgovernment archives, perhaps you heard?" Moonypants looked, hopefully, from one face to the next "No? Well, it was a hell of a great raid. We got a big pile of goods on the elite. Seems a lot of them have been working with the HLF. We intend to do something about that. And more. But there was a problem. Our group was intercepted by those bastard-ass HLF sons-a-bitches and well, they up and took our stuff."

Inkwell gave a worried glance at Paige.

"So, like I said, all that great stuff was taken, only, get this, the HLF is a bunch of dumb-fuckers, right? They drop off our package of goodies at the wrong warehouse. And that's where you found it, isn't it, miss Inkwell. Or should I say, 'Gwen'."

Inkwell jerked at the sound of her old name. Paige walked directly to the couch and reached behind it, bringing out a shining silver bat with one smooth motion. Petrichor moved to block and protect Paige with her body, as if they had practiced the move. "You want to be backing up there, mister moon-ass?" Paige did not have a happy, pony-like expression on her human face. She wore a hard, streetwise expression that brooked no foolishness at all.

"Hold on, what, you'd hit a defenseless little pony? Jesus, Paige, I'm shocked at you. What am I gonna do here, nuzzle you to death? Flick my ears at you until you croak? What? I'm a goddamn pony. Christ!" Cloudypuff looked utterly horrified and personally offended.

"You don't act or talk like any pony I've ever met, mister moonpants, and I don't have a good feeling about your sorry pony ass at all. How about you explain how you know about Inkwell, and I keep 'Lil Slugger' here from getting any ideas, capishe?" Paige stood like an avenging angel, her silver sword ready for smiting.

"Man, if I knew how hostile the reception would be..." Cloudypuff shook his head. "We've been desperately trying to get our package back, that's all there is to it! I swear on my mother's grave - god rest her soul - that I mean the lovely miss Inkwell no harm, nor you, nor your little pegasus here. I mean no harm to any of youse. None. I've brought you potion, Paige, think about that. Potion. You could be a pony tonight, and on your way, as a family, to Equestria tomorrow. I'll even help you get there, if you want. Or not. I don't care. You can stay here if you want.

"I'm not going to give you away to anyone, why would I even care? I'm a pony, you're all ponies, or will be, soon enough, and all I ask, the only thing I am asking is that you give me one little item. Potion, right here, sealed by the Worldgov, and it could be yours. The item isn't yours, you know that. And what - you want it to fall into the stinking human hands of the HLF? No, nobody wants that, right? And the PER - all we want is to expose the HLF bastards among the elite. It's in there, all the evidence, it's a little hidden, but we know how to get it out. Hell, when we're done, you can even have the notebook back. Seriously. I'll bring it back in three days. We don't even need to keep it. Just three days.

"So whaddya say, huh?" The fat brown stallion shrugged with his forehooves, waving them like hands. He lost his balance doing that and fell forward slightly, but caught himself. Immediately he slammed one hoof back down on the potion kit. "Three days, ladies, three days, the HLF get what's coming to them, and we'll even give the notebook back to you, if you even want it. Support your local PER, right?"

Petrichor and Inkwell glared at Cloudypuff. Paige had a look on her face like she had just smelled something unpleasant. She stepped forward, brandishing the bat.

"I don't have a clue what the hell you are, puffy-ass, but you are NOT a pony. That kit looks legit, though, so you can let it be while you get your fat ass out of my home." Paige made another step forward, 'Lil Slugger' gleaming in the light.

"OK, I'll level with ya - you are makin' a big mistake here... a big mistake. I'm not alone here, not on HLF turf! You think I'd come here alone? You don't want to mess with the PER, they don't kid around..." Cloudypuff Moonypants was on all fours, backing toward the door. The potion kit had been left on the floor, Paige kicked it to Inkwell and motioned at Petrichor who galloped to open the door.

"Now I know you're lying. I haven't seen a pony lie before, mister poopy-pants." Paige used 'Lil Slugger' to jab at Cloudypuff, forcing him through the door. "You aren't PER. If you weren't a pony, I'd say you smell like HLF. There are rumors, Poopypants, of gene-tampered ponies, and I'm thinking that's what you are. Because you..." WHAM! 'Lil Slugger' slammed against the doorframe, making Cloudypuff leap and fall back into the hall. "...are not...."  WHAM! Cloudypuff scrambled to his hooves and began to run "... a PONY!"

The fat brown stallion galloped down the hall, headed toward the stairs. Doors opened and pony heads popped out to see what the ruckus was. "What's going on? What's happening?" It was Perriwinkle, the sweet, but easily spooked pegasus from the diagonal apartment on the right.

Paige stood in the hall, Lil Slugger in hand, Pet and Inkwell peeking around the corner of their doorway. She slowly turned to face Perriwinkle, who cowered in her door at the sight of a human holding a metal bat. "Change, my dear, and it seems not a moment too soon."