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Re-Upload: TCB Not Alone

Discussion in 'Creative Writing Archive' started by Sithking Zero, Jan 31, 2013.

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  1. Sithking Zero

    Sithking Zero Hellbore Technician

    The Conversion Bureau: Not Alone
    By Starman Ghost
    Reuploaded (with permission) by Sithking Zero

    Mysterious Landmass Appears In South Atlantic Ocean
    From Kenneth Forrester, CNN

    updated 9:04AM EST, Wed November 8, 2017

    It was about four hours ago that South African mariners reported seeing a new island near Cape Horn, in what experts are calling the most bizarre geological phenomenon they've ever seen or heard of.

    This new landmass is extremely large - about the size of Texas - and almost perfectly circular. Authorities are at a loss to explain where it came from.

    "It doesn't make one bit of sense any way you slice it," says Yale geologist Ashley Williams, one of many scientists planning a trip to the island in hopes of learning more about it. "There isn't one thing in current theory that can explain a giant, unnatural-looking island suddenly popping up where there wasn't anything. Whoever figures out what it's doing there's going in the history books."

    The island's sudden appearance isn't its strangest property, though. The South African sailors discovered that when they attempted to set foot on the island, they were repelled by what they describe as a "force field."

    "The best I can describe it is, it looks like a giant bubble but it acts like an unbreakable wall," says South African sailor Ayotunde Ihejirika, one of the first to see the island. "It lets water through fine, it lets animals through fine, but if it's human or it's made by a human, it won't go through."

    Physicists are at a loss to explain how such a barrier could actually exist, but it's gotten the attention of the entire scientific community, who are determined to find out.


    CHAPTER 2

    Thoughts on Recent Events

    posted by The_Iceman 5:57PM GMT, Mon November 13, 2017

    Sorry about not updating these last few days, but I'd like to think I've got a pretty good excuse. I don't really feel like writing about the mundane details of life in Halley Research Station - or worse, yet another post bitching about how I'm in my twenties and still haven't had a boyfriend - when we've got real goddamn alien contact! They're pretty close to us here in Antarctica, too. Like pretty much everyone, I've been glued to news feeds these last few days. I figure now's as good a time as any to share my thoughts on them.

    If half of what I'm hearing is true, they're superhuman. They live a good 300-400 years, the pegasi can fly more freely and are more maneuverable than just about any aircraft, the earth ponies (I think that's the term, don't remember though) can pull dozens of times their own weight, and the unicorns can...where do I begin? And of course, there's their princesses, who are ridiculously powerful and long-lived even compared to the rest of them.

    Based on what they've said, they live in some kind of utopia, too. No pollution, plenty of food for everyone, quality healthcare, truly benevolent leaders...As far as I'm concerned, though, that's propaganda until proven otherwise. It all sounds a bit too good to be true.

    A lot of people find them amazing. But personally - and I hope I'm not the only one here - I'm nervous about them. Sure, they've been friendly so far, but what do they think of us? And if they don't like us, what are they going to do about it? And if they really are our friends, what is with that damn shield keeping all the humans out? I don't think they've let a single person actually visit Equestria.

    I've got more I wanted to say, but I've got kitchen duty tonight. I should do a post about that some time actually, but suffice to say the only good thing about it is it only comes once a month.

    Oh, and it gets worse: Eddy's picking tonight's movie. We're all watching Shoot 'Em Up. Don't get me wrong, I'm okay with the guy, but could he just once go with something that doesn't have a double-digit onscreen body count? (The answer is "yes, as long as it has a triple-digit onscreen body count.")

    5 comments:

    Honestly Iceman, you came across as a bit paranoid in this. I think they really want peace. Just because our world is violent doesn't mean theirs is. Personally I like our new neighbors, maybe they can bring us utopia too :)
    by Talisman 6:25PM GMT, Mon November 13, 2017

    lol stop being a pussy. they're just ponies in gay-ass colors...we're the ones with nukes...
    by jetsnguns 1:11AM GMT, Tue November 14, 2017

    Ronnie Reagan liked to say "trust but verify", and I think we should apply that here. The shield's probably just the ponies doing the same thing. Probably.
    by StillTheBest1973 3:33PM GMT, Tue November 14, 2017

    So you think it's going to be more Independence Day than E.T.?
    Man, think of how embarrassing it'd be if humanity got blown up by ponies. Don't let them shoot you with their magic lasers, we need you freezing your ass off for our entertainment :D
    by Crash_Test_Dumbass 5:47AM GMT, Wed November 15, 2017

    Iceman turn on the news...that bubble is growing...
    by Cokebird 8:19AM GMT, Fri November 17, 2017

    Life in Antarctica is powered by Blogworld, © Google 2015, 2017.
    NBC newscast, 6PM EST, January 19, 2018

    CHAPTER 3

    The segment begins with a blonde, square-jawed middle-aged news anchor shuffling through some papers as he looks into the camera.

    "And now tonight's top story, Equestria has opened its first conversion bureaus this morning, with a dozen of the facilities opening in South Africa and Argentina. They're well ahead of schedule, they weren't supposed to start doing business until February, but this morning we've already gotten the first reports, and, well, it's unbelievable, ladies and gentlemen. I know I've been saying this a lot lately, but I hope you can forgive me for that." He laughs.

    "People go into these bureaus, and when they come out, they're ponies! They're a totally different species! But don't take my word for it. You can hear it first-hand, or rather first-hoof, from some happy customers of the Cape Town bureau."

    The view cuts to the front of the aforementioned bureau. The building's bright colors and design straight from a fairy tale contrast starkly with the steel and glass of the surrounding buildings. The area is bustling with activity, human and pony alike.

    A sea-green pegasus with a black mane is talking into a microphone. She's speaking Afrikaans, with English subtitles appearing at the bottom of the screen. A header indicates that her name is "Winter Wings".

    "I was born paralyzed from the waist down. Even if I had the money to see a doctor, none of them could've helped me. But then the bureaus opened and I figured, well, what did I have to lose? Now look at me." She grins broadly.

    "I just went in an hour ago and now I've got a whole new body. I'm still learning how to walk as a pony, but I think I'll get the hang of it. And then..." She spreads her wings, "...I'll fly. It's a miracle, it really is."

    The next interviewee is a butter-colored unicorn with a bright green mane. He speaks heavily accented English, and his header lists him as "Bright Morning."

    "I mean, the doc said I had about six months left. I was an AIDS victim, it's a really big problem in this country but thanks to these ponies it's just like, done, gone, over!

    "Me and my family, we've got plans. My wife and my kids are going in next, and when that's done we'll be on the next ship to Equestria! It's really a new life, you know?"

    The show cuts to an earth pony doctor named Bedside Manner, accompanied by a brief voiceover from the anchorman.

    "But what do the bureaus' staff have to say about their work?"

    Based on his wrinkles, thick glasses, and slightly hunched stance, the doctor appears to be elderly. He looks rather tired, but he's smiling. He speaks English.

    "I guess you could say it's what I was born to do, literally!" He cracks a smile and glances at his cutie mark, a syringe.

    "I mean, I've been working as a doctor for close to three hundred years now, and I can still probably say this is the best work I've ever done. Humans come to us and they get brand new healthy bodies, and they get a chance to come live in Equestria for themselves! And you know, that's what this job is really about, helping people whatever their shape."

    The show then cuts to a group of men and women standing outside the bureau, holding various protest signs written in Afrikaans. The anchorman's voiceover takes over again.

    "But not everyone likes what's going on."

    The camera cuts to a tall, solidly-built black man who appears to be in his early twenties. His boyish face is twisted into a scowl. He's speaking Afrikaans, and subtitles again appear on the bottom of the screen.

    "They're taking people and turning them into ponies, and that bubble gets bigger and bigger every day. If you look out there you can see it from the docks."

    The view shifts to the barrier as seen from Cape Town's shore. "It's like, what's going to happen when it hits the town? Most people don't want to be ponies, where will they go? You know what it is?"

    The camera shifts back to the man. "I'll tell you what it is. We're being colonized, just like Europe did to us! We fought and we bled and we died for our freedom, and they think we'll just let them take it away again?"

    The show cuts back to the anchorman.

    "The bureaus and the bubble have drawn enough controversy between them that Princess Celestia's personal student, Twilight Sparkle, requested an open interview to calm public unrest. Be sure to catch it this time tomorrow, and we'll be back with the weather right after these messages!"

    (24 favorites already? Thank you guys so much! - Starman Ghost)

    CHAPTER 4

    Now that I've met them...

    posted by The_Iceman 8:06PM GMT, Sat January 20, 2018

    ...I still don't know.

    Yeah, they're here in Antarctica, too. Understandably, though, almost all of the news coverage on them has focused on the ones in South Africa and Argentina. Makes sense, that's where the conversion bureaus are.

    There are only eight ponies here, since the station doesn't house very many people. I mentioned this inan earlier post, but the most people living here at a time is only about fifty or so. I can't deny they've been pretty good guests. They made sure they got the base commander's invitation before they came in, and they've been helping out around the place when they have the chance. I swear I'll never get used to unicorns moving things around with telekinesis, no matter how many times I see it.
    a
    Now, on the subject of the bureaus. I've seen people who've been converted when they aired the whole procedure on a livestream, but honestly I still have a hard time believing it exists, just because the whole idea sounds so impossible. Ever since the ponies showed up, everything about them seems like it was ripped from a flashy sci-fi movie.

    More to the point, I think we all face a very uncomfortable question now: Is humanity obsolete? I mean, these ponies are just as smart as us, but they have powers and abilities we could never hope to match. And now that we can turn into them...is there even a reason for humans to still be around? What's going to happen to us?

    I guess I'll find out soon. The ponies brought some samples of the potion with them, and Eddy's going to go through with it in about an hour. I can't really imagine giving up my humanity, but I'd probably think differently if I was the one with terminal lung cancer. I've gotta admit, I'm actually glad he's going through with it. Taste in movies aside, this place wouldn't have been the same without him.

    We're going to have a showing of the Twilight interview when it comes on at midnight (an odd time, but the Yanks got to her first so she's being interviewed during New York's prime time) in the rec room. This could put my fears to rest depending on how it goes, but if she's anything like our politicians and PR reps, we'll just get vague bullshit.

    7 comments:

    I won't lie, I don't have high hopes for the interview myself. If they're planning anything bad, they're not just going to come right out and say it, are they?
    by StillTheBest1973 9:19PM GMT, Sat January 20, 2018

    Weird they'd choose Twilight for the interview. That poor girl shouldn't be put on the spot like this!
    by Talisman 9:52PM GMT, Sat January 20, 2018

    I can't really blame you for being worried, Iceman. I've known Equestria and our Princesses a lot longer than you have, though, and trampling over other species goes against everything we stand for. I couldn't abide by anypony who would do something like that.
    by Evening Star 10:24PM GMT, Sat January 20, 2018

    [Deleted by blog owner.]
    by jetsnguns 11:08PM GMT, Sat January 20, 2018

    Okay, jets, there's being sceptical and there's being a dick, and you're way over on the dick side. I don't care if Evening Star's a pony, that's no way to talk to other commenters.
    by The_Iceman 11:31PM GMT, Sat January 20, 2018

    Interview in 5 mins! I got the TV on so I'll give my thoughts.
    by Cokebird 11:56PM GMT, Sat January 20, 2018

    What the fuck? Did she really just say that???
    by Cokebird 12:07AM GMT, Sun January 21, 2018


    Life in Antarctica is powered by Blogworld, © Google 2015, 2018.



    CHAPTER 5

    NBC newscast, 8AM EST, January 21, 2018

    The program opens, like the last one, with the square-jawed anchor sitting at his desk, but it's immediately obvious that he has nothing happy to report. There is no trace of his previous wonder and cheer; he is looking squarely into the camera and his expression is somber. A graphic at the bottom displays the heading"SPECIAL BULLETIN", and immediately below that, "UN Security Council Debates War With Equestria."

    "With the whole world watching, pony representative Twilight Sparkle provided answers to the questions on everyone's minds that were nothing short of horrifying. It was one blunder after another."

    As he says the last sentence, the program begins displaying clips of the interview. Twilight Sparkle and a middle-aged, lean man in a three-piece suit sit opposite each other in leather chairs. Both are smiling and their postures are relaxed and casual. The man speaks.

    "I guess the question on everyone's mind is, why do people have to be ponies before they can visit Equestria? I mean, I'd like to think we've made you feel pretty welcome on Earth, no transformation involved."


    Twilight's tail gives a light flick as she answers in a very matter-of-fact tone. "We've seen what your greed and corruption have done to your world. How could we possibly let you into Equestria?"

    Then there is a series of cuts, giving a summary of the interview questions and answers. As time wears on, the man's jaw becomes set, his sharp, birdlike face betraying very little emotion, and he sits more and more rigidly. Twilight appears to be getting annoyed, her tail rapidly flicking back and forth and her stance shifting until she's very nearly standing on her chair.

    "But why does being ponies change that? I mean, you let ponified humans in no problem."

    "Ponification fixes all the problems with your people. We get rid of that pesky human nature and reconfigure you to live in harmony with others."

    "Just why is Equestria claiming all the territory that falls into the bubble? Why is Celestia even expanding the bubble? That land belongs to the people who live there, and it's run by the leaders they freely elected."

    "Look, that's all just human political nonsense. I think you'll find life is much better under the rule of the princesses than under any of your leaders. You'll be happy as her subjects, I'm sure."

    "What about our culture? Can you answer that? I know that barrier doesn't let through any books, or movies, or, anything. What's going to happen to all our history?"

    "I'm sorry, but they'll have to go. The ideas in your culture are too dangerous to Equestria for us to allow them in. All they would do is spread greed, violence, and hatred."

    "Where are your freedoms, your liberties? Is it true that there isn't a single constitutionally protected right in Equestria? That the princesses can do whatever they want? You really think we'd want to live like that?"

    "They're goddesses! Goddesses we know exist, I might add! Why should they be bound by laws? They decide what's right. We just trust them, and you should too."

    The program cuts back to the news anchor.

    "This interview, seen by a record number of people all across the world and subtitled in over a dozen languages, instantly sparked international outrage. Princess Celestia couldn't be reached for comment, but clarified in a letter that she stands by what Twilight says. In light of this, the United Nations Security Council began a meeting about an hour ago and is currently debating the idea of war with Equestria to stop what many are calling an attempted annihilation of the entire human race."

    The program cuts to the charred, blackened wooden skeleton of a building, with a graphic reading "Firebombed Mar del Plata bureau."

    "The conversion bureau buildings have already been a major target of backlash and outbreaks of violence. One Argentina facility in particular was destroyed by a firebomb sometime last night, and the others in the country have been picketed by protestors, preventing any staff or patients from entering. The country's authorities have made no attempt to track down and arrest the bomber, nor to break up the protests. Mar del Plata police chief Estavan Hernandez gives his reason for this lack of response, saying 'We can side with the people of Argentina or we can side with the ponies that threaten us. There's really only one thing to do.' He adds, 'The ponies haven't done anything violent yet, but if they do, we're shooting to kill.' This attitude has drawn criticism from both within and outside of the country."

    The program cuts to a bush-colored pegasus with an electric blue mane. A graphic identifies him as Skyline, a Mar del Plata resident.

    "Look, I didn't have anything to do with the CBs." His wings flutter a bit, apparently without him noticing. "But when people are bombing buildings, well, it scares me, you know? It's like, where does it stop if the police don't stop it? Am I next?"

    The feed cuts to the Cape Town bureau. Several downcast ponies, Bedside Manner among them, are being marched out of it at gunpoint by soldiers.

    "South Africa's been more proactive about dealing with the bureaus, probably not surprising since the Equestria bubble is expected to reach Cape Town within a week, erasing the four hundred-year-old city completely. As the country's military deports the Conversion Bureau staff back to the other side of the bubble, its emergency services are preparing for the evacuation of the hundreds of thousands who will be displaced by the destruction of Cape Town.

    "Stay tuned for developments to this story as they unfold, right after this commercial break."

    The newscast ends.

    CHAPTER 6

    (Author's note: Thanks to Dalek IX, who provided part of this speech. I know a lot of people have been anticipating this, and I hope it lives up to expectations.)

    United Nations Headquarters, New York City
    1PM EST, January 27, 2018

    The following is a complete transcript of U.S. diplomat Ellen Rowe's speech to the United Nations General Assembly.

    For seventy-three years, the United Nations has worked to maintain peace between the peoples of the world, to protect universal human rights and liberties, and to bring international criminals to justice. I have always been proud to represent my country here, and I have always been proud of what we have accomplished. Today, we meet to carry out the most important task the U.N. has ever undertaken, perhaps the most important task it ever will undertake.

    When visitors from another world arrived in ours, we greeted them as equals. We welcomed them, to our world, with open arms. How, then, did they respond? They insulted us. They passed judgment on us, deeming us unworthy of life. They have, through the use of a terrible weapon the likes of which we've never seen, attempted to utterly destroy us in a way previously unimaginable to us. Every day their barrier grows, swelling like a cancerous tumor that threatens our world.

    You've all seen what they did to Cape Town. A city of nearly one million people, with a history spanning centuries, was wiped from the face of the Earth and its people left without homes by the actions of their princess, Celestia. Nothing remains of this once proud city. Ladies and gentlemen of the General Assembly, each and every one of you stands to have the same happen to your entire nation, to your entire species, if we falter here!

    They want to destroy our bodies.

    They want to destroy our minds.

    They want to destroy our art, our music, our architecture, our history, our science, our technology, our monuments, everything the human race has struggled and toiled tirelessly to achieve since its birth, everything that we have ever striven for and found joy and meaning in! Through their actions, their arrogance, they have made themselves the enemy of every man, woman and child of planet Earth.

    It is for this reason that the U.N. Security Council has unanimously passed a resolution declaring war with Equestria on behalf of all of humanity.

    [Applause.]

    We will not accept their surrender until the barrier between Equestria and Earth has been destroyed, and their corrupt aristocracy has been stripped of every last trace of power and made to answer for its crimes.

    Already, every member of the Security Council has begun mobilizing forces to strike the barrier. I stand before you now to request that all of you, all the nations of the world, do the same. Humanity must stand unified against this threat, for whatever the outcome, we will all win or we will all lose together.

    We ask that you lend your ships.

    We ask that you lend your planes.

    We ask that you lend your tanks, your guns, your missiles, your bombs, your steel, your oil, your soldiers, engineers, doctors, every last bit of support you can possibly spare to this battle. No commitment is too great when the price of failure is our complete annihilation.
    I wish all the best of luck to the men and women who will soon fight for every last one of us.

    [Standing ovation.]

    CHAPTER 7

    He's dead
    posted by The_Iceman, 6:20AM GMT, Thu February 1, 2018

    Now that I've finally worked up the energy to actually log in and post, I'll say it: Eddy's dead.

    It's like that purple one said on TV, the potion takes your mind. If he'd just waited a few hours, he'd still be alive. I knew Eddy. He wouldn't let them take his mind if he knew it'd happen. The potion was supposed to give him a few hundred years, but instead it took his last few months.

    That thing has Eddy's memories, but it's not Eddy. Eddy told some of the raunchiest and funniest jokes I ever heard. Eddy could never get enough of goofy, over-the-top violent action movies. Eddy hissed curses under his breath during tough repair jobs. Eddy liked to get liquored up at the strangest hours and spout off bizarre conspiracy theories after doing so.

    Good qualities? A lot of them probably weren't. But they were his, and he was a good guy despite them. They were part of what made him, him. And now they're gone. All gone. The pony that took his place calls alcohol poison and when I tried to watch Grosse Point Blank with him he left in disgust. He's a pleasant smiling zombie with wings.

    Never saw the base commander so pissed in my life. Short guy built like a stick figure, practically blind without his glasses. One of those earth ponies could've probably snapped him in half and there he was, staring them down and calling them out for the murderers they are.

    He'll probably kick them out. Not like we could make them leave, they're a lot stronger than us and we don't have the means to make them do anything. Like pretty much every country, the UK forces are too busy getting ready to hit the bubble. Aliens invaded and we're alone at the edge of the world.

    They actually seem apologetic, some of them anyway. They said if he wanted them to leave they would. One of them said they'd destroy all the samples of potion left that they brought with them. That was what ended up making the base commander say he'd need time to think about it, rather than just booting them out right away. Me, I don't know if they're being sincere and I don't care. I don't want to see those goddamn horses again. Not after what they did.

    I took it up with Karen, she was Eddy's girlfriend and she feels the same way. We ended up talking over a bottle of whisky and a movie in the rec room. It actually made me feel a bit better for awhile.

    8 comments:

    kill them all!!!
    by jetsnguns 4:37PM GMT, Thu February 1, 2018

    Jets, don't you think that's a bit much? Shit like that got innocent civilians blown up in Iraq a decade ago.
    by StillTheBest1973 5:15PM GMT, Thu February 1, 2018

    That's going to be the big question of the war, isn't it? I mean, jingoistic assholes aside, when we're at war with each other we know our enemies are humans, they're like us. These are aliens, though. We don't know what we're dealing with here.
    by Pascals_Triangle 5:29PM GMT, Thu February 1, 2018

    Point, Pascal. I tend to look at these things this way 'cause I'm a history buff, so I'm just playing to my strengths. All that aside though, remember we're supposed to be the good guys here.
    by StillTheBest1973 5:42PM GMT, Thu February 1, 2018

    Right, I see where you're coming from, and I'm not saying killing them all is justified. I'm saying it's possible that it'll be justified. Obviously we shouldn't go through with it until we can be sure.
    by Pascals_Triangle 5:51PM GMT, Thu February 1, 2018

    Oh, we will win, Pascal.
    We're coming for those pastel bastards >=D
    Their princess is getting a nuke right up her ass! Jets' posts may be bad but he has the right idea.
    by Crash_Test_Dumbass 5:56PM GMT, Thu February 1, 2018

    Putting aside the war talk for a minute, Iceman needs our support.
    Iceman, I'm so sorry about Eddy. I know it feels like you're all alone down there, but we're with you. If you want to talk to me about anything, I'm just a PM away.
    by Talisman 7:02PM GMT, Thu February 1, 2018

    Thanks, Talisman. Don't worry about that comment you left in my "Thoughts on recent events" entry, by the way. None of us could've known what they were going to do to us.
    by The_Iceman 4:36AM GMT, Fri February 2, 2018

    Life in Antarctica is powered by Blogworld, © Google 2015, 2018.
     
  2. Only two words for doing this...

    Thank you.
     
  3. Sithking Zero

    Sithking Zero Hellbore Technician

    CHAPTER 8

    The small, cluttered recreation room of Halley Research Station was dark save for the flicker of its HDTV, the displays of its vending machines, and the red glare of the large digital clock above its heavily pockmarked dartboard. Long, gloomy shadows crept under the tables and behind the seats, contrasting sharply with the bright, electronic lights. The room dimmed further when the television screen faded to black as the credits of the movie it had been showing began to roll.

    At this, the room's sole occupant rubbed his eyes and very slowly pulled himself to a sitting position on the couch in front of the TV and set down the empty shotglass that he had been loosely gripping. He then refilled it from a nearby bottle of vodka. He preferred whiskey, but he'd run out yesterday.

    Such had become the nightly routine of Andrew Harris. It had become a bizarre ritual to him, as if drinking and watching goofy action movies in the dead of night, like he'd done so many times with Eddy, would somehow bring him back if he kept it up long enough. Sometimes Karen would join him, but he was usually alone. He was so absorbed in this that he'd grown very unaware of his surroundings; as small as the base was, he couldn't really guess where Karen was when she wasn't with him. Maybe in the gym? She'd always put time in on the treadmill when she needed to work out stress.

    Lately, he hadn't even had the energy to post to his blog, not that "today I got wasted and watched movies again" would make for very compelling reading anyway. If and when something came up that required his talent as an electrician, he doubted he'd be able to handle it.

    He lifted himself off of the couch, staggered over to the television, ejected the DVD he'd just finished watching, and put it back in its case. As he did so, he glanced at the clock on the wall. It was 3:30 in the morning. He should've been asleep hours ago, but he hadn't cared about such matters for days. He turned back to the sizable pile of discs beneath the television and began picking through it, looking for one he hadn't watched in the last few days. He wasn't having much luck.

    He heard a sound coming from the adjacent room and jerked his head towards the door, not having expected activity at this time of night. It sounded like footsteps, and for a moment he'd hoped it was Karen, but he soon realized it was the clip-clop of a pony's hooves. Almost reflexively, he clenched his eyes shut and turned his head back away. The last thing he wanted to deal with now was that thing that used to be Eddy, now known as Thunderhead.

    "...Andrew?"

    That wasn't Thunderhead's voice! He turned back to face his visitor and saw a cornflower blue earth pony, one of the eight that had come to the station so many months ago. Over time, he'd learned his name was Ice Breaker. This didn't improve his mood much, since he didn't want to see any ponies at all. For a moment, he just stared. Ice Breaker looked away.

    "I...I came here to..."

    It was probably going to be the same thing the other ponies had told him. He'd probably tell him Eddy was happier now, and that he should stop being sad, and that he was being rude to his friend.

    "...to...Andrew...Andrew, I'm s-so sorry..."

    Andrew looked up with interest for the first time in days.

    "I...I just wanted to help him...I didn't know the potion would..."

    Ice Breaker stared at the floor. Andrew, meanwhile, was wondering if he was really hearing this. He decided to prod.

    "You didn't know what?"

    Ice Breaker gave a long and drawn-out sigh, as if trying to put off his response. He began pawing at the carpet. "I know you probably won't want to hear this, but Eddy was my friend too. I'd known him for months before the potion. I didn't know it would do that to his mind. That it would just...erase his personality. They never told me that. I gave him the potion. I..."




    His voice dropped to barely above a whisper. "I killed him."

    For the first time since Eddy had been ponified, Andrew felt the anger, frustration, and depression that had plagued him begin to ebb away ever so slightly. For once, the haughtiness and arrogance that the ponies had always radiated about Eddy's ponification weren't there. Instead, Andrew was seeing a person who had essentially killed another person and was now horrified by what he had done. His expression softened slightly, and he spoke.

    "Still smashing the potions?"

    "...No. I won't. You humans should have the honor."

    Andrew dragged himself back on the couch and shut his eyes.

    "I like the idea."

    Having done what he could to make amends, Ice Breaker considered this as good a time as any to leave. Slowly, he turned around.

    "Take care, Andrew."

    There was a pause. Then the reply came, albeit rather stiffly.

    "You too."

    (100 favorites! Thank you guys so much =D It's overwhelming how much support I've gotten from the community for this story. You guys make it all worthwhile. - Starman Ghost)

    CHAPTER 9

    Her heart thumping, Evening Star galloped out of the alley and into the street. The warm, muggy air of a Brazilian summer night whipped back her long, flowing, damp mane and tail, and her saddlebag slapped against her flank as her hooves pounded the asphalt. All the while, she feared that someone would see her and call out, followed swiftly by shouts from the human police, who would promptly drag her to an internment camp. She wouldn't have been the first one.

    She was amazed that she'd made it as far north as Brazil, but she knew even before she'd gotten there that she wasn't much safer there than in Argentina. She would have to go as far north as Mexico for that. Because it was so far away from the bureau and barriers, and so few ponies lived there, the authorities had not seen fit to impose anything harsher than travel restrictions and curfews on them. She should have been indignant even about that, and on some level she was, but at the same time it sounded downright heavenly compared to Argentina and Brazil's policies.

    It didn't happen. Almost as soon as she left the first alley, she was hidden in the relative safety of the second, where she promptly collapsed on the concrete, laying down her bag beside her. This, she supposed, was as good of a place to stop as any. Now she had to make sure she didn't get caught while she was sleeping. Luckily, she knew a spell for that.

    With a shudder of disgust, she thrust the entire length of her horn into the pile of refuse that practically overflowed the alley. It was disgusting, but she had to hide her horn's light. This was far from the first time she had done it, and her horn had become greasy and filthy from its numerous brushes with discarded Styrofoam cups and fast food wrappers. She had, at least, gotten used enough to the sensation to more easily focus on her spell.

    Evening Star's horn began to glow faintly, almost indiscernibly, as she went to work. She closed her eyes tightly as her body tingled with the sensation of her magical field flowing into her horn, causing it to brighten as it pulsed with energy. Once she had built up enough, she concentrated on her chosen magical formula and began channeling it back through her body.

    Slowly, starting from the tip of her horn, she changed color. The effect flowed across her like spilling paint, her fiery red body and ghost-white mane giving way to a drab off-white crossed with grease-colored stripes and flecked with mud-brown spots; soon, she looked like a completely different unicorn. After looking over a foreleg and giving a satisfied nod, she gave her saddlebag the same treatment and lay down to sleep. Her magic had done its job; she blended into the trash pile so well that nobody could have spotted her if they weren't looking for her.

    As she drifted off, she began thinking about things that her constant fear and hunger had pushed out of her mind. Nearly the first thing to cross her mind was that she wished she still had internet access, which was actually funny considering she hadn't even known what the internet was a few months ago. There was still so much to read about these humans, so much they had written over thousands of years, it didn't seem fair, it was all because of a war she'd never-

    "Three reais?! Three fucking reais?!"

    Evening Star's eyes popped open and her body grew ramrod stiff. A man was in the alley! Why was he there? Why was he so angry? She heard shoes scraping against concrete, followed by a thump.

    "Where's the rest? That can't be all!" It was the same voice.

    "I'm sorry, I'm sorry! Look, take it, okay? Leave me alone, please!" Whoever said that sounded younger.


    Evening Star lifted her head and peered through her hooves to get as good a view as she dared. In the streetlight's orange glare, she saw a pair of young men. One of them, rather heavyset, was pinning the smaller against a brick wall with one hand and holding a switchblade knife to his neck with another.

    The seconds crawled by, time marked only by the men's heavy breathing. She wanted to stay hidden and just let this pass without getting dragged into it, then possibly caught by police or the military. She reconsidered when the attacker pressed the knife to his victim's throat.

    "Not good enough."

    Evening Star's horn was almost instantly enveloped in a red glow. This time she discharged the magic into her throat and lungs, making them feel as if she'd inhaled helium.

    "Stop! Police!" The spell had done its job, her words coming out in a harsh, commanding man's voice.

    "Shit!" The mugger instinctively glanced in her direction. He apparently didn't see her, because that same instant he let his victim fall to the ground and scrambled out of the alley and into the night, scattering garbage as he went.

    The young man shakily climbed to his feet and looked around confusedly, trying to find the police officer he believed had intervened. Evening Star prayed her horn would dim before he could spot her, but when he suddenly jumped back and yelled, she knew it hadn't.

    "A pony? This far north? But how-why the hell are you here in Caxias Do Sul? What do you want? They said they had you all locked up, or shipped out, or shot!"

    Evening Star stood up and backed away slowly. It was now or never. She just hoped she'd finally found one who would give her a chance. "Wait! Please, listen! I don't agree with what Celestia's doing! I want to help you! I went through a lot to get here, I just want somepony to know, I'm on your side!"

    His eyes still wide, the young man scrutinized her for a moment, subconsciously scratching his chin. "You...you're serious?"

    Evening Star nodded, her face set and her head held high. The man turned to face the wall and fished a cigarette out of his pocket. He put it between his teeth, and with a flick of an old, tarnished lighter, he lit it. Its tiny flame lasted just long enough for her to get a better look at the long, black hair hanging limply down his head and his round, boyish face. He took a long drag from the cigarette, blowing a thin wisp of smoke into the air.

    "I believe you."

    Evening Star's face lit up as if she'd just won the lottery. "Thank you! Listen, I need your help!...Please. I've been living in the streets for days! I can't go back to Equestria, they'd probably make me fight for them! And...and I can tell you things! Things that can help you with the war!"

    She realized this last claim was a bit hasty, having perhaps overstepped her willingness to help. She decided she'd worry about that later; for now, she just wanted to focus on staying out of the prison camps.

    The man chuckled. "No, thank you. You saved my ass there. How did you do it, anyway, miss...?"

    "Evening Star. I magically altered my voice. Always wanted to be an actor, and my magic suits it."

    "Huh. Come to think of it, that makes sense. Tell you what, come to my apartment. I'll hide you there. I think I owe you that much. Let's head there now, you look half-starved."
    Evening Star smiled. "Oh, thank you! I was wondering when one of you would let me help you." She laughed. "And now you're returning the favor on top of it! What's your name, by the way?"

    "Antonio. Antonio Olmos." He took another, shorter drag from his cigarette. "By the way, why do you look like trash?"

    Evening Star's eyes widened. "E-excuse me? What are you..."

    "Oh, uh, sorry. I just meant your color scheme, I've never seen one like it in Equestrian ponies, usually you're all bright and colorful." He took another drag.

    "Huh? Oh! I forgot, no one's seen me like this. Hold on." Her horn glowed again, and her body faded back to its natural colors before Antonio had finished blowing his smoke. He raised his eyebrows, and Evening Star couldn't help giggling a little before Antonio recovered.

    "Ah...yeah...that'll do it, won't it? Right, follow me."

    CHAPTER 10

    (Thanks to Minalkra and Heretical Zed for giving me the idea for this chapter. - Starman Ghost)

    "...just wanted to thank you again for speaking to the class today!"

    "But of course, Cheerilee! The pleasure here, belongs to me!"

    Lyra Heartstrings' ears perked up. They were here! She dashed over to the door and opened it, greeting Cheerilee and Zecora as they came in, accompanied by a gust of chilly winter air. She turned back to the other two ponies already in the room, Bon-Bon and Mayor Mare.

    "Okay, everypony, please take your seats!" They did so.

    Bon-Bon had come to the meeting with her after they'd eaten dinner together, and Mayor Mare had shown up a little while after they had arrived. Bon-Bon, for her part, had been happy to chat with Lyra about yesterday's snowball fight while they waited. Mayor Mare had gotten straight to business, though, and they had been discussing recruitment techniques and campaign activities from the time she showed up to the time Lyra heard the other two arrive.

    These four ponies were all Lyra had been able to rally to the cause. This meager audience, not even enough to fill her living room, was the culmination of a month's hard work, striking up conversations with ponies and carefully prodding them with hints that maybe this was a cause worth taking up. The silver lining was that this allowed them to meet in her house, where it was less likely to draw attention.

    After giving her audience a few minutes to greet and make idle chatter with each other, and for Cheerilee and Zecora to remove their snow-dusted scarves and saddles, Lyra cleared her throat and tapped her hoof on the podium. They turned to face her.

    "Thank you all for coming, and welcome to the first official meeting of 'Equestrians For Humans.' It used to be called 'Ponies For Humans,' but...." She gestured to Zecora. "This isn't just about ponies. Anyone who supports us is welcome."

    "Now, I know you've all made a difficult decision coming here, but I think we can all agree that Their Majesties have acted unjustly in their treatment of the humans." The audience looked at one another uncomfortably. Bon-Bon glanced at the door. Lyra gave them a moment before continuing.

    "I will admit that based on what I have learned, these creatures can be dangerous, and I think it's only healthy to show caution towards them. There's a line between caution and aggression, however, and Celestia and Luna crossed it a long time ago.

    "Look at what Celestia has done with the barrier. She keeps expanding it, and already it's destroyed several of their cities. That's millions of people forced from their homes, and places they'd lived in their whole lives wiped off the map! And for what? Just so we can take their land? And she's not stopping there! What's going to happen to them when the barrier covers their world?

    "And if they want to live here - even if they just want to live here, peacefully, bothering no one, willing to serve Her Majesty like any of us do - she won't let them come as they are. She makes them give up their bodies and minds. What's her reasoning? That they're dangerous? Dragons are dangerous, do you see us kicking them out of Equestria unless they change into ponies? Look at Spike right here in Ponyville, he's a dragon and we love him! We don't make him be a pony, just as long as he follows the rules we do."

    Bon-Bon asked, "Wait, didn't Spike go berserk one time? As in, he almost destroyed the town?"

    "He still lives here, doesn't he? That just proves my point. Even knowing he'll never truly be rid of the problems of being a dragon, he's still here," Lyra replied.

    "Oh! Miss Lyra, if you wouldn't mind," said Cheerilee. Lyra nodded.

    "Thank you. I've taught a lot of colts and fillies in my time at the schoolhouse, and I've learned that nopony is born bad. If a foal is taught to abide by the Elements of Harmony, she will grow up to do so. If she is rewarded for lying, or stealing, or cruelty, she will grow up to be a very unpleasant pony. I believe the same applies to anypony, whatever their shape, and that extends to humans. If we let them live in Equestria, and let them see firsthoof how our cooperation and friendship bring us prosperity, they will adopt these principles for themselves. We may need to take care, and it may take time, but I believe it'll happen.

    "I'm not saying every human will make themselves welcome and I'm not saying every human will want to live peacefully, but I wouldn't deny them the chance just because of how they were born. It certainly seems better to me than turning them away from our home even as we destroy theirs."

    "Yes! I feel the same way, Cheerilee," Lyra said. "It's interesting you mention the Elements of Harmony, though. They're supposed to be the founding principles of Equestria, but just how well are we fulfilling them?

    "We have a land where they can live in peace and prosperity, but we lock them out. Does that sound generous to you?

    "We capture their land and destroy their homes. Does that sound kind to you?

    "We started ponifying them before we told them about its effects on their minds. Does that sound honest to you?

    "We spent months befriending them, then we turned against them. Does that sound loyal to you?"

    "Wait a minute," said Bon-Bon. "That's how we treat other ponies! We don't owe those humans anything, they're...they're weird!"

    Zecora tapped the floor with her hoof. "Very strange they seem to be, but ponies once said the same of me. When something odd you see or hear, it is best to learn rather than to fear."

    "See! See! She gets it!" Lyra pounded her hoof on the podium. "Thank you for bringing up learning about humans, Zecora. As you've probably noticed, I haven't had much luck getting support for them here in Ponyville. Of course, there also aren't any humans here in Ponyville...or even any ponies converted from humans. I've had contact with friends out in their world, though, and you know who's most likely to agree with me? Ponies who have gone out and actually met humans! I think that speaks for itself." Bon-Bon made no acknowledgement of this, but Zecora and the other two ponies nodded.

    "I'm sorry, Lyra," Bon-Bon said, "you forgot something. Their Majesties have said they have to do it. Isn't that good enough? They're wiser than any of us, of course they'll be right about this!"

    Lyra clenched her eyes shut and took a deep breath. "Then I guess we've got a hard truth to deal with, don't we? That maybe the Princesses aren't as perfect as we're always told?" At this, the audience turned and whispered to one another, except for Bon-Bon. She was staring straight at Lyra, discomfort in her eyes.

    "Sorry, Lyra. I...I can't. I can't listen to talk like this. I'd better go. It's impossible. They...they wouldn't..." Without waiting for a response, Bon-Bon stood up, nearly ran to the door, pounded it open with her hoof, and ran out, nearly forgetting to shut it behind her. She left a long, cold silence in her wake, which was finally broken by Mayor Mare.

    "Lyra...you're absolutely right. I don't ask Ponyville to agree to everything I say and do, without asking any questions. I know there are many ponies who criticize me, and I know there are some that would like nothing more than to buck me out of office. I accept that and I listen to my critics to see if there's anything to their complaints. Why can't the princesses extend us all the same courtesy? If they're perfect, why would they be afraid of that?" She peered at Lyra over the rims of her glasses.

    Cheerilee and Zecora looked deep in thought, but were shaken out of it when Lyra stomped her hooves, her enthusiasm regained. "I hear you, Mayor! Now, I'm sure you've noticed our membership is..." She looked aside. "...well, not so great. And I know you're the mare to talk to for this kind of thing. How can we get more ponies to join us?"

    Mayor Mare slowly shook her head, looking apologetic. "I honestly don't know. It's our word against that of Celestia herself. If we could get the support of one of the Elements of Harmony, that would count for a lot. Maybe Fluttershy?"

    Lyra scoffed. "Please, they work directly for Celestia. She could say two and two equaled five and they'd believe her."

    "If another we seek to support our cause, it can't be one Celestia awes," said Zecora. "I believe zebras and gryphons we'll find, do not have such stubborn minds."

    "Oh, that should work fine! One of my friends is a gryphon, I can send her a letter this week," said Cheerilee.

    "I shall take this chance to visit my old home, and see if there supporters roam," said Zecora. She smiled at the thought; it had been years since she had seen her family.

    Lyra pounded the podium again. "Sounds like a plan, guys! Once we've got more supporters, then we can start helping the humans! Now, just so it's official, are we going to commit to this? Are we going to say, once and for all, that Celestia is wrong and it's up to us to do what's right where she hasn't?"

    Everyone affirmed that they were.

    Lyra was bouncing on her hooves. "Okay! Cheerilee and Zecora already have plans of action. Mayor, can you pull some strings for us? We need the town's printing press."

    Mayor smiled and nodded. "Oh sure, that shouldn't be a problem! What did you have in mind?"

    "We're gonna teach ponies some things about humans." Lyra leaned forward, grinning and with an eager gleam in her eye. "Things Their Majesties don't want ponies to know."

    (The last few chapters were a lot larger than normal, so here's a quickie for you. The big battle's coming in a few chapters, and everything up to that point is planned. -Starman Ghost)

    CHAPTER 11

    MATERIALS PRODUCED AND DISTRIBUTED BY THE EQUESTRIANS FOR HUMANS

    POSTER #1
    Graphic depicting thin, ragged-looking humans standing just outside the Equestria bubble, looking forlornly at the rich, bountiful land within.
    Does this look like GENEROSITY to you?
    We are the Equestrians For Humans!
    Friendship Is Universal!

    POSTER #2
    Graphic depicting a large city being destroyed by the Equestria bubble. A massive sea of tearful humans streams out from it.
    Does this look like KINDNESS to you?
    We are the Equestrians For Humans!
    Friendship Is Universal!

    FLYER #1
    Would you want NORMAN BORLAUG in Equestria?
    We would!
    For many humans, starvation is either a looming threat or daily reality. With no way to control their weather and seven billion people to feed, they must constantly pursue new ways to improve crop yields.
    NORMAN BORLAUG was a human biologist who developed an improved strain of wheat that saved over one billion humans from starvation!
    Borlaug was a hero. Think of all the good he could have done for Equestria! But Celestia and Luna would never allow him in, just because he was a human. We think this is wrong.
    We are the Equestrians For Humans!
    Friendship Is Universal!

    FLYER #2
    Would you want MAHATMA GANDHI in Equestria?
    We would!
    Imagine that Equestria has been taken over by a foreign power. Ponies are impoverished, deprived of their rights, and subject to racist edicts and laws. What would you do?
    MAHATMA GANDHI was a human who found his own country in this situation, fought ceaselessly to free it from its suffering, and ultimately prevailed. He did this without ever raising a hoof in violence or asking others to do the same.
    Gandhi was a hero. Think of all the good he could have done for Equestria! But Celestia and Luna would never allow him in, just because he was a human. We think this is wrong.
    We are the Equestrians For Humans!
    Friendship Is Universal!

    FLYER #3
    Stylized graphic of a talon shaking a hoof.
    If gryphons can be our friends...
    Stylized graphic of a claw shaking a hoof.
    If dragons can be our friends...
    Stylized graphic of a hand shaking a hoof.
    Can't humans be our friends?
    We won't know until we try.
    We are the Equestrians For Humans!
    Friendship Is Universal!

    (To avoid confusion, characters in this chapter refer to a certain sport as "soccer." I'm sure some people will argue they should be saying "football," but since this is Brazil they'd be speaking Portuguese anyway. -Starman Ghost)

    CHAPTER 12

    Antonio shut the door to his small studio apartment behind him and his key clinked on the counter.

    "It's me."

    Evening Star emerged from the clothing-packed closet, grinning broadly. As grateful as she was that he had an internet connection, and as much as she had been enjoying talking to sympathetic humans online, it was no substitute for face-to-face contact.

    "Hey, Antonio! About time you showed up! How was work today?"

    "Same as every day."

    "So...bad then."

    "I pack boxes on an assembly line eight hours a day. I think 'bad' is the only option there," he said lightly. "But what the hell, I don't have to think about it again till tomorrow. How's things for you?"

    She sighed wistfully. "I've got cabin fever, I've got it bad. I'm tired of sitting in here all day, all week, ducking into the closet whenever I hear the door open. I just want to go out and gallop down Main Street, feel the wind through my mane, police be damned!"

    "Sorry, Evening. I wish I could help you there. I tried asking around a bit. Don't worry, I was sneaky about it, didn't say anything that would give you away, just hinted around a bit that maybe I didn't think all ponies were evil. I'm actually surprised how many people listened, but I still don't think I'll be convincing the whole city any time soon. That was a risk showing yourself to Nico, by the way."

    "I know, but you said yourself that he really seemed to agree with you, and he did! Once he got over his shock, it turned out he was a great guy! Besides, it's been a week and he hasn't told anyone. I think we're in the clear."

    "Yeah, I've known Nico for years. Even if he didn't like it he wouldn't call the cops on me, he knows there's a good chance they'd haul me off to jail too. That's why I agreed to it."

    "Turned out pretty well, I'd say. Now I don't have to hide when he comes by to watch soccer. Now I can actually sit on the couch with you guys and watch it, and talk about it."

    "Speaking of, you know he doesn't like people calling him Nico, right?"

    "Oh, I know! But...he's just so funny!" Her horn glowed cherry-red, and her voice became low and slightly raspy. "Hey! It's Nicolaus!" The glow faded, her voice returned to normal, and she giggled, a hoof raised to her mouth.

    Antonio grinned. "You really never get tired of that, do you? Can't blame you though. If I could, I probably wouldn't either. You sounded just like him. You'll make a great actor once this all blows over."

    For a moment, Evening Star just looked away uncomfortably. Antonio knew why. It was a sting of resentment - not at him, but at her situation. After having risked so much to help the humans, here she was still having to hide from most of them. She'd been prepared to do so, of course, but it was still hard not to feel angry when she hadn't been outside in weeks. She wondered when, or even if, it would blow over.

    Finally she said, "Why don't I get dinner ready?" She usually cooked for them now; after all he had done for her, she figured it was the least she could do.

    "Fine by me," said Antonio. He opened the door to his groaning refrigerator and pulled out a bottle of Fanta Grape.

    Then the apartment became awash with red light. Cabinets opened. Pans flew through the air. Can openers peeled lids. Dials clicked on the stove. Evening Star wasn't good enough with telekinesis to focus on a lot of objects at once, so she couldn't do it much faster than a human could. Antonio still found it fascinating to watch.

    A few minutes later, Evening Star levitated a pair of steaming bowls over to the table - potato soup for her, pork and beans for him. She wished she had better options to work with, but she didn't blame him. He couldn't really afford better food. She had, at least, grown comfortable with the idea of preparing meat. She didn't like it, but she could live with heating it if that was all she had to do. They were eating what they had and what they could, and she didn't begrudge them for that.

    Evening Star hovered a glass of water over for herself, Antonio popped open his soda, and they sat down to eat, Evening Star having to carefully squeeze her way into her chair because it was so close to the wall. It was strange for her, having had fresh food all her life, to think that many humans lived mostly on canned, preserved goods. And those were the ones that got to eat at all. Maybe that was something Equestria could help with if this ever got resolved peacefully - it'd surely make more humans think twice about their judgments of ponies. The thought reminded her of the HSR, and she cheered a bit, remembering the organization's webring she had discovered earlier.

    A moment later, she was blowing gingerly on a spoonful of hot soup when she noticed that Antonio was frowning at his soda, which he had just taken a rather large swig of. She let her spoon fall into her bowl.

    "Antonio? Something wrong?"

    Antonio was turning the plastic bottle over in his fingers. "I dunno...it tastes different somehow. Like, you know I drink this stuff every day. This time, though..." He tapped the bottle with his pinkie finger. "...I'd swear it's sweeter. A bit thicker too." He shrugged. "It's probably nothing."

    Evening Star nodded and went back to her soup, but the conversation stayed with her. She had a feeling she'd forgotten something, something important. There was some connection she should have made there, but what was it? She had to think...sweet...grape...thick...
    Antonio was taking another large swig when suddenly the bottle glowed red, yanked itself out of his hand, and landed on the floor, spraying its contents as it went. For a moment he couldn't do anything but cough and gag into his hand. After regaining his composure, he glared at Evening Star.

    "What the hell are you doing?"

    Evening Star was staring at the bottle, ashen-faced. When she finally spoke, her voice was trembling.

    "Antonio...that bottle was laced with...with Potion."

    CHAPTER 13

    Chem-Warfare Attack Claims Fifteen Victims

    From Angela Brown, CNN
    updated 8:21AM EST, Tue February 13, 2018

    Fifteen people were forcibly ponified after drinking Fanta Grape brand soda contaminated with Potion.

    The source of the contamination was traced back to a bottling plant in Palmas, Brazil.

    Because the drink and Potion have nearly identical flavors and similar consistencies, most of the victims did not realize what had happened until it was too late. Fifteen bottles claimed victims, two have been safely disposed of, and an unknown number remain unaccounted for.


    "It was a close call," said Caxias do Sul factory worker Antonio Olmos, 20. "I drink Fanta Grape every day, and even then it almost fooled me. Luckily I remembered what I read about the CBs. I guess a small dose doesn't do anything, because, well, here I am."

    Others weren't so lucky. Luciana Duarte's nine-year-old son Lucas drank a contaminated bottle and was ponified. Duarte recounted her experience, saying "I tried to tell myself otherwise, but this pony wasn't my boy. He came from my boy, he thought he was my boy, but he wasn't my boy. My boy's gone." He was discovered and relocated to a prison camp shortly afterward. "The police came to the door, and I tried to say something, but all I could do was cry. The last thing he said before they shut the squad car door was 'Mom, what did I do? Why don't you love me anymore?' I'll never forget the look he gave me."

    After interrogating multiple Equestrian prisoners, Brazil is preparing to prosecute several ponies they found to be complicit in the chemical attack. Grassroots organization Humans for Sapient Rights (HSR), longtime critic of the internment camps for ponies, has condemned the Brazilian government's handling of the situation. They cite the government's apparently rushed efforts and recently surfaced evidence of torture during interrogations as evidence that this is not an administration of justice but a hasty act of vengeance.

    While officials initially believed the Equestrian Crown to be behind this, a group called Ponification for Earth's Rebirth, or PER, has claimed responsibility. The PER is composed of humans and newfoals operating independently of Equestria, and their stated goal is to ponify all humans. They have made no demands and little is currently known about them.

    Interpol is investigating the matter and has indicated environmental extremists as likely PER collaborators.

    To learn how to protect you and your family from the enemy's chemical weapons, visithttp://www.defense.gov/equestria/conversion.pdf

    If you have any information on those responsible for this attack, you can leave an anonymous tip athttp://www.interpol.int

    (This was supposed to go up last night with the previous chapter, but I got sidetracked.
    I know some of you wanted me to post the fake pdf itself, but I'll let your imaginations fill in the gaps. - Starman Ghost)

    CHAPTER 14

    Regarding Potion Protection Tips
    posted by Evening Star 3:09AM GMT, Wed February 14, 2018

    This post is dedicated to the fifteen victims of the recent chemical warfare attack.

    You've all probably seen the U.S. Department of Defense's 10 Things to Know About the Enemy's Chemical Weapons. I should weigh in on this since I toured one of the conversion bureaus back when they were open, and I want to do my part to make sure this doesn't happen to anypony else. There's a lot of false information flying around, even from official sources, and considering what we're dealing with, that could get someone killed and someone else imprisoned. Okay then, here we go:

    1. It's true the full eight ounces ponifies you and trace amounts won't do anything, but it doesn't mention what happens if you drink, say, six ounces or so. I don't think anypony knows.

    2. These are the flavors I know for a fact are out there, though I overheard a CB doctor mention they were expecting mint-flavored shipments. I don't know how many of these, if any, got out. Just to be safe I'd avoid minty drinks.

    3. Comparing the consistency to cough syrup is accurate.

    4. No comment.

    5. No comment.

    6. I'm not sure how somepony would get it into a smoothie or milkshake since they're made on the spot, but it would be pretty hard to detect if they did.

    7. No comment.

    8. I know they were going to eventually make that much of it, but it'd take the CBs years to make that much, and that's not even factoring in how much the police seized and destroyed. It's possible more was sneaked out of Equestria, but even accounting for that, the number seems way too high.

    9. The bad news here is that changing the flavor is easier than your military intelligence believes. I'm sure at least a few PER newfoal unicorns could pull it off. Not enough for a large-scale poisoning, but they probably could for another attack like the one at the bottling plant.

    10. It'd work, but really, how practical is drinking distilled water all the time, especially if you have to superheat it first?

    Stay safe, everyone. They won't get anyone else on our watch!

    13 comments:

    Thanks for the info, Evening. Something to keep in mind when we look over the next supply shipment.
    by The_Iceman 4:02AM GMT, Wed February 14, 2018

    Good to see you're still okay, Evening! And thank you so much for posting these. It's disgusting they'd ponify people against their will like this. What's the point? All they've done is hurt people, and it will make things even harder for the HSR.
    by Talisman 5:01AM GMT, Wed February 14, 2018

    Are you kidding me? You obviously put this up to confuse people. I hope the police haul you off soon, things are bad enough without you trying to get more people killed.
    by Shadez 7:55AM GMT, Wed February 14, 2018

    PER really need to get their heads out of their flanks. What they did really crossed the line.
    by Vocal May 3:39PM GMT, Wed February 14, 2018

    I'd like to think this is like the anthrax scare back in the 00's and the danger's already passed, but like you said there's no telling how much potion got out. Never thought I'd have to worry about chemical weapons in my lifetime.
    Love how Brazil stuck the newfoals in internment camps, too. Way to learn from history, guys.
    by StillTheBest1973 4:54PM GMT, Wed February 14, 2018

    Can you tell me something Evening Star? Why do you keep using the words somepony and anypony even when you're talking about humans? Bit of a Freudian slip there? Taken any trips to a bottling plant lately?
    by sturmgewehr 5:13PM GMT, Wed February 14, 2018

    [Deleted by blog owner.]
    by SecretAsianMan 9:19PM GMT, Wed February 14, 2018

    Linked on my potion post Hope this will help w/the crazy rumors.
    by Cokebird 10:45PM GMT, Wed February 14, 2018

    [Deleted by blog owner.]
    by MiamiGuy 1:16AM GMT, Thu February 15, 2018

    [Deleted by blog owner.]
    by jetsnguns 2:32PM GMT, Wed February 15, 2018

    [Deleted by blog owner.]
    by Rageinator 4:29PM GMT, Thu February 15, 2018

    [Deleted by blog owner.]
    by Walt1999 5:17PM GMT, Thu February 15, 2018

    Jesus Christ.
    by The_Iceman 10:04PM GMT, Thu February 15, 2018

    A Mare In Hiding is powered by Blogworld, © Google 2015, 2018.

    CHAPTER 15

    Celestia Declares EFH Misguided
    Canterlot Times
    as reported by Eye Witness
    Fri February 23, 1004 Y.S.

    In a public address, Her Majesty Princess Celestia issued an official statement on the activist group Equestrians For Humans.

    The group has gotten a lot of media attention with its campaign to return the Equestria Barrier to its original size and to put an immigration process in place that would allow some humans into Her Majesty's lands. While the group has not yet resorted to violent means and their influence among ponies is believed to be minimal, they are already confirmed to have sympathizers in the gryphon and zebra lands.

    "Of course I want friendship between species," says Her Majesty. "But sadly, the humans are just too primitive and violent for that to be possible. A few good deeds here and there does not change the fact that they're a corrupt race. They would still harm you if I allowed them in, and I could never stand for that. I cast the barrier and commissioned the bureaus so that this wouldn't happen. Ponifying them is the only way we can live with them peacefully."

    Her Majesty adds, "The EFH needs to realize that we're helping the humans by doing this, too. We can lift them up from their savagery. We can save them from a cold, soulless world, devoid of magic. We can give them life, true life, and free them from the pale, mechanical imitation they're trapped in now. They certainly have nothing good to lose by accepting."

    Despite her convictions, Her Majesty has spoken against Ponification For Earth's Rebirth, a group of humans and newfoals whose mission is to ponify others whether they want it or not. She says, "I will not force it upon them, and nopony else should. We will always offer it, but we must never make them do anything. I can only hope that they will decide to become ponies. Trying to force them into it will only make them resent us further. It won't be easy, but we have to do everything we can to salvage them. We must make them worthy of our friendship."

    Her Majesty points to the fact that the humans continue to amass weapons at our border as proof of their violent nature, but has assured us that her barrier will keep us safe.
     
  4. Sithking Zero

    Sithking Zero Hellbore Technician

    CHAPTER 16

    Bathed in the soft red glow of the emergency lights, Andrew looked over the breaker box with a flashlight in one hand and a soldering iron in the other. Tucking the flashlight under one arm, he used his now-freed hand to tug lightly at the wires he had just replaced. When they didn't fall out or come loose, he knew he'd placed them where they needed to be. He grabbed the flashlight again and held it directly in front of where the stripped ends of the wires touched.


    Taking care not to burn himself, Andrew pressed the iron against this point and held it there until the silver lump of solder locked the two wires into place, then pulled it off with a satisfied "hm." Then, with the tip of his flashlight, he flicked one of the box's switches.
    The fluorescent lights surged to life, casting bright, cold light on the machine room's steel-gray walls and the exposed copper pipes that snaked their way across them. Andrew smiled, snapped off the flashlight, and clicked off the iron. All of his repair jobs should be this easy.

    "Oh, Andrew! That didn't take you long at all!"

    Andrew's head snapped towards the doorway. He knew the others had been waiting for him to finish, but he was still rather surprised to see Ice Breaker coming in.

    "I...yeah." Andrew wasn't really sure what to say. Yes, he had forgiven Ice Breaker. Yes, he was a card-carrying member of the HSR. Yes, he refused to blame ponykind for what had happened to Eddy. Their speaking terms were still tenuous, though.

    "I'm just glad you're okay," said Ice Breaker. "How does it feel to be back at work? I really did hate seeing you like that, you know. Just drinking your life away like that, because of...because of me."

    "I was for the idea too, you know. We all thought the same thing. We thought he'd come out good as new. You just happened to be the one to give it to him." Andrew smiled. It was clearly at least a little forced, but there was an earnestness to it. "Besides, taking a sledgehammer to those Potion bottles felt good."

    Ice Breaker slowly trotted into the room, weaving between the machines and pipes that lined the walls. "Yeah, did you see when Karen smashed hers? She's quite strong for a h...ehm."

    Andrew nodded, acting as if he didn't hear what Ice Breaker was about to say. Even so, he had to admit there was truth to it. The pony did plenty of heavy lifting for his work at Halley, and he'd pulled plenty of hauls a human could never manage, and did so without much apparent strain. Such, he understood, was one of the magical abilities of earth ponies. Much as he hated to admit it, such strength coupled with such a caring, friendly personality was something he admired.

    "Got it from her rugby team days back in university. Talked to her about it?"

    Ice Breaker sighed. "She still doesn't want anything to do with me. It hurts, but...but I can't blame her. I have a fillyfriend back home, and if something like that happened to her, I'd..."

    He trailed off.

    For a moment they both just stood there awkwardly, not quite looking at each other - though Andrew looked slightly bothered about something he'd said - until Ice Breaker took the opportunity to change the subject. "So, you uh, still wanted to try darts tonight? A couple games with me? I just had a round yesterday with Diana, but she's on kitchen duty this evening. And...well...I'll probably have to leave tomorrow..."

    Andrew briefly grimaced, and Ice Breaker could tell he'd been hoping he had forgotten about it. "Well..." Andrew turned and stared at the breaker box as if he would find the answer on it.

    "Sure thing."

    Ice Breaker smiled slightly. "Thanks, Andrew."

    They were interrupted by the thumping of heavy boots in the nearby hall, followed shortly by a wiry, middle-aged man slipping through the doorway. It was Lawson, the current base commander, bundled up heavily in olive drab winter gear.

    "Good job getting the lights running again so quickly, Andrew. Glad to see you back on your feet." He touched the bridge of his glasses. "Ice Breaker, it's time. Both of you, get to the garage building. I'll be waiting for you there."

    With that, Lawson was gone, leaving only the echoing sounds of his boots.

    A few minutes later, Andrew and Ice Breaker had dressed themselves in their own winter gear and were crunching through the snow to the garage building. The sun shone overhead, the snowdrifts shining brilliantly in its light, but despite this the weather was bone-chillingly cold. Their destination loomed ahead, its cheerful red paint job making it look comically out of place in a landscape dominated by snow and steel.

    "You know, I never did ask how you got your cutie mark," Andrew said with no apparent lead-up.

    Ice Breaker looked up at him through the hood of his heavy, dark brown wool coat. His cutie mark was concealed now, of course, but Andrew had seen the wooden snowshoe plenty of times before. He smiled; talking to Andrew was still difficult, but at least this was something he was comfortable with.

    "Oh, thanks for asking! I actually got it when I was on vacation with my family up in northern Equestria, near the gryphon lands. It was about a century ago, so I was only a young colt at the time..." Andrew twitched oddly, and Ice Breaker cringed. He'd forgotten about their lifespan differences, and they were a touchy subject. "...sorry." Ice Breaker cleared his throat.

    "Anyway, there's not a lot of pegasi to regulate the weather there, so it can get pretty fierce. That's what happened. I was out for a hike in the woods with my parents, there was a huge blizzard, and I got separated from them. At first, I was lost and scared. I didn't know what to do.

    "So I wandered around the woods for awhile. I didn't see my parents, or the cabin, or...anything!" He shuddered a bit. "I honestly thought I was going to die. I kept my head, though, and I focused on survival. I managed to stay warm, conserve energy, even got a fire going. I was actually stuck there overnight, but by morning the blizzard cleared and I could recognize my surroundings now that I could see them clearly. From there, it was actually pretty easy getting back.

    "I got my cutie mark when I opened the cabin door. They were in tears when I came in. Then they heard the door open, and they saw me, and in no time at all they'd grabbed me and gave me a huge bear hug. Between my return and my new cutie mark, pretty soon they were in tears for a very different reason." He laughed.

    Andrew smiled faintly. "Always will be a strange idea for me, just knowing what you'll do in life. The universe sure gave you guys all the easy routes, didn't it?"

    Ice Breaker opened his mouth to say something, but then closed it and looked away. Andrew was sure Ice Breaker was wondering the same thing he was: why did ponies have it so much easier than humans, right from the outset? It was as if the universe had stacked the deck before dealing out cards to the two worlds. Andrew wondered if humanity would be good enough at bluffing to overcome its terrible hand.

    When they arrived at the garage, the first thing Andrew noticed was that all of the vehicles had been moved outside. The station's snowmobiles, boxy orange cabs on hulking metal tracks, had been haphazardly parked by the shuttered vehicle entrance.

    As Andrew stepped inside, it became clear why all of the equipment had been moved; the room was nearly full. It had been hastily converted into an assembly hall; folding tables had been carefully moved into a formation that would allow them to seat what was clearly everyone living at the research station. In the center sat eight ponies, Thunderhead among them, encircled by the base's fifty or so human occupants.

    Everyone in the room turned their heads at Andrew and Ice Breaker when they entered, and there seemed to be a collective intake of breath from them Lawson, who had been typing away on a laptop, peered at the two over the rims of his glasses.

    "Ah, good. Have a seat, you two. I'm sure you know where to go. Once you've done that, we can start."

    The two quietly took their seats, Andrew taking the only empty chair and finding himself seated between Richard, a climatologist he wasn't particularly close to; and Diana. Each gave him a brief glance before returning their attention to the ponies in the center.
    Then, Lawson cleared his throat and those in the room turned to face him.

    "I'm sure you all know why we're here, but I'll make this official. Tomorrow's the seventh of March, and that means the boat arrives to ship off the winterers. That leaves the question of what we're going to do with all of you." He looked squarely at the ponies.

    "You got a week's break because the ship had to work around a dozen different navies, but now your time's up. If we decide you're going tomorrow, that's final. You will be taken aboard and left to the mercy of the British government.

    "SAS will be in the ship to make sure you comply. If you resist, they will take you in by force. If you attack them when they arrive, or attack us at any time, they will kill you. You will be given a chance to present your side of this case, but we humans have the final say. Is that clear?"

    The ponies slowly nodded. Some looked indignant. Others, Ice Breaker among them, looked frightened. Thunderhead seemed near tears.

    "Then let's begin." Lawson stood up.

    "Firebrand, you're the leader. Answer for what you've done to Edward Pearson."

    A broad-shouldered, deep red pegasus with a regal, golden mane stood and locked Lawson in his eyes..

    "What we've done to him? He's right there - " He gestured to Thunderhead. " - and as you can see, he's just fine. We saved him from the cancer that you couldn't cure. We gave him wings to fly, something I'm sure you noticed he enjoys doing. And finally, we've given him the ultimate gift - the chance to live in Equestria. Would you mind telling me, Mr. Lawson, what exactly we're supposed to have done wrong here?"

    "That's not Eddy."

    Karen was standing at her desk, her fist pressed against it and her breathing shaky. There was a murmur of assent from the other humans. Firebrand leered at her and opened his mouth to say something.

    "Karen...why..." Sobs punctuated the words; it was Thunderhead. He was staring at the floor, his head hidden behind his vibrant yellow mane.

    "It's...it's me? Why can't you see that? I'm just...I'm just better now...they made me..."

    Karen slammed her fist against the table. "Shut up. I knew him. You aren't him."

    There was a whoosh as Firebrand flared his wings. "How can you say that? Just because he has a new body and his mind is pure, he's dead to you?" His hoof banged against the metal floor.

    Karen was silent, her face wooden. Her only reply was to slowly, with a trembling hand, dig into her pocket. A few seconds later, a flash drive clattered onto her table.

    "Lawson, there's a video on this drive. Play it. Make the ponies see it. Please."

    Lawson adjusted his glasses and leaned over to peer at the drive. "Pass it here."

    Karen threw the drive to him from a few seats over, and he caught it in midair. He slid it into the laptop's USB port with a click, waited, clicked around a bit with the touchpad, waited, then grabbed the laptop by the base so the screen was facing the ponies. A video began to play.
    a
    The recording is timestamped 1:52PM, July 19, 2016. In the same garage the meeting is being held, a man in his early twenties sits by a snowmobile with a broken track, shaking his head. He holds a pneumatic hammer limply in a grease-caked hand, the floor around him littered with other tools.

    "Should've just left the fucking thing in the snow," he says to the camera. The camera operator laughs; it's Karen.

    "Look at this! Look at the track! Just...god damn." The camera zooms in on the broken track, revealing many of the metal plates and rivets to be badly bent.

    "Probably have to weld it..." He turns to face someone off-camera. "No, seriously, Jim, how did you wreck a Sno-Cat this bad?" There's an indistinct reply from the adjacent room, eliciting a laugh from Eddy and Karen.

    The tape abruptly transitions to the next scene, which takes place in the rec room and is timestamped 8:54PM, October 3, 2017. Andrew and Eddy are playing table tennis. The ball is coming towards Eddy, who wildly overswings and stumbles, nearly losing his balance.

    The ball flies out of frame.

    "And, shit, that's game," he says. "That's what I get for playing drunk."

    "Ed, you couldn't win a game sober," Karen says with a laugh. She is holding the camera in this scene as well.

    Andrew sets his paddle down on his side of the table with a chuckle. "So that's why he always drinks before he plays me. Anyway guys, I'm out." He starts for the door.

    "Wait, already?" Eddy sets down his own paddle and glance at the clock on the wall. "It's not even nine yet!"

    "I had a long day," says Andrew. "Besides, you know I don't like being filmed."

    "Come on, Andy, we're just having fun," says Karen. "It's not like my camera's a CCTV."

    "I'm sorry, I just really don't want-"

    Eddy cuts him off, and the camera shifts to him. "Speaking of the CCTVs, that reminds me, you know what I heard they're doing with the footage?"

    Andrew stops in his tracks and turns on the spot. "Well, uh, no, actually."

    Eddy shakes his head. "Craziest damn thing ever, but it makes sense. I heard they're gonna stick them in this massive database-"

    The tape abruptly transitions again. This time the focus is on a cloudy gray pegasus with a yellow mane. This one is timestamped 7:36PM, February 24, 2018. The bottom of the view is obscured by the green felt and wooden siding of the rec room's pool table, which it is sitting on.

    "It's my night to pick, and I'm picking Equilibrium. Don't like it, don't watch it," Andrew says from somewhere off-camera.

    Thunderhead paws at the ground. "But Equilibrium is bloody, it's violent, it's-"

    "It's everything you used to want in a movie." The sentence hangs in the air. Thunderhead's wings flutter.

    "I...I can't, Andrew. I can't."

    The tape makes a final scene change, once again showing the inside of the garage. The timestamp is 3:01PM, February 26, 2018. Thunderhead is on the floor, next to a snowmobile and surrounded by tools. He's holding a screwdriver in his teeth.

    "Any progress?" Karen asks from behind the camera.

    Thunderhead spits the screwdriver out and turns to the camera. "It's been two hours and I still can't get it to lock in."

    "You must be pretty pissed."

    "Yeah, you could say I'm pretty mad."

    "But you're pretty pissed, right?"

    Thunderhead looks away. "I'm...yeah."

    "Then say it."

    Thunderhead shakes his head. "Karen, we've been over this, I can't talk like that. I...I can't say mean things."

    "Oh really? And why'd you decide to stop? I've seen you work with stubborn Sno-Cats before."

    "Look, the Potion changed me. I was wrong, I was bad, I was human."

    "And you're still going to try to pass yourself off as Eddy?"

    "I told you, I am Eddy! Just-"

    "Prove it. Say the words. Tell me you're pissed."

    Thunderhead closes his eyes and inhales sharply.

    "I'm p...." He breathes deeply, then pauses for a few seconds.

    "I'm p-pi...I'm pissed." He shudders and winces as he says it, as if it leaves a bad taste in his mouth. The recording ends.

    For a moment, the only sound in the room was the scrape of the laptop as Lawson rotated so it was facing him again.

    "Don't even try to tell me that pegasus is Eddy," said Karen. "Do not fucking tell me, after you just saw the video, that he's still alive."

    Firebrand stomped his hoof. "I've heard enough! Look at these humans, they're beyond reason! If they'll take us away for uplifting one of them, then I say let them take us away! We're obviously too good for the ones here!"

    "I've got a better idea," said a black unicorn next to him. His forelegs were rigid on his desk and his head was lowered, as if about to charge. "How do we know these guys coming after us are tough enough to beat us? We're at war, aren't we? I say we fight 'em for the station!"

    "Eclipse, stop," said Firebrand. "It's their station, and their rules, and they're free to run it how they like. Watch it, you're acting like a human." He took a breath.

    "Look, he only had a few months anyway. What did we have to lose?"

    "He deserved to know!" Ice Breaker burst out. "You didn't tell them what it'd do to his mind! You didn't even tell me!"

    "I certainly didn't know either," said an ice-blue unicorn with a dial barometer cutie mark and a black mane pulled back in a bun, looking at Firebrand coldly. "Why didn't you tell me? You asked for my vote of confidence after all. You never told me what I'd be endorsing, and I never would've gone through with it if I'd known. But you knew that, didn't you?"

    "Don't you know how much trouble you caused?" asked a rust-brown earth pony through clenched teeth. "This is all your fault! You killed him! I don't care what you say about them or me, he was my friend just the way he was!"

    Firebrand blinked and his eyes flicked between the two. "No, listen, listen! Quantum Leap, Axle Wrench, I was saving his life, he just looks different now! He might not have been alive at all if we hadn't!"

    The discussion continued in this fashion for awhile, the hours wearing on everyone.

    Firebrand and Eclipse stood by what they said, continuing to argue their points; everyone else, with the exception of a few ponies who remained silent, sided against them. Eventually, it became painfully clear that they were just talking in circles and recycling the same points over and over. Finally, Lawson stood up.

    "I think we've heard enough. It's clear that we're going to have to vote individually on each pony for this. I'm going to call your names now, and we will vote on whether you stay. If you get more than half of us, you don't have to leave when the ship comes.

    "Flitter Dance." A pale green pegasus shuffled her hooves nervously. About half of the people raised their hands. The room filled with the sound of whispers as some of the humans deliberated, and by the end a few more had taken her side. Lawson's eyes swept the room, a tally running up in his head as they did so. In the end, Flitter Dance could stay.

    "Sky Aurora." About half of the hands went up, but not enough. She would have to leave.

    "Axle Wrench." Jim's hand shot into the air as soon as the name was called. Many others followed in short order, including Andrew's and Diana's. Andrew could tell before the count finished that he'd get to stay.

    "Nurse Tendertouch." A few vouched for her, only to quickly lower their hands when they realized they were a small minority.

    "Quantum Leap." She was allowed to stay by a wide margin, mainly thanks to the unanimous vote of the scientists present. Andrew realized they were the only ones who had spent a significant amount of time with her.

    "Ice Breaker.” Lawson didn't even have to count; there couldn't have been more than ten hands lowered.

    "Eclipse." No hands went up.

    "Firebrand." No hands went up.

    "Thunderhead."

    This was the moment the entire room had been anticipating and dreading. At first no one moved save for Thunderhead, who only clenched his eyes shut.

    It was true, even now Andrew could barely stand to look at Thunderhead. It wasn't as if any of this was his fault, though. He was just an innocent victim, a pegasus who had risen from a human and didn't know why people he considered his friends were repulsed by him. A pariah because of how he came into the world. But at the same time, he was just a mockery of Eddy. An insult to his memory. He shouldn't be here...should he?

    Seeing traces of tears in Thunderhead's eyes, he raised his hand.

    He wasn't the first, and he was far from the last; all around him hands raised, even more than had for Ice Breaker. Karen's understandably, did not, but so many others did. Among those who vouched for him were Lawson, whose face had the faintest shadow of a sympathetic look; Jim, who seemed to be looking at him proudly; and Diane, whose narrow figure strained against the edge of her desk. Finally, Lawson's voice clinched the moment.

    "It's decided. Thunderhead, you can stay. That concludes the meeting."

    Thunderhead's eyes and mouth popped open in shock. Chairs scuffed against the floor as everyone pulled themselves away from their desks. Many turned to leave, but some had gone over to visit with the ponies they had vouched for - consoling those who had not gathered enough votes or congratulating those who had. Thunderhead was difficult to talk to, since he was letting the tears he had been holding back flow freely.

    Meanwhile, Lawson's attention returned to the laptop. Tabs popped up on the screen and vanished almost as quickly, needing only a flick of his eyes. Then, suddenly, he stopped dead and stared at the screen.

    Something happening?" asked a middle-aged man, leaning to look over his shoulder.

    Lawson tilted the computer over to give him a better view. Once the man registered what he was reading, Lawson spoke loudly enough for the room to hear.

    "They're hitting the bubble."

    CHAPTER 17


    Russell Kenye eased the Valkiri rocket battery to a stop in the vast, grassy plain and peered out the driver-side window, feeling the cool night air touch his face. As soon as he stopped, his gunner leapt out of the cab and scrambled to work its jacks into place so that its twenty-four long, slender steel barrels would be aimed squarely at their target.

    All around them, the yellow headlights of more Valkiris cast their glares about the field as the other crews made the same preparations, all of them trailed closely by supply trucks packed to the brim with more rockets. Tanks snared around and surged headlong in front of them, grass crunching beneath their treads. Above the commotion, squadron of fighters screamed by.

    Easily fifteen miles away but engulfing the entire horizon, the white, shimmering barrier shone an eerie pale light on them all.

    Russell heard the jacks clank into place, followed shortly by the Valkiri's passenger-side door opening and a broad-shouldered young man in a beige army uniform squeezing into the seat next to him. It was the truck's gunner, Pieter.

    "Okay, we're set. Soon as we get the word, we're letting 'em fly." He was staring at the radio.

    "About damn time," said Russell. "Been waiting for this for months." He was shaking, certainly with anticipation, but also with fear; there was a distinct jitteriness to it.

    "Nervous?"

    Russell swallowed and adjusted the straps of his helmet. The absurd idea popped into his head that he was too young to be here, even though he was in his early twenties and Pieter, who didn't look a day older than eighteen, wasn't complaining. "Huh? No, I'm f-fine."

    Grinning, Pieter shook his head, his eyes not leaving the radio. "Come on, man, my drill sergeant was scarier than this. They're not even shooting back. You gonna puss out? You'd better not puss out."

    "Look, I'm staying put." Russel's hands clamped onto the steering wheel. "We're fighting aliens, I think I'm allowed to be a bit nervous."

    "You're a Cape Town boy, aren't you?" Pieter didn't have to wait for an answer; Russell's grimace said everything.

    "Shit, you should be glad you're here. You could've been starving in a refugee camp, instead they gave you a gun and a chance to pop some ponies. Don't know what I did to get stuck with a scared kid, though."

    Lucky was a funny way of putting it; he'd very nearly been press-ganged into service. He wasn't a soldier by any means, and joining the army was very close to the bottom of the list of things he wanted to do in his life. The only reason he'd signed up was because by the time the recruiters had swarmed his camp, spending another minute there was even lower. By the time he could see every bone of his ribcage, being given a week's training and thrown into the line of fire in exchange for food and a warm bed had seemed like a good deal.

    Russell's was about to say this when he heard popping noises from somewhere ahead and saw a few orange pinpricks dot the sky. Mortars, from the sound of it. The men firing them were miles away, but compared to him they might as well have been staring the bubble point-blank. Was it his imagination, or had they made it flicker a bit?

    "Look, you think I'm not gonna fight back when I lost my whole damn town?"

    "I didn't say that. I said you're a scared kid. Scared kids don't make good soldiers."

    "We'll see," Russell said simply. As soon as he finished, the radio flared to life, and almost before he had time to register what was happening, Pieter slammed the fire button.
    Russell jammed in his earplugs just in time. He reflexively ducked his head as the rockets screamed barely ten feet behind him, and for several seconds, he was aware only of the ringing they left in his ears. Then his hearing finally began to return and he lifted his head. Even the fireballs erupting and smoke billowing from his Valkiri and those around him, and the unceasing sharp cracks piercing the night as the rockets burst from their tubes, couldn't compare to what he saw when he looked up.

    The sky was crisscrossed with dozens of smoke patterns, lit up by the trails of the rockets as they slashed through it like gleaming knives. They seemed to come from everywhere, but all their white-hot fury converged on the massive shell ahead.

    Then the echoes faded and the Valkiris fell silent. It seemed to have lasted an eternity, but a glance at the clock told Russell it hadn't been more than a minute.

    "Load rockets, move, move!" The order was barked from somewhere in the smoke-choked field almost as soon as the last missiles were away. Russell could hear a pair of crewmen sliding the first rocket of the next batch off of the rack behind him, followed shortly by it scraping against the tube as they aligned it and eased it into place. One down, twenty-three to go. He remembered from his training that it would be nearly ten minutes until the Valkiri was ready to fire its next salvo, and hoped Pieter would be distracted enough not to talk to him. He wasn't.

    "Watch it! Look ahead! Ten seconds, they're gonna hit!" Pieter seemed to have forgotten his contempt of Russell and was leaning forward in his seat as much as the cramped cabin allowed. Russell held his breath and counted the seconds.

    Right when Pieter had predicted, the sky ahead boiled in the flares of their explosions. There were hundreds of them, maybe thousands, certainly too many for Russell to count, and their hammerblows echoed across the field as their firelight seared it.

    The bubble reacted to this. White waves rippled across it where the missiles hit, as if they were stones cast into a pond, and for the briefest moment Russell saw long, thin cracks, like spider webs, flicker across it. He stared somberly, hoping with all his might that it was breaking. He was shaken out of his trance by Pieter's laughing.

    "Beautiful. Beautiful. You see that? That's what life's all about!" His statement was punctuated by another, much smaller round of fiery bursts. Russell guessed they were missiles from fighter jets.

    "You think we're breaking that thing?" He figured it was an innocuous enough question.

    "Like an egg, Cape Town Boy, like a fucking egg. Don't forget, it's not just us hitting it. Last I heard, those damn Americans had four carriers' worth of planes bombing it, there's God knows how many missile cruisers out there shooting, the Russians had subs torpedoing it...or maybe that was the Chinese. Can't keep shit straight with two dozen countries all going at it." He laughed. "'Course, we're the only ones on the ground."

    "Weren't we getting support from Europe?"

    "Yeah, planes sitting miles away. Apparently if we get torn up here on the ground, they'll just torch everything from a safe distance and act like they're the real heroes."

    "You don't sound too bothered by that."

    "You're right, I'm not. 'Cause this is our fight, and our country. Us? We're the only ones brave enough to fight some horses face-to-face."

    "Didn't Namibia lose cities to the bubble too? Aren't they fighting on the ground like we are?"

    "Fuck cares about them?"

    From behind them came the cry. "Rockets loaded!" Pieter dropped the subject immediately.

    -----

    In a large, ornate, circular room in Canterlot's castle, the princesses Celestia and Luna sat surrounded by glowing orbs. They dominated the room, clustered into large groups that nearly touched the room's high ceiling, their ghostly white glows exposing pale marble where the moonlight couldn't reach.

    Every few seconds, a dozen or so of the orbs would fly from their positions and line themselves up obediently in front of Celestia or Luna, who would look them over somberly before allowing them to hover back to their original positions. Examined closely, some of the orbs showed nothing but a tranquil, softly-lit night sky. In the rest, the view was scarred by flickers of orange. Occasionally, an orb revealed only a blazing inferno.

    This had been the relentless pattern, hour after hour. As soon as one orb calmed, another would flare up. At first, the sisters had tried to monitor the explosions individually, trying their level best to gauge how large they were and where they were coming from. They gave up when they realized the answers were "too large" and "everywhere," and they searched with increasing desperation for a chance to stem the tide. It became abundantly clear that unless they were willing to take out a carrier or a few missile boats in a suicide attack, they wouldn't get one.

    Luna's voice broke the silence. "We cannot keep this up, Sister. You know what we have to do, or it is our subjects who will pay the price."

    Far overhead, above the skylight that was the room's only exposure to the outside, the barrier began crackling dangerously. At once the sisters looked up, their horns glowed, and a pair of brilliant energy beams shot into the sky. A second later, the barrier quieted.

    Stumbling slightly, Celestia had to catch her breath before she could respond. "I'm afraid you're right, Luna." Slowly, she hung her head. "I had such high hopes, coming to this world. I offered the humans everything. Peace. Wealth. Safety. Friendship. Brand new, physically fit bodies that would allow them wonderful powers and let them survive for centuries." Her head dipped lower. "Why? Where did I go wrong? I told them their problem, I gave them a perfect solution, but...but they..."

    Celestia heard Luna walk to her, but was still surprised when she lifted her chin with a hoof and looked into her eyes sympathetically. "Tia, it is not your fault," she said softly. "You made the offer. They were the ones who rejected it, even though you did everything to ensure they would not."

    Celestia looked away. "And even some of our own ponies have turned against us. I...I just don't understand it. Can you even remember the last time that happened? They've always trusted and revered us,always. And time and time again we proved that they were right to do so, that we were destined to rule ponykind and lead them to peace and prosperity. What is it about these humans, that some of our ponies could form an organization that doubted us, when all we were doing was helping both our people and those of another world?"

    Luna turned and walked so her sister was facing her. "What's done is done. The Elements of Harmony will cast the spell, and then there will no longer be a problem. Those who have lost faith in us are few in number. As the humans fade into a memory, they will become fewer. In time, things will again be as they once were." Her face became serious. "Have you given Shining Armor the word?"

    Celestia nodded. "Every available Royal Unicorn Guard is ready. We've told them where to teleport. In only a few more minutes, they'll move out."

    "And have you told Twilight?"

    There was an uncomfortable silence.

    "Tia, you know there's a good chance they won't make it back. The only reason you even authorized it was because we need time to get our ponies out of South Africa. She should at least get to see her brother for possibly the last time."

    Celestia looked down and away. "I...she can't have that on her mind. She needs to concentrate, the spell needs to work, or this will all be for nothing."

    She turned to face the doorway and called out, "Twilight, it's time."

    For a moment there was only the sound of hoofsteps as Twilight apprehensively entered the room and bowed.

    "Are the other element bearers ready?" asked Celestia.

    "Yes, Princess."

    "Are you ready?"

    "I...I think so. It looks like a difficult spell, and the humans didn't give me much time to learn it. But...I can do it."

    Celestia smiled. "I know you can." In spite of her praise, Twilight lowered her head. a

    "Twilight? Is something wrong?"

    "Princess...this was all my fault, wasn't it? If I hadn't blown that interview way back then...maybe they wouldn't have thought we were their enemies."

    Celestia and Luna looked at each other for a moment, then smiled and turned back to Twilight.

    "Not at all," said Celestia gently. "Knowing what we know about the humans now, it was really only a matter of time. In the end, we found a species we just couldn't befriend with kindness."

    The barrier crackled loudly, causing Twilight to jump back and grimace at the skylight. Once again Celestia and Luna sent a pulse from their horns, and once again the barrier calmed.

    Then Celestia staggered and nearly fell over, after which looked slightly desperately at Twilight. Twilight was looking back at her, eyes wide with concern and fear. She took a few tentative steps towards Celestia, but was stopped by her voice.

    "We've wasted enough time. Hurry. Before it's too late."

    Twilight stopped, gulped, nodded, and galloped out of the room.

    -----

    Russell removed his earplugs and lifted his head, having lost count of how many times he'd done so. Fifteen? Twenty? They'd had to wait for their supply trucks to come back once. That took awhile; he might have dozed off during that time. He did know that at one point he suddenly got an elbow to the ribs from Pieter, telling him to hurry up and get the plugs in. A glance at the clock told him that it had been six hours since he had stopped his Valkiri. The sun had risen, and its light painted the field a stark yellow, muting the barrier's ominous white glow.

    In that time, Pieter had been proven wrong about one thing; the European aircraft weren't hanging back at the base. They had joined the South African fighters and bombers not long after his unit had fired their second salvo, and now it seemed there was never a moment when the magical wall in front of him wasn't being hit by some sort of explosive.

    Next to him, Pieter was on the edge of his seat.

    "Hey! Hey, Cape Town Boy! You think this is it? You think we'll finally blow the damn thing up?"

    Russell swallowed some black coffee from a cup on the dashboard and shrugged, pointedly ignoring Pieter's unflattering name for him. "Hell if I know. It's almost daylight and it keeps doing the same thing. It cracks and it gets wavy, and then it's back to normal."

    "Fucking thing. Shoot anything else with a rocket, it'll either blow up or be fine. Usually it'll blow up."

    Russell was quietly counting down the seconds until the rockets hit the bubble, but right at the moment when they should have impacted, the barrier flashed brighter than ever before.
    It was as if day had come in an instant, and Russell briefly wondered if a nuclear missile had been dropped on it. But there was no heat or blast. Instead, there was just silence, followed by the sound of a thousand thunderclaps as the barrier shattered like glass.

    Russell and Pieter sat there in stunned silence for a moment, their eyes not registering what they were seeing. Pieter recovered first, cheering loudly and pumping his fist, banging it
    against the truck's roof in his excitement. He didn't seem to care.

    "Floor it, floor it! We're gonna show those horses who this planet belongs to!"

    Russell's stomach knotted, and he suddenly realized how much he'd liked hitting something that wasn't dying or hitting back.

    CHAPTER 18


    "Shit, they were ready for us."

    The sky was the color of steel and raindrops spattered nonstop against the Valkiri; it was eerily cold and gloomy for a South African summer morning. The truck sloshed across the plain, its wipers clunking as they made a feeble attempt to keep the windshield dry.

    "Doesn't even begin to cover it," Pieter said. "We're half an hour in the old bubble and the ground's soaked through. Look, we're on grass and we're still halfway to axle-deep in water."

    "I didn't see any pegasi, though."

    "Like they'd stick around once we could actually hit them. They were probably dumping rain here ever since we declared war."

    "Guess the European birds aren't doing shit, then."

    "Just means more for us."

    Russell glanced out of the driver's side window and vaguely saw the shape of a short, stocky infantryman slogging through the wet field next to them, holding his automatic rifle steady even as he struggled to push forward through the rain. He was part of a platoon they'd met up with after the bubble burst, and Russell was to make sure his truck didn't outrun them. As deep as the water was, he didn't think he could if he tried.

    "What the hell are we supposed to do now, anyway?" asked Russell. "We didn't have any rockets loaded when they told us to move forward. It would've been a lot easier to reload back where it was dry."

    "That's 'cause the higher-ups are full of shit." Pieter grinned out of one side of his mouth, revealing a chipped canine tooth. "First rule of the army, kid. You're learning fast."

    "Kind of like how they're telling us to dump rockets all over a village?"

    "I thought you wanted revenge for Cape Town?"

    "I do, but-"

    "You'd better not be going fuckin' soft on me. You're a soldier now. Killing's our business. Right there in the job description."

    "Killing soldiers is in our job description. That's what we're supposed to do. I joined to take out that barrier and take out the Princesses. Not civilians."

    "They're horses!"

    "They can't fight back!"

    "They wiped out your fuckin' city! You know what it's like!"

    "That's why I don't wanna do it to someone else."

    "Quit being such a bi-"

    The truck suddenly lurched forward and dipped as a front wheel suddenly sank into the mud, throwing both of them against the dashboard. Once he caught his breath, Russell threw the gearshift into reverse and stepped on the gas pedal, only for the wheels to spin uselessly.

    "Son of a bitch! I can't drive out of this," said Russell. "We'll have to get the winch."

    "Not a fucking chance," said Pieter. "Nothing to anchor it to. We'll need the towbar for this one. I'll let the rest of the unit know. If we're lucky there's a Ratel nearby to do the job."

    Russell hoped so. The Ratels were hulking, armored things, much heavier than his Valkiri, but with six wheels to carry them they'd spread their weight more evenly. Hopefully that would get them through the mud.

    Pieter talked on the radio for a few minutes, and following the conversation, Russell realized they were in luck. A Ratel unit was on its way.

    He heard water splashing nearby, followed by a rap on his window. Seeing a young, unevenly shaven, fair-skinned infantryman, rifle slung over his back and water spilling down his helmet, he popped open his door.

    "The Ratels'll be here in about twenty minutes. 'Til then, it looks like you'll sit and we'll soak." He stifled a yawn.

    Russell nodded. "Don't know what they were thinking, making us drive through this shit. Word is this storm'll go away in time just like any would."

    The infantryman just laughed. "I hear you, man. I thought we'd be fighting aliens, not out hiking in the rain."

    "Don't worry, we'll blow shit up soon enough," said Pieter, having just put down the radio unit. "Besides, I'd say we're getting a pretty good deal, wouldn't you? We get our land back and all we have to do is roll through it."

    "Really, I can't believe it's so easy." said the infantryman.

    "I'm not about to complain about easy."

    Pieter shook his head. "Cape Town boys. See what I have to put up with?" he asked, in mock frustration.

    The infantryman smiled at Russell. "Oh, you're from Cape Town too? Actually, I think I might've seen you once. Which camp did they recruit you from?"

    "It was-"

    To the left, an orange fireball erupted in the distance with a thunderous bang, followed by pieces of metal flying high into the air before scattering and crashing into the water. The infantryman outside ducked his head reflexively, disappearing from the window's view. Russell's heart sank as he realized that, based on its position, it must have been a Valkiri in their unit. A second later, there was yelling and gunfire coming from the direction of the explosion.

    "What the hell's going on?!"

    There was another explosion, this one to their right and close enough to send debris fragments raining down at them, one of which bounced off of the roof and dented it. Then, in an instant, the sound of gunfire was all around them, a hurricane that they were caught in the eye of.

    "Get out!" It was Pieter, who had just taken a pair of pistols from the glove box and tossed one to Russell. He caught it by reflex. "I don't know how they're blowing up the Valks, but get out or you'll be next!" He'd barely finished his sentence before popping open his door and diving into the mud.

    Russell followed suit, kicking open his door and jumping out. In his haste he fell on top of his pistol as he splashed into the chilly, soupy water, and in one terrible instant he felt the gun sink into the mud beneath his weight. Undertrained and unprepared as he was, he still realized he had probably just made his only weapon useless. Cursing his thoughtlessness, he released his grip on the gun, pulled his hand out of the mud, and pushed himself up.

    He'd just gotten to his feet when the rocket tubes on the Valkiri burst into flames, and in one heart-stopping instant, he was very grateful that it had been left without ammunition. Next to him, the infantryman he'd been talking to staggered away from the truck and quickly doused a flame on his own sleeve, then took aim and fired several times at something Russell didn't see. Somewhere ahead there was a splash, and the man slowly lowered his rifle.

    "Unicorn," he turned and told Russell. "Gold armor. They sent in their best. They bleed and die just like we do. Looked confused, I think he's the one who tried to cook off your ammo. Get down, leave this to us."

    Not inclined to argue, Russell turned and fell into the muddy water again, crawling forward so he was next to his Valkiri's front wheel. Ahead of him, a pair of infantrymen was wading towards his truck, frantically pointing their rifles back and forth and checking over each other's shoulders.

    Suddenly, one of the soldier's rifles glowed yellow and wrenched itself free of his grip. He was caught off-balance and fell face-first into the mud, just in time for the rifle to spin around and unload a burst into his companion's neck. The man staggered and fell next to him, where he lay unmoving. The first, disoriented and not realizing what had happened, began trying to pull himself to his feet. His face was still in the water when the rifle swiveled and fired once into the back of his head.

    Russell's eyes darted back and forth frantically. Where was the attacker? Did they see him? He hadn't yet calmed down when he heard the sound of static discharge from behind the truck, followed by a groan and a splash. The other Cape Town refugee, whose name he'd never learned, had just died. A moment later there was another static discharge sound, and another man fell next to him.

    With horror, he realized he was becoming surrounded. His breathing shallow, he tried to push himself deeper in the mud in a desperate attempt to hide from the enemy, but he could hear the royal guard behind him, sloshing through the water toward him. Had it really been less than a minute ago that everything was going so well, that his biggest worry had been how long he'd have to wait for rockets?

    Then, from the opposite side of the truck, came the roar of an engine. The unicorn turned on the spot, startled, and he gasped at what he saw. Then came the rattling of heavy machine gun fire from the same direction. It was a short burst, and soon a bullet found its mark; the unicorn stumbled and fell, fur and armor spattered with blood and without so much as a cry.

    Opposite his side of the Valkiri, pale yellow headlight beams danced across the muddy water. He was surprised to think that the Ratels had arrived already, but peering underneath his truck, he saw not the six wheels of a Ratel but the eight wheels of a Rooikat scout car. The armored vehicle stood alone in the field, the wake it had left as it crashed through the water still fading. Its heavy main gun was sitting idle but its twin machine guns swept back and forth, challenging any of the Royal Guard to appear.

    None did. Russell's Valkiri was once again the eye of a furious storm. The sound that finally broke the silence was one of the scout car's gunners yelling out that all was clear. A moment after he heard it, he saw what the rain and mist and distance turned into phantoms, indistinct shapes seeming to rise from the ground itself. They were the remaining human soldiers, beginning to pull themselves out of the mud.
    Wearily, they started pushing through the water toward the scout car, and Russell shakily began to pull himself up to follow. For the moment, it was silent save for the splashing of water and the thump-thump-thumpof far-off machine gun fire. The scout car was only one vehicle, and they would probably soon be back in the battle that still surrounded them, but right now he was just glad to have its protection. Having finally had a moment to pause and catch his breath, he looked to his left, then to his right, peering through the mist to see who else had survived. He counted only four other soldiers out of the two dozen that had been there; Pieter did not seem to be among them.

    He had just walked around his Valkiri, which was now emitting smoke but no fire, when a horribly familiar glow surrounded one of the scout car's gunners, and a second later he was yanked bodily into the air. The other soldiers realized what was happening before he hit the ground, and in an instant they were scrambling in the opposite direction, some shouting profanities or prayers.

    Still close to his truck, Russell ducked behind it and watched the scene unfold. The other gunner, realizing what was happening, pulled something loose from his own machine gun. He'd barely finished when he, too, was tossed into the sky, and his machine gun swiveled to cut him apart in midair, but nothing happened. He had torn out the weapon's ammunition belt. That was one less thing to worry about; well-trained as they were, Russell was confident the Royal Guard didn't know how to load machine guns.

    The remaining gun fired a burst into the helpless gunner, ripping him apart, and turned back to the soldiers in the field and began firing again. Russell watched in horror, expecting them all to fall helplessly. Gunfire tore the air and bullets splashed into the mud like raindrops and the other soldiers scattered in every direction, charging through the water in their desperation to get as far away from the scout car as possible. Furiously as it was firing, though, the machine gun had not hit any of them; its shots went wide and it swiveled wildly. Russell found himself daring to hope they'd all get away.

    "Hey! Over there! He's over there!"

    In a second, the soldiers all whipped around to see where the one who called was pointing. In another, they turned to where he'd indicated and raised their rifles. Finally, muzzle flashes dotted the field as the air once again crackled with gunfire.

    They failed; one man's rifle flew out of his arms, turned in the air, and shot him between the eyes. Russell cringed as his body fell into the mud, and the rifle dropped on top of it. The remaining soldiers were plainly in a losing battle, and after they fell, he would be next. But there was nothing he could do, unless...

    He eyed the machine gun on the scout car that still had ammo loaded. If he went for it, he'd probably die, but if he waited, he'd die for sure, along with the others.

    Before he could seize up or talk himself out of it, he was stomping through the water and towards the scout car as fast as his legs would carry him. It couldn't have been more than a hundred yards away, but as exhausted and terrified as he was, it might as well have been over the horizon.

    He didn't slow down, not even when he heard one of the soldiers to his left gurgle as (from what Russell could guess) his bayonet was jammed into his throat. Two still alive. The scout car was close now, a hulking mass of metal that loomed ahead of him, but still not close enough. Another gunshot, another cry, another splash. Just one, if he could save just one...

    He reached the scout car and leaped, grabbing at the metal plates above the rear wheels and hoisting himself on top of the vehicle in one smooth motion. In his haste, he banged his knee against the railing around the gunner's seat as he tried to dive into it, and fell in with his leg smarting. He didn't care; he had made it to his prize.

    He gripped the machine gun and peered down the sights, looking for the surviving soldier and any sign of a unicorn. He found the first; overcome by fear, the soldier had thrown away his rifle and was stumbling in the opposite direction, alternating between cursing and shouting "No!" To Russell's horror, he saw his rifle rise from the water behind him, bayonet gleaming wickedly. Not knowing where the unicorn was and having no time to find out, he swiveled the gun in what he thought was his general direction and hammered the trigger.

    The gun roared and bucked and its ammo belt shook as its rounds kicked up mud all across the field before him. If he was hitting the unicorn, he couldn't tell, but that didn't matter; he saw the other soldier's gun stop glowing and splash into the mud.

    Then he found himself hoisted into the air as the other gunners had been, and was gripped by a sudden helpless terror as his machine gun glowed gold and began rotating to face him. There was nothing he could do, he was going to be shot like a practice target, and then the soldier he'd tried to save would be gutted with his own bayonet. The long, black barrel was pointing at him now, marking him for death with its cold, steel gaze. He clenched his eyes shut, and the next instant seemed to last a torturous eternity.

    He wasn't expecting to feel anything after that, much less the sting of water going up his nose and the foul taste of mud in his mouth as he fell to the ground. For a minute all he could do was lift his head just enough to cough and sputter, confused but grateful to be alive.

    "You okay, kid?"

    He blinked a few times, sneezed, and looked up, seeing the soldier he had rescued staring down at him, ashen-faced, and holding a hand out to him. He nodded and grabbed the hand of the soldier, who hefted his numbed body out of the mud and onto his feet. After stumbling, then finding his balance, he breathed his thanks.

    "Least I could do, you saved my ass back there." He looked around frantically, his eyes wide and his breath unsteady. "Dead. Everyone in the unit's dead. We...we're the only ones left. Us, and the crazy son of a bitch who saved us both."

    Russell could only gather the strength to nod. The soldier nodded back, turned, and started walking away, motioning him to follow. He unsteadily walked along with him, limping slightly, in the direction he'd been firing the machine gun. Ahead he saw a human figure hunched over a limp body. A limp pony body. The human was taking some kind of tool to it. A knife. He was cutting something off of it. The horn, he was hacking off the horn. There was a snap. He held the horn high over his head and yelled, as if he had just won some sort of macabre trophy.

    As Russell got closer, only vaguely aware of the growing rumble of vehicle engines behind him, he saw it was Pieter.

    CHAPTER 19

    Thanks to Warwolf and Heretical Zed for prereading this. - Starman Ghost
    ---

    "Antonio! Antonio, wake up! You need to see this!" Evening Star pressed her hooves on the side of his bed, her tail swishing wildly.

    Antonio's eyes popped open. He glanced at the clock, looked at Evening Star, and groaned. She knew he wouldn't like being woken up this early on a Saturday, but this was important.

    "Wha-"

    "The news! It's all over the blogs!"

    Antonio shook his head. "Evening, it's six in the-"

    "Please, just look at this! It's the war! It's news about the war!" She took her hooves off of the bed and began pacing back and forth next to the bed, her eyes telling him to hurry up.

    With agonizing slowness, he tossed aside his sheets and eased himself off of the bed, nearly falling over. As soon as he was standing, Evening Star was back at the computer, the mouse and her horn glowing red as she switched tabs to a blog and started loading an embedded video.

    "Okay, here, watch-"

    Antonio mumbled that he'd be there in a minute, walked past her, stumbled to the counter, and tore open the packaging of a toaster pastry. Evening stared at him, and had Antonio looked at her face he would have seen equal measures impatience and annoyance; having been refreshing Cokebird's news blog all morning waiting for the video, even a small delay was agonizing. He didn't look at her though; instead, he threw the pastry in the microwave, pushed a few buttons, and took it out a few seconds later. He bit into it, chewed, and swallowed. Then, finally, he sat at the foot of his bed next to the desk housing his computer.

    "Okay, what was it you wanted to show me?"

    Evening Star jabbed a hoof at the screen as she clicked the video's "play" button. On the screen, a large column of South African soldiers marched down a dirt road that ran between two rows of modest wooden, thatch-roofed shops, built in a distinct colorful Equestrian style. Beneath the overcast sky, some earlier heavy rainfall had turned the road into a mire of mud and large, grimy puddles. At the bottom was a header reading "SOUTH AFRICA RECLAIMED, SURRENDER DEMAND ISSUED."

    "Already?!"

    "Shh! Keep watching."

    A young woman began speaking. "At 1:17PM, Greenwich Meridian Time, United Nations forces met the last of the enemy resistance in the South African territory that had been occupied by the enemy after an offensive lasting just one week.

    "In the initial assault, South African forces suffered heavy casualties despite a large technological advantage and minimal enemy presence. However, after the pegasus-created storms that had been plaguing the area ever since the bubble reached it abated, EU air support quickly turned the tide in our favor. The last contact with enemy forces was just fifteen minutes after the first bombing runs."
    The video cut to a squad of South African soldiers kicking in the door of a small home, rifles at the ready as they swept the rooms. When they passed the bedroom, the tall, mirrored wardrobe was wide open, a lone sock spilling out of it. As they entered the kitchen, a pair of half-eaten meals was visible on the table. Many of the squat wooden drawers and cabinets were open, and fruit and vegetables were scattered on the counters and floor.

    "Troops reclaiming the captured territory have so far found the pony settlements there to be unexpectedly abandoned, by all indications within the last day. Based on current estimates, thousands of ponies have been evacuated to an unknown destination with remarkable speed."

    A babyfaced, heavyset soldier picked up an apple from the counter and bit into it. "Still good to eat," he said through a mouthful of fruit, eliciting a laugh from the others.

    The video cut to the deck of a ship, the sky a gloomy gray. A pair of armed, olive drab helicopters hovered above, the wind whipping from their blades making the American flag on the ship's deck flap wildly. The camera followed them as they dove forward and flew off into the distance. "Meanwhile, the combined United Nations naval and air forces braved horrific storms to defeat Equestria's pegasi in the South Atlantic. Multiple ships, including troop transports and missile cruisers were sunk in the ensuing fight, and dozens of aircraft were shot down. Despite the unexpectedly fierce resistance, the UN ultimately succeeded in forcing enemy pegasi to retreat to mainland Equestria.

    "Preparations for an invasion are now underway, but with the heavy losses UN forces have faced in just the last few hours, commanders have decided to employ a new strategy. Thousands of long-range missiles have been loaded and aimed at Equestria, and are ready to fire at targets across the country a moment's notice."

    The video cut to a fair-skinned, thin-haired elderly military commander, multiple ribbons and medals adorning his uniform.

    "It's been a week since we started our counterattack and so many of our men have already fallen. Based on casualty estimates for an assault on Equestria, I believe that massed missile fire beforehand on spots that are likely to most aid the enemy war effort could save hundreds of thousands, possibly millions, of human lives."

    The video cut back to the ship's deck. "Thanks to an effort largely spearheaded by U.S. diplomat Rowe, the United Nations members have agreed to delay invasion plans by twenty-four hours to give Equestria's leadership time to respond to a surrender demand. The current terms of surrender do not call for punitive measures against the Equestrian people, but demand that Celestia and Luna step down from their positions and face an international tribunal. As of now the royal sisters face charges of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and crimes against peace largely due to the effects of their expanding barrier.

    "The reclamation of Namibia is still underway, but there seems to be no enemy or pony civilian presence there either."

    The video ended, and for a moment neither said anything. It was Antonio who broke the silence.

    "Well, that's a good thing, isn't it? I mean, it sounds like the war's almost over, and it doesn't look like Celestia's winning." He popped the last corner of his pastry into his mouth.

    "Antonio..." Evening Star lowered her head. "I don't like the sound of the human plan. I saw some cruise missile test videos online. It...it wasn't pretty. Thousands of those, going off all over Equestria...?" She inhaled deeply, her breath shaky. "That's more missiles than Celestia has bases, more than she has soldiers, in fact. Where are they planning on hitting? Railways? Factories? Those are in cities, and the cities will get hit too. Missiles aren't picky, any ponies unlucky enough to be by targets will get caught in the blast too. I don't want any more of your soldiers to die, but it's not..." She trailed off before taking a deep breath.

    "If those fire, a lot of ponies will die. Some of them just because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time. And they might be my friends, or my family. I wanted the UN to win this war, but not like this. Not like this.

    "And I helped Earth. I leaked what I knew onto the internet. If that attack happens, and innocent ponies die from it..." She shivered. "I didn't want this. I wanted to help Earth, I wanted peace, I wanted to make sure Celestia couldn't destroy you. I don't know...did I do the right thing?"

    She looked at Antonio, tear in the corner of her eyes, expecting him to say something. What exactly that was, though, she wasn't sure. Antonio looked like he had surmised as much, although judging his eyes wandering everywhere except her, he couldn't think of anything. Finally, staring at the sunlit blinds of his small window, he spoke.

    "Celestia'll surrender though, won't she? Like, she knows what the missiles would do, I'll bet. There's no way she'd let that happen to her ponies. Didn't you say that yourself?"

    Evening Star nodded slightly. "I did, and I believed it when I said it. But with everything that's happened recently, I'm not so sure. I never would've thought she would've invaded another world and tried to wipe out the people living there, either. I don't know if she's looking after us like we've always been told, or if she really raises the sun, or if she's the divine ruler she's always said to be. I just don't know."

    "Well..." Antonio shrugged. "I don't know. We'll have to wait and see."

    Evening Star, not knowing how to respond to such a useless remark, turned back to the computer. She heard Antonio step into the kitchen nook again, followed shortly by the familiar flick of a lighter. Her head whipped around to face him, and she looked at him in exasperation.

    "Look, please, not in here, okay? I told you, the ventilation's bad, I just can't deal with smoke, especially not right now."

    Antonio looked at the lit cigarette between his fingers, then back at Evening Star, seeming more confused than anything else. "Look, it's my apartment, I'm just having a cigarette. Can I do that? Is it that much to ask? I've been letting you live with me for free, I never complained even though you're on my computer so much I barely have a chance to use it, I don't think I'm asking too much here." He punctuated his last sentence with a jab of his cigarette.

    "You-" She blinked, then stared at him flatly. "Look. I live here too, and unlike you, I can't just step outside whenever I want. Do you realize I haven't stepped out of that door in weeks? I can't. If I do, they'll take me to a camp. You know that. Have you thought about what that's like? I'm stuck here, and I'm passing the time the only way I really can."

    Antonio lowered the cigarette, now staring at her impassively. He clearly wanted to say something, and judging by his frown it was something she wouldn't like. Apparently, though, he couldn't find the words.

    "Listen to me," Evening Star said briskly, "I get it. You wanted to pay me back for saving you in that alley, maybe you didn't think it all the way through. You didn't think about what it'd be like having two people living in an apartment that's small even for one. You didn't think about what it'd be like never, ever being alone when you were home. You didn't think about how much it'd cost to support someone for free. I could tell, I saw how you got more and more irritated as the days went by.

    "Please understand, I really am grateful for what you've done. I have no idea what happens in those camps. For all I know I could've had my horn hacked off by now. I need you to cooperate with me, though. If I get caught for any reason, they'll take me off to a camp, they'll know you were hiding me, and there's no telling what they'll do to you. Like it or not, we're stuck together for..." She waved a hoof.

    "...I don't know how long. We'll have to do what we can to make this work.

    "Oh, by the way, I'm 'hogging your computer' to help your people against PER, so are you really going to complain about that? Did you hear about their latest attack? Did you know just yesterday I got a comment personally thanking me from someone because they avoided a poisoned drink based on my advice?"

    Antonio had been staring the whole time, and Evening Star had the distinct feeling he hadn't really been listening, because her words had no obvious effect on him aside from making him more irritated.
    Finally, he spoke, rapidly and unevenly. "Look, I...I'm doing all this for you. How can you act like it's...like it's all my fault? Just, all I want is some time..." He took a deep drag from his cigarette, at least taking care to turn his head away before blowing his smoke. "I'm heading out for a bit. Bye."

    Evening Star decided not to try to talk to him until he'd had some time to calm down, so she said nothing as he stepped into the bathroom. He emerged a minute later wearing t-shirt and shorts. She didn't know why humans couldn't stand the thought of being seen naked, but it certainly wasn't making things any easier. As he stepped out the door, she just shook her head and turned back to the computer.

    For a few moments, all she could do was stare at the screen. She knew, intellectually, that she was doing the right thing; as horrible as the planned attack was, it wouldn't be a genocide. Celestia and PER were the ones carrying out genocide, and by fighting them she was helping to prevent it. At times like this, it seemed there were only bad choices and worse ones.

    She closed out all of her blog tabs and loaded up a Flash game, not having the energy for bad choices right now.
    ---

    The dull green cargo freighter dominated the scene, dwarfing the buildings of the Antarctic research compound it was docked near. A while earlier, the facility had been bustling with activity as the crew hauled pallet after pallet off of the ship, stacking piles of food, medical supplies, diesel fuel, and other supplies that would be needed for the long winter in their storage rooms. With the free ponies helping, the task was finished more quickly than usual.

    Ordinarily the next step would have been to get the temporary staff aboard for their voyage home. The base operated with a very small crew during the long, dark, winter, so once the supplies were unloaded the winter staff would gather outside to see off the temporary staff. There was an extra task to undertake before that could happen this time, however.

    As always, everyone present had crowded to the side of the path that boots, hooves, tires, and treads had carved through the snow leading up to the ship's heavy loading ramp. Andrew and Ice Breaker, who had been two of the last to join, were at the edge of the crowd.

    Then, the SAS emerged. Andrew had done his best to count them as they piled out of the ship, and by his estimate there were a dozen; they clearly weren't taking any chances. They were clad in black tactical armor, their faces hidden by black gas masks, each one wielding a black submachine gun or shotgun. None of them had spoken, except for one who had a brief exchange with Lawson, after which he motioned to those behind them and they marched to a building he had pointed out to them.

    A few minutes later, four ponies emerged, each one trailed closely by three soldiers. Each SAS watched them, hawklike, their eyes and their guns never from straying from their charges. As the prisoners and soldiers marched into their way up the ramp and into the ship, the crowd was eerily silent.

    As Eclipse disappeared into the cargo bay, seething but complying, Andrew glanced at Ice Breaker, and found Ice Breaker was glancing back at him; the concern in his eyes and the slight shuffling of his hooves told Andrew he was nervous, and Andrew couldn't blame him. They were soldiers, soldiers clad so heavily in gear they seemed almost inhuman. He was a pony. He wasn't above suspicion.

    Andrew leaned forward slightly and peered down the line, scanning for the other ponies. He knew that the other four would be there, and he wondered if they were as nervous as Ice Breaker seemed to be. He failed to see any because he didn't lean forward far enough or look long enough to get a good view down the crowd, but he didn't want to be too conspicuous; he wasn't too keen on drawing the attention of the SAS either.

    Finally, the last of the black-armored soldiers disappeared into the cargo hold, and all that was left to do was to wait for their commander to re-emerge and let them know that the prisoners had been secured. With that done, the large group began to break up, splitting into smaller knots of people and ponies.
    Ice Breaker quickly excused himself to talk to Thunderhead, with whom he'd become close friends, leaving Andrew to wander the crowds looking for Karen. Normally, Karen would have been one of the winter crew, but she would be among those leaving today. The burden of seeing Thunderhead every day, it seemed, was proving too much for her to bear. As Andrew drifted from crowd to crowd, scanning for her, he caught pieces of conversations.

    "...an optimist, but I'd say by tomorrow we'll win the war one way or another..."

    "...never got around to asking how you work on machines with hooves..."

    "...hopefully once this is over, HSR membership will pick up someplace besides here..."

    "...really should see a midair pegasus dance. I'd demonstrate, but my only possible partner would be Thunderhead, and the colt can't dance to save his life..."

    "...hear you finally got an email address, Quantum, we'll have to keep in touch..."

    There he saw her, in the group with the other scientists, Quantum Leap among them, talking with Jane, a young woman he recognized as her friend. After waiting a moment for a break in their conversation, he made his way over.

    "Hey, excuse me, Karen?"

    Karen turned to face him, her expression somber. Brushing a stray lock of blonde hair from her thin face, she said, "Oh, hey Andrew. I guess you heard, then?"

    "Yeah. I mean, I don't blame you, but at the same time...uh...I mean, I'm just curious, have you talked to Quantum Leap at all since what happened to Eddy?"

    Karen paused for a moment, then quietly shook her head.

    "I've been telling you, you really should at least say hi," Jane said to her. "You'd gotten to know Leap really well before it happened, and you said yourself she's been as fine a work partner as any human in the field."

    "And now you won't talk to any ponies at all," Andrew said. "I know it can't be easy, but I think it could help. I would've been where you are if Ice Breaker hadn't come to say he was sorry and tried to help me deal with what happened."

    Karen looked away. "I just can't really deal with any ponies yet. I need time. That's...that's all."

    "But how much?" Jane asked. "I understand you need time away from this, but do you have any way to contact Leap after you're gone?"

    "I..." Karen peered up at the freighter. "Look, we don't know what'll happen after the war's over. It might not even be an issue then. We don't know how it'll turn out, especially with that surrender demand." She coughed. "If it is though...I think. I think I'll be able to open up to them again, someday."

    "I really think you should at least get her email address," said Andrew. "There wouldn't be any pressure, you could just send her a message if you ever felt like it."

    Karen paused and put a hand to her chin, apparently turning the question over in her head.

    "I suppose so," she said, in a tone indicating she had no intention of actually following through. "Jane, you were just talking to her, you had her address, right? Go ahead and send it to me."

    Jane, a stout woman with stubby fingers, nodded and gained the faintest trace of a smile. Then someone tapped on Andrew's back. Upon turning around, he saw Ice Breaker, looking disconcerted.

    "Oh, Andrew? After you've said your goodbyes, can we meet at your bunk, please? I need to talk to you about something, as soon as possible. And I need it to be someplace where no one's likely to overhear. When you're ready, I'll be with Thunderhead."

    Andrew nodded and said his goodbyes to Karen and Jane, then he and Ice Breaker split off from the small group. He moved rather hurriedly through the rest of his farewells, knowing that if he took too long the remaining staff would head back to the compound. After that happened, the two would have difficulty finding privacy anywhere.

    It wasn't long before he told Ice Breaker he was ready, and after a short walk together, they were alone in his sleeping quarters, a room housing twin bunk beds with just enough room for a person to move between them. Andrew had flicked on the fluorescent light and sat down on his bed, the lower one in a bunk; Ice Breaker seated himself on the bed directly across from him. The upper bunks left both of them in shadow.

    "Andrew, it's..." He took a breath. "It's the missiles."

    Andrew leaned back. He figured it would be something like this, and it wasn't a conversation he'd been looking forward to. Still, Ice Breaker was confiding with him, and with the comfort the pony had given him after Eddy's death, he figured he owed him at least a shoulder to lean on. He wasn't good at this type of thing, but he had to try.

    "Scared, huh?"

    Ice Breaker nodded. "I don't know where they'll hit or how much damage they do, but I don't want to see Equestria destroyed. I learned a lot of things about it these last few months, and none of them were good, but even so, it's my home. It just feels like...it feels like whoever wins this war, the loser will suffer, you know?"

    "I'm sorry, Ice. I wish I knew. None of us know what they're targeting, though. All we can do is wait and hope. As for the suffering...that's how it usually goes, I'm afraid."

    "It just seems...it just seems so unfair. Yes, Equestria attacked Earth. That was all Celestia's fault, though. The other ponies, we were all just trusting and obeying our leader. That's what we did for the last millenia, and it always worked before.

    "Look. I know why they're planning to fire the missiles if Celestia doesn't surrender, I know they're trying to save their own. But when those missiles hit, even if they all somehow hit nobody but royal guards...that won't make the dead ponies any less dead. And I have a terrible feeling ordinary ponies will die right alongside them. It's just horrible it had to happen this way. No matter what happens, so many people...
    "Andrew, do you ever wonder what it would've been like if the CBs never got set up, if there was never an expanding barrier? If Celestia meant it when she said she wanted friendship? Could ponies and humans have lived peacefully?"

    Andrew's head tilted down, and he let his chin rest on his palm.

    "Ice...it might not be too late. Even after all that's happened, we here at Halley decided we can live with each other. If we want it and work for it, it still can happen, I'm sure. I'm sure."

    "And...how about you personally, Andrew? Do you want it? Would you work for it?"

    He didn't have to think hard about his answer. He'd always been a quiet, introverted type. Close friends were hard to come by for him, and yet he found this pony was quickly becoming one of his closest friends in a long time. In response, he nodded firmly.

    Andrew's eyes widened in surprise as Ice Breaker leaped off of the bed. Suddenly, the pony's heavy weight was on him, broad forelegs wrapping around Andrew and head resting on his shoulder. Andrew's first instinct was to push him away; he and the pony may have become close friends, but he'd never really been the hugging type. Sudden, uninvited hugs were especially unwelcome.

    In the end, though, he didn't have the heart to do it. Surprising as it was, he actually found his embrace to be rather comfortable, enough so that he found it in him to put an arm around Ice Breaker's back. For the first time, as his fingers ran through his fur, he felt the thick, hard muscle that had allowed the pony to push heavy pallets as though they were toys.

    Andrew found himself liking it. After all, the Antarctic was cold, and Ice Breaker was warm.
    ---

    "Hey, the meeting's not until - Cheerilee, what happened?"

    She was sobbing when Lyra opened the door to let her in. Gently, she led her to a cushion, then sat down on one opposite her. It took a few moments for Cheerilee to settle down enough to speak.

    "They found us out. I just lost my job. Nopony trusts me to teach the foals now."

    Lyra's face paled. She'd known for a while, on some level, that she would probably have to face this sooner or later. That didn't make her any more prepared for it. She squeezed her eyes shut, shook her head, and took a deep breath.

    "Bon-Bon," she breathed. "It was her, it had to be. Nopony else except other members knows we're in the EFH."

    "Bon-Bon was your friend, wasn't she? Surely you aren't telling me..."

    "We're not friends anymore. She called me a traitor at the meeting and then she never said anything to me. Cheerilee, we've gotta...we'll have to...I mean...oh, I don't know! And what'll happen when Celestia hears?"

    "I don't think we'll have to worry about her, Lyra. She knows about our group, and all she did was tell everypony we're wrong."

    Lyra relaxed slightly. "I guess you're right, but...but now it sounds like Ponyville hates us! Is the mayor okay?"

    "She'll probably have to resign." Cheerilee shook her head. "It looks like for all of us, our Ponyville days are over."

    "You mean...oh no, we'll have to move?"

    "I'm afraid so. Now that we've stood against Celestia, we're not welcome here anymore."

    "Where to, though? I've always lived here. I don't know anypony anywhere else, how can I just pack up and...leave?" Lyra's voice cracked on the last word.

    "I'm friends with a couple of our members in Fillydelphia. I'll write them to tell them we're coming."

    Cheerilee stood up and began pacing back and forth in front of Lyra. "I'll tell the mayor, too. Zecora...she usually stays in Everfree Forest, she should be fine. But oh, the poor dear! It's a shame, after the trouble she had getting ponies to accept her the first time. I should at least drop by and tell her."

    Lyra nodded slowly, stiffly. Cheerilee stood up and opened the door to leave, but turned back to face her just before stepping outside.

    "I'm off to tell them now, you can come if you want."

    She shook her head. Cheerilee turned on the spot to face her and looked at her sadly.

    "Lyra, I'm really sorry it ended up this way. I know you're scared. But you should be proud. Everypony deserves a chance, and you've risked so much to convince ponies that the humans do, too."

    Lyra would have spoken, but the lump in her throat made it impossible.

    "I'll be back in half an hour. Until then, you should pack up. You'll only be able to take what you can carry on your back, I'm afraid."

    They bade each other goodbye, and Cheerilee stepped out the door.

    A moment after the door shut behind Cheerilee, Lyra brought out two saddlebags, then looked forlornly about her house. For a while she just stared, wondering what she could leave behind. Then, she wandered about, grabbing whatever items happened to catch her eye first. Money. Toiletries. A box of birthday candy from Pinkie Pie. A scarf she'd bought from Rarity. A family portrait. Some books. How could they be so full already? Cheerilee hadn't elaborated much on the plan. Would she need to bring her own food? Her own sleeping bag?

    She was still agonizing over this when the door burst open behind her, Cheerilee coming in trailed closely by Mayor Mare, who looked every bit as gloomy as Lyra felt. Each carried a pair of saddlebags.

    "Well," said Mayor Mare with a weak attempt at a smile, "I guess there are worse ways I could've got thrown out of office."

    Suddenly remembering something, Lyra sprang to her hooves.

    "Oh! Cheerilee! What do we do about...uh...about the message? They...they might hit Fillydelphia..."

    A silent chill fell on the room; she didn't have to say anything else. The humans had broadcast it all over Equestria: if Celestia didn't surrender, the humans would invade. And they'd start by bombing any place likely to put up heavy resistance. In the commotion created when Cheerilee had shown up, that had been temporarily forgotten.

    "We...we'll be on the road," Cheerilee finally said. "We shouldn't be anywhere that would be hit. Besides, for all she's done wrong, Princess Celestia cares about us. She would never let them destroy us, I don't think. Even if she has to surrender."

    "And...are you still sure I should be proud? I mean, knowing they'd do that to us?"

    Cheerilee pawed at the ground and looked up at the ceiling for a moment.

    "I admit, when I heard what they were doing, I wondered. To use such tactics...it's barbarous, just barbarous. But they know that if they fail, they'll all die...Lyra, I'm sorry, now I just don't know what to think about them. We don't know what they'll hit. We don't know when they plan on stopping. We don't know if their public wants it. We don't even know if they're bluffing. But whatever happens, yes." She squared her shoulders. "You should be proud. Even if all of Celestia's worst assumptions about them are true, they still deserve a chance.

    "Now, we really should get going. We'll talk some more on the road."

    "Wait! Uh, do I need to pack my own food?"

    "Don't worry, I know the whole route!" said Mayor Mare. "We'll have places to eat every day and sleep every night. As long as you've got some bits, you're ready!"

    Lyra affirmed that she did. Then, one by one, they filed out.

    Since she was the last one through the door, Lyra turned out the lights.

    "The lamps are going out all over Europe, we shall not see them lit again in our time"
    -Sir Edward Grey
     
  5. Sithking Zero

    Sithking Zero Hellbore Technician

    CHAPTER 20

    Thanks to Velkaden, Voba, TheCrazyMan and Heretical Zed for prereading this. - Starman Ghost
    ---

    "Tia, the humans will fire their weapons in six hours. Do you have a plan?"

    Celestia jumped slightly and swiftly turned on the spot, having been absorbed in the scene before her. After all, the castle's white, sterile infirmary had never been nearly this full before.

    Not a single one of the dozens of beds was unoccupied, even a day after the last ponies in South Africa and Namibia had been safely returned to Equestria and the last pegasi had been forced to retreat. All around them, expressionless royal nurses and doctors scurried between the beds, checking heavily bloodstained wound dressings, administering numbing potions, and taking vitals.

    Many of them had been wounded beyond the ability of magic or medicine to heal; their legs had been mangled or even destroyed by bullets and shrapnel from the humans' weapons. Some had had to be amputated. They would never walk again, and it tore at Celestia's heart, for she knew she bore responsibility for it.

    After all, she had underestimated the sheer depravity of the human race. She had dared herself to hold hope for them, hope that they would recognize their flaws and gladly accept the chance to become new beings, free of their basest and most brutal desires. She had been naive, and she had acted naively, and her actions had forced her to send her royal guards to a horrific battle to protect the rest of her ponies from the humans' brutality.

    "The spell is ready, Luna. All I have to do is give the Elements the word."

    Luna balked. "But, our ponies...they're still out there, in the human world. If we cast the spell now, we'll be abandoning them! Most of them are being held in prison camps in South America, we know where they are, we can send a force-"

    Celestia shook her head and leered. "Look, Luna. Look at what's in front of you. There isn't a unicorn in Equestria with the magical power to teleport an army that far. Even if we weren't still recovering from our attempt to keep the barrier standing, we would have no way to get our guards back to safety once they were there."

    "But-"

    "We have no choice," Celestia said, trembling slightly. "Even if we could send a force there and back, look at what they've done to our Guard. Two hundred of them, one out of every ten, were wounded or died in battle. Never in the history of Equestria has it suffered such devastation. Certainly not in just a week."

    "The Guard is more than capable of defeating them, we stalled their force in-"

    "I heard the same reports from South Africa you did. I know that ten humans fell for every guard that gave his life. That was nothing but luck on our part, though. The humans they were fighting seemed ill-trained and ill-equipped. If we had still been in the middle of getting our ponies to safety when they began using their aircraft, it would have been a very different story.

    "And even if every battle after that had followed this pattern, sister, we would still lose. It's five million ponies versus seven billion humans. Beyond that, it takes weeks for them to train a frontline soldier. It takes us years to mold a royal guard of the caliber that fought in South Africa. Every last pony in our Guard could fell ten thousand human soldiers and the humans would still win.

    "And even if we could carry out this impossible task, they would just bring to bear their most terrible weapons of all, the ones that even they cannot bring themselves to use yet. If they are about to lose, they will just launch nuclear weapons. Neither of us can protect Equestria from their fusion bombs, Sister. We couldn't even protect it from their regular bombs."

    "The humans really are like frenzied apes," Luna said venomously, "so embroiled in their own rage that they will throw themselves into the face of death just to kill a few of us, just for trying to help them."

    "And that is why, no matter what we do, we can never redeem them," said Celestia, her voice suddenly sorrowful.

    The truth was, she pitied the creatures. She pitied them for being born corrupt, never even having a chance to live a life of good. She pitied them for being unable to recognize their own irredeemable flaws. She pitied them for not having the clarity of mind to accept their salvation - a salvation she had put so much effort and hope into. She'd wanted - really wanted - to believe that they were capable of redemption. They were beyond it, though, and that fact alone was profoundly sad in a way she couldn't find the words for.

    She was taken out of her thoughts when Luna asked, "Have you told Twilight about her brother yet?"
    Celestia shook her head, and looked sadly at Shining Armor's bed; he had had the misfortune to lose both of his hindlegs. He was laying there in his bed, helplessly, and when he noticed her looking his way, his eyes flicked pitifully in her direction. He would never be able to fulfill his duty, his talent, the purpose in life that he was literally marked for, again. And nothing would ever be able to change that.

    "It...it's better she doesn't know yet. She needs to be able to concentrate on the spell, we need everything working in our favor on that."

    "I think that is best. Of course, Shining Armor will receive the highest honors for his actions? Nopony fought harder than he did to drive back their hordes. He destroyed fifteen of their armored vehicles by himself."

    "Yes. If anypony deserves it, he does." She looked back at him as she spoke, and her voice cracked on the last word. Realizing that she was about to break down, she slipped through a nearby door. Luna was taken aback, and for a moment she could only stare in surprise, but she followed just as her sister disappeared from view. The hospital room was left eerily silent in their wake.

    Luna did not have to go far to find her sister; Celestia was alone in a narrow side corridor adjacent to the infirmary. The sun had just risen about half an hour ago - Luna knew that neither she nor her sister would miss being unable to control day and night - and Celestia had planted herself on her haunches, head and wings dropped, hauntingly beautiful in the orange morning light.

    "Oh, Luna, it's all my fault...." With an impressive effort, she suppressed her sob. "If I hadn't been so careless..." She began shaking.

    Luna looked at her sister in concern for a moment, then walked over to her and wrapped a wing around her.

    "It's okay, 'Tia, let it out."

    For awhile, neither said anything. Luna kept Celestia wrapped tightly as her sister's tears fell to the cold marble floor, wishing there was something more she could do. Seeing her sister, a goddess of Equestria who had worked so tirelessly for the good of everyone for century after century, like this was nothing short of heartbreaking. She felt like she could never hug her tight enough or long enough to make her stop hurting, but she was going to try. She couldn't bear not to.

    Finally Celestia spoke, barely above a whisper.

    "No."

    She suddenly straightened and her face hardened, and she stepped to the side a bit to release herself from Luna's wing.

    "No, it's not okay. I have to be strong now, I'm their leader, and they need me more than ever. They still need me to act, to protect, and I will not fail them again."

    She stomped her hoof, a cold thunk echoing through the hallway.

    "I'll tell the Elements of Harmony to cast the spell now."

    She began walking towards the doorway, then stopped and managed to smile at her sister.

    "Oh, and Luna? Thank you."
    ---

    Rainbow Dash huffed. "How much longer is it going to be?"

    The same question was on the minds of all six ponies gathered in the small, candlelit stone chamber. Covering the floor was a chalk pattern cast by Twilight; it was a symmetrical, snowflake-like figure composed of countless elaborately intersecting basic geometric shapes that covered the entire floor, each and every one carefully and painstakingly drawn with a steady horn. There were six circles around the perimeter, each occupied by one of the Elements of Harmony.

    Twilight had her notes for the spell hovering in the air, frantically shuffling the pages as her eyes flickered between them. Rainbow Dash was pacing within the confines of her circle. Rarity was sitting very rigidly in the center of hers, eyes on the floor beneath her to make sure she didn't smear the chalk. Applejack was staring at the door. Fluttershy was staring at her hooves. Pinkie Pie seemed to be the most composed, but her furious chewing on the candy cane she was eating betrayed her own nervousness.

    Twilight shook her head. "I don't know, but since she called us here, I'm sure it's soon." She looked down and sighed. "I just wish it hadn't come to this."

    "I'll be honest with you, Twi, I thought it might," said Applejack. "You just can't help somepony who don't want it, and those humans are the stubbornest creatures I've ever seen."

    "I just can't believe they're getting away with what they did! We're tougher and stronger than any of them, and we lost! We'll have to leave ponies behind, just because they had all those...those horrible...weapons..." Rainbow Dash trailed off at the memory.

    When humanity had begun attacking in earnest, she had literally begged Celestia for a chance to fight them on the frontline. She'd envisioned the fight for Equestria as something exciting, imagined herself surging from human soldier to human soldier, untouchable as she bucked them left and right. That lasted until the first royal guard platoon had teleported back into the castle with a full third of its members dead or wounded. She'd never seen so much blood, or such terrible burns. Seeing Equestria's finest, most dignified, seemingly invincible warriors so mutilated and in such agony, by weapons wielded by mere conscripts no less, had chilled her to the bone.

    "C'est la vie," said Rarity with a sigh. "We should have never come to this planet in the first place. It's terrible to think that ponies will have to be left behind to deal with brutes like those."

    Pinkie Pie abruptly swallowed her candy cane, with very little apparent difficulty. "Yeah, there's gotta be more planets out there, right?" she said. "Like, maybe we can find one full of candy! I mean, this one had a lot of candy but it had a lot of mean humans and I think we can get candy without the-"

    "Pinkie, Celestia said we wouldn't be doing any more dimension jumps after this," said Twilight. "Not unless we're sure there's no sapients. We've learned the hard way that we can't be sure how they'll think."

    "Fluttershy? You okay over there?" asked Applejack, turning to look at her. She hadn't said a word since they'd arrived.

    "Um..." Fluttershy cleared her throat, not looking at Applejack. "...I'm fine. Just nervous. And, well..." a

    She paused.

    "What is it, dear?" asked Rarity.

    "It's just...well...these humans...do you think maybe we just...handled them wrong? Any kind of animal can become friendly if you approach them right, and I think that's true for the ones that are as smart as us."

    "If there's a right way to approach them, I can't even guess what it is," said Twilight. "We..." Suddenly remembering the interview, she fell silent and lowered her head slightly.

    "...I guess I definitely went about it the wrong way though, huh?"

    "Don't be too hard on yourself, Twi," said Applejack. "You told it like it was and ain't nopony can fault you for that."

    When she was able to force herself to look up, Twilight found the others were looking at her in sympathy and nodding in agreement, and she found it in her to smile and relax a little. If the Princesses didn't blame her, and her friends didn't blame her, maybe it really wasn't her fault. Even so, her conscience nagged at her, and she again found herself wondering how things would turn out if she'd done the interview properly.

    "Really, Twilight, you never had a chance," said Rarity. "They gave up the chance to be one of us, after all. They could have lived easily four times as long as they do. They could've flown to their hearts' content, or cast such a wonderful variety of spells. And of course, they would live in Equestria, where the Princesses would have treated them as well as any of us. No more hunger, no more war, no more complicated politics...but they so ungraciously refused. It's simply beyond comprehension."

    "I don't think we'll ever understand," said Twilight, her gaze dropping to her hooves. "I guess ponies and humans could never be friends. That's the saddest thing of all."

    The doorway darkened; the six snapped to face it and saw Celestia, a look of determination etched on her face.

    "Girls, it's time."
    ---

    In an instant, the South Atlantic Ocean was bathed in a brilliant, cold white light, illuminating the sea and the countless iron ships that dotted the waves, all facing its source and prepared to unleash the fury of
    Hell on the small island they surrounded.

    It seemed to shine for an eternity, but in reality lasted only a few minutes. In that time, humanity watched with collective horror, sure that the end had come, that Equestria had deployed some horrific secret weapon that would overshadow even the power of any nuclear bomb.

    When the light blinked out, the feared destruction did not come. No ripple of energy ponified everyone on Earth, no blast wave leveled the world's cities, and no surge of magic evaporated the multitude of ships surrounding the island. Instead, Equestria had vanished, not leaving behind so much as a ripple in the water. It was as if the ocean had never been disturbed.

    Humanity had won the war.

    CHAPTER 21


    AFTERMATH: PART I

    It had been a month since the end of the war, and Ice Breaker finally seemed to be cheering up a bit.
    Andrew could hardly blame him for being depressed for so long. After all, when Equestria had disappeared, it had taken almost everything he'd known and cared about with it. His family. His friends. His fillyfriend. His home. Yes, they were all still alive and well somewhere, but by all appearances he would never see them again. What he had left was a world where, even now, a large portion of the people living there were suspicious of him. Worse, having lost his last bit of faith in the Equestrian royal family, he didn't feel like he belonged anywhere at all.

    He'd been spending a lot of time with him lately. Naturally he wasn't the only depressed pony. The humans in the base were for the most part doing the best to console the ones they were closest to, and in Andrew's case that was Ice Breaker. He'd never been particularly close to any of the ponies, but over the weeks following Eddy's death, the two had been forming a tighter bond than Andrew had ever expected. This only strengthened after Equestria's disappearance.

    When off-duty, they spent a lot of time together in the recreation center. Sometimes, they watched movies. While Andrew learned quickly that Ice Breaker, like Thunderhead, found little enjoyment in violent movies of the sort he used to watch with Eddy, they found a shared taste in comedies. In fact, he discovered that Ice Breaker had a surprising appreciation for lewd jokes. Other times, it was darts, or pool, or air hockey. Despite Andrew's initial misgivings, Ice Breaker's hooves proved remarkably dexterous, and he proved to be a surprisingly challenging opponent once Andrew gave him a chance.

    Quite often, though, they just talked. Ice Breaker did not seem to want to bring up his own past, or Equestria, or anything of that nature, but that was understandable; talking about any of those would have been a painful reminder of the world that left him behind. Instead, they mostly talked about subjects such as Andrew's own life, the latest news concerning ponies left behind, movies, and video games (Andrew was quite disappointed to find he wasn't interested in trying them).

    There was, however, a more interesting development in their relationship, one that had crept up on Andrew so subtly that he was able to avoid it for awhile. First he thought nothing of it, then he rationalized it, then he tried desperately to pretend it wasn't there.

    Despite his best efforts, though, it found ways to slip through. Ice Breaker's great strength and gentle demeanor had grown on him, and he felt comfortable with and trusting of him in a deeply personal way that he never had with even his closest friends. More hugs had followed their first, and they became more and more frequent. It was never Andrew who initiated them, not wanting to draw suspicion, but he was always glad to accept them.

    He couldn't deny it any longer; he was in love with Ice Breaker.

    It made him uncomfortable. He'd known he was gay since he was a teenager, and had quite freely posted about it on his blog; that part wasn't the issue. But, to be in love with someone who wasn't even human? Yes, mentally Ice Breaker was essentially human. He talked. He appreciated art. He understood science. The species he was a part of had produced literature, music, poetry, architecture, engineering, philosophy, a scientific method, everything that marked them the mental equals of humans. Even so, there was no precedent here. Was it wrong? Even if it wasn't, he knew it wouldn't go over well if anyone found out.

    For that matter, it was unlikely Ice Breaker would feel the same way. Yes, they'd grown close, but there was no real evidence that he had anything more than platonic feelings for Andrew. For that matter, he'd already heard the pony mention his fillyfriend; the odds that he would be bisexual, and open to interspecies love, and personally feel that way about him were slim.

    Still, he had to find out.

    Very early one morning, when the common room had long become vacant except for the two, there was a lull in the conversation. Ice Breaker had tired out some time ago and was now sprawled out across the couch, half-asleep with his face buried in the soft cushions. Andrew, meanwhile, was pacing nervously by the pool table, staring at the floor.

    He'd been meaning to ask the question for the last fifteen minutes, but every time he tried to begin to speak, the words died in his throat. For hours, he'd planned exactly how he would say it, crafting dozens of carefully composed sequences of words only to reject each in a fit of panic. The realization that Ice Breaker looked like he'd fall asleep any minute, meaning Andrew would miss the chance, was what finally pushed him to action.

    "Ice, uh, hypothetical here." The pony's ears perked up. "Do you ever think a human and a pony could be, uh...well...ehm..." Andrew cleared his throat. "...more than friends?" The three words ran together as if they were one.

    Ice Breaker's body shifted to the side and his head whipped up, and he looked at Andrew with wide eyes.

    "That's...uh...kind of sudden. Why do you ask?"

    Andrew stopped walking and picked up a ball from the pool table, turning it over in his fingers. "Just wondering. Just wanted your opinion. I mean, now that the war's over, I think it could happen. Do you?"

    With a yawn, Ice Breaker flipped over to a sitting position, looking up at Andrew with his head resting on the arm of the couch. "Well, actually, yeah. I mean, I wouldn't be that surprised. I mean, I know it's a weird thing for humans, but for us? It's not really common, but it's happened. Matter of fact, my own dad dated a gryphon once. So, uh..." Suddenly he looked down, closed his eyes, and sighed, reminded once again of the home he'd never see again.

    The ball thumped back onto the pool table and Andrew looked at Ice Breaker in concern.

    "I'm sorry, Ice. I didn't mean to."

    Ice Breaker breathed heavily and swallowed, then lifted his head back up.

    "Forget it. Not your fault. I was the one who brought up my dad, after all."

    Andrew still looked guilty, so Ice Breaker smiled reassuringly. "Anyway, no, I wouldn't say you guys are off-limits."

    Doing his best to keep a poker face, Andrew simply nodded. At the same time, though, he felt his heartbeat quicken both in hope and fear. He still had a chance, but he knew if he wanted to find out how Ice Breaker felt, he'd have to tell the truth. Grabbing blindly at the table he was leaning against, he once again picked up a pool ball. This time he flipped it back and forth between his hands.

    "You know, I'm sorry, but there's something I didn't quite tell you. This was about more than just me being curious."

    Ice Breaker blinked and flattened the bangs of his blonde mane with a hoof. "Y-you mean..." He smiled, looking more amused than anything else. "You're in love with a pony."

    Andrew parted his hands a bit and began lightly tossing the ball between them. "Yeah. I, uh, I am."

    Ice Breaker gave a short laugh. "Hey, don't worry, I'm fine with it! I already said so. And I'm not about to go around telling ponies, I know that'd create problems for you." He was sitting straight on the couch now, his full attention on Andrew. "So, who's the mare? Quantum Leap? Flitter Dance? Somepony off-base?" He stopped, noticing Andrew shifting uncomfortably. "Sorry, sorry. I just got kind of curious, you know? Please don't feel like you have to answer that."

    Andrew stopped tossing the pool ball between his hands, and gripped it tightly in his right. "It's not a mare."

    Ice Breaker blinked. "But you said...oh!" He chuckled. "Well, I can see why you were nervous about this, I know how some humans can be about that kind of thing. Now I'm even more curious about who it is, though. I can't really think of any stallions you've spent much time with, except..." He trailed off, then gasped.

    "...Me?"

    The ball fell to the floor with a thump, and Andrew nodded almost imperceptibly. He was now looking at Ice Breaker hopefully, almost pleadingly. Much to his dismay, though, he turned his head away a bit and began to stammer.

    "L-look, I'm flattered, Andy. Really, I don't know what to say." He grinned sheepishly. "But, I, uh, I...oh, I'm sorry about this, but I don't feel the same way." Andrew slumped against the table a bit, and Ice Breaker frowned sympathetically. " I mean, I know we're close, but we're..." Unable to ignore the disappointment on Andrew's face, he hopped off of the couch and began walking towards him.
    "Friends. You're a friend, Andy. A close one, but still a friend. It's nothing personal. I'm just only into mares."

    Andrew was staring at the floor at this point, his disappointment and sadness now seemingly joined by shame, and thus failed to notice that Ice Breaker was now standing directly in front of him.

    "Here. Look at me."

    Andrew did so, although he hesitated slightly before he was able to meet Ice Breaker's vivid green eyes. Then, in a sudden and familiar movement, the pony reared up on his hindlegs and fell into him with a hug. Standing on two legs, he could look Andrew in the eyes without having to crane up his neck. He was smiling at Andrew reassuringly, and a little sadly.

    "I know it was hard to tell me, and I'm sorry I had to turn you down. I don't want it to ruin our friendship, though. I'm glad you trusted me with this."

    Andrew swallowed and let his head rest on the pony's shoulder.

    "Thanks, Ice."

    He hugged Ice Breaker back, and for a minute they just stood quietly, Andrew relaxing in the feelings of the pony's warm, comfortable weight pressing against him and the slow, steady rising and falling of his chest as he breathed.

    There, in the soft glow of the LEDs and the quiet humming of the machines, it was peaceful. Andrew was the sort of strange person who enjoyed the atmosphere of the early morning, when sunrise was still hours away, and he was glad Ice Breaker did too. As far as he knew, the pair were the only ones still up at this hour, aside from Quantum Leap, who tended to put in late nights at the lab. Eddy would have still been up too, had he not been ponified; Thunderhead was down at eleven and up at seven.

    Thinking about Quantum Leap and Eddy, something occurred to him. It was unlikely, yes, but it was something he needed to ask about, something that gave him hope. If magic had rewired Eddy's brain one way, then maybe, just maybe...

    Reluctantly, he pushed at Ice Breaker a bit. He wasn't strong enough to budge him, but he got the idea, letting go of Andrew and dropped back to all fours.

    "Heading out, Andrew?"

    "Yeah, not to bed though. I need to ask Leap about something."

    "All right, I'm going to bed myself, so I'll see you tomorrow, then." He glanced at the clock. "Uh...or rather, later today, I guess." Andrew nodded and left.

    A few minutes later, he had bundled himself in his winter gear and stepped out of his housing building, shivering at the stinging of the icy wind against what little skin he had exposed. Slowly, in the cold, eerie silence of the Antarctic night, he made his way over to the building of the Clean Air Sector Laboratory, guided only by the sickly yellow light from the few lamps that dotted the compound.

    The trek to CASLab was long, dark, and quiet. The lab was located a full kilometer away from the rest of the compound, a measure to ensure no emissions from the base contaminated its air samples. Ice Breaker actually visited it fairly often, regularly hauling supplies there because no air pollution, and thus no motorized transport, was permitted. Andrew wished he'd thought to ask Ice Breaker a bit more about his time there.

    Finally he reached the base of CASLab. The white, metal building sat well over his head, supported by tall, steel stilts. An adjacent staircase was next to him, and cold, white light flooded out of the building's window on the same side. His heavy boots rattled loudly against the stairs as he ascended them, and he realized that Quantum Leap would probably hear him coming well before he ever knocked. Sure enough, barely halfway up the stairs, he saw movement in the window. The door creaked open a few seconds later.

    "Kendrick?"

    Andrew looked up at Quantum Leap, who was standing in the doorway. Upon seeing his face, she blinked.

    "Sorry, thought you were someone else. Ehm...why are you here, though? And at this time? I hope you didn't waste a trip, because everything's working fine in here."

    "Leap, I need to talk to you about something. Please. I know it's late, but it's important."

    She looked a bit taken aback, but didn't refuse. "Uh, sure. Come in."

    Andrew thanked her, scaled the rest of the steps, and went through the external door and entered the main laboratory room. It was cramped and crowded, split into sections by aluminum shelving packed with computers, monitors, measurement devices, and other advanced electronic equipment. Many of them were connected to each other by bundles of black and white cords that snaked among and between the shelves. Quantum Leap was seated on all four hooves in a swivel chair in front of a computer, the hairs of her short, straight tail trailing off the side. The mouse glowed blue as she hastily clicked a few buttons, shuffling windows around. Then she turned to face him.

    "You should come by more often." She laughed. "I mean, we're coworkers, but I barely know you. And now that our Princesses bailed on us, you guys are the only ones I've got, you know?" She turned away from him to swallow some of her coffee before turning back. "Uh, look, never mind. What was it you wanted to talk about?"

    Despite his concern, Andrew didn't want to press her if she didn't want to talk about it. "Leap, is there any way you can...cure Eddy? To bring his mind back to normal? Some sort of magic, or potion, or...hell, I don't know how that stuff works. But can it happen?"

    For a minute, Quantum Leap didn't say anything. She just drew herself tighter on her chair and tucked her tail beneath her, then levitated her coffee cup and drank from it. Finally, cup still hanging in the air, she spoke.

    "Andrew..." She shook her head. "I hate to be the one to tell you this, but no. Eddy, as you knew him, is gone. I wouldn't even be the right pony to ask, anyway - I'm not an alchemist or neuroscientist, I'm a climatologist. I study air samples and ice cores. I did learn as much as I could about the potion after Firebrand let the truth slip, though, because I had the same idea you did." She paused.

    "And knowing what I do now, even if I could bring him back, I wouldn't."

    Andrew felt as if he'd just been electrically shocked. What was she saying? Why? Why wouldn't she bring Eddy back? He thought she was on his side! Was she just trying to anger him? Had she swallowed PER's propaganda?

    Quantum Leap had not missed the incredulous look on his face. "Please, I need you to let me finish," she said coolly. "I'm warning you now, you won't like what you're about to hear. Hate me if you want when I'm done, but you need to at least know what really happened to him."

    Andrew felt a chill creep up his spine. In all truth, it was a question he didn't think he wanted the answer to. Ever since he'd first talked to Thunderhead after he climbed off of the operating table, he knew there was something fundamentally, skin-crawlingly wrong with the Potion. Through some bizarre process beyond the ability of biology, psychology, or medicine to explain, it had almost instantly altered his thinking in a way that would require weeks or months of concentrated effort and total control from an expert human psychologist.

    "Tell me everything."

    "When a human takes the potion, it doesn't change their personality. Their way of thinking isn't altered. They don't undergo any sort of brainwashing." She took a deep breath.

    "The original personality is destroyed almost completely, and a new one, one that's been configured into the potion, is written into the mind of the pony that emerges. Skills that the human acquired are kept - that's why Thunderhead is still able to work in the garage.

    "The most important thing that's preserved, though, is conscious memory. The pony receives all of the factual knowledge, memories of lifetime events, and learned skills that the human had. That's why they come into the world thinking those they've never really met are their friends. That's why, sometimes, the potion can fool people who knew the human. It's also why the pony is baffled by the reactions of people around him - they'll never be able to grasp that they're a different person. Their memories fool them into thinking that they're the one who went in.

    "Now, if we brought back Eddy, where would Thunderhead's mind go? Fact is, there's nowhere it can go, Andrew. If we restored Eddy's mind, Thunderhead would die. That's why I wouldn't do it. He came into the world on Eddy's death, but I'm sure we both agree that doesn't make him any less of a person. If we kill the pony to make a human, we're no better than the Princesses."

    For a moment, Andrew just stood silently as, thanks to Quantum Leap's words, it dawned on him just what he had done. In his anger and sadness, he'd neglected to consider how Thunderhead felt. He'd failed to realize the depths of just how much he must be hurting, how heartbroken he must be by people his memories told him were his closest friends rejecting him for reasons he could never understand.

    He hastily thanked her, rushed out of the building, scrambled down the stairs, and stomped through the snow on his way back to his residence building. He needed time alone. Time to stew in his guilt. Time to decide how he would finally right his many wrongs against Thunderhead.

    Ten hours later, shortly after lunch, Andrew found Thunderhead in the otherwise-vacant cafeteria. He was staring down at the remnants of his salad with his front hooves on the table, but looked up at him when he came in. He seemed confused, and Andrew didn't blame him. After all, he'd been avoiding him ever since their conversation after Nurse Tendertouch had released him from the infirmary.

    "Hey, can we talk for a minute?" He was still in the doorway.

    "A-Andrew?"

    He nodded. "Yeah, me. Isn't Ice Breaker usually with you?"

    "Couldn't make it today, he's been busy. It's a shame, I like him. He's nice to me."

    "Sorry to hear that. I don't suppose you'll settle for me?"

    "Thanks, but...I thought you never wanted to see me again? That's what you told me that day."

    Andrew cringed. "Actually, that's what I wanted to talk about. I came here because...because I'm sorry."

    Thunderhead let his hooves drop from the table. "You...you mean..."

    "Yeah. I'm sorry for...for the way I treated you, and how I shunned you." He walked over to the end of the table opposite the one Thunderhead was sitting at and eased himself onto the bench, as far away from the pony as possible. "It was wrong. I was so worried about how I'd deal with it, I never even thought about how you felt."

    "And, that whole thing about me being dead? You know I'm the same old Eddy, right? I mean, just because I look a bit different, and I have better habits, that doesn't mean I'm not the same person. Don't you agree." His tone was pleading.

    The next part would be the hardest. After all, Andrew had never been a good liar.

    "Yeah. I just...I just got scared and overreacted. You may be Thunderhead now, but..." He swallowed. a
    "...But you're still Eddy to me. You j-just look different, and think a bit different. That's all."

    He'd seen Thunderhead cry before, of course, and it had been painful to see every time. It had held in it the agony and misery of a confused, naive soul who had been abandoned by all those he had felt close to. Only the comfort provided by Ice Breaker and Flitter Dance had been able to relieve it at all, and never for very long.

    This time was different, though. This time, beneath the tears spilling from his eyes and onto the table, there was a smile. He could worry about getting the others in the base to play along later; for now, Thunderhead needed him there.

    Andrew's deed had more significance than he ever knew; it was the first time in his short life that Thunderhead was truly happy.
    ---

    The video opened to a midday bird's-eye view of an aircraft carrier and its escort group out on the open sea. A woman's voiceover began.

    "Three months after the disappearance of Equestria, all military forces are still on full alert for any sign of its reemergence. Officials say that there is currently no reason to believe that it is still a threat, but since its inhabitants are capable of using the recently-discovered and ill-understood force they call 'magic,' we must be prepared for anything."

    The video cut to a solidly built, snowy-haired man standing at a podium on a stage emblazoned with American flags, giving a speech.

    "In yesterday's state of the union address, United States president John McCormick expressed hope that the Equestria War would give him the popular support he needed to increase the national defense budget and to prepare a large number of reserve troops."

    The voiceover faded out, and the president's words faded in.

    "The Equestrian crown accused us of being expansionist, of being militarist, and of ruthlessly exploiting resources. Even if we are guilty of these, as they claim, it is for these exact reasons that we were able to survive their incursion. We now know that we are not alone in the universe, and that there is in fact at least one hostile entity out there. We don't know what other life there is, or what plans it has for us, or if Equestria will return. We have to be prepared to fight for our survival. We have to be ready for anything."

    The speech faded out, and the voiceover faded back in.

    "The president's sentiments appear to be popular, and with his approval rating leaping from forty percent to nearly eighty percent over the course of the war, it's quite possible the new plan will come to pass. Nations the world over, meanwhile, are also significantly increasing their defense budgets. This has been the cause of public outcry, particularly within the European Union, where analysis of the budgets reveals that many of them will be funding the military with money taken from such programs as public healthcare, education, and environmental protection."

    The video cut to a forest green, bespectacled unicorn at a wide, metal reception desk in a sterile, gray room, idly typing on a computer and shuffling papers with his horn.

    "Meanwhile, the several thousand ponies left behind, along with the roughly eight hundred newfoals, remain a subject of international debate. U.S. diplomat Ellen Rowe continues to push a resolution that would declare Equestrian ponies as humans for all legal purposes, with voting scheduled to take place a week from today. Opinion on the ponies continues to vary wildly between and within countries, and it's hoped that passing this bill will eventually lead to them finding employment in weather control and other, similar specialized areas, allowing them to integrate into society.

    "Many countries, including the United States, Australia, Canada, and much of Europe, have begun granting citizenship to some ponies. Their popular opinion continues to grow, as evidenced by the strong support received by the HSR's 'ponies left behind' campaign, which has garnered strong sympathy for the ponies abandoned here by Celestia. Despite this, they still face fear and mistrust."

    The video cut to a series of people giving brief opinions on the matter.

    An elderly woman from San Jose, California: "I'll tell you, they're the nicest neighbors I ever had."

    A young man from Sheffield, England: "Are you kidding? After what they've done? I want 'em out, all of 'em."

    A dark-skinned man from Perth, Australia: "I work in the outback and I've had an earth pony as a partner there, and I'd trust her with my life."

    A middle-aged man from Toronto, Canada: "I don't care what they do with 'em, but I don't want 'em here."

    The video cut to a thrashing, scowling indigo pegasus being dragged into a helicopter by black-suited agents, wings bound to his sides.

    "We get to end the announcement on good news today. After nearly four months of searching, an Interpol raid on a PER compound hidden in the jungles of Brazil led to the capture of a high-ranking member of the organization, Rolling Thunder. With their activities spreading as far north as Costa Rica and claiming nearly a hundred victims to date, it's hoped that the capture of Thunder will be a major step towards ending the terror.

    "PER activity has also been a major motivator in the continued internment of ponies in many parts of South America despite the end of the war, something which has been the subject of increasing international criticism. To date, less than ten percent of the interned ponies have been released despite mounting international pressure to do so."

    "Evening, they're gonna start boarding soon."

    Evening Star blinked, removed her headphones, and hopped off of her chair. She'd lost track of time again, endlessly poring over news blogs and update videos as she tried to get every last scrap of information on the current situation. The difference was that now she was doing it in an internet cafe in Brasilia International Airport.

    "Oh...all right. Irene's ready, then?" she asked Antonio.

    He nodded. "At the terminal, yeah. She keeps looking at the clock." Noticing her looking at him a bit sadly, he asked, "You're...you're not regretting this, are you? I mean, we talked it over-"

    "No, I know it's for the best," she said with a sigh. "I know they're not rounding us up any more, but Brazil's still hardly pony-friendly. Three months after the fact and I'm still afraid to leave our apartment without you, or go anywhere that isn't a public place, or do anything not in broad daylight. We don't know when it'll get any better, either."

    Antonio nodded understandingly. "Well, there's some good news, at least. At Mass last week, I found out my priest doesn't say you guys are demons anymore," he said, trying to lighten the mood.

    "Oh? What's he saying about us now?" She'd always found human religion to be an odd thing, the idea of
    believing in and worshiping gods that couldn't physically be seen. She couldn't blame them even when she was still loyal to the Crown, though - they had no Celestia or Luna. She certainly sympathized with them now that she knew her faith in the Sisters had been misplaced.

    "Well, ah, he really doesn't know what to make of you, but he says he doesn't think you're beyond redemption. He says you were all just unwitting minions of Celestia, who he says is the Antichrist. Long story short, he wants you all to become Catholic."

    Evening Star rolled her eyes. "Well, I guess it's an improvement. Not that I disagree with him on Celestia."

    Antonio looked away. "Yeah...sorry about that. I mean, I know it hasn't been easy on you, and I know it was really disappointing things didn't get much better after the war was over. I've been doing my best to give you a chance to get outside, but it's still too risky most of the time."

    "This isn't your fault," Evening Star said matter-of-factly. "Really, you're pretty much the last pony to blame here. I know it wasn't always easy, or fun, but you've kept me alive and safe for months. And of course, you paid to transport me here."

    Evening Star reached over to the computer desk, delicately balanced the cola can she'd been drinking from in her hooves, and took a gulp from it. She fervently wished she could use her horn, but she knew doing so would likely get her in trouble with airport security.

    "Thank you, Antonio."

    Antonio nodded again. "Just paying you back. Remember, you saved my ass once."

    Evening Star couldn't help but laugh. "It seems like it was so long ago, doesn't it? Hard to believe it's only been a few months. I can't believe how much has happened since then."

    They started walking down to the terminal, and Evening Star was once again captivated by the sights around her. The hustle and bustle as commuters scurried to and from the terminals, the sleek steel and glass of the airport wide and sweeping arched walls, the echoing announcements of departures and arrivals, and the enticing smell of coffee from the nearby shops were all a bit overwhelming to her after the long, cramped, quiet days in Antonio's apartment.

    "I know what you mean. At the same time, though, it doesn't really feel like it's been long enough. Like...the plane's coming, you'll be in Miami soon, heading to your new home upstate. Even though we spent the last two months coordinating this with Irene, it all feels so sudden."

    Evening Star smiled up at him. "I'll miss you too. And Nico, of course."

    "Damn shame he couldn't come to see you off, but the money for a third person wasn't there."

    Evening Star's eyes wandered to a nearby vending machine as they passed it - she'd fallen in love with the devices as soon as she'd first learned what they did.

    "I know, and I understand. I wish I could've seen him again, though. You and him, now that Celestia's left me behind - not that I miss her, or that sister of hers - you two are the only ones I have. And Irene, of course, but I only met her in person earlier today."

    Antonio knew that all too well. For the first few days after the disappearance of Equestria, very little could even get her off of the couch she slept on. When she talked, it was mostly about the things she missed from home, and in great detail - everything from her best friend she'd met in her theater company to her favorite ice cream shop back in Manehattan.

    "You know, I wish my little sister were here to see this."

    Antonio blinked. "The way you talked about her, it always sounded like you hated her."

    "I did." Her head dipped. "Then I found out I'd never see her again."

    They rounded a corner, beyond which was the entrance to their terminal. In front of the odd, hollow-bottomed seats in which most of the passengers were sitting, a petite, brunette young woman paced back and forth anxiously in front of the terminal's seating. Upon seeing the two, she ran over to them, relief visible on her face.

    "Good, you're here. Evening, I'll show them your boarding pass for you, we don't want you in trouble for using your magic."

    Evening Star nodded. "Sorry Irene, I realize I was probably cutting it a bit close there. I'm here now, that's what's important, right?" She grinned.

    "Yeah, don't worry about it," Irene said. "Didn't want you to miss the flight, that's all. I mean, it still looks like we've got a few minutes, but after all this planning, I don't really feel like taking risks."

    "I can't really blame you. I know this was a lot of work, so, uh, thanks for doing all this. I mean, for some out-of-work actress you met on the internet?" She laughed.

    "That's what we do in the HSR." She checked her watch. "Besides, I've been a fan of your blog pretty much since the beginning. You're just like us, you know, working as hard as you can to make things better between ponies and humans."

    "Guess online fame does have its advantages. Aside from the ego boost, of course."

    Evening Star turned to Antonio, who was gazing out of the wall-covering window on the opposite side of the room, staring distantly at the broad, sun-baked tarmac below.

    "Well...guess this is goodbye, then." The amount of sadness that found its way into her voice caught her by surprise.

    "Looks that way." Antonio looked back at her. "Good luck in the United States, Evening. Hope they treat you better there."

    The announcement came over the intercom; it was time for them to board. The three hastily said their last goodbyes to each other before Irene disappeared into the knot of people who were quickly swarming the departure gate while fumbling with their bags and digging out their tickets, followed closely by Evening Star.

    Antonio stood there, watching the pair as they moved through the line. It was all moving too fast; each passenger was admitted to the plan and passed through the entryway quickly, and the pair was drawing nearer and nearer to the fated moment when Evening Star, too, would be gone. Soon, Irene was showing the guard their boarding passes (with a quick, added reassurance of "she's with me"), then just a moment later Evening Star was slipping into the connector between the airplane and the terminal, taking one last look at him before disappearing from view.
    ---

    "I'm sorry, I really wish I could, but I'm deployed here in Johannesburg. Yeah, don't worry, I'll send you the money when I get paid. Love you too, Mom. Bye."

    The payphone clicked back onto its hook, and Russell shook his head. He'd always known, intellectually, that the defeat of Equestria wouldn't be the end of his nation's troubles. Even so, it was disheartening to see it all on the verge of collapse just three months after the war was over.

    Yes, South Africa had its land back, but the infrastructure was gone. There were no more homes, roads, schools, or hospitals in the areas that the barrier had eaten, save for some scattered, abandoned pony villages that wouldn't be able to house more than a few thousand between them. Every human structure west of the Namibia border had been erased, and the government struggled just to keep alive the millions of refugees that had poured into the east.

    Even with the very welcome relief of international aid from multiple countries, the endless sea of four million displaced people - one out of every ten in the country - was proving impossible to provide for. Russell's post-war duty as a supply truck driver had taken him to Johannesburg's camp many times, and he had become numb to the endless fields of tin shacks outside the city, the relief workers passing out meager bags of grain or water to desperate, skeletal figures (and running out far too quickly), and the daily sight of soldiers hauling off the corpses of those who had perished to disease or starvation.

    His eyes swept over the small, dingy cafe he had just eaten lunch in and placed his call from; none of the other patrons met them. It had been the same everywhere he went when he was off-duty, and he didn't like it. Never mind that he was every bit as unassuming as he had been before he joined the military - Johannesburg was under martial law, and his army uniform marked him as someone to be feared. He didn't know what the situation was elsewhere, but he didn't imagine it was any better. He hadn't seen Pieter since redeploying to Johannesburg, and he had the sickening feeling that the man was enjoying it all.

    Pieter was an unwelcome memory. Thinking of Pieter brought him back to that harrowing day, where he had choked on mud as he saw his fellow conscripts cut down all around him by bizarre alien weaponry, where he had come within a hair's breadth of dying right alongside them. Pieter was the man so eager to kill and who ridiculed Russell for not feeling the same way, the man who gleefully dismembered a dead unicorn and kept his horn as a trophy, still grinning wickedly when the columns of tanks had come to take the burden of fighting off their shoulders. All of this would have been bearable, had Pieter not also been the man who had saved his life.

    He glanced up at the analog clock on the wall, numbers and hands barely visible beneath the stale, yellow grime that coated it, and saw that it was ten minutes to one. He decided to head back to his truck, not wanting to be late for his next delivery. After all, supplies were stretched thin enough as it was.
    With a push, the stubborn, rickety door of the cafe creaked open, and he stepped outside, into the cool June air, very thankful that winter had recently arrived. Having worked in a sweltering back room as a file clerk before the war, he knew just how unbearable South African summer days could be, and he didn't cherish the thought of driving a truck around all day in one. Of course, the way things were going, he probably would in a few months anyway.

    Johannesburg itself had not been difficult to adjust to - in fact, it was comfortingly similar to Cape Town. Rivers of cars and buses snaked between the high-rise apartments and offices, commuters weaved their way through crowds as they entered and left their workplaces, plazas brimmed with people relaxing and enjoying their meals, and leafy green trees dotted the cityscape and added color to it. He'd actually thought of staying there after his time in the army was over.

    He turned right and began walking. The sidewalk was crowded with civilians at this time of day, and they all swiftly moved aside when he neared them. Shortly after he crossed the street to the next block, he heard a commotion from a grocery store in front of him that drowned out the constant background noise and bustle of the city. He was stopped dead in his tracks when a pair of lean, ragged young men stumbled out of the door, dropping armfuls of canned food onto the sidewalk and raising their hands above their heads, pursued closely by a trio of shouting, rifle-wielding soldiers whose appearance caused the many baffled onlookers to scatter.

    He stepped around the scene as quickly as he could, moving into the street in doing so, but grim curiosity found him turning back around to watch it play out. All of them were trying to shout over each other, the soldiers barking at the young men that they were under arrest for looting, the young men pleading fruitlessly that they were starving and had no choice.

    Suddenly one of them, gripped by fear, tried to run in Russell's direction; a swift rifle butt to his back made him fall to the pavement, and the soldier responsible reached down, grabbed his shirt by the neck, and yanked him to his feet. He looked at Russell pleadingly, but Russell could only shake his head and turn away, having long grown hopelessly accustomed to such sights. After what he'd seen in the refugee camps, he couldn't blame the boy, but he had no power to stop what was happening.

    "Excuse me! Sir! Sir! If I can have a minute of your time?"

    The stranger had come up from Russell's left and nearly collided with him when he ran up beside him. It was surprising, to say the least, to see someone in a white t-shirt and jeans so eager to talk to a uniformed army member. Then he saw the black pamphlets in his hand.

    "Human Liberation Front?" he asked flatly, hoping the man would realize he was uninterested.

    The man nodded. "Ah, good, you've heard of us. Joined up yet?"

    "No, and I'm not-"

    "Okay, if you can wait here, I'll get you the paper-"

    "-And I'm not going to."

    The man blinked. "But wait, you're in the military, you sure?"

    "I don't do politics, and even if I did, they wouldn't be my kind of party."

    He'd read the pamphlets, of course, and nothing about the HLF's rhetoric had appealed to him - in fact, it made him very glad that there hadn't been ponies in South Africa since their deportation before the war. The pamphlets had, rather ominously, called for "the total neutralization of the pony threat" and stated that South Africa's government had "proven to be weak," with the country "only surviving through the strength of its military," which it said needed to "cement its power, so that no pony will remain safe to plot humanity's downfall."

    His gut told him it was nothing he wanted to be a part of. He'd been lucky enough to be born after the end of Apartheid, but he'd heard about its horrors from his father. He didn't want it returning to South Africa, even if he wouldn't be in the targeted group this time. Equestria was gone; he just wanted his country safe and back on its feet, he didn't care for revenge.

    Unfortunately, he was in a shrinking minority. Every day, it seemed, the HLF had more presence. More people on street corners shouting anti-pony slogans through bullhorns. More flyers plastered on telephone poles and store fronts. More people, civilian and soldier alike, espousing their views. He decided then and there he wouldn't become one of them.

    "Wait, were you just a reserve soldier during the war, or what? Listen, I'm sure you would've felt differently if you were from Cape Town, or if you'd faced them yourself. The HLF can finish off the ponies once and for all, we can make South Africa strong again. Trust me, you guys in the army will get a very good deal from us. I'll get the paperwork, you can sign, we'll be done. Sound good?"

    Russell glared at him. "As a matter of fact, I am from Cape Town. I was one of the people drafted from the camps. I was right there on the frontline when we were taking the country back. I ran from the barrier, I starved in a refugee camp, I fought the Royal Guard and I saw men bleed and die, and you know what? I don't care what happens to the rest of the ponies, I just want my country back the way it was."

    "Sir? We stand for South Africa, and we stand for the human race. I don't care what you saw or what you did, the rest of the ponies are still a threat, and they will be unless we take action. If you're not with us on that, you're a traitor to humani-"

    "Piss off before I have you hauled off for getting in the army's way."

    The man's smile slid off his face, and he swiftly broke away from Russell to walk rather quickly in the opposite direction.

    God help him, he was becoming a jackboot.

    CHAPTER 22
    AFTERMATH PART II

    The infirmary door glowed and creaked open, and Princess Cadence hesitantly stepped in and squinted at the early afternoon sunlight streamed in through the high windows. Her eyes darted back and forth between the infirmary's two rows of beds, many of which now lay unoccupied, scanning them for her husband. With his distinctive blue mane, it didn't take long.

    Her heart skipped a beat, and she had to bite back a gasp. Somehow, it was so much worse now that she could see it. In the bed, where the blankets should have been raised by his hindlegs, they were flat.

    "Oh, Shining..."

    She trotted over to him, eyes wide and tearful, nearly slipping on the polished marble as she did so. Leaning over at the side of his bed, she closed her eyes and gave him a kiss on the cheek. As she did so, she felt his hoof rest firmly and comfortingly on the back of her head.

    "It's going to be all right, Cadence." His voice was strong, reassuring, confident. It put her at ease.
    She lifted her head out of his grasp, her horn glowed, and she produced a pink, lacy handkerchief. She gave herself a moment to dab lightly at her eyes, then opened them and put the now-damp cloth away.

    She looked down at Shining Armor, and found him looking back with concern - concern for her.

    "We'll get through this. The Princesses came to see me about half an hour ago, as soon as I recovered. Didn't you hear? I...I'm gonna be a national hero, full honors. Cadence, don't worry. We're set for life. That's good at least, right? Isn't it? And...and there might still be a way. Like, maybe they can magically replace 'em. I'm sure Celestia can think of something."

    "But I wish I could have done something. I don't have any real authority, I didn't even want to get involved in the politics of the war in the first place. But maybe I could have convinced Celestia to let you stay..."

    "Cadence, don't worry. It's what being in the Guard's about. Besides..." He smiled. "...I saved a village back there. Stopped a whole group of human machines dead in its tracks. That's why the rest of the Guard there had time to get everyone to safety. How many ponies can say they've done that?"

    "You...you're sure? You really don't regret it?" Cadence asked, leaning forward a bit. Shining Armor nodded in return, perhaps a bit more vigorously than was believable.

    The door burst open again; this time, it was Twilight. Tears flowed freely from her eyes, leaving a trail on the floor as she went. Cadence had to step aside to avoid a collision as Twilight immediately threw her head into her brother's chest. When she spoke, her choked-out words were broken up by sobs.

    "So sorry...my fault...I caused it...hate me..."

    For a moment, Shining Armor could only blink and stare in shock. Yes, he knew his sister would be grief-stricken when she found out what had happened to him. What was she saying, though?

    "What? Your fault? Twily, what are you talking about?"

    She lifted her head off of his chest very slightly. "The interview. They hated us because of what I said at the interview. If I'd just been more careful...if I'd planned better, taken the time to learn more about them...we never would've gone to war! and you..." She sobbed.

    "Twily..." His voice was gentle, but firm. "It wasn't. You didn't cause the war, it was gonna happen sooner or later no matter what." For a moment the three were silent, save for the occasional sniff from Twilight.

    For her own part, Twilight racked her brain trying to think of any sort of magic that would let her brother walk again. Certainly, nothing in the standard library of medical spell and magical materials would help - otherwise the royal doctors would have used them a long time ago.

    Perhaps he could get artificial enchanted legs? They were very expensive and difficult things to construct, although she knew that neither of those would be a problem for Celestia. No, the problem was that the ones that existed were ungainly, awkward things. His new legs would allow him to walk, but not much more than that. He certainly wouldn't be fit to return to duty, or do any of the physical activities he used to enjoy.

    Then she thought of the Potion, recalling how it turned humans into perfect ponies no matter their condition when they took it, but that wouldn't work, either. It turned humans into ponies; it wouldn't have any effect on anything else. It wouldn't even be feasible to use it as a starting point to develop a potion that could heal him. It didn't repair the humans' bodies, after all, it created entirely new, random pony bodies. She shuddered at the thought of her brother becoming a completely different type of pony - what would he do if he had to give up the body he'd known his whole life, and become a pegasus or an earth pony?

    The implication of the thought struck her like a sledgehammer. Now, at last, she realized why the humans had fought so hard against Celestia's plan. If she'd been troubled by the thought of her brother having a different body, how must they have felt when Celestia told them they would all require new bodies in the new world she had made for them?

    Yes, they would have all been better off in the long run. That was why Celestia had set her plan in motion in the first place, and required them all to give up their bodies - yes, many of them would be upset for awhile, yes, many would resist, but she'd expected that once they saw how much better things were for those who'd converted, they would go pony for themselves. The barrier was just a push, something to make sure none of them got left behind, to purify their world and ensure that they would all be part of a better future. It was such an obvious choice, especially given the superior physical abilities of ponies, that for the longest time she'd wondered why there'd been any resistance at all.

    For the most part that was still true, of course. The realization began making her think differently about humans, though. Perhaps there was a better explanation for their hostility than an inherent evil and xenophobia? Perhaps their fear and uncertainty had just driven them to act irrationally and reject ponification? She cringed slightly as she thought of the interview again. Even if the war wasn't her fault, she hadn't done a very good job of treating them like actual people, had she?

    Things were, for the most part, simpler for her friends back in Ponyville. They hadn't had anything happen like this to anyone they were close to. Fluttershy and Applejack had had their doubts, of course, but it wasn't anything for them to worry about anymore. They'd been able to go back to their old lives so quickly it was almost as if the war had never happened for them.

    "Twily? Hey, you okay?"

    Her brother's sudden question took her out of her thoughts, and she looked up at him slowly. "Oh, uh, I'm fine. Fine. Thanks for asking. Umm..." Her horn glowed, her saddlebag popped open, and a book levitated out of it and stopped in front of Shining Armor's face.

    "I was just thinking, if you wanted something to read while you were here, you can borrow this if you want. It's all about the history of the Royal Guard."

    Shining Armor laughed. "Thanks, but they make you memorize that when you join."

    Twilight nodded and let the book slide back into her saddlebag. The mood having lightened slightly, they passed the next few hours with idle conversation, as if determined to pretend that everything was normal. They were the first ones there, but not the only ones; their conversations were interrupted periodically by the arrivals of others. Some were nurses or doctors, others were groups visiting their own sons, brothers, or husbands. Finally, when the sun set many hours later, Twilight and Cadence reluctantly rose to leave.
    Only once his wife and his sister had left the room did Shining Armor let his own tears fall.
    ---

    "Here's your bits, see you Monday." said the tan-coated earth pony simply, peering down her glasses as she let the small sum of coins clatter onto the table.

    Lyra hastily thanked her, then used her magic to open her saddlebag and slide them in. After that she swiftly left trotted out of the small, flowery cafe, and into the cool, evening air, eager to get back to her apartment and remove her waitress's uniform.

    A week into it, she didn't particularly enjoy the job, but she was thankful to have gotten it so soon after arriving in Fillydelphia. Being a unicorn had helped with that - it was much easier handling trays, plates, and glasses with a horn than with a mouth, so unicorns tended to snap up the positions when they opened.
    Lyra worked her way through the throngs of ponies as she moved down the sidewalk; all of them were strangers, an endless, nameless parade moving from everywhere to everywhere. It was so different from Ponyville, where she could put a name to almost every face. She was already beginning to make friends here in addition to her EFH contacts two weeks after her arrival, but she still had the odd feeling of knowing she would always be surrounded by strangers. She doubted even Pinkie Pie could have learned the names of all of the tens of thousands of ponies that lived here.

    On the other hoof, there was an advantage to it. After all, nobody in this city knew them, either. Not many ponies outside of Ponyville knew them. It would be hard to find them there, too. She doubted news of their status as the founders of the EFH would even make it very far outside Ponyville. They didn't have to worry about being discovered and being ostracized, especially now that the EFH had been disbanded since there was no more human contact.

    A few minutes later, she arrived at their three-story brick building that housed their apartment. The door swung open, and Lyra found Cheerilee sitting on a cushion in the sparsely-decorated, nearly bare-walled common room of their all-too-small apartment cushions, reading a detective novel.

    "Any luck?" she asked, but the look on Cheerilee's face already told her otherwise.

    "I checked every school in the area, and all the positions are filled. I...I'm not qualified to do anything else."

    Lyra took a forlorn glance at her saddlebag, the bits inside clinking as she shifted.

    "But...I just got paid today. Our money's running out. I'm barely making enough for the rent, let alone anything else. Did Mayor Mare come back yet?"

    "I'm afraid not. She was running out of places to look, anyway. I think her only idea left was to start trying libraries."

    Lyra unbuttoned her white vest and kicked it off, then used her telekinesis to unceremoniously throw them into a wicker laundry basket in the corner of the room. That done, she sat on a cushion across from Cheerilee, staring down at her hooves.

    "I'm sorry I dragged you all into this. I never should've started it up. I cost you your friends and your homes, and soon we might not have any place to go at all. It was all for nothing, too. There's no more Equestrians for Humans, because the humans are gone. We'll probably never see them again. In the end, we couldn't do anything."

    Cheerilee pushed her book aside and looked at Lyra sympathetically.

    "Lyra, it's not your fault. We knew what might happen if we joined you, and we joined you anyway because we didn't believe in what Celestia was doing. Think about what you did. You stood up for those humans, even though everyone else was afraid of them and Celestia herself said such terrible things about them. You risked so much because you didn't think it was right to act so cruelly towards them. Whatever happens, you don't have a thing to apologize for."

    Lyra quietly said her thanks, then levitated her wooden lyre in front of her from a nearby end table and telekinetically plucked a few notes. It wasn't anything fancy, she just needed something to distract herself. Besides, Cheerilee enjoyed the background music.

    About half an hour later, the door creaked open, and both of them turned to it to see Mayor Mare.

    "Good news, everypony! I start at the Smart Cookie public library Monday!"
    ---

    "...leaves three thousand, nine hundred and twenty-one ponies stranded on Earth, eight hundred and thirteen of them newfoals. One thousand and nineteen newfoals are here in Equestria."

    One of Celestia's royal advisors, a butter-yellow unicorn dressed in a sharp gold and blue uniform, looked at Princess Celestia expectantly. He'd just given her the latest demographic report, the result of exhaustive effort that had spanned the three months since Equestria had separated from Earth.

    Celestia and the advisor, Guiding Light, were the only ones in the throne room. The pair of unicorn guards that were usually there were now absent - officially to cover the duties of guards who had been injured or killed in the war with the humans, but the real reason was that recent events had put great pressure on Celestia and she didn't want to risk being seen in moments of weakness.

    At first glance, the room was as grand as ever. Ornate, stained-glass windows depicting momentous occasions in Equestria's history dominated the walls, stretching up to the ceiling, which was so high that anypony on the ground would have to crane their necks up to see it. Celestia peered down at the advisor from atop her golden throne, the base of its seat taller than Guiding Light's head, from which a velvety, ruby-red carpet rolled down to the floor and across the room, all the way to the grand, meticulously crafted oak doors at the entrance.

    At the same time, though, its majesty seemed to have somehow diminished in a way difficult to describe. Ever since the end of the war, it no longer felt like the inspiring center of order and light in the world it had once been. It seemed, in fact, frighteningly ordinary.

    Celestia nodded. "Thank you, Guiding Light. Tell me, based on what you've seen, how have the newfoals been adjusting to their life here?"

    "Overall they're doing quite well, Your Majesty. However, some of them miss their families they unexpectedly had to leave behind on Earth. They seem to understand the necessity, though.

    "There was, however, something unusual that I got reports of from multiple officers. They overheard natural-born ponies expressing concerns about what they described as 'oddness' in the newfoals' behavior."

    Celestia raised an eyebrow. "Oddness?"

    "Yes, Your Majesty. For the most part, it seems, they never assert themselves, and they never get angry. Sad, or frightened, but never angry. They never complain about their workloads, or other ponies, or anything. The only time anypony has seen a newfoal argue with anyone is when somepony around them questions something you've done, or some aspect of Equestria. They don't even get angry then, but they always jump to your defense even if they don't know anything about the situation. And when they're questioned about it, they...they seem confused and slightly agitated."

    Celestia gave the briefest involuntary glance to a folded-up letter next to her before speaking.

    "What have the natural-born ponies been taking issue with?"

    Guiding Light's eyes flickered to the floor. "It's...well, it's mostly about the Earth situation, Your Majesty. They're wondering why we couldn't defeat the humans even with the Elements of Harmony. Some ponies seem to think that since the humans had no magic on their side to counter them, it should have been impossible for us to lose if we were really acting harmoniously. They think we should have been able to defeat them, rather than just be forced to retreat. They miss the friends and family they left behind on Earth. Some of them...some of them seem to have lost some faith in you and Princess Luna. Between that and the strange behavior of the newfoals, they're starting to wonder if there's more to the war than they heard."

    Celestia barely suppressed a cringe. She had, in fact, been personally hoping that the Elements of Harmony would be able to ensure that she could ponify all the humans when activated, but magical tests she had personally undertaken confirmed that they would only be able to separate Equestria from the human world.

    It didn't make a bit of sense. What could be more harmonious than uplifting an intrinsically evil race - to give them a chance to be good that they otherwise wouldn't have had? She had worked so hard to develop the Potion, to shift Equestria into Earth's dimension, and to establish friendly relations and set up the bureaus. And even after all that, she had failed just because the humans were too stubborn and fearful to accept her gift.

    Now that Equestria had retreated back to its own dimension, her ponies were turning against her, and the worst part was that she knew she deserved it. She had not proven strong enough, or wise enough, to convert the humans. She had also, apparently, failed when organizing the team that created the Potion. It was supposed to turn a human into a typical pony - kind, loving, gentle, and selfless. Yet when the newfoals acted like just that, ponies found it odd and off-putting. Even more worryingly, they seemed to shut down far too quickly when asked basic questions. Perhaps their minds were still corrupt? She gave an involuntary shudder at the implication that a dangerous human mind lurked just beneath the surface of what by all appearances was an ordinary pony, just waiting to burst out. She'd hated hearing Guiding Light's report, learning that even after everything that happened, she had scarcely managed to save a thousand of them. Had she failed even at that?

    Acting quickly, before Guiding Light could realize that something was wrong, Celestia nodded. "Very well, Guiding Light. Thank you. You are dismissed," she said curtly. Guiding Light bowed, turned on the spot, and walked out of the throne room at a disciplined and precisely maintained gait.

    Only once he was out of sight did she levitate the letter over to herself, unfold it, and read it.

    To Her Majesty, Princess Celestia:

    I have discovered the true nature of your plans for the humans, and I write this letter to tell you that your actions were unacceptable.

    You claimed that the Kingdom of Equestria should be responsible for all initial contact with their world, in order to ensure that they would not come to harm ours. We and the zebra tribes agreed, well aware of your nation's status as one of the finest negotiators in the world. We did so with the belief that you would befriend the humans if possible, and eventually we would be able to meet them for ourselves.

    What we were not prepared for was your real plan - not to befriend them as they were, but to transform them into ponies, destroying everything they knew and loved in the process. You intended to make them assimilate totally, conform utterly, change them completely without their consent into more ponies and utterly annihilate every trace of their identity - conveniently also vastly expanding your own power base.

    We had been observing their world, too, and our scouts confirmed what their sympathizers in your kingdom told us many months ago. In the humans, we found a race very much like us gryphons. They began as warriors, forced by their harsh and inhospitable lands to fight for survival. And in the midst of it all, like us, they managed to build thriving civilizations.

    Now tell me, Princess Celestia, how exactly do you see us, then? Once you had several billion new followers, did you plan to target us next? Did you plan to eradicate our culture and force us to change our bodies because of our history?

    The world is learning what you have done. Your veneer of invincibility and perfection has been shattered. Sooner or later, you will know accountability for the first time.

    Sincerely,

    Molyneux, Queen of Gryphus
    THE END
     
  6. I've just registered to this site (by following your link.) to give thanks for uploading this.

    It would have been a sad day for Humanity if future generations couldn't read this masterpiece.

    It should be backed up on many sites, art like this should not ever die.
     
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