Cuddly Doom (Chapter 6)

Aug 3rd, 2017
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  1. >I groaned as my eyelids groggily slid open, filling my blurry vision with the rays of early morning sunlight beginning to slyly sift their way through the cracks in the window blinds
  2. >The sun couldn’t have been lighting its brilliant arc through the sky for more than an hour, and the plethora of stimuli racking my body was too much to take in at such an early hour
  3. >From the dull pangs gripping my stomach to the soft, alien bristle of fuzz on my naked body, I didn’t know what sensation to focus on as the office ceiling slowly came into focus
  4. >Please tell me that fuzz is just the carpet… They wouldn’t just abandon one of their herd members here while he was sleeping, right?
  5. >Steeling myself against the unsettling prospect of discovering vivid fur, I raised my arm into view and breathed a sigh of relief as my fingers weakly wiggled
  6. >Trying to settle my hand back on the carpet incurred a brief bout of soreness, but as I tediously rolled my head up to observe the rest my body, I could at least affirm my humanity
  7. >With a hushed groan, I lurched into a seated position on the floor, rubbing an arm and chasing away a brief shiver threatening my spine as the cool morning air kissed my back
  8. >I’d certainly had better mornings than today – ones that started well-fed, well-rested, in a proper bed & proper sleeping clothes, and with humans asleep elsewhere in the house
  9. >My achy bones clicked and creaked as I rose to my feet, warily brushing a hand along my previously soaked clothes now hanging on the office furniture
  10. >While the chokingly humid air filling the room confirmed that they had dried a bit, the jeans and hoodie remained slightly damp
  11. >Still, beggars couldn’t be choosers when it came to armor against the cuddly horde, and I reluctantly donned all of the garments, fruitlessly trying to brush out some of the wrinkles
  12. >While I said a silent prayer that my dry undergarments would stave off the dampness, and hoped that the newly sunny weather would last, I cracked the blinds to inspect the latter
  13. >Through the inch of exposed glass spilling early morning daylight into the office, I caught a glimpse of a few pieces of skybound cotton drifting through an ocean of azure
  14. >The unending patchwork of mostly clear sky was little more than a metaphorical clearing, but surely it was better than dealing with the dreadful downpour
  15. >Except for… well… the Pegasi would be out in force today if I tried to escape campus…
  16. >As if on cue, a couple lurid pairs of wings poked into view on a distant store’s rooftop, their owners idly chatting with a few expressive flicks of the ear and tail
  17. >I watched them curiously from my sheltered vantage as their conversation ended, concluding with a few gusty flaps of their collective wings sending them skyward against the blue curtain
  18. >To my dismay, they proceeded to swoop over one of Carmine Univerisity’s gates dotting its perimeter fence, taking particular interest in it as they crossed the threshold onto campus
  19. >I dared not move a muscle as the flighty arc of the flock of three Pegasi soared past the engineering building in which I’d been ensconced, their watchful eyes fixed forward
  20. >With a few mighty wingflaps, the Pegasi settled their hooves on the flat roof of a building across the quad, and before they’d even finished tucking their feathers in, two more arrived
  21. >Gently sliding the blinds into their native position, I began pacing around the small office, rubbing the back of my neck and suddenly becoming aware of my hammering heart
  22. >Where the hell were all these Pegasi coming from? And of all places, why would they choose to flock on the roof of a campus building, instead of their former homes?
  23. >Maybe they’re just… social creatures, like starlings or geese… and that’s a good nesting place, or mating ground, or whatever…
  24. >Or they know I’m somewhere in the vicinity and are gathering their friends…
  25. >Brushing aside the notion that I could simply inquire about the birdponies’ social behavior upon joining their herd, I tried to distract my perturbed mind by inspecting my belongings
  26. >Unzipping my EMT pouch incurred a sigh of relief as a plentiful – but more importantly, dry and untouched – menagerie of medical supplies came into view
  27. >My aspirin was in Cobalt’s hooves, but as a dull lance of pain poked at my shoulder, I popped an acetaminophen tablet into my mouth and thanked the fact I wouldn’t have to suffer long
  28. >However, while clipping Alexander’s pocketknife into the waist of my jeans, I did notice a peculiarity about the discomfort racking my body, its unpleasant grip now centered on my stomach
  29. >A low grumble from the region reminded me that I’d had nothing to eat since the pair of sandwiches that qualified as yesterday’s breakfast, and my hunger physically hurt by this point
  30. >My parents raised me on the principle that eating everything on your plate was simply good manners, meaning the last time I’d been hungry enough to incite pain was a couple decades ago
  31. >Eyeing the door, I sighed and donned a pair of fresh gloves from my medical kit, the crisp snap of nitrile echoing through the quaint office
  32. >It was time to go scavenging… as for where, I didn’t have a clue
  33. >The campus center had a diverse selection of well-stocked stores, a couple buildings featured small eateries… so much as a single vending machine could supply me for a week or two…
  34. >Still, this building didn’t have any vending machines, and going outside could bring about my death knell manifested in the form of the eager flap of a Pegasus’ wings
  35. >I could appreciate the cover provided by a dense thicket of bushes and trees between my current locus and the sciences building next door, but leaving this building was verily a last resort
  36. >With a click of the doorknob and a loathsome sliding of metal, the office door rolled open, reintroducing me to the slightly dim, vacant hallway I’d been so eager to get out of yesterday
  37. >Trying to keep my footfalls as soft as possible, each hollow step dampened my brow with sweat as the impacts seemed to resonate forever
  38. >I had every reason to believe the ponies were equipped with incredible hearing, and they could be around any corner, waiting for the commencement of less-than-consensual cuddling
  39. >The only respite I found was the fact that, if they were here, I didn’t need to worry much about trying to outrun them anyways – it was nearly futile in a hallway like this
  40. >Going outside would probably earn me a Pegasus hug, staying in would probably earn me a cuddle pile once word got out to the rest of the herd, and hiding would simply delay the inevitable
  41. >I wonder if hugging a unicorn would turn me into a unicorn… Flying was also a tempting ability, but I mean, if I HAD to choose between that and magic…
  42. >Except… Ryan’s girlfriend turned him into a unicorn even though she… he… was a Pegasus, so that… wait, what am I even thinking about?
  43. >I’m not going to give in to these furry bastards!
  44. >Even if it did mean I got to be back with Alexander… Snowfall…
  45. >After fiddling with a half dozen locked office doorknobs, I stumbled upon an open door nestled in a small nook just off the main hallway
  46. >Peering through a small window to the room within, it appeared to a public lounge, and not only had it been blessed by comfy couches and small counter, but it was uninhabited by ponies
  47. >At least, that was the impression I had as I quietly unfolded the pocketknife, toying with the dense heft of its cold steel while my fingers curled around its handle
  48. >Stepping into the lounge and quietly shutting the door behind me, I peered at my surroundings, wondering whether I’d have the will to combat a pony if I were cornered in a closed room
  49. >Such a situation offered the absolute best opportunity for combatting the fiends without attracting their peers, but still…
  50. >Thankfully, as I checked behind and under the couches in the otherwise unfurnished room, I concluded that the question wouldn’t need to be answered, at least not right now
  51. >Briefly sinking into the soft upholstery, I eyed the cabinets looming above and below the counter, their thick wooden and fogged glass doors potentially veiling my next meal
  52. >Shifting onto my knees and inspecting the contents of the lower cabinets, however, yielded nothing more than some useless janitorial supplies and forsaken papers
  53. >I mean, drinking the gallon of bleach would solve my quandary of not wanting to be a pony, but not by favorable means…
  54. >The overhead cabinets proved to be more helpful, as they contained a few soft drinks and supplies pertinent to the defunct tea and coffee makers gathering dust on the counter
  55. >Half an old bottle of apple cider was hardly enough sustenance for the day, but as I wretchedly downed what remained… probably from last year’s Halloween party… it was at least a start
  56. >Chasing the stale aftertaste with an overbearingly sweet sugar cube, I pocketed a bag full of the similarly delicious morsels and eyed the final cabinet in the corner
  57. >Its fogged glass façade was interrupted by a small lock, and shifting my head in an effort to reveal the contents of its dark, cavernous interior proved unsuccessful
  58. >But if it’s behind a lock…
  59. >I unsuccessfully jostled the cabinet door with one hand while the other ventured for the folded knife, gently measuring its weight and contemplating the damage it would do at high speed
  60. >A pony might faintly hear this if they’re in the hallway, but at this point, fuck it, I’d rather funnel them through the room’s narrow doorway than try my luck anywhere else
  61. “Here goes nothing…”
  62. >I gripped the steel mass and drove its inch-long protrusion into the pane, shattering it with an unsettling – yet surprisingly hushed – twinkling of glass shards that tumbled to the counter
  63. >However, I quickly realized that the sound may have simply been overshadowed by my searing agony as I dropped the knife, my arm rapidly being painted with deep crimson
  64. “Oh, fucking hell…”
  65. >As whispered profanities absentmindedly drifted from my lips, blood dripped in a steady torrent from a long gash that had laid claim to several inches of my forearm
  66. >Damn it, this was the last thing I needed right now…
  67. >Reaching across my body into my EMT pouch, I leaned against the wall and began attempting to treat my newly acquired injury
  68. >I suppose I was one of the best equipped people in this post-apocalyptic hellscape to do so, but wrapping a bandage around my arm with one hand proved to be harder than I’d thought
  69. >After a few minutes, the bandage was indubitably stained slightly red, but it superficially made the injury look worse than it really was considering the site was well cleaned and protected
  70. >Had it been worth it though?
  71. >I’d been giving a few furtive glances at the victimized cabinet while treating my wounds, and as I pushed off the wall to inspect it one last time, my disappointment came to a head
  72. >The cabinet was utterly barren… empty… I’d taken a gamble and lost even more than I thought I’d wagered in the first place
  73. >But, like any true gambler, I wanted to believe that my currently disappointing luck would pay off with good fortune in the future… somehow…
  74. >Following a long, agitated exhale, I double-checked the contents of the room, tried to return its appearance to normalcy save for the broken cabinet, and stepped back into the hallway
  75. >Running my hand over the bounty of sugar cubes filling my pocket, I contemplated whether similar plunder accompanied other coffee machines in the building
  76. >There was a coffee maker in the machine shop’s office downstairs… I don’t recall seeing any sugar cubes with it, but it could be worth a look…
  77. >The trek back down the hallway was considerably more relaxed – that is, my steps almost barely resembled those I’d take under normal circumstances – and I soon arrived at my destination
  78. >Pushing the door open with a shuddering creak and stepping onto the metal scaffolding that oversaw the tarnished rows of metal machines, I gently shut myself into the machine shop
  79. >Lingering dust danced amid the rays of light streaming through the sparsely scattered basement windows, and after a few moments of scanning, I descended into the abyss
  80. >My walk to the office was announced with the echoing knocks of rubber-soled shoes on concrete, while one of my hands hovered at the ready in the knife’s general vicinity
  81. >Fortunately, the only beasts to be seen scampering between this aisle’s abandoned drill presses were a few spiders, and a minute later I shut the office door behind me
  82. >To my dismay, my terse foraging through the drawers yesterday evening had evidently been thorough enough, and the only new sights were a few incomprehensible schematic drawings
  83. >There was a heavy implication that the office’s former owner liked her coffee black, as the only relevant supplies were some scattered filters and an unnourishing bag of classic roast
  84. >If I was going to find something for lunch, I would either need to venture into other parts of the building, or consider the prospect of smashing windows… with better arm protection…
  85. >As I mulled over my hungering thoughts, my stomach grumbled again, but with admittedly less painful ferocity as when it had done so this morning
  86. >I hadn’t bothered to read the nutritional information on that bottle of cider lest I depress myself with its scant offering, but it must have done something for me
  87. >Surely the ponies were being well-fed right now… hell, I left behind a backpack full of salads at Carmine Corners… what I wouldn’t give to have even one of those right now…
  88. >While I chuckled darkly about my turn of fortune, organizational paranoia prompted me to straighten the rows the schematics as though that mattered in the wake of society’s collapse
  89. >I shook my head and pulled the office door open, stopping dead in my tracks as the yawning maw of the doorway presented the dim machine shop and…
  90. >My blood ran cold as I stared at the figure standing next to the dimly glistening metal of a bandsaw a few yards away, with a long, white curtain of hair spilling out of her hoodie
  91. >She stood absolutely motionless against the machine except for the slow, dreamlike way she rubbed her arm, the hoodie’s too-long sleeves trailing over her hands by a few inches
  92. >I wanted to say something, but words continually escaped me as I found myself enamored by the piercing color of her pale blue irises shimmering in the scant daylight
  93. >I’ve never seen such a beautiful eyes in my entire life, with the exception of… with the exception of… yesterday…
  94. >“H-Hi J-James…”
  95. >My body faintly trembled as her softly spoken words drifted through the cool air to me, her distinctly feminine voice coming as a surprise, but not an unimaginable one
  96. >Her icy appearance was almost ghost-like, as though I were looking at the resurrected spirit of someone who I’d seen die with my own eyes, and the apparition left me virtually paralyzed
  97. “It… It can’t be… Sky Meadows and Storm Cloud… they both got to you… I thought they won… Alexander… what… what happened…”
  98. >Following a tremulous sigh, she tried to unravel the knot in her own throat before speaking, ultimately succeeding in doing so after a few strained moments
  99. >“Do you… do you remember the last word I said before you ran out of the hallway?”
  100. “Snowfall…”
  101. >“Yes, that’s correct”
  102. “Alexander… Your name isn’t Snowfall… I… I don’t want to call you that; it’s slander to the man I’ve always known you to be”
  103. >“I’m not a man any more, James… Not… Not any more…”
  104. >With tears in her eyes that were as somber and pleading as they were angry, she threw down her hood to reveal her resplendent turquoise ears and the beginnings of a unicorn horn
  105. >Her long flowing mane, now equally unencumbered, tumbled over her shoulders and draped a few inches over her chest, which would’ve been markedly flat for a girl… well, a human girl…
  106. >“I’m as much of a mare by now as I am anything else… I can’t stand to hear you call me that and remind me of what I’ve lost… please… can you please just call me Snowfall?”
  107. “You’re no less of the man I know just because…”
  108. >“That’s bullshit and you know it. YOU didn’t have to go through the feeling of having your masculinity turned into something you don’t even recognize anymore, how would you know?”
  109. “Snowfall, I’m sorry… I… I didn’t mean it like that…”
  110. >She shut her eyes and let out a long, feminine sigh before wiping a tear away with the hoodie’s sleeve
  111. >“When Ryan got genderflipped, I think he was able to take it in stride because he went through the transformation all the way to its end… I wanted to do that… I wanted to so much…”
  112. >“Cuddling with Sky Meadows was one of the best feelings I’ve ever experienced – it was like brushing my face against a cloud of the softest, silkiest fur you could ever imagine…”
  113. >“Not only that, it… it changes you… you feel as though everything’s going to be… alright… I haven’t remotely felt that way since I first showed up at Carmine as a bright-eyed freshman…”
  114. >“The thought that such a life could’ve been in my reach… I wanted that… I wanted that and I wanted to be surrounded by hundreds of ponies who’d given up themselves for the same…”
  115. >“But most of all, I wanted you to share in that… I wanted you to be my best friend in the same way we’d been best friends for years prior… I still do to be completely honest…”
  116. >Instinctively, Snowfall’s words caused my hand to drift toward my waist where the pocketknife resided, just in case the resolve to keep her distance began to waver
  117. >She perked her ears and glanced at my movement, but did nothing to respond to it or acknowledge it
  118. >“I wanted us to live together… together… as ponies for the rest of our lives… To be fair, that wasn’t my original intention – I just made one little slip-up while caring for Sky Meadows…”
  119. >“But when I saw the look of horror on your face when you saw me… like this… I… I didn’t want to lose you, James… You’re right… I want to see this through with you…”
  120. >“I gave up Sky Meadows and Storm Cloud and all the other ponies Sky was telling me about, from Daisy to Clementine Breeze to Morning Star, just so I could have you…”
  121. >“Storm Cloud left Sky Meadows behind because she figured that a couple HOURS of the ponies’ friendship was stronger than our YEARS of friendship… she miscalculated”
  122. >“Yes… the transformation progressed a bit further while we were cuddling for a few moments thereafter, but I’m not all that different… I… I was willing to follow after you…”
  123. >“This horn, this mane, my girly voice? It’s all just appearances… I’m still the same I’ve always been… Please… Go on… Ask any question you want about the time we’ve spent together”
  124. >I balled up my hand into a loose fist and gently knocked it against the door as I thought back to some of the more obscure moments in our friendship
  125. >Maybe, just maybe, the ponies hadn’t taken anything from her the way they had with much of Ryan, and the best friend I’d always known was buried somewhere within Snowfall’s mind
  126. “Do you remember what I wore to the Christmas party last year? The one you helped throw at your house?”
  127. >“The ugly sweater with the reindeer and the sequins on it? I said I’d never forget it; that’s not even a difficult memory to recall…”
  128. “Okay, okay… what was the first movie we saw in our freshman year?”
  129. >“James, you need… it was the first Indiana Jones movie… James…”
  130. >Her head sunk to the floor and she sighed, as if to wordlessly say that the curveballs I’d been throwing were painfully easy
  131. >“James, you need to ask questions about… about the turmoil we’ve been through… that’s why the ponies are so happy all the time – they’ve had all their bad thoughts wiped clean…”
  132. “Wiped clean? Like, purging every bad memory as though it never happened?”
  133. >“That’s right; Sky Meadows was telling me about it, how some ponies forget a little, some ponies forget a lot, but the more the transformation progresses, the more of that chunk they lose”
  134. >Snowfall wanted me to ask her about turmoil? Alexander and I were best friends – we hardly had any turmoil of which to speak… with… just a few exceptions…
  135. “Do you… Do you remember when we went to that event Carmine’s fencing team was putting on? Back in our sophomore year?”
  136. >Personally, I didn’t even want to remember that day myself… we’d accidentally broken one of their foils and almost came to blows over it
  137. >The fencing teams had made comments about just how expensive the swords are, and choice words were an inevitability when Alexander and I became stressed about simply meeting rent
  138. >“I do remember that… I’m not proud of it… but thank God that guy eventually stepped in to let us know the club could just buy a new sword… I’m… I’m sorry for some of the things I said”
  139. “It’s… It’s alright… I’m just glad to see that you remember that day… Snowfall…”
  140. >Much as I found it was tempting to forget that argument, the fact that we’d had it, and got through it with a few beers the following Friday, had made our friendship stronger
  141. >Snowfall pulled up one of her hoodie sleeves, and I did my best not to stare as she inadvertently revealed the infection’s extent on her hand
  142. >The deep turquoise of her fingernails and some patches of fur caught my eye, the sparse coating of fur brimming along her entire arm despite the fact that it hadn’t been directly exposed
  143. >Nervously running her partially-transformed hand along the neighboring sleeve, she drew in a deep breath
  144. >“So, I’m just thinking… if we both make the jump to being a pony at once, we’ll still be together, right? We’ll be in the same herd, we won’t ever need to be apart…”
  145. >The fact that Snowfall had been eager to show me what she recalled from our past, even the bad memories, had gotten my hopes up that she still scoffed at the idea of embracing ponydom
  146. >Evidently, that wasn’t the case, but she clearly prioritized her species below the prospect of living through the apocalypse with a friend
  147. “Snowfall, I’m a bit unsure about that… Just because you’re already half pony doesn’t mean we have to go all the way…”
  148. >“It’s easy, it doesn’t hurt... We know it’s just spread by skin contact, so all we have to do is hug for a minute or two – what, are you afraid of a little mare-on-mare action?”
  149. >I was kinda hoping to be a stallion, if I had to choose…
  150. “Snowfall, I know fully well how this infection spreads… I’m just… I’m not sure…”
  151. >“Look, I know I’m not going to be a Pegasus, and there’s only a one-third chance you will be either, and with both of our friend groups at school already fully pony, that just leaves family”
  152. >I slanted my eyebrows in confusion and leaned against the office’s doorframe
  153. “Hold on Snowfall, you’d be willing to fly, what, eighty miles back home just to make sure your parents were ponies?”
  154. >“Well, I mean, when the transformation’s done that WOULD be a hypothetical IF I were a Pegasus, but I’m just saying, we can settle down and start our lives with the herd RIGHT HERE”
  155. “Snowfall, I just… I need some time to think about this… I don’t know how many times I need to repeat myself”
  156. >Her ears drooped against her head with finality and her voice became soft and sorrowful
  157. >“What’s stopping you? Do you… do you not want to be with me?”
  158. “I do, Snowfall… I just want us to consider everything first… What if there’s a cure, but we need to have at least a shred of our humanity remaining in order to reverse this?”
  159. >What if there’s a cure…
  160. >The thought caused a lot of gears to start turning in my mind, and as Snowfall’s ears gently perked up, it was clear that the notion piqued her interest as well
  161. >What if there’s a cure…
  162. >Silence reigned for a minute or two while we each mulled over the possibility that embracing a life of munching grass and trotting through the fields may not be as inevitable as we’d thought
  163. >Snowfall’s mostly-human face vacillated between optimism and concern, plus every expression in between, before a faint rumbling originating from her stomach distracted us
  164. >We both snapped back to attention and levelled our gaze at each other, before a clap from my hands prompted Snowfall’s ears to twitch slightly
  165. “Right, from the sounds of things, we’d best be getting a move-on! I know I’m famished as well, and while there are Pegasi outside, maybe we can find something in THIS building”
  166. >Bounding past Snowfall to the base of the metal stairs, I climbed half the steep steps to the next floor before realizing that Snowfall wasn’t following my lead
  167. >As soon as the echoes of metal underfoot died away, I began to hear her yearning sniffles as she looked longingly at me
  168. >“I can’t climb those steps…”
  169. “What? Don’t be silly”
  170. >“James, I can’t climb them…”
  171. “Sure you can, Snowfall! You got down the steps in your house, you were always athletic-”
  172. >“But I can’t climb THOSE steep steps, James… I tried… I tried so many times… I tumbled through that window into the machine shop yesterday evening not long after you did, and… well…”
  173. >The closer I looked at Snowfall, the more I noticed the subtle consequences of her night spent sleeping on the hard concrete floor of the machine shop, alone… alone…
  174. >Despite the way she shivered in her slightly damp clothes and ached with each step toward the stairs, it was most apparent she’d been most hurt by the fact she had suffered in solitary
  175. “Let me give you a hand, then? Come on, we’ll get up together!”
  176. >Wistfully, Snowfall took a seat at the base of the stairs, awkwardly wiggled off her shoe, and presented the early beginnings of hoof that the ponies had failed to fully convert
  177. >Her toes had begun to fuse beneath a thick, irregular band of turquoise keratin, and her foot had elongated slightly such that it didn’t entirely fit within the shoe
  178. >Fine hairs bristled in sparse patches along its length, ending at the vivid frontier of her fetlock while the final vestiges of what were once her toes squirmed at the limb’s end
  179. >One patch of fur in particular became slightly soaked by a pair of Snowfall’s tears as they rolled off her face, her gaze slowly transferring from the morphed foot to her friend on the steps
  180. >“They don’t fit well enough into the shoes, and I slip too much to climb without rubber soles… I can’t balance on my own, and the handrails just don’t support enough of my weight…”
  181. >I eyed the door to the hallway from which I’d entered, its metal face veiling a roseate portal to the rest of the building, but nonetheless, an inaccessible one for Snowfall
  182. >It’s right there… it’s less than ten feet away… Ten feet is nothing…
  183. “But there’s… there’s got to be something we can do…”
  184. >“As far as I can tell, the only thing that would help is if a random Pegasus showed up here, and that’s a whole new can of worms”
  185. “The garage door! We’ll go out through there! That’s on a flat surface; you can walk on that!”
  186. >“It’s locked tighter than Alcatraz, and I don’t know where the keys are... Besides, it opens to the outdoors, and somepony would see us…”
  187. >I wiped an eye and groaned as I weakly subsided against the handrail at my side, taking care not to tumble from the steps
  188. “Snowfall… we need to go scavenging but I can’t just leave you here… not again… not again…”
  189. >My thoughts flashed back to yesterday, when my foolhardy quest to find food went horribly awry, all because I’d insisted it’d be best to leave my friend behind in the house
  190. >Not again… Not again…
  191. >“James, that’s how it has to be… It’s so hard for me to say it because the pony instincts I’ve picked up yearn for affection, friendship, closeness… You have to be stronger… for me…”
  192. “Maybe I don’t have to leave for a day or two…”
  193. >“Well, for the time we both stay here in this basement, we’ll either be sitting ducks for the ponies to find us – which I know you don’t want – or we go hungry… Things won’t get better…”
  194. >I have to go…
  195. >With a tortured sigh, I held back tears as the truth set in that I’d be wandering the halls of the engineering building alone, just like I’d been doing during yesterday’s dark, rainy evening
  196. >Although, the silver lining was simply that I knew I wasn’t alone in this town any more
  197. “Okay, Snowfall… I’ll be back as soon as I find something for us to eat… I promise… It won’t be long…”
  198. >While a weepy Snowfall remained seated at the base of the stairs, I found it difficult to leave her presence, very sluggishly making my way up a single step before halting
  199. >After a pause, the rhythmic clink of metal descended and I took a seat on one of the lowest steps, meeting Snowfall at the eye level of an awkwardly seated semi-transformed mare
  200. >She flinched slightly as I raised one of my hands over her head, but relaxed considerably as the texture of my glove met the fur behind her ear
  201. >Leaning into my hand more with each tender scratch, the pony element of her persona temporarily wrested control as her bliss prompted her to let out a gentle nicker of gratitude
  202. >Her half-lidded eyes slid open slightly in embarrassment, but she was greeted with a smile rather than admonishment for her fundamentally equine pleasure
  203. >I can’t be mad at you Snowfall, even if are halfway to earning your hooves… You came here for me…
  204. >After a few minutes spent with my fingers buried in Snowfall’s long, white, flowing mane, I eventually retracted my hand, causing the comfort into which she’d melted to slowly solidify
  205. >Reaching for a sugar cube in my pocket, I offered it to her, and as if she sought to make a point that she was happy to employ her hands, she picked it up and popped it in her mouth
  206. >Making a mental note of her slightly flattened, partially equine teeth, I watched her chew with a beaming smile
  207. >“I will say one thing about being half-pony… these taste amazing…”
  208. >That comment elicited a heartfelt grin from each of us
  209. >Her ears flicked slightly while a subtle expression of contentedness occupied her face, and after our long goodbye, I’d finally found the courage to leave the machine shop
  210. >After a quick triple-check to ensure that my amenity hadn’t inadvertently resulted in a partial infection, I gave Snowfall’s mane a few parting brushes before climbing the steps
  211. >I won’t be long…
  213. >Once the machine shop’s door had silenced its own teetering creak and shut behind me, I sighed and gently trailed my fingers along the crease where the metal barrier met its frame
  214. >A lingering temptress was still whispering to me from my tugged heartstrings, encouraging me to open the door and go back to Snowfall for just a few more minutes… just a few more…
  215. >It was alluring, but I shook my head in an attempt to chase away the thoughts, levelling my gaze down the dim hallway as I refocused on the mission with which I’d tasked myself
  216. >Staring into the gloom, my eyes followed a few lost rays of daylight that wandered through a window to illuminate the row of doors, any of which could be withholding food
  217. >Which ones, though?
  218. >My wariness of unseen ponies nestled among the shadows drove up my heartbeat a bit, but I tried to ignore the concern as my sweaty palm wrapped around the first doorknob
  219. >Jiggling the cold metal, it persevered in firmly resisting my grasp, prompting me to let out an annoyed sigh and ultimately accept that it was locked
  220. >Well, I’d found only two unlocked doors on one side of the corridor, but that had been enough for a place to sleep and a bit of food and supplies…
  221. >One locked door among many wasn’t the end of the world, especially when I still had this OTHER side of this hallway to explore, and countless similar halls within the building
  222. >After shaking out my arms in preparation for the semi-arduous task ahead, I rubbed my hand against my shirt and planted my feet at the entrance to door two
  223. >To my surprise, the knob rolled open with a faint click, and much like its caddy-corner complement across the hall where I’d slept, the yawning door revealed a small office as it opened
  224. >Meager light from the hallway spilled into the modestly furnished room, and I was forced to keep the door open as I rounded the office’s desk, one hand now hovering over my knife
  225. >Fortunately, no ponies lay in ambush amid the darkness – but unfortunately, my dismay grew with each passing second as the office failed to offer anything justifying my foray
  226. “Come on, give me something here…”
  227. >In the span of a couple short minutes, the room descended into calamity, and as the last haphazardly retrieved book subsided in a pile beneath an empty drawer, I wiped my brow
  228. >While leaning against the desk and surveying the irreconcilable mess that hadn’t yielded a single morsel of food, I let out a long, ragged sigh of defeat
  229. >I silently prayed the other offices around here would be different, but as I proceeded down the hallway, my hope gradually turned to despair
  230. >Four of the doors amongst the row had been open – a veritable disaster in terms of security – but it had all been for naught, as each proffered very little of value
  231. >Scattered among the piles of now-worthless research and data, the few packets of sugar and peanuts I found made for a paltry meal, and actually educed a feeling of insult in my gut
  232. >Well, maybe not insult so much as piercing, agonizing hunger, but each hurt in its own right, and the latter was compounded by how I knew my best friend was suffering through the same
  233. >Shutting the final office door in my wake, I walked into the spacious stairwell at the corridor’s end, its regal marble steps guarding the pair of hallways converging at its base
  234. >While I could’ve spent hours rooting through the five labyrinthine hallways on this single floor of the engineering building, curiosity drove me skyward as I stared up the steps
  235. >Amid the distinct lack of hooves echoing from above, my shoes gently thudded against the marble while I set a course for the upper hallways that lines the building’s eastern façade
  236. >Even if I couldn’t find any substantial food by the time I reached the top floor, at least it would give my an opportune vantage of the campus through the stairwell’s slim windows
  237. >Some reconnaissance couldn’t hurt, as watching the Pegasi meticulously inspecting the university gate earlier had been… concerning…
  238. >While I shuddered to admit the fact, it appeared as though the ponies were not only actively looking for me, but also narrowing down their search with each passing hour
  239. >I wanted to formulate a counterplan, but with hunger clamping my stomach, my cascade of priorities seldom allowed me to think beyond basic scavenging instincts
  240. >Far gone were the exciting apocalyptic fantasies of outsmarting the horde with cunningly placed traps… I would be ecstatic just staying human, having a full stomach, and not getting lost
  241. >Making a mental note to keep careful track of my bearings in the academic maze, I climbed into the uncannily familiar rows of doors lining the next floor’s corridor and grasped a doorknob
  242. >Its ceaseless resistance against turning was a harbinger of things to come, considering I progressed past nearly every other office on the floor without any unlocked door granting entry
  243. >I was already inhaling in preparation for a definitive sigh of failure when the final doorknob rolled open with a soft grinding of metal
  244. >As if to compound my surprise, the room within was far more than a simple office, and rather, some sort of storage room, its floors lined with endless racks of old electrical knickknacks
  245. >Shutting the door behind me, the only illumination was midmorning sunlight slanting through cracks in the window blinds, the golden rays causing the metallic stockpiles to glisten
  246. >I had only cursory experience in differentiating the varied resistors, capacitors, diodes, and fuses protruding from the abandoned boxes and breadboards, but I still found myself enamored
  247. >My eyes slowly drifted downward along the rack’s palette, from the glistening yellows of sunlit chrome on the top shelf, to the dull grey of tarnished components, to the vivid blue of…
  248. >A frozen chill ran up my spine as a small patch of blue fur disappeared behind the shelf a few yards away, the subtle shift accompanied by a soft click of hooves against tile
  249. >The prospect of bolting was suddenly extremely tempting, but even with adrenaline surging through my blood, I realized that may have been the worst possible course of action
  250. >I was in a closed room with this pony, who had no visible points of egress except for the door I was guarding, so I at least had SOME control over the situation
  251. >Maybe the pony didn’t see me when I entered?
  252. >The chance of that actually being the case was stupidly slim, but either way, making a run for it now would give them free reign to alert their friends…
  253. >My steps gently carried me across the front of the room while I inspected the cramped aisles of rusted metal, my calmly spoken whisper bouncing among the shelves
  254. “Hey there, little pony… There’s no need to be afraid… I just want to talk…”
  255. >With my heart hammering, I relaxed only slightly upon recognizing a familiar pair of eyes nestled a few yards away at the far end of one aisle, their pupils darting about studiously
  256. “Sky Meadows? Is… is that you?”
  257. >Surveying the rest of her disquieted body, the bandages wrapped around the mare’s faintly trembling barrel provided undisputable confirmation even in the room’s dim shadows
  258. >After a few moments of tense silence with no response beyond a few clicks of nervously shifting hooves, I leaned down and whispered to her again
  259. “Sky Meadows? What’s wrong, dear?”
  260. >As I moved to the mouth of the aisle, Sky Meadows pressed herself against the far wall, which caused me to realize just how badly I was upsetting her by cutting off her escape
  261. >A pony like her had no recourse in the manners of flight or magic, so it dawned on me that her anxiously tensed muscles were justifiable given the situation
  262. >She remained in contact with the wall but allowed her breathing to calm once I took a few steps back, taking a seat with my feet crossed and my eye level lowered to her own
  263. “Sky… I just want to talk… Sky, please…”
  264. >Her ears flicked with each instance of her name, but the only other visible response was a wary step toward the side of the aisle, her eyes quickly wavering between me and the shelf
  265. >With a feeble kick from Sky Meadows’ hoof, a shiny tin box about the size of a soda can came to life and skipped down the aisle toward me, skating to a stop against my shin
  266. >Picking up the odd gift initially divulged little of its purpose, until I noticed the pull tab adorning its top, much as one would find with canned fish or deli meats
  267. >My brief analysis was interrupted by a renewed clattering as a second, similar tin asserted itself among the stocks of metal and slid forward at Sky Meadows’ impulsion
  268. >Comparing it with its counterpart, I found the second had a brassy finish, and its pronounced teeth marks led me to realize that both containers featured such blemishes prominently
  269. “Sky, why are-”
  270. >“I heard your stomach growling even when you were out in the hallway. I promise you: pony flesh doesn’t taste that good anyways. You wanna call us even and go our separate ways?”
  271. “Cut it out, okay? I’m trying to tell myself I’m not the bad guy, and you’re definitely not helping”
  272. >“Then who IS the bad guy, James? I’m trying to sit here calmly and have a nice conversation with you, but I’m kind of terrified to do so after all I’ve heard about you”
  273. “Well, you seem pretty calm…”
  274. >“How am I supposed to be?! Daisy told me all about how you lied to her over and over again, and nearly gave Typhoon Twist and Cobalt a heart attack – by feigning one of the very same!”
  275. >I passively dropped the tins of food to the ground with a thunderous crash, freeing up my hands to spiritedly enunciate my body language
  276. “Sky, you don’t understand! I… I wanted to help, honest… It’s not like I had any choice in the matter; I wasn’t going to become a pony and end up dooming Alexan…”
  277. >My voice trailed off and I faltered halfway through clenching a fist, my gaze wandering away from Sky Meadows amid a long inhale
  278. >I didn’t know whether my bitter response was directed at the ponies for forcing my hand, or myself for abandoning Alexander, or the mare before me for trying to convert my friend
  279. >Maybe it was a convoluted combination of the three, or something different entirely, but least of all, I couldn’t bring myself to fault my friend who said he ‘slipped up’ in earning pony ears
  280. >“You cared about him… You cared about him as much as you cared about yourself…”
  281. >I labored swiftly to untie the knot in my throat before coughing the first words of my response
  282. “He… H-He was my best friend… I thought you and the ponies valued friendship… I thought… I thought, seeing how close you and Storm Cloud were, that you’d understand…”
  283. >“James, I never intended for this to happ-”
  284. “Save it for your fucking diary, Sky; you knew exactly what you were doing!”
  285. >“Blooming apples… I thought I was helping him and I would’ve been more than happy to help you! You treated me wonderfully; why would I want to do anything to hurt you?!”
  286. “Last I checked, infecting people with a species-changing contagion wasn’t the best way to show your gratitude!”
  287. >“Your friend could hardly see straight with that hangover of his! And besides, he started the transformation! I thought when he brushed up against me with exposed skin, he was cuddling!”
  288. >I released a long exhale through my nose, allowing my eyes to wander among the rows of electric components for some time before reestablishing eye contact
  289. “Damn it, Sky… That really doesn’t make me feel any better… Couldn’t you tell he probably did it on accident?”
  290. >“It’s not like there was anything I could’ve done to reverse it at that point… And it would’ve been no problem at all to befriend you as well… It… It still wouldn’t be a problem to do so now…”
  291. >I ran a glove through my hair and let out a long sigh, its pitch falling as my annoyance rose
  292. “I get that it’s ‘pony instincts’ or some bullshit driving you in that direction, but you’re still selling something I ain’t buying…”
  293. >“Please, just hear me out…”
  294. “You really don’t understand that I’m perfectly content remaining a human, as if everything I’ve already told you wasn’t enough”
  295. >“Sweet mercy, James, nopony is going to be giving you that choice! Nopony… nopony except me…”
  296. >As her voice lulled to somber serenity, I felt a shiver race through my body
  297. >“James… I’m… I’m scared for you… I’m so scared…”
  298. >Her lips parted slightly for a few wordless seconds, a telltale sign of the she was circling around the kind of questions that kept her awake at night
  299. >“You’ve become a lightning rod for everypony in town, especially after you kind of confirmed what they thought about humanity being nothing more than depraved remnants of their past…”
  300. “Didn’t you tell them about how I was treating your injuries? And surely they remember all the GOOD that humanity has done?”
  301. >“I tried, but since joining the herd, none of us recall the full extent of human evil, and we jump to thinking the worst… Sure, you helped me, but only because another human sliced up my gut…”
  302. >I always knew that certain ponies had specific individual reasons for assimilating me into the herd, but this revelation that the collective tide of opinion flowed as such was newly disquieting
  303. >No wonder the single Pegasus sentry I’d seen yesterday had swelled to a flock of five upon a single rooftop, and in the span of only a few short hours…
  304. >Trying to distract myself from the situation’s gravity, I rolled up the sleeves on my hoodie and pried open one of the food tins, exposing a deliciously glistening slab of salted meat
  305. >My stomach languidly roared as I expeditiously inspected this heavenly instance of the age-old distraction that food afforded
  306. >Throwing my head back and swallowing a piece of the container’s contents with minimal chewing, I fought to sway the solemnity written in Sky Meadows’ expression
  307. “So what you’re telling me is, I’m the bad guy – I’m the nail that needs to be hammered down with brute force”
  308. >“But you’re not, James… Not to me… I’ve seen the real you, and I don’t want you to… get hurt… Not any worse than you already are…”
  309. >My lips drew back and I slowly let my hoodie sleeves drape back down to my wrists, submerging the crimson bandage wrapped around my forearm in grey fabric once again
  310. >“If we were to snuggle, you know that would be healed immediately, right?”
  311. “I’ll survive…”
  312. >“James, one way or another, you’re going to be befriended within the wrought iron cage of this campus fence – it’d take a miracle or the might of a seven nation army to sidestep that fate”
  313. >“I’m offering you the chance to do so in the loving hooves of somepony who sees the good in you and wants to help you across the threshold because she feels the need to return a favor”
  314. >“When Storm Cloud and Daisy befriended me, they were smiling through it all… the only bad part was that Storm Cloud’s excitement led her to ruin a perfectly good shirt and pair of shorts”
  315. >“It was about making friends to play with… Back then, it didn’t carry the weight of protecting our herd the way it does now…”
  316. >“It feels like that was so much more than two days ago… All too quickly we had to put on masks and build the dams we prayed would hold back our imagined torrents of blood”
  317. >“I’ve set my mask aside for you, but I don’t know what lengths these other ponies are willing to go to in order to befriend you before they’d be willing to take off theirs…”
  318. >“I can’t… won’t… force you to do so, but I’m asking you to peacefully throw away your clothes, join us, and let us go back to what life as a pony is supposed to be, sooner rather than later”
  319. >“It’d be a wonderful thing for us to snuggle, James… All we ever wanted to do was play…”
  320. >Sky Meadows fell silent, and the whole room followed suit for what was likely a full minute, with nothing except my own beating heart providing any audible rhythm in the timeless serenity
  321. >I mean, I couldn’t be faulted for wanting to stay human, especially when things in my life had actually been going quite smoothly up until Friday evening… right?
  322. >Decent grades, good health, I paid my taxes and tuition, and to cap it all off, my history with Carmine Ambulance meant I was a great EMT, with no indications that any of that would cease
  323. >I would’ve been just fine if not for the ponies, and their intrusion into my life was a perfectly valid thing to resist!
  324. >And it was ridiculous to think that every reshaped man, woman, and child in this town now bearing four hooves would’ve desired that fate to begin with
  325. >They’d forsaken their own lives of waking up for school and work every morning, and to what end, exactly? Friendship, or some swill like that?
  326. >I was vindicated in raging against the herd until my final human breath, considering it was simply a pyramid scheme of fuzzy hooves, and to become embroiled in it was a grievous tragedy!
  327. >Just… don’t pay too much heed to the fact that the ponies are so… friendly and jovial once it’s done…
  328. “Sky Meadows, tell me, what are…”
  329. >My voice started cutting through the stillness like a hot knife through butter, but rapidly cooled and subsided to nothing as I realized this wasn’t a question for me to debate with her
  330. >She had asserted it best when she’d pointed out that it was a decision only I could make
  331. >I didn’t meet Sky Meadows’ eye contact even though I could tell she was looking intently at me, instead opting to bow my head and contemplatively rub my palms together
  332. “I’m sorry, Sky… I wish the best to your herd and every one of the ponies in it, but I’m just… not ready yet… I’m not ready to give up my humanity and join you… I’m sorry…”
  333. >It took me a few moments to notice that she was sedately nodding, staring at the floor intently as though it were a window to the alternate universe in which I’d agreed to join her
  334. >“There’s no need to apologize, James… I just hope that whoever does befriend you isn’t too harsh… You’re not a bad person… You’re… You’re peachy keen…”
  335. “I… I needed to hear that… Thanks…”
  336. >After shooting her a weak smile, I was interrupted by my stomach’s continued protests, as the single piece of salted meat had discernably not been enough to fully sate my hunger
  337. >Once I’d downed the rest of the first tin’s contents, I pried at the tab of the second unlabeled container, its weak lid shearing unevenly around the deep teeth marks dotting its surface
  338. >Sky Meadows’ prior interest in the secretive tin was apparent as light started streaming into the colorful interior, its gloom now giving way to a generous helping of green beans
  339. >Faint guilt tugged at my heart, as the boxy figure of the tin had falsely led me to believe I’d encounter some nourishment that would’ve been inedible to her anyways, likely meat or fish
  340. “Woops, well, how about we split these green beans fifty-fifty, seeing as you found them, but I was the one who got the tin open”
  341. >I held out the opened tin and began to tip it to its side, but Sky Meadows shook her head, curtly chuckling before my wrist had made it beyond dripping a bit of juice onto my finger
  342. >“I’M not hungry, but I can tell that the meat wasn’t enough to fill your stomach by itself. It’s all yours”
  343. “Are… do you mean it?”
  344. >My stomach softly grumbled as if to question why I was doubting her, causing me to faintly blush
  345. >“James, of course I do. The ponies are having no trouble at all finding food – I don’t say that as, like, a temptation for you to join us; I’m just saying, we’re good on food”
  346. >The ponies, maybe, but my mind drifted back to the famished friend awaiting my return in the machine shop as I folded the tin’s lid neatly back in place and clutched it at my side
  347. >Snowfall may not have been fully equine yet, but if her altered taste buds had been any indication, the infection had probably already done a number on her inclination toward meat
  348. >These green beans, on the other hand, would hit the spot
  349. “Thanks, Sky, I’m going to save these for later and eat them then”
  350. >Sky Meadows paused, cocking her head to the side inquisitively before issuing a response
  351. >“You know, I was wondering whether you’d found Snowfall – whenever we were talking, she made it sound as though you two are a very happy pair”
  352. >Fuck.
  353. >Don’t tell her anything just in case she intends to finish what she started…
  354. “I thought… I thought she was with you… Well, anyways, yeah, thanks for the green beans…”
  355. >She let out a pleasant giggle at my humiliatingly unconvincing lie
  356. >“Oh James, I know you wouldn’t want to be carrying around that tin unless you were bringing it to her”
  357. “Maybe I’m just not hungry enough to justify eating them right now – I’m saving them for later; why would you believe that’s so crazy?”
  358. >With a heartfelt grin, Sky Meadows fluttered her lashes and spoke with a warm sweetness that would’ve given Christmastime dessert a run for its money
  359. >“I think it’s really delightful that you’d be willing to remain a bit hungry just so she can have something to eat… No wonder she ran after you… You two belong together…”
  360. >I stared at my feet for a few moments and inattentively drummed my fingers on the side of the tin of green beans
  361. “Sky, you didn’t finish befriending her like I’d thought you would…”
  362. >“If the notion bears any weight, you and she can befriend each other… I offered myself because I hadn’t known whether you’d found her and thought it too sensitive to bring up”
  363. >As much as I still wanted to implement every reasonable option to stay human, the idea that had been proposed by Sky Meadows was alluring, if ponification were truly inevitable
  364. “Maybe…”
  365. >“And after taking the plunge, you could celebrate with me; I live…”
  366. >Sky Meadows stopped and drew her lips back, suddenly skeptical about whether she wanted to divulge the place where she slept, reclined, and was generally her most vulnerable
  367. >“You can find me in the dean’s office on the top floor of the sciences building most of the time. Apples taste amazing as a pony and we have a whole crateful there”
  368. “You better hope I don’t end up as a Pegasus because you’re going to make me too fat to fly with all this food!”
  369. >“Ah, well, what’re friends for, right?”
  370. >We were both smiling and chuckling, but I still found myself wiping away an appreciative tear with the sleeve of my hoodie, in light of her marvelous generosity
  371. “Sky, I’m in your debt; I mean it. I would give you a big ol’ hug if it didn’t… you know…”
  372. >I reached into my pocket and pulled out a couple of sugar cubes, rolling them in my hand as Sky Meadows watched from her vantage a few yards away at the aisle’s end
  373. “This is the very least I could do… Snowfall tells me these taste really good to ponies, though I can’t speak from experience…”
  374. >“Holy cow, you have no idea! They’re amazing!”
  375. “Someday I’ll know… Just as a show of good faith…”
  376. >I reached across my body with my free hand and grasped the pocketknife clipped at my side, prompting Sky Meadows to shift back ever so slightly, the mare acting mostly on instinct
  377. >With a fluid flick of the wrist, the folded knife arced through the air across the front of the room, crashing into the tile and loudly clattering to a stop amid the shadows of a back corner
  378. >However, almost immediately after it’d vanished between a pair of dusty computer monitors, a different, rhythmic clattering rose up in the other direction from where I’d been looking
  379. >Turning my head to investigate, all I saw was the slender beam of light from the ajar door and a purple blur before something violently crashed into my stomach, knocking me to my side
  380. >Finding my lungs abruptly voided of air, the only sound I could make were a few seconds of labored gasping while a pair of animated female voices spoke up
  381. >“Good work on getting him to throw away his knife – you could be, like, a police negotiator!”
  382. >“Storm Cloud, what the hay are you doing?! Leave him alone!”
  383. >“Relax, he won’t be hurt when this is all done”
  384. >“I’m serious, stop, stop!”
  385. >As I sluggishly reacquired my bearings, my head rolled from its slack position staring at the wall, eventually bringing into focus the muzzle of a familiar purple Pegasus
  386. >Not only had she and I already been acquainted, but as I made a half-heartened effort to move my hands, I recalled that this wasn’t the first time I’d found myself pinned by her either
  387. >“At least you’ve learned by now that you’re not escaping from me… No point in moving your hands… There, there, that’s a good boy…”
  388. >Storm Cloud slyly smiled, the glistening of her pale teeth standing out starkly against the dull backdrop of the grey speckled ceiling overhead
  389. >Sky Meadows cautiously approached her aggressively breathing friend, gently setting a hoof against her side as the warm scent of the Pegasus’ last meal wafted down onto her prey’s face
  390. >“Storm Cloud… Please… Get off him…”
  391. >“No worries, Sky – I’m just messing around a bit”
  392. >“You don’t have to do this, why is it that whenever you meet a new human you have to do this? Every story you’ve told me it’s always like this”
  393. >“Oh, come on, Sky, it gets boring after nineteen of them! Way back when, making friends with you was at least fun…”
  394. >“You’ve been keeping track? Nineteen?”
  395. >“Well, sure, I’m trying to close in on Clementine Breeze because she says she’s got twenty-two, so I’m practically there at this point!”
  396. >“You’re unbelievable! These aren’t toys for you to play around with – he’s a person with a heart, mind, and soul! He’s just as special as you and me and we need to look out for him!”
  397. >“And soon he’ll be a pony, and he won’t have to worry about any of what I’ll have done to him. Plus, don’t worry, I know he’s special… I know aaaall about the things he’s done…”
  398. >As Storm Cloud spoke with ominous confidence, she shifted her weight forward, driving her hooves into my gloves with more and more force until she elicited a weak yelp of agony
  399. >The cry that resonated through the room was much like that of a dog biting on a chew toy, and to say that she paralleled the dog in the metaphor… wouldn’t have been inaccurate
  400. >“You’re hurting him! Stop, stop! Just because he’s going to be healed and ultimately forget about this doesn’t make it okay!”
  401. >With an annoyed groan, Storm Cloud shifted some of her weight back onto her hind hooves, relieving the worst of her draconian torment
  402. >“Alright, alright, here, I’ll get it over with. I’ve been wanting to try this: you get a drop of spit and let it drip down toward ‘em, and it’s fun because you get to watch ‘em squirm for a sec”
  403. >My eyes went wide and my legs weakly kicked at nothing in particular, but I knew the strength stored in Storm Cloud’s equine muscles was too much of an opponent
  404. >I silenced my breathing upon realizing that each of my short, desperate breaths was accompanied by a pitiful whine, which for all I knew was half the fun for Storm Cloud
  405. >“Come on, that’s nasty… Spit? Really? Why would you ever come up with that?”
  406. >“What? You can do a lot with it. You can, like, swing it back and forth like a pendulum, and then when it hits them and rolls down the cheek, you get to see what color of fur they-”
  407. >“Storm Cloud! I say this as your friend: please get your hooves off of James. I promise he’s not going to run or fight. Promise”
  408. >The purple Pegasus shut her mouth, briskly waffling her gaze between her friend and the origin of her disdain underhoof
  409. >Eventually she leaned close to me, keeping her mane a few inches away as she met my terrified expression with narrowed eyes
  410. >“I don’t know how you convinced her to help you, but you get out this time…”
  411. >After a moment’s pause, the weight lifted from my hands, and as the purple titan above me shifted to the side of the room, I groaned and began rubbing my aching hands
  412. >Sky Meadows' calculated hoofsteps brought her to her friend, a stern expression written in the blue pony’s face as her friend’s wings flared out slightly
  413. >“James didn’t ‘convince’ me of anything – he was about to put in the stitches on my injury before you came barging in here with all the feather-fluttering manners of a schoolfilly!”
  414. >I couldn’t recall ever seeing Sky Meadows so angry, and moreover, I couldn’t tell to what degree she was acting for my sake as Storm Cloud backed up and flattened her ears
  415. >“I didn’t… I didn’t mean…”
  416. >“Yeah, you better not have! Just hope that James’ hands are still okay to do this. James, you’re okay, right? Your gloves aren’t torn or anything?”
  417. >Without verbalizing my response, I gave a nearly imperceptible nod of affirmation, which Sky Meadows returned in kind with considerably more conviction
  418. >“Then let’s get this over an done with”
  419. >Sky Meadows shooed Storm Cloud to the far side of the room near the door, the Pegasus’ wings pressed against her barrel and her tail tucked culpably between her legs
  420. >I rose to my knees and unzipped my EMT pouch to fish around for the supplies I would need, taking my time as I noticed that I was still in a daze from Storm Cloud’s harsh treatment
  421. “Sky, is it okay if I pick you up? Like, lift you? Just to verify that my math is right when it comes to the anesthetic dosages?”
  422. >“Yeah; do what you need to do, James”
  423. >Maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised by how cooperative Sky Meadows was through the whole procedure… Years of treating a lot of drunks and combative humans had left me jaded
  424. >Still, as I planted my feet and briefly lifted her about her barrel, I was struck by how calm and trusting she felt, with not a single unrelaxed muscle to be found while in my grip
  425. >The pattern of good faith continued as I changed gloves, removed her bandages, administered the local anesthetic, numbed the region surrounding her lacerations, and made the first stitch
  426. >Doing my best to ignore the curious and exceedingly concerned pony watching from a few feet away, I gradually worked to banish the band of crimson to its rightful place below her fur
  427. >A few leery minutes later, Sky Meadows’ wounds had been effectively closed, and the last of the alcohol from a barely mired cleaning wipe had already predominantly evaporated
  428. >With a sigh of relief from every mouth in the room, the procedure had been a smashing success, and was complete save for the healing process that lay ahead
  429. >Where red lines had once snaked across Aky Meadows’ stomach, a fresh bandage was now burying clean blue fur with a few faint zigs and zags where the sutures resided
  430. >I could only wonder whether I’d still have my hands when it came time to remove them in a week or two…
  431. >“I can stand up, right, James?”
  432. “Yes you can, Sky. Walk about all you want; you did great”
  433. >After quickly swapping my gloves again and zipping up my pouch, I plunged a hand into my pocket and returned with a sugar cube, gently holding it in front of her eagerly glistening eyes
  434. >Sky Meadows stuck her tongue out and tamely brushed against the sweet morsel before tenderly gripping it between her teeth and shutting her mouth around it
  435. >With a cheery smile, she let out a murmur of pleasure, her jaw perceptibly shifting while her tongue played with the tasty treat
  436. “Storm Cloud, would you like one too?”
  437. >The Pegasus responded with a distant gaze that definitely wasn’t focused on me, and the more I studied her, the less she seemed to center on Sky Meadows either
  438. >“I’m good. Sky, we done here with what he needs to do?”
  439. >Sky Meadows, still basking in the bliss of the sugar cube’s taste, trotted to her friend with a lingering smile
  440. >“You heard him – it went great! He’s an excellent surgeon and a good guy, from head to foot!”
  441. >The Pegasus dropped her head, agitatedly rolling it back a moment later to look at her friend as her mane draped into position
  442. >“Okay, cool, so we don’t need him for anything else?”
  443. >“I mean… I… I guess not?”
  444. >“Awesome, so am I befriending him, or do you want to?”
  445. >Sky Meadows didn’t break eye contact with her friend as she let out a long, audibly irked exhale through her muzzle
  446. >“Storm Cloud… What’s the rush? We can wait, like… a day or two? You’ve seen the kind of guy he is… He’s clearly not going to hurt anypony…”
  447. >Storm Cloud reached out with a hind leg and nudged the room’s door shut, its knob sliding into place with a faint click
  448. >“We’re doing this now. So do you wanna do this or am I? I certainly wouldn’t mind closing the margin between Clementine Breeze and myself…”
  449. >Sky Meadows swallowed the sugar cube and sighed, briefly hanging her head before chewing on her lip and reestablishing eye contact with the impatiently waiting Pegasus
  450. >“Storm, you and I are the best of friends, and you’re generally pretty forgiving, right?”
  451. >“Yeah, why do you ask?”
  452. >“What if I were to tell you that it’d be better to let James leave this room, fully human? Like, as if… maybe we misjudged him?”
  453. >“I’d forgive you for doing whatever crazy drugs you’re on… Why, is that… is that what you’re about to say?”
  454. >“No… No it’s not… But… in that case, as your friend, please forgive me for this…”
  455. >Sky Meadows stepped close to her friend, wrapping her hooves around the other pony’s barrel between her wings and neck
  456. >“Sky, I don’t understand… what…”
  457. >Storm Cloud was cut off as her co-cuddler’s hug tightened, not with any visible intent to hurt her, but with a grip composed of tensed muscles that shown no intention of release
  458. >“Sky, that’s a little tight!”
  459. >With a shuddering crash that sent a couple small boxes of electrical components tumbling to the floor, Sky Meadows’ legs buckled, bringing the pair of ponies down in a heap
  460. >By now, Storm Cloud was flailing her limbs in an attempt to break free of the embrace, her wings smacking and twitching in every direction amid a fruitless contribution to the effort
  461. >“Sky, let go of me! Knock it off!”
  462. >The Pegasus bucked against a shelf, sending a horrifically loud crash of metal echoing through the room, but doing nothing successful to escape Sky Meadows' grasp
  463. >As the two shifted on the floor, Sky Meadows’ eyes turned enough to steal a glance at me, her stoic expression saying a single word that her gritted teeth wouldn’t
  464. >Run.
  466. >With the help of a nearby shelf, I hastily kicked myself to my feet, the hollow echo of my shoes against the ground barely registering against the backdrop of the scuffling ponies
  467. >Clutching my hand along the side of my thigh, I was relieved by the faint rustling of my EMT pouch, but dismayed to realize my pocketknife was veiled in the shadows at the room’s far end
  468. >Naturally, when I tossed it aside as a show of good faith to Sky Meadows, it’d cleared several boxes littering the ground and cleanly slid into a tight space among some computer hardware
  469. >The window of time for me to escape was closing rapidly, and the precious seconds spent laboring to retrieve it might’ve been the difference between escaping the herd, and joining it
  470. >Once Storm Cloud broke free of Sky Meadows’ grasp – and it was only a matter of time – she would be more than appetent to demonstrate how much of a worthy opponent she truly was
  471. >No more games… she had her nineteen conversions, and she’d already milked the tentative twentieth for all the fun it was worth
  472. >As adrenaline surged through my blood, I quickly stepped toward the room’s currently shut door, crushing a generous heap of scattered green beans underfoot in the process
  473. >Sky Meadows had driven her friend far enough away from the door to grant its opening, but Storm Cloud was neither unaware, nor apathetic, of what that meant in regard to my getaway
  474. >Desperately, her wing crashed into a shelf that proceeded to spill several cartridges of old magnetic tape onto the pair of ponies, but did nothing to roll the entanglement toward the door
  475. >As Storm Cloud drove a hoof into her friend’s foreleg, Sky Meadow howled in pain, but proceeded to tighten her hug further amid the flailing
  476. >“Sky, think about what you’re doing! He’s a human! He’s going to go out and hurt somepony, and their blood’s going to be on your hooves! Lives are at stake!”
  477. >“You don’t know him! Even if you’re not going to give him a chance, at least I- ow, ponyfeathers!”
  478. >With a gut-wrenching crash, a line of fresh crimson began searching for the ground as it flowed from a newly opened wound on Sky Meadows’ cheek
  479. >Years of medical instinct drove one of my hands to the unmoved zipper on my EMT pouch, but my persuasive decades of survival instinct obliged the other hand toward the doorknob
  480. >The zipper remain silent and the door rolled open, filling the hallway with the cacophony of the wrestling adversaries as I spared one last glance and prayer
  481. >Storm Clouds’ eyes were pinched shut as she bucked her legs, while Sky Meadows had opened her eyes a crack, the misty orbs instantaneously commenting a thousand words of regret
  482. >It was uncanny reminiscent of Snowfall’s expression upon acknowledging the slip-up had had ultimately led to her pony ear acquisition, and my heart became heavy for the friend I’d left
  483. >In my reluctance to tune in for three rounds of bare-hooved pony wrestling, I threw the door shut, its latch definitively clicking as the tussle within vanished from view and grew muffled
  484. >Despite their incessant shouting, the mare’s voices became fainter with each passing moment, as I raced back toward the stairwell from which I’d entered the corridor
  485. >Given Storm Cloud’s impeccable hearing, breaking line of sight with her might not be enough once she left the room, and in order to maximize my chance of escape I…
  486. >My blood went cold as a flurry of grey fur and feathers ahead filled the stairwell’s far wall, the inquisitive head of Pegasus halting halfway through his descent from the next highest floor
  487. >Dim sunlight from a nearby window illuminated his foul, self-satisfied grin as he peered down at the unfortunate soul for whom he’d been searching
  488. >If ever there were such a thing as a cautious sprint, I employed it as I approached the stairs that would lead me down toward the lower hallway, and ultimately, the machine shop’s door
  489. >Cobalt, on the other hand, had another fate in mind for me
  490. “Cobalt, leave me the hell alone! I’m unarmed, dude!”
  491. >“Oh, well, that certainly does make this easier!”
  492. >Before I even had time to process the ramifications of my own damning words, Cobalt’s wings snapped outwards and a grey blur filled the stairwell, rapidly swooping downwards toward me
  493. >I pivoted to avoid him in front of the final office door, succeeding in doing so except for a single hoof that clipped my shoe, sending me sprawling while I slid onto the stairwell’s marble floor
  494. >Adrenaline drowned out the newfound pain signals, and as my hands pushed off the floor, I could only stare longingly into the dim abyss of stairs a few inches to my side
  495. >If Cobalt’s approach to the circumstance was anything like Storm Cloud’s, and by all definitions it probably was, then hypothetically tackling me on the stairs was more than acceptable
  496. >Not to mention, he could probably glide down four flights in the same time I descended one, unless I did so with reckless abandon and didn’t mind breaking my ankles at the base
  497. >With a couple ragged gasps, I dove into the darkness of another hallway behind a utility door, my own frenetic breathing managing to drown out the trailing scramble of hooves quite well
  498. >Landing myself in the new hallway just beyond the door was less than ideal, but as I slammed the solid door shut and braced myself against it, I could at least agree it beat the alternatives
  499. >Near-certain ponydom lay in every other direction, so maybe here I at least stood a chance…
  500. >My briefly illuminated glimpse of the gloomy corridor offered a glimmer of hope… a faint one…
  501. >I didn’t know where I was given my limited knowledge of the engineering building, but assuming each floor roughly resembled its counterparts, I was one floor and one hallway from my target
  502. >Now if only I could see further than my hand, six inches in front of my face… Clearly, this hall depended on artificial lights in its heyday…
  503. >With a faint slip and a muted crash that metallically echoed through the darkness, the steel door shuddered as Cobalt semi-successfully came to a stop against the barrier
  504. >The door’s latch was secured by a horizontal push bar just above waist level, meaning that I could audibly discern Cobalt rearing on his hind hooves in an attempt to open it
  505. >Although his prodding foray was remarkably unsuccessful against the terrified human braced on the other side, the repeated clicks of the bar meant he wasn’t beyond scrutiny and siege
  506. >If I were to leave the door alone, he’d easily be able to swing it open quite easily… or force it open if he had a bunch of extra friends to help him…
  507. >“James, I know you’re right on the other side of this door. It’s unlocked. Come on out here so we can talk. I know you don’t want to be a pony and that’s okay. I just want to talk”
  508. >His voice was stern and unsettlingly devoid of compassion, prompting me to remain as silent as possible to the point that even my formerly harried breathing slowed to a halt
  509. >“James, I can wait here all day, here at the eastern utility door to Hallway 2-C, but both of us are strapped for time. Let’s just talk”
  510. >A gulp, a cough, and an anxious sigh did little to prepare me for the weak response I soon issued forth
  511. “W-We… We can talk through the…”
  512. >“Through the door. Yes we can. Although I’d much rather if you were out here”
  513. “I’m not going to do that… please, what do you want?”
  514. >I was fully aware that Cobalt was probably stalling, especially given the strange manner by which he’d identified the hallway in which I was hiding, as if speaking to an unseen entity
  515. >However, without any visual cues amid the darkness of 2-C, and with the intermittent probing of Cobalt’s hooves against the door’s push bar, there were no preferable options
  516. >“James, you’re a good guy, right?”
  517. “I’d like to think so… but clearly YOU don’t believe that’s true”
  518. >“I do, James. Through all of this, you’ve only been doing what you need to do, right?”
  519. >That was essentially what I’d told myself while scurrying amid yesterday’s muddy downpour, but the more I pondered the question, the more I needed to ask myself what I truly ‘needed to do’
  520. >I didn’t need to stay human… I’d survive as a pony…
  521. “I… I guess so… I haven’t gone out of my way to hurt anypony, and I’m… I’m so sorry for what I did to your marefriend… really… I’m sorry…”
  522. >“You regret telling her she was going to die?”
  523. “Come on Cobalt, you know that’s exactly what I’m saying… I didn’t mean to cause any unneeded distress… I just… I didn’t want myself or the people I care about to be ponies…”
  524. >“And as I understand it, that’s still the case. That’s fine by me. But can I ask you something? If you could apologize to Typhoon Twist, would you do it?”
  525. “Of course I would… I can hardly imagine what mental anguish she went through…”
  526. >“You didn’t want to put her through any mental anguish, James. Don’t blame yourself. She wants to forgive you for what you did, except, well, I don’t know how interested you’d be”
  527. “What, are you serious? I feel terrible for not returning to the store! The chance to m- Wait… Wait, she wants me to show her forgiveness with a big ol’ ponifying hug, doesn’t she?”
  528. >“It would mean a lot to her – the opportunity to show that she’s gracious and welcoming to those who set aside their evil, or in your case, lying, selves for the good of their fellow ponies”
  529. “I get that, but surely I don’t need to reiterate… well, you understand…”
  530. >“I do, James. You don’t want to be a pony. You’re not necessarily in the wrong for thinking that way. After all, it’s not like it’s a crime to do… um…”
  531. >Cobalt cut himself off mid-sentence as the tinny ringing of his voice through the door gave way to a few heavy seconds of silence
  532. “Cobalt… what’s with the patronizing language? Why do I feel this is more than a friendly, casual chat between a human and a lone Pegasus?”
  533. >While his ensuing sigh didn’t come as much of a surprise, the fact that it was so loudly audible through the door caused me to furrow my brow
  534. >“Okay, you got me. I don’t know exactly where I’m trying to take this conversation. In retrospect, it was a fool’s errand considering my friends took away a lot of my practical experience”
  535. “I don’t follow…”
  536. >“I’m no longer familiar with how negotiating tactics are really supposed to work in practice… I probably used them a lot while on the force, but they were never exactly good memories…”
  537. >I could practically hear Cobalt shrug as he spoke, the Pegasus discernably arriving at a verbal impasse
  538. “Wait, were you, well and truly, a police negotiator before you became a pony?”
  539. >And not a particularly good one, at that…
  540. >“Well, James, I don’t know how often you kept up with local news outside Carmine’s campus, but if you ever saw references in the newspaper to officer ‘Bill McAverlee,’ that’s… was… me”
  541. “Okay, so you weren’t specifically a negotiator…”
  542. >“Yeah, well, I can at least tell you I didn’t work as one of those full-time”
  543. “Okay, what kind of things did Officer McAverlee do, then? Take a seat, tell me your story”
  544. >I was hopeful if I could get Cobalt talking, he would stop probing the door’s latch enough for me to take a quick tactile survey of my surroundings amid the unforgiving darkness
  545. >Much to my dismay, as I remained braced in the sealed doorframe, a weak click of the door’s push bar signaled that I wouldn’t be afforded a search any time soon
  546. >“I can’t remember much, and besides, the fact that you’re running around here has me worried that time is running out”
  547. “Of course time’s running out… There are, what, like, a dozen ponies probably looking for me in this one building, right?”
  548. >“No, this isn’t about you… I wasn’t talking about YOUR time running out. I’m talking about my son… he’s… he’s gone missing…”
  549. “Well, he’s gotta be ONE of the foals running around here, and the transformation could’ve made him a girl if you haven’t considered looki-“
  550. >BAM
  551. >My head was knocked from its spot against the door as a mighty shockwave rippled through the metal, the distinctive report of hard hoof keratin confirming that the door had been kicked
  552. >Even though my vision had briefly gone blurry and I’d found myself in a mental daze, the door remained firmly shut, as Cobalt hadn’t engaged the latch at the moment he struck
  553. >“Ponyfeathers, that kinda hurt…”
  554. >A disheartened rhythm of hooves clicked to the floor as Cobalt gathered the emotional shards that my overly simplistic observation had left scattered, dripping with heartless disregard
  555. >“Please forgive me for losing my temper… James, I’ve done everything I can do at this point… Everything… I just… I miss him so much… My patience is wearing thin…”
  556. >I rubbed my forehead with my mind straining to formulate a coherent sentence, as a dull cerebral pounding still faintly lingered from Cobalt’s outburst
  557. “You’ve talked to all of the other ponies in your herd, and none of them have seen anything?”
  558. >“Word’s gotten out to hundreds, if not thousands of ponies at this point. Just in the past hour, five Pegasi I’d never met flew here with news… but no good news… nopony’s found him”
  559. >Cobalt let out a long, heartbroken sigh behind the door, which spurred my sympathy enough to elicit a similarly strained exhale as I considered Cobalt’s somber situation
  560. “Shoot, I’m so sorry to hear that… I can’t imagine what you’re going through… I don’t suppose there’s anything I can do to help?”
  561. >“I mean, if you could tell me where he is…”
  562. “I’m sorry, Cobalt… I wouldn’t even know where to start looking…”
  563. >“Is that the truth, or would your answer change if you suddenly had hooves?”
  564. “Are you, what, doubting my truthfulness? I told you, I’m sorry about what I did to Typhoon, and I learned from it…”
  565. >“I just figure that since none of the current PONIES, out of hundreds, know where he is…”
  566. “You… You can’t be serious… Cobalt, I want to help ponies… What the hell would I have to gain from kidnapping your son? I’m giving you my utmost honesty!”
  567. >“Know what I think? I think you want to use him as a bargaining chip to get yourself out of joining our herd, as a deterrent of sorts”
  568. “You know as well as I do that such a plan wouldn’t work… As soon as you hypothetically befriended me, wouldn’t I immediately tell you where he was?”
  569. >“Sounds like you’ve put a fair deal of thought into this… did you at think far enough ahead to have a deterrent against us simply befriending you?”
  570. “You think I’d put your son on a dead man’s switch? Cobalt, you’re absolutely insane if that’s what you think!”
  571. >“Is there some sort of weapon on a timer in one of the abandoned classrooms?”
  572. “For the love of God, if I knew where your son was, I’d tell you!”
  573. >“Did you set up the door to him so there’d be consequences to another pony entering the same room as him? Some kind of trap?”
  574. “Knock it off!”
  575. >“Am I getting warmer? Or did you just now figure out that your plan is scrap without… what did you call it? A dead man’s switch?”
  576. >I passed up the pause, its opportunity goading me to humor his worst-case scenario fantasies, and instead opted to weakly sigh and consider my own situation with newfound clarity
  577. “Cobalt… Fuck… You’re not even interested in quote-unquote ‘being my friend’ any more, are you? Please, I know you miss your son, but please… please tell me you have limits…”
  578. >Except for the diligently intermittent clicking of the door’s push bar, silence was the only response I received, the unsettling respite gradually working to confirm my worst fears
  579. “You don’t really want to incur the scars of another pony… or… or worse… just because you think it’ll…”
  580. >I trailed off, only to find that the Pegasus beyond the door was unwilling to pick up the discourse in my wake
  581. “Cobalt! Come on! There has to be some way I can show you that I’d never do anything like what you’re imagining… I don’t want anyone to get hurt… Not him… Not you… Not… Not me…”
  582. >The curious scrutiny of the door’s latch proved much more vocal than my conversation partner… click… click… click…
  583. “Are you still there?”
  584. >“Well, obviously… I’m still prodding the door in the hope that you’ll open it… It’s only me out here right now, and as I said, all I want to do is talk”
  585. >I continually found myself questioning whether Cobalt had made up the very existence of his son in order to justify his line of actions, but his emotion-laden pleas bid me to pause
  586. “Think about it, Cobalt… a dead man’s switch would only work if I told you I had one. I don’t. And above all else, I don’t know where your son is…”
  587. >“James, we both know what it’ll take to convince me that you’re being honest”
  588. >Burying my head in my hands, my head throbbed anew, not from the previous shock of Cobalt’s hooves against the door, but rather the straining exertion of contemplating my options
  589. >I couldn’t run out into the darkness before me without Cobalt pursuing, and I couldn’t go back through the door without confronting him either
  590. >Could I at least calm him down enough to grant me supervised passage to the machine shop, rather than forcefully befriending me on the spot?
  591. >At the very least, I knew for certain that Snowfall would be kind to a ponified rendition of myself, with her tender hooves more than willing to embrace her friend even-
  592. >I found myself distracted as a speedy clamor of hooves echoed up the stairs just beyond the door, followed by the hushed yet commanding voice of an unseen stallion
  593. >“Hey Storm, since Cobalt’s in the middle of talking to him, could you remind-”
  594. >He was met by a cacophony of hushed whispers
  595. >“Not so loud, featherbrain!”
  596. >“Quiet down!”
  597. >“He’s gonna hear!”
  598. >A harried series of shushes echoed forth from the three or four distinct ponies just beyond the door, but they came too late, as their deception had been revealed
  599. >“Sorry… she couldn’t find the hallway… You said 2-B, western door?”
  600. >“2-C, eastern!”
  601. >“Oh, hayseed, sorry!”
  602. >I braced myself with renewed strength against the door as it dawned on me that no fewer than three ponies were mere inches away on the steel barrier’s far side
  603. >My heart raced and I held my breath as the push bar clicked in again, only to click out a moment later without the ponies making a concerted effort to force it open
  604. >At least, not this time… Fuck, this is not good… this is not good…
  605. >There was only mild relief to be found in the fading reports of one set of hooves, as the inquisitive stallion departed to decree his correction, which still left three ponies behind
  606. “Cobalt, I thought you said it was just you out there!”
  607. >And for that matter, what the hell else were you lying about?
  608. >I received no verbal response, instead being met by the push bar’s rhythmic reports amid the eerie silence of the pitch black corridor
  609. >Click… click…
  610. “Look, I’m eager to meet the rest of your friends, I just didn’t know they were out there!”
  611. >Click… click…
  612. “I’m not mad at them, I’m sure they’re very wonderful! Can I please talk to one of them?”
  613. >Click… click…
  614. “I have some sugar cubes if you guys are hungry or anything… I… They… I heard they taste pretty good! Do any of you want one?”
  615. >Click… click…
  616. >I wiped the sweat from my forehead and shifted into a new position against the door, pivoting to alleviate my aching muscles without letting up pressure on the door for even a moment
  617. >Glancing down at my shoes, I planted the unseen rubber soles into the tile in preparation for when the ponies did try to bust through, which could’ve happened at a moment’s notice
  618. >Oh, wait, never mind about not being able to see… I actually can see my shoes a little bit considering my eyes must’ve adjusted – there’s the edge of my shoe, at least…
  619. >Actually, I take that back… it’s still kind of hard to see…
  620. >No, wait, my eyes are having a really, really weird time adjusting to this darkness… there, yeah, I can see the outline of the shoe and laces against the pale tile here, but…
  621. >Never… never mind?
  622. >Warily leaning my head against the door, I found it necessary to cock my head to the side, just below where the door’s push bar resided, in order to avoid bumping the fixture
  623. >As I cast my gaze curiously across the dim region where I expected there to be a hallway, my ear rested a few inches from the push bar, its reports now much more pronounced
  624. >Click…
  625. >The edges of the hall were momentarily illuminated – dark, dark greys against black, but still greys, nonetheless – before flickering out
  626. >Click…
  627. >The walls were briefly awash in a dull blue glow, almost too dim to discern, but the two or three seconds for which the color persisted had been enough
  628. >Click…
  629. >The blue glow returned with slightly renewed brightness for a few seconds, only to flicker out and plunge me back into darkness
  630. >I felt a cold chill race up my spine, particularly given the markedly lacking presence of daylight warmth that had otherwise characterized the town’s radiance since the blackout
  631. >As if to confirm my fears, another click of the door’s push bar was met with the glow and a faint twinkling noise, much like that the unicorn once known as ‘Ryan’ had made with her horn
  632. >Cobalt wasn’t necessarily trying to open the door… he just needed to provide a homing beacon…
  633. >Click…
  634. >A faraway corner of hallway, now bathed in a pronounced blue glow, provided the illumination I needed to steadily hoist myself to my feet as I studied as much of my environment as possible
  635. >The walls were dotted with framed pictures, glinting plaques, long arrays of doors, and, most importantly, a singular stairwell to the side about fifty feet ahead
  636. >As the unseen unicorn approached the far corner and let his magical glow die away, my muscles tensed with the ambitious proscpect of escape
  637. >One foot remained planted at the base of the metal door so that Cobalt couldn’t throw it open too soon, but as I took a sprinter’s stance, clearly I didn’t intend to keep my foot there long
  638. >Click…
  639. >As the door’s bar reset and the unicorn became silhouetted in the dim glow of his own horn far ahead, I took off running toward the stairwell
  640. >My shoes pounded the tile violently as the unicorn responded to me with blindingly intense radiance, his horn swiftly cascading blue light through the hallway and all its features
  641. >The emergence of heavy footfalls broke Cobalt’s rhythmic prodding, and within a couple seconds, I heard the door behind me explode open with the bellicose kicks of several ponies
  642. >With the ponies closing in on me from ahead and behind, I let out a primal shout mid-run, the distance to the stairwell rapidly closing as my muscles strained
  643. >Thirty feet… Twenty…
  644. >Grasping at the stairwell door, I dove inside and didn’t even bother to slam the cursory barricade between myself and the ponies
  645. >I barely broke stride in the process of leaping down six or seven stairs at a time, a sharp lance of pain striking my ankles as I impacted the floor and stumbled forward
  646. >Somewhere above me, a clamor of hooves rushed through the doorframe into the stairwell, while several indistinct shouts and wingflaps heralded the inevitable arrival of my fate
  647. >When I burst into the ground floor hallway, I could hear hoofsteps coming from at least one other direction, but with blood pounding in my ears, I was in no position to say exactly where
  648. >At this point, locking the door to the stairwell behind myself was equivalent to plugging a pinprick-sized hole on the Titanic, but it provided the slightest piece of mind
  649. >As Cobalt’s irate expression disappeared behind a façade of thick steel, I tried to consider my options, or at least that’s what I told myself I was doing as cold feet and paralyzing fear set in
  650. >Shit, can’t really go outside, can’t stay in here long with the way they’re already starting to swarm…
  651. >Cobalt’s just going to fly back upstairs and flank around...
  652. >I clenched my fists and glanced at the door from which I expected him to appear, which also happened to be the door in the direction of the machine shop… and Snowfall…
  653. >No, come on, please let her be the one to do this… they’re going to fucking crucify me… please…
  654. >“Hey there, James!”
  655. >With wide eyes, I spun around to find myself face-to-face with a beaming orange Pegasus a dozen yards away, her wings flared outwards as if to declare that escape route blocked
  656. >Despite my refusal to break eye contact with her, I lifted a foot and tried to take a step backwards towards the machine shop, but was struck down before my foot reached the floor
  657. >Amid a sickening crash, I fell to the tile and gasped as the voice of a stallion behind me spoke up, exuding confidence utterly atypical of one who just tackled someone twice their height
  658. >“Holy cow, look at you! You’re quite a sight for sore eyes!”
  659. >I fought to regain my breath as a warm drop of thick blood slowly rolled down my face, the stallion now keeping me pinned with such might that it hurt to even move my head
  660. >As one of his forehooves dug into the back of my torso near my shoulder, another hard, dull point snagged on the base of my shirt and gently pushed it up, exposing a small patch of skin
  661. >As the cool air filling the hallway began to gently whisk away my sweat, I tried to discern whether fur had begun to grow from my back from such a perfunctory touch
  662. >I couldn’t feel anything at the moment, but if I didn’t get away from these ponies, well, that would happen soon enough
  663. >“Clementine, I don’t believe we’ve met – I’m sure you’d like to befriend this one?”
  664. >“You bet your apples I would – got twenty-two friends just like him – but something tells we you’re going to be less than cooperative in handing him over”
  665. >As the stallion and mare spoke, I tried to seize on the conversation as an opportunity to wriggle free, but the stallion pressed his hooves into my back with renewed force
  666. >While I let out a dispassionate cry of pain, he lifted the edge of my shirt up a few more inches before letting it snap back into its native position around my waist
  667. >The orange Pegasus craned her neck and agitatedly flicked her wings and tail, but she didn’t advance towards the successful hunter and his prey
  668. >“Sorry, Clementine, but this one’s mine”
  669. >I made one last plea and kicked a leg at the unseen assailant in a desperate attempt to break free, but I may as well have been lying utterly still
  670. >“Hey, whoa, stop fighting, I’m one of the good guys”
  671. “Fuck you! Get off me! Get away!”
  672. >“Calm down, you’re going to be alright”
  673. >As I contested his detention, I found myself hyperventilating to the point that stars had begun to fill the corners of my vision
  674. >“Just relax, alright? Nothing bad’s going to happen to you”
  675. >Abruptly, I noticed the faint presence of two weights on my back near the base of my shoulder blades, the pair of spots growing more pronounced with each passing moment
  676. “No, please! At least let me take off my clothes, or something! You won! Stop, stop! You won!”
  677. >“Sshhh… not so loud…”
  678. >His warmly spoken words only served to excite my breathing further, pushing my vision into darkening tunnel vision
  679. >Oh no, is this what it feels like to grow Pegasus wings?
  680. >Well, I guess it’s better than ending up as pony without wings or a horn…
  681. >No, don’t try to rationalize it! They’re killing you! They’re stealing the person you’ve lived your whole life as!
  682. >My name is James, and I’m a human! My name is James, and I’m a human! Human! Human human human!
  683. >Human… hu… man…
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