Cuddly Doom (Epilogue & Author's Note)

Sep 25th, 2017
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  1. >I wished there were more I could do to help, but considering my hands were already full with two modest boxes, all I could really do was offer advice as Reed struggled to grip the third box
  2. >Our thick gloves didn’t exactly help in our current endeavor, but from the moment we woke up, we each knew it was going to be a tough day, even if we made it all the way through
  3. >After Reed tried for the fourth time to jam his stiff fingers beneath the sides of the cardboard, he let out a groan as the ailing appendages slipped free again
  4. >“Dude, I’m not sure I can do this… are you sure we need all these?”
  5. “Well, kinda, yeah… You remember what Davis told us, right? Just… take a few deep breaths and try to adjust how you’re holding it. It’d be nice if we didn’t have to make two trips”
  6. >A cool shiver raced up my spine as I spoke, while the brisk air of the walk-in refrigerator pierced through my three layers of clothing with continually extending ease
  7. >As Reed shook out his arms and legs, I caught a brief sight of the pale green fur gilding his wrists, finding myself momentarily envious of his additional thermal insulation
  8. >Readjusting my gloves, I eyed the door back into the rest of the store and briefly contemplated stepping outside to warm up
  9. >I wanted to get out of the frosty room sooner rather than later, but if it meant that we wouldn’t need to return, it was worth taking extra time to ensure we only needed one trip
  10. >“Davis? I never got really got along with the guy, and now it seems like I can’t remember half the feather-fluttering things that skidder ever said to me. But if we really need all these boxes…”
  11. >He bit his lip and repositioned in a kneeling stance, planting his feet on the tile a few inches from the box
  12. >Meticulously wedging his fingers beneath the box’s edges, he deftly lifted each of the corners a few inches off the ground before it slipped from his grasp
  13. >With a trio of sharp crashes and a clattering of disturbed glass, the box’s opposing edges subsided to the floor and Reed pounded a weakly clenched fist into the top of the box
  14. >“For pony’s sake, this shit was easy enough to do this morning!”
  15. “Please, just calm down… Everypo- Everybody is… would be… proud of how hard you’re trying, I promise”
  16. >He sniffled and loosened his hand, gently trailing his fingers along the edge of the box as a long, pensive exhale billowed from his mouth
  17. >“Bennett, it’s really just you and me left, isn’t it? I try not to think about it too much. I… I-I’m trying, man… You don’t know how difficult it’s getting…”
  18. >His voice was distant and uncaringly despondent, in sharp contrast to the overtones of hopeful optimism I continually used to pepper my speech
  19. “I know… But please try to be careful with the boxes… I’m not sure how resilient some of these vaccine bottles are…”
  20. >Reed sat on his feet in front of the box, staring downwards at it with an unmoving steadfastness that caused me to question whether the cool air had stiffened him to his very core
  21. >As the weight in my own arms seemed to burgeon with each passing moment, I dropped to a knee and set my own pair of boxes on the ground
  22. >Glancing back at Reed, it dawned on me that he was far from stationary, and in fact, his hands were trembling and fidgeting as tears streamed from his eyes, his teeth sullenly gritted
  23. >I extended a glove toward him, tenderly setting my palm on his shoulder in the absence of any other comforting means
  24. “Did… Did I say something that upset you?”
  25. >While the tears dripping from his face gave way to sniffling and a tremulous sigh that clouded thickly in the air, he rolled forward onto his hands and knees
  26. >His gloves pounded against the floor a couple of times while pitiful, desperate whimpers echoed forth from his lower gut, speaking into his inner turmoil in ways no words could
  27. >As he shook – nearly convulsed – with bitterness, a wild, unbridled force pressed against the back of his shirt, cooperating to untuck the outermost layer from its entrapment amid his belt
  28. >A few seconds later, Reed relaxed enough to respond, even as the force continued its confined assault against his shirt
  29. >“N-No, I… I’m sorry… Your full body gear is on fine, right? Can I please take my shirt off, at least for… for a minute or two?”
  30. >I slowly pulled my hand away, speedily reaffirming that my own gloves were tucked into my sleeves, my shirt into my pants, and my pants into my boots
  31. “Yeah, I can’t see any harm in that”
  32. >He shakily set down his gloves and raised his hands to his collar, first unbuttoning the outermost layer with considerably less dexterity than when he’d last donned the garment yesterday
  33. >Upon freeing himself from the incarceration of the thick outer fabric, the dual cotton barriers of his long sleeved T-shirt and undershirt slid off with careful yet swift ease
  34. >The frontier of clean white fabric retreated away from the splotchy green and tan battlefield of his lower back, where patches of fur were steadily advancing with each passing hour
  35. >While thickest around his waist and generally fading the further up my eyes travelled, the worrying development showed little preference for consistency or aesthetics
  36. >Wherever stray flecks of green fur could establish themselves on previously pure human skin, that became their dwelling place – their base of operation – from which to spread
  37. >Even without anypony else spurring it along, the fur grows out… brushes up against a new follicle… the fur grows out… brushes up against a new follicle…
  38. >Still, the lurid marks were nothing compared to the unmistakably alien pair of wings that poked out the undershirt and unfurled, while Reed tossed his torso’s former coverings aside
  39. >The wings were far from being fully grown, and resembled a young bird’s given the way the feathers remained short and slightly greyer than the remainder of his vivid palette
  40. >Nevertheless, as he stretched the downy appendages skywards with a perceptibly relieving melody of clicks and pops, the refrigerator’s lamplight glistened off his feathers
  41. >As he ruffled them and warily shook out the last of his aches with the wings at his side, he seemed to lean slightly away from me even as I maintained a safe distance
  42. >“I’m sorry, I’ll try not to get my feathers near you. Even with the quote-unquote full body covering, your face is still uncovered”
  43. “Right…”
  44. >Direct contact with the green barbs was certainly a concern, especially with how the feathery protrusions seemed to move with a mind of their own whenever Reed got emotional
  45. >Still, the Pegasi that consistently worried me were those that partook in regular preening and molted their feathers
  46. >By comparison, the half-transformed friend before me was little more than a… a foal… or… colt? A chick? A nestling… hatchling? What was I even supposed to call him?
  47. “I wouldn’t worry too much about dropping feathers everywhere, especially at… this stage…”
  48. >“I know, but you made it a point for us to set up shop in the basement of the campus center specifically because it didn’t seem like there were a lot of feathers or fur floating around”
  49. >I pressed my lips together as he spoke, running my fingers with a twinge of concern along the knit cap that shielded my head
  50. “I’m just trying to make the most of our situation. Gilded Sunrise said the infection would get to us slowest if we were here – he didn’t say it would keep the infection back altogether”
  51. >Hell, if not for Gilded Sunrise, Reed and I would be a hell of a lot closer to ponydom than we already were, but that stallion couldn’t promise the world, and we knew it
  52. >I figure he must’ve spent a fair portion of the past two months in or around the campus center, because he appeared to be quite confident that nopony had taken up residency here
  53. >When we crossed the line into town a few weeks ago, Sunrise promptly greeted us and recommended we head here, and that turned out to be a good call
  54. >We got in on a Tuesday night shortly after sunset, and there was a fair deal of food that hadn’t been touched in the campus store
  55. >Out of respect to our status as guests, our first meal, and just about every one since, had been canned meat on bread, or some other tiresome combination the ponies would’ve rejected
  56. >Of course, that was all speculation, because, with a bit of clever deception, we tricked Sunrise and another unicorn named Daisy into getting the herd to leave us alone
  57. >I would’ve gladly brought a pony to the campus store to ask what they’d want to scavenge, but it wasn’t worth the risk of getting pieces of fur or stray feathers all over the place…
  58. >“After how careful you were… it’s been what, two months since everything started? The fact that you’re still going to get turned just doesn’t seem right”
  59. >…Still, allowing in errant feathers and pieces of fur as a result of welcoming ponies, and letting the contaminants drift in gradually, day by day, had very similar outcomes
  60. >Regardless of how they got there, most mornings it would’ve been possible to scour the campus center’s formerly pristine floors and recover a dozen new Pegasus feathers
  61. >Fur was even harder to find, especially once you considered the way smaller pieces danced in the air and settled wherever they pleased
  62. >One night I was close to falling asleep – uncomfortable as the lobby’s couches may have been – when I was startled awake by a slight breeze that had brought a hair in line with an inhale
  63. >Rolling to the floor, spitting my guts out for twenty minutes, crying out for Reed to find me some gin with which to swish… none of it mattered once the virus decided I was going to be next
  64. >Fortunately, it took four or five days for the symptoms to start showing up, and even then it was just a small patch of fur around my neck
  65. >But within six days there were several, and larger, patches, and within a week and a half, I was beginning to find pink hairs floating about the campus store
  66. >My own hairs… My own PONY hairs, which I was occasionally shedding…
  67. >Compared to the swift growth of my friend’s wings and fur, my own transformation was an agonizing slow burn, but it was just as inevitable
  68. “You didn’t do anything to deserve this either, Reed. Actually though, I kind of envy your position. You already get to know the gender and type of your pony self”
  69. >He simply shook his head in a mix of disbelief and denial
  70. >“That’s all well and good; I hope you also get to keep your dick…”
  71. “You and me both…”
  72. >“…but I’d hardly call it a blessing. How would you like it if a unicorn teleported into the bathroom with you while you were taking a leak? Of all the fucking undignified outcomes…”
  73. >Reed appeared to pull himself back from the brink of tears as he drew in a long breath and a glove brushed against one of his misty eyes
  74. >He rolled into a seated position on his rump, taking care not to crush the tail that had been uncomfortably wrapped around one of his legs, the discomfort barely even eliciting a wince
  75. >For a while, he’d been pretty well-composed about the inevitability of his own gradual transformation, taking it in stride and even drawing pen and marker designs on the growing fur
  76. >At least, that was the case until I found him a few days ago, cowering in the corner of an abandoned bathroom, with his pants halfway down, and his new stallionhood and tail hanging out
  77. “I didn’t mean it like that… You didn’t deserve THAT, and I wouldn’t call you lucky for it… Gilded Sunrise and Daisy got most of the herd to leave us alone, but maybe not… everypony”
  78. >I rubbed my sleeve nervously, but the action went unnoticed by Reed as he stared scornfully at the gloves enveloping his own steadily deteriorating hands
  79. >“Probably twenty-three and a half hours each day in this gear, and it’s just not enough because of one sex-crazed mare who can’t keep it in her pants”
  80. “Sex-crazed?”
  81. >“I mean, as if her posturing weren’t enough, after she pulled me to the floor, she kept cooing all this shit about how she hopes a ‘handsome, sexy’ stallion such as myself ends up as a unicorn”
  82. >He rubbed the inside of one of his thighs, absentmindedly pointing to the unseen target of his changes that had made him so appealing to the mare
  83. >“Bennett, I-I fought her off, but… I can’t stop thinking about her now… W-What if she already knows that I’m… I’m a Pegasus instead? I don’t want t-to… to make her upset…”
  84. “I’m sure Daisy gave her a stern talking-to. You don’t need to concern yourself with what she thinks”
  85. >Reed buried his head in his hands, which only did a little to veil his tumult, the feelings of distressed hesitation mingling with restrained desire
  86. >“But the unicorns like her… and the other mares in her herd… What if they don’t like… you know…”
  87. >He bit his lip, and as I set a comforting hand on his shoulder, he gasped and flared his wings out slightly
  88. “Do you remember all the single mares we’ve talked to during vaccinations? And how many of those have been cheerful, alluring Pegasi? They’d be thrilled with you – just be yourself!”
  89. >My memories flipped through all the mares who couldn’t have been happier about getting a half dozen needles jammed into their haunches
  90. >Granted, that was my job with my own experiences, while Reed generally occupied his time by cataloguing the injections and marking which ponies had been properly vaccinated
  91. >At first, he simply took to tattooing a pink heart or, in the case of pink ponies, a white cloud, on their haunches, where their bill of health could be clearly seen at a glance
  92. >However, after a few evenings and a few requests to do so, he and two of the more creative unicorns started doing more intricate designs – dolphins, gems, candies, even an umbrella
  93. >The ponies absolutely adored him for it, and proudly wore their new ‘cutie marks’ with smiles, which I think was a nominal reference to something from the old My Little Pony cartoons
  94. >Reed slowly turned away from my hand and reached for his discarded garments, visibly trying to wrest control of several wandering thoughts
  95. >“I’ll try my best to fucking ‘be myself’… Oh hayseed, it’s becoming hard for me to even remember what it means to be myself”
  96. >With a gentle sigh, he swiftly untangled his undershirt, aligned it with his head, and pulled it over himself, submerging his wings and fur once again beneath the sea of white cotton
  97. >He appeared far less upset by his own uncertainty than I did, and I couldn’t help but furrow my brow as I watched his movements
  98. >This was the same guy who, before all of… this… started, would playfully cuss out anyone who mocked his love of tabletop gaming, saying he ‘knows exactly what he’s about’
  99. >Reed could talk for hours on end about where he was going to spend his upcoming summers, or what he was going to do once his deployment ended, where he was going to live, work…
  100. >The very notion that he’d even started to question what had once been verily set in stone… it made my fingers tremble slightly to see it happening to somepony like him
  101. “You could… check up on your social media from before this all started. You had some pictures from Cancun, the one where you and the guy wiped out skiing, most of your posts were snarky…”
  102. >He pulled the second shirt over his head, and as his agitated expression reemerged back into the lamplight, his eyes remained pressed shut for a few more moments, accompanied by a sigh
  103. >“But that was the ‘me’ from before I made any friends… I don’t even know whether I want to hold on to some of those memories… Maybe I’ll just delete those accounts…”
  104. “Delete them? They’re massive records of two-legged Reed! Shouldn’t ponies have documentation – a veritable museum – of that kind of thing? Where they came from?”
  105. >He grasped his thick outermost shirt with one of his ailing hands while the other repeatedly clenched and relaxed, testing the fading dexterity that he knew was giving way to equine stiffness
  106. >“Some might… I don’t want to… When you consider it… The more time I spend looking back, the more difficult it’s going to be to move forward”
  107. >After fastening the final button, Reed repositioned himself into a low squatting stance that seemed to strain his boots, slowly trailing an uncovered hand over the box in front of him
  108. >Even amid the refrigerator’s recirculating air, whose indicator consistently signaled a temperature in the single digits centigrade, Reed’s hands didn’t shiver in the slightest
  109. >Of course, that was because the palms and backs of his hands had begun to turn slightly furry, made all the more visible as he gave a slow beckoning motion toward the box and spoke up
  110. >“Come on, Bennett, let’s get these vaccines upstairs. At this point, I don’t think there’s much point to me wearing the gloves anyways”
  111. >He slipped his ungloved hands beneath the box, firmly gripping its base with relative fluency as his thickening, pale green fingernails briefly bumped against the tile floor
  112. >Upon his refusal to even glance as his forsaken gloves, it became quite clear that, until we needed to return to this room, he had no plans to lug the thick garments around
  113. >There was something heartbreaking about the sight… seeing him abandon some of the military-issue winter gear that had served us so well for two months, in lieu of proper hazmat gear
  114. “I guess not, if you’ve reached a point of acceptance that your fingers are already changing…”
  115. >Reed nudged the walk-in refrigerator’s door open with his foot, causing a small tide of frosty air to billow outwards into the store as he stepped through the aperture
  116. >I followed closely behind, letting out a sigh of relief as the warm, room temperature air struck my face
  117. >The door slammed shut behind me, and as we navigated down the nearest aisle, filled with rows upon rows of abandoned snack food, I tried to avoid disturbing anything
  118. >A few seconds later, we passed the pillars demarcating the end of the store, with our footsteps now echoing through the spacious, high-ceilinged atrium of the deserted campus center
  119. >Rays of afternoon daylight streamed in from a window far overhead, illuminating the plentiful dust, and a few lurid hairs of blue and red, that hung in the air ahead of us
  120. >Reed led the way up one of the grand staircases that lined the atrium’s walls, our boots resonating sharply with each wooden step they struck
  121. >At the top of the stairs, I stole a quick glance at the janitor’s closet in which we’d stowed our rifles, having decided that we wouldn’t use, nor have much remaining reason to use, the weapons
  122. >A few minutes later, we found ourselves just inside one of the building’s vestibules, with only two pairs of doors and a dozen feet separating us from the outside world
  123. >Going outdoors was always tempting, and as Davis had always told us before he went trotting off with his herd, it’s wise to spend at least a bit of time daily outside to get enough vitamin D
  124. >Still, as alluring as the lush green grass and crisp, fresh breeze was, going outside carried a whole host of risks with it
  125. >Daisy had been uncompromisingly clear to her herd that Reed and I were to be left alone for as long as possible, but there was little a unicorn like her could do about passing Pegasi
  126. >As I peered through the glass doors into the sky, two pastel dots sailed through the clouds high above with outstretched wings, their specific identities remaining unfamiliar
  127. >Indeed, if a random Pegasus didn’t know about our amnesty, they might think they’re doing a favor by swooping down on the pair of remaining humans and ‘befriending’ them
  128. >There were a lot of scattered reports of that happening about five weeks ago when most civilians who’d been holed up either gave in, or wrongly thought the coast was clear
  129. >Such occurrences had become increasingly rare, and I hadn’t heard of anyone else joining the herd that way in the last week
  130. >I’d actually been intently listening to the sparse chatter out of Montana and the Dakotas because I was concerned about the prospect of the final humans holed up in their nuclear silos
  131. >Thankfully, we only needed to go through one manifestation of the apocalypse, and a cuddly one at that, rather than anypony being bathed in nuclear fire
  132. >I eventually learned that the nuclear silos’ locations were hardly well-kept secrets if you knew the right people… ponies… to talk to
  133. >Ten feet of solid steel did nothing to stop unicorns from teleporting in, and within a week, the greatest monuments to the power of wrath lay abandoned on the North American grassland
  134. >A few thousand feet up, the pair of airborne ponies did a coordinated turn and disappeared behind a cloud, and after popping up for a moment, faded into the distance behind a hill
  135. >As they did so, Reed and I each breathed a quiet sigh of relief and shifted our attention to the ponies playing gleefully on the quad a few dozen yards beyond the door
  136. >A pair of grey Pegasi were tossing a ball back and forth, the tall one evidently being the younger colt’s father as he encouraged his son’s throws with a deep, burly laugh
  137. >Just a few feet to the stallion’s side was a blue Pegasus mare lying in a small tree’s shadow, with an open book beneath her forehoof remaining unread while she watched the ponies play
  138. >While cheery, her eyes carried a faint sense of longing, and as my gaze followed the delicate braid of her pink mane, I noticed that she hadn’t gotten her orthopedic cast removed yet
  139. >Nevertheless, she’d flown in just fine, and she wasn’t going to let her own temporary inability to run hamper a beautiful, warm day out in nature
  140. >These Pegasi were far less intimidating despite their proximity, primarily because I knew them well, and they weren’t going to cause a hassle for Reed and myself
  141. >Cobalt was one of the most docile ponies I’d given a vaccination to, although that wasn’t to say he didn’t chatter like a starling for the whole duration
  142. >From what I gathered, he was fine with leaving us to our humanity, and was just happy to have a loving family, good friends, and a house to call home, which he was still fixing up
  143. >When the herd first arrived, I guess it rained the day thereafter and somepony had left his front door wide open
  144. >I thought Cobalt was planning on replacing some water-damaged floorboards today, but if his son wanted to play catch, he certainly knew where his priorities were
  145. >Reed drummed his fingers against his thigh as he stared out the doors, looking intently toward the university gate
  146. >“Hey Bennett, Gilded Sunrise did say he’d be here to meet us at four, right?”
  147. “Yeah, that’s when we’ve usually met him, at least”
  148. >My companion pulled back his sleeve and checked his watch, breathing a peeved sigh upwards and disturbing a few of his long, blond hairs
  149. >“Well, I guess he’s only running a few minutes late. Still, these vaccines really shouldn’t be out of refrigeration for too long”
  150. “Yeah, I’m sure that we… Oh, wait, I think that’s him”
  151. >A pair of unicorns, one covered in golden fur and the other bathed in indescribably pristine coat of white, rounded the corner of a building and cantered toward the university gate
  152. >They had a spring in their step, but the wagon being pulled by the golden stallion was hindering their clear desire to proceed at a full gallop
  153. >Still, as they made their way through the canyon of academic buildings to the campus center, they didn’t pass on an opportunity to exchange quick pleasantries with the Pegasi on the quad
  154. >When they halted just outside the building, a curt shimmer of orange magic unlatched the wagon from Gilded Sunrise’s back, with Daisy’s horn nimbly working to lock its wheels in place
  155. >A moment later, the vestibule’s outer doors opened with a shimmering noise, and the unicorns entered the room
  156. >Despite not being the one who’d been pulling the cart, Daisy collapsed to her haunches amid the heavy breathing from each pony, which was a clear indicator of their collective exertion
  157. >Reed and I joined them in the sun-drenched room, and after allowing Gilded Sunrise a moment to catch his breath, I addressed him with warmhearted comity
  158. “Looks like you got in a bit of exercise during the trip here. We would’ve waited – it’s not like we have much else to do”
  159. >“Bennett, I… holy cow, that wagon’s heavy… I’m sorry we were late”
  160. >I paused while the stallion coughed a couple times and recomposed himself, eventually raising his eyes and ears enough that I didn’t feel as though my words would be missed
  161. “It’s alright. How’s everyone doing back at the medical ponies’ house? Everyone’s holding up?”
  162. >Gilded Sunrise swallowed, raising his brow as a staid smile spread across his face
  163. >“Fairly well, yes! Although I must say, Snowfall’s been tired as of late. Bless her heart, she’s still tending to everypony, particularly while I’m away, but by the end of a shift she’s exhausted!”
  164. “Well, that’s bound to happen after a month or two. She’s not one to get upset when she’s tired; you two are still all lovey-dovey?”
  165. >Gilded Sunrise’s smile hung open for a few moments as his love-addled brain pieced its thoughts together, the corners of his muzzle and cheeks turning slightly red from his affectionate blush
  166. >“Very much so. She has mood swings here and there, but that’s to be expected with a foal on the way. Oh my, the next nine and a half months… I just can’t wait to be a dad, Bennett”
  167. >I could no longer manage to suppress my own smile, reflecting the unicorn’s pleasant joy
  168. “I’m very happy for you, Sunrise. Just make sure that Snowfall remembers to eat and sleep; she’s going to be a wonderful mother to your foal”
  169. >Gilded Sunrise lowered his dreamy gaze to the floor, his mind undoubtedly set on the reveries that awaited him a year down the road
  170. >“Heh… Yeah… You don’t need to tell me twice… I just hope the other ponies will be able to deal with Morning Star and Amethyst Harmony’s foal; we’ll be on parental leave when she’s due”
  171. “I’m sure everything will be arranged splendidly for that. How’re the patients at the house? No news is good news?”
  172. >He straightened up and shook his head slightly, recentering his train of thought
  173. >“Basically… You should see how well Storm Cloud’s recovered! You look at her leg, and you wouldn’t even know it ever took a bullet. Good timing, too; she’s flying to visit friends tomorrow”
  174. >I briefly peered out the window, taking note of the fact that the sun was still hanging quite high in the sky
  175. “Oh, awesome! I might not make it down there before then, but I send my regards”
  176. >“Would you still like to visit after nightfall? You won’t have to worry as much about any wandering ponies trying to get the jump on you”
  177. >I bit my lip and tried not to shift too much between my feet as I thought back to the bogeys I’d seen flying through the clouds, just two of the billions of ponies who posed untold threats
  178. >They wouldn’t physically harm Reed or me, but while we were a pair of humans sliding reluctantly toward ponydom with each passing day, they still weren’t quite welcome in our presence
  179. >Even in the gloom of the darkest night, one aberrant sighting might be the difference between keeping our hands, or trading them in for hooves
  180. >Although… as the back of Reed’s shirt pressed outwards slightly with a wing twitch, I was tersely reminded that it wasn’t really a black and white issue of humanity or ponydom
  181. >We were both infected, and there wasn’t much we could do about it in our race against an unbeatable clock
  182. “Maybe… that kind of thing has definitely been fresh on our minds. Saw a couple of unknown Pegasi flying overhead a few minutes ago”
  183. >Daisy cleared her throat and glanced up at me, disturbing the dainty diamond earrings that hung from her ears, the shimmering gems hoping to draw attention from her small ear scar
  184. >“Probably Whistle Wind and her friend, Zipper. I’m sorry if they gave you any trouble; I haven’t had a chance to speak with them yet…”
  185. >Neither Reed nor I gave a verbal response, instead opting to simply turn down the corners of our mouths and nod denial of any wrongdoing
  186. >Taking hold of the silence, Gilded Sunrise coughed and spoke up
  187. >“Well, at any rate, we could definitely use a… pardon the wordplay… a helping hand from you guys with all these vaccinations. We’ve hundreds of ponies, and the full battery is, what, five?”
  188. “Six vaccines the first time around, when you count the ones for botulism and equine influenza. Of course, the West Nile and tetanus shots will need a follow-up a few weeks after”
  189. >His eyes glanced skywards and rapidly darted back and forth as he logged a mental note, and after a few moments, Gilded Sunrise vigorously nodded his understanding
  190. >“Right, right. For some reason the botulism one skips my mind if I don’t have the list in front of me”
  191. >Daisy poked at the ground with her hoof, shifting around a few small pieces of fine gravel before addressing me in a soft yet unmistakable voice
  192. >“Did you guys get… any other… vaccines?”
  193. >I scratched at my neck uneasily, almost startling myself with the dense tufts of pink fur that, even through my thick gloves, had grown noticeably soft in several places
  194. >When Daisy asked about vaccines, she and I both knew exactly what she was getting at
  195. >Reed and I arrived in town with a truck full of refrigerated vaccines for every equine disease our central command though we’d need – at least, while central command was still standing
  196. >West Nile, tetanus, botulism… we were going to ensure as many ponies as possible were protected, but even so, that was our secondary goal, and at first we didn’t focus on it much
  197. >Above all else, we were the last remaining humans out of an entire group of guys primarily tasked with establishing a human presence at Carmine University
  198. >Sure, the school wasn’t as flashy or well-known as places like Johns Hopkins, or Harvard, but it had the equipment necessary to develop and manufacture a ponification vaccine
  199. >Additionally, there were a handful of other prospective schools, but Johns Hopkins and Harvard come to mind because of just how fucking quickly their occupying forces were overrun
  200. >Supposedly, all Carmine needed were samples, raw materials, and someone like… like Davis, who might’ve had the know-how about how vaccines work, before he joined his own herd
  201. >Hell, maybe this kind of thing took years and a whole research team to do it, but that was all very nebulous to me, while only one thing remained clear
  202. >WE should be the ones making ponification vaccine… and if we’re not, no amount of Daisy’s wishes would change the fact that it simply doesn’t exist…
  203. “S-Sorry Daisy, we’re supposedly being visited by some humans in a couple of days that’ll be bringing some… Maybe they’ll even have some of the rabies shots we were a tad low on…”
  204. >As far as I could tell, the illusion of scarcity was the only reason the ponies had generally allowed us to remain human for so long
  205. >It should’ve been abundantly clear that millennia of warfaring ingenuity weren’t enough to stamp down the cuddly horde, so Reed and I had resorted to a bit of trickery
  206. >Telling the ponies that the equine vaccines were stored in solidly welded crates with biometric locks at least got them to stop and consider their actions, even if my words were blatant lies
  207. >Gilded Sunrise and Daisy, who apparently held a lot of sway with their herdmates, arranged for us to live in a ‘reverse quarantine’ of sorts in the abandoned campus center
  208. >Whether they truly cared about us, or simply cared about the fingerprints that would trip an imaginary biometric scanner… that was another matter
  209. >Knowing Daisy… she probably couldn’t care less so long as the stream of medicine flowed unabated
  210. >I glanced at the white unicorn, trying to take in as much of her expression as possible, from her contemplative eyes to her resolutely fixed ears
  211. >Oh, hell… Daisy, you’re no idiot… surely you know we’re lying through our teeth, and you could have your whole herd descending on us at the drop of a hat…
  212. >“Bennett, is there anything we can do to get as much as possible out of the crates, just in case the human support you’re expecting… you know…”
  213. >I put my hands on my hips and stared at the floor restlessly
  214. “We’ll see what we can do. We care about your herd just as much as you do, and will do everything in our power to ensure everyone’s safe against whatever cooties come our… their way”
  215. >Daisy pulled in her lips and nodded almost imperceptibly, evidently happy with my response even if she did know I was acting
  216. >“Alright... If, you know, if you get everything out of the crates, you can do whatever you want, but… um… you’re welcome to come stay with our herd”
  217. “Thanks, Daisy…”
  218. >Her gaze quickly vacillated between me and a few quick peeks toward Sunrise, the rhythm of her eyes fixing as me once the golden stallion became cognizant of her glances
  219. >“And, I mean, if not, I’m not going to force you to do anything. It’s not really my place to force a human to join us, especially when you’re already… partially… uh, never mind…”
  220. >Her voice dropped out, and for a few awkward moments, the serene air was pierced by little more than the jubilant giggling of muffled Pegasi voices out on the quad
  221. >Finding the uncomfortably silence to be far more oppressive than anything I could possibly say, I cleared my throat and spoke to the unicorns
  222. “Well, I think you’d best get those vaccines back to the house on Park Street before they drift back toward room temperature. It’s a warm day out there!”
  223. >Daisy’s ears perked up and her horn shimmered to life, enveloping the two boxes I’d been holding within a radiant glow
  224. >“Right… uh… thank you guys once again for… for this! I didn’t know what to think of you at first, but you’ve been a blessing to our herd! Feel free to come visit!”
  225. “Of course! If not, I guess we’ll see you again tomorrow? We’ll have a couple boxes with the triple-E vaccines ready for you to pick up”
  226. >As all three boxes lifted off the floor in the unicorns’ telekinetic grasp, Daisy nudged one of the doors open, momentarily eyeing the wagon before peering back at the pair of humans
  227. >“Sounds great! You take care of yourselves!”
  228. >With whatever smiles Reed and I could muster, we bid the ponies farewell with a few quick waves and watched as they loaded the boxes into the wagon
  229. >After a moment spent securing it around Sunrise’s back, the unicorns ferried their newly acquired medicine off toward the edge of campus and disappeared behind a corner
  230. >Without a word, Reed turned and casually bounded further into the heart of the campus center’s atrium, rubbing his eyes pensively and taking slow, deliberate steps
  231. >He made it about twenty yards to a water fountain before dropping to his knees in front of the glimmering metal fixture
  232. >Paying me no heed while I silently looked on, he ran the water for a couple seconds and doused his hands before rubbing the wetted fingers against his already-misty eyes
  233. >“Bennett, I’m not sure how much longer I can do this. What the hell was that back there?”
  234. >I peered down at him, but Reed wasn’t making eye contact as he took a seat against the wall and brushed his damp hand against his pants leg
  235. “What do you mean? I thought it went well enough. They got their vaccines… they’ll keep leaving us alone… what’s not to like?”
  236. >“No, what… What I mean is... What was that malarkey about us getting reinforcements in a couple days?”
  237. >He didn’t raise his voice, but his words were stern enough to make me take up a defensive stance in both physical posture and tone
  238. “I… I-I don’t know! I’m just stretching out the truth a little bit! The radio waves coming in from western New York – the humans out by Rochester, they s-”
  239. >“The Rochester group?! They went silent two full weeks ago!”
  240. “Okay, yeah! But they said they’d be sending us reinforcements in, like, forty-eight hours!”
  241. >After a slow sigh, Reed started out softly, but his voice crescendoed and gained momentum the more he spoke, until he was practically shouting
  242. >“They said that once, and then they said the exact same thing two days later, and then the exact same thing two days after that, and then they went dark! They’re not coming!”
  243. >His bellowing was still resonating against the atrium’s high ceiling when my own meek voice fought for its own share of attention
  244. “I just figured… they said… even if they lost contact, it’s probably them just having radio difficulties… that they’re definitely on their way…”
  245. >I may as well have said nothing at all, and as Reed glanced about with bewildered indifference, I slumped into a seat next to him
  246. >After a moment, he crossed his arms and languidly swung his head around until he was glaring at me again
  247. >“Any other bright ideas?”
  248. “Maybe there’s a group defending themselves at Columbia University… or NYU… I thought I heard that some of the humans down in New York City were holding their own…”
  249. >Reed sighed and ran his slightly fused fingers through his hair
  250. >“Bennett, you’re failing to appreciate just how quickly and decisively the ponies spread their ‘friendship’ all up and down the East Coast”
  251. “West Coast, then!”
  252. >“Oh, ponyfeathers, there’s no one there either! And before you get any other bright ideas, Moscow, Paris, Tokyo, Cairo, and Berlin went quiet before we even lost contact with Washington”
  253. >He poked a finger into the thin film of dust lining the water fountain’s side, drawing six distinct tally marks for each of the cities he’d listed off, a particularly long line accompanying the last
  254. >After a moment’s hesitation, he started drawing more marks… first five… ten… twenty… before speaking into the silence that hung between us
  255. >“Bennett… What’re you still holding on to, dude? Why are we sitting around, just waiting for the infection to take us?”
  256. >He flexed his rigid fingers a couple times before clasping his hands in his lap, the motions taking place with noticeable difficulty
  257. >“You especially, with the rate you’re progressing… if you don’t do anything yourself, you’re in for a long journey. First you lose your full mental faculties, your fingers, maybe your gender…”
  258. >With a long sigh, his hands lifted up to his neck and began toying with his shirt’s top button
  259. >“I’m going to end this madness, and I’m going to do it by the end of tonight”
  260. >My eyes went wide and I thought back to the janitor’s closet in which we’d stowed our rifles, causing me to abruptly shiver as I thought of Reed using them for such a grim purpose
  261. >He comparative nonchalance was palpable, and as he removed the thick fabric of his outermost shirt, I was momentarily denied sight of his pliant expression
  262. “End it? H-Holy shit, Reed, you’ve got so much to live for!”
  263. >“Not like that, dude! My mother raised me Catholic and I ain’t gonna do something like THAT, for Christ’s sake”
  264. >I set a hand against my hammering chest, and as I tried to get my breathing back under control, I mulled over Reed’s words, their true meaning slowly beginning to click into place
  265. “So… what… you’re just going to walk up to the first pony you see and pull them into a hug?”
  266. >With Reed wincing slightly as he pulled off both of his lower shirts at once, he knocked his wings against the wall and let out a soft yowl of soreness
  267. >“Ow… That smarts… Yeah, first pony, or… partially pony… if you understand where I’m coming from”
  268. >Partially pony…
  269. >The words bounced around in my mind for far longer than it took to hear and comprehend what he meant by them
  270. >After all this time spent fighting, running, scorning and deceiving the ponies, was he really proposing we add two new members to their herd… our herd… just like that?
  271. >As I bit my lip and studied Reed’s unwaveringly certain face, I found all the evidence I needed that he was more than ready to trade it in for a muzzle, and wouldn’t mind me doing the same
  272. >This is what the last vestiges of humanity look like… This is how a species dies…
  273. “Okay”
  274. >He made slightly perplexed eye contact with me, extending his hands forward and shrugging his shoulders slightly in a universal gesture of confusion
  275. >“Okay… what?”
  276. >I started to undo the buttons of my shirt, working downwards with considerably more finesse than Reed’s ailing fingers had been able to manage with his own shirt
  277. “Reed, I’m not going to carry on as a human if you’re not. We’re doing this together”
  278. >In lieu of verbalizing a reply, he nervously licked his lips and simply looked down at the thin green fur covering the back of his hands, his eyes remaining transfixed while he gave a slight nod
  279. >His slightly pointed ears registered each movement… first, the unfastening of my final buttons… then the thick fabric sliding away… then the gliding of cotton from my remaining shirts…
  280. >Each of us was taking in slow, deep breaths, but as I observed the rapid heartbeats against his naked chest, I was almost surprised by how nervous he was also getting
  281. >Just as my final shirt struck the floor and weakly subsided in a heap of apathetic fabric, he wiped the sweat from his brow, wetting what would be his new fetlock in due time
  282. >As I weakly kicked my garments down the length of the wall, I leaned toward him and tenderly began to wrap my hands around his furry torso
  283. >At first, the slightest contact with his sensitive fur caused him to twitch, and his wings responded by flaring outwards, but after a few moments, he started to embrace the changes’ warmth
  284. >With only a hint of reluctance, he peered at me with his deep, shimmering eyes and embraced me, first with his arms, then with the swaddling affection of his swiftly growing wings
  285. >It’s going to be okay, Reed…
  286. >I let my eyelids roll shut as more and more fur began to painlessly push its way out of the patches lining my chest, the skin continually coming into contact with more of Reed’s feathery down
  287. >My stomach seemed to lurch as my ribs gently popped on their way toward becoming an equine barrel, momentarily causing our hug’s collective balance to falter
  288. >Our composure proved to be short-lived, especially as I suddenly realized that it felt as though I was wearing a… a heavy backpack of sorts?
  289. >Before I even knew what the strange weight was, we rolled to our sides and Reed retracted his wings, just in time for my new, steadily growing wings to splay across the floor
  290. >After seeing what some of these unicorns could do, I can’t say Pegasus would’ve been my first choice, but holy moly, I was going to be a horse with wings!
  291. >Though embarrassing, the floor-bound floundering was far from painful, and it was made all the more enjoyable by each wave of pleasure that rocked my body
  292. >Pulling Reed tightly against myself, my tongue lolled out of my mouth and I tried to wrap my wings around him, hoping to maximize our contact as the onslaught of bliss blurred my vision
  293. >My feathers prickled against his, and as I basked in the warmth of out feather-lined cocoon, I couldn’t wait to try flying with this handsome stallion
  294. >His bulking muscles clutched me tightly, and as I buried the semi-formed curves of my muzzle in the crook of his neck, it dawned on me that he was now considerably larger than myself
  295. >As I peered up at him – more aptly, at the sight of his well-chiseled, masculine jaw – I felt my long, supple mane cascade over the delicate curves of my shoulders
  296. >Slightly alarmed by the size difference that hadn’t existed before, I let out a sharp, feminine gasp, my newly forming ears swiveling to pick up the sound
  297. >Reed seemed to grunt in response, as though he were wordlessly inquiring what was wrong, but as I pulled him into my side with renewed vigor, I reaffirmed that nothing was amiss
  298. >My fingers may have been nearly fused together, and my morphing forehooves may have been lined with fur that would soon be my fetlocks, but I retained a bit of dexterity and flexibility
  299. >With a few clicks and pops, I clutched at Reed’s barrel, with what little remained of my hands, desperate to be close amid the changes prompting another wave of bliss to rock my senses
  300. >A moan of sheer ecstasy slipped free from my muzzle and I convulsed, feeling the transformation nearly coming to a head while a pressure built up at the base of my spine
  301. >My thighs had already thickened into a pair of healthy mare haunches, and as I kicked my boots free, I could feel the steamy air drifting around my new hind hooves
  302. >With one final cry of pleasure, my tail pushed my pants downwards over my legs, allowing vibrant, flowing strands of purple to spill unabated over the useless garment
  303. >For a few moments, the Pegasus stallion that had once been Reed simply lay by my side, breathing deeply as he wrapped me in an embrace with his hooves and feathers
  304. >As a soft smile crept across his face, his eyes fluttered open, revealing the deepest green irises that made his coat look nearly grey by comparison
  305. >I was still mesmerized by the sight when he gave me a quick peck on the cheek, causing each of our muzzles to take on a deep red flush
  306. >And in that moment, I knew everything was going to be alright
  310. With that, I’m closing the book on what has been nothing short of a crazy roller coaster ride.
  311. When I wrote Chapter 1 just five short months ago, I had no idea it was going to become a full-fledged story of this magnitude, and it’s still so crazy to think about it.
  312. (Just to clarify, I don’t necessarily advocate for anyone’s first foray into writing to be a story the length of Crime and Punishment.)
  313. I was a guy who’d never really written fiction before, just taking a stab at a prompt that piqued my interests – infectious TF by cuddles, a dash of mental changes, great!
  314. ‘Oh, a chance to write a cute scene and work in an illustrative TF description, and y’know, maybe someone ELSE will take over the story and write it from there – after all, I’m no writer.’
  315. I figured I could post a few hundred words on it and then fade back into obscurity. That ship sailed.
  317. To the anon who wrote Cuddly Doom’s Chapter 0, and everyone who told me to keep going in the early days, I simply cannot thank you enough.
  318. You made this story happen.
  320. Moreover, to everyone who offered support throughout the life of the story, you provided motivation where my discipline faltered.
  321. I continued for two reasons: it was usually fun for me, and I knew that I was writing something that people were looking forward to – taking time out of their day just to read it!
  322. The fact that readers stayed up just to read updates… Wow… For one thing, I apologize for any lost sleep, but seriously, that’s amazing to think about, and I won’t soon forget that loyalty.
  324. There isn’t any specific behind-the-scenes help I can give a shout-out to; I did my own writing, editing, cover art, and story management, but that’s not to say this wasn’t a group effort.
  325. A lot of the best ideas that made their way into the story did so because of discussion/feedback left on the thread.
  326. I had worked out most of the story arc by the end of May, but it was generally still in constant flux, and I know now that the story was improved by avoiding some zanier inclinations.
  328. Special recognition goes to the authors who wrote spin-offs of Cuddly Doom; they’ve been very fun to read. Cuddle Warfare brought back some fond memories, and was a great twist.
  329. Let me also thank the authors whose work Cuddly Doom has been inspired by; I wasn’t the first to write an infectious/apocalyptic pony TF story, and I sure hope I’m not the last.
  330. I could probably fill a whole page, but off the top of my head, The_Panic, Captain Scrappie, HarmOnyRLA, WallMixer, and ASGeek2012 (on FimFic) deserve commendation.
  332. TF-Sential, thanks for putting up with my stupidity for the past couple years; as a cornerstone of the pony TF community and an all-around cool guy, you’re much of the reason I’m still here.
  334. Twisted Spectrum, I quite assuredly wouldn’t be here in the first place if not for you, nor would I have found the motivation to draw or write.
  335. Thanks for bouncing around my ideas for a pony apocalypse story way the hell back in June 2016, when this stuff was barely even a glimmer in my eye.
  336. >inb4 “Bah, if I was an author I wouldn't stop updating until the story was done. What the hell, I'd release updates every week if I had a story, sheesh...”
  338. And, once again, I extend my gratitude to you, the reader.
  340. Goodbye, farewell, and amen.
  341. Geoffrey-McDermott
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