CHAPTER 1: Candidates
The summer break at Caleb’s welding school meant visits home for his students, but for his herd, it was an opportunity for a well-earned holiday. However, while he and his anthro changeling wife Butterfly Sky worked at the school, his earth pony wife Willow Branch had a full-time job at Harmonic Composite’s Ponyville manufacturing facility. She had arranged some holiday leave but it did not start for a couple more days, so Caleb and Sky took the opportunity to work on some home projects in the meantime.
They were in the middle of a bedroom renovation for the growing needs of the herd’s young filly, Lilac Meadow, when a knock came from the front door. Expecting a delivery from the hardware store, Caleb was surprised to find instead a unicorn mare in a unique suit of armor with diaphanous wings. He smiled in recognition.
“Hi, Iron Mare – what brings you here?”
Iron Mare was the pseudonym of Allura and Lacewing, the daughters of Prince Mark. When Lacewing used her changeling abilities to form armor around her bond-sister, the two effectively became one and acted like it.
“Dad wants to know if you’d be free to have lunch tomorrow with him, Mom, and Auntie Twilight at Canterlot Castle. He has a favor to ask.”
Caleb’s eyebrow rose. “What favor?”
Iron Mare shrugged. “I’m just the messenger. You’ll have to ask them.”
“Is it okay to bring Sky along?”
“You know both Sky and Willow are always welcome, Caleb.”
“Willow can’t come, but you can tell Mark that Sky and I will be there. Usual time, I gather?”
“Yep. I’ll let Dad know. Bye!” With that, Iron Mare took off in the direction of Twilight’s castle to avail herself of the portal to Canterlot.
Caleb turned to Sky who had been listening intently. “Any guesses what that is about?”
“No, but I find it curious that it has happened just as you’re free of school obligations.”
“Good point. I suppose we’ll have to wait until tomorrow to find out. Willow is going to be miffed at missing out on a royal luncheon though.”
Caleb and Sky made their way to Canterlot Castle the next day, utilizing the same portal that Iron Mare had used. The man greeted the Royal Guards stationed there and a unicorn scanned then accompanied them to the dining room as was normal procedure. They may have been close friends of the Triarchs, but that didn’t exempt them from standard security protocols. The Guard ushered them in through the door where they found Prince Mark, Princess Trixie, Princess Twilight, and Queen Chrysalis present. Unexpectedly, their friends, Phil and Rosa Martine were there, as well as Princess Celestia which just got Caleb even more curious. He gave the alicorn prince a smile.
“I hope we’re not late, Mark?”
“Not at all, Caleb,” he replied. “You and Sky take a seat. We were just about to order some drinks.”
The two newcomers greeted the rest of those gathered as they settled onto chairs, two of which were suited to the bipeds in anticipation of their presence. After everyone had ordered their refreshments, Caleb spoke up again.
“So – what’s this big favor that you wanted to ask of us?”
“Actually, that’s something you should be asking Phil and Rosa,” Mark replied.
Caleb turned to the unicorn and griffoness and spread his hands in supplication, wordlessly asking the same question.
Phil’s horn lit up and his magic levitated some papers out of the briefcase at his side. He placed copies in front of everyone seated at the table before replying. “Those documents contain the profiles of four of our staff members on the Earth side of the portal. We’re expanding our business Earth-side and we want to introduce them to Equestria. As our resident human, we’d like you to help ease them into a whole new world.”
Caleb glanced at the papers before turning back to Phil. “The most obvious question right now is why you and Rosa don’t do it. After all, you’re normally humans too.”
“True, but my wife and I prefer to maintain our Equestrian forms in this dimension, while you are human full-time. Also, they report to us at Harmonic Composites which would color any personal interactions with them. Besides, we intend to be examples of what happens if you choose to adapt your form to this world. That will come after they learn that they’re not on Earth anymore.”
“So you need me to be the token human and reassure them in the midst of a very wild situation?”
“Pretty much, yes. We’ll be throwing them in the deep end to see how they react, but you will be there to anchor them. You can see that we have four candidates but we only have two new offices opening, so the ones that respond best are likely to win the manager’s position in each.”
Sky said, “Would it help if I came with Caleb in my Vicky persona? They would not need to know that I’m a changeling and it would look better if there was a human couple rather than just an individual living here.”
Celestia spoke up. “I would recommend taking Sky’s offer. While you may want to judge your candidates’ reaction, you don’t want them to feel out of control. A typical human couple would give some semblance of normalcy for them to cling to.”
Rosa chuckled. “I told my husband the same thing. I would have suggested it if Sky had not brought it up.”
“Caleb hasn’t even accepted yet,” Phil pointed out. “Are you willing?” he asked the human.
“It depends – when do you want to do this?”
“Tomorrow morning. I’m told you’re on a mid-semester break so you should be available, correct?”
“That’s true,” Caleb replied, glancing at Sky who nodded. “Okay, we’re in. So – what do we need to know?”
Trixie waved a hoof. “Lunch first. The Great and Famished Trixie thinks better on a full stomach.”
After the meal was completed, everyone turned their attention to the documents that Phil had passed around.
“These are in-depth reports on each of the candidates,” the unicorn said, “but I’ll give you an overview on each of them. The first is Jules Petit.”
The photo attached to the report showed a Caucasian man in his early thirties, with light brown hair and remarkably blue eyes.
Phil continued, “Jules is American-born of French immigrant parents. He joined Harmonic Composites soon after we created the new company to produce and distribute Equestrian-manufactured goods. He is a quiet person not given to participating in many of the office activities, but his fantastic analytical talent more than makes up for lack of interpersonal skills. He frequently puts in lots of overtime to deal with time-sensitive tasks, so much so that, if he wasn’t single, I would insist on him going home. It’s his dedication to the job that put him first on my list of candidates.”
Chrysalis had started reading the documents already and she spoke up. “I see from my changeling agents’ report that he doesn’t seem to socialize at all except for time spent at a certain coffee shop where he plays Go – whatever that is – with other members of a club dedicated to the game. Are you sure he possesses the necessary command ability to run an office and its staff?”
Rosa replied, “Admittedly, we’re not sure about that either. However, I have a hunch that he will deal well with the Equestrian side of the business. I haven’t been able to put a finger… or a talon for that matter… on what it is, but we hope to find out. I think part of my hunch comes from the fact all of his coworkers enjoy working with him. He shows much promise.”
Twilight asked, “Are you intending to pair up the candidates? Perhaps Jules will respond to working closely with another?”
“Yes, we will be,” Phil replied. “While one human will be overall manager for a location, the other will be the assistant manager for the Earth side, while there will be an Equestrian assistant manager on this side. We’ve had the latter setting up the offices in Baltimare and Vanhoover in anticipation of this since the new manufacturing facilities started production.”
Caleb said, “It seems a little biased to have the top job go to humans, isn’t it?”
Rosa shook her head. “We need a human to be responsible in order to deal with other humans, whereas we don’t have the same kind of problems on this side. In the future when Equestria opens up fully to Earth, the top position will be open to Equestrians too. And I’d like to point out that while my husband and I, along with Mark, are the owners of Harmonic Composites, we long ago turned the general management of the Charlotte headquarters to one of Chrysalis’ changelings. He has a flawless human alter-ego and has run the facility very well.”
“Fair enough,” Caleb admitted. “By the way, where are the new facilities on Earth? Baltimore and Vancouver?”
Phil chuckled. “No. Houston and Los Angeles. That way, we have locations in the east, west, and central, all in strong industrial areas. They’ll be linked by portal so that we’ll have immediate access to them on this side. All the candidates are prepared to relocate on the Earth side.”
Caleb nodded, seeing the sense in that. “So – who have you got to pair with Jules?”
Phil shuffled the documents. “Shariq Hussein. Born in Iraq but moved to the United States with his parents as a young boy. Opposite to Jules in many ways. He has no problem giving orders and seeing them carried out, but doesn’t do overtime unless he absolutely has to. Lacks a bit in the imagination department so he doesn’t anticipate problems as well as Jules does. However, once presented with those problems, he is very effective in resolving them. As I see it, he and Jules complement each other and should make a good team.
Caleb looked at Shariq’s profile picture, seeing a man with features similar to his own middle-eastern ones, although he lacked a beard. “Is Shariq a Muslim?”
“Yes. Why?” Phil replied.
“It depends on how orthodox he is. Nothing against Muslims in general, but the more extreme ones tend not to work well with women, and no points for guessing which sex dominates on this world.”
Mark said, “We have a stallion assistant manager at the Vanhoover offices where we expect Shariq will be posted, so hopefully that will be a non-issue.”
Rosa added, “While Shariq isn’t exactly popular with his female co-workers, we’ve never received any official complaints about him from them.”
“I suppose we’ll all find out soon enough,” Caleb said. “Who’s tentatively scheduled to go to the other facility?”
“Michelle Van Dijk,” Rosa replied. “American born of Dutch grandparents. Of the three women we assessed as possible candidates, she showed the greatest aptitude for managerial responsibilities. Frankly, she has been pressing me for a promotion before this but there haven’t been any positions available until now. She pointed out that, aside from myself and one other, a female changeling by the way – my personal assistant, there were no women in positions of authority. I agreed but, as a small company, we had to hire the best among those available at the time. They have proved to be competent and reliable and we won’t be firing or demoting them anytime soon.”
“A strong feminist, I gather?” At Rosa’s nod, Caleb continued. “She’s going to love Equestria then. The female-dominant society will suit her well. She should fit right in.”
“That’s what we’re hoping,” Phil said.
Caleb raised an eyebrow. “I sense a qualification there.”
Rosa sighed. “I admire her ambition but she is biased against males. She always keeps it under control in the office but men definitely don’t like working with her. That’s why Equestria might be her best opportunity.”
Chrysalis waved Michelle’s report. “What this assessment doesn’t mention is what Rosa’s assistant has confided to me. She is outright hostile towards male authority, and that leaves a disgusting taste in any changeling’s mouth. She hides it but you can’t conceal true emotions from us.”
Rosa nodded. “We couldn’t put that in the official report, of course, but that’s why she has always come to me with her complaints rather than my husband. However, she has earned her try at the new position.”
Phil grimaced. “The catch is that she will be competing against a man for the job. I had hoped that another female candidate would make it into the top four, but I was outvoted on that.”
The griffoness patted her unicorn husband consolingly. “I admire your proactive stance towards hiring women, Phillipe, but the rest of us took a more pragmatic approach to these positions. It is too important to not try to get it right. Do not worry – Jolene will get her chance someday.”
“Jolene came in fifth, I take it?” Caleb asked.
“Yes,” Rosa confirmed.
“So who’s the actual fourth candidate?”
“Tyrone Davis,” Phil answered. “African American, one of our earliest hires, and he’s been a reliable hard-working employee. He’s a little race-conscious, but due to Rosa and my Latino background, we haven’t had any real problems with that. No, his only real drawback is that he’s married with two kids. All the others are single and unattached. He will have to deal with keeping a very big secret from his family. While we may allow him to reveal the existence of this world once we’re sure that he’ll work out, that may put some strain on his relationship in the meantime. Then again, he won’t be the first person to be put into a commercially sensitive job which requires secrecy, so we think that it will work out.”
Caleb considered what he had learned about the candidates. “I bet you’re hoping Michelle earns the top spot. I think she might be less than pleased to lose out to Tyrone.”
“Well, we may end up deciding that Michelle would be better off in the other branch,” Mark said. “These are initial assessment assignments. The final positions will be determined after the probationary period.”
Chrysalis said, “We do not expect them all to adapt as well as you did, Caleb Awad, and you had the fortune of meeting the right pony and changeling to help you through your problems.”
“At least they won’t be cut off from their homes and former lives,” the man replied. “Are you thinking of sending some unbonded Companion-class changelings their way? Perhaps secure their dedication to the Equestrian cause?”
“No. That will wait until after the probationary period. My lead mare won’t allow it,” the changeling queen grumbled.
“We do not use the Crystal Hive changelings to meddle in our husband’s business,” Trixie said sternly. “Trixie had hoped that you had learned that lesson.”
There were some uncomfortable chuckles from those who knew to what the alicorn mare was referring to.
Caleb decided to change the subject. “Out of curiosity, who is that fifth candidate that you mentioned?”
“Jolene Harris,” Phil replied. “She was born and raised in Alabama but moved to North Carolina chasing a career opportunity. When that fell through, she applied to Harmonic Composites. We were looking for someone with her qualifications at the time, and it helped that she was female which aligned with our goal of bringing an equal balance of men to women in the company. She has proven to be a very reliable and competent employee, and her pleasant Southern personality has made her popular among her co-workers. However, her desire to please everyone left us some doubts about her ability to command in a manager’s position, which is why she lost out to Tyrone. Whatever happens though, she still remains a top candidate for promotion in the future.”
Caleb leaned back in his chair and nodded. “Well, it seems you have an interesting bunch. Tomorrow sounds like it’s going to be fun. So, what exactly are your plans?”
Caleb and Sky in her Vicky persona, stepped into an office located on the Earth side of Harmonic Composites’ headquarters. There he found Phil and Rosa along with the four candidates whom they recognized from their photographs in their assessment documents. They smiled and greeted their friends.
Phil said, “Right on time. Lady and gentlemen, these are Caleb Awad and his wife, Vicky. They will be escorting you to the secure facility where you will be introduced to the next phase of your probationary assignments. We will leave you in their capable hands. Good luck to you all.”
Caleb said, “First of all, we’re issuing you new I.D. cards. These will grant you access to the secure area. Please keep them on you at all times and have them displayed conspicuously.” He didn’t try to explain that they were enchanted and would key to them magically. There was no possibility of them being used by the wrong person.
Vicky stepped up to each to hang their I.D.s over their necks on lanyards. When she did the last, she said, “Please follow us now.”
Caleb and Vicky led the four out of the office and down a corridor that led to the warehouse portion of the building. At the end were two doors, one leading into the stores area, the other to a guard station. Caleb nodded to the guard, a disguised changeling who could neither be fooled nor compromised. The guard tapped a code into a keypad next to a door on the opposite of the room to which they entered and opened it, revealing a mirrored surface.
“What the hell?” exclaimed Shariq. “Is that a two-way mirror to check us out before going through?”
“Nope,” Caleb replied. “It’s something that you have never encountered before. Despite what it looks like, it’s actually a novel way of securely allowing access to your destination. If you aren’t authorized, you would not be able to pass, but you four have been approved, so you can go through. Vicky, dear, would you care to demonstrate?”
“Of course,” she replied before confidently stepping through the portal, her form pushing through the mirror surface without resistance.
“Whoa! That’s like something out of Star Gate, SG1,” Jules commented.
“Funny you should say that,” Caleb said with a grin. “You may experience some minor disorientation but it’s completely harmless. Everyone, please follow my wife now.”
Jules eagerly stepped through, closely followed by Shariq, Michelle, and Tyrone. Caleb then joined them.
“This is a bit of an anti-climax,” Michelle said.
They were in another guard station, although this one was larger with several more doors. The guard there was another changeling disguised as a human for the occasion, and he secured the portal.
“Trust me – the most interesting part is about to begin. Follow me, everyone,” Caleb said as he headed out into the corridor. “Our first stop is to meet the Martines’ business partner, Mark Wells, the person behind the unique products that Harmonic Composites produces.”
“How come I’ve never heard about this partner before?” Tyrone asked.
“That will become apparent shortly.” Caleb stopped outside a door marked ‘Conference Room’ and said, “You are about to meet some of the most powerful people in this world, but they aren’t what you’ll be expecting. Just a reminder to be respectful.”
“What do you mean by that?” Jules asked.
“You’ll see soon enough,” Caleb replied as he knocked on the door before opening it. “Please go in, everyone.”
The candidates entered to be confronted by a small green-coated unicorn with wings, a larger bat-winged mare to his left, and an even larger creature with a shiny black carapace, glittering translucent wings, and sparkling mane to his right.
“Is this some kind of joke?” Shariq demanded.
“Not at all,” Mark responded with a smile. “I am Prince Mark Wells, co-ruler of the Equestrian Empire and your boss. Welcome to the magical world of Equus.”
CHAPTER 2: Locations
There was a moment of confusion among the human candidates from hearing Prince Mark talk before Shariq turned around to confront Caleb.
“Are you mocking us with these animals?”
Caleb frowned. “First of all, they are no more animals than you and I. Secondly, although we might find your reactions amusing, this isn’t a joke.”
“What? You use animatronic fantasy creatures as proxies?”
Chrysalis turned to Mark and asked, “What does animatronic mean, husband?”
The green alicorn replied, “Animatronic devices are very sophisticated puppets meant to closely mimic living things.”
Chrysalis’ eyebrows rose. She approached the irate human and glared at him. “Behold, unbeliever! Can your animatronic devices do this?” Arcane green flames engulfed her to replace the changeling queen’s quadrupedal form with a bipedal one. Unfortunately, or perhaps deliberately, still without any clothing. Chrysalis posed to show off her very voluptuous anthro body.
Shariq’s eyes bugged out before he rapidly averted his gaze. There were gasps of surprise and amazement from the other candidates, but only a sigh of exasperation from Mark.
“Please resume your normal form, dear.”
With one last glare at the offending human, Chrysalis complied and returned to her place next to Mark. Her departing tail flick might have been accidental.
Caleb spoke up. “I suppose that now that we’ve had a little fun at your expense, I’d better explain the true situation. That mirror surface that you passed through wasn’t a security device, it was a portal to another world.”
“Like a star gate as I said?” Jules queried.
“Yes, only powered by magic, not science.” Caleb held up a hand to forestall objections. “Yes, magic. Don’t argue because you’ll only look silly when you see more examples. Anyway, we are now on the world of Equus in the nation of Equestria. The green pony with a horn and wings is an alicorn and, as he said, he is Prince Mark Wells, a Triarch which is one of three rulers of the empire.” By previous agreement, there would be no mention of Mark’s origin as a human. “The shape-changing one is a royal changeling, Queen Chrysalis of the Canterlot Hive, and Mark’s wife. The mare with the impressive leathery wings is Captain Penumbra, a batpony, and Mark’s chief bodyguard. And while Prince Mark’s job is to govern Equestria, part of that job is to increase its prosperity through commerce. Harmonic Composites is the company through which this is done on Earth. The secrets of the unique manufacturing techniques and the beings that create them can only be found here on this world. You four are intended to expand that business by managing not only the new branches but also maintaining the secret. Hence, the very strict non-disclosure agreements that you signed.”
“Are you even human?” Tyrone asked suspiciously.
“Yes, I am. I come from Earth too.” ‘Just not your Earth,’ he added mentally. He put his arm around Vicky’s waist. “My wife and I live here though.” Caleb implied that Vicky was human without actually saying so, thus maintaining the illusion of a human couple.
“This isn’t preparation for some sort of invasion, is it?” Michelle asked.
Mark rolled his eyes. “No, Ms. Van Dijk; we are traders not invaders. We have neither the need nor desire to conquer other countries.”
Michelle’s eyes narrowed. “But twice now your nation has been described as an empire. You don’t get that big without taking over other countries.”
Mark nodded. “That’s very perceptive of you, but there’s a difference between conquering other nations by force and having them join yours willingly. The Equestrian Empire consists of several allied nations, many of which were liberated from the oppression of a conquering warlord and chose to join us for both prosperity and security. And yes, I am fully aware that the victors usually write history to put themselves in the best light. For now, please just take my word for it; you are free to research the subject later.”
Michelle frowned but nodded.
Mark smiled. “Good. You are going to discover for yourselves the vast diversity of sapient beings in this world. I represent the alicorns, but we are few and are ascended forms of the other pony tribes. Penumbra here is an example of the subset of the pegasus tribe – the batponies.”
“The superior version,” Penny said smugly.
Mark smirked. “Regular pegasi have feathered wings. Before any of you point out that we can’t possibly be able to fly, trust me – we can. I’ve mentioned magic before – it’s very real and the reason why I can do this.” He levitated a stack of documents off the table and hovered them in front of the candidates. “Check for strings if you like. It’s that magic glow that’s holding that up.”
Michelle gave it a hesitant push that failed to budge it. Tyrone passed his arms around the stack to no effect. Jules reached for the papers and stopped. He quirked an eyebrow and looked at Mark. “Do you mind if I try an experiment?”
“Be my guest.”
The man took the top sheet and crumpled it into a tight ball. His hands cupped below and above the paper and he slowly brought them together. Michelle squinted and brought her face close.
Jules touched his cupped hands together a few times. “When my hands form a tight seal, they act as a Faraday cage and I can feel the weight. The ball levitates when I have a moderate size gap.”
Michelle asked, “Does it matter where the gap is located?”
“No. The field is not just pushing up from the bottom nor is it pulling up from the top. The ball doesn’t deform at all no matter which direction the gap is with respect to the ball.”
Tyrone said, “I didn’t feel any levitation on my arms. Can you sense anything?”
Jules replied, “Other than a faint feeling similar to static electricity, no, I don’t.”
Michelle said, “Levitation is an area effect, distributing force across the entire volume.” She tapped her nose with a finger, apparently lost in thought.
Shariq said, “This is how you control the crystallization of the alloys. You don’t have to worry about gravity separating the components.”
Mark said, “That and precise temperature control in different sections of the sample.” Chrysalis gave him a meaningful look and nodded. All of the candidates were intellectually and emotionally involved.
Jules flattened out the sheet as best he could, giving a sheepish smile. He released the sheet an inch above the stack of papers. It remained in midair for a few seconds until Mark allowed it to slowly drop to the stack and then the stack to the table.
Mark continued. “Anyway, as I was saying, there are also unicorns, earth ponies, donkeys, and zebras, but equines are hardly the only species. There are changelings such as my wife, griffons, hippogriffs, kirin, ornithians, dragons, Abyssinians, diamond dogs, breezies, and more. This is the ultimate multi-species and multi-cultural society, and it’s going to be a little overwhelming at first.”
“You can say that again,” Caleb murmured.
Mark gave him a flat look before continuing. “It can also be an exciting and wonderful experience. How you deal with it will be one of the things we will be judging you four on during your probationary period.”
“When do we get to see these other… um… species,” Jules asked. “I’d like to meet a griffon.”
“Right now if you want,” came a voice from near the door to the conference room.
While the attention of the candidates had been focused on Mark, two people had quietly slipped into the room to listen to the proceedings. One had responded to Jules.
Michelle whirled around at the sound of a familiar voice. “Ms. Martine! Did you know ab—” She stopped, not seeing her human boss but a griffon instead, accompanied by a unicorn.
The griffon held up a talon. “I’m here, Michelle. I just wear a different form in Equestria. And this handsome unicorn is Phillipe, my husband.”
“What the actual f—” Tyrone barely stopped the F-bomb, but all the other candidates were thinking the same thing.
Caleb said, “Let me tell you about one other exciting option about coming to this world. There is an adaptation spell that enables humans to take on the Equian form that most suits them here. Rosa Martine becomes a griffon, while Phil Martine becomes a unicorn. From experience, I know I become an earth pony, but I prefer to remain human. The Martines prefer their Equian forms but, as I said, this is optional. There is absolutely no requirement to do so.”
Jules looked as if he had just been given a wonderful Christmas present. “Hell, yeah! I want to try that.”
“It’s reversible, right?” Tyrone asked.
“Of course,” Phil replied. “You’ve seen me as a human on Earth despite my frequent trips to Equestria.”
“Okay then. I think I’d be consumed by curiosity if I didn’t give it a try, even if I preferred to stay human.”
“Fair enough,” Phil said. “As Caleb mentioned, it’s purely optional.”
“Would I be able to fly if I became a griffon?” Michelle asked.
“Yes,” Rosa replied, “but you would have to learn how. Even naturally winged species need to learn how to use them.”
“Fair enough. I’d like to give it a try then.”
“What about you, Shariq?” Caleb asked.
The man scowled. “Why would I want to become an animal?”
Mark said, “Not an animal, but that’s your choice. The others will be given the opportunity later. Now, let’s proceed with the real purpose of this meeting. As already mentioned, I am the boss of Harmonic Composites, at least on this side of the portal. Phil and Rosa Martine are my partners on the Earth side. We started this company for purely capitalistic reasons. I wanted to increase my nation’s prosperity through commerce, and Phil and Rosa had a small company that they wanted to grow into other fields. I provided the capital and the unique manufacturing capabilities while they organized sales and found new markets. Phil also finds new applications based on the special features of our products.”
“So, let me get this straight,” Tyrone said. “Those features that no other company on Earth could replicate are due to magic?”
“Exactly. I know that it’s a hard idea to swallow, but magic spells and abilities are a normal thing here. Alloys and materials that are difficult to produce on Earth can easily be manufactured in large quantities here. It’s unicorn magic paired with computational analysis that allows the company to create what none other can. Alloys with different properties blend seamlessly together. Magic allows precise control of temperature, pressure, and cooling rate in different sections of the part. The computation hardware and software on the Earth side run evolutionary algorithms to create the highly optimized product designs. Certain functions of our equipment are accomplished by enchantments rather than electronics. This is a world that is rich in mana, the energy behind magic, and this world’s species have evolved to take advantage of it. Some even have special talents that exceed all others. Mine is lightning control, for example.”
“No one can control lightning,” Michelle scoffed. “That’s too much raw energy for even heavy industrial machinery to cope with, let alone an organic creature.”
Mark said nothing but held up his forehooves about half a yard apart. A huge bolt of electricity arced between them for about a second, buzzing and crackling while it dazzled those who did not anticipate what was going to happen. The four candidates blinked and rubbed their abused eyes.
“You were saying, Ms. Van Rijn?”
“Objection withdrawn, sir.”
“Good. Now that you know the basics, it’s time to show you around this facility and then the new branches that you will be managing.”
“That seems to be a lot to accomplish in one day, sir,” Jules said. “The branches are a long way apart. Or do you have some way of getting there quickly?”
Mark grinned. “Now you’re catching on. We have different portals that can take us instantly anywhere. Your postings are just a few steps away.”
Jules rubbed his palms together and his grin matched the alicorn’s. “I think I’m going to enjoy this… a lot!”
Mark looked over to Caleb, Vicky, Phil, and Rosa. “That’s your cue, guys. I’ve got Day Court coming up and Chrysalis and I need to prepare. Have a great day, everyone.”
“Follow my wife, please,” Phil said as Rosa headed for the door. He brought up the rear after all the candidates had exited the room. Just before entering the hallway, Phil overheard Chrysalis behind him, an edge of anger in her voice.
“I was mistaken, my husband. Michelle is not the most insufferable applicant for our changelings to deal with.”
As they filed out into the corridor, Tyrone asked Caleb, “Where do you fit into this? As a human, I would have thought that I would have seen you around.”
“Oh, I don’t work for Harmonic Composites. Prince Mark has his hooves in a number of different projects aimed at advancing Equestria’s capabilities in many areas such as construction. Electrical arc welding was unknown before he introduced it to this world with equipment brought over from Earth. However, he needed someone to teach the locals how to use it. I head up a welding school which he financed. My wife, Vicky, runs the office while I do the hands-on, or should I say hooves-on, teaching as I’m a fully qualified welder. Anyway, Mark asked us to show you around to reassure you that everything is on the up-and-up and humans are welcome here. And honestly, ponies are quite nice to know. Give them a scratch behind the ears and they’ll love you for it. Just ask before you do it, okay?”
Tyrone chuckled. “I’ll keep that in mind.”
They emerged onto a balcony that overlooked a factory floor. The four candidates gaped in awe at what they could see from that vantage point. Species of various kinds were operating the machinery, moving materials, and constructing devices. While some of the processes were esoteric, it was the incongruity of the mythical beings operating prosaic equipment in an otherwise ordinary factory that left them stunned. A pegasus flew by, carrying parts from one part of the building to another, and Michelle watched it in wonder.
“They really can fly,” she murmured.
Rosa heard and said, “It’s one thing to say it and another to see it for yourself, ¿no? Believe me, when I first became a griffon, I could hardly wait to try flying for myself.”
Phil said, “The facility here has reached its peak capacity, hence why we needed to expand. Rather than enlarging this one, we decided to establish new factories in cities on either coast of this country. While portal technology gives us the ability to travel anywhere, those facilities have given local employment opportunities to many citizens in Baltimare and Vanhoover.”
“Baltimare and Vanhoover?” echoed Shariq. “Are you kidding?”
“Nope. For whatever reason, there are a lot of pun variations on familiar place names. Anyway, the one in Vanhoover is linked to the new Los Angeles branch while the Baltimare branch goes to Houston. If necessary, goods can be easily transferred between facilities in the same way that they’re transported to Earth. If you look to your far left, you will see a large roller shutter that is currently closed. When it’s open, you would be able to see a large interdimensional portal that goes to the secure holding facility back in Charlotte. A similar shutter covers the portal on the Earth side. When one goes down, so does the other to prevent trying to go through a blocked gateway. A third shutter door at the opposite end of the secure area can only be opened to the loading dock when the portal shutter is closed, and vice-versa so that the secret of the delivery of goods is maintained. That portal has recently had an upgrade though, and it can be switched to go to either of the new facilities, thus enabling Harmonic Composites to be able to make rapid deliveries of goods and materials to the other branches. You will be able to travel instantly between them too, but you will still be required to take up residence in the states of the Earth-side branches to maintain the illusion of being far apart.”
“Can we see what it’s like outside the factory?” asked Tyrone.
“Yes, but not right now. First, we need to show you your future workplaces. After business is complete, we intend to take you sightseeing and then a trip to Canterlot, the capital city of Equestria, for dinner at the castle.”
“Castle?” Michelle queried. “As in kings and queens?”
“Yes, but no,” Rosa replied. “For Equestria, it is prince and princesses. Besides Prince Mark Wells, there are Princess Trixie Lulamoon and Princess Twilight Sparkle, his co-rulers.”
“Two princesses? Now you’re talking,” Michelle said with a smile.
Phil looked over to Caleb and nodded. The man returned the nod before speaking up. “Okay, folks, the sooner we get business out of the way, the sooner we can all get around to relaxing and socializing. Follow Vicky and me and we’ll head off to the Vanhoover/Los Angeles branch first.”
As the group headed back down the corridor, Michelle stepped up next to Vicky and asked, “I suppose you commute between Charlotte and here. What’s that like?”
“Actually, my husband and I live here in Ponyville.”
“Oh? Can I ask why you choose to live here?”
“Because we love it here. We’ve made it our home and we’re raising our children here.”
“What about their education? I mean, this is a whole different world, not just another country.”
“My husband and I will ensure they know all about their Earth heritage. It’s important to both Caleb and me.”
Their conversation stopped as they arrived back at the guard station and Caleb asked the security officer to open the portal to Vanhoover. A beam from the unicorn guard’s horn scanned their badges which briefly glowed green and she nodded in satisfaction.
Tyrone looked at his badge more closely and frowned in puzzlement. “How’d she do that? Make them flash like that, I mean.”
Caleb replied, “Because they’re enchanted. They have a microchip for interaction with the Earth-side devices, but the true security is in the spell they are imbued with. They are keyed to you alone and an imposter cannot use them at all. The guard’s scanning spell detects that they are genuine and you are authorized to traverse the portal. Plus, because they only flash in response to a specific sequence of magical energy, they will never flash inadvertently on the Earth side.”
While Caleb was explaining, the guard tapped a code into a pad and a light over one of the doors illuminated. The visitors only then noticed that each doorway had a nameplate over it, and this one read Vanhoover, while the others had Canterlot, Baltimare, and Charlotte. Caleb opened the door and stepped through, followed by Vicky. The candidates were surprised not to see a mirror in the door frame but just another room. They passed through without hesitation and it was immediately obvious that they were in a different location. While they had emerged into another security station, the exit from that led directly onto a large open floor. Skylights revealed an overcast sky, whereas the previous factory had been brightly lit by a clear sunny day.
Jules had paused at the portal, peering at it closely. “That wasn’t like the other portal at all,” he commented. “There was no sense of disorientation when passing through.
Caleb replied, “That’s because it’s only for local travel, not interdimensional. I’m told it utilizes a different kind of spell that brings two sets of space-time coordinates together, so you’re basically just walking through it like any normal doorway. You passed through a fixed one but there are also temporary ones. Set up a beacon, link to it, and bam! – instant portal. That pretty much means anywhere in the empire if you have the requisite equipment.”
Phil added, “But a fixed one like this can be kept open indefinitely, whereas the temporary ones last two hours and are single-use only. It isn’t cheap to set up the permanent ones, but when you have the royal treasury backing you, it’s a no-brainer. Anyway, enough about portals. Time to meet the manager of this facility.”
A light blue-coated unicorn with white feathering on his lower legs and a blue & yellow-striped mane approached with a pleasant smile on his face. In a deep baritone voice, he said, “Good day, Mr. and Mrs. Martine. Are these the probationary managers that you told me about?”
Phil stepped up to hoof-bump the stallion who subsequently exchanged a talon-shake with Rosa. Phil said, “Yes, they are. You already know Caleb and Vicky. Let me introduce you to Jules Petit and Shariq Hussein. These two will have their trial period at the Los Angeles branch with you. The others are Tyrone Davis and Michelle Van Dijk who will be going to the other facility. Everyone, this is Fast Mover who has been in charge of this factory since it commenced operations.”
“A pleasure to meet you all, I’m sure,” the stallion said.
Rosa said, “Would you care to give our candidates a tour of las facilidades, Mr. Mover?”
“Certainly, Ma’am. If you would all follow me.” He headed toward an assembly line. “We are currently manufacturing high-density electron storage crystals which will be going into Harmonic Composites’ Superstor brand batteries. These are capable of holding triple the charge of anything comparable on the market on Earth and are expected to revolutionize the electric vehicle industry there, not to mention Equestrian transport. Our main obstacles right now are ramping up production and trying to increase yield beyond our current sixteen percent. On your right…
After an exhaustive tour and many curious looks between the humans and the employees at work there, the group returned to the Vanhoover portal station.
Fast Mover looked to Phil and Rosa and asked, “Will we be showing them the Earth-side offices right now?”
“Might as well,” Phil replied. “Rosa and I will go ahead to forewarn the staff there.” The guard opened the interdimensional portal to Los Angeles just long enough for the griffon and unicorn to step through.
After the badges of the four humans were scanned once again, the guard re-opened the portal to Los Angeles. The candidates were confronted by a mirror, but they knew what to expect this time. Still, they were surprised to find their bosses in human form when they crossed over into a much smaller room.
Michelle blinked then smirked. “Seeing as you weren’t clothed back there, I wondered if you traveled in the nude.”
Rosa smiled and replied, “I did that the very first time that I visited Equus. Nowadays though, my husband and I wear enchanted clothing. It all goes into some sort of magic storage pocket when we go there and returns when we come back to Earth. Both convenient and saves us from embarrassing situations.”
“What about us?” Jules asked. “When we try the change of forms, I mean.”
“We recommend you strip,” Phil replied. “While you won’t have much of a problem if you turn into a pony like me, because we’re smaller than humans, the clothes tend to fit very badly and your pants will probably fall down as they aren’t designed to stay on a quadruped. On the flip side, if you change into a larger species such as a griffon like my wife, you will burst out of your clothes. In the future, we can arrange to have your clothes enchanted too if you wish to use your Equian forms regularly.”
Just then, another human emerged from the portal. The man was lean and tall with a pale complexion, but it was his hair that stood out. It was a yellow blond with pale blue stripes along the temples.
“Who are you?” Michelle asked suspiciously.
The man grinned. “Forgotten me so soon, Ms. Van Dijk? Fast Mover at your service!”
“Oh! I suppose I should have realized that if that portal can turn humans into ponies, the reverse would be true.”
“Correct. And while I could have overseen the set-up of this branch in my normal form, there was far less chance of a security breach as a human. We did have to bring in locals for various purposes, after all.”
Rosa said, “It’s gotten a bit cramped in this small office now that we’re all here, so let’s go look at the facility.”
She led the way out of the Los Angeles portal security room which doubled as a dispatch counter with a small window into a loading dock. Jules noticed that the placement of walls and doorways prevented anyone from getting any hint of the portal from either the window or the exit. As the newcomers moved out into the hallway, it made an immediate turn, preventing anyone outside from inadvertently looking directly inside.
Fast Mover pointed to the door immediately to his left. “That exits into the loading dock, but this one…” He indicated a locked door almost opposite the security office, “…goes into store room area where the Equestrian manufactured goods are being held. The door at the right goes to the reception area. Follow me.”
They walked down a corridor which had offices opening out into it. Through the doorways they saw perfectly normal, albeit currently unused office equipment. A well-appointed lunchroom was at the end and they reversed course to go out into the reception area. They stepped into a tastefully decorated room with a secretary’s desk and sales counter. That wasn’t what attracted the candidates’ attention though. Through the large window frontage, they had an unobstructed view of smog-shrouded mountains. They were very clearly not in Charlotte, North Carolina anymore.
Phil noticed their gaze and said, “Yeah, it’s all real, and that smog is one of the reasons why our battery technology is so important. While we may have a hard time weaning Americans from their cars, at least we can give them an environmentally friendly alternative at a price they can afford. Harmonic Composites may be a business, but it’s one with a much larger goal in mind than just profits. That’s why the company is never going to go public. We refuse to compromise on that goal for the sake of shareholders.”
Tyrone said, “My family and I thank you. My son is an asthmatic and that smog is why we had to move interstate for a better environment for him. I’m glad that I’ll be going to the other branch.”
Rosa said, “We took that into account when assigning positions. We have children too, and we hope to give them a better world. The company is relatively small now, but rapidly growing, hence these two new facilities. We envision much growth as our products penetrate the market and get better known. While right now only two of you four will take the top spot at each new branch, we don’t think it will be long before the other two will get branches of their own. The future is looking very promising.”
“You could say magical,” Jules commented with a grin.
There were chuckles all around except for Michelle who rolled her eyes.
Fast Mover said, “We’ll take a quick look at the storeroom, but there’s not much to see. Aside from the goods that are already awaiting sales and distribution, it’s pretty much the same as the Charlotte facility.”
The entry to the storeroom required the security guard to admit them, and they saw that it had the same double- shutter arrangement that the Charlotte factory used.
Fast Mover pointed to the shutter on the left. “The loading dock is on the other side of that. We have hired a couple of the locals to man it. They do not know about the connection to Equus, at least not yet. If they prove to be reliable, that may change.”
“Won’t they wonder where the new goods are coming from though?” Caleb asked.
“They’ve been told that a second shift handles incoming. As this building is within a secure warehousing facility, no one is allowed to just hang around outside of normal hours and watch. We have additional security arrangements too with which you’ll be familiarized soon.”
Phil said, “There will be a lot more details to go over before you start your work, but for now, we’re just giving you all a quick tour. Let’s move on to the next destination.”
The group made its way back to the Los Angeles Security room where they were scanned by the guard with a handheld device rather than a horn. The results were the same though as their badges glowed green.
Phil said, “The guards at all the portals are under strict instructions to verify identity on every occasion, so please be patient with them even when you and they become completely familiar with each other. Espionage is a thing on both worlds, and magic adds a new dimension to security risks.”
Rosa said, “Fast Mover, Phil, and I will precede you. Wait a moment while the guard changes the settings on the portal, or you will undergo transformation. We want to try that with you in a more controlled environment.”
After the three had passed through the portal, the candidates looked on in bemusement as the guard did something to the access panel before waving them through. They were back at the Vanhoover facility where a familiar griffon and two unicorns awaited them. “I’ll part ways from you now,” Fast Mover announced. “I’m looking forward to working with you, Mr. Petit and Mr. Hussein.” He then exited into the factory.
They repeated the now familiar security check. Only then did the guard activate the next portal and the group returned to the Ponyville portal hub. From there, they transitioned to their next destination.
They emerged into another room almost identical to the one they just left. Stationed there was what looked to them like a pony crossed with an insect with glowing eyes and shiny chitin, but the jacket it wore had “SECURITY” stitched on it, which told them that this was the local guard.
Vicky said, “You may have noticed Femur here has some resemblance to Queen Chrysalis. He is indeed a changeling like her, one from her hive.”
“Howdy, folks,” Femur said. “Welcome to the Baltimare facility!”
They all greeted the changeling before exiting to the factory floor. Their first impression of the place was that it was virtually the same as the Vanhoover plant. There were different machines making other products, but the general layout was the same practical and efficient design. As they were inspecting a device that was spooling up wire of some kind, they were approached by a yellow earth pony mare with a short blue and gold mane.
“Ah, there you are, Ms. Goods,” Rosa said. “We were beginning to wonder what happened to you.”
The mare briefly bowed her head in acknowledgment of the mild rebuke. “My apologies to you and Mr. Martine, Ma’am. I was held up by a problem on one of our assembly lines.”
“That’s what we pay you for; I’m glad you have your priorities straight. Anyway, now that you’re here, let me introduce you to our new probationary managers. Everyone, this is Precious Goods, the manager of the Baltimare facility. Precious, these are Michelle Van Dijk and Tyrone Davis whose trial period will be at the Houston office and they will be working with you to coordinate the Earth-side logistics. The other two are Jules Petit and Shariq Hussein who will be at the Vanhoover/Los Angeles office.”
There were exchanges of pleasantries and hoof-handshakes before Michelle drew attention to the wire they had been looking at.
“I understand that Harmonic Composites produces materials that other companies can’t, but what’s so special about this wire?”
“That is room-temperature superconductor wire,” Precious replied.
“What?!” exclaimed Shariq. “That’s been the Holy Grail of materials engineers for ages!”
Precious shrugged. “It’s not perfected yet. It’s only good up to about 28° Celsius before it loses its superconducting properties and the loss can’t be reversed. Therefore it has to be used in temperature-controlled environments. We’re working on a new variety that can tolerate far higher temperatures.”
“That explains why an air-conditioner is blowing cool air over it. It’s still an astounding achievement.” Shariq turned to the Martines. “This alone could make the company millions. Has it been patented? I’d hate to have the competition analyze it and duplicate it.”
Phil smirked. “They can try, but they’re unlikely to be able to determine more than the raw ingredients. The secret is in the way it’s manufactured.”
“Right. Magic. I can see that I have a lot to learn about these impossible products.”
“Just think of magic as a revolutionary production method and it won’t be so bad,” Rosa advised. “You’ll get used to it. Now, how about you showing our visitors around the rest of the facility, Precious.”
The mare did as she was asked before they ended up back at the security station. There, Femur scanned them and allowed them to pass through to the Houston office. As he waved them through, the changeling said, “Have a safe trip… which means don’t trip on the threshold!” Jules was the only one who laughed, which drew a large smile from the bug pony.
The Houston facility had been set up much as the Los Angeles office, with the same degree of security and practicality. Only the view out the window differed.
Precious Goods had transformed into a petite woman with short blonde hair and a noticeable pink blush to her skin. She wore a deep blue business jacket and skirt and black pumps. She said, “We’re in a technology park, hence the pleasant landscaping. While it doesn’t have the fences and restricted access of the Los Angeles facility, the high-value goods produced and handled here justify the employment of a strong security force that patrols the area, especially at night.”
When they returned to the Baltimare portal room, Michelle approached Precious who was back in her earth pony form.
“I just want to say that I’m pleased that I’ll be working with a female manager.”
Precious inclined her head and raised an eyebrow. “What do you mean by that?”
“After seeing Fast Mover at the Vanhoover factory, I thought another male would be in charge here.”
“Ah, I see. You humans have equal numbers of males and females, don’t you? In Equestria, mares outnumber stallions by about four to one. Most senior positions go to mares for that reason. We don’t discriminate on the basis of gender here at Harmonic Composites though. Fast Mover earned his promotion by being better than the female candidates for the job,” Precious replied coolly. “I’ll see you again soon, Ms. Van Dijk. You too, Mr. Davis. I need to get back to the factory now.”
After Precious had departed and while the guard was preparing the portal to Ponyville, Michelle asked Rosa, “Is that true? Mares outnumber stallions by that much?”
“Yes, it’s true, for ponies at least. It’s not the same for most other species, but because Equestria was founded by ponies and the majority of the population still consists of them, you’ll find that mares occupy most of the top positions. It’s very much a matriarchal society. However, while I am sure this will suit you very well, remember Precious Goods’ words.”
It wasn’t long before everyone emerged from the Ponyville security office.
“I don’t know about the rest of you, but I’m feeling hungry,” Phil said. “We’re going to have a late lunch in town before we proceed to Friendship Castle where we will give you the opportunity to try out an Equian form.”
“Sounds good,” Jules said, “but I thought we were going to… what was it… Camelot?”
“Canterlot,” Phil corrected. “That’s later. We’ll let you get a bit more familiar with this world first.” He turned to Rosa. “What do you think – The Fig Tree?”
“Since it caters to carnivores too, that would probably be best,” she replied.
Phil nodded and faced the others once more. “Okay, just follow us. Don’t be afraid to respond to anyone who greets you – they’re a friendly lot in Ponyville. They’re used to seeing Caleb, so some new humans shouldn’t cause too much of a stir.”
“Is our being humans going to cause problems?” Tyrone asked.
Caleb replied, “Some ponies were a bit skittish around me when I first arrived, but once they got familiar with me, they were fine. You’ll probably have similar responses from a few of the Equestrian staff at your branches. Just give them a little time.”
The group exited the factory and all four newcomers gaped at what they saw. While there was a modern-looking factory not far from the one they just exited and a railway platform to one side, the rest of the view was filled with trees and garden beds, while a paved road meandered into what looked like a fantasy village with thatched roofs and half-timbered walls. Towering above them on the far side of the town was a strange crystalline structure backing up against a mountain range that grew taller in the distance.
“Wow! This is nothing like I thought it would be,” Michelle said.
Jules nodded. “And the colors all seem so much more vibrant too.”
Caleb said, “It’s the magic that pervades this world – it tends to enhance everything. Ponyville is a very pretty town, even in the newer industrial parts. Ponies take great pride in making their towns beautiful.”
“And just wait until you see Canterlot,” Phil added. “It’s the capital of Equestria and where we’ll be taking you later. You can see it from here.” He pointed a hoof toward a brightly gleaming point high up a distant peak.
“They built a city on the side of a mountain?” Tyrone asked incredulously.
“Yep. It’s even more amazing when you see how they did it. Anyway, come along – food awaits us.”
“I’ll fly on ahead and arrange a table for our group,” Rosa said. She spread her wings and took off.
“I still find that incredible,” Jules said, receiving murmurs of agreement.
The group followed Caleb and Vicky toward the town center. As they got further from the factories and closer to the town proper, they began encountering the inhabitants. The first to greet them was an earth pony hauling a huge cart laden with firewood.
“Hey there, Caleb! Who’re your friends?” the stallion called out cheerfully.
“Hi, Sharp Axe. These people work for Harmonic Composites. They’ll be going to the new branches in Vanhoover and Baltimare and we’ve been showing them around the Ponyville factory.”
“Business has been booming since they set up in town. Good for everypony, I reckon. Welcome and enjoy your visit, folks!”
The humans thanked Sharp Axe before the pony turned back to Caleb.
“Will you be needing your usual?”
“Sure. Fill up the wood shed and leave the bill. Sky will take care of it tomorrow.”
“No problem. Y’all have a great day, y’hear?” Sharp Axe proceeded on his way.
“How does such a small pony pull such a heavy load so easily?” Tyrone asked.
“Earth ponies have magic-enhanced strength as well as other abilities,” Caleb answered. “Sharp Axe could pull that load up a hill without a problem. You should see what the really strong ones can do!”
“I can’t wait to find out!”
“Who’s Sky?” asked Michelle curiously.
“Butterfly Sky handles our accounts,” Caleb answered with a sly wink to his wife.
The group continued on their way, receiving curious looks and the occasional greeting. The visitors were overwhelmed by the sheer number of fantastic beings they encountered, not to mention the magical activities that were taken for granted by the locals. From unicorns carrying their shopping in the glow of their magic to pegasi towing carts through the air which inexplicably stayed level and upright, it was one amazing thing after the other. The only drama caused by their arrival was an earth pony mare with a beige coat and blue and pink mane dragging away a mint green unicorn mare who wildly gesticulated in their direction. Then Jules noticed something in the sky.
“Something’s odd about the movement of those clouds.”
Caleb looked up and saw what he was talking about. “Oh, that’s just the pegasus weather team clearing out the stray clouds. Clear skies were scheduled for today, so they have to deal with the wild ones that drift in from the Everfree Forest.”
Jules stopped and stared at Caleb. “They schedule weather?”
“Yep. Blew my mind too when I found that out. Beats the hell out of anything humans can do.”
Jules and the other three visitors mulled on that as they ascended a low hill on top of which sat the restaurant that was their goal. It was obvious how it got its name due to the enormous fig tree growing in the center. They met Rosa who was waiting for them outside the entrance.
“I’ve got us a table for eight in the carnivore section, so you humans are free to order any meat dishes without bothering the pony patrons.”
“I gather that ponies are vegetarians?” queried Michelle.
“Mostly,” Phil answered. “A few like to eat fish on occasion. The smell of meat can make some ponies queasy although it doesn’t bother me and some others are used to it.”
“Follow me,” Rosa said. “Food awaits, and you don’t keep a hungry griffon from her meal!”
CHAPTER 3: Tourists
Rosa led the way to their table in the carnivore section of The Fig Tree. Chairs suitable for the humans had already been placed and everyone quickly seated themselves. An orange-coated pegasus mare wearing a uniform vest stepped up to the table.
“Good afternoon, everyone. My name is Heavenly Aroma and I will be your server today. Can I get you started with some drinks first?”
Caleb spoke up as he put a hand on Vicky’s. “My wife, Vicky, and I will have our usual Sweet Apple Acres Premium Cider, please.”
Heavenly glanced at Vicky who smiled back. “My husband knows my tastes too well.”
The pegasus gave her a nod of understanding. As regulars to the restaurant, Caleb’s herdmates were well known and Vicky’s true nature was not a secret. Heavenly immediately understood that discretion was being requested. “It’s nice to see you and Caleb here again, Vicky.” She turned her attention to the other humans. “I highly recommend the cider if you are not familiar with it. We also have a large choice of other beverages including our signature cocktails.”
Tyrone and Jules took the recommendation, while Shariq asked for coffee. Michelle was the only human to opt for a cocktail.
Heavenly tucked away her notepad and said, “For those who haven’t been here before, the blue menus have the dishes that contain meat while the green menus are vegetarian only.” The mare then left to get their drinks.
“That’s quite an interesting name she has,” commented Michelle. “In fact, so were those of the factory managers. Are all Equestrian names like that?”
“Pretty much,” Phil confirmed. “They’re often descriptive of their personality or their special talent.”
Caleb said, “In Heavenly’s case, it has to do with her baking skills. This restaurant is a herd-owned business and many of the servers are not only family but also skilled in food preparation. I highly recommend her pastries.”
Michelle frowned. “Herd-owned? What exactly do you mean by that?”
Caleb realized that he had slipped up. “They may be sapient beings, but they’re still ponies and they tend to form herds rather than what you would regard as typical families.”
Rosa said, “There’s a lot you will need to learn about the local social conventions, but I recommend that you decide on what you want to order right now. The company is paying for everything, of course.”
Michelle was not put off for long though. As soon as Heavenly Aroma returned with their drinks and had taken everyone’s orders, the woman brought the subject back up. “I’m no expert on horses, but I sense there’s something you’re tiptoeing around with these herds you mentioned.”
Rosa sighed. “First – never call them horses; that’s an insult here. Just add a ‘W’ in front and you’ll understand why. Second – as I mentioned earlier, mares greatly outnumber the stallions. That has led to the necessity of the mares sharing a stallion rather than one to one like on Earth.”
“So, they’re all bigamists, you’re saying?”
“Monogamous marriages can and do happen, but it’s far more common for a stallion to have two, three, or more mares as his herdmates.”
Michelle scowled. “Once again, males get the breaks.”
Rosa chuckled. “Not quite. You see, it’s the lead mare who is the head of every herd, not the stallion. While he has a lot of leeway that human men don’t have in their relationships, it’s the lead mare who decides which other mares may or may not join the herd. It’s her responsibility to see to the strength and unity of the herd as a whole. I told you that it’s a matriarchal society and that applies to the family unit as much as anywhere else.”
Michelle looked thoughtful. “I suppose that makes sense,” she eventually conceded.
Phil said, “We and Prince Mark intend to give you a more in-depth overview of this world, its races, and cultures after dinner this evening. We’ll be happy to answer your questions then – I’m sure you’ll have plenty. We certainly did when we first came to Equestria. For now, though, I recommend that you enjoy what this world has to offer.”
Tyrone said, “I’m happy that we can take a break from it, even if it’s in a restaurant full of mythical creatures. Frankly, it’s all been a bit much to absorb in such a short time.”
Rosa said, “That’s why we don’t expect you to open the branches for business immediately. We want you to settle in for at least a week and get familiar with operations and personnel first.”
The conversation drifted into their impressions of the new branches and the work that they would be doing there in light of what the candidates had learned.
Jules and Tyrone were happy to agree that the cider was the best that they had ever tasted. When Heavenly Aroma arrived with the food, the candidates were freshly boggled by the pegasus mare’s dexterity with her wings as she picked up and placed the dishes. That was soon forgotten as they started eating and were overwhelmed by the delightful flavors of the food.
Jules pushed back his empty plate with a satisfied sigh. “I hope there’s a restaurant like this near the Vanhoover factory. That has to be one of the best meals that I’ve ever eaten.”
Michelle nodded. “We’d all have to watch our figures.”
Shariq said, “My first impressions are that everything is brighter and more intense than on Earth. Colors seem more vivid, scents are headier, and food tastes more delightful. And I swear I heard music coming out of nowhere on occasions while walking here.”
“The magic of Harmony often expresses itself through music, so that comes as no surprise,” Caleb commented. “I’ve caught myself singing to a stray tune occasionally, and believe me, I’m no singer.”
Phil said, “You have much more to learn about how this world works and, now that we’ve all had a good meal, it’s time to do a bit more tourist stuff before we head off to Friendship Castle. You only got to see brief glimpses on the way here, so we’ll take it a bit slower and let you indulge your curiosity.”
Rosa got up from the table. “I’ll take care of the bill. I’ll catch up to you soon.”
Phil smiled. “Any excuse to fly, eh mi querida?”
The griffon’s wings half-opened in anticipation. “¡Por supuesto!”
The couple shared a nuzzle and a kiss before they parted. Everyone else pushed back their chairs and headed outside.
“Let’s head downtown,” Caleb said. “There’s a farmer’s market on the way.”
“Ah’m mighty grateful for yer order, folks,” the orange-coated earth pony mare said with a broad smile. “Ah’ll have the bushel of apples and the crate of cider delivered to the factory first thing in the mornin’.”
“The Flower Sisters are infamous for fainting like that,” Vicky said. “Don’t worry – once they get used to seeing you, you’ll be spared the histrionics.”
Tyrone grimaced as he took out twenty dollars from his wallet and gave it to Caleb. He looked up at the sky where a rainbow was now fading away. “I still say wing-power shouldn’t be enough to break the sound barrier.”
“It’s way bigger on the inside than the outside!” Jules exclaimed as he stood in the doorway of the town hall. “Shades of Doctor Who!”
“They grow libraries?!”
Michelle sighed. “That was the friendliest pony on the entire planet – you can’t convince me otherwise. I’m also very glad diabetes doesn’t run in my family.”
“Thanks, Derpy,” Caleb said as he caught the parcel that had been dropped from above. On seeing the other humans’ expressions, he held up the package. “What? Haven’t you heard of air mail?”
Shariq tilted his head. “A store that sells both quills and sofas? This I have to see!”
“So, that’s Friendship Castle?” Michelle asked. “Somebody shoot the architect.”
Vicky said, “I’m told that a seed from the Tree of Harmony grew it for Princess Twilight Sparkle.”
The woman rolled her eyes. “Of course it did.”
“I understand it is sentient, so don’t disparage it when you’re inside,” Rosa advised.
“What’s that far nicer-looking building next door?” Jules asked.
“That’s the School of Friendship,” Phil replied. “Teenage students of all races go there to study… well… friendship.”
“And that’s all?” Shariq asked skeptically.
“Of course they teach the regular subjects too. There are just extra classes devoted to social studies and lessons in cooperation and harmony between the species. I’m told that ponies used to be a lot more insular before Twilight took on the mantle of Princess of Friendship. Now Equestria is far more multicultural.”
Caleb said, “Twilight will happily talk your ears off about it if you let her. Be prepared for a lecture if you broach the subject. Trust me – I know.”
Rosa nudged the humans in the direction of the castle. “Time is getting short. If you still want to check out which species you would turn into through the portal adaptation spell, we should do so now. We have to make our way to Canterlot to have la comida with the prince and princesses soon.”
The men and woman were surprised once again when they were admitted to the castle with scarcely more than a nod of recognition from the Royal Guards stationed at the doorway.
“Twilight Sparkle insists on an informal approach to visitors,” Phil explained. “Besides, Caleb, Rosa, and myself are close acquaintances and regular guests. There’s stronger security in the non-public parts, I assure you. We’ll take a quick look around before heading to the portal room.”
Aside from the grand entrance and the castle library, the Map Table Room was the only other place currently open to visitors. The six thrones surrounding an unusual round table bemused the humans until they were explained by their guides. Shariq astonished himself by causing the ghostly representation of Equestria to zoom in on Ponyville. The visitors then took turns panning around the countryside as Phil and Rosa struggled to keep up their commentary with the rapid changes of view. Afterward, everyone went to the portal room which had two more guards stationed outside. A quick scan by a unicorn mare cleared them.
“Prince Mark advised us of your group, Mr. and Mrs. Martine. You may all go in.”
“Thanks, Sergeant,” Rosa said as she led the way.
Caleb and Vicky brought up the rear. As the man drew level with the guards, he smiled at the mare. “How’s the new foal, Swift Gallop?”
Swift smiled. “She’s a hungry filly and growing fast, Mr. Awad. Looking forward to the end of my shift to feed her; you know how it is.”
Caleb grinned and nodded. “I’ve repaired her stroller. I would’ve brought it around today but I was tied up with this lot.”
“Thanks for fixing it. It was a real mess after she surged.”
“No problem, Swift. I’ll drop it off at the barracks sometime tomorrow. Catch you later.”
As Caleb joined the others, Jules said, “You seem to be a lot more familiar to the guards than a mere employee would be.”
“Probably a regular visitor,” Tyrone speculated. “Perhaps a friend of the prince?”
“You got me,” Caleb admitted. “His family and mine socialize regularly.”
Michelle said, “I’m more impressed by your acquaintance with the guards. I’d also like to know why that mare doesn’t have maternity leave to look after her foal. Don’t they have that here?”
“She did for a few weeks, but she wanted to get back to work. You have to realize that things work differently in Equestria. In Swift’s case, her herdmate Diamond Dust is taking a leave of absence from geological work while she is pregnant. You’ll understand once you have time to learn about the culture. Until then, let’s proceed.”
Phil said, “We’ll transition to Canterlot first. Although Princess Twilight has a portal to Earth in her castle, it doesn’t go to the place we want to use.”
The humans were surprised when Phil guided them out of the room in Canterlot filled with a multitude of portal doors and mirrors. Rosa explained, “We have our personal interdimensional access that isn’t available to most. It’s in a nearby room.”
After being cleared by yet another pair of Royal Guards, the group was led into a much smaller room with a single mirror firmly attached to the wall. Rosa turned to face the humans.
“We’ll do this one at a time. Michelle, you come with me first.”
Phil said, “It’s ready.”
The griffoness stepped through the glass and Michelle followed. She emerged into what seemed a very ordinary room of an average American home. Curtains covered the window so that she could not see outside, and the room itself contained only a wardrobe and chest of drawers.
“I suppose you wanted to give me privacy while I strip naked?” Michelle queried.
“Ajá. I also wanted to give you something.” Rosa opened the wardrobe and pulled out a garment – a simple white housecoat. “When we said that you would have to go back nude, we were having a little joke. This housecoat is enchanted like my clothes. The adaptation spell will ensure that it will either adapt or disappear like mine, depending on what you turn into.”
Michelle sighed in relief. “I really wasn’t looking forward to turning up in front of those men without any clothing, even if most ponies seem to prefer it that way.” She started divesting herself of her garments.
“I’ll let you change in private if you wish.”
“No need. I’m fine with females.”
Michelle quickly changed into the housecoat and tied the sash firmly around her waist. “I’m ready,” she declared.
Rosa gestured toward the mirror. “Go on – there’s nothing special that you need to do.”
Michelle took a deep breath and stepped through. As she emerged and paused, she realized that she was still standing bipedally. Michelle looked down and saw her hands. They were fur-covered paws! Her nose twitched in surprise, then once more when she noticed it. She put her paws to her face and felt the fur on her cheeks and muzzle. She sensed a strange sensation behind her and glanced around to see a tail swishing back there, pulling at the housecoat that had also changed shape to match her new frame.
“Is that you, Michelle?” Jules asked.
“It’s me. What am I?”
“You’re a cat woman!”
“An Abyssinian, to be precise,” Phil clarified. “Check yourself out in the mirror.”
Michelle turned around to face the portal mirror to examine her reflection. The feline visage that returned her gaze was cute and the whiskers twitched once more. She now saw that she had a slinky new body covered in fur that was calico-patterned as far as she could see. She carefully opened the housecoat to look more without being too revealing to the others and determined that the patterning covered her whole body, including her boobs. Only the nipples barely poked through. Looking toward her feet, she saw that she now stood on digitigrade paws, but it still felt quite natural to her. She closed the robe and turned back to the others.
“This wasn’t expected at all, but I really like it.” She held up a paw and wiggled the digits. “And I get to keep my fingers!”
Phil chuckled. “Yeah, that bugged me at first before I learned to use this.” He tapped his horn with his hoof. “Anyway, who’s next?”
“Me!” Tyrone and Jules chorused.
After a quick game of ‘Rock, Paper, Scissors’, Tyrone strode through the portal.
After a short wait, a new creature stepped back through the mirror. This one was quadrupedal like a pony, but while the hind legs had hooves, the forelegs had talons. A long flowing golden mane and tail complemented his teal coat. His eyes crossed as they focused on the appendage in his view and he raised a leg to tap the beak with a talon. Tyrone also had wings and he instinctively spread the feathered limbs in surprise as he took in his new form.
Phil said, “Looks like we have a hippogriff on the team. How do you like your new species, Tyrone?”
The stallion grinned. “I didn’t expect the beak, but I’m definitely going to learn how to use these beauties!” He gave his wings an experimental flap. Then he held up one foreleg and waved it at Michelle. “These aren’t fingers but I bet I can grasp stuff almost as well.”
“Maybe. Didn’t Rosa give you a housecoat?” Michelle asked.
“And some privacy, but yeah, it seems to have disappeared like it does with Mr. Martine’s clothes. It doesn’t bother me though.” He smirked. “And I think I look cool without it.”
“You look great, Tyrone,” Jules said, “but could you move out of the way? I’m dying to find out what I’ll turn into!”
“Oops. Sorry.” The hippogriff stepped aside to let his colleague through.
Jules went through the portal with almost indecent haste. While waiting for him to return, everyone had a closer look at Tyrone as he tried out his new limbs, familiarizing himself with them. It didn’t take long before Jules returned though.
A unicorn with a light blue coat and a yellow and pink striped mane and tail emerged from the portal. To everyone’s surprise, this unicorn was different from all the others they had seen because their build was taller and leaner. Jules looked down at the bright blue hooves and then up at the horn and grinned.
“Looks like I’ll be able to do magic now.” Jules’ eyes widened. “Why does my voice sound so different?”
Phil was the first to identify the reason. “It’s probably because you’re now a mare.”
She gaped in shock. “What?! Why?”
Phil shrugged. “All I know about the adaptation spell is that it is designed to change you into the form that best suits you here.”
“Has that happened before?” Michelle asked.
“Not to my knowledge. We’re going to have to ask Twilight Sparkle about that. If it bothers you, Jules, just go back through the portal now and you’ll become a man again.”
Jules tried out her legs and swished her tail. “I… well… no.” She blushed a little. “This feels fine.”
Shariq frowned. “How are you not disturbed that you are now female?”
“Is there a reason why I should be? I’m now an entirely different species and that’s what you focus on?”
The man was spared a response as Rosa returned. She had been told what the first two had changed into, but she had to see for herself what Jules had become. Her eyes widened and her beak dropped. “¿Jules – eres una yegua?”
“If you’re asking if I’m a female unicorn, then yes, it would seem so.”
The griffoness shook her head in amazement. “I wonder what this means.”
“I have another question,” Michelle said. “Why does she look so different from the unicorns we’ve seen up until now? All the others have had similar builds to Mr. Martine.”
Phil replied, “Rosa and I have seen one other like Jules – a fashion model named Fleur De Lis. She’s considered to be very exotic… and so is Jules now.”
The unicorn mare giggled. “I’m no fashion model.”
Phil privately disagreed, but he wasn’t about to say so in front of his wife. It was time to change the subject. “We had better start heading off to meet Prince Mark for dinner. Anyone who wants to change back to human form had best do so now.”
“I want to enjoy being a cat for a while, if you don’t mind,” Michelle replied.
“As long as I can grasp a knife and fork, I’m good,” Tyrone said.
“Jules?” Rosa prompted when the mare didn’t say or do anything.
“I… Will the prince mind that I’m a mare?”
“Heck, no!” Phil replied with a laugh. “Ask him to show you his party trick.”
“Then I’ll stay like this. Although someone is going to have to show me how to use this horn like you do.”
“Don’t worry about it, Jules. There’s more than one way to use utensils. Anyway, we’d better get moving if you’re going to get a look at any of the castle before dinner.” He turned to Shariq. “Last chance to change your mind… for now.”
The man crossed his arms. “Absolutely not. Especially after what just happened.”
Tyrone raised an eyebrow. “Although the scientific part of your mind is wildly curious about what you would become.”
Shariq opened and closed his mouth then frowned at the new hippogriff who returned his stare. Eventually, the man dropped his arms and sighed. “A bit.” That drew a round of chuckles from the others.
Phil led the group out of the room, Michelle poked Jules in the shoulder to get her attention. “Maybe we should call you Jewel instead if you keep that form,” she joked.
Jules looked thoughtful before replying, “That sounds nice.”
Michelle’s eyebrows rose. “Wow! You’re really into this.”
“It all just feels… right somehow.”
One of the door guards accompanied the group as per standard security protocol, but he made no effort to restrict their access. That impressed upon the candidates how deeply their bosses were involved with the royals. Phil and Rosa took them on a quick tour of the highlights including the throne room which had already emptied due to the Court session having finished for the day. Then they headed for the dining room where they found the green alicorn stallion in conversation with a blue alicorn mare.
Mark turned to face the visitors and smiled. “Welcome, everyone. I see that most of you took advantage of our invitation to try the adaptation spell. I’d like you to meet my wife, Princess Trixie Lulamoon.”
The candidates all formally acknowledged Trixie who smiled benignly at them before turning back to her husband. “Stark Spells, introduce our visitors to us.”
“Well, firstly, this is Shariq Hussein. As for the others, I am a little confused. Why are there two females among you? I swear we started with just one.”
Michelle stepped forward. “I’m Michelle Van Dijk and that mare is Jewel.”
Mark’s eyebrow rose. “Jewel? You mean that she is Jules Petit?” When she nodded, he continued. “That’s very unexpected. I didn’t even know that was possible. It isn’t bothering you, Jules?”
“No, sir. I’m comfortable with the change. And the nickname.”
“That’s good to hear.” He turned to the hippogriff. “That must mean that you’re Tyrone Davis.”
“Guilty,” he replied with a smile.
Jewel said, “If you don’t mind, sir, Mr. Martine said something about a party trick to reassure me about my gender change.”
Mark grinned. “He did, did he? Well, Phil was right about that.” He transformed into Marklestia. “Wouldn’t you agree?” she asked in Celestia’s sweet tones.
Four sets of eyes bugged out at the change before Shariq spoke up.
“This is getting a little ridiculous.”
“Trixie agrees. Husband, please show a little decorum in front of our guests. You may exchange viewpoints with Ms. Petit later.”
Mark switched back to his normal form. “OK. I’ll just say that there’s nothing wrong with liking your change, Jewel.”
“Please – just call me Mark. That goes for all of you. This isn’t a formal dinner. Let’s just eat, socialize, and get to know each other better. Let’s start with your impressions of Equestria so far.”
Tyrone said, “I think I can speak for all of us that it’s all been pretty amazing.”
Rosa smiled as much as her beak would allow. “Mark, before dinner, why don’t we show our guests the muy hermosa view of Canterlot? It certainly left an impression on me.”
Phil winced and rubbed his neck. “Me too. A permanent dent, one might say.”
The griffoness rolled her eyes and gave her husband a playful shove with one wing, eliciting chuckles from the Equestrians but confused looks from the humans, transformed and otherwise.
Mark said, “Great idea. Follow me, everyone.”
Soon, he led the party through the great glass doors that led to the balcony. Tyrone, Jewel, and Michelle let out gasps and ran to the railing. Canterlot and the valley below glistened in the evening sun. Changelings, pegasi, griffons, and a young dragon cavorted through the air. The visitors pointed out features of interest and jabbered among themselves. Shariq stood away from the group, a troubled look on his face.
(Peace be upon you.)
Everyone turned to the source of the voice. Twilight Sparkle finished her glide to land next to Shariq, a beaming smile upon her face.
The man's eyes went wide and he nodded.
(Peace be upon you, too.)
The purple mare stood up straight and began reciting:
كم جميل لو بقينا أصدقاء
(How beautiful would it be if we remained friends)
إن كل امراة تحتاج إلى كف صديق
(Every woman needs the hand of a friend)
(Be my friend.)
(My hobbies are simple)
(And my interests are simple)
وطموحى أن أمشى ساعات معك
(And all I hope for is a walk with you)
(For hours, in the rain)
عندما يسكننى الحزن
(When sadness dwells in me)
(And music brings tears to my eyes.)
فلماذا تهتم بشكلى
(So, why do you only care about my appearance)
ولا تدرك عقلى
(And not realize my mind)
(Be my friend!)
Trixie pointed a wing at the purple alicorn and said. “Well done, Twilight. Your dramatic entrances are improving. Everybeing, may I present Princess Twilight Sparkle. She is the third member of the Equestrian Triarchy, Avatar of Friendship, Element of Magic, and Queen of the Crystal Changeling Hive.”
A grin tugged at Shariq’s lips. شكرا لك على التحية الحارة ، صاحب السمو ("Thank you for the warm greeting, Your Highness.")
The mare put on a sheepish smile. “My apologies – do you mind if we speak English? While I don't yet have mastery of Arabic and your customs, I understood it is traditional to welcome honored guests with a poem.”
“Very true, Your Highness. I praise you for investing so much time and effort. I am greatly pleased by your cultured greeting.”
Twilight's wings fluttered then returned to her sides. “How could I not? The works of so many of your world’s astronomers, scientists, and poets are written in Arabic. Someday I hope to understand the language well enough to pick up the nuances, rhymes, and rhythms of the great poets.”
“May I suggest Al-Mutanabbi? He is considered the greatest poet of the Golden Age.”
The purple mare wrinkled her muzzle. “Mmm… sorry. I tried to appreciate his translations, but there was too much praising of leaders for their military conquests for my taste. Can you suggest someone more… humanistic?”
Shariq nodded. “Of course. Abu Nuwas may be more to your tastes… or Gibran Kahlil Gibran. He writes extensively about friendship.”
“Oh? I haven't heard of the poet Gibran. What can you tell me?”
Mark and Trixie shared a look and then made small talk with the other three guests. Dinner could wait.
After some time, soft chimes filled the air. A minute later, they repeated, louder.
“What is that?” asked Jewel. “Are we expected for dinner?”
Phil said, “No, though I'm sure dinner is almost ready. Those notes are a reminder.”
Trixie raised her voice. “Princess Twilight Sparkle!”
The purple mare blinked. “What? What?” At the third repetition of the chimes, she said, “Oops. Excuse me for a moment please, Shariq.”
She faced outside and lit her horn. The sun descended toward the horizon, filling the valley with shades of yellow, orange, and red. The visitors gasped at the display. Moments later, the moon rose quickly to take its place. At the end of its journey, it shook in silent disapproval of the alicorn's delay.
Twilight looked back at the man before her. “Just performing my nightly duties. You were telling me about your first time reading The Prophet.” When he continued to stare at her, saying nothing, her smile faltered. “Shariq? What's wrong?”
The man scowled and let out a long list of Arabic curses in rapid succession.
Twilight retreated a step. “I'm sorry, I don't—”
“Deviant! Abomination! Perversion of all that is natural and right with the world!”
Mark frowned. “Shariq, ponies have to move the heavenly bodies on Equus.”
أيره فيك ("Screw you!")
He waved his hand toward the horizon. “This is a mockery of all I hold dear! No one but God controls the sun!” He turned to Phil and Rosa. “I quit! I will not associate with unbelievers, heretics, and يا خارا.” Shariq turned on his heel and marched to the glass doors. He threw one open hard enough that it banged against the wall and shattered.
Trixie opened her wings. “I will see that he gets home. Phil, Rosa, attend me.” The three hustled back into the castle.
Mark's horn glowed as he pointed it at the shattered glass. The shards rose upwards, reforming the door. Moments later, the cracks disappeared, leaving the glass whole once more. He turned to Penumbra. “Go get Thorax.”
The frowning batpony walked to the nearest wall while pulling a disk from her saddlebag. She placed it against the marble where it stayed in place. A shimmering oval of silver extended outward, covering an area six feet tall and three wide. The wavering stopped, leaving a mirror with the disk in the center. The disk and mirror vanished, showing a dark room with cabinets on the far wall. Everyone watched Penumbra step through the portal, open the bottom drawer on the closest cabinet, pull out a disk, then move to the left and out of sight.
“Princess?” Michelle moved up to the purple mare who hadn't moved a muscle. “Princess Twilight? Are... are you OK?”
In stages, the alicorn’s expression fell. Twilight collapsed onto the stone tiles, weeping. Michelle knelt, maneuvering so that she could hold Twilight’s head in her lap while stroking her mane. “It's alright, Twilight. Everything is going to be alright.”
The purple mare blinked away tears. “But why would he do that? We were establishing real friendship. I know it!”
Tyrone knelt in front of the pair. “I'm sorry, Twilight, but Shariq has a very… fundamental view of the world. He doesn't socialize with anyone outside his mosque.”
Jewel said, “Princess, the smartest person I know was someone I went to school with – Ahmed Abdullah. Just as devoted to the Muslim faith but with boundless curiosity across all fields of science, and incredibly brilliant. We would set a commercial chess-playing program on the hardest level and let it think about its next move for half an hour. Ahmed would come in from playing basketball, declare ‘Well, the computer made another mistake,’ enter his move on the keyboard, and head back out to play more basketball. He'd win every time.” The man opened his arms, palms up. “I can tell you without reservation that Ahmed would absolutely love it here. He'd be busy scribbling notes and equations on blackboards while theorizing how magic can work with the Laws of Thermodynamics and Conservation of Energy. All while kicking your butt at a side game of chess.”
That drew a laugh out of the alicorn as she wiped her tears with a fetlock. “I… I don't know. I'm rated as a Candidate Master.”
“Not good enough. Trust me on this.”
King Thorax flew through the portal and leaned down by his wife’s side. Every human took a step back at his sudden arrival except Michelle who jerked her hands away from Twilight. The changeling king waved a hoof. “No, everyone keep doing what you are doing. It's helping more than you know.” While he gripped his wife around the barrel, Michelle hesitated before resuming running her hand through Twilight's mane.
During the next minute of silence, Twilight’s sniffles lessened. She nodded to Michelle and Thorax, then regained her hooves. “Thank you, Michelle. I definitely needed that.”
“Glad to be of service, Your High… I mean Twilight.”
The alicorn took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “Jewel, I'd love to meet your friend Ahmed someday.”
“Unfortunately, he lives halfway across the country.” Every being present stared at her. “Although, I suppose that might not be so much of an issue, now that I think about it.”
The chuckles cleared up most of the prevailing gloominess.
Penumbra took care of the rest. She raised her wings and called out, “Who's hungry for dinner?”
Author’s Note: “Be My Friend!” (كن صديقى) is a beautiful poem by the famous Kuwaiti poet, critic, and writer Suad al-Sabah.
CHAPTER 4: Identities
King Thorax gave his wife a nuzzle as the group stepped back into the castle hallway. Twilight returned the gesture and then put her wing over his back.
After everyone was inside, the changeling king said, “My name is Thorax and I'm sorry that I wasn't here to greet you earlier. I've only been a king for a few years and I go to Queen Carpacia’s hive for lessons one week of every month.”
Twilight's head jerked upwards. “Oh! I'm sorry, dear. I should have introduced you.” She opened her mouth before closing it once more. The alicorn furrowed her brow as she scanned the visitors. “Although there should still be two stallions here. Did Jolene Harris substitute in for one of the candidates?”
A smirk passed over Mark’s lips before it disappeared. His wing pointed out each visitor in turn. “Twilight and Thorax, let me present the new Abyssinian Michelle Van Dijk, hippogriff Tyrone Davis, and unicorn Jewel.”
The purple mare stopped in the middle of the hallway, her mouth agape. Thorax continued a couple of steps, causing him to slip out from under her wing, which remained frozen in place.
Twilight gushed. “Jewel? As in Jules Petit? The adaptation spell turned you into a mare?”
Mark said, “Also a fashion model, in case you hadn't noticed.”
The Alicorn of Magic’s eyes lit up and she sat on her haunches, clapping her front hooves together in glee. “This is unprecedented! I never dreamed the adaptation spell would bring about this degree of transformation. We have to do a full round of experiments immediately to understand this better!”
Mark shook his head. “Not only are you intimidating our guest, Sparkles, but she also isn’t one of our subjects. Jewel is a foreign national here on a work visa.” He came up on Twilight’s side and gently pushed her toward the dining hall. “What’s more, you’d be holding up dinner. You may ask her permission politely another day.”
Thorax nudged his wife forward from the other side. “Your co-ruler is right, dear. There will be plenty of time for that later.”
Twilight moved forward at their urging but gave Thorax her best hurt-puppy-dog-eyes. “But... Science!”
Penny gave Jewel a wink as everyone made their way down the corridor. The unicorn smiled and giggled.
When the group entered the dining room, they found that a few others had arrived in their absence. A white unicorn mare was conversing with a silver-grey earth pony mare while an earth pony filly and a human boy were seated at the table, playing some sort of game. The mares looked up as the group entered and they smiled.
“Mark, darling! We were beginning to wonder what had happened to you,” the white unicorn exclaimed.
“Sorry, Rarity dear – just showing our special guests the sights.” The alicorn stallion trotted over to give the unicorn a kiss.
“Daddy!” both the filly and the boy dropped what they were doing to rush over to Caleb who crouched down to accept dual hugs.
All three visitors were stunned by the display. While the boy was not surprising, the unequivocal response of the young earth pony at seeing the man was unexpected. The confusion was compounded when the second mare came over and kissed Caleb.
“Sorry I’m late, love. I had a hard time dragging the foals away from their playmates.”
“No problem, Willow. You’re just in time for dinner.” Caleb stood up and noticed the visitors staring.
“What’s going on here?” Michelle asked the man.
“I have a confession to make,” Caleb replied. “This is Willow Branch, my wife, and these are my daughter, Lilac Meadow, and my son, Tranquil Boon.”
“You said Vicky is your wife,” Tyrone accused.
“Remember what you learned about herds? Willow, Vicky, and I are in a herd relationship.”
“You married a pony?!” Michelle asked. “I mean, no offense to ponies, but you’re completely different species!”
“Says the cat woman who was a human,” Caleb replied with a smirk. “Besides, as it turns out, physical aspects aside, there’s not really that much difference between our kinds. We have the same emotional needs and wants, and it turned out that we were very much compatible. I’ve never regretted marrying Willow for a moment.”
Michelle turned to Vicky. “And you’re fine with that?”
“Caleb married Willow first. She was fine with me joining the herd.” While Vicky and Willow had been wedded at the same ceremony, technically, the earth pony had come first and they had taken Vectrix as their herdmate. The humans didn’t need to know that detail though.
“I’m curious about the filly,” Jewel said. “She called you Daddy – is she adopted?”
Caleb shook his head. “I mentioned that I tried out the adaptation spell. Well, it turns out that I’m quite the stud earth pony stallion.”
Willow grinned broadly. “And I can attest to that. Again and again and again!”
Michelle colored and sputtered, “We get the picture!” She recovered enough to glare at Tyrone who snickered at her discomfort.
Jewel looked thoughtful. “It sounds wonderful that you have such a loving relationship with two females and have children with both.”
Vicky said, “We have been blessed with a wonderful husband and kids. I recommend keeping an open mind and heart while in Equestria. You never know who you might find to fill your life.”
Tyrone chuckled and shook his head. “My wife would kill me if I looked at another woman that way, even if she was a mare rather than a human.”
Michelle turned to Prince Mark who was currently flanked by Penumbra and Rarity, the latter leaning up against the stallion affectionately. She frowned. “I remember now that you described Queen Chrysalis as your wife, but you also did so with Princess Trixie. Now there’s… pardon me – we haven’t been introduced.”
Mark said, “This is Rarity Belle, and yes, she is also my wife. Rarity, I’d like you to meet Michelle Van Dijk, one of our probationary managers. The adaptation spell turned her into an Abyssinian, while it turned Tyrone Davis into a hippogriff, and Jules Petit into the statuesque unicorn mare, Jewel.”
“A pleasure to meet you all,” Rarity said, “but I do hope that I will get to see you in your natural forms sometime. I have so few opportunities to create for humans. Although the opportunity to work with somepony with your magnificent physique would also be a delight, Ms. Jewel.”
“My wife is a world-class fashion designer,” Mark explained.
“How many wives do you have, Your Highness?” Jewel asked.
“Five,” he confessed.
“Five?! How did you manage that? Did being a prince attract the mares?”
“No – the truth is a lot stranger. And while I am sure that you have been told by now, it’s the mares who make those decisions here, not the stallions. In my previous role as Grand Vizier, I interacted with several mares before Princess Trixie convinced me that she was the one for me. She is my soul mate and she is whom I needed to bring out the best in me. And as I wasn’t royalty then, that wasn’t a factor. Rarity was one of the mares that courted me earlier and Trixie recommended that she join our herd because of the passion she brings to everything. My third wife is Captain Penumbra.”
Mark gestured toward the batpony who flashed her fangs and used her oversized wings to bow with a flourish.
“Penny guards my body for more than one reason,” Mark said with a grin.
Penumbra stuck her tongue out at him and said, “Somepony has to save him from tripping over his own hooves.”
The alicorn stallion rolled his eyes before continuing. “Chrysalis is my fourth wife, but that began as a political union. However, it turned out that we worked extremely well together and we came to appreciate each other a great deal. And I like her snarky personality – it offsets the obsequious nobility. Lastly, there’s Princess Celestia, former ruler of Equestria. She looks like that mare I turned into earlier.”
“Former ruler? What happened there that you, Princess Trixie, and Princess Twilight are now the rulers? If she looks like that, it doesn’t seem that old age was a factor.”
“That’s a very long story, but Celestia is enjoying her retirement. After governing Equestria for over a millennium, she has been taking advantage of her freedom to have some fun.”
Michelle’s eyes widened and her jaw dropped. “A millennium?! Are you seriously telling me that pony is over a thousand years of age?” she sputtered.
“Well over eleven centuries, as it turns out. Alicorns don’t grow old,” Mark said matter-of-factly.
“How old does that make you then?”
“We three triarchs ascended to alicorn status relatively recently and we’re only a few decades old. And no, our age difference doesn’t bother either Celestia or myself.”
Tyrone grumbled, “Pardon us mere mortals, but weren’t we supposed to be having dinner?”
“Trixie agrees as she has a powerful hunger,” the alicorn mare said as she walked into the dining room followed by Phil and Rosa.
Mark said, “Now that we’re all here, please be seated, everyone. We ensured that there would be suitable chairs for whichever species turned up.”
The wait staff had apparently been expecting their cue. The first course – a delightfully aromatic roasted tomato and basil soup – was brought out even as people were still finding their seats. Conversation lapsed until everyone’s bowl had been filled from the large tureen on a trolley pushed by an earth pony mare. Jewel had ended up seated next to Trixie and the alicorn graciously showed the unicorn how to hold a spoon by hoof. The mare caught on quickly and soon was supping her soup.
After Tyrone had tried a few spoonsful, he started the chat once more. “We should address the problem that Shariq’s departure will cause. People are going to wonder why he quit and he almost certainly will tell them.”
“No, he won’t,” Mark said. “The NDA will prevent him.”
“Do you seriously think a Non-Disclosure Agreement will be enough to stop a religious fundamentalist from spilling the beans when he thinks that his beliefs have been violated?”
“Do you know what a geas is, Tyrone?”
The hippogriff shook his head.
“I do,” Jewel said. “It’s a magical vow or prohibition.”
“Correct. I bet you all wondered why you were required to read your NDA out loud before signing it. Well, that was to activate the geas enchanted onto the documents. You three and Shariq literally cannot reveal anything pertaining to Equestria without our permission because you bound yourself both legally and magically.”
Tyrone grimaced. “Well, that explains some of the odd wording. Does that mean that I’ll never be able to tell my wife about all this?” He lifted his wings and talons.
“For now, yes. Once we’re sure that you’re going to work out, we’ll lift some prohibitions. I remind you that you’re all on probation for now and there are risks that we need to mitigate. While we intend to make full and open contact with Earth in the future, it will be done with careful consideration in due time. Until then, we’re technically an illegal operation on your world.”
Michelle grimaced. “I can see some politicians making a huge deal about it. Are you sure about the company’s legitimacy?”
“Oh, it’s 100% legitimate as it was built by Phil and Rosa. They adhere scrupulously to all laws and work conditions, pay taxes promptly, and are pillars of the community. The only thing that the U.S. Government doesn’t know about is the source of much of the manufactured goods. The raw materials brought in obscure the fact that they aren’t processed on Earth. Once they do learn about the interdimensional importation, they will have to accept it as a fait accompli, although they might levy a fine or tariff. And we’re allowing for that as we’re putting aside some of the profits for that day. Believe me, I’ll be happy when we can trade openly, but for now, it’s essential that we keep things hush-hush.”
Jewel looked thoughtful. “Considering the amount of unique and highly sought-after goods that Harmonic Composites supplies to the government, I can’t see them shooting themselves in the foot over a legal quibble.”
“Exactly,” Phil replied. “And we employ human locals to fill almost every job, so we’re legitimate employers too.”
“Speaking of which, are you going to have to bring in someone else to replace Shariq?” Michelle asked. “I recall Twilight mentioning Jolene Harris.”
Rosa replied, “Yes, Jolene was our reserve pick. While we were making sure Shariq was returned to Charlotte without further incident, I phoned Jolene and asked her to come in early tomorrow so that we can introduce her to Equestria.”
Phil turned to Caleb. “We’d like you to help us out once again with that. I know we only asked for one day, but we honestly didn’t expect someone to wash out immediately.”
The man looked at his two wives. “We have a schedule to keep,” Willow reminded him.
Caleb turned back to Phil and Rosa. “Vicky and I can give you half a day, but we need to finish preparing for our family trip. Willow will be getting off work early and, after she freshens up at home, we’ll all be heading to the station to catch the train south. We and the kids have been looking forward to that trip for months.”
“Half a day should suffice. Jolene will have to get the shortened version. I need to spend the morning with the others to help them start settling into their new duties, so Rosa will help you out.”
“Works for us. Vicky and I will be at the office same time tomorrow.”
Just then, the servants brought out the main course of wild mushroom & sizzlenut cottage pie with a side serving of roast pumpkin and butter beans. Talk lulled while the food was served up. Michelle was the first to resume the conversation.
“So, Prince Mark, earlier we talked about this empire of yours. Is now a good time to ask why Equestria is so much better than those from human history?”
Mark sighed. “Alright, Ms. Van Dijk – let’s see if I can satisfy you. First of all, we Triarchs never called it an empire – it’s our citizens who proudly declared it. In actuality, we are more a confederacy of allied nations. For example…”
The conversation went well into the evening, with excellent coffee slaking their thirst. Eventually though, Rarity called it a night.
“I have a full day planned for tomorrow, so I had best be headed to bed. Ladies and gentlecolt from Earth, it has been a pleasure chatting with you. Do feel free to drop by my boutique in Ponyville sometime soon.” She leaned over to Mark and gave him a chaste kiss on the cheek. “Don’t keep me waiting too long, darling.” She then got up and trotted out of the room.
Tyrone chuckled. “That’s so familiar. I told my wife that I would be home late, but I believe she expects me before she goes to bed.”
Rosa and Phil stood up from the sofa where they had been lounging. The griffoness said, “Sounds like a cue to us. Let’s get you back to Earth. Like Rarity, we’ve all got un día muy ocupado mañana. Thank you for the lovely dinner, Trixie and Mark. And thanks for your help today, Caleb and Vicky. Goodnight everyone.”
The visitors all said their farewells and Phil and Rosa led them away. As soon as the doors closed behind them, Vicky transformed into her normal Sky persona.
“Phew! That’s better. I like being a human but I’m more comfortable in my natural form,” Sky said.
Mark nodded. “I think you just don’t like deceiving people, Sky. I didn’t like hiding the fact that I was once human, but we’re both doing what we can to minimize the shock of all the new concepts that our candidates have faced today. Having Willow and your children here was a risky move, Caleb.”
The man shrugged. “Sky and I disagreed, and I’m not ashamed of my relationship with Willow. If they couldn’t cope with that now, they never would.”
“Maybe not with Shariq perhaps. That was one of the things that I thought might be a big problem for him. Setting the sun never occurred to me.”
“We can’t foresee every possibility. I reckon things went well aside from Shariq’s meltdown. I was more concerned for what he did to Twilight.”
The purple alicorn smiled at the man. “It’s okay, Caleb. It was a bad shock for me, but I’ll be fine. I’ll just have to accept that not every human will be prepared to be friends when our differences are so fundamental.”
Caleb got up and stretched. “Talking about fundamentals – we need to get home and get some sleep too.”
Willow and Sky rose and made their farewells before they and Caleb headed for the portal back to Ponyville.
Phil and Rosa met with the three remaining probationary managers extra early in the facility conference room. This would allow for the most time to induct Jolene into the world of Equus. Before the new candidate arrived, they gave Tyrone, Jules, and Michelle some last-minute instructions.
Phil said, “I’ll be going with Tyrone and Michelle to the Baltimare/Houston branch to get them started on the operations there. Rosa was originally going to be doing the same at the Vanhoofer/Los Angeles branch with Jules and Shariq, but the latter’s departure has thrown those plans into disarray. Rosa is going to have to introduce Jolene to Equestria and will be fully occupied, so I might have to try to split my time between the branches.”
Jules diffidently cleared his throat. “Umm… would it help if I came along to reassure Jolene as Caleb and Vicky did with us?”
Rosa said, “Yes, it would, but you would lose the best part of a day to familiarize yourself with your branch office.”
“I’ll put in the overtime to make up for it. And unlike Tyrone, I don’t have a wife or someone waiting for me to get home.”
Rosa looked at Phil who nodded in agreement. “Alright, we’ll do that. Next subject – transformation. I want to reiterate that it is your choice as to whether you use the adaptation spell to change forms while in Equestria. We don’t care whether you wish to retain your human forms or not in that world, but here on Earth, you may not use your Equestrian forms due to security concerns.”
“That’s fair enough,” Michelle said. “It’s fun being a cat woman, so I’ll probably keep using that form over there.”
Tyrone said, “If it wasn’t for the wings, I’d probably stay human, but I’m telling you right now that I fully intend to fly, so I’m going to take advantage of every spare moment to learn how to use them.”
Rosa chuckled. “I know exactly how you feel. That leaves you, Jules.”
“I said yesterday that being a unicorn mare just felt right to me. No clue why that is but I’ll definitely keep using that form over there.”
“Great!” Phil said. “That simplifies things. Last night, I suggested that you bring along a spare set of clothing that you intend to wear at work including underwear, socks, and shoes. We will arrange to have them all enchanted by a mage today like those robes we gave you so that you won’t have to change out of them before transitioning the portal.”
Tyrone held up his suitcase. “I actually put some thought into that. Makena always wants me to look professional, so I brought along an outfit that I’m hoping will transform rather than disappear. If at least the jacket adapts like Michelle’s robe did, I’ll be happy.”
Rosa smiled. “I wonder what your esposa would think about seeing that jacket on a hippogriff? Anyway, we’ll make sure to get it enchanted today.”
“I had much the same idea as Tyrone,” Michelle said. “The transformed robe was good for social occasions, but not what I would regard as professional wear. What about you, Jules?”
The man blushed a little. “Considering that I turn into a mare, I wasn’t sure what to bring. Not that I’ve ever been one to dress formally.”
Michelle snorted. “Yeah, we noticed.”
Phil said, “You know we value performance over appearance here. Bring whatever you feel comfortable with. The adaptation spell will do whatever it feels is most appropriate.”
“I did bring a nice sports coat.”
“Sounds good. I assume you all brought your robes?” Phil asked. When everyone nodded, he continued. “Good. You’ll have the opportunity to use them later. We want your Equestrian staff to get familiar with your non-human forms. But for now, Michelle and Tyrone, we need to get your Houston office up to speed. Let’s head out. Good luck with Jolene, Rosa.” He gave his wife a kiss before leading the three down the hallway toward the portal room.
After the others had left, Rosa said, “Can we chat un momento until Jolene, Caleb, and Vicky turn up?”
Jules’ eyebrow rose in puzzlement. “Of course. About what?”
“It’s personal and you don’t have to answer if you wish. You’ve made a point about how comfortable you were as a mare. How do you think this will affect your work or your life?”
Jules’ gaze looked out into the distance. “I spent a lot of last night thinking about that. My focus up until now has been first on school and then on professional accomplishments. I really haven’t had much spare time for socializing, and most of that has been spent playing Go at the coffee shop meets. It’s not as if I ever thought about being female before yesterday, although I’ve never really gotten serious with a girlfriend up until now either. I’m not even sure if I have a deeply buried desire for a boyfriend instead. It’s just that I felt for the first time in my life, I was one hundred percent at home in my body.”
“I suppose you will have to discover for yourself what that means. I hope that it will bring positive change to your life, and won’t affect your work.”
“I promise that I’ll try hard not to cause problems.”
“Thank you, Jules. I know you can do it. You are aware that Phil and I have a daughter and a son. Both have spent their whole lives in two worlds, but Yolanda has reached the age where she has had to learn to balance the needs and desires in each. She is coping well enough though.” She grimaced. “For a typical teenage chica, anyway. I expect one day she will fall in love and make a family of her own, but no one knows yet in which world, not even her. The point is, you have the time and opportunity to work out what is best for you, and you have people familiar with this new world who can help you.”
“I appreciate that, Mrs. Martine.”
If he was going to say more, he never got the opportunity because there was a knock on the conference room door.
“Come in!” Rosa called out.
A short full-figured blond woman entered the office and smiled. “Good morning, Ms. Martine. Ah’m so excited to get this opportunity. Oh, hi, Jules!”
“Hello, Jolene,” Jules replied, returning her smile.
“Right on time,” Rosa commented. “Now we’re just waiting for two asociados to join us. Jules has already met Caleb and Vicky, and he volunteered to help you catch up with the other probationary managers.”
“You never said why Shariq dropped out – is there something Ah should know first?”
“The reason will be explained later when you are apprised of all the circumstances of the job. His reasons will become clearer then.”
“Ooh, mysterious!” Jolene replied with a grin. “Well, this is one gal who won’t be put off so easily.”
“Glad to hear it. Because you’re a day behind the others, we will be giving you a shorter, quicker version of what we showed them yesterday. However, if you feel the need to pause to take it all in, don’t hesitate to ask. It’s not your fault that you’ll have to play catch-up.”
“Not a problem, Ms. Martine.”
“Good. There’s only one última detail to take care of.” Rosa picked up a clipboard with a single sheet of paper attached to it. She passed it to Jolene. “The secure areas contain some of our biggest secrets and, like Jules here, you will be required to sign this Non-Disclosure Agreement before you will be able to access them. Read through it first and let me know if you have any problemas with it.”
Jolene silently read the text, a raised eyebrow at one point disclosing mild surprise. In the end, she nodded. “A little different from what Ah expected but Ah got no problem with it.”
Rosa took out her cell phone and opened the voice recorder app. “Glad to hear it. Now I require you to repeat the text aloud which I will record for legal purposes, then you will sign it with me and Jules as witnesses.”
“Wow! This sure is serious stuff. Okay, here goes. Ah, Jolene Harris, swear ….”
When she finished reciting the NDA, she felt an odd tingle. She shrugged it off and took the pen that Rosa handed to her. With a flourish, she signed the form and passed it back to her boss. “Is that it then?”
“Yes. Caleb and Vicky will be taking you and Jules into the secure area. I need to attend to something first before I join you not long after. And speak of el diablo, here are the man and his esposa.”
“Good morning, Rosa. Good to see you again, Jules,” Caleb said. “And you must be Jolene Harris?”
“Sure am, sir.”
“I’m Caleb Awad and this is my wife, Vicky.”
“A right pleasure to meet you both,” Jolene replied in her deep Southern twang.
“The same here,” Vicky replied, stepping up to the woman. She handed an I.D. card on a lanyard to her. “This is your new I.D. which you will need to gain access to the secure areas. Keep it on you at all times in plain view.”
Jolene took the card and hung it around her neck where it rested on her prominent bust. “Conspicuous enough?” she asked with a grin.
Caleb smiled at Jolene’s bouncy personality. “Perfect. If you’re ready, shall we get started?”
“Ready as Ah’ll ever be!”
“Good. Follow us. Catch you later, Rosa!”
Caleb led the way down the corridor to the warehouse Security station and the guard let them in after scanning the I.D. tags. The guard then tapped a code into the keypad next to the door that covered the Equestrian portal which he then opened to reveal the mirror within.
Vicky said, “As we explained to the other candidates, this is a new way of securely allowing access to the restricted sections. Your I.D. will allow you to pass through as you have been authorized. Jules – would you care to show Jolene what to do, please.”
“Okay,” he replied. He walked over to the portal and stepped through.
Jolene whistled. “Wow. That there’s mighty impressive. It looks lahk a solid surface but he stepped right through lahk it were nothin’.”
“And that’s all you have to do too,” Caleb said. “There might be a bit of disorientation, but it’s harmless. See you on the other side.” He then followed Jules.
Jolene was hot on his heels and Vicky not far behind.
“Phew! That did feel off-kilter. So, we’re in the restricted area now? Not very impressive so far,” the woman said with a grin. “What’s next?”
“Now, I introduce you to Rosa and Phil’s business partner,” Caleb said as he led the way to the conference room.
“Ah didn’t realize they had one.”
“The reason why you haven’t will become apparent. I ask that you be respectful when you meet him.” He knocked on the door and then opened it. “After you, Jolene.”
She stepped through the door and came to a stop when she saw what awaited her.
Prince Mark smiled and said, “Welcome to Eq—”
He was cut off as Jolene squealed in delight, rushed over to the startled alicorn, and started petting him. “Oh, lord! You’re so cute! Those wings and horn look so real! Aren’t you just the most adorable thing!”
Outrage and amusement warred on Chrysalis’ face, but there was no such conflict on Penumbra’s. The batpony collapsed on the floor, howling with laughter.
Caleb grinned even as he wondered why he bothered telling people to be respectful. He let Mark suffer for a moment before he spoke up. “Ms. Harris – please stop fondling Prince Mark Wells.”
“Ooh, that’s a great name for this cutie.”
Mark said, “You’re embarrassing me in front of my wives, Ms. Harris.”
Jolene blinked. “You can speak?”
“Not only can I speak, I can run Harmonic Composites along with my partners, Phil and Rosa Martine.”
Jules was both amused and a little concerned for his coworker. “Yeah, you’re messing with our boss, Jolene.”
The perplexed woman pulled back from the alicorn a little reluctantly. “What in tarnation is going on here?”
Vicky went over to Jolene to stand her up and draw her back from Mark. “Believe it or not, that mirror doorway is actually a portal to another dimension. You are now on the world of Equus in the magical land of Equestria. The pony you have been petting is an alicorn and he is one of the co-rulers of this nation. And, of course, the business partner of the Martines.”
Jolene’s hands flew to her mouth as she gasped. “Oh, sweet lord! Ah’m so sorry! Ah mean… how was Ah to know? Ah’m so confused.”
“I heard laughter. What did I miss?” Rosa said as she stepped into the office.
At the sight of the griffon, Jolene’s eyes widened even further. “Why do you sound like Mrs. Martine?”
“Because I am Rosa Martine, estimada. I take this form when I visit Equestria. That is why I did not immediately accompany you.”
Jules said, “All the other candidates tried the change except Shariq. We all came out as different species.”
Jolene’s expression shifted and grew thoughtful. “So, all the secrecy is due to our company being based in two worlds, and the inhabitants are not humans.” She gave Mark an apologetic glance. “Mah apologies once again, but yer darn cuddly for a prince.”
Penny snorted as she tried to smother a laugh. Mark rolled his eyes. “No harm done, Ms. Harris. At least, you gave my wives some amusement.” He introduced them and then restarted the speech that he had intended to give to initiate the woman into the wonders of Equestria. After covering all the subjects that he’d told the other three managerial candidates, he answered questions from her similar to those Tyrone, Michelle, and Jules had asked.
However, Jolene’s final questioned was directed at Rosa. “Can Ah try that shape-changing spell now?”
No one in that room had expected the woman to be that eager to change species. Rosa shook her head. “Not yet. I intend to take you to the Los Angeles office first. I also want to introduce you to the pony in charge in the Vanhoover factory to which the L.A. office is linked.”
“Oh. Are we going to get there through one of those fancy portals of yours?”
Caleb mused that this woman was no dummy. “Rosa – I have no idea why Jolene didn’t get into the final four initially, but I believe she’s going to work out fine.”
Jolene was taken on the same tour as the other probationary managers. Her smile threatened to crack her face in half, it was that wide. The only difference in the routine was Rosa taking the woman to Earth just before lunch, leaving Jules, Caleb, and Vicky to wait for them. It wasn’t the griffoness who came back through the portal first though.
A light pink earth pony with a bright yellow mane and tail with a single purple stripe emerged. The mare paused and looked down to see golden hooves. Craning her neck around, she squealed with delight at her new body.
“Ah’m a pony!” she crowed, doing a little dance on the spot complete with skips, hops, and pronks. “Ah’m a pretty pink pony gal!”
Vicky smiled and said, “Equestria and Harmonic Composites welcomes its newest pony, Joy Leap.”
Caleb looked at his wife, an eyebrow raised. “Joy Leap?”
“If Jules is Jewel in his other form, why can’t Jolene have an appropriate nickname?”
“Ah like it! Joy Leap, the happiest pony in Equestria!”
And nobody could argue with that.
CHAPTER 5: Clothes
Phil Martine emerged from the Security office at the Houston facility with Tyrone Harris and Michelle Van Dijk hot on his heels. He paused outside the currently unoccupied offices and turned to face the others.
“The equipment and layout in both of these two offices are exactly the same, although feel free to add personal touches. If you have a preference for which, let me know.”
“I’d prefer the one closest to the portal,” Michelle said.
Tyrone shrugged. “Six of one, half a dozen of the other. Michelle can have it.”
Phil nodded and gestured for them to enter Michelle’s new office. “Take a seat and start up the computer while I grab another chair.” He returned quickly and sat down between the two. Phil told Michelle the login as he handed a thumb drive to her. When the PC had booted up, the woman inserted the thumb drive and a new program auto-started.
“Use your SecureID Token to install that onto the PC. We’ll do the same for yours, Tyrone. That contains all the files and programs that you will need to run operations here. A VPN will ensure a secure connection to the Charlotte headquarters as well as the Los Angeles facility. If you leave your office for any reason, the PC must be locked without exception. Except for the security guards, all other staff members are local hires who have no knowledge of Equestria and are not authorized to access anything in that software.”
Phil leaned back in his chair and smiled. “And now that I have impressed upon you how seriously we take security, the interesting stuff begins. We chose you candidates not only for your managerial abilities, but also your thorough knowledge of our products. However, as you found out during yesterday’s tour of the factories, Harmonic Composites has several new products awaiting release. You’re going to review each of these until you are completely familiar with their specifications, production requirements, and rate of manufacture. When we announce these revolutionary new products, we expect that there will be a surge of interest quickly followed by orders. You are going to have to be ready for it all, as well as getting your team up to speed. So, let’s get to work.”
Aside from a coffee break, the three spent the entire morning engrossed in educating the managers in everything they needed to know about running the new branch. Then Phil glanced at the clock and said, “That will do for now. It’s almost time for lunch which we’ll have in Ponyville. Before that though, I want to re-introduce you to the Baltimare staff in your Equestrian forms so that they won’t be caught by surprise.”
“Hence why you wanted us to bring our robes,” Michelle said as she reached for her bag.
“Exactly. I’ll wait for you two in the Security Office while you change.”
Tyrone grinned. “I didn’t think that the first use of my new office would be as a changing room.”
It wasn’t long before a unicorn, an Abyssinian, and a hippogriff emerged into the Baltimare facility. Phil took them to the factory manager’s office where the main staff was brought in to make introductions.
Phil said to Precious Goods, “We’ll be meeting up with Rosa and the new Vanhoover branch managers for lunch, but we’ll be back afterward to put some of Tyrone and Michelle’s new knowledge to the test. I will need either yourself or one of the leading hooves to assist us then.”
“No problem, Mr. Martine,” she replied.
“Let’s go,” he told the cat woman and hippogriff. “I’m feeling a might peckish.”
The Security guard at the Ponyville portal did not let the group leave immediately. Instead, he pointed out a few parcels while ignoring the brief sounds of some commotion going on elsewhere in the facility. “The clothing that you dropped off earlier to be enchanted has just come back.”
“Great! That was quicker than I expected,” Phil said before turning to Michelle and Tyrone. “If you two would prefer, you could try out your outfits now before we head out.”
“I’m curious as hell,” Tyrone said, and Michelle agreed.
They transitioned to the Charlotte office where the two changed clothes before returning to Ponyville. Tyrone was immensely pleased that he retained the jacket as he had hoped. It not only fitted him perfectly, but it had also adapted to accommodate his wings. Michelle’s jacket and shirt were unchanged except for being reshaped to fit her feline form. Her slacks, however, stopped just below her knees and her shoes had disappeared.
“It seems bare paws are preferable in this form,” Michelle opined. “Still, I’m quite satisfied with the result.”
Just then, five more people arrived through a portal – first, two humans then, after a brief pause, a griffon, a unicorn mare, and a very bouncy earth pony mare.
Phil said, “Good timing, dear. I presume that this is Jolene?”
Rosa replied, “Yes, or should I say this is Joy Leap.”
The pink mare practically bounced up to the stallion. “This is so wonderful, Mr. Martine! You are Mr. Martine, aren’t you? You have his voice.”
“Yes, I am, Joy. I’m happy to see that you like your Equestrian form.”
“Oh, Ah couldn’t have asked for anything better! And are these Ms. Van Dijk and Mr. Harris?”
“Yes, we are,” Tyrone answered.
“You two look great!” she exclaimed. “Almost as good as me and my new marefriend.” She gave Jewel a hug and the unicorn blushed.
“Your clothes have been enchanted, Jewel,” Phil said, pointing a hoof at the remaining parcel. “If you want to slip back to Charlotte and put them on, we’ll wait for you.”
“OK,” she replied. Jewel narrowed her eyes and pointed her horn at the package. It glowed with a light green aura and the parcel shot away from her at high speed. Rosa deftly caught it with a wing and transferred the package into a waiting clawed hand.
“Oops. Looks like I'll need some practice.” Jewel gave a sheepish smile.
“And lessons, mi querida,” said the griffoness as she placed the parcel on the unicorn's back. Jewel carefully walked through the portal so as not to unbalance her load.
While everyone waited for her return, Rosa told Joy, “As you can see, the others have had their clothes adapted. If you bring in an outfit tomorrow, we’ll arrange to have them enchanted too.”
“Ah’ll do that. Not that Ah don’t love my natural pink coat, but Ah do need to look business-lahk while on the job.”
Before long, Jewel returned. Not much of the human’s clothing remained, and what was left had been changed beyond recognition. The mare wore a high-collared silk jacket with pearl buttons and an intricate pattern stitched in silver thread. Although it still fit the description of business casual, it nevertheless accentuated her beauty.
Michelle rolled her eyes. “A fashion model even when she dresses for work!”
“Well, Ah think she looks mighty fine,” Joy said firmly. “Now, aren’t we supposed to be heading out for lunch? Ah’m hungry even if you aren’t.”
“Sounds good,” Caleb said. “Willow will be joining Vicky and me at The Fig Tree.”
“Then let’s get going,” Phil said. “Mustn’t keep your wife waiting.”
Joy’s eyebrows rose. “Wife? Ain’t Vicky your wife?”
“I’ll explain along the way,” Caleb replied.
A small frown grew on the pink mare’s face as they exited the factory and walked toward town.
“Ah see how that’s a necessity for ponies, but ah have to say that it makes me uncomfortable for a human to do the same. It don’t sit right with me. And Ah sure don’t understand why you’re fine with this, Vicky.”
The woman sighed. “I’m not from Earth, Joy. This is normal for me.”
Joy shook her head. “Even so, you’re a human, not a pony.”
Vicky glanced at Caleb and they both gave Rosa and Phil a questioning look.
“Oh, go ahead,” Rosa said. “It would have to be revealed sooner or later. We didn’t intend for it to be secret forever.”
Vicky nodded and green magic flames briefly engulfed her form. The four trainee managers all gasped in shock, then stared at the anthro mare that had replaced the woman.
“As you can see, Joy, I’m not human. I’m a changeling who bonded with Caleb. While Willow is Caleb’s heart-mate, I am his soul-mate. We belong as a threesome.”
Tyrone gave Caleb a hard look. “What about you? Are you pretending to be human too?”
Caleb replied, “Born and bred in America and as human as you are, I assure you.”
Joy had been stunned but she shook herself and her smile returned. “Well, if that don’t beat all. Seems Ah have a lot to learn still. You look mighty fine like that, Vicky.”
“Thanks, Joy. And I’m Butterfly Sky – Sky for short. Vicky is my human persona.”
The pink mare grinned. “Seems only fair that you get a second identity like us, Sky. Tell me a bit more about you ’n Caleb and your wife.”
The group continued into town while Caleb and Sky talked with Joy about their marriage. Tyrone, Michelle, and Jewel learned a lot about changelings as well. There were the normal greetings from passing ponies and other beings, some meeting the visitors for the second time. Rosa flew ahead to reserve a table as she had the previous day, and they found her waiting with Willow. Joy watched with a neutral expression on her face as Caleb and Sky greeted the earth pony with a hug before they entered The Fig Tree. She could see how much they meant to each other, but she had yet to fully reconcile the human’s relationship with her own beliefs. She took a deep breath and replaced her smile before following the others inside.
“Well, Sky, Willow, and I have to part ways with you all now,” Caleb said as they left the restaurant after a pleasant meal. “We must make our final preparations for our holiday trip which begins this afternoon when we take the train south. It’s been a pleasure meeting you all and I hope to see you again in the not-too-distant future. It’s nice to have some more human company for a change.”
Everyone made their farewells but Sky drew Joy aside for a moment.
“I have never met anyone who has been so happy at their species change. It suits you. However, Jewel is still coming to terms with the fact that she becomes a mare. Do you think you could keep an eye on her and help her when needed?”
Joy nodded. “Ah figured she’d need a woman to guide her. Don’t worry none – she’s in good hands… or hooves.”
“Thank you. And, Joy, there’s more to being a pony than four legs and a tail. Please take guidance from those who were born that way.” Sky then joined her mates and they waved goodbye as they headed home.
Phil said, “Okay, it’s back to Baltimare for Tyrone, Michelle, and me. Lots more to do before the end of the day.”
Rosa put a wing around her two charges. “It’s only fair to give Joy a chance to have a look around Ponyville before we get back to work.”
“Sounds good. I’ll catch you later, love.” Phil kissed his wife on the cheek and then departed with his trainees.
“And we’ll go thisaway,” Rosa said, giving Joy and Jewel a gentle push.
The two pink mares stared at each other, grins growing hugely on their faces.
Citizens across Ponyville heard the sound and gulped.
Somewhere in otherspace, a draconequus rubbed his mismatched hands in glee.
Michelle and Tyrone were going over the production details of one of the new product lines when the hippogriff’s cell phone started ringing. He reached inside his jacket to take it out of the inner pocket.
“Pardon me,” he said before turning his attention to the call. “Hi, dear. What’s up?” He listened for a few moments. “Uh, huh. … Yep. … OK. … No problem, hon. Love you.” He turned the phone off and tucked it away before returning his attention to the others. “Sorry about that. Makena wants me to pick up a couple of things from the supermarket on the way home. I wonder what she would think about the market produce here.” Then he stopped and blinked. “Here in Equestria. How the hell did I just get a phone call from another world?”
Phil laughed out loud at the face that Tyrone had made. “Same way we are connected to the internet. We have a mini-portal to Earth set up purely for a data connection. The factory has a microcell to relay phone calls.”
Michelle took out her phone and looked at the display. “Five bars. Can’t complain about that.” She put it back in her pocket. “Okay – where were we?”
“No, that’s enough for today,” Phil said. “Tomorrow, you two are supposed to be flying from Charlotte to Houston, so you need to put in the appearance of doing so.”
“Not a problem,” Michelle said. “I made my goodbyes to my girlfriend a couple of nights ago. At least, now I know why you were so cagey about the flights. We’re not even going to see the airport, are we?”
“Nope,” Phil agreed.
Tyrone said, “Good thing you told us that you would be shuttling us to the airport along with some equipment for the new office. Makena wanted to drive me there so that she and the kids could say goodbye. After all, they don’t expect to see me again for a few weeks while I settle into the job. Can’t start selling the house before we’re sure the move is permanent.”
“Don’t worry, Tyrone. We may have made a mistake with Shariq, but we’re certain you’re up to the task. At least, you don’t need to worry about accommodation as we’ve got that all sorted for you.”
“Ironic that I’ll actually only be a couple of portals and a normal commute away.”
Phil nodded. “Yeah. When we can finally reveal the existence of that magical technology, we’re going to change the world.”
The next day, Jules sat in front of his computer monitor in his Los Angeles office. He stared at the photo taken of him as Jewel in her transformed jacket that Rosa had forwarded to him. That mare was so different from him and yet every new aspect fitted as if it had always belonged. As a mare, she was uncertain but happy. As a man, he could only wonder what it all meant. His world was changing so fast and he didn’t know whether to be excited or terrified.
CHAPTER 6: Maneuvers
Phil waited patiently for Tyrone to emerge from his home; Michelle less so.
“What’s taking the man so long?” she complained. “We’ve got all of his luggage already.”
“Saying goodbye to his wife and kids whom he won’t see for a couple of weeks isn’t as simple as a quick kiss and a hug goodbye,” Phil reminded the woman. “Besides, it’s not as if we’ll miss the flight to Houston.”
Michelle grumpily conceded the point just as Tyrone emerged from the house. The man climbed into the back seat of the SUV and gave a final wave to his wife and children. Phil started the vehicle and they began their journey.
Tyrone said, “Makena made me promise to call her as soon as I get into Houston.”
“No problem,” Phil replied. “I’ll be tracking American Airlines flight 2751 to Houston to make sure of when it arrives so you can take your phone off of flight mode.”
“I’m not thrilled about deceiving her like this.”
“Not something we’re proud of either, but the thing about secrets is that the more people who know of them, the more likely they slip out. It’s too much of a risk as yet, and we don’t want to be hitting everyone with a geas-enforced NDA either.”
“I know. Still doesn’t sit right with me though.”
Conversation lapsed until Phil turned onto the highway. Michelle frowned in confusion.
“The office is in the other direction – why are we going this way?”
“We’re headed to the airport, right?” Phil answered cheerfully.
“What happened to using the portal?” Tyrone asked.
“Relax – we’re still going to take the quick route. However, it’s that phone call that you received yesterday that reminded me that we can’t take things for granted. Makena might call you again before your flight is due to depart. An app on your phone might accidentally reveal where you were instead of where you should have been. Anyway, we’re going to the airport, have a coffee and snack, and chat until your supposed flight boards. Then you turn off your phones and we’ll drive to the office.”
“That makes sense,” Tyrone conceded. “I suppose we’ll have to go to the Houston Airport also to keep up the pretense?”
“Yep. However, your new digs are not far from the airport, so we can drop off your luggage and allow you to settle in without wasting too much time.”
When the three finally reached the Charlotte office, Phil drove the SUV into the loading bay. After the roller door had been closed, the Security guard checked their I.D.s, the warehouse door was opened, the car was moved in, and the engine turned off. That door was also closed.
“Do we need to get out?” Michelle asked.
“No,” Phil replied. “This has all been prearranged. We won’t even be transforming as I’ve requested that the adaptation spell be turned off for the transfer.” The portal shutter rolled up revealing a huge mirrored surface. “And here comes the transfer team.”
A single yellow earth pony mare came through the portal and walked up to the driver side of the vehicle.
“Good morning, Mr. Martine.”
“Good morning, Careful Carter. Are we clear?”
“Yes, sir. Are you ready to go through?”
“Yep. Go ahead.”
The mare nodded and moved to the rear of the vehicle as Phil put the SUV into neutral. Careful put one hoof on the bumper bar and started pushing the vehicle effortlessly toward the portal.
“Why don’t we drive through under our own power?” Tyrone asked.
“Three reasons,” Phil replied. “First – engines tend to misfire and sometimes stall when passing through the portal.” The front end of the car passed through the mirror without causing a ripple, then the passengers were pushed through it too. Phil continued, “And we also want to be under complete control when emerging from the portal. The mild disorientation from the transition might cause a driver to hit the gas rather than the brake and cause an accident. Lastly, we don’t want to be spewing exhaust fumes into the factory. Believe me, as bad as it smells for humans, it’s far worse for the Equestrians.”
As the SUV was brought to a halt a few meters from the portal, Michelle said, “I’m surprised that you don’t have an EV instead.”
“Rosa has ours. This is the vehicle I use when I go camping off the beaten track. I’m afraid that the range of electric vehicles is still too limited to rely on them under those circumstances. That’s one of the problems our company is working towards solving.”
While Phil was explaining, Careful Carter walked over to the control panel for the dimensional gateway and changed some settings. A light over the portal changed from green to red then back to green, and an LED sign next to it changed to read ‘Houston’. The mare jogged through the portal and returned a moment later. She then took position in front of the vehicle. At a nod from Phil, she pushed the car back through the portal, and they emerged into the Houston warehouse. Careful gave them a cheery wave before returning to Ponyville. A Security guard who had been waiting closed the shutter over the portal before opening the roller door to the loading bay. Phil started the SUV and moved the car out of the warehouse, then out onto the road after roller doors were closed to the storage area and opened to the outside.
“And that’s how we’ll be doing our express deliveries,” Phil said cheerfully as he began the trip to the new accommodations for Tyrone and Michelle.
A similar scenario was played out by Rosa with Jules. Flight AA1769 to Phoenix and then AA2940 to Ontario Airport, California, left at 9:45 AM, so they couldn’t meet up with the other three. However, different plans had to be made for Jolene. Because she was a last-minute replacement for Shariq, she hadn’t had the time to make moving arrangements. Instead, she was allowed to pack her car and drive to the Charlotte office, although turning off her phone was also required. When Rosa turned up with Jules, they transferred to the Los Angeles facility, and then Jolene followed Rosa and Jules to their new accommodations. The Martines had leased two adjacent apartments for their new managers and they were able to unpack at leisure. Then, since it would be many hours before their supposed flight arrived at the airport, Rosa took them back to the new office.
“We’ll have a car on lease for you tomorrow, Jules. You have unlimited usage of it until your own is transported here along with your furniture and goods. However, if you want to carpool with Jolene to save on gas, that’s up to you.”
“Thanks, Mrs. Martine,” Jules replied.
“What’s on the agenda now?” Jolene asked.
“The original plan was to let Jules and Shariq have some free time to settle in and get familiar with the area. Instead, because you two are behind with the familiarization process for operations here and in Equestria, we’ll take this opportunity to get you caught up.”
Upon arrival at the facility, Jules and Jolene went to their respective offices and turned on their computers. After logging on, both found photographs posted there taken at their dinner at The Fig Tree while they were in their Equestrian forms. Jolene smiled fondly at the sight while Jules marveled over making more friends in Equestria during the past few days than he had in years. Neither had too much time to dwell on them because as soon as Rosa returned from the bathroom, work began.
Eventually, it was time to drive to the airport and await the arrival of their flight. After officially arriving in California and turning their phones back on, they returned to their new digs, thus completing the official tracking. Then they returned to the office with Rosa.
“It’s already quitting time. We’ll head over to Equestria to meet up with the others for dinner at the castle. Jolene – you’re going to have the opportunity to meet the royal family just as the others have done. That will be the last opportunity to do so because the next couple of days will be concentrating on finishing your training.”
Jules said, “One thing is bothering me. We went to a lot of effort to ensure that our phones didn’t betray our true positions, but what happens when we have them while we’re in Equestria?”
“The Vanhoover microcell is connected back to this office, so it still places you here,” Rosa replied.
“But what happens when we’re not at the factory and out of range of the microcell? Does Canterlot have one? And if so, where does it connect to on Earth?”
Rosa’s expression froze for a moment. “Oops.”
“We’re going to have to look into whether we can have the microcells spoof an innocuous location or something,” Phil said after some thought when Rosa presented him with the problem. “Not my area of expertise though so I’ll consult with the tech who provided us with the equipment. In the meantime, Tyrone had better give his wife a call to preempt her possibly calling him later. Same deal for anyone else who might possibly get a call from a friend.”
Jolene ended up making a call as well as Tyrone before they all headed to Canterlot. The pink mare was introduced to the royal family including Rarity. The unicorn’s eyes danced with humor as she formally met the new member of the Harmonic Composites team.
“As my dear friend Applejack might say, that was quite the shindig that you and Pinkie threw yesterday. Ponyville hasn’t completely recovered as yet.”
Joy leap blushed. “Ah don’t know what to say, Ms. Rarity. It was completely spontaneous. It was lahk Ah met mah long-lost sister and we just clicked.”
“More than just clicked, I would say. The citizens of Ponyville won’t soon forget about you and Jewel.” Rarity turned to the statuesque unicorn. “By the way, darling, do you think you could come by my boutique tomorrow? I have some ideas in mind that I would love to show you.”
Knowing the kind of ideas that the fashionista was proposing, Jewel blushed. “You don’t need to do that for me, really.”
“Nonsense, dear. You have been an inspiration to me and you would be doing me a favor.”
“I suppose I could come over during my lunch break.”
“Done! I’ll expect to see you then. You’re going to love it!” Rarity then left to join her herdmates.
Jewel turned to Joy and asked, “Am I going to love it?”
The pink mare giggled. “Hon, one thing to know about being female is that if someone lahk Rarity offers to make you look right pretty, take the opportunity. You have nothing to lose an’ you might find out somethin’ about your new self.”
Jewel reckoned she had more than a little to learn.
During dinner, Prince Mark inquired about their progress. Tyrone was the first to reply.
“It’s been fascinating to see how magic is used in so many of the processes.”
Mark nodded. “It might amuse you to learn that Equestrians thought the same about the modern machinery that we imported from Earth. To them, they seemed like enchanted artifacts.”
Michelle said, “It’s like that saying – ‘Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic’.”
“There’s a corollary to that which seems to be very true here,” Jewel said. “Any sufficiently analyzed magic is indistinguishable from technology.”
“Hence why it’s often called magitek nowadays,” agreed Mark.
“And it’s going to revolutionize two worlds,” Rosa said.
“I’ll drink to that!” Phil declared.
The next day was as busy as promised. However, during lunch break held on the Baltimare side, Tyrone found time to ask about something other than business.
“Do you think you could arrange someone to give me flying lessons,” he asked, raising his wings in emphasis.
Phil looked over to Precious Goods. “Is there anyone employed here that might be interested in doing that? I want to keep that in-house.”
The earth pony frowned in thought. “Hmm… If you’re willing to pay for the instruction, there are a couple of pegasi who might be willing. They’re both fairly familiar with humans – one’s from Caleb Awad’s welding school while the other helped set up the Houston facility. I’ll ask them after lunch.”
Phil said, “It should go without saying that flight school will be outside company hours.”
“Of course,” Tyrone replied. “I’d like to take advantage of every day after work before Makena and the kids arrive in a couple of weeks.”
“Yeah, your wife might wonder what you’re doing with your time,” Michelle said with a smirk.
Tyrone cringed at the thought. “What about you, Michelle? Is there anything you need to learn about being a cat person?”
“She shrugged. “Basic fur and claw care are about it. I don’t have wings or a horn, so no special magic for me to learn.”
Tyrone said, “Speaking of unicorns, I wonder how Jewel is doing?”
“Mover has already given me some pointers and practice exercises,” Jewel explained. “He’s going to give me some after-hours lessons too.”
Rosa raised an eyebrow as she looked at the Vanhoover factory manager. “Won’t your mares be questioning why you’re late home?”
“The lessons won’t be that long. I’ll fill in Golden Touch and Subtle Breeze tonight anyway. I figured that it’s better than letting Jewel embed more equipment in the ceiling.”
Both Rosa and Joy looked at the unicorn mare who blushed brightly. “I tried carrying my clipboard by telekinesis and kind of overdid it.”
“By which she means that she buried it halfway through her office ceiling,” Mover clarified with a smirk. “Anyway, having had to teach a couple of foals, I figure it should be easier to teach an adult.”
Rosa nodded. “Mi esposo took about a week to get reasonably competent, and a month or so before it became second nature. Nowadays, Phillipe sometimes has to think twice when he’s human as he might try to use a non-existent horn.”
Joy grinned. “Ah bet there’ve been occasions when he’s forgotten.”
“Si, but not at the dinner table again!” She frowned. “I was not impressed by the mess he made.”
Everyone laughed at the image that evoked.
Friday morning, Phil raised an eyebrow at the sight of Tyrone limping into the factory, favoring his left foreleg. “Flight lessons not going well?”
“Crash lessons more like it,” Tyrone bemoaned. “Black Nimbus says it’s a pity that hippogriffs aren’t as resilient as pegasi and I should be able to shrug off a little thing like leaving a crater in the field.”
Phil chuckled. “Giving up on the idea of flying then?”
“Hell, no! I still have three good legs, and I sure liked being airborne right up until the moment I wasn’t.”
“Try not to let it affect your work. I don’t want to have to find somepony to push you around in a wheelchair!”
“Thanks for the vote of confidence, boss.”
“You’re welcome. Now, time to get to work. This is the final day that Rosa and I will be spending with you new managers. We need to get back to Charlotte and catch up with other pressing matters.”
“This is the last dinner on the company’s dime, so make the most of it,” Phil told the four probationary managers at The Fig Tree that evening.
“We’re very grateful,” Joy said. “Ah’m certainly going to have to get a large portion of mah salary paid in Equestrian bits so Ah can come here often. The food here is heavenly!”
“Did I hear my name called?” asked the pegasus with a grin as she brought over a couple of bottles of Sweet Apple Acres Premium Cider.
“No, mi querida yegua,” Rosa replied, “but you can help us make a toast to the success of our new branches and the people who will run them.”
“Gladly. Always willing to make the customers happy,” Heavenly Aroma said as she poured the cider into fancy fluted glasses and passed them around to everyone.
“Thanks for including Fast Mover and me in this little celebration,” Precious Goods said as she picked up her drink.
Phil replied, “You two will be working hoof in glove with these four – it will be a team effort to make your branches as successful as they can be.” He raised his glass now that everyone had theirs filled. “May the Magic of Harmony bring prosperity to the company and to all those who make it the best place to work in Equestria.”
CHAPTER 7: Activities
Tyrone arranged to have more flying lessons over the weekend. With determination, he was learning rapidly but, as his stern instructor pointed out, he still “flew like a wounded foal”. So he was surprised when Black Nimbus offered to take him to a hoofball game the next day.
“I’m not familiar with the game – should I be?”
The black-coated pegasus grimaced. “All red-blooded stallions follow a hoofball team. If you’re gonna fit in with us, you gotta know us!”
“Okay, if you say so. It’s not as if I don’t follow football back home. Where’s it played? I haven’t seen any stadiums around Ponyville.”
“That’s because you’ve been looking in the wrong direction, mate. I’m not talking about the ground-pounders like the Comets. I mean the real thing – the aerial league! Pegasi, griffons, and hippogriffs like you. There’s your stadium.” He pointed up at the sky roughly in the southerly direction where a very large isolated cloudbank was hovering in an otherwise cloudless sky.
Tyrone’s eyes bulged. “That’s a stadium?”
Nimbus nodded. “Finest in Equestria. They moved it there yesterday to prepare for the game between the Baltimare Ravens and the Canterlot Cannons tomorrow.”
“How do you make a sporting arena out of water vapor?”
“With construction-grade clouds, of course.”
“Of course. Ask a silly question…” Tyrone grimaced. “Okay, you’ve got me curious. Do you really expect me to fly up there though?”
“Hah! Fat chance. It’ll take a lot more lessons before I trust you to make that flight. I’ll borrow a carriage and fly you up.”
“Won’t the other flyers wonder why you’re towing up a healthy hippogriff though?”
“We’ll put a bandage on one of your wings and tell anyone who asks that no injury was keeping you from watching the game!”
“That will work, I suppose. I’m in.”
Nimbus grinned. “That’s the spirit. We’ll fly up straight after your lessons tomorrow. You’re buying the beer and the carrot dogs!”
Tyrone turned up bright and early the next day to find Nimbus already waiting outside the Baltimare factory with a carriage that was normally used to transport materials down from the mountains. It was more than roomy enough for the hippogriff and, after the application of the fake bandage, the two were on their way to the aerial stadium.
Nerves almost ruined their arrival though when Nimbus told Tyrone that he could leave the carriage. Despite seeing the pegasus nonchalantly standing on nothing but cloud, his brain was screaming at him that this was impossible. Although he had already flown with wings that should not have been up to the task if it wasn’t for magic, this was a whole different kettle of fish.
“C’mon, mate – ponies are staring,” Nimbus urged.
Tyrone swallowed hard and gathered his courage, cautiously extending one taloned foreleg from the carriage until it met the strangely dense cloud… and came to a springy halt. His eyebrows lifted in surprise at the sensation before putting weight on it, then following it up with the second foreleg. Confident that the cloud was indeed going to support him, he stepped completely out of the cart and stood firmly on the trampoline-like surface.
“This has got to be the most amazing thing I’ve ever done,” the hippogriff murmured.
“Don’t just stand there like some drongo,” Nimbus chided. “If we wanna get good seats, we have ta get our tickets now.”
Tyrone grinned and followed the impatient pegasus, his head swiveling constantly to check out the wonder that was this colosseum built entirely out of clouds.
The game itself was exciting and semi-familiar. While it had elements of American Football, the three-dimensional nature of the play added many features from other sports. As the game progressed, Nimbus explained the rules and tactics employed by the teams. By the time the Ravens had won the match, Tyrone was hooked and he arranged to go to next weekend’s game with his new best friend.
Jewel pushed open the door to the Carousel Boutique. The bell tinkled, announcing her presence that fine Saturday morning.
The proprietress looked up from her work and gave the visiting unicorn mare a welcoming smile. “Come on in, darling! I’ve made a start on those designs that I showed you over lunch yesterday. I think you’re going to love them!”
“I’m a little nervous about this, Rarity. Everyone keeps saying that I look like a fashion model, but I’m still learning what it is to be female.”
Rarity came over to urge Jewel inside. “There’s no need to be concerned, my dear. I consider it my goal to bring out the confidence in the shyest of my clients with fashions made exclusively to highlight their best features, and darling, you are nothing but best features. I am so excited to be working with you. Come! Let me show you what I have put together so far.”
Jules knew next to nothing about human fashions – his fanciest men’s clothes were business casual. Women’s clothing was right out of his purview. However, as Rarity involved Jewel in the design and fitting of the custom-made outfits, she found herself getting excited and swept-up in the creation process. When she noticed that she was making suggestions to the fashionista, Jewel realized she was hooked, and by Rarity’s knowing grin, she knew it too.
With only a pause for lunch, the two worked on the new line of clothing that ranged from casual chic to ballroom gowns. Jewel modeled all the finished items while Rarity took photographs. The statuesque unicorn admired herself in the mirror and decided that she looked fabulous in everything. She loved it! Never in all his/her life would she have believed that being a fashion model would be so fulfilling.
Jewel turned to Rarity. “How am I going to repay you for all of this? I don’t know much about what fashions like these would sell for, but I’m sure it’s a small fortune.”
Rarity tut-tutted. “Nonsense, darling. I said that you inspired me and that does not obligate you in the slightest. I have enjoyed this day immensely and all I ask in return that you show them off at Prince Mark’s next fashion show. I hope to have Fleur de Lis, a professional model, present at the showing. I’m very much looking forward to seeing her reactions.”
“Isn’t she the mare whose build you say resembles mine?”
“She is the very one. And if she likes the designs, I’m sure that I will have a very enthusiastic customer as well as an admirer of my art.”
Jewel giggled. “Rarity – if you can convince me, I believe you could convince anyone that you can do magic with fabric!”
Michelle luxuriated in a long sleep-in on Saturday. She had finished decorating and furnishing her Houston apartment the night before and felt she deserved it. She spent a couple more hours reading a novel with her body propped up by pillows before finally starting her day. After a hearty brunch, she decided to explore her new neighborhood with a particular eye out for the nightlife. Michelle found a few clubs which she came back to try that evening, but left a little disappointed. Nevertheless, they had burned off her restless energy that day and she went to bed late. She slept solidly until it was nearly eleven. While she had a long, hot shower, she considered her options. Tyrone was the only person in town she knew and she wasn’t about to socialize with the man, especially as he was married. That left either checking out more local venues or seeing what Equestria had to offer.
An hour later, Michelle crossed over to the other universe. Although Baltimare likely had many possibilities, she decided to start with someplace semi-familiar first. Thus, she was soon striding on her cat paws into Ponyville where the friendly locals were happy to point out the options. The Bucking Mare sounded promising and she headed there. Only the need to get some rest before going to work on Monday forced her to leave her new favorite club.
Joy had gotten an invitation to join Pinkie Pie’s family for the day and she turned up at her friend’s home on Saturday morning. The two pink mares greeted each other exuberantly but a couple of notches less nerve-wracking to the neighbors than previously. She was introduced to Pinkie’s husband, Guffaw, an evolved changeling from King Thorax’s hive, and their ponyling foal was a real heart-stealer.
The reason for the gathering was two-fold. Pinkie’s sister, Maud, was visiting after one of her geology expeditions, and the party mare wanted to introduce her new friend, Joy, as well as have a small private celebration of the occasion. Maud entertained the family with some of her stand-up humor. She had some new material that she had excavated (her words!) during her field trip.
“You’re right, Pinkie,” Joy said as she regrettably had to leave that evening. “Your sister is a riot!”
Sunday was Meet-the-Neighbors day back in Los Angeles. Jolene had taken every opportunity to introduce herself while moving in and found the families in the nearby apartments to be a friendly lot on the whole. She organized a barbecue with about a dozen of the families and Jules was dragged along only a little reluctantly. Jolene was the life of the party, instantly finding ways to engage with the other guests as well as getting her co-worker to open up more to them. The afternoon event stretched well into the evening after one of the attendees made a run to the supermarket to stock up on more food and drink. Much to the delight of Jolene, the cheerful group attracted the attention of more of the locals and they were invited to join and contribute.
If it wasn’t for the fact that most families had children to get to bed, the party may have lasted hours longer. As it was, Jolene went to sleep that night a tired but very happy woman.
A product release notice and an announcement of the opening of the two new branches during the training week meant that the new managers hit the ground running on Monday. Each was introduced to their receptionist/secretaries – both transfers from the Charlotte headquarters. Estelle López took the position in Houston because she had family in the area, while Imani Williams, an African-American, liked the idea of living on the West Coast. The pay raise didn’t hurt either. Both were very experienced with Harmonic Composites’ workings and they were chosen to ensure that the new managers could concentrate on their jobs and not all the other intricacies of running an office.
Of course, there were also the warehouse workers. There were two temporary local hires for each facility to deal with the initial surge. Once that passed, they expected to cope with just one and offer the best performer a full-time position.
Once the four managers had organized the new employees, they set to work dealing with the influx of inquiries. It kept them so busy that no one had time to visit Equestria until the end of the day. Tyrone had a flying lesson arranged with Black Nimbus, but he made sure to phone his wife before going to the portal. Michelle headed straight back to her apartment to have a long hot bath. Jules and Jolene accepted an invitation to dinner from Fast Mover and soon after the warehouse workers and Estelle had left, a unicorn and an earth pony traveled to the Vanhoover factory to meet up with their host. After arriving, both got dressed for the occasion, with Jewel wearing one of Rarity’s new creations. It amused Joy to see how unconsciously her friend wore the fine dress to such great effect.
They were greeted at the door by Fast Mover’s wives – a unicorn and a visibly pregnant pegasus. After giving him a hug and kiss each, they turned to their guests.
“Aren’t you going to introduce us, Mover?” the unicorn mare asked.
The stallion grinned and said, “Loves, I’d like you to meet Jewel and Joy Leap. Ladies, this lovely unicorn is my wife, Golden Touch, and my pegasus herdmate, Subtle Breeze.”
Golden Touch held out her foreleg, inviting a hug. Familiar now with the touchy-feely nature of the ponies of this world, Jewel and Joy accepted the hug and did the same with Subtle Breeze.
“You may call me Goldy,” the unicorn mare told them.
“And I answer to Breezy,” the pegasus added with a smile. “I think I can already tell how you earned your Equestrian names.”
The stallion said, “Come on in and meet the foals. We can chat until dinner is ready.”
“Yes,” Golden agreed, “And you can tell us about how you caught our Mover’s eye, Jewel. Although I think it’s quite obvious.”
Jewel came to a halt and her eyes widened. “I did what now?!”
CHAPTER 8: Herdmates
Joy giggled at the sight of her shocked friend. “Did ya really think you wouldn’t attract male attention lookin’ like that, hon?”
Golden Touch smiled reassuringly. “Don’t let it bother you, Jewel – Mover isn’t the type to like a mare just for her looks.”
Jewel turned her astonished gaze on the unicorn mare. “Didn’t he tell you that on Earth, I’m a male human?”
“He did mention it, which made us curious enough to want to meet you. Now that we have, I’m not seeing any stallion in the mare in front of me. What do you think, Breezy?”
“Gotta agree with you there, Goldy. Our stallion has picked out a fine mare.”
Jewel gaped at them both for a long moment. “I… I mean…”
The two herdmates burst into giggles.
Fast Mover said, “Don’t mind them, Jewel – they’re just teasing you. They do that to everypony they like.”
Jewel sighed in relief. “So, you’re not attracted to me after all?”
The stallion grinned. “Oh, I never said that. Now let’s go see my foals. They’ve been left alone too long as it is.”
Mover took the visitors into the living room where two fillies, each about nine or ten years-old, were playing. One was a unicorn and she was busy building a large construction that was much taller than she was. Fortunately for her, she could levitate more of the small colorful building blocks to extend its height even further. However, the other foal was a pegasus and she was hovering over the edifice. She took the blocks as they were lifted, placing them judiciously. They both turned when the adults entered.
Mover frowned. “Sparks! How many times have we told you that there’s no flying allowed in the house without supervision?”
“Sorry, Daddy,” the pegasus filly replied guiltily as she settled to the floor.
The stallion sighed and then faced his guests. “Ladies, these are my girls, Flying Sparks, the naughty one, and Graceful Spire. They’re budding architects and engineers, as you can tell from their latest project.”
Jewel stepped up to the tower to look at it more closely. “Hmm… it looks a lot better than anything I ever put together with Lego bricks. Perhaps you fillies can give me some pointers?”
The siblings’ faces lit up.
“Sure, pretty lady!” Flying Sparks blurted out.
“My name is Jewel. Tell me what you two have planned.”
As the fillies started enthusiastically explaining, Mover turned to his wives and lifted an eyebrow. The mares looked at each other before coming to an unspoken agreement. They faced their husband again and nodded. This did not escape the notice of Joy whose smile grew wide as a thrill of excitement went through the mare. Her goal of getting her marefriend to open up to others was showing unexpectedly early results and she was very glad that she had managed to persuade Jewel to accept the dinner invitation.
Conversation continued while Jewel enjoyed interacting with the foals. She did contribute to the chat occasionally despite that, but it was Joy who did the most to fill in their hosts about their backgrounds and the work they did for Harmonic Composites.
“But enough about us,” Joy said firmly. “Tell me about yourselves and how you met up with our factory manager.”
Golden Touch nodded. “Fair enough. I’m an architect by profession, and I met Mover when I went on site to consult with the forepony about some aspects of the design that they were having problems with. I was impressed with the stallion’s grasp of the complexities then and on the several subsequent visits.”
Fast Mover grinned. “I, on the other hoof, was glad to have a conversation that wasn’t about the latest hoofball game or where to go for drinks after work.”
Goldy continued, “So, when I found out that he was still single, I asked him out on a date—”
“Which I happily accepted!” Mover interjected.
“And we started going out regularly. Three months later, we were married. Mover and I just clicked together perfectly. We were able to talk about many things we found mutually interesting, so coming home from work meant that we could relax in each other’s company after a hard day. And when it came to bedtime, we were almost always in the mood, if you know what I mean.”
“Ah understand, although Ah’m ace,” Joy replied.
Golden’s brow furrowed. “What do you mean by that?”
“Ace? Ah’m asexual – sex doesn’t interest me although Ah have nothin’ against anyone who feels otherwise. Ah’d rather just socialize with everyone and make more friends. That’s how Ah get my kicks.”
Both Golden Touch and Subtle Breeze were stunned by this revelation.
“I’ve never met a mare who wasn’t interested in sex,” Breezy said. “In this world, a mare almost has to be prepared to offer sex if she is going to attract a stallion, especially if he’s already married.”
“Ah suppose that if you’re competing with several other mares, it makes sense, but it don’t seem to me lahk the best way to pick a mate.”
Breezy grimaced. “You have a good point, and it’s a major reason why I ended up with Mover.”
Joy tilted her head, raised an eyebrow, and smiled. “So – what do you do for a living and how did you meet Fast Mover?”
“I work for Zippy-Ship, a courier company, but it was Goldy who introduced me to our stallion.”
“On the face of it, there doesn’t seem to be anythin’ in common,” Joy commented.
Goldy replied, “What Breezy didn’t say is that she started the company with a partner. She was a business major at the same college I attended and we were friends. We continued to meet up regularly after we graduated. After I met and married Mover, Breezy was a bit down on the fact that she wasn’t having much luck finding a stallion of her own.”
“It was my own fault,” Breezy confessed. “The average mare is happy just to be able to get into a herd. It’s not often that we get to meet our match before he’s already hitched. Any married stallion who is willing to date another mare is usually just interested in sex. While I didn’t mind giving them that, I wanted a herdmate that was interested in a real relationship and to raise foals with me. Not one impressed me and all my first dates were also the last dates.”
Goldy said, “I decided to introduce Breezy to Mover. He’s very interested in raising a family, but while I found time to have a foal, it seriously ate into my professional life, so I wasn’t in a hurry to have another. Breezy, on the other hoof, was ready and eager to have foals with the right stallion. It only remained to see if he liked her.”
Mover shrugged. “I like smart mares, and it was immediately apparent to me that Goldy’s friend was intelligent and motivated. Her company is a Vanhoover success story and I found her tale of founding and growing the business to be quite fascinating.”
Breezy nodded. “I could tell right away that Mover was a potentially good fit and after a wonderful evening with him and Goldy, I made my usual offer of a roll in the sheets. You know what he did? He asked Goldy if he should! Joy – I don’t know if you know this about us ponies, but stallions have the absolute right to accept offers of sex from mares regardless of their marital status, and without having to give a reason. If they couldn’t, it would severely impact the ability of a huge portion of the population to find a herdmate.”
“No stallion wants to take a mare into his herd only to find that she’s not interested in foals, or she’s lousy in bed,” Mover explained. “Sex may not be everything, but it’s certainly very important to a herd.”
“Exactly,” Breezy agreed. “So, when he asked Goldy if he should, it was quite a shock to me. But it was also the best possible thing because he was just as serious about relationships as me.”
Goldy said, “It’s the lead mare’s responsibility to look out for possible additions to the herd, and Breezy was smart and motivated just as Mover likes. I’d already decided that if my husband wanted her, she would make a perfect herdmate, so I urged Mover to take the offer for her to spend the night with him.”
Breezy sighed happily. “It was the best night I’d ever had. We had several dates after that before Mover told me to ask the question. I joined his herd and got pregnant the first time I went into heat.” She slid a hoof over her swollen belly. “And now, we’re expecting our third foal soon.”
Joy’s eyes shifted to where Jewel was engrossed in supervising the placement of a flying buttress by Graceful Spire who was perched on her back. “Ah can tell why Mover is so interested in Jewel. She’s smart and she likes your foals. When we were havin’ a barbecue on the weekend with our neighbors, Jules spent more of his time with the young folks. He threw a Frisbee and shot a few hoops with them. Ah practically had to drag him away to introduce him to the adult neighbors.”
Mover chuckled. “Don’t make me out to be perfect, Joy. I’ll admit that I was fascinated by her gorgeous looks long before I realized that my new boss was also a very capable business mare. I’m just fortunate that I got to talk with her so often that I could see beyond the fashion model exterior.”
“You got that raht, Mover. Ah’m goin’ to haveta work hard to keep up with her.” She then smirked. “So, why did you invite me tonight also?”
“Because you live up to your name, Joy,” the stallion explained. “It’s always a pleasure to be in your company and I reckoned my wives would enjoy meeting you.”
“So, not lookin’ to add two mares to your herd?”
“It wasn’t topmost on my mind, no. Are you interested in joining a herd despite being … umm… ace?”
“Gotta leave mah options open, don’t Ah? Just ‘cause Ah’m ace don’t mean Ah don’t lahk the ahdea of bein’ in a large, happy family.”
Goldy smiled and nodded. “I can agree with that.” A bell rang in another room and the mare’s ears swiveled toward the sound. “Dinner’s ready. Breezy – see our guests to the dining room and then help me serve up the meal. Mover – drag the foals away from their project. It won’t go cold like the food will!”
After an excellent dinner of artisanal hay frittata and roasted vegetables, conversation went well into the evening. Joy and Jewel eventually had to leave for home, and they parted with their hosts after fervent hugs. They strolled back to the factory down Vanhoover’s well-lit streets in companionable silence. Joy waved to one of the bat-winged Night Guards who was perched on a nearby storefront and he nodded back. Eventually, Jewel spoke up.
“I did notice you talking about me before dinner, y’know?”
Joy looked at her and lifted an eyebrow. “Oh? Were they right about you?”
Jewel was silent for a long time before she replied. “Well, I suppose they weren’t wrong.”
“How do you feel about that?”
“Scared. Excited. Confused. I do like children, but to be considered as a potential herd mare – that’s something that I would never have dreamed of a week ago. Heck! Just over a week back, I had always been a man!”
Joy gave Jewel a reassuring nuzzle. “If it means anything to you, Ah reckon you’re already a mighty fine mare, and the longer you are one, the better you’ll become at being one.”
“But what happens to Jules the man?”
“Nothin’ you don’t want to happen, hon. Take your time and discover what you want from your lahf on both worlds. There ain’t no deadline to figgerin’ it out. An’ remember – Ah’m always here to help you.”
Jewel smiled and leaned up against the slightly smaller mare. “Thank you, Joy. You’re a good friend.”
“Y’all are very welcome, Jewel.”
As Fast Mover and his wives settled into bed that night, he asked, “So, what are your verdicts, ladies?”
Goldy replied, “I think it’s obvious that we all like Jewel. However, she still has issues to work through. I can’t imagine what it’s like to change sex as well as species, but it can’t be easy on her. Give the mare some time and I think she’ll be open to the possibility of a relationship. Invite her over again soon.”
“Agreed. And what about Joy?”
Breezy said, “Joy lives to make others happy. When she eventually realizes that she might want somepony to make her happy, perhaps she’ll come asking one day. She might not want to contribute with foals, but she has so much else to give to any herd that takes her.”
“I know I find it hard not to smile when she’s around,” Mover said. “We’ll see what the future brings.”
“Enough about them,” Breezy said firmly. “Your current mares would like a bit of attention.” She rubbed Mover’s chest and licked her lips suggestively.
The stallion rolled his eyes. “Again?”
“You know being pregnant makes me horny.”
Mover grinned. “What a coincidence – pregnant mares make me horny too!”
“Oh, for Celestia’s sake!” exclaimed Goldy. “Will you two just get in on already? I want my turn sometime before midnight!”
Breezy giggled as she turned her full attention to her stallion. “I have just the thing to get your mind off adding more mares to the herd.”
Mover quickly forgot all thoughts about Jewel and Joy for that evening.
CHAPTER 9: Biases
Precious Goods looked up from the paperwork on her desk at the sound of a knock on her office door. Because the door was open and ponies would just walk in, it was immediately obvious who had announced their presence.
“What can I do for you, Ms. Van Dijk?”
The Abyssinian stalked into the office, her lashing tail indicative of her mood. “We have a problem. Demand for the room-temperature superconductor has exceeded expectations and our stock has been exhausted already. It isn’t even the end of the week and we can’t meet the orders that our customers have placed.”
“We already have that team working full-time on that product. We can’t produce more any faster.”
“How many unicorns are working the spell to produce it?”
“Three – Patient Hooves, Crimson Style, and Artful Twist.”
Michelle huffed. “Only three ponies for such a high-value product? Why don’t we assign more to that task?”
“Creating the correct molecular matrix to enable the material to superconduct is an extremely tricky enchantment. Only those three have mastered it, and even then not every batch is a success.” Precious opened a drawer and pulled out a file. “Here are my records on their output. I can send you PDF copies if you wish.”
The cat woman took the proffered files and started looking through them. Her frown deepened and her whiskers twitched. She threw one of the pages onto the desk. “This tells me that Artful Twist has a twenty-three percent greater failure rate than the other two. That is unacceptable!”
Precious Goods shrugged helplessly. “It is what it is. He works hard but applying the enchantment is tricky and miscasts occur because it takes a lot of concentration over a long period.”
“He? Artful Twist is a stallion? What about the other two?”
“Both are mares,” the earth pony replied.
“Why am I not surprised. Let’s go visit this slacker stallion. I want to have a few words with him.”
Precious scowled. “That isn’t necessary, Ms. Van Dijk.”
“I’ll decide that, Ms. Goods.”
Michelle exited the office and Precious trotted to catch up to the feline. They made their way to the section of the factory devoted to the production of the superconducting wire. There was a line of equipment that took the raw materials and combined them in precise ratios before heating them into a semi-molten material. That flowed into a reservoir with six output tubes although only three of them were in use. The mixture passed through extruders that forced thin streams of composite into vats of liquid nitrogen. The fluid boiled furiously as the material rapidly cooled while three unicorns stationed at each stared intensely at the wire through a window, their horns glowing brightly. Rollers brought the metal thread out of the vats and onto a conveyer where fans blew air over it to bring its temperature up. It slid over contacts that confirmed that it was superconductive. Then, no longer brittle from the extreme cold, it passed through rollers that formed the finished wire and coiled onto spools. These were kept air-conditioned to ensure that the material never approached critical temperature.
Precious held out a hoof to prevent Michelle from interrupting the workers. “Be quiet,” she whispered. “This is the crucial phase of the process. They’re controlling the formation of the crystal structure as it cools. You could ruin the entire batch if you break their concentration.”
The Abyssinian humphed but stayed back as directed. “What happens to the dud material?” she asked softly while they waited.
“Since the superconductive properties can’t be restored, it gets thrown back in with raw material to try again.” It was only a couple of minutes before the run was complete and all three unicorns ceased casting with sighs of relief. When the last of the wire passed the superconductivity test, Precious nodded in satisfaction.
“Well done, everypony. That’s another three spools completed.” She looked at Michelle and nodded.
The Abyssinian frowned. “Mr. Twist, I wish to have words with you!”
The stallion yawned as he raised his drooping head. “Right now? I need a break.”
“What you need to do is pick up your game. I’ve just seen the stats and I’m very unsatisfied with your performance. Your failure rate is completely unacceptable. If these two mares can consistently and significantly out-produce you, then you must be doing something wrong.”
Artful Twist’s widened as he stared at Michelle in disbelief, then he glared. “Ma’am, you’re not a unicorn and have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“I don’t need to have a horn – I just need to see the figures. Since you have been part of the production team, you have performed an average of twenty-three percent worse than your co-workers. By now, you should be close to being on par with them, but I suppose that’s too much to expect of a male.”
His two co-workers gasped. Crimson Style got up from her chair and marched up to Michelle until she was practically in her face. “Who do you think you are? That’s no way to talk to a stallion!”
“I’m the district sales manager and I have customers to satisfy. I can’t do that if I don’t have the goods that I promised, can I?”
“He’s doing the best that he can. He doesn’t deserve your disrespect!”
Artful said, “Give it a rest, Crimson. Seems like the kitty-cat doesn’t like me and doesn’t think I’m up to the job, so I’ll just make her happy and quit. Ms. Goods – I’m going back to my old job. No bonus is big enough to put up with these horseapples.” He then picked up a lunchbox next to him in his magic and trotted away.
Patient Hooves jumped up and began following him. “Don’t go, Art! Ignore that bitch.”
“Hey! Don’t you dare call me urk—” Michelle’s words were cut off as her arm was grabbed and Precious Goods dragged her rapidly away.
“Shut up, you bucking fool! You just managed to cut our production down by at least a third. You think we’re running only three of the six stations because we like it? Casting that enchantment is specialist work and extremely difficult. We only managed to persuade Artful Twist to take the job with the promise of a big bonus. Not to mention the prospect of working beside the two mares who are courting him! You managed to buck up weeks of building up his confidence in just a few sentences. How in Tartarus did you ever get your position with an attitude like that?”
“Let go of me!” Michelle demanded, her ears folded down in ire. “You can’t treat your boss like this.”
Precious abruptly stopped and wheeled around to face the Abyssinian. “My boss? Are you an idiot? You run the Earth-side operations with Mr. Davis – you coordinate with me, this factory’s manager. I answer to the Martines, not to you.” She pointed in the direction of the portal room. “Go back to Houston, Ms. Van Dijk. I’m going to try to undo the damage you’ve caused. Hopefully, I won’t have to contend with a walk-out by the mares too.” She then cantered off to find the unicorns.
Michelle fumed, her tail lashing. She eventually headed to the portal as directed, defiantly mumbling, “We’ll see what Rosa has to say about this!”
Rosa Martine had more than a little to say about it the situation. Michelle realized that the Latina was no less fierce and frightening as a small human than as a large griffon. She no longer wondered why she assumed that form when in Equestria. The frequent inclusions of Rosa’s native Spanish clued Michelle into how upset her boss was right now.
“…and I’m now regretting urging mi esposo to consider you for this position. I believed that you could do better in an environment where mares greatly outnumbered the sementales. But no! That wasn’t good enough for you. You had to attack the one male whose lesser performance threatened to upset your sales. And I’ve seen those figures, Ms. Van Dijk. You’ve sold mucho superconductor wire – roughly half as much again as our peak production of that material. You’re making promises of delivery times that Harmonic Composites can’t keep!”
“You hired me to grow the business. That can only happen if ponies like Artful Twist get their act together,” Michelle objected.
“So you think you could get him to perform better by humiliating him in front of his marefriends?”
“I didn’t know they were his girlfriends, and besides, they shouldn’t be fraternizing—”
“Stop right there! If this was happening here in America with humans, it would only be a problem if one managed the other two. However, that is Equestria where the major portion of the population consists of caballos – ponies – a species that thinks and interacts socially in a very different way than humans. What you call fraternizing is totally acceptable behavior for them. Far from being a distraction, Patient Hooves and Crimson Style have encouraged Artful Twist to bring up his actuación and increase his output. Now, they’ve threatened to walk out in support of Señor Twist.”
“I still think those mares overreacted,” Michelle replied sulkily.
Rosa slapped herself on the head. “Ay, yi, yi! How are you so dense?! Ponies have a matriarchal society because the mares greatly outnumber the stallions. Machos are a limited resource, so the hembras are extremely protective of them. By threatening their stallion, even if only by insultos, you were effectively doing the same to them! Phillipe had to play peacemaker to half the mares in the factory over that incident.”
“Oh. I didn’t think of that.”
“No, you blinded yourself to it. Mi esposo and I tolerated your attitude toward men before now because you didn’t let it get out of hand here in America. However, I’m beginning to think that sending you to Equestria was a mala decisión. I’ll remind you that you are on probation and any more incidents like this will not be tolerated. Precious Goods has requested that you be banned from her factory. For now, we will comply. You may still visit Equestria but stay completely out of our operations there. You will communicate only by telephone or email. Tyrone will handle any interactions en persona in Equestria until further notice. ¿Comprender?”
“Yes, Mrs. Martine,” Michelle acknowledged quietly.
“Good.” Rosa headed out of Michelle’s office. “And, Ms. Van Dijk, as you say – get your act together.”
Michelle’s mood was still sour by the end of the day and she made a beeline for “The Bucking Mare” to have a few drinks. She met an eighteen-year-old mare who was disgruntled at something the cat woman couldn’t care less about but pretended to sympathize with anyway. They eventually went back to the mare’s place to have some angry sex. As she lay in bed afterward, Michelle could only dwell on how a male had effectively screwed her even more than this mare had just done.
CHAPTER 10: Secrets
“If you hold your wings at this angle, you can break out of that unintended spin,” Black Nimbus demonstrated.
Tyrone was still a trifle dizzy but tried to emulate his instructor’s directions. “Like this?”
“Close. Don’t be too aggressive with your compensation or else you might make things worse instead of better. Ease into it or else you could end up a flailing ball of feathers and I might not be there to catch you next time.”
“Gotcha. Want me to try that maneuver again?”
“Nah, it’s getting late and you look frazzled. We’ll give it another go tomorrow.”
Tyrone was relieved and he was pretty much exhausted from today’s lessons. “Okay. Sorry that I’m still a bit of a klutz at this.”
Nimbus waved off the comment. “Nothing to apologize for. It’s not as if you were born a hippogriff. You’ve actually come along a lot better than I thought you would when we first began these lessons. Besides, you’ve built up enough wing strength by now that you can fly up to the cloudiseum by yourself for the next game.”
Tyrone grinned. He had become completely hooked on the aerial hoofball game, and to be able to get there under his own power was going to make it doubly awesome. “I’m looking forward to it already, Nimbus.”
The pegasus returned the grin. “With the Ravens in the playoffs, you won’t want to miss it. Anyway, I think I hear my mares calling. Catch you tomorrow.” Nimbus spread his ebon wings and took off.
The hippogriff watched his teacher and new best friend fly away for a moment before turning and walking back into Harmonic Composites’ Baltimare factory. He went into the office to retrieve his clothes which he took off for the flying lessons. Also left behind was his cell phone which he did not want to risk possibly damaging. Besides, he was out of range of the factory’s microcell most of the time. He frowned when he noticed that there was a notification of a missed call and a subsequent text from his wife. He always made sure to give her a call before going to his lessons, so he wondered why she had called back. He decided that he’d better talk to her before he did anything else.
“Hi, Makena,” Tyrone said when she answered. “Sorry I missed your call. What’s up?”
“Why didn’t you answer earlier?” Makena replied, irritation clearly heard in her voice.
“I was out with a friend and I didn’t notice until now. Not sure why, but I didn’t hear a call or text come in.” He hated having to lie, but not only was the truth unbelievable, he was constrained from telling his wife any part of it.
“You were at a noisy bar, I bet,” she said skeptically. “Anyway, Jadyn needs a book for a school project. He wants to use one of your engineering reference manuals.”
“Oh? Why can’t he just research it on the internet?”
“Because the project is about learning how to use books and libraries to do research instead of just copying stuff from the internet.”
“I see. Well, sorry to disappoint Jadyn, but I took my most important references with me. He’ll just have to choose something from those still back there. At least it’s nice knowing that he’s interested in my line of work.”
“Agreed. I’ll see what I can find among the books that I haven’t packed away already for the move.”
“Okay. Love you, Makena.”
“Love you too. Goodnight, Ty.”
Tyrone frowned as he hung up the phone. He sincerely hoped that this wouldn’t happen again.
Nimbus and Tyrone celebrated the Baltimore Ravens’ win at their favorite bar along with what seemed to be a large proportion of the population of that city. While everyone else there was a pegasus except for some of the bar staff, the fact that he was the lone hippogriff did not matter at all. He wore a Ravens T-shirt and that was all that mattered. He and his friend got a little drunk and they opted to walk most of the way home rather than fly.
“How’re you gonna get back to your apartment?” Nimbus asked.
Tyrone had not thought about that until now. He knew he was too inebriated to drive. “I suppose I’ll have to call a taxi.”
“Why don’t you stay at my place tonight? It’ll give you a chance to meet my wife. She’s been curious about the fella that I’ve been hanging about with so much.”
“Are you sure? I don’t want to be a bother.”
Nimbus chuckled. “Nah, it won’t be a problem. Wispy has been nagging me to be a bit more sociable and bring home friends. Maybe another mare too.”
“You’ve only got the one wife? I would have thought a stallion like you would have two or three by now, judging by the others at the factory.”
“We haven’t found another mare that we thought would make a good fit yet. One of these days, that might change, but for now, I kind of like being able to concentrate on just her. What about you? Any of the mares catch your eye?” Nimbus asked with a smirk.
Tyrone flashed his wedding band. The transformation magic thinned out his ring in accommodation for the larger size of his hippogriff talon. “Makena would kill me if I so much as thought about that kind of thing. Earth customs are completely different from here. Besides, I think hippogriffs don’t do multiple mates either.”
“That’s not gonna put off some of the more desperate mares, y’know?”
Tyrone nodded. He had already gently fended off some friendly advances despite them knowing he was married. He could not even potentially use the excuse of sexual harassment because that was normal social behavior for ponies. At least, when he told them no, they never persisted. “Okay, I’ll still need to swing by the factory to get in range of the cell so that I can let Makena know where I’ll be. I’m sure I won’t be able to connect from your place.”
“You sound drunk,” Makena accused.
“Guilty,” Tyrone confessed. “Too much celebrating after the hoo— er… football game today. My friend has offered to put me up for the night rather than get a taxi back to the apartment. His place is within easy walking distance.”
“Is this friend of yours single?”
“No, he’s married. I’ll be getting to meet his wife too.”
“Alright. You can introduce me to them after we’ve moved to Houston.”
‘That’s going to be a bit awkward,’ Tyrone thought before putting that problem off until later. “Okay. Is there anything you wanted to talk about before I go?”
“Actually, your son would like to speak to his father. He misses you.”
“Oh. Can you put him on so I can chat for a bit?”
Tyrone ended up conversing with Jadyn for about ten minutes. They talked about his school project and what he and his friends had been doing. He was excited about the upcoming move but sorry to be leaving his pals behind. Tyrone sympathized with him but assured his son that he would like the new neighborhood and would quickly find new friends. After saying goodbye to Jadyn and Makena, Tyrone hung up the phone.
“You miss your family, don’t you?” Nimbus asked.
“I do,” Tyrone said with a nod. “It’s been a bit lonely at nights without Makena there.”
“Come on – let’s see if Wispy and I can help take your mind off that for at least one night.”
The hippogriff wondered what exactly Nimbus meant by that.
Tyrone got an unexpected education into pony social niceties. He found out that the touchy-feely equines liked to accommodate their guests in the same bed as them. It was even more awkward that Black Nimbus and Wispy Cloud wanted to put him between them. He almost turned them down but, afraid of offending them, he acquiesced. It turned out to be one of the best night’s sleep that he’d had in a while. Although the pegasi had put wings over him in bed, it had been nothing more than a social cuddle, and he had to admit that it felt really good. Perhaps these ponies knew what they were doing after all. He wondered what Makena would think of this arrangement though.
“Why didn’t you answer this time?” Makena asked, annoyance obvious in her voice. It was the second time this week that she had tried to phone her husband without a response.
“I was out with my friend. It’s not my fault that I don’t get your calls. Reception around here is spotty at best.”
“You seem to be out with this friend of yours an awful lot.”
“I’m here by myself with nothing to do after work except watch TV. I might as well go out and enjoy myself with friends until you and the kids move in.”
“Are any of these friends of yours women?”
Tyrone had been afraid of this. “Makena, I assure you that my close friends here are guys, and any females are just acquaintances.”
There was a lengthy pause before she replied. “Alright, I believe you.”
“Why did you need to call, dear?” A little irritation was in his voice at her reluctant acceptance of the truth, even if it was incomplete.
“Faraja’s birthday party is tomorrow. I want you to make a video call to wish your daughter a happy birthday.”
‘And you couldn’t have asked me to do this when I phoned you earlier?” he thought to himself but didn’t dare say out loud. “I was planning to do so anyway. Do you want to give me a specific time to call?”
“I’ll phone to let you know when she will be ready for you. It should be sometime around two p.m. Make sure that you’re available!”
“Yes, dear. I’ll be on time.”
“Good. Love you, Ty.”
“Love you too, darling. Have a good night.” He hung up feeling a bit frustrated. The weeks of separation had been trying for both of them. Makena had to cope with the kids by herself as well as work on packing for the move. That could not happen until the end of the school term to minimize the disruption to their children’s education. Then there was the uncertainty of his position – he was still on probation, after all. While the Martines would not give their final judgment for some time yet, Phil had said that they were happy with his work so far, so that was a bit reassuring. He hoped that there wouldn’t be too many more incidents between now and his family’s arrival to rock the boat.
There were three more times that Makena called while Tyrone was in Equestria. Each time, his wife’s attitude soured just a little bit more, but he reiterated that he was just with his friend and he was sorry that he missed her call. That might have been as bad as it got except for the fourth time that it happened.
Tyrone had been negotiating an important deal with a new client and that company’s purchasing officer was supposed to call to confirm a high-priority order that afternoon. The call never came. Closing time arrived and still nothing. Tyrone had gone the extra mile to land this customer in New Mexico for Harmonic Composites. He did not want to blow it by not taking a late call because he was away taking flight lessons. He reluctantly contacted Jolene in the Los Angeles office which would close an hour later. Tyrone gave her the details of the deal and told her that he would be forwarding calls from his phone to her office. The customer never called but Makena did.
Tyrone’s wife knew about Michelle, his co-worker, but when a strange woman with a Southern accent answered her husband’s phone, her suspicions went through the roof. When Tyrone retrieved his phone after that afternoon’s lesson, he had a text from Jolene to contact her ASAP. He learned that his colleague had mostly assuaged Makena’s suspicions, reminding her that Tyrone was normally with his friend at that time of day and that she was only doing him a favor to mind his calls.
When Tyrone called his wife, Makena immediately asked, “If your phone is always out of contact when you’re with your friend, how did it forward my call to that girl?”
“I left my phone at the office to ensure that it didn’t lose connection. And that woman is the manager of the Los Angeles branch. I believe I mentioned her as one of the candidates.”
“You could have told me that you would be forwarding calls.”
“I asked you before I left the office if there was anything you needed me to attend to this evening. What was so urgent that you had to call back?”
“Forget it!” Makena hung up.
Tyrone stared at his phone with a frown. He thought he had not done anything wrong but he was still in deep shit.
Two weeks later near closing time, Tyrone was making a list of groceries to stock up the apartment’s pantry in anticipation of his family’s arrival the next day. He planned to do his shopping after today’s flying lesson but that idea went out the window when a call came from the receptionist.
“What’s up, Estelle?”
“Your wife is here and wants to see you, Mr. Davis.”
What?! She’s not due until tomorrow!”
“Nevertheless, she’s here, sir.”
“I’ll be right there.” Tyrone hastened out to the reception area where he found his wooden-faced wife impatiently waiting. He went over to give her a hug and a kiss. “Makena! This is a surprise. Why are you here a day early? I’m not ready for you and the kids yet.”
“That’s why I’m early. You’re going to take me to see this friend of yours that you spend so much time with, and I’m going to see for myself why it’s so hard for you to answer your phone.”
Tyrone froze. How was he supposed to do that? “I… can’t do that, love.”
She frowned. “And why not?”
The man thought furiously. “He… uh… works in the secure area. I can’t take any unauthorized people there.”
“I’m your wife – authorize me!”
Tyrone opened his mouth to say he couldn’t do that, but the expression on Makena’s face told him it was pointless. She understood what a secure area entailed and she obviously didn’t care. She was on the warpath and was not going to stop until she was satisfied. He made up his mind.
“Alright then. Come with me.” He took her hand and guided her down the hallway to go to the Security Office. After the security guard admitted him and Makena with Tyrone’s okay, he said, “I want to take my wife into the Secure Area.”
“Makena Davis is not authorized to go there, sir. You know that.”
“I do. Contact either Phil or Rosa and get her authorized.”
The guard raised an eyebrow. “Very well. Be advised that if the answer is no, I will be forced to eject your wife immediately.” He picked up the phone on his desk and dialed a number.
The call was answered by Phil Martine. “What’s the problem, Haxtur?”
“Sir, Mr. Davis is here with his wife, demanding to allow her access to the Secure Area. Makena Davis is not currently authorized. What do you wish me to do about this situation?”
Phil sighed. “We suspected that something like this might happen when we chose a married candidate. It’s very hard to keep secrets under those circumstances. Okay, she may have access, but allow Rosa and me time to meet her at the Baltimare office. I will give you a call when we’re there.”
“Understood, sir. I’ll await your call.” The Guard hung up and opened a drawer in his desk. He took out a badge on a lanyard similar to Tyrone’s except that it was marked “VISITOR”. He passed it to Makena. “Wear this at all times. You will be allowed into the Secure Area as soon as Mr. and Mrs. Martine arrive there to meet you.”
Makena’s eyebrow rose sharply. “Don’t they live in Charlotte?”
The Guard didn’t answer her, merely holding out the badge.
Makena snorted with annoyance and took the lanyard, hanging it around her neck.
The Guard turned to Tyrone. “I assume that you want adaptation turned off?”
“Yeah. One thing to explain at a time.”
“What are you talking about?” Makena asked suspiciously.
“Like I just said, one explanation at a time,” Tyrone replied.
Makena fumed until the call came through that it was okay to proceed. The Guard then activated the portal.
“What the hell?” Makena said when she saw the mirror.
“Just do as I do,” Tyrone said before stepping through the portal.
The woman stared in shock. “That’s plain freaky.”
“Please follow your husband, Mrs. Davis. I assure you that it’s harmless,” the guard said.
Makena cautiously put her hand on the mirror only to see it pass through its surface with barely a tingle. She swallowed, gathered up her courage, and stepped into her reflection. It was almost a let-down to find herself in another office along with a different security guard who looked identical to the previous one.
“Welcome, Mrs. Davis! Mr. and Mrs. Martine are expecting you.”
“Thanks, Femur,” Tyrone said. “Follow me, dear.”
After passing out of the guard’s earshot, Makena asked, “Are they twins? How could you tell them apart?”
Tyrone grinned. “Easy. Femur is much friendlier.”
The man took his wife to the same meeting room where he had first been introduced to Prince Mark and the other Equestrians. He held the door open for the woman before following her inside. She had come to a halt and was staring at the three strange creatures waiting there.
The griffon stepped forward. “Welcome to Equestria, Makena. Phillipe and I hope you had a pleasant trip from North Carolina.”
Makena blinked. “Did you somehow manage to drug me? I’m seeing impossible things.”
The unicorn stepped up with a grin. “Nope. I’m a unicorn and my wife is a griffon. What’s more, your husband becomes a hippogriff when he wishes to. And the pegasus you see there…” He pointed back with a hoof. “…is Black Nimbus, Tyrone’s friend and flight instructor. He’s the reason why your husband is so frequently out of contact. No cell reception up where they practice.”
Nimbus gave the woman a cheery wave.
Makena’s lips moved but no words came out. She looked at her husband with a perplexed expression.
Tyrone led her to a chair and encouraged her to sit down. With the geas implicitly lifted, he could finally explain everything. “Okay, now that you’ve been hit over the head with the truth, let me fill in the gaps. First of all, you’re not on Earth anymore. This is the planet Equus and this factory is located in the nation of Equestria. The inhabitants are a multitude of species with various pony tribes being dominant. Phil and Rosa are currently a unicorn and a griffon because a magic adaptation spell on the portal mirror changes people into a form best suited to them here. That’s what the security guard back in Houston was talking about. When I use it, I become a hippogriff which is a species that has wings. Black Nimbus has been teaching me to fly, and yes, we’ve hung out in bars too because we’re good friends. And frankly, our cell repeater on this side kind of sucks, so it’s hard to get phone reception from another world, hence the missed calls.”
Makena gaped at her husband. “You work for aliens?”
Tyrone chuckled. “No, I work for Harmonic Composites which is owned in part by Equestria.”
Rosa said, “Believe me, mi querida amiga, Phillipe and I are just as human as you are normally. However, we choose to use our Equestrian forms whenever we are here. Tyrone, perhaps now would be a good moment to show Makena your alternate form.”
“Okay. Come back to the portal with me, darling.”
Still in a bit of a daze, Makena followed Tyrone back to the Security Office. He explained to Femur that he intended to make a quick round-trip to change forms. He then stepped through the mirror only to be quickly replaced by a beaked creature with a teal coat and long golden mane. He posed in front of the woman.
“So – how do you like me now, love?” Tyrone asked.
Makena stared at the hippogriff for a long moment. His ears slowly drooped, showing his increasing nervousness. Then a smile slowly grew on her face.
“Tyrone Davis – I always thought you could be proud as a peacock about your looks, but this is going a tad too far, don’t you think?”
Tyrone chuckled. “You may be right, hon, but I pull it off well.”
Makena shook her head in wonder. “Of all the things that I imagined were happening here, this didn’t even come close. So, you say you can actually fly? Want to show me?”
“That’s up to the Martines to allow further access. However, before we go ask, are you game to try the adaptation spell yourself?”
“What? Would I become like you?”
“Maybe. Or you could become another creature entirely. Michelle becomes an Abyssinian – a cat woman. You’re transformed into whichever form the spell determines suits you best.”
“It’s still hard to believe in magic despite what I’ve seen, but I’m game.”
“That’s my feisty wife. Oops! One catch. You see how my clothes changed to suit my form? They’re enchanted to do that but yours are not. You would either have to strip or risk your clothes being damaged. Oh, you’ll want to remove your jewelry too.”
“Oh. I have no intention of stripping in front of that guard.”
Tyrone figured that it might be a bit too soon to explain that all the Security Guards were changelings who could be either sex at will. On the other hoof, that did give him an idea. “There is a shift change about now and a female guard is due to take over. Give me a moment to check.” He then crossed back over to Earth.
“Is everything okay, sir?” Haxtur asked.
Tyrone nodded. “My wife is a lot happier now that she knows the truth. She would like to try the adaptation spell but because her clothing isn’t enchanted, she will need to remove them. However, she doesn’t want to do that in front of a man. Could I ask you to take a female form? I told Makena that there’s a shift change.”
“No problem, sir.” Haxtur’s body was briefly engulfed in green magic flames, leaving behind a rather plain woman in a guard’s uniform.
“Great! Thanks!” Tyrone returned to the Baltimare facility and gave Makena a beaky grin. “Good to go,” he assured her.
“I suppose I’m committed now,” his wife replied with a lopsided smile. She then stepped through the portal.
“What do you suppose she’ll come back as?” Tyrone asked Femur.
“No idea, sir, but I’m going to bet that she’ll be exactly what will suit you both.”
A nervous minute later, Tyrone’s question was answered. A golden hippogriff with a teal mane emerged from the portal and stopped to look at herself.
“Oh, Sweet Lord! I’m gorgeous! And I have wings too.”
Tyrone stared at his beautiful wife whose coloration mirrored his own and murmured to Femur, “When you’re right, you’re right!” He then went over to Makena and wing-hugged her. “Darling, we’re creatures who are made to fly. Come soar with me, my dearest.”
Makena leaned over to kiss her husband, then stopped when she took stock of their beaks. She settled for giving him a nuzzle. “Always and forever, darling.”
CHAPTER 11: Mothers
“A pleasure chattin’ with you today, Gareth. Tell your wife Ah said hello and Ah look forward to seein’ y’all next week. Have a lovely day!” Jolene listened to Gareth’s response before hanging up with a pleased smile. She updated the computer with the sale she had just made. When the email confirmation came in, she passed on the details to the secretary to process the invoice before forwarding it to the shipping department. The woman leaned back in her chair with a satisfied sigh.
“That ought to make mah figures for this week look mighty fine.” Jolene glanced at the clock and noticed that it was getting close to quitting time. She decided that she had more than met her daily goals and she could afford to put further sales tasks off until tomorrow. Just then, the secretary passed by the open office door on the way to the tea room.
“Imani, hon!” Jolene called out. “Do you know if Jules is busy?”
The African-American woman backtracked and looked into her boss’s office. “Mr. Petit said he could be reached in the secure area, Ms. Harris.”
“Thanks, Imani. And it’s Jolene, remember?”
“Not while I’m on the clock,” the woman replied cheerfully as she continued down the hall.
Jolene chuckled. She would wear her down eventually. She shut down her computer before exiting her office. “Ah’m done for the day and Ah’m goin’ to join Jules. Take a message if anyone asks for me,” she called down the corridor.
“No problem!” the reply came back.
Jolene went to the Security Office with full confidence in their secretary/receptionist. In the past several weeks, Imani Williams had proved herself to be exceptionally competent at her job and they were grateful to the Martines for placing her with them. Jolene only regretted that Equestria needed to remain a mystery to the woman, although she hoped that she could persuade Rosa to include Imani in their confidence soon.
The Security Guard admitted her to the office and, after the required I.D. check, allowed her access to the portal. Moments later, Joy Leap trotted out into the Vanhoover facility. She made her way to the balcony that overlooked the factory and reared up to place her forelegs on the railing. Looking around, she soon spotted Jewel talking to a few of the workers there. Joy smiled, pleased with the growth that her co-worker had made in the month and a half they had been assigned here.
Joy readily admitted that Jewel had unparalleled product knowledge and she was always looking for the best outcome for their customers. While Jolene was the better salesperson, her coworker invariably had very satisfied customers who came back with more orders. If their clients had technical questions, Jules was always happy to clarify details with them and suggest alternative solutions if necessary. Ostensibly, these jobs were supposed to be roughly equally shared, but the two had fallen into the roles that played to their strengths and neither was inclined to change their current arrangement.
However, not content with all that, Jewel frequently met with the factory staff to discuss production schedules or brainstorm new processes. While the workers had been wary of the unicorn’s interference at first, they soon realized that she knew what she was talking about and her ideas were both practical and beneficial. Nowadays, they were all more than happy to listen to what Jewel had to say and the unicorn had bloomed in a way that her human self had never been able to back in Charlotte. Her confidence had grown along with her sociability. Jolene was finding it easier to get Jules to join in conversations with the neighbors back at their apartments, but here in Equestria, she always had an attentive audience and friends to chat with. As sounds of laughter drifted to her from the group, Joy decided to head downstairs.
When the pink earth pony mare approached the others, she said, “Okay, back to work, you slackers!” Her expression belied her words though and most of those gathered merely smiled, nodded, and went back to their stations. Joy mock-frowned at Fast Mover. “And you – you’re goin’ to make Jewel and me late for our dinner date.”
The unicorn stallion shrugged. “Considering that it’s with my herd, it’s a bit hard to be late.”
“Now, you know that it takes us mares a mite longer to prepare than you stallions. Run along and get your schedule done for tomorra so you can accompany us fillies when we’re ready.”
“Yes, boss!” Mover replied with a grin. She might not really be his boss, but he knew when not to argue with a mare.
Jewel giggled and trotted along with Joy as she headed back to the office. “Would you believe that Mover was already trying to get me to wrap up and prepare for this evening?”
“Fast Mover is a good stallion and has this factory runnin’ as slick as a greased pig. He knows when it’s time to work and when it’s time to relax. We’ve done good this week, girl, and we’ve both earned a night out.”
“You say it like that’s something unusual but we’ve been having dinner with Mover’s herd at least twice a week,” Jewel commented.
“An’ each time, it’s been special, ain’t it?” Joy said with a pointed look.
The unicorn smiled fondly. “Yes. Yes, it has.”
The two made their way back to the Los Angeles facility where they finished up everything for the day, said good night to Imani, then headed back to their Equestrian office. There, they changed into their nice clothes and helped each other primp a little to look their best. Then, they joined Fast Mover and the three of them strolled to his home, chatting about their day.
As soon as Jewel stepped inside Mover’s house, she was besieged by two foals.
“Auntie Jewel! Come see what we’ve built!” Flying Sparks exclaimed, grabbing her by a hoof and practically dragging her away.
“A-n-n-n-d we’ve lost her. In record time too,” Mover said.
Joy snickered. “Considerin’ how quickly she became an honorary aunt, you know that those two rascals of yours have prior claim on her.”
Golden Touch met them just then. “Hmmph! I didn’t even get a chance to give Jewel a welcoming hug.” It didn’t stop her from giving one to Joy before doing the same to her husband and adding a kiss.
“You know our foals look forward to seeing their Aunt Jewel, hon,” Mover said. “You just have to be quicker than them next time.”
“I was distracted getting a drink for Breezy at the critical moment,” Golden replied with a wry smile.
“How’s she doin’?” Joy asked. “The foal’s due soon, ain’t she?”
“In a couple of days. But Breezy’s fine – she just needs to take it easy and keep off her hooves until then. But don’t you dare think that we shouldn’t be having this dinner date! Breezy would clip my ears if I dared suggest that we put it off. She loves these nights almost as much as the foals.”
“Then best we’d not keep her waitin’!” the pink mare said.
The three of them walked into the living room where they found Subtle Breeze lounging on the sofa while the two fillies and the fashion-model mare were discussing their latest project in one corner. Joy blinked and scratched her head. Jewel gave the colorful magnetic tiles to the foals a few weeks ago. How exactly did the two manage to create a cantilevered span with them? She was certain that wasn’t a capability the building toy was supposed to have.
Breezy insisted on getting up to give the visitors a welcoming hug and Goldie took the opportunity to waylay Jewel long enough to give her one as well.
As was their usual routine, they conversed until dinner was ready. However, although Breezy joined them at the table, her appetite was off and she picked at her meal.
“Would you rather have an early night, love?” Mover asked.
Breezy shook her head. “No, but I think I’ll go back to the sofa for now. Could you bring me my drink though?”
She got off her chair and started heading for the living room. Then she paused and grunted. A splash was heard and there was a puddle on the floor around her hind legs.
“Oh, Sweet Celestia! My water just broke!”
“What?!” exclaimed Mover. “You’re not due to deliver for a few days yet!”
“Tell that to the foal!” Breezy snapped back as a contraction hit.
Golden Touch became all business. “Mover! Go fetch the midwife! Breezy – head for the bedroom. Joy – please help me get Breezy comfortable and prepare her for the birth. Jewel – please keep the foals occupied.”
No one argued and each set about their task. Fast Mover lived up to his name and practically shot out of the house. Goldie showed her preparedness by having all the requisite materials on hand. She and Joy stripped the bed and laid down a waterproof sheet before putting some old linen sheets over it. Breezy was propped up with several pillows and made comfortable.
“Is there anythin’ else Ah can do for you?” Joy asked.
“Not right now,” Goldie replied.
“Yes, there is,” Breezy contradicted. “I’m not missing out on our conversation just because I’m having a foal!”
So, between contractions, Joy chatted with the two herdmares as if it was just another evening’s social event. Joy swapped out with Jewel when the expectant mother insisted on talking about her week too. Only when Mover returned with the midwife in tow did the conversation get interrupted.
After a few minutes, Sure Hooves, the midwife declared, “The foal is in a hurry to be born, judging by the time between contractions. Anypony who doesn’t need to be here might wish to leave.”
Joy looked at Golden Touch. “Maybe we should go now.”
“That’s between you and Breezy,” Goldie replied. “As far as I’m concerned, you’re practically family too.”
Jewel said, “I… I’d like to stay… if that’s okay?”
Breezy reached out to the elegant mare. “You’ve never experienced this, have you?”
Jewel shook her head. “We do things a lot different back home.”
“I think you – nngg – I think you need to see this. Please stay.”
“I’ll watch the foals to free up Mover,” Joy declared.
“Thanks, Joy. That would be a great help,” Goldie replied before returning her attention to Subtle Breeze.
As labor progressed, talk devolved into distractions and encouragement until Sure Hooves declared that it was time to make the final push. Jewel watched the process in fascination. Everyone else in the room had been through this before, but to the mare from Earth, it had been something that only ever happened to others and her knowledge of childbirth was purely clinical and meager at best. Still, even though it was far from a comfortable process for Subtle Breeze, it was nevertheless a wondrous and beautiful thing. The mare and her stallion had created a new life and it was now being brought into the world to be shared with love and joy with its family. Tears leaked from Jewel’s eyes as the foal slid free from the warmth and security of its mother’s womb. The healthy cries of the foal announced its displeasure, but they brought smiles of happiness to its parents.
“You have a filly,” Sure Hooves announced.
It wasn’t a surprising result considering the normal ratio of female to male births, but the parents were still overjoyed at the news. Golden Touch took the foal to clean her up while Sure Hooves dealt with the afterbirth and ensured that Breezy had not suffered any complications due to the delivery. With all that satisfactorily done, the new mother was given her infant pegasus filly wrapped in a foal blanket. Breezy was tired from her labor but she was filled with fresh energy when she gazed into the golden eyes of her child. The blue-coated foal blinked back and burbled a bit and everyone chuckled.
After a while, Breezy passed the foal to her sire who gazed at her proudly and gently tousled her short white mane.
Joy poked her head into the room. “Can the varmints come in now?” The two foals scampered past before anyone could answer, demanding to see the new family member.
Mover laid down on the floor to allow Flying Sparks and Graceful Spire to have a good look at their new sister.
The fillies stopped chattering and stared with sparkling eyes.
Flying Sparks gasped. “She looks just like me!”
Graceful Spire frowned and turned to her sister. “No way! Much more like me! She’s too cute to look like you!”
“You’re wrong! … except about the cute part.”
After a suitable amount of time of the two admiring and arguing, Golden Touch chased them off to their rooms as it was well past their bedtime.
Fast Mover was about to pass the foal back to Breezy when the new mother looked at Jewel and said, “Perhaps you would like to hold her for a while? She should get to know her Aunty too.”
Jewel’s eyes opened wide and she gaped. “Are… are you sure? I’ve never held a baby before.”
“It’ll be okay, Jewel,” Breezy replied.
With a reassuring smile, Mover held out the foal. Not trusting her unicorn magic, Jewel accepted the infant with slow and deliberate movements. Soon, she had the foal nestled in the crook of her foreleg. The filly had fallen asleep but it looked like a little equine angel to Jewel. “She’s beautiful and perfect.” She pushed a little curl of mane from her face. She smiled as tears of happiness welled in her eyes. “I… I wish I had a child of my own.”
A glow started to fill the room and the startled occupants gaped at the source. Even with all eyes on her, Jewel was nevertheless distracted by an indescribable feeling that was engulfing her. She felt herself lifting from the floor as Mover gently took the foal from her grasp. Jewel rose until she nearly reached the ceiling where the strange feeling climaxed with a mixture of fulfillment and self-realization. Then she drifted back down to the floor where she panted a little.
“What the heck was that all about?” Jewel demanded.
“Look at your flank, dear,” Golden Touch said with a kind smile.
Jewel craned her neck around to see something on her hindquarters that had not been there before.
“I have a cutie mark?!” Jewel exclaimed. “What does this mean?”
Golden Touch replied, “If I were to interpret it, I’d say that your special talent is being a mother.”
“But… but I know nothing about being a mother! I’m not even female back on Earth! How can that be my special talent?”
Breezy had reclaimed her foal and gazed lovingly at her as she spoke to Jewel. “Being a mother is more than just biology. It’s an attitude, a desire – the rest you learn. Do you think I knew all about being a mother before I had Flying Sparks? Every mother has a lot to learn when we first decide to bring a new life into the world, but it would seem that you have a head start. Don’t let this revelation upset you – we all had to learn exactly what our cutie marks mean to us.”
“If it helps,” Goldie said, “Mover, Breezy, and I all saw this in you whenever you interacted with our children. We think that you will be a wonderful mother when that day comes.”
Jewel looked off into space as she took all of this in. It was a lot – life-changing, even.
Joy spoke up. “Ah think it’s time that I took Jewel home. She has much to think about an’ y’all have a new foal to deal with. It's been a…” She winked while poking Jewel’s cutie mark with a hoof. “… magical evenin', folks. Ah was glad to be part of it, but it’s best we get goin’.”
Breezy said, “Thanks for being here tonight, Joy. Your presence was a bigger help than you might know.”
“Yes, thank you and goodnight to both of you,” Goldie added.
Joy put a foreleg over Jewel’s withers and gently urged her out of the room.
Mover accompanied them to the front door where he gave them both a parting hug. “Sleep well, ladies.”
The two mares traveled in introspective silence back to the factory where the Security Guard bid them ‘Good Evening’ before they passed through the portal to Los Angeles.
Jolene had gone through first, but she turned at the exclamation. Her eyes widened and met Jules’. “Ah think Ah’d better call the boss.”
Jules nodded fervently in agreement.
Rosa Martine had been annoyed at getting a phone call so late in the evening, but that soon turned to surprise when she learned why Jolene had called. She hung up the phone and yelled, “Phillipe! I’m going to the Los Angeles facility. Algo ha pasado.”
“Why? What could have happened at this hour?”
When Rosa told him, he declared that he was coming too.
Minutes later, they stepped into Jolene’s office where two women were sitting. One was Jolene, but while the other looked familiar, it wasn’t the man who normally worked there. Instead, a light-skinned woman gazed back uncertainly.
“Jules?” Rosa asked the strange woman who nodded in confirmation.
“Yeah, it’s me.” She got up and spun around, long blonde hair flowing behind her. “When we returned from Equestria, I emerged from the portal as a woman.”
“Did you go back and try again?” Phil asked.
“Of course. Same result. I’m now a female human. Believe me – I checked.” She opened her jacket to reveal a full bust that the blouse did not hide. “Even my clothes transformed into a feminine cut.”
“Did something happen while you were in Equestria that could have caused this?” Rosa asked.
Jolene snorted. “Yep, you could say that.”
Jolene and Jules told the Martines about their evening and its climax. They all went back into Equestria to see Jewel’s cutie mark and came to the same conclusion as Mover’s herd. Returning to the Los Angeles office, Jules remained a woman. They made coffee in the break room and sat at the table.
Phil said, “Well, this is certainly going to cause some complications, both for you and the business. The adaptation spell seems to have decided that your optimal form on Earth is that of a woman.”
Jules said, “I thought it was supposed to just revert us to our normal human forms?”
Rosa spread her hands and shrugged. “So did we. Nothing like this has happened before.”
“Then what are we going to do about this situation?” Jules asked.
Jolene replied, “First of all, hon, we’re goin’ to have to get you a bra. Your transformation didn’t give you any support garments, and darlin’, you’re sure to need one!”
Jules looked at her aghast. “Do I have to?”
Rosa said, “If you are going to keep living here on Earth, you’re going to have to learn all about being una mujer if this change is permanent.”
“What about my job though? Jules the man can’t simply disappear and have a supermodel replace him!”
Even though Jules’ looks had been recognizable although femininized, her new body was the human equivalent of her Equestrian one. She was gorgeous and she carried herself with an unconscious grace. In no way would she be overlooked or mistaken for her former male self. Her voice had also risen an octave and had a completely different vocal timbre that matched her appearance.
“We’re going to have to think about that one for a bit,” Phil replied. “We’ll make inquiries with Prince Mark and see if he can find out anything. Meanwhile, you’ll have to work out of Equestria if you don’t want to stay on Earth as a woman.”
Jolene said, “There’s one thing none of you have asked yet. Jules – Ah know that you are completely comfortable as a mare in Equestria, but there were no preconceptions for you to live up to. Here, you have all your co-workers, your business contacts, an’ even your neighbors. You’re right worried about them, but set it all aside for the moment and ask yourself this – do Ah feel like myself? Is this body wrong for me?”
Jules blinked. “Everything’s happened so fast, I really haven’t thought about it that way. I… I… need to check something.” She headed for the rest room and Jolene hastened to follow. The transformed woman looked at herself critically in the large mirror. She removed her jacket and turned around, checking herself out thoroughly. Then she closed her eyes, breathed deeply, and took stock of her emotions. When she opened them again, she smiled at Jolene who had been silently watching her friend.
“I’ve always been a little self-conscious about my looks, but that’s changed. I like what I see and feel. It’s both wonderful and frightening. However, I’ll have to learn what it is to be me all over again.”
Jolene shook her head. “No, hon, I think you already know most of it. That’s why you got your cutie mark an’ you became a woman here. Sure, you’ve got lots of trivial details to learn, but you already know you who y’all are. You just need to acknowledge it.”
Jules beamed. “You’re right! I am the true me for the first time in my life. You’ll help me with what I don’t know, won’t you?”
“Darlin’, it would be mah pleasure!”
“Then say hello to Jewel Petit. Thank you, Jolene.” She hugged her friend.
“Call me Joy, Jewel. Let’s go tell the bosses the news.”
Mark was bemused by the message that he received the moment that he had stepped out of his quarters that morning. When Twilight Sparkle joined them at the breakfast table, he let her get some coffee into her before he brought up the subject.
“Hey, Sparkles, you know that improved adaptation spell that you designed for the portals? It’s intended to transform people into their ideal Equestrian form based on their true nature, right?”
“Well, it’s a bit more complicated than that, but yes, that’s essentially how it works,” Twilight replied.
“So, when people go back to Earth, the spell is just canceled?”
“Sweet Celestia, no! How could you undo a transformation just by canceling the magic? No, the adaptation spell activates again, but because their true nature comes from their original form, that’s what they always revert to.”
Mark nodded and sipped some of his coffee before continuing. “Jules Petit became a woman when she returned to Earth last night.”
Twilight’s eyes widened and coffee shot out of her nose. After a few coughs to clear her nasal passages, she got off her chair and bolted from the room.
Mark felt a hoof on his withers. As always, he had not sensed the owner’s approach.
“Well done, my apprentice. Your timing is indeed improving.”
“Thank you, my Jedi Master,” he snarked. That earned him a nip on his ear from Penumbra before she returned to her spot at the back of the room.
As Trixie buttered a slice of toast, she said, “Our co-ruler won’t be back. You are going to take Twilight Sparkle’s Day Court session, Tanbark Smells.”
Mark sighed. He had to admit that he had walked right into that. He’d have to go rescue Jewel from the purple alicorn later. At least it would give him a chance to meet his “new” employee.
CHAPTER 12: Adaptations
Due to the lateness of the hour, Jolene had no problem taking the new woman back to her apartment. No one was in the parking area and the neighbors were either asleep or engrossed with whatever was on their screens. Jolene entered with her friend to be ready to help her with unfamiliar needs. In the end, everything went fairly smoothly and Jewel only had one complaint.
“I’m going to miss being able to pee standing up.”
Jolene chuckled. “If that’s the worst thing that comes of this, Ah think you’ve done well for yourself.”
They said goodnight and Jolene left to go to her own apartment. She returned early the next morning as they had arranged in the hope of avoiding other commuters. Except for one man down on the street, getting into his car to go to work, they succeeded. Perhaps they had been spotted through the window by someone, but that couldn't be avoided.
Their early arrival beat their receptionist as planned. They were not prepared to explain Jewel’s appearance as yet. They both immediately crossed over to Equestria where the two mares heaved sighs of relief.
Jolene said, “You’re goin’ to have to work out of the Vanhoover office today. Ah’ll hold down the fort in Los Angeles.”
“That makes sense, but if anyone calls for me, tell them I’m sick or something. There’s no way that I could fool them with my female voice.”
“Yep, that’s true. We’ll see what plan the Martines come up wi—”
The office door burst open and a purple alicorn looked around and spotted her target. Trotting up to Jewel, Twilight gave the elegant mare an anguished look. “I’m so sorry, Jewel! I heard what happened last night. Come with me and I’ll do some tests so that we can fix this.”
Jewel blinked in consternation. “Fix what?”
Twilight gaped and blinked. “Changing into a female human, of course.”
“Oh. I’m not sure I need fi—”
Jewel was cut off as the alicorn levitated her and started carrying her out of the office.
“Twahlight!” Joy called out. When the alicorn didn’t notice, she tried again. “Princess Twahlight!”
The purple mare halted. “Just Twilight, please. What’s wrong?”
“Please put Jewel down and stop panickin’ over this. She’s fine for the moment. Sure, she’s got problems, but bein’ a woman ain’t one of them.”
“What do you mean? How could she not be concerned about manifesting as a female homo sapiens?” She noticed Jewel giving her a flat look and hastily set her down.
“Jewel’s been a mare on this side of the portal for weeks without fuss. Why would you think she’d panic over being female on Earth? Our biggest concern is explainin’ why Jules ain’t around.”
“Alright, you’re both pretty calm about this, but we still have a problem. The adaptation spell was never intended to make this kind of change. If it could happen to Jewel, what about other users? Just because this is the first instance of unexpected change doesn’t mean that it can’t happen again. I need to do tests to determine what went wrong. Maybe the portal at my castle will react differently. I. Need. Data!” The purple mare punctuated the last three words with hoofstomps.
Jewel pursed her lips and nodded. “I see your point. Okay, I’ll go with you, as long as it’s okay with the bosses. I’m supposed to be working today.”
Twilight waved a hoof dismissively. “Mark Wells was the one who told me. I’m sure he’ll make allowances. Now, come along – time’s wasting!”
Jewel looked at Joy and shrugged. “Looks like you’ll have to cope by yourself for a bit. I’ll be back as soon as I can.”
“Don’t you rush on mah account, darlin’. And don’t let Twahlight convince you that there’s somethin’ wrong with you if’n you feel you’re right dandy. Okay?”
Jewel giggled. “Yes, mom!”
Joy chuckled as her friend left with the alicorn… under her own power this time.
Prince Mark Wells found Jewel exactly where he expected – stuck in Twilight’s laboratory in Ponyville. The fashion-model unicorn had her head propped up on her forehoof and yawned while the alicorn was engrossed in her notes and calculations. “How are you doing?” he asked Jewel.
“Oh! Rescue at last!” Jewel replied. “Will you please get Princess Twilight to let me go back to the factory?”
Mark chuckled. “Sorry that I couldn’t be here sooner. When Twilight rushed off this morning, that left me stuck with doing her session of Day Court.” He levitated a stack of notes that he had been carrying over to Twilight’s desk and dropped them with a thud in front of her.
The purple alicorn yelped in surprise and fell off her chair. Only then did she notice her visitor. “What was that for?” she demanded.
“That’s your homework, Sparkles. All the petitions that are within your purview that I had to put off at Day Court this morning.”
“Oh. I’ll attend to them soon.” She picked herself off the floor and began straightening her papers.
“Good. Now, what have you discovered?”
“Well, first we tested if the same result would happen using any of the other portals to Earth including your original portal that I had retrieved from storage. Jewel became a woman each time. Because the adaptation spell on each portal is identical, that showed that it was not a fault of the portal or location. I then ran a series of tests on her both here and on Earth to determine how the spell was affecting her. While becoming a mare on Equus was a surprise, at least it fell within the expectations of optimizing a form for her. I could find no fault with that aspect. However, as I told you earlier, resuming her human form relies on the spell identifying her true nature which should be her normal male body.”
“So, that part was malfunctioning?”
“No! That’s what is fascinating me! Nothing is wrong with the spell. I’ve determined that it’s working even better than I dreamed.”
“Wait! What?” Jewel said. “It was supposed to turn me into a woman?”
“You’ve got some 'splainin' to do, Lucy,” Mark said in an odd accent.
Twilight stared at him in puzzlement for a moment before shaking her head and continuing. “The original adaptation spell was created by Starswirl the Bearded. It was designed specifically to transform anyone into the dominant sapient lifeform of the target world. Because he was a teeny bit prejudiced, anyone coming to Equus always became a pony. When I repaired the broken portals, I also updated the adaptation spell so that a different species could be an option if it better suited them, hence why Rosa becomes a griffon. I added further tweaks which enabled the transformee to feel comfortable in their new form and to be able to utilize it well.”
“Which is why everyone had no problems with their new body, but did it affect Jewel’s attitude too? Has she been comfortable being a mare because the spell made it so?”
“Again, no. The changes are entirely physical. However, those changes are made based on many psychological factors which determine which species is best suited to them. Although I had not considered the possibility when designing the spell, a unicorn mare was Jewel’s best fit. Nevertheless, up until yesterday, she still returned to male human form.”
“So, what changed?” Mark asked, looking over to the unicorn.
“This!” Jewel replied, pointing to her cutie mark. “I got it last night.”
“Congratulations,” Mark replied. “What does it signify?”
“I’m told that it means that I’ll be a great mother.”
Mark looked back to Twilight. “So, her cutie mark is causing her to become a woman?”
Twilight shook her head. “Once again, no. The pony shapes the cutie mark, not the other way around. Talk to the Cutie Mark Crusaders if you want a more in-depth explanation; they’re the experts on the subject. However, the event throws light on why Jewel became a woman. Jewel realized who she is at heart and what she wants to be. The adaptation spell picked up on that and optimized her form to suit. It did its task exactly and perfectly according to its parameters.”
“Then, what you’re saying is that Jules the man was not his ideal form. When Jewel discovered her true inner self, her outer self was changed to match it. She’s supposed to be female.”
Jewel huffed. “That’s what I’ve been trying to tell Twilight for hours! I like being a woman. I was never really successful at being a man although I tried to conform to expectations. I didn’t understand what was wrong and that stunted me socially. Jolene has helped me overcome that a lot since we met, and being a mare here has been a big part of my change too. Last night, as I told Joy, I finally felt comfortable with myself for the first time in my life. Sure, I’ve got all sorts of challenges ahead of me because of this change, but none of them are up here.” She tapped her head with a forehoof. “Now, can I go? I have a job that I want to get back to.”
“Just one moment.” Mark turned back to Twilight. “Your adaptation spell works too well. Look into the possibility of curtailing more extreme changes from now on. While we got lucky this time, we don’t want to cause a serious incident with future users.”
“Even if those changes might be beneficial to them?” she asked.
“That’s not for us to determine, Sparkles,” he replied. “We might be in the position to offer it, but no more unintended changes.”
“Oh, alright,” Twilight grumbled before she turned back to her notes. “Stupid ethics getting in the way of True Science,” she mumbled.
“What was that, Twi?” Mark queried.
“Nothing! Go on – shoo! I’ve got homework to do!”
Mark chuckled as he headed for the door. “Come on, Jewel – we’ve got to check in with Phil and Rosa to see what we can work out for the new employee.”
“Gladly!” the unicorn mare replied as she elegantly trotted to join him. “Hey, if Jules is still on the payroll, this means I get a second paycheck, right?”
Jewel stared bemusedly at the tall, fair-skinned woman with hair colored in pastel hues. Mark had assumed his Celestial form before stepping through the portal to the Charlotte headquarters. She wore a navy-blue business suit with faint stripes. Mark’s crown became a gold chain necklace with an emerald pendant. “Gotta show moral support for us transgenders,” she explained with a grin. Jewel reckoned that their situations were quite different, but she appreciated the well-intentioned gesture anyway.
The Martines had a private portal in the washroom attached to Rosa’s office. The full-length mirror in it was unusual but not completely out of place. Therefore, they could entertain visitors from Equus without having them pass through the rest of the facility. Jewel and Mark sat down with Phil and Rosa in the privacy of the latter’s office to discuss the situation. A very tall dark-skinned Penumbra stood watch next to the door with her arms folded across her chest.
Phil said, “Rosa and I figure that the best way to handle this in the short term is to have a changeling impersonate Jules. I checked with Maxilla, their security guard, and he reckons that he’s familiar enough with Jules to be able to pull it off for a little while. That will give us breathing space to implement the next step. Jules will get a message today about a family emergency that will require him to go back to North Carolina. Jewel will be sent as a replacement. Ostensibly, she will be his fraternal twin sister, and her resemblance to him should help that stick.”
Mark said, “Not to sound sexist, but won’t some people wonder why she doesn’t work as a supermodel who would earn ten times her current pay? You know that the question will be asked.”
Jewel snorted and shook her head. “I love my appearance, and more than ever I’m looking forward to that modeling session that I promised Rarity, but that will be just a fun diversion for me. While I’m on Earth, Jolene offered to help me select a hairstyle, makeup, and clothing that lets me ‘dial it down a bit’. Besides, I like my technical work. That’s what makes my job enjoyable. Money hasn’t been an issue for quite a while.”
Mark nodded. “Fair enough. Let us know if anyone harasses you for any reason.”
Jewel smirked. “Have you had that problem? You look plenty exotic yourself right now.”
Mark opened his mouth and found himself at a loss for words. After a few seconds, he said, “I suppose I haven’t been Marklestia on Earth long enough to find out.”
Penumbra coughed into her fist a few times to regain her composure. “Now that you mention it—”
Giving his bodyguard herdmate a wide-eyed glance, Mark hastened to cut her off. “Anyway, as I was saying, Jewel will take over from Jules. The story will be that she was one of the proposed candidates for the managerial positions at the new branches, but she didn’t make the final cut. No one at the Los Angeles office will be in a position to question that. Since the payroll is handled back here, she will still get paid as normal. Jewel’s debit and credit cards will still be valid – the banks won’t know that she’s changed gender. Probably wouldn’t care either, so long as her single paycheck keeps being deposited there.”
A mock glare from Mark drew a smile from Jewel. For their part, Rosa and Phil gave each other puzzled looks before Mark continued. “There are other online payment options too. Thankfully, with just about all transactions being electronic nowadays, nobody checks the details anyway. And even if they did, it could be argued that Jules is a feminine enough name.”
“You’ve got that right,” Jewel said. “While I was in high school, because I wasn’t much interested in the usual boy’s sports, I was sometimes called Julie and accused of being a girl. Funny thing is that those bullies are now right.”
Rosa frowned and said, “No, bullies are never right, even if the circumstances change. Anyway, back to our current issues. Harmonic Composites can make you a new ID badge, but your legal identification can’t be changed. That means you won’t be able to drive due to the risk of being pulled over by the police. You won’t be able to rent a car or any other activity that requires an official ID. You might find it a problem to get alcohol, for example. Fortunately, your cell phone won’t be affected as the phone companies don’t care who pays the bill. You can tell anyone who calls you directly that the phone account belongs to Harmonic Composites, and it was transferred to you.”
Phil said, “Because you have access to your…” He winked. “…brother’s notes, you can pick up at the same place with all of your clients. I know you are knowledgeable and personable enough to get them to value your input just as much as your brother’s.”
“I can make that work,” Jewel agreed with a nod.
“We might have to renegotiate your apartment lease though,” Phil said.
Jewel held up a finger. “Actually, Jolene and I were talking about that on the way to work today. She’s offered to help teach me the ins and outs of being a woman and she proposed that I move in with her. It’s a two-bedroom apartment, so I’d have my own room.”
Phil nodded. “And you’d still have a legal address without having to do more than adding Jewel Petit on as a sublet. Because the lease agreement doesn’t forbid subletting, we only have to inform the landlord. They can’t require an ID thanks to California state law. I think we can easily swing that.”
Mark frowned a little. “Are you sure that Jolene’s motivations are all above board?”
“She’s definitely not interested in sexual relations, if that’s what you’re alluding to. I’ll tell Jolene that I accept her offer,” Jewel said with a smile.
“Sale vale,” Rosa said with a nod. “Is there anything else we need to look at?”
“Umm…” Jewel began. “I don’t consider myself to be a great actor and our secretary, Imani, is a pretty sharp woman. Won’t she notice something peculiar going on?”
Phil and Rosa looked at each other for a long moment in silent communication. They both seemed to come to a conclusion and turned back to Jewel. Phil said, “As it happens, Imani Williams and Estelle López at the Houston branch were both selected based on upgrading their roles in the future. That includes introducing them to Equestria eventually. It’s our intention of building up a cadre of trusted personnel who are aware of the dual-world nature of our business. That’s why we went with four probationary managers rather than just two. We wanted options. If you feel that it’s justified, we’ll move up Imani’s inclusion.”
“Fine by me. I’ve always hated hiding the truth from her anyway.”
“Let me know when you want to induct Imani,” Mark said. “If that’s everything, we’ve all got to return to our jobs. I know Jewel is itching to get back to Vanhoover.”
“There you are!” Fast Mover said as he trotted up to Jewel. “Joy let me know that you would be in late but wouldn’t tell me why.”
Jewel smiled reassuringly. “She probably felt that it was my right to let you know.”
Mover frowned. “Did something go wrong after you left last night?”
The elegant mare giggled. “No – something went right.”
The stallion’s eyebrow rose and he tilted his head. “I don’t follow.”
“Remember how I said last night that I’m not even female back on Earth?”
“It’s no longer true. When I stepped out into the Los Angeles facility, I became a woman.”
Mover’s jaw dropped and he stared for a long moment. Then he grinned. “Wow! I really want to see you as a female human! How did that happen? Did getting your cutie mark have anything to do with the change?”
“Not really. It was just the first manifestation of the true cause. The adaptation spell just made it obvious that I’m meant to be female.”
“I can hardly wait to tell Goldie and Breezy tonight. So, I guess you had to sort things out with the bosses?”
“Actually, I spent most of the morning being tested by Princess Twilight. I think I would still be there if Prince Mark hadn’t rescued me.”
The stallion chuckled. “Yeah, we all know about the princess’s obsession with science. I guess we can’t complain though considering all the benefits we’ve reaped due to that.”
“I suppose so. Right now, though, I’m just glad to be able to get back to doing my job. We can chat more later. In fact, meet me at the portal at quitting time. As soon as I’m sure the L.A. office is clear of people not in the know, we can go over and I’ll let you see the new me.”
Mover grinned. “It’s a date. But you’d better head over to R&D – the team wants your opinion on the new design they’ve been working on.”
“I’m there! Bye!”
The stallion didn’t miss the flirtatious wiggle to the mare’s butt as she headed off. He grinned. “She looks so much more confident. This development will definitely make things a lot simpler,” he murmured before turning back to his work.
Fast Mover carefully stepped through the portal. He did not travel to Earth often enough to get used to the change of form. The now human male stopped immediately as he beheld the statuesque woman waiting for him. “Jewel?”
She nodded and did a twirl. “You like?”
“I might normally be a pony, but I’d have to be dead to not find you just as gorgeous as a human.”
“Beauty transcends species,” Mover insisted.
“Well, if we’re going to be honest with each other, then I will say that I had forgotten that you make a particularly handsome man. I might have to ask you out on a date.”
He looked at her skeptically. “Seriously?”
Jewel giggled. “A bit soon to think about that, actually. I may be female now but I still have a lot to learn about being a woman. Jolene’s going to help me out with that. In fact, she’s probably wondering what is holding me up.”
Mover nodded. “And I had better head home. We’ve got a new foal to provide for and I don’t want the ladies thinking I’m leaving all the work to them.”
“Better get going then. I’ll see you tomorrow, Mover.”
“Good night, Jewel.” The man then stepped back through the portal.
The security guard who had been there all the time smirked at Jewel. “Mr. Mover didn’t tell you half of what he was feeling, Ms. Petit.”
Jewel blushed, not having any trouble figuring out what the changeling had sensed. She was a little bit embarrassed but also thrilled. She gave the guard a smile and left to find her colleague.
“Tomorrow, we’re takin’ all your enchanted clothing to work,” Jolene said as she helped Jewel transfer her belongings to Jolene’s apartment. “If you’re lucky, they’ll all transform to a feminine cut like last night’s outfit. You might have to wear them for that to work proper though.”
“That’s going to be both uncomfortable and silly-looking,” Jewel replied, holding up a pair of slacks to her waist. Her wider hips were definitely going to cause a problem.
“Better’n havin’ to buy more outfits if’n it works.”
“True. I’ll be needing more than business casual though.”
“An’ that’s why we’ll be goin’ to the mall tomorrow after work.” She looked at the piles of clothing that had been laid out on the bed. “Most of this is goin’ to have to be packed away or donated.”
Jewel held up a pair of men’s trunks. “Oh? You don’t think this is my style?”
The two women burst into giggles.
“Ah’m goin’ to make you wear those and Ah’ll be takin’ pictures.”
“Don’t you dare!”
“On the plus side, your boobs would probably do justice to those shirts.”
“What? I’d be practically popping the buttons off!”
“An’ you think Mover would mind if that happened?” When Jewel’s cheeks colored, Jolene grinned and continued. “You think I don’t know what held you up? Tell me what he really thought!”
Jewel turned and began busying herself sorting through the clothes, trying to hide her growing blush. “He said I looked gorgeous.”
“Uh-huh. And what was he thinkin’?”
Jewel did not deign to answer that.
Jolene chuckled and headed back to Jules’ apartment to fetch some more of her roommate’s property.
The two women started early again the next day. They wanted to get as much non-work-related business finished before concentrating on the jobs for which they were paid. Much to Jewel’s relief, all the transforming clothing responded as her first outfit had. She was also grateful that she did not have to wear the masculine attire for long. She’d had a brief but intense education in the vast difference between her female form and her former male one. She was also warming up to the notion that she would need a bra despite the embarrassment it would cause her to be professionally measured for it. She and Jolene would attend to that tonight at the lingerie store though.
With that taken care of, it was time to deal with the real problem – substituting Jewel the woman for Jules the man. When Imani arrived for the start of her shift, Jolene approached her in the lunchroom as their secretary made a mug of coffee to take back to her desk.
“Good mornin’, Imani. Ah hope y’all are ready for an unusual day.”
“How so, Ms. Harris?”
“Ah’d like you to meet mah new colleague, Jewel Petit.”
Jewel entered the lunchroom at her cue and held out her hand with a smile. “A pleasure to meet you, Ms. Williams.”
The startled African-American woman quickly regained her composure, took Jewel’s hand, and shook it. “Your name threw me for a moment, but I’m seeing the resemblance to Jules now. Your brother, I take it?”
“My twin,” Jewel agreed.
“I suppose you two have had some confusing episodes with names so similar.”
Jewel grinned wryly. “Oh, it’s a lot more complicated than that.”
“I’ll bet!” Imani declared. “Anyway, what’s this about being Ms. Harris’s new colleague?”
“I’ll be replacing Jules as of today.”
Imani blinked. “Has that something to do with why Mr. Petit was absent from the office all of yesterday?”
“It does. And to help with the transition, Mr. and Mrs. Martine have agreed to let us take you into our confidence.”
Jolene said, “Like her brother, Jewel has access to the Secure Area and now you will too. We’re going to show you the secrets behind Harmonic Composites, an’ then you’ll understand why Jules won’t be comin’ back.”
“You have me intrigued,” Imani said with a tinge of excitement in her voice. “When are we going to do this?”
“Right now,” Jewel said. “Let’s get this out of the way and get back to our regular work as soon as possible.”
“Unless you want to have your coffee first?” Jolene asked with a sly grin.
“I can make another! Lead on, boss!”
Inside the security office, the guard opened a drawer and extracted an ID badge which he passed to Imani. “This replaces your current ID. You must wear it at all times in the Secure Area.”
“No problem, Mr. Maxilla.”
“Switch off adaptation for the portal, Max,” Jolene said.
Adaptation?” Imani queried as the guard complied.
“Explanations later. Follow me, darlin’.” Jolene led the way around the corner to the portal mirror. “Just do as Ah do.” She then stepped through the portal.
Imani gaped. “What in the actual…?”
“It’s a special portal to access the Secure Area. Think Alice Through the Looking Glass.”
“Think what now?”
Jewel sighed and shook her head. “How could you not know a classic? It’s from an old fantasy series written about Alice’s adventures in Wonderland. It was made into an animated movie by Disney, then later as live-action starring Johnny Depp.” Imani’s blank look continued and Jewel rolled her eyes. “No clue? How about Star Gate?”
“Aha! Sci-fi I know! If I meet any Goa'uld there, I’m going to freak out,” Imani declared. Nevertheless, she stepped through. Emerging into another office, she saw Jolene waiting for her along with the guard’s twin. “I think I’m almost disappointed – no aliens whatsoever,” she said as she joined her boss.
Jolene giggled. “Oh, Ah wouldn’t exactly say that.” She pointed behind her.
Imani turned around and gaped at the beautiful small sky-blue equine. “Where did you come from, you cute thing?”
“I was right behind you, Imani,” Jewel replied cheerfully.
The black woman’s eyes bulged and her jaw dropped. Although her lips moved, no words came out. Only now did she notice that the tailored business jacket, blouse, and skirt on the pony matched that of Jewel Petit.
Jolene said, “Did’ja have to do that, Jewel? Ah think ya done broke her.”
“Aw, come on, Jo – when would I ever have another chance?”
“What. Is. Going. On?!” Imani finally blurted out.
“That’s the adaptation spell Ah mentioned earlier. That was supposed to be revealed when we met the Martines.”
“They’re here too? And you haven’t answered my question.”
“Come along with us. We ain’t done bogglin’ you yet, darlin’.”
When confronted with a unicorn and a griffon who had the voices of the owners of the company, Imani sighed. “I think I should have had my coffee first.”
Back at the Los Angeles facility, Imani sat down with Jolene and Jewel who was human once more. Incongruously, Jules was also present. Despite seeing the changeling assume Jules’ form, she could not tell him apart from the original. “So, Max here is going to play the role of Jules for a few days to ease the transition to his ‘sister’? Are you sure that’s going to work?”
“I am certain that I can impersonate Jules sufficiently well,” Maxilla replied. “I have studied him since he began working here. Armed with some advice for specific situations, I will be able to deal with the few in-person meetings that Mr. Petit needs to have before ostensibly being called away for good. Also, Miss Jewel taught me the most important words for any business-mare – ‘Let me get back to you on that.’.”
“Well, at least you sound confident. Okay, I’ll play my part. It’s going to take a while for all of this to sink in though.”
Jewel said, “It was no different for us, and I had the added surprise of changing gender which I’m still getting used to. I’m sure you’ll cope.”
“Are you goin’ to give the adaptation spell a try later?” Jolene asked.
“I might… no, I definitely will. Maybe after I have dinner with the Martines this evening in… Ponyville, was it?”
“Yep. The Fig Tree restaurant serves excellent apple cider too.”
Imani chuckled. “I think I might be ordering something a little stronger!”
CHAPTER 13: Turnabouts
Michelle put aside the latest production statistics with a soft growl of dissatisfaction. She was still having to tell her customers that supplies of the room-temperature superconductor wire were extremely limited. The fact that most of her clients were prepared to wait was not relevant to her. As far as she was concerned, if a customer wanted a product that Harmonic Composites offered, they should be able to get it in a reasonable amount of time. After the initial stockpile had been snapped up, the lead time for supply had stretched out to eight weeks and was increasing.
Michelle made up her mind, picked up her phone, and dialed a number.
“Precious Goods,” came an answering voice.
“This is Michelle Van Dijk. I would like to come to your office to discuss production delays.”
“Nothing has significantly changed, Ms. Van Dijk.”
“I noticed. That’s why I want to talk about that with you. Perhaps there’s something I can suggest from my own experience that may be of help, but to do so, I need to better understand the process.”
There was a short delay before the mare responded. “Very well. I’m available now. Come directly to my office.” Precious then hung up.
Michelle scowled. She did not need a reminder of her ban from the factory floor. She picked up her notes and headed for the security office. She told Haxtur to leave the adaption spell off, and she strode into Precious Goods’ office in her normal human form.
“Sit down, Ms. Van Dijk, and tell me what you want to know,” Precious said curtly.
“I’ve had no education in processes that involve magic, so let me know how the superconductor wire manufacturing works and why it’s so difficult to improve the success rate. Don’t assume I know or understand anything.”
The mare nodded. “The major difficulty is not the complexity of the spell that forms the structure of the wire but the frequency with which it needs to be cast.”
Michelle frowned. “Why can’t the spell be just cast on the whole batch of wire?”
“You were there when the team was working on a batch. Each unicorn is seated in front of a window into the liquid nitrogen bath because the spell is only effective in a very small window of opportunity. There is a critical range of temperature where the crystalline structure can be formed successfully. Too hot and the restructuring won’t hold; too cold and the crystals form incorrectly. The alloy is extruded into the bath at a rate such that the wire that is exposed between the feed and pickup rollers is always within that range. A timing light lets the unicorn operator know when to cast the forming spell. There’s a little bit of overlap to ensure continuity.”
“And if the unicorn miscasts, then that section fails to be superconductive, right?” Michelle asked.
“Correct. We have, however, managed to salvage several batches by cutting out the affected section and selling the smaller spools of wire.”
The woman nodded. “Those have helped me considerably, but we still need to reduce the failure rate. The process seems straightforward enough, so why so many bad batches?”
Precious frowned and started to reply before pausing, then reaching for a drawer in her desk instead. She pulled out a folder, shuffled through its contents, and pulled out a sheet of paper which she put in front of Michelle. “What do you make of that?”
The woman’s brow furrowed as she tried to make sense of the intricate pattern on the paper. “What is this?”
“That is a visual representation of the superconductor spell. A skilled unicorn not only has to memorize it, she or he must also cast it perfectly literally hundreds of times per batch in quick succession. The mares have always been more successful at it not because they’re smarter but because the average female is able to perform better at repetitive processes than the average male. Even then, it only takes the slightest distraction to throw off a casting, hence the failure rate. And the job is difficult enough that we’ve only managed to recruit three unicorns to do it thus far.”
Michelle recognized the indirect dig at her screw-up and choked back a snarky response. She was here to solve a problem, not create another. “Can the spell be made more efficient, or divided into sections cast by multiple unicorns?”
“Twilight Sparkle and Starlight Glimmer have optimized the spell as much as possible. As this version stands, it must be cast by a single unicorn and repeated with precise timing. Only an alicorn can supply the power needed for continuous casting, and even Twilight couldn’t sustain a feed rate increase of more than ten percent.”
“Alright, it sounds like this is a process that is ripe for automation. I know about enchanted objects that perform tasks such as the portal and the adaptation spell. Why can’t something similar be done in this case?”
The earth pony considered her words before replying. “First, you need to understand the limitations of enchanted objects. They tend to fall into two broad categories – low-power continuous effect items such as this desk lamp. They draw on ambient mana to operate without an auxiliary power source.”
The woman noticed that there was no power cord to the lamp. “And the second category?”
“High-power or high-usage items. The portals that you use to get from Earth to Equus use a lot of power. That’s why they are normally in standby mode until they’re needed. They’re always recharging when not being used. Any process that requires continuous re-application of a spell needs to be supplied with an unrestricted power source. While that may be simple with electricity, it’s not a straightforward situation with mana flow.”
“The superconductor process is in the second category, I gather?” Michelle queried.
“Very much so,” Precious confirmed. “You are aware of electromagnetic interference?” Upon Michelle’s nod, the mare continued. “Without going into the details, there is an equivalent in arcano-thaumaturgic interference. Transmission of mana can disrupt spells unless carefully constrained. There is a good reason why enchanted objects tend to be either gems or precisely crafted talismans.”
“Okay, but I haven’t heard yet why an enchantment can’t be used in this case.”
“Gems shatter in the extreme cold when mana is pumped into them. Amulets are less efficient at transferring power, and that translates into heat which seriously upsets the careful balance of temperature at the crucial phase.”
Michelle frowned. “Can’t the spell be managed outside of the liquid nitrogen environment?”
“Of course. That’s exactly what the unicorns do.” Precious tapped the spell page. “This describes not only the crystal-forming process but also the projection of the power to enact it. The unicorns focus both on the wire which confines all the effects to it with very little heat loss to the nitrogen.”
“I meant by an enchantment,” the woman clarified.
“We’ve tried, but that’s where arcano-thaumaturgic interference raises its ugly head. We can either project the power or the forming spell, but not both. Enchantments are notorious for being large area effects rather than high-precision techniques. Turn a mirror into an interdimensional gateway? No problem! Precisely modify the fine crystal structure of an alloy? Good luck with that!”
Michelle sat back in her chair and frowned. “I don’t get it. If it’s so hard to affect something that small, how does the adaptation enchantment on the portals change our species? Surely it affects us on a genetic level?”
Precious shrugged. “I’m neither a mage nor an expert on biology. I can say that it’s likely to be a matter of sheer power – kind of like comparing an abacus to this computer on my desk. Pump that much mana into the wire forming process and you’d vaporize the nitrogen.”
Michelle groaned in frustration. “There’s got to be a way around that problem.”
“For once, we agree. The answer hasn’t been found yet though.”
The human folded her arms across her chest and her head lowered as she tried to think of any possibility that had not been brought up yet. The spell diagram sat firmly in her view, virtually taunting her. Then she had a thought. “How accurate is this pattern?” she asked.
“It’s a precise representation. In fact, it’s an inactive form of the spell itself.”
Michelle’s mouth curled into a hint of a smile. “And you’re saying that the two biggest problems are accurately repeating this complex spell and providing power for it, correct?”
“Have you tried a template?”
The mare frowned and tilted her head. “What do you mean?”
“You said that the problem with an amulet was pushing power into it, but not that it was affected by the cold, unlike the gem. What if you have an amulet made of that diagram to serve as a template? It could shape the spell while the unicorn is the power source. That way, they don’t have to constantly reproduce the spell with 100% accuracy for the duration of the batch. Instead, they can concentrate on triggering it at the correct moment while supplying the precisely applied energy. Their workload would be considerably reduced, thus enabling them to run more batches. And you might be able to find more unicorns that can handle that lesser burden to work the unused stations.”
Precious Goods stared off into space for a long moment. “That… might work. At least, I can’t see a reason right now why it can’t.” The mare pushed back her chair and got down on all four hooves. She walked around her desk to stand next to Michelle. “Thank you, Ms. Van Dijk. If this performs as you hope, it will be a major leap forward for production. I’m a little surprised that nopony has thought of it before.”
“You tend to think of things in terms of magical processes while I’m from a world where those don’t exist, so we have had to think of different ways of doing things.”
“You may be right. I’m going to see the engineering team right now to discuss this with them. I will let you know what they have to say. Thank you again.” The earth pony headed out of the office.
Michelle was going to ask if her ban could be lifted but decided to wait to find out the results of her suggestion. Precious might be a lot more receptive if the template idea worked. So, she headed back to her Houston office.
It took three days to prototype and test the new set-up at one of the unused stations. Artful Twist was given the task of trying a full production run and he reported that it was much simpler and easier to use. He did not need a long break to recover, unlike with the original method. He soon started producing twice as much flawless wire as his mare colleagues. Those two were allowed to do a test batch each before returning to their normal stations while the engineers set about modifying the rest of the stations. Then three more unicorns were recruited to bring the full complement of work-stations online.
Michelle was extremely pleased that her idea had worked. The backlog of orders had quickly begun to reduce and the woman was already considering ramping up her sales efforts for the material once more. With the pressure from the debacle with the stallion behind her, Michelle was able to relax for the first time in ages. Precious Goods had lifted her ban, albeit with the caveat that her interactions with the workers would be monitored and should be kept to a minimum. That was fine with the woman – the novelty of the magical world had worn off and she preferred to focus on her sales. She planned to only step onto the factory floor occasionally to get a firsthand look into production hold-ups and perhaps suggest other ways to improve performance in different areas.
With the increased availability and reliability of delivery of the precious wire came an influx of orders for the wondrous material. This might have caused a problem except for the new production units coming online at Ponyville and then Vanhoover. Harmonic Composites’ other advanced materials and devices were still selling well, but as more and more manufacturers found uses for the room-temperature superconductor, demand for the product kept increasing. This kept a smile on Michelle’s face for weeks… until it didn’t.
Demand was beginning to exceed production once again. Not satisfied with the status quo, Michelle frowned over the latest inventory reports. While manufacturing had maintained a consistent output, she could not help but notice that the other factories were producing slightly more. Of course, they had new machines that had been built and optimized in light of Michelle’s new technique, so it was no surprise that they performed better than the ones that had been retrofitted. Still, it was not acceptable to the woman that the original source was being one-upped. Between that and the ever-increasing sales, she felt compelled to correct that situation. With another technological improvement currently out of the question, that just left the unicorn element. Somehow, she had to find a way to motivate increased performance without repeating her earlier error. Then a thought occurred to her. “Let’s see how much spirit of competition there is among ponies,” she said softly to herself.
Tyrone paused to peer at the whiteboard that Michelle was setting up next to the break room the next day before the morning shift. The hippogriff’s eyebrow rose as he saw what she was writing. “What’s this about?” he asked her.
“Just production figures of superconductor wire from all three facilities as measured in meters per day,” Michelle replied with a smirk.
“And the point of posting them?”
“Pride. Let’s go upstairs and watch what happens.”
Tyrone followed Michelle up onto the balcony that let the factory manager oversee operations. They watched as the day-shift employees arrived to drop off their lunch boxes and other possessions in the lockers and then the night-shift employees came to fetch theirs. Each group had a certain number who looked at the board curiously before carrying on. However, a few unicorns took particular notice.
“So – what now?” asked the hippogriff.
“Come back at quitting time and we’ll see,” the cat woman replied with a mysterious smile.
Tyrone sighed, resigned to dealing with his colleague’s mode of operation.
The two did come back just before the end of the shift to once again watch the factory staff coming and going. Michelle nudged Tyrone when one unicorn stallion stopped at the whiteboard. Blue Collar picked up a marker pen, crossed out one set of figures, and wrote something underneath before continuing on his way. When the employees had finished coming and going, the pair went over to the board to see what had been written there.
The hippogriff’s eyebrows rose. “Huh! That’s about a 12% increase in output. How did that happen?”
“It’s amazing what a little motivation can achieve. Our team doesn’t want to be seen as the worst performers despite working with older equipment.”
“But will they keep up that level of output every day?”
Michelle smirked. “Once the other factory’s teams learn of this, do you think they’ll let this situation stand?”
“Ah! I see! You’re setting the unicorns up to compete against each other.” Tyrone nodded thoughtfully. “As long as it doesn’t get out of hand, that should make for a nice boost in production.”
“Don’t be so pessimistic. Humans have always competed with each other and I don’t see it being so different for ponies.”
“You’ve been very wrong once, Michelle. Just keep an eye on the situation, okay?”
“Of course! Sheesh! You’re such a worry-wart!” Michelle then strode away.
Tyrone shook his head and made a mental note to check with Precious Goods to have her monitor the state of affairs. Then he hastened back to the office to change for his flying lesson for which he was running late. Now that his wife had joined him for those classes, she was unforgiving of wasting the limited time that they had for that activity.
Michelle’s predictions were soon borne out. The two other factories upped their output as well. That prompted the Baltimare team to work even harder to regain their lead. As the teams competed to get ahead of the others, production output kept increasing which made Michelle smile in satisfaction. Best yet, the spirit of camaraderie was extended to her and she had been invited to celebrate at a local bar with her team. The unicorns looked like they needed more sleep, but they assured Michelle that their capacities would increase the more they exercised their talent. The woman felt that her situation had turned around much for the better and her standing compared to Tyrone had vastly improved. The man was undoubtedly a competent manager but he lacked that extra something that she believed she had. After all, it was she who had boosted production by inspiring the workers, not him.
It was only a little more than a week before the first complaints came in about ponies cutting corners on safety to out-compete the other sites. When Precious Goods informed her about them, Michelle merely scoffed.
“Competition is good and there’s nothing wrong with ponies putting in the extra effort. Just have everypony review the safety guidelines. I know for a fact that humans have been able to increase production while maintaining safety standards, so I can’t see why ponies can’t.”
Precious did implement a safety review and passed on the advice to the other facilities. For a while, all they had to contend with were extra-tired unicorns, but high production continued unabated. Then, near the end of the third week since implementing the competition, the factory manager called Michelle to tell her that she had shut down wire production.
“What?! Why? We need that wire!”
“Blue Collar suffered from horn burn-out and he collapsed unconscious. He’s been taken to the hospital.”
Michelle’s jaw dropped, stunned. Eventually, she managed to say, “How bad is it?”
“He’s in a coma and, even if he comes out of it, he might never recover his abilities. It depends on how much damage has been done.”
“Oh, my god! I had no idea.”
“I told you that they were pushing safety limits, but you were so sure they could handle it that you kept encouraging them anyway. The others on his team look pretty haggard and I told them to take the rest of the day off. I’m not letting them work at breakneck speeds anymore.”
“Yes, of course. I… I’ll let the other facilities know what has happened and advise them to cut back too.”
“Good. Get that right at least.” Precious then hung up.
Michelle stared at the phone for a long moment before hanging up her end too. Her mind was awhirl with this development and, for once, she had no one to blame but herself. She gulped and shuddered before lifting the phone to call the other factories.
With that obligation completed, Michelle lowered her face into her hands and sobbed. “What the fuck have I done?!”
Michelle had put aside all her work and told Estelle to hold any calls. She was nursing a rapidly cooling mug of coffee when there was a knock on her office door. Before she could tell whoever it was to go away, the door opened and admitted two very familiar faces that she had hoped not to see quite yet.
“So, you’ve heard what happened?” Michelle said in a dull tone.
Phil Martine nodded. “We got a full report from Precious Goods before coming here.”
“It’s all my fault,” Michelle said with a heavy heart. “I didn’t consider the consequences. I’d like to offer my resignation.”
Rosa Martine shook her head. “No, chica, we’ve invested far too much in your on-the-job training to give up on you now. Besides, you are not entirely to blame. It’s not up to you to know the limitations of every Equian species, unicorns in this case. You did advise a safety review, and Precious and the other factory managers are well versed in risk management. They should have dialed things back before now and informed you why it was necessary.”
Phil sighed. “Unfortunately, your earlier screw-up didn’t help. While you won over most ponies with the new production technique, there were still a couple who wanted to see you suffer greater consequences for your actions. They turned a blind eye to what was happening and, regrettably, that included one who should have reported what was happening to both us and you.”
“That does not absolve me for what I’ve done. I might have killed or maimed that stallion!”
“Blue Collar was not on the power level of Artful Twist, but he tried to keep up with him anyway out of sheer stubborn pride. He should have known better. On the other hand, safety procedures are in place to prevent any being from exceeding their limitations. It’s upon both you and the factory managers to see that those procedures are adhered to. We’ll be having a word with Tyrone about being a bit more proactive also.”
Michelle looked at Phil wearily. “Are you telling me all this just to make you feel better? Because I don’t. If I hadn’t implemented that stupid competition, Blue Collar wouldn’t be in the hospital right now.”
Rosa said, “What my husband is trying to say is that we must all act for the safety of everyone. You may have been the initial cause, but there were several other points of failure. There’s a reason why you are in a probationary position and that is to learn how to deal with a whole other world and its customs, capabilities, and varied mindsets. Some people do worse than others. Shariq didn’t even last a day. You certainly got off to a bad start but we believe that you have potential. We still want you working for us. However, your impulsiveness shows that you need to be overseen, which is why you will not be getting the senior position here at the end of the probationary period.”
Michelle hung her head. “I suppose that’s fair.”
Phil said, “We’re going to arrange to have HR send someone to train you to deal better with the various species. Perhaps we should have done that sooner, but hindsight is 20/20.”
“HR? Human Relations? What does Miss Heartstrings have to do with this?” Michelle queried with a lifted eyebrow.
“I believe it’s called Harmony Relations in Equestria,” Rosa said with a smile. “Anyway, take the remainder of the day off, rest, and consider how you are going to approach your job from now on. Let today’s events be a wake-up call.”
Michelle rose from her chair. “I’ll do that. I promise to do better, Mrs. and Mr. Martine.”
Phil said, “Good. Now, we need to go. We have a hospital to visit.”
After her bosses had left, Michelle murmured to herself, “Hopefully, I’ll also be allowed to visit the hospital when Blue Collar regains consciousness. I have a huge apology to make.”
CHAPTER 14: Conclusions
Prince Mark Wells was clearly not a happy pony. As he entered the conference room of the Ponyville factory where the probationary managers had initially met him, his expression told everyone that this was not going to be the pleasant meeting the first had been. He sat at the head of the table with the Martines flanking him and Penumbra taking her watch position behind and to his left. Mark let the silence linger for a moment as he took the opportunity to scowl at each of the humans in turn, as well as the factory managers. Finally, he spoke.
“Well, this has been a fine fuck-up. I’ll start with the good news. Blue Collar has regained consciousness and his prognosis isn’t as bad as feared. Make no mistake – his recovery will be long and hard, and he may never regain his full capabilities. As he was injured on the job, Harmonic Composites will cover all his medical expenses. Today, we are going to make sure that will never be required again.”
Michelle started to apologize, but a glare from the alicorn made her shrink back and shut up.
Mark continued. “While I am part owner and chief of operations in Equestria for Harmonic Composites, I am also a Triarch and must dedicate the majority of my attention to the needs of the nation. As such, I cannot devote as much time to the company as I would like. That is why I went to special effort to recruit the best beings in their fields to try to ensure that processes are followed and safety concerns addressed. That applies to everyone from foreponies and factory managers to you four interdimensional coordinating managers. However, it is clear that the system has failed. Accidents are seldom isolated events – they are usually the result of a series of minor issues that add up into a major one. In this case, while Ms. Van Dijk’s ill-considered incentive program was the cause of the accident, it actually started with her mistreatment of a stallion due to her biases.”
Michelle wondered if she was going to have a job after all despite Rosa Martine’s assurances and she felt tears welling in her eyes.
Mark held up a folder. “This is the report on the accident. While no species likes to be belittled, ponies tend to react emotionally to a greater degree than any other race. While most eventually put that first incident aside, a few had lingering issues with Ms. Van Dijk. One, in particular, was personally responsible for mitigating safety conerns. As the unicorns went to ever greater lengths to beat the other teams’ production records, it was clear that there were major problems brewing and Blue Collar was concealing his struggles to keep up. However, rather than reporting the problem, the pony in question withheld that information in the hopes of getting Ms. Van Dijk into trouble. This came to light when my wife’s changeling investigators interviewed everyone involved. The serious consequences suffered by Blue Collar may not have been intended but should have been anticipated. As such, not only has Protective Gaze been fired, criminal negligence charges have been laid.”
Mark leaned back in his chair and folded his forelegs across his chest. He looked at Michelle and his expression softened. “This incident is nowhere near entirely your fault, so you’re not going to be fired. Your idea was good up to a point but you had no idea of the repercussions of it being pursued to the extreme. I believe Rosa has arranged for you to learn more about not only ponies but also all the other species that work for Harmonic Composites. You won’t be the only one though. The rest of you probationary managers will also be undergoing further training on these matters. However, you, Ms. Van Dijk, will be required to head up a safety audit and present a report with suggestions for any possible improvements in the system. That will be the penalty for your actions.”
The alicorn turned his attention to Precious Goods. “But she isn’t the only person at fault here. As the factory manager, you are ultimately responsible for what happens there. While Ms. Van Dijk can claim a certain amount of ignorance due to unfamiliarity with unicorn capabilities, you cannot. You should have noticed the fatigue exhibited by the superconductor team and investigated it. You will be written up for this failure. Fast Mover and Sharp Bends did belatedly order their teams to dial back their efforts which allowed the Baltimare team to surge ahead, lending justification to their extreme efforts. This situation was never escalated to top management though, and thus the opportunity to nip the accident in the bud was lost. You two will cooperate fully with Ms. Van Dijk’s safety review to ensure that this does not happen again.”
Tyrone spoke up. “Michelle’s access was still limited. Isn’t that a bit unfair to expect to have seen and understood all that was happening?”
The woman shot her colleague a grateful look. However, Mark frowned in response. “You, however, had unrestricted access. According to the report, Ms. Van Dijk showed you exactly what she intended to do, but you were not seen to be monitoring the situation. In fact, it seems that you have been distracted from your job by family issues on several occasions.”
It was the man’s turn to frown. “You have more wives and kids than me, so don’t tell me that you don’t have family problems too. However, most of mine come down to the fact that I have to keep secrets from my children, and it’s causing issues with Makena too. I have extremely limited opportunities to spend time in Equestria outside of work and that is frustrating. I want to take Jadyn to a hoofball game! I want Faraja to have a Pinkie Pie Party. Give me these and I will be able to give the company more of my time.”
Mark was silent at the rebuke but Phil Martine spoke up.
“He’s right, Mark. We’d be hypocrites if we denied him this. Our daughter and her best friend have unfettered access to Equestria, after all.”
Mark sighed. “And Yolanda’s other former friend showed us why we can’t just allow that for anyone.” He looked back at Tyrone. “But I can understand the problem. Managing both a job and a family isn’t easy. However, since Makena knows about Equestria, I’ll make it both your jobs to ensure that your children don’t cause us any problems. I’ll get back to you on how we’ll go about it. And since both you and Ms. Van Dijk will be extra busy, I’ll give you some extra help. I want you to introduce Estelle López to this world as soon as possible so she can lend you both a hoof. Actually, is Makena looking for a part-time job? She could be of assistance too. Business is certainly good enough at your branch to justify another employee.”
Tyrone was surprised by that suggestion. “I… will put it to her tonight and let you know.”
“Excellent.” The alicorn got up from his chair and looked toward the Martines. “I’ll see you both in Canterlot tonight for dinner. We can discuss Mr. Davis’ family’s introduction to Equestria then.”
Phil nodded and Rosa said, “We’ll bring along Yolanda. She may have some insight that we older folk don’t.”
“Not a bad idea.” He faced the others again. “Are there any questions?” Mark saw a bunch of heads shaking side to side.
“Now, if I have suitably impressed you all with the gravity of this incident, I will get back to my main job of trying to herd cats. I look forward to seeing your report, Ms. Van Dijk. Good morning, everypony.” Mark then left with his ever-attentive bodyguard close behind.
Michelle slumped in her seat with a groan. “I thought I was dead.”
“Not as bad as all that, chica,” Rosa said. “Believe it or not, Mark is taking this almost as hard as you.” At the woman’s surprised look, the griffoness continued. “This company is Mark’s pet project for continuing Equestria’s growth and a stepping stone toward free exchange with Earth. To have someone almost die here was a terrible shock to him.”
Michelle slowly nodded. “I see. He really is looking at the people and not just the products.” She looked over at Tyrone. “Speaking of people, thanks for having my back. I don’t know if I deserve it.”
Her colleague replied, “Like Prince Mark said, we have to all work together for everybody’s benefit.”
“Yeah. I’ve been a bitch but I’ll try hard not to let that happen anymore.”
Precious Goods headed for the door. “I think we’ve all learned a lesson today, so let’s get to it, everybeing.”
There was a murmur of agreement as everyone headed for their respective factories.
“I am the terror that flaps in the night! I am the passive-aggressive note left on the breakroom refrigerator! I am whoops!” The batpony’s flailing wing knocked several objects off the security guard’s desk.
Femur caught them all in his magic as Estelle stumbled off-balance. The changeling grinned. “Ha! You’ll have to try harder than that to inconvenience this bug!”
Tyrone steadied the team’s new pony. “Careful, Darkwing Dork. The adaptation spell might give you the ability to control your new limbs, but it doesn’t grant you the experience to use them properly. Take it from me – you need to learn how to utilize those wings as intended.”
“Sorry, Mr. Davis, but this is so cool! I mean, look at these fangs!” Estelle used a hoof to lift her lip to better show off the long and pointy teeth.
Michelle chuckled and grinned, displaying her own canines. “Aren’t they great?” the cat woman asked.
Estelle was struck by a thought. “Hey! You told me about Ms. Harris and Ms. Petit, but what did Imani become?”
Tyrone answered, “An Ornithian.” At Estelle’s blank look, he expounded. “A bird woman – a blue and gold parrot, to be precise.”
“Whoa! They have bird people here too? This place is awesome!”
Michelle shared an amused look with Tyrone. “Looks like we have another convert to the Equestrian experience. Aside from Shariq who never even tried a new form, it seems that the adaptation spell makes everyone feel their best in their Equian forms.”
“No argument from me. While I was a bit ambivalent at first, I now understand why the Martines never come here in their human forms.”
Estelle nodded eagerly. “Why be a human when you can be an awesome bat?!”
Tyrone gave her a mock glare. “You can’t do your job back at Houston as a batpony.”
“Aww! Rats!” Estelle giggled. “My boyfriend might not be as thrilled about dating a bat though.”
“Probably not,” Michelle agreed. “Anyway, you have the rest of the afternoon off to enjoy yourself and learn a bit about this world until we take you out to dinner in Ponyville tonight.”
The batpony giggled again. “Ponyville is such a silly name, even if it’s accurate. Imagine us introducing ourselves as coming from Humanopolis.”
“Not as bad as this city named Baltimare though,” Tyrone pointed out.
“Yep. That’s going to be stuck in my head all day now, y’know?”
“You get used to it,” Michelle said. “Time is wasting. Let’s get going. Tyrone gets to hold down the fort while we girls have fun in town.”
“Mover, dear, could you make us mares coffee and snacks?” Golden Touch asked.
The stallion nodded and got up out of his chair. “Sure thing, darling.” He trotted away to the kitchen.
“I’m not really thirsty yet,” Jewel said.
Golden smiled and shook her head. “It was just an excuse to have our stallion let us mares talk in private. You and Joy have been regular visitors to our home for months now, and we already regard you both as part of our family. Our foals especially have grown attached to you, Jewel. As your cutie mark shows, you truly have the instincts to be a great mother, and that is why Breezy and I want you to formally ask Mover to join our herd tonight.”
Jewel’s eyes widened and she gasped. “You really want me as your herdmate?”
Subtle Breeze said, “Actually, we’ve wanted it for a long time. Goldie and I knew you would be a good fit weeks ago. Heck, we saw your potential the first time Mover brought you home for dinner. We’ve only left it this long for you to grow into your new life as a mare. Once you became female over on Earth too, we knew that you were almost ready for the next step.”
The supermodel unicorn blushed. “I was uncertain back then, and I still don’t know why I became such a gorgeous mare.”
Joy grinned and said, “That’s easy. The adaptation spell changed you to fit your needs, and you needed to attract a stallion. With so many mares competin’ for the interest of the available stallions, let alone ones who were already mated, you needed to stand out. And by being such a beautiful sexy female, the transformation built up your self-confidence and social skills. You’re powerful different from the man that I knew back then. You’re now the person you and your future herdmates need you to be.”
“We concur with everything that Joy said,” Golden agreed with a smile. “You may still have lingering doubts but we can’t have you putting off asking for much longer.”
Jewel’s eyebrows lifted. “Huh? Why not?”
“Mating season is almost here. You expressed a desire for having a foal so deeply that you got your cutie mark from it. If you are ready to be a part of our family and add foals to the herd, your chance to conceive your first will be here very soon.”
“And what does Fast Mover think of this idea? It’s not as if we’ve ever discussed it.”
Golden replied, “Mover understands that it’s his wive’s obligation to determine suitable additions to the herd. He has brought home potential mares before but none were an instant hit with us as you were. He likes you a lot and wants to move on to the next level. He knows why I sent him to make coffee for us, and right now he’s hoping that we can persuade you to accept our invitation to join the herd.”
“I thought you said that I was supposed to ask him if I can join?”
“That’s the formality that our society requires. The stallion’s mares decide that a candidate is desirable, but it’s still up to the stallion to accept. Just because this is a foregone conclusion doesn’t change anything.”
“Please say you will,” Subtle Breeze begged.
“Go for it, girl,” Joy added.
Jewel blushed again. “I don’t know what to say. It’s not something that I ever planned for, but it feels right. Yes, I would love to join your herd.”
The mares squealed with delight and hugged their future herdmate. When they parted, Golden Touch looked over to Joy.
“We know that foals are not likely to ever be in your plans, but you bring other benefits to our family. Would you be interested in joining the herd also?”
Joy gasped and her eyebrows shot up. Then she smiled and shook her head. “Ah’m right honored to be asked, and Ah can’t say that Ah’m not tempted. However, for now, Ah want to leave my options open. Ah love to share my life with everyone, both here in Equestria and back home on Earth. Ah don’t feel Ah’m ready to commit to a herd as yet.”
Golden nodded with a gentle smile. “We thought as much, but the invitation remains open. And you will always be welcome in our home, Joy Leap.”
“Thank you. Ah appreciate it.”
The lead mare turned back to Jewel. “When Mover comes back, there’s a formal question you must ask him.” She instructed the fashion-model mare in the wording and made sure that she had it down pat before she called out in a loud voice, “Hey, Mover! Where’s that coffee? We’re dying of thirst here!”
The stallion was apparently waiting for his cue because the door immediately opened and he pushed a tea trolley bearing mugs of coffee and carrot cake ahead of him. “At your service, ladies.” He passed around the mugs and the cake with a smile.
Jewel set hers aside to walk up to face Mover and the stallion looked at her expectantly. “Fast Mover – will you do me the honor of allowing me to join your herd and being my stallion?”
Mover gazed at the beautiful mare fondly. “Jewel Petit – it would delight me for you to join my herd and to sire your foals.” He then used his foreleg to pull the mare in to kiss her.
Jewel was surprised by the move, but she quickly melted into the experience. She was his mare and he was her stallion, and they sealed their commitment with the heartfelt kiss. They parted breathlessly to the applause of the others in the room, and then there was another group hug.
Jewel did not return to her apartment that night. In a very real way, she was already home. It still did not assuage her nerves when Fast Mover led her into the bedroom that night.
“I have a confession to make,” she said.
Mover raised an eyebrow. “Oh? What is it?”
“I… I’m a virgin.”
“You’ve only been a mare for a few months, so that’s hardly surprising.”
Jewel frowned at him for his apparent cluelessness. “No, I mean ever. Even as a man, I only ever masturbated. I’ve never had sex with anyone before.”
“I was only joking. Why should that matter to me though?”
“I… I don’t want to disappoint you.”
Mover cupped Jewel’s cheek with a hoof and gazed into her eyes. “Do you think I’m so shallow that I only care about your prowess in bed? I care for you deeply, Jewel, and I want to make love to you. Please let me take the lead. I promise to make your first time beautiful and a memory to cherish.” He lifted her in his magic and placed her on the bed before climbing up next to her. “If you want to get pointers from our wives later, that’s fine, but tonight is just for us.”
Jewel breathed in his masculine scent and admired his strong but lithe form. “Yes, just for us.” She pulled him into a kiss and felt his arousal. A thrill went through her at the thought that this stallion was about to take her and, soon, she was a virgin no longer.
Mating Season started a week later. The factories did not shut down completely, however. The shifts were much reduced though and were strictly gender-separated. The Earthside operations continued virtually unabated. However, no human with a pony or hippogriff alter form visited Equestria during that period except Jewel. After all, she was actively trying to get pregnant. And while it was very likely that she was successful on the first night, it did not stop her and Fast Mover from enthusiastically ensuring it each of the following nights.
By the time the Season had passed, she was smugly overjoyed to be expecting. Her only worry was transforming between worlds. However, Rosa Martine was quick to reassure her.
“Prince Mark’s wife Rarity was pregnant with Pearl for weeks before learning that she was with foal, and in that period, she transformed between her usual self and anthro form several times. Despite that, Pearl turned out as a perfectly normal, albeit anthro, foal. As she had been conceived over there, that outcome was not a big surprise. A similar thing happened to me when I was pregnant with Yolanda. I traveled between Earth and Equus many times before learning that I was expecting. Reassured by Rarity’s experience, not to mention figuring it was too late to worry about it by then, I continued to visit Equestria while pregnant and still had a perfectly normal human girl. The same was true later with Miguel. While I don’t know whether the fetus transforms in the womb, I don’t believe the adaptation spell affects it negatively.” She smiled and chuckled. “So, I expect that you will continue to turn up for your job in Los Angeles until such time as you need to take maternity leave.”
Jewel giggled. “Yes, ma’am!”
“And I have something that will help you be the mujer you truly are on Earth.” Rosa handed Jewel a thumb drive. “On that is everything you need to know and do to be legally registered as female. We had our team research the optimal way of doing so that would raise the fewest questions and cause the least problems. The one catch is that you won’t be able to say you transitioned from being male because it would be difficult to explain when your pregnancy starts showing.”
Jewel stared at the USB device. It represented the final step toward leaving her old life behind. “Thank you, Rosa. This means a lot to me.”
As the weeks passed, both Imani and Estelle took on greater roles at their branches, with pay raises to suit. Makena accepted the offer to work part-time at the Houston office. That still left Tyrone’s wife enough opportunity to cope with their children’s needs. However, those had changed too since they were given access to a whole new magical world. Tyrone and Makena had given permission for a geas to be put on the children preventing accidental disclosure of the existence of Equus and interdimensional travel. Their son, Jadyn, was miffed at first that he couldn’t tell his friends but forgave his parents as soon as his father took him to his first hoofball match. Their daughter, Faraja, would agree to anything that let her play with her new pony friends.
The day came when the probationary period was up. The four managers and their executive assistants were instructed to dress formally and meet up at the Charlotte headquarters. There, they gathered in the conference room with Phil and Rosa and made small talk before the scheduled hour. However, as the time arrived with no sign of getting down to business, Tyrone spoke up.
“Is there any reason why we can’t get the meeting underway?”
“We’re just waiting for – oh! Here he is.”
A short man with dark skin entered the room carrying a special cupholder tray bearing ten large take-out cups of coffee. “Sorry I’m late – the barista was a bit slow. I hope I got everyone’s preferred brews right.” He started passing out the drinks as a woman with an Amazonian build followed him carrying a couple of paper bags with the name of Amy’s Donuts emblazoned on them. When everyone got their drinks, the man sat down with one of the coffees and grabbed a donut.
Michelle looked at what she thought was the office’s gofer curiously. “Pardon me, but are you supposed to be at this meeting?”
Jolene’s laugh drew the attention of the others. She grinned and said, “Don’t you recognize royalty, Michelle? That’s Prince Mark Wells. And that must be his bodyguard. Hi, Penny!”
The Amazon smiled. “Good to see you, Joy.”
Michelle’s eyes widened and she gasped. “Oh! I’m so sorry, Your Highness! I didn’t realize it was you.”
Mark grinned and chuckled. “No problem, Ms. Van Dijk. You’ve never seen me in human form before, so it’s understandable. I thought it was pretty funny, actually.”
Michelle sighed with relief. “So, I guess we were waiting for you to start this meeting?”
“Correct. And I’ll begin by saying congratulations to all four of you. Your probationary period is over and Phil, Rosa, and I are very happy with your performance. There were several missteps and setbacks, but also some wonderful gains. You’ve all settled into your roles as well as expected; better in some cases. Estelle and Imani are also doing excellent support work and you are both in line for promotions when the opportunities open up.”
“Thank you, sir,” Imani said, echoed by Estelle.
Phil took up the reins of the meeting. “As you knew when you started at your facilities, at the end of the probationary period, we would examine if any of you would be better suited to another site before finalizing your roles. However, Rosa, Mark, and I see no reason to change the current set-up. We now have to appoint one at each facility to be the senior manager. Michelle, while you have done excellent work lately and the new safety procedures you implemented are very satisfactory, you still need to be overseen. As such, Tyrone will take the senior position. Congratulations, Tyrone.”
“Thank you, Mr. Martine.”
Michelle had already accepted that she was not going to get the promotion after what Rosa had told her. For once, she did not resent that a man had gotten what she had hoped to achieve. “My congratulations too,” she said. “Can’t say that I’m not disappointed, but you deserve it.”
Rosa took the next turn at speaking. “When it came to deciding for the Los Angeles/Vanhoover position, well, there really wasn’t any choosing to do. Both Jewel and Jolene fell naturally into the places they excelled. Jolene’s outgoing personality worked extremely well in place of the harder and more formal persona that we expected for someone in her front-facing role. Meanwhile, Jewel’s adept management of manufacturing issues saw her work best on the Equian side of the business. The position of senior manager goes to Jolene but, frankly, you two are compañeras perfectas, a well-oiled team, and I doubt that either of you would work as well without the other.”
Jewel gave Jolene a hug and said, “Congrats, boss.”
Jolene giggled and said, “Ah’m not your boss, Jewel. Ah’m your partner, okay?”
Both women laughed.
Rosa said, “A couple more things before we get down to the other items on the agenda. As a consequence of Jewel’s pregnancy, we have put into place a new policy concerning cross-universal relationships. Harmonic Composites is happy to support them but expects employees to do their fair share with regards to any compromises and extra work involved. Please read up on this new policy and give us feedback if necessary.” She looked over to Mark. “The floor is yours.”
“Thanks, Rosa. The main purpose of this meeting is to plan our goals for the next six months. As you six are best familiar with your facilities, I expect that you’ll be able to give us good feedback on our expectations.”
The meeting continued for a couple more hours before concluding. Phil Martine had one more thing to announce.
“It’s time to take team photos.” He took out a professional digital camera from his briefcase. “I want to get you into two groups for the separate branches, and then get all six of you into one team pic.”
“So, that’s why you wanted us to dress so formally today,” Jolene said.
“Yep.” Phil spent a few minutes taking several shots for each grouping to ensure getting the perfect pose. “Okay, everyone head over to the portal and we’ll do this again, only in your Equian forms.”
Minutes later, they all gathered in the Ponyville conference room to take another series of photographs.
While everyone ended up getting prints to put on their desks on each side of the portal, Prince Mark Wells proudly displayed the latest addition next to the others on the wall of his Canterlot office.
“One step closer to building a bridge between our two worlds,” he murmured with great satisfaction.
# # # # # # # # #
Estelle López – Michelle Van Dijk – Tyrone Davis – Jewel Petit – Jolene “Joy Leap” Harris – Imani Williams
Equestria, canon MLP characters, and other My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic elements are © 2022 Hasbro.
All other original characters and story copyright © 2022 Bernard Doove.
Art © 2022 Myke Greywolf, Rated Ponystar, & Foxenawolf.
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