Farmer Bruener Has Some Ponies

by Georg

11. Saturday Morning Cartoons

Farmer Bruener Has Some Ponies
Saturday Morning Cartoons

“The more wonderful the means of communication, the more trivial, tawdry, or depressing its contents seemed to be.”
― Arthur C. Clarke

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Time: 5:04 A.M. Central Standard Time, Saturday June 20, 2015
Location: Kansas University Medical Center, Fourth Floor
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Allison Short was proud of being the KC Star’s best staff photographer for good reason. She refused to think of her occupation as being a dying breed in an expiring industry, but had fought hard in her career to capture on film just as much of any story she covered as the reporters she was paired with. Her photos would not be the first pictures of the aliens, or even any of the first thousand of them on the internet, but hers would be first and foremost in the upcoming Star article on the injured aliens and their medical treatment.

And the first thing any reader would see in the article would be her photo.

Despite Allison’s early arrival, the reporter assigned to write the article would only be along a few hours later, depending on how his or her interview with the unicorn doctor went this morning. With him out of the way at Doctor Schwartz’s house where the pony had been staying as a guest, Allison was free to capture a time-critical scene in the most accurate and memorable way possible.

The natural tendency of a hospital when one of their patients was going to get photographed was to throw themselves into a beautification program just a degree away from the Miss America pageant. It probably had something to do with them being lawsuit-shy. One cancer patient had even been dragged through the indignity of a perm and makeover just so she would look good for the camera.

The official time the Star had worked out with the hospital for the interview with the alien patients was about eleven or so. Dawn was still a half-hour away, but the lack of strong light would not be a problem. Allison’s camera had some of the most sensitive night mode sensors Nikon had ever blessed on silicon. A few candid shots with the sleeping aliens in the dim light of the pre-dawn sun would be wonderful background, even perhaps framed as something that the national media would run to tug the heartstrings of people all across the world.

If I do this right, the residuals could send my grandkids to college.

It took a few moments to check in with the nurses on duty and show them the email between the hospital and the newspaper, which they took with a great deal of skepticism and close examination of her identification. It seemed the ‘alien watchers’ had been more than a little annoying, and the head nurse had promised that the next weirdo to try dressing as a doctor or nurse to sneak in was going to get ‘probed’ before being tossed back out into the parking lot.

From the fourth-floor window.

Once the nurses were comfortable with Allison’s identity and authorization, she took a few vanity shots of their dutiful alertness at their stations, which might or might not be used in the article but would wind up in the newspaper clip file just in case. Then all she needed to do was promise not to disturb their sleeping patients and she was free to slip on down the hallway. By luck, the Highway Patrol officer on duty at the doorway was just strolling down the hall in the direction of the coffee pot when Allison came around the other corner, so she gave him a few moments to get some distance, then slipped into the room unseen.

Thankfully the evening lighting cast a shadowless glow across the room, allowing a good look at the two ponies snoozing in their beds with the young girl draped across the couch in the background. Allison crouched, lifting the camera to frame the shot and—

—something silent and terrifying surged out of the darkness.

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Time: 5:20 A.M. Central Standard Time, Saturday June 20, 2015
Location: Kansas University Medical Center, Fourth Floor
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“Claire?” An insistent hoof prodded Claire Bruener where she had tried to make herself as comfortable as possible on the visitor’s couch. Thankfully, most of a day and part of an evening of conversation with the young batpony had given Claire enough experience not to give out a sharp screech at the sight of her glowing yellow eyes. After several blinks and yawns, Claire checked the time on her plugged-in phone on the nearby table.

“Goose? It’s not even five thirty,” whispered Claire with a quick look at the two patients, both of which seemed to be beeping and breathing according to their monitors. “Did you finish all the Batman movies I queued up on my tablet? I told you, Batman and Robin isn’t worth it.”

“Not… really. I wanted to ask you something. Is this a laser gun?” Goose’s massive wings flexed at her sides, giving a light breeze to the room, before she reached under them with one hoof and produced a fairly large chunk of electronic equipment.

“No, it’s a camera,” said Claire. She picked it up and examined it in the light coming from the window and the pre-dawn glow of the distant sun. “Darned expensive one, too. Where did you get it?”

Claire was getting a better handle on the ‘tells’ of the ponies, from the way Widget’s horn would spark when she was angry or upset to the way Goose’s wings got little twitches from nerves. There were a lot of twitches now, like a wave of chiggers crawling across the dark skin of her huge wings, and the batpony glided across the hospital tile with the ghostly soundless tread that Claire thought she would never get used to.

Following closely behind, Claire tried not to gasp when Goose opened the bathroom door of the hospital room to reveal a middle-aged woman with wide eyes, who was hog-tied and gagged in the middle of the floor. Expertly tied up, at that, considering that Goose accomplished the task using only hospital self-adhesive pink binding wrap and her own hooves.

“Um,” started out Claire, eventually following it with, “Ahhh, you do realize that The Dark Knight was just a movie, right? And that the number of criminals sneaking into hospital rooms with high-tech guns that look like fancy cameras is pretty much zero. Although we probably should ask her.” Claire produced a knife out of her pocket, bent over the lady, and cut the gag away from her mouth, which allowed the photographer to cough and get a full breath of air.

“Thanks,” she gasped, shaking some of her shoulder-length red hair out of her eyes. “Allison Short, photographer from the Kansas City Star. Thought I’d drop in early and get some candid shots.”

“Sorry,” said Goose with her bat-like wings creeping up to cover her head.

“Are you kidding?” blurted out the photographer before taking a quick glance at the other room and lowering her voice. “That was awesome! God, I’ve never had my heart beating like that before! I think I peed myself a little.”

“Is something wrong, ladies?” Attracted and puzzled by the conversation, the Highway Patrol officer outside the door leaned in, holding his coffee in one hand.

“Goose caught a wild photographer in her natural habitat,” explained Claire. “You want to come in here and help cut her free?”

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Time: 5:37 A.M. Central Standard Time, Saturday June 20, 2015
Location: Outside the Bruener Farm, Randolph Kansas
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Dakota Henderson was used to waking with the dawn or before. After all, the rising sun was something special that God had blessed upon the Earth, and it would be a crying shame if any Marine in service to the country could not appreciate it to the tune of a bugle blasting in one ear.

Thankfully, he was no longer in active service, but once a Marine, always a Marine it had been said. A true Marine would not complain about getting any sleep anywhere, even in the reclined RV driver’s chair, but he did not miss the bugle at all. After a pained yawn, he scowled at the tiny fleck of sun peeking over the horizon that put a line of illumination across the RV’s main room, then grabbed for his phone again once he saw what it illuminated.

Their short trip down the dirt road to the Bruener’s RV parking area last night had been taken at the slowest speed, in order not to run over any alien visitors. The resulting slow rocking sensation had affected the hyperactive little ponies like several shots of sedative, making it so that once Kota had eased his rented RV into a section of mowed grass next to the other parked vehicles, he had been the only conscious creature remaining inside. Well, other than the batwinged mare with her bright-eyed baby. She had merely looked at him, then at the sleeping tiny ponies, and slipped out the door like some sort of ghost.

This morning, the interior of the parked RV could have been mistaken for a room full of adorable plushies, with at least six or seven of the little fillies and colts curled up on the bed in back, and Crystal snoozing in the middle of them. Various other sleeping ponies were scattered around the cabin, and from the pair of tails dangling from above him, at least two were in the over-cab area. Once Kota had finished his impromptu photography session, he pulled up his email and sent the whole batch straight to the Chronicle newsroom with a note indicating that they had arrived in Randolph and were making friends with the natives. Then he very carefully extracted his professional camera from his bag and took several close shots in high resolution of Crystal and her sleeping pony companions. They probably would not fit with any story the Chronicle would run, but there was a lot of good-natured blackmail potential that he just could not turn down.

A faint tapping outside of his window made Dakota stop taking cute pictures and roll the window down so he could greet the scruffy green pony he had met yesterday night in Randolph. The blue-eyed stallion was awake and alert with a smile, smelling slightly of coffee and with his fedora sloped forward to shade his eyes. Only this time the similarly green unicorn foal in his carrier was all bright and curious instead of sleeping.

“Morning, Mister Henderson. Your friend is in the old house, making pancakes.” The pony pointed over his shoulder at a nearby square-ish two story house that had seen better days next to a sleek ranch-style home with a multitude of ponies scurrying around it. “If you can get the kids up and generally together, we’ll get you all fed. No sausage unless you want to go to the Brueners’ house, I’m afraid, although I think there may be a piece or two of bacon stashed aside for humans.”

“B’kon!” announced the little unicorn in the carrier, bouncing up and down with glee. “B’kon! B’kon!”

“You’ll have to beat Clover to it, though,” he admitted.

- - Ω - -

“Hey, Kota!” Nicholas Comena dropped into the seat next to Dakota and plunked a foam plate full of pancakes into the middle of the table, which had seen better days. All of the furniture in the old house was… well, old, so the ponies had made temporary tables out of boxes low enough to the ground for ponies young and old to eat without any chairs. Colorful towels kept the syrup and foam plates from making too much of a mess, and most of the plastic silverware had been eschewed in favor of just sticking pony noses down on plates and chewing.

Although all of the unicorns seemed reluctant to dine in that direct fashion.

The kitchen table where the humans were eating breakfast was the exception to the design scheme of ‘early storage container with bathware slipcovers’ because it had been the Bruener family table before the new house was built. All the kids had scattered to every corner of the room while Dakota had managed to get a seat at the old farmhouse’s kitchen table with a regular chair. He already had company for breakfast, because Lucky had his foal sitting on the middle of the table and suckling out of a bottle that he was holding with both forehooves. The kid was adorable beyond measure, but Lucky had put all four feet down about keeping her out of the photographs, so Kota had limited himself to the rest of the pint-sized herd until Nick was done volunteering behind the griddle.

“Hey, Nick. This is Lucky and his kid, Clover. How’s life in the tin cans?” Dakota stabbed one of the pancakes with his plastic fork and dropped it on his own plate, following it up with a drizzle of syrup.

“A lot better than you unemployed journalist types,” said Nick with a bright grin that showed a lot of white teeth in his dark face. “I can at least shoot back at my job, although I’ve been promoted to rugrat watcher for now. Went and kept one of the little ones from drowning, that one over there with the red hair, I think. Suddenly, I’m a big damn hero to the Army.”

Clover snorted and let go of the bottle’s nipple, giving a shake of her head to clear it of foam before looking right at Nick and repeating, “Dam hero. Big dam hero.”

“And bottle,” said Lucky, nudging her with the plastic nipple until the foal started nursing again with such force that the sides of the bottle bowed in. The adult father figure looked at the two military men and mouthed “No” while shaking his head so hard that his fedora bobbed.

“Right, Nick,” chastised Dakota. “You Army types are all profanity. Think you can keep your mouth clean long enough for Crystal over there to get a story out of your heroic actions?” He bobbed his head in the direction of the statuesque blonde, who was busily chatting with several female ponies and exchanging frequent giggles. “We work together in San Francisco at the Chronicle, flew down last night, and spent the night out in my rental RV, so I’ve got a little swing.”

“Dayum,” said Nick with a low whistle afterward. “You’re moving up in the world, hoss.”

“I’m just a spec photographer for the Chronicle, and besides, it’s only until the ponies go home… tomorrow, right Mister Lucky?”

“Best guess is somewhere around two to three in the afternoon local time on Monday,” said Lucky, still holding onto the rapidly emptying bottle with both forehooves. “Twilight sent an update this morning. There’s going to be a news announcement at around eleven today from the park in town. We’ve got most of the injured back from the surrounding hospitals, leaving about two to three in Manhattan to get back sometime today, so Twilight will probably have to make a second portal next month sometime to get Granny Smith and…”

Lucky trailed off, but Nick picked up the conversational thread. “Widget. Her parents were begging to go to KC to fuss over her, but the local military here think that’s a bad idea. Probably because they won’t let go when the return portal is up. Headstrong bunch.”

“Unicorns are stubborn like that.” Lucky held onto the bottle even harder as air began to suck from the bottom. “The two of you might—”

Clover, obviously upset that the bottle was empty, rammed her head into it. The plastic bottle fairly vanished in an upward direction, and a trail of plaster dust filtered down from above to indicate where it had gone. Lucky tumbled backward out of the chair and across the floor, and only the quick reflexes of Nick and Kota caught the unicorn foal before she could fall off the table too, although they both caught a brisk little wing into the face for their troubles.

“Sorry about that,” said Lucky as he picked himself up and looked around for his hat. “Mama’s little girl always has a little extra energy in the mornings.”

“I got it, Mithter Green Grath,” said Twist, bolting for the nearby staircase in a clatter of shod hooves and vanishing upstairs, leaving the two military men to help Lucky get his foal stuffed back into the shirt she had been wearing.

“Why are you hiding your daughter’s wings?” asked Kota. “They’re adorable.” The filly in question took that moment to give a short and accurate flap, making Kota spit out little bits of feathers. “Yuch. I think I see now.”

“She’s just an ordinary winged unicorn,” explained Lucky as he got the last bit of shirt over the little filly’s wings and picked her up for burping. “Nothing odd, other than she hasn’t been using her magic, which is probably good. Infant unicorns don’t know what is impossible, so they can do some really extraordinary things that even adults can’t match.”

“Hey, I thought you was a unicorn too,” said Nick. He bent down and scooped up Lucky’s unusually heavy fedora, depositing it back on the green pony’s round and hornless head with a thud. “And why did she call you Green Grass?”

“Ow.” Green Grass gently patted the back of his foal while looking vaguely guilty under his crunched hat. “Look, guys. Don’t make a big deal about this. We’re going home the day after tomorrow, so for just a day or two, I’d like to be just plain, simple Lucky with no—”

“Here you are, Mithter Green Grath,” said Twist, stampeding down the wooden stairs like an avalanche with the crumpled plastic bottle in her mouth. “Thee’s really chewing them up, ithen’t thee?”

“Thank you, Twist.” Lucky tried to shuffle the contented foal, his slumping hat, and still grab the bottle, only to have Nick pick the mangled piece of plastic up and set it on the table.

“Thanks, Twist,” he said with a smile. “What’s Miss Cheerilee have on the schedule for you kids today?”

“I’m not thure?” said the little pony with a nervous glance over her shoulder at where the rest of the smaller ponies were romping about out into the yard. “There’th all kind of carth out on the road, tho we’re thuck here, I think.”

“People are probably lined up for the announcement later this morning,” said Nick, tapping the mangled baby bottle against the table. “I walked up to the checkpoint first thing this morning and listened to some of the sob stories people are telling in order to get in. Traffic’s moving at a snail’s pace, and Four-One’s not going to get here until around noon. They’re helicoptering in the rest of my platoon to a LZ they’ve set up at a horse farm about a mile south of here.”

“Your platoon?” prompted Lucky, still gently patting the sleepy foal on the back.

“A horth farm?” asked Twist with her ears perked up in a way that alerted every one of Kota’s rusty parental warning indicators.

“Crew in shifts for four M1A2 Abrams tanks we’re going to deploy around the farmhouse,” said Nick, oblivious to Twist’s signals and obviously proud of his metal children. “I really thought it was overkill, but the MPs have been catching all kinds of weird people parking a mile or two away and trying to walk into the area.” He muffled a snort of laughter into his short-sleeved ‘Army Strong’ t-shirt. “I thought they might have better luck putting a mine plow on the Abrams and just plowing their way here, but the Division Commander has been treating it as a real-world example of what we’d have to go through in a war deployment with refugees on the roads.”

“We’ve got a few pegasi around with nothing to do,” said Lucky thoughtfully. “Maybe they could fly your tanks here?”

Nick and Kota both laughed, and so did the foal in a sleepy/happy/entertained sort of way, along with a quiet burp. “It’ll make more sense when you see my babies,” said Nick.

“There you are, Twist!” A mulberry-colored pony came bounding into the kitchen wearing a happy smile and nothing else, which Dakota was still trying to get comfortable with. Voices still made him think of clothing, and having a bunch of four-legged nudists galloping around was a considerable shock to somebody who had not even seen a talking pony until yesterday evening. This pony had bright eager green eyes that were almost level with Dakota’s line of sight, giving him the strange feeling of being categorized as ‘Teaching Supplement: Human, Male - Type 14, dark hair, medium brown skin. Smells slightly ripe from not showering in a day. Use as example in upcoming biology and hygiene class.’

“Good morning, Miss Cheerilee,” said Lucky. “This is Dakota, and you know Nick already. I was talking to Governor Brown this morning—” he glanced at a cheap flip-phone clipped onto his foal carrier and saddlebag “—and I think he found an activity to keep all your students busy and out from underhoof.”

“I know!” gushed the energetic teacher, bouncing up and down so hard that her pale mane was bouncing in counterpoint. “I talked to the principal at the school here and he said we could borrow his school busses and go to Manehattan and tour the Discovery Center and the KSU butterfly gardens and even out to the university research farms where they raise this world’s cattle! They’re all going to have so much fun! It’s just—” She paused for a moment and looked back over her shoulder out the door where a few seconds ago, a number of small ponies had been playing. “Where did they go?”

“You’d be mobbed,” said Dakota as fast as he could in order to cut off the dangerous idea before it set roots. “Even if you got into town before this evening, there’s enough people out there who want to look at a pony that they’d— It would not be pretty,” he added. “Even if none of your students was kidnapped.”

“Kidnapped?” Cheerilee’s dark green eyes were as big as saucers. “You can’t mean that.”

Both military men nodded, although Nick spoke first. “Human beings are fairly nice, but we’ve got a number of real hard a—” He stole a look at Clover. “Cases,” he finished.

“People have been violent to each other since there have been people,” said Kota bluntly. “They kill for sex or because somebody has stuff they want or just because. We’re just barely tolerant savages with a coat of civilization paint and cell phones. Most people around here who found one of your adorable little ones wandering around would do anything to bring them back to their kind, but there’s still a lot of vicious brutes out there.”

Kota wanted to get in a dig about Army tankers, but thought it would take away from the message, and nothing really came to mind anyway. Maybe later, when he could get Nick cornered and could find out just what it was like to be in the middle of the first few hours of a fuzzy alien invasion. Might even write a useful article out of it. Or better, Crystal could write it. Despite her focus being in the society pages, he envied her ability to cram so much emotion into her articles.

Thousands of sobbing single women across the country will thank me. And Nick will be buried in scented letters. Oh, Hell yeah. Big damn hero, indeed.

“There we go,” purred Lucky, gently cradling his snoozing foal. “Would one of you ‘savages’ mind helping me get Clover into her carrier so she can sleep? Then I can get a cup of coffee safely, and we can chase down the kids for a day of something that they’ll like.”

“Like the Discovery Center in Manehatten?” asked Cheerilee with a re-perking of her alert ears. “It’s inside, so they should be able to close it off to other humans, and if we bring the children in by way of the roof—”

“Whoa there,” said Nick, waving his hands while Kota was busy helping the little winged unicorn into her father’s foal carrier. “You’re not landing a helicopter on the roof of anything in Manhattan.”

“Yes and no,” said Lucky. “I’ve got a couple of ponies out checking on a possibility.”

- - Ω - -

“We can’t thank you enough, Mister Bruener. Our Widgie is all we have.” Widget’s mother, a milk-chocolate colored mare with grease stains in her pale white mane, brushed up against his leg on one side as they walked. “I can hardly wait to see her again. We were so frightened, but your wife has been a tower of support, and all the humans are so nice here.”

“What she said,” echoed Widget’s burly father, a stout earth pony named Heavy Roller who looked like he did not need a jack to lift up a car to change its tire. A strong and silent type, he had been only a few steps away from the house at all times until the present, as if he were determined to be available at a moment’s notice for whatever was needed.

Jon flipped on the light in his machine shop and stifled a yawn. He liked getting up early in the morning, but ponies believed in getting up before morning had even reached for the snooze button. At least breakfast had softened the blow of finding a half-dozen ponies in his kitchen and a line stretching out the door of the old house across the yard. Dad would have been proud of how the building was still providing shelter to those who needed it, even though Maria had floated the possibility about tearing it down once or twice over the years since he passed away. The distinction between the old house’s food and his house’s food today had been something that Jon had not really thought of before.

His house had bacon. And deer sausage. And a pony who had seemingly rooted himself permanently in front of the stove until he ran out of things to cook, or humans to cook for. Jon did not have the time to pay the unicorn much attention, even after being served a hamburger last night that had been simply amazing. Other human volunteers who had been unable or unwilling to return to their own homes after helping the ponies get settled down agreed with his carnivorous food evaluation, and the line reaching out of his kitchen door indicated they had told others also. And some of them brought meat-related supplies just in case Jon’s freezer ran dry before the ponies went home.

So, vegetarian ponies with pancakes and eggs across the yard, slightly less than pure vegetarian ponies and a unicorn keeping the oven constantly busy and feeding the humans a breakfast diet of sausage and other products in his own kitchen. It was distracting to see the way the ponies in his house had just moved in, with the earth pony bakers and their twins in the guest room, a number of teenaged ponies taking over the basement and the entertainment center for an all-night movie binge, and the bat-winged and golden-eyed family moving upstairs into Claire’s old room, under the bed of all things. It was probably less than twenty ponies living in the house, but they moved faster than guppies, which only made Jon think of the rest of the displaced residents scattered around Randolph and the vicinity.

And, of course, the parents of the little unicorn he had hit with his swather, who were looking around Jon’s farm shop like Howard Carter going into the tomb of King Tut.

“Such wonderful things,” breathed Heavy Roller. He moved almost immediately to examine the Volvo station wagon that Claire had pushed into the shop a month ago to get a blown cylinder gasket replaced. The project had never progressed beyond the first few steps, leaving parts scattered all over for him to marvel at and examine at close range.

“You have an inert gas welder!” squealed the mother, much as if she had just seen Elvis. She lit up her horn, which still startled Jon, and floated the TIG welder out into the main floor. “It’s almost like ours,” she added, pulling out the manual and paging through it. “There’s some changes, of course. It even welds aluminum,” she added with a gasp.

“The bicycle parts you were asking about are over here,” said Jon, waving a hand at the entranced ponies until they looked up. “Claire buys broken and scraped bikes after classes at K-State are over, and puts them together for garage sale season. I really don’t understand, though. What do you need a bunch of broken bicycles for?”

- - - - ⧖ - - - -
Time: 10:48 A.M. Central Standard Time, Saturday June 20, 2015
Location: Randolph, Kansas Main street entrance
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The radio by Captain Samantha Rietz’s side gave out a short noise, followed by a precise, “Randolph Main Gate, this is Iceberg. Testing of First Flight is complete with zero failures. We will be landing at your location in two minutes.”

“Roger, Grace,” said Sam with a squeeze to the shoulder microphone. “We’ll clear a space for you.”

She looked up at the car full of sincere family members who seemed so much like the stereotypical ‘We want to see the ponies, Daddy’ cars they had been turning back all morning. This one had three young girls in the back seat, who all gave a subdued squeal when a smiling Corporal Rose floated three pieces of paper in through the open window while giving the same speech she had given an infinite number of times this morning.

“I’m sorry, sir. Access to Randolph is restricted to invited members of the press and residents until Tuesday. Please turn your car around here and follow the officer’s directions to get back onto K-77.”

The dark-pink unicorn in the dark armor sat down on her ‘booster box’ that brought her up to eye level with the drivers and added a little wave to the three girls in the back seat of the car, who were snapping cell phone pictures like crazy. Then the father turned the car around in the indicated space and went back in the direction of the highway, leaving Sam to gesture at the next car ahead.

“You’re just encouraging them,” said Sam to her equine partner. “Giving them a souvenir sheet and a picture is like spraying for ants using sugar water.”

“But they love it so much. After all, they’ve been in the car for over an hour,” said Rose, looking sideways at the taller police officer. The box gave her a much more comfortable position to talk to the drivers in line, and having a pony give the speech made the line travel so much faster that Sam was considering drafting a few members of the pony populi to carry out the task when the equine police officers took a break.

“They’re tired and cranky, and all they want is to get a look at us before we go home.” Rose looked at the proffered credentials of the next vehicle, a rental car with the back stuffed full of camera equipment, and waved it through to where the rest of the press were setting up around the stage. “Besides,” she added once the car had passed, “don’t you see how adorable those children are? I wish we could take one home—” The next car had pulled up, but Rose was looking past it, at a series of three vans several back in line.

“Trouble?” asked Sam.

“Nothing. Yes, move on,” she added to the driver, floating a paper flier to him as he began to pull away. “Just a moment, Samantha.”

The unicorn guard put a hoof to the side of her head and spoke a few quiet words in their musical language, then paused as whoever on the other side of their pony communication equipment talked back to her.

“Captain Rietz, do you have any habitual troublemakers who show up at media announcements,” asked the quiet police pony in a flatter tone of voice than Sam had heard from her so far. Even her cheery magenta coat seemed to have shifted down a step or two in color, making the middle-aged mare seem far more dangerous than she had been just a few moments ago.

“A few protesters at times,” said Sam. “When George W did his Landon Lecture, we got about a hundred of them, but they stayed mostly peaceful. Waved their banners and kept in the security area. Why?”

“Just nerves. Hello, sir. May I see your identification.” Rose glanced down at the driver’s license, then back up at the reddening face of the overheated chubby man. Before he could say anything, she waved a hoof to have the volunteer open the barricade and gave him a nod. “There’s ice water at the other end of the park, sir. Tell them Corporal Rose said to give you a cold bottle and let you sit down for a while in the shade. I’ll send one of the townsponies down to talk with you shortly.”

The car had barely rolled out of reach when Rose reached up to the shoulder pauldron of her armor and squeezed the terrestrial microphone she had on loan from the RCPD spares. “Any medical unit in Randolph, we’re needing medical assistance at the north end of the park. Possible heatstroke. Look for an overweight man driving a—” The unicorn officer gave Sam a sideways look.

“A periwinkle blue Buick Regal with Sedgwick county plates,” said Samantha into her microphone. She nodded and watched as Rose dealt with another car, then looked up as the newest pegasus carriage on Earth swept in to land in the open turnaround spot, dropping almost straight down and rolling less than a foot on the bicycle tires that made up the wheels.

The rest of the odd vehicle was similarly themed, from the expanded aluminum mesh making up the floor to the five lawn chairs welded to it, and the thin tubing that made a ‘fence’ around the outside edge. Both preening pegasi in the minimal traces were obviously enjoying the sudden attention from all of the news crews by the nearby park and the near-universal photography taking place from every single stopped car in the line.

Specialist Grace wobbled cautiously off the skeletal rig, looking much as if the dark green unicorn wanted to kiss the ground instead of walking over to their traffic station and giving a sketchy salute.

“Brought you some cold water,” managed Grace, looking greener than her regular colors. The case of dripping plastic bottles took flight off the pegasus cart in Rose’s magic while Grace simply stood in place with her legs spraddled for stability.

Rose shook her head and nuzzled up to her fellow unicorn, giving her a pat on the back and a kiss on the cheek. “Sorry about that, hun.”

“Don’t like to fly?” asked Sam while opening one of the new chilly bottles and suppressing an overwhelming urge to just fling herself into one of the chariot’s lawn chairs and see what flying was like.

“They did a loop,” said Grace. She reached out with an unsteady hoof and grabbed her own bottle of water. Instead of opening it, she sat down solidly on her rump and literally bit the cap off the bottle. After spitting the cap to one side and taking a good drink, she added, “In Canterlot, I’d have them on charges for violating restricted airspace norms and they’d spend a month peeling carrots.”

Out of her sight, the two pegasi exchanged glances and a high-hoof, although their happy faces abruptly settled into serious when Rose put a hoof to the side of her helmet and said some more horsey words over their private communication channel. Where the landing had been an exercise in delicacy and grace, the takeoff now was almost the exact opposite. One moment the two pegasi were standing there, and the next there were only a few swirls of dust, with the shiny aluminum craft exhibiting a perfect chandelle vertical climb and vanishing into the distance.

“They’re going to get Specialist Titan,” explained Rose while gesturing the next vehicle forward, one of the vans that Sam was starting to suspect. “If there’s any shooting, get behind me. The guard armor should be able to stop any of your projectile weapons.”

“Shooting?” One hand drifted to her waist where her duty issue Glock 22 was secured in a retention holster, but Sam forced herself to take a deep breath and act instead of reacting. She was not some trigger-happy rookie over her head. The Equestrians were armored soldiers, after all, and from the informal discussions she had with her hooved counterparts yesterday, the female ones had extensive experience in their civilian police force before becoming royal guardians, somewhat like the Secret Service, with spears. Well, one spear.

Of course, when the van stopped and the people inside flooded out, waving ‘God Hates Fags’ signs, Sam forced herself to move her hand away from her pistol. All three of the vans had been filled with members of the Felts family, young and old, who lined up and began to shout and scream their usual slogans while the television cameras that had been arrayed to cover the upcoming Equestrian announcement all turned in their direction. Both Rose and Grace looked puzzled at the commotion and the line of screaming that seemed to imply they were extraterrestrial gay lovers from the earlier kiss. Sam kept her back to the majority of the cameras as she bent down and tried to explain Topeka’s most irritating family to the extraterrestrial ponies.

It probably would have gone better if the Felts family had not been only a few feet away, arrayed around the security checkpost and screaming their lungs out. Sam made several attempts at an explanation while trying not to let the shouted vitriol get to her, but the sheer volume of the family’s chants made communication impossible.

At least until Grace’s horn glowed a light green and their voices cut off as if she had hit the ‘Mute’ button on an obnoxious television set.

“—bunch of assholes,” said Sam into Rose’s ear, although thankfully not loud enough to be caught by the legions of television cameras and cell phones pointed in their direction. “What happened?”

All of the family protesters were still screaming and shaking their placards, but in complete and total silence. The rest of the people in the more distant crowd were still perfectly audible, including one grateful person (not a police officer, thankfully) who shouted “Thank God” before being hushed by his nearby companions.

“Mute spell,” said Grace in her usual flat delivery with her horn still glowing a faint green. “It doesn’t actually affect the target, but the space immediately surrounding them, so it is not a violation of Article 14 of the Equestrian Civil Rights code. They can still hear us perfectly fine.” Grace looked at an overweight, middle-aged woman with reddening face as she tried to out-scream the spell to no avail. “You can stop at any time, Ma’am.”

“Actually, you are all blocking traffic,” announced Rose, who had stepped up onto the ‘booster box’ that brought her up to the window height of the cars she had been processing. “Please proceed back into your vehicles, and the Riley County Police Department will guide you to the designated protesting area set up behind the gas station a furlong to the north. If anybody needs a bottle of water for the heat, I’d be glad to provide them.”

The middle-aged mare lifted her bottle of water in her magic and took a sip, giving a pleasant smile to the woman who had worked herself into a such a screeching frenzy that Sam expected foam to start coming out of her mouth, or for her to start speaking in tongues. Very silent tongues.

The RCPD, much like all other police departments, had been well trained on what to do with protesters: remain in control of the situation, keep the protesters away from counter-protesters, and never escalate force inappropriately. In most cases, a protester was much like a peacock, spreading its tail and displaying for the cameras, with no real intent of physical violence. In special cases — fairly rare in Kansas outside of the occasional Aggieville celebration after a football game — individual protesters were violent, and needed to be picked out of a crowd and detained fairly rapidly before they triggered their companions to similar acts, like fire spreading in dry grass.

The Felts family were anything but ordinary protesters. In fact, they had turned protesting into a profitable business model. After all, they were lawyers. The only violence that would occur at a Felts demonstration would be against one of their own by some poor sucker who was so incensed by their signs and rhetoric that they would throw the first punch, and then be sued through the courts for the rest of their lives, as well as anybody else the Felts could include in the suit. Property owners, random passers-by, police, or anybody who dared ‘libel’ them in print, they all were fiscal grist for the mill. The Felts never threw the first or second punch.

Which was why Patrol Captain Samantha Rietz was caught flat-footed when the chubby Felts family member lifted her sign and clubbed the middle-aged unicorn mare like a baby seal.

The moment of stunned inaction did not last. When the stunned unicorn dropped off her platform with all the grace of a sack of potatoes and the middle-aged woman lifted the stick to strike again, this time stripped of its offensive message by the impact against Corporal Rose’s helmet, Sam launched herself forward in a tackle fully worthy of a Nebraska Cornhusker linebacker.

Cameras! Cameras! I’m on camera!

The two of them hit the pavement with Sam grabbing for one clawed hand that was trying to scratch her eyes out and heaving it up behind the woman’s back. She wanted to dislocate it, but not on national television or anywhere else where the action would come back to haunt her.

“You have the right to be silent,” she growled, reaching behind her back for the cuffs. Something behind her crunched like broken bones, but she focused on her task like no arrest she had ever done before. This one was going to stick, damnit. By the time Sam had finished with her Miranda warning and cuffed the thrashing woman, she looked up and saw…

Well, it took her a moment to get her mind wrapped around what was going on. She had to break what she saw into sections, and even then it did not make individual sense.

Every adult member of the Felts family was flat on their bellies, and the ones who were looking in any direction, were not looking at her.

The children, which Sam had never really understood the logic of the Felts dragging along to their profanity-laced protests, had jumped forward and were huddled around the dazed pink unicorn, alternately crying and casting dagger-like looks at their adult family members.

Corporal Rose was lying sprawled out on the pavement and did not appear severely injured other than her helmet being knocked a little askew, but it was hard to see for all the worried little children huddled around her.

Specialist Grace was taking another sip of water, just watching as if this kind of thing happened every day.

And… there was a new pony crouched just a few feet away, with the splintered remains of a protest sign stick scattered around him and a look that made Sam want to flatten down on the ground too. Sam had confronted some violent individuals during her career, some of which had been so hopped up on drugs they had no idea of pain or danger, but this dark pegasus had red murder in his eyes, and from his sharp bared teeth with a few small wooden splinters still sticking out of his snarling mouth, was considering just who to vigorously disembowel first.

Oddly enough, Sam had never felt safer.

Things began to move a little faster after that, and it was not until many hours later when Sam looked up the video clip on YouTube that the whole story became clearer. The dragon-winged pegasus guard named Pumpernickel had just dropped into the growing fray, plucking a stick out of the hand of one of the Felts men who looked as if he were about to take a swing at Sam’s back. It was difficult to tell, although from the dozen or so video clips on YouTube, some of which were set to music, a jury would be looking at a full 3-D reconstruction of the events during the trial. Which would blow another few months out of Sam’s useful life.

When a grey body-builder body type unicorn named Specialist Titan arrived at the scene, he began using his magic to carry the three unoccupied vans across the highway and deposited them in the ‘Tow field’ for later removal, while the RCPD collected the prisoners. All of the Felts clan then was taken to Manhattan for processing, a task which Sam could not help but think about. After all, the trials would probably take up a huge fraction of her life for the next few months, with video.

She was just standing around with the pony officers, watching their replacements start the process of making the ‘Randolph visitors line’ start moving again, when the older pony officer came walking up to their positions. Both Rose and Pumpernickel tensed when they saw him approach, but Grace looked up at her with an apologetic expression.

“Allow me to apologize in advance, Patrol Captain Rietz. Sergeant Hardhooves tends to more… descriptive language when he’s angry.”

And the snow-white pony stomping his way in their direction did look angry. Furious, even. The tips of his ears were red, and Sam could swear she saw steam wafting out of them.

“Corporal Rose Thorn!” he bellowed once he was within firing range. “Am I to understand that a civilian struck you?”

“Yes, sir!” responded Rose, who was drawn up into a stiff salute.

“A human civilian?” he continued, coming to a halt just a few steps away. “One of these slow, ungainly, awkward, unbalanced, humans managed to hit one of Luna’s elite guard?”

“She had a stick,” volunteered Pumpernickel, who promptly seemed to melt into the ground like a scoop of chocolate ice-cream in the Kansas heat when Hardhooves turned a fierce glare in his direction.

“A stick,” he managed through his clenched teeth with great effort. “Was it a pointed stick, perchance?”

Pumpernickel returned to his rigid, eyes-forward pose. “Sir, no sir!”

Hardhooves slowly turned back to Rose, much like a cannon moving to a new field of fire. “Corporal Rose Thorn, you are officially relieved of duty pending the outcome of the investigation, and also reduced in rank one grade. You will report to the command post at Farmer Bruener’s house for a full debriefing, which will be sent to your Divine Sovereign, Princess Luna, for her close examination to see if you are worthy of remaining in her service. During this time, it is my job to see what can be done with your disobedient, incompetent, idiotic self! Grace!”

“Yes, sir?” Grace remained exactly as she had been, in a perfect ‘attention’ pose that Sam suspected she could have remained in for weeks, without showing a single hair out of place.

“Escort Specialist Rose to the human paramedics and have her injury examined. Dismissed.”

“One moment, sir.” Grace turned to Pumpernickel, who seemed ready to flee into the sky at the slightest provocation. “Stick out your tongue, Optio.”

Pumpernickel shook his head and kept his mouth closed.

Grace turned to look at Hardhooves. Hardhooves turned to look at Pumpernickel. The dark bat-winged pegasus opened his mouth and stuck out his oddly-orange tongue.

“I see,” said Grace after moving closer to examine the damp digit. “Splinters.” She turned back to Hardhooves and continued in her regular measured speech, as if she were lecturing at a classroom. “Optio Pumpernickel has been on duty since our arrival, an estimated two full days counting the Equestrian period pre-portal. Once he has been treated for wood ingestion, I would suggest that he be ordered to bed until this evening, when he can resume his duties.”

“There’s too much—” started the dark pegasus, only to cringe back at the looks he received.

“Agreed, Grace. Take both of our injured children over to the aid station so their wounds can be treated. I expect to see your report by this evening, just in time to upset my dinner plans.” Hardhooves waited until the three other ponies had moved away before nudging Samantha wordlessly in the direction of the roadside, where they had a moment of privacy.

“Sorry about that, Miss Rietz,” murmured Hardhooves without moving his lips. “I suspect Rose triggered that whole event just to milk a little sympathy for our presence here. I’ll make sure she’s properly punished. I hope we did not inconvenience you too much.”

“Not at all,” said Sam after bending down far enough to talk directly into his ear. “By the way, this conversation never happened.”

“I understand totally. Other than I apologized for the incompetence of my officers, and you accepted,” said Hardhooves with a tiny hint of a suppressed smile in the corner of his cheeks. “I suspect this will make it easier for your people to deal with those annoying twits.”

“Yeah, but it’s going to be a royal pain in the ass.”

Hardhooves nodded. “A Code Blueblood situation. I know it well. We’ll try to make it up to you. I’ve been talking to some of your military, and I suspect your office will find a little Equestrian present before we leave the day after tomorrow. After all, armor enchants are fairly easy.”

Samantha rolled her shoulders, feeling the weight of the ballistic vest in the Kansas sunshine. “If you can just make them self-cooling, I’ll… be appreciative. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got hours and hours worth of delightful paperwork to deal with.”

“Also here,” said Hardhooves. “At least those crazy people will be locked up and out of our manes until we’re gone.”

“Probably not, other than the one who attacked your officer,” admitted Sam. “The rest will be out on bail by this evening.”

Hardhooves gave her a baffled squint.

“Of course, your legal representative should probably file a restraining order against them,” added Sam. “Which should be trivial, given the video from today. They’re going to sue, of course, so a countersuit… well, you should talk with your lawyer.” She thought for a moment and added, “I can swing by the house tomorrow night and add a copy of our police report to yours, fill in any discrepancies, and by coincidence, bring along a fine bottle of twelve year old Glenlivet scotch. No lawyers involved, I promise.”

The old soldier’s mouth turned up in a smile despite his best efforts to remain somber. “Thank you, kind lady. We’ll take you up on that. Off the record, of course. I just hope the next place Princess Twilight throws us is somewhere without lawyers and criminals, but I repeat myself. Maybe on a deserted tropical beach, surrounded by palm trees and gentle breezes.”

“Where you’d get sunburn, hurricanes, and tropical diseases,” completed Sam. “At least here we have swimming pools and friendly neighbors.”

- - - - ⧖ - - - -
Time: 11:20 A.M. Central Standard Time, Saturday June 20, 2015
Location: Living Water Ranch, Olsburg Kansas
- - - - ⧖ - - - -

For humans, the definition of ‘A Fun Place’ varies by age. Old ladies may like to spend the entire day in the quilting store, while teens are perfectly happy in the mall all day, but when the sun is hot and the kids need a place to play, nothing beats a swimming pool.

Particularly a pool where the kids don’t need swimming suits.

“Cannonball!” declared Featherweight, launching himself off the diving board and making a leisurely double flip with a half twist before knifing into the water below. He surfaced in a spray with tiny wings beating against the water surface while calling out, “Brr! That’s cold!”

“I see Pulitzer,” mused Dakota Henderson, turing his camera to frame the next shot of three young ponies preparing to jump off the diving board all at once while a panicked Cheerilee bolted in their direction. He splashed his feet in the cool water and looked over at Nick, who likewise had taken off his shoes for the expedient of sitting at the edge of the pool and watching the ongoing Equestrian youthful chaos. “Crystal doesn’t know what she’s missing.”

“I ain’t going in,” said Nick. “Didn’t bring a pair of trunks, and the last thing your Frisco paper needs is a picture of a naked black man in the pool with the kids.”

Natives of San Francisco don’t call it Frisco. Besides, they’d probably say it was avant-garde,” said Kota, popping off another shot and looking around for another target.

The adult ponies who had accompanied them via the newly built pegasus carriage to the Christian retreat (which thankfully had a vacancy for today) were sprawled out on their own towels with their little ones, taking the opportunity to nap under the shade of pool umbrellas or out in the sun to bake. There was the dark, dragon-winged mare with her little foal draped over her back, who both looked washed-out in the shade, as well as the brilliant neon pegasus who fairly glowed while stretched out on a sunlit towel. They were all asleep and snoring, other than Miss Thermal’s energetic young colt who Nick was taking care of in the shallow end of the pool.

“I think Standing Water needs another swim diaper,” said Nick, holding up the bright blue pegasus and moving back along the swim deck toward a trash can.

“Got it,” declared Lucky, who was sitting right next to Kota so his little filly had a good view of the fascinating camera, all full of switches she was not supposed to flip and buttons she was not supposed to touch. “Here, hold Clover for me, please.”

Reaching behind him to put the camera out of reach into its bag, Kota scooped up the squirming little filly and looked deep into her sparkling violet eyes. “You think you can give me that look and play with my camera, don’t you, little girl? Well, no you don’t! No you don’t,” he added, rubbing his nose against hers regardless of the chance of catching interdimensional sniffles.

Clover giggled and smiled, which was worth all of the Pulitzer prizes and press accolades in the world. Kota held her lower so she could splash her tiny hooves in the water without actually swimming, an activity that seemingly terrified and fascinated both her and her father, but it gave Kota the opportunity to watch the odd sight of Lucky digging around in his diaper bag at the side of the pool.

At first glance, it did not look much odder than anybody else digging around in a bag, but when Lucky had dug down a distance and put his head into the bag too in order to guide his exploration, Kota could hear his grumbly voice drifting out.

“Swim diapers, where in the world did she file those? Diaper cream, diaper powder, dippy-doo picker-uppers for when you can’t find diapers and she does her business in the grass… Ah, here we go. Diapers, types thereof. Zero to one month, one to three months, diapers with cloth coverings on the outside for formal occasions, extra absorbent diapers for long trips…” By this time, all but the hindquarters of the green stallion had vanished in the bag. “What age is Standing Water, Mister Henderson?”

“I don’t know.” Dakota looked at where his army buddy was trying to de-diaper the uncooperative colt. “Nine months, I think. Old enough that he really should be potty trained.”

“Potty?” The blue colt quit fighting and squirmed around so all four hooves could be on the concrete pool deck. “Potty!” he declared with the staccato clatter of tiny steel shoes on concrete that was not getting him anywhere soon. “Potty! Potty!”

Nick, looking very uncomfortable at his parental role, led his winged ward in the direction of the Mens room while Kota split his attention between them and the sight of Lucky struggling to get back out of his saddlebag before it devoured him.

“A little help, here?”

Kota sat the infant unicorn/pegasus on the pool deck, a sufficient distance away from the water that he could still make a grab for her if she decided to dive in, and went to haul the heavy stallion out of his bag. Lucky emerged with a number of items in his teeth, which he spat out onto the concrete before rubbing his neck.

“I think I may have toppled one of the stacks,” he admitted. “It’s going to be a mess to clean— Clover!”

Kota whirled around, only to see his camera vanish back into the bag in front of the tiny infant pony. For just the smallest fraction of a second, he could have sworn the camera had been disassembled into all of its component parts, but when he scooped it up out of the bag and examined it, everything was still just perfect. The foal, on the other hand, looked as if she were about to burst out in tears, and Kota scooped her up in his other arm.

“Hey, don’t cry. And no, I’m not giving you my camera,” he added when the tears vanished and little green hooves promptly began to reach.

“That’ll last five minutes, tops,” said Lucky. He dropped a tube of sunscreen, a foal’s floppy sun hat, a small swim diaper, and several other things next to Kota before heading to the bathroom with the larger swim diaper. It took far more than five minutes, but when Lucky returned alongside the owner of the Living Water ranch carrying all the chips and drinks for a snack break, Kota was holding the camera up in front of both of them and letting the little unicorn/pegasus trip the shutter.

After all, it did get more smiles from his audience.

While the ranch staff distributed lemonade in red Solo cups to the thirsty horde, Lucky sat back down next to Kota and passed him a loaded platter, which he had been balancing on his back somehow.

“Iced tea for us, plenty of ice, and enough sugar at the bottom to form drifts.” The pony tilted his fedora forward to cover his eyes better and stretched out on his beach towel, taking a sip out of the glass and just relaxing in the sun. “You know, I’ve been needing a vacation.”

Clover gave out a little coo of agreement and took one of the extra camera filters in her mouth, climbing down Kota until she could curl up next to her father and examine her trophy in greater detail. Kota wanted to take their picture, but went along with Lucky’s desire for anonymity and returned to photographing the thirsty horde. Or herd. Or whatever you called a whole collection of cute young ponies. “So what’s taking Nick so long?” he asked after several more pictures, including the start of a water ball game of some sort masterminded by one green unicorn filly that he could have sworn had a mermaid tail while under the water.

Lucky slipped on a pair of sunglasses and flattened out a little more on his towel. “He’s attempting to potty and diaper Thermal’s young colt, a task that ancient heroes of both worlds would have despaired at. Give him about an hour, and we’ll go in with a bucket and a mop.”

In the end, Lucky was wrong. It took two buckets.