Farmer Bruener Has Some Ponies

by Georg

13. Saturday Night Fervor

Farmer Bruener Has Some Ponies
Saturday Night Fervor

Dorothy Gale: Why, what is that?
Coach Driver: That, my dear, is a 'horse of a different color.'

― The Wonderful Wizard of Oz

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Time: 8:12 P.M. Central Standard Time, Saturday June 20, 2015
Location: The Bruener Farm, Randolph, Kansas
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The proper celebration for getting the mess tent and all of its associated generators, water systems, and stuff up and running for the ponies was, by default, a gathering of the military crunchies and tread-heads away from military food and over by the Bruener farm for an old-fashioned cookout. It had not really been planned, per se, so there was no HIWIC⁽*⁾ involved, only the natural tendency of military to herd when off-duty and trade stories about the strange places they had been, and were in now.
(*) Head Idiot What’s In Charge. Sometimes ‘Of This Cluster****’ is implied.

“So there I was,” said Specialist Left, holding a hoof up above his head in an angled dive, “losing feathers out of one wing faster than Celestia after a cake, with a horde of angry warthogs below waiting for me to drop out of the sky on them.”

“You were drunk, too,” said Specialist Right, who followed up by hoisting the last Prince of Pilsen in a salute to its fallen comrades. “And you forgot to mention those warthogs were all sows.”

Left brought his hoof over to his chest and looked down at the dry grass that the human and Equestrian soldiers were gathered around in a circle. “After three months in Zebrica doing embassy protection with my brother, they were looking mighty fine indeed.”

The soldiers roared with laughter, including both of the pegasus twins. The evening was getting off to a good start with various beers and sodas in the iced kiddie pool back by the house and the Weber gas grill, actually two grills, one for the Equestrian military and one for the humans.

Which brought another oddity to the collective group once a few more Bud Lights were consumed.

“You guys are stationed in Canterlot,” said Nick to the four Royal Guards in the group, “and yet more than half of your stories have been about this tiny little town at the bottom of the mountain. What gives?”

Titan took an unusual interest in a passing bird, the unicorn Epsilon took a hefty bite out of his potato salad, Left looked down at the fascinating ground, but Right simply lifted his own beer. “We have our weird stuff in Canterlot too, you know.”

“The former Nightmare Moon as a princess,” said Left. “That was a shock.”

“Not as much as Princess Twilight Sparkle coming out of nowhere,” countered Right.

“Technically, Princess Twilight is in Ponyville now,” said Left. “Along with that royal goof of hers. And don’t forget the wedding.”

“I’d say the Princess of Love’s wedding beats it because it happened twice before she moved out into a kingdom of her own,” said Titan. “And had that baby of hers, but that doesn’t count, I suppose.”

“Alicorn babies,” said Left, rolling his eyes. “They’re princess-powered adorabombs. Talk about strange.”

“Specialist Grace!” said Epsilon, straightening up and using a napkin to wipe a dab of potato salad off his face. “What brings you here?”

Nick had not gotten the opportunity to get a good look at the jade-green unicorn since his abrupt introduction to the Equestrians yesterday, other than a few direct orders snapped in his direction much the same as if she were a bomb disposal technician giving directions on which wires to cut. The scruffy green stallion to her side was a far better communicator and social partner, and the little grass-colored unicorn foal in his carrier far more fun to play with, but Specialist Grace was all business, with a fierce intensity all her own.

Those pale green eyes swept across the military gathering, and unconsciously every soldier, human or pony, pulled in their gut, straightened their spine, and adjusted the fit of their uniforms. Without changing her serious expression in the slightest, Specialist Grace announced, “We have arrived at the party, ‘Lucky.’ What are your orders now?”

“I just needed some time away from the townsponies,” said Lucky, pushing his fedora back on his head so he could look up at the humans without shading his eyes. “The Methodist church found a projector, so they’re going to show The Wizard of Oz on the side of one of the buildings downtown. I’ve seen it a couple times in a different dimensional excursion, so I thought I’d take a break.” He scratched one ear and frowned. “I wonder how different this one is.”

“How many dimensions have you visited?” asked Nick.

“A few.” Lucky gave a non-committal flip of his wrist. “It’s a lot more interesting to hang around with the natives and learn about them than to sit around all day and talk about my boring self.”

“Which is why you will never be proper royalty,” said Left, lifting his beer bottle despite a sharp look from Grace. “Thank Celestia. Somebody get Greenie a beer.”

The little foal in Lucky’s carrier had been looking around with bright eyes and twitching nose during the whole conversation, but finally locked her eyes on Dakota Henderson. Kota had the misfortune of putting his unfinished bacon cheeseburger back onto its foam plate when the mismatched pony trio had arrived, and then putting the plate down on Four-One’s tracks while trying to get his camera out without making a fuss.

“Cam’a!” she declared, wriggling in her restraints. “Cam’a! B’kon!”

“Bedtime,” said Lucky in a very firm, parental tone.

Five minutes later when Dakota was holding the cute foal in his lap and trying to wipe off the considerable amount of drool that even a tiny scrap of bacon makes when fed to a winged unicorn, he was starting to recognize some of his own failed history with child rearing. Or at least the small fraction he had achieved before the divorce.

“You need to set some boundaries,” said Kota while holding his foam plate away from the appealing little foal and trying not to see the resulting irony. With one quick bite, he finished the last of his bacon cheeseburger and resumed mopping up Clover’s drool before it made puddles around her chin. It was just him and Lucky now, since the conversational circles had broken into smaller groups with the arrival of Grace, who acted much like a fast neutron in a cluster of unstable isotopes. “Did you have any kids before this one?”

Lucky swallowed his bite of potato salad and shook his head. “We were pretty lucky to have this one. Sometimes it seemed as if the whole world was trying to keep us from reproducing.”

“I think that can be said about any pregnancy,” said Kota while thinking of his first daughter, who was born while he was on deployment. “Are you and your wife going to have any more?”

It was only reflex for Dakota to look up at Specialist Grace nearby while asking the question, since both ponies were different shades of green. He had thought she was out of earshot, but ponies ears were more sensitive than humans, and she seemed to take his casual glance as something with far more meaning. She stopped cold in the middle of a drink, and lemonade sprayed everywhere.

We will have to deal with that as time permits,” said Lucky. “Do you need any help, Grace?”

“I’m fine,” she managed between coughs.

“That does remind me,” added Lucky. “I understand you and your significant other in the guard have been getting serious, Miss Grace. Have you considered having any foals of your own?”

Dakota had known some real bright people in his time, even in the Marines. Men who knew it all and were not afraid to tell you all about it, from their unlikely experiences in war to their unbelievable stories about women. Most of them were frauds to one degree or another, but some of them were off the charts brilliant, and had thought every thought in existence, from Plotinus to Present. Dakota had pegged the forest-green unicorn as one of those oddball geniuses from the first time he heard her, a thought that had been reinforced by every off-the-cuff comment of her military peers.

The comment did solidify two firm facts in Dakota’s mind. The first was that Grace and Lucky were not a couple, despite her constant presence at his side. Which was probably a good thing, since Grace was wound tighter than a clock spring, and Lucky was a friendly, open, chatty type, particularly around children of whatever species.

The second fact he realized was that Grace had quite probably never considered the possibility that her body might one day produce progeny. It was obviously a thought with considerable impact. From her expression, Lucky might as well have hit her over the head with a sledgehammer.

- - Ω - -

Several hours later under the moonlight, after the informal party had nearly completely wound down, Nick found himself alone with the pegasus twins, who had both been fairly light with their drinking. Normally, a couple of beers would loosen the tongue of a military man. In pegasi, it simply seemed to be turned into energy at an accelerated rate. And in unicorns… Well, since Specialist Titan had not touched anything stronger than an orange soda since his arrival, Nick really had nothing to compare against. Then again, the stout unicorn was entrusted with a spear, the only weapon that the entire invasion force possessed, so a little bit of teetotaling was not out of line.

“I’ve got to admit, I’ve seen a lot of stuff in my life, but nothing like the weird crap you guys deal with on a daily basis.” Nick nodded in the direction of the Bruener farmhouse, where one of the ponies was still frying up hamburgers for a constantly refreshing line of townspeople, soldiers, police officers, and any innocent passers-by who happened to catch wind of the ongoing operation, even this late at night. “Sizzler there could go to work for any five-star restaurant in Kansas City pulling down a six-figure salary. An entire nation of herbivorous equines and you have the greatest meat-cooking chef in history.”

He turned slightly to point at the Bruener’s porch, where Lucky was rocking his wide-awake foal on the bench swing in a futile attempt at inducing drowsiness. “Greenie there seems to have visited more dimensions and other worlds than Carter has little pills, and his daughter is so cute she could induce heart attacks at a quarter-mile range. And yet, you have to pull teeth to get him to talk about himself, and he tries his best to keep that little cutie out of the camera lens.”

It took only a small motion to indicate a smaller earth pony colt a few feet away from Lucky, where he had set up an art easel at ground level and was sketching with a pencil clutched in his teeth. “Then you’ve got kids who can do stuff better than some of our adults who train their entire lives. That one does drawings, there’s a pegasus I saw training one of the search dogs, and one of the kids dug up a fossil. Not just a bone fragment, a whole skull. She’s got a skull on her rump and she digs up skulls, for Christ’s sake.”

Nick turned and pointed uphill at where a faint green light was tracing up the road toward the highway, around the blinking yellow lights of the barricades put up to prevent anybody from dropping into the hole in the gravel county road. “Then you’ve got Specialist Grace, a unicorn so bright she could be used as spotlight with a bonus talent of perfect memory, if I remember right. Why in the world did she go from second in command of the city police force to a simple recruit?”

“Not a simple recruit,” said Left. “Anything but. Luna put her and three others into the Royal Guard as a message.”

“Look out, here come the girls,” declared Right, giving his bottle of soda a quick heft and draining the last out of the bottom. “Well nigh onto a thousand years of male-only Royal Guards and I will be sent straight to Tartarus if I didn’t agree that they’ve really helped shake us out of our slump.”

“Nightmare Moon could have gone through us like a spear through butter,” volunteered Titan, which was more words than he had said during most of his time in their little group. “Changelings stomped us flat during the wedding. Discord treated us like toys and Tirek didn’t even break stride when he drained all of our magic.”

Left grinned, looking somewhat predatory in the shadows of their meeting place on the other side of Four-One. “Yeah, but Twilight Sparkle and her friends beat him like a rug. There’s a crater out by Ponyville that’s all full of water now, but you can see it from Canterlot without a telescope. Princess power. Ain’t nothing like it.”

“Wait a minute,” said Nick. “Are the princesses unicorns or pegasi? I’m getting them confused.”

“A little of each,” rumbled Titan. “Unicorn magic, pegasi flight, and earth pony strength.”

“Oh,” said Nick as the light dawned. “Like Lucky’s daughter. Does that mean she’s a—”

There was something about the air that shifted around Nick, a sense of restrained danger that made his fingers reach unconsciously for the lever that would drop him into the belly of his tank despite being several steps outside of it. Both of the pegasi shifted on the tips of their hooves with wings ever so slightly raised, and Titan’s magic glowed brighter on the spear.

“Stand down.”

The voice was low and predatory, like James Earl Jones stalking toward them in the darkness. The three guard ponies tensed, then relaxed to what could be considered parade rest when a much darker pegasus just fucking appeared as if he was fading in from the shadows around the tank. Thankfully, both bat-like wings were relaxed and tucked securely on his back, and his fuzzy ears were perked forward instead of laying back, which were behavioural cues that Nick had been learning how to read.

There were other cues that Nick was more nervous about, in particular the white tracery of lines across the pegasus’ wings and hide, showing more well-healed scars than any horse-creature should have picked up in a lifetime of fighting. One notched ear flicked, and those big golden eyes turned up to give Nick a neutral stare, much as if the pegasus had already calculated that Nick was harmless enough that he didn’t need to be killed and buried somewhere out in the dark.

The problem was that Nick’s mind was working its way up the chain of observations without being prompted, something that had kept him alive out in the field but could possibly kill him now, or so it seemed.

“She’s a princess. You were trying to protect the prince and the princess when you all got caught up in that… portal thing,” he said flatly. “Wingless Prince Lucky and Princess Clover, stranded in a violent dimension full of human beings. No wonder you’re jumpy, and Lucky didn’t want any pictures taken of his little girl.”

“We protect all ponies,” rumbled the dark pegasus in a voice like distant thunder. “We swore an oath.”

Nick returned the stoic gaze of the pony guards. Their expressions reminded him a little of a Seal team he once had the pleasure of partying with, at the exact moment one of his fellow tankers had said something derogatory and physically impossible about the Navy. And if what he had heard so far was correct, the Equestrian Royal Guards would make a fair fight against most of the Seal Teams. Which meant...

“We’re on the same side,” said Nick. “Anything comes after that little girl or any of you, for that matter, and we’ll defend you to the last man. We swore an oath too.”

“Defend us with what?” The dark pegasus rapped on the hull of Four-One with one shod hoof, making a dull thudding noise. “Your siege engines are slow and clumsy, needing to be transported from place to place by your wheeled vehicles upon paved roads, and even then, they fall through the bridges. None of your warriors are even armed with more than projectile weapons. No swords, no spears, not even clubs. Against a threat like Tirek, you could do nothing but inconvenience him.”

“Inconvenience…” Nick struggled to keep his composure. “Look, Lieutenant…”

“Optio Pumpernickel,” said the dark pegasus. “Personal guard to Princess Luna, heir of Clan Starlight and Blutwache to the High Nest of the Griffon Empire.”

“Lieutenant Nicolas Comena,” said Nick after a quick breath. “United States Army, commander of 1st Squad, Fourth Cavalry. Two deployments into Afghanistan, and I guarantee you that if Tirek comes over that hill looking to harm you ponies, we will leave him with more holes than a sponge, including a couple in his center of mass that you could throw a bowling ball through. This baby—” Nick patted the cool bulk of Four-One “—can put a sabot round through a gnat’s ass a mile away while driving across a plowed field, or spray a thousand ball bearings across a few hundred yards of killing field, leaving nothing but chunks of dead bodies behind. It’s got three machine guns to lay down fire, my favorite being the fifty cal, and that will take an arm off with just one shot. Yea though we drive through the Valley of Death, we fear no evil because we’re the baddest motherfuckers on the planet. There is nothing that walks, crawls, or drives that the main gun can’t blow straight through before they even see us. So while your Tirek is scratching away at the armor, we’ll be sitting inside blowing holes through him until there won’t even be shoes left. Sir.”

The grim expression on Pumpernickel’s face turned up at the very far corners of his lips. “I checked with Specialist Grace. There aren’t even any enchantments on your armor. He’d tear your vehicle apart with his bare hands, like tissue paper.”

“What, like you could poke through it with that spear?” asked Nick while pointing to the only weapon the ponies had brought with them. With a silver leaf-shaped blade and a wooden shaft that left the whole thing shorter than Nick, the spear did not look very dangerous. That didn’t stop Pumpernickel’s smile from getting bigger when he motioned Titan to pass over the spear, then walked over to the front of the tank.

“Wait a sec,” called out Nick. He climbed up on the tank and rapped against the half-open hatch. “Sergeant Spasowski, get your crew up here. I think you want to see this.”

“Yes, sir.” There was a series of scuffling noises from inside of Four-One before the alternate crew began to pop out, mostly looking as if they had been dozing or reading to pass the time. Spasowski was the least mussed of them, because Nick suspected the tall Polish NCO secretly occupied his leisure time by ironing his clothes instead of more Army-like activities. Once he had all of the crew briefed and watching, Nick gave a nod to the dark pegasus holding the spear and sat back on the tank to watch.

The first thrust Pumpernickel made was interesting, because Nick had not expected the pony to grasp the spear under one foreleg and one wing, giving a three-legged hop forward that scraped the tip of the spear along the front glacis plate and peeled off a long thread of paint. A second and third thrust made little more progress, although it did slowly remove Nick’s anticipatory smile. There was a lot of force behind those legs, and if the spear had been pointed at Nick’s own guts, it would have gone through him like a hot knife through butter.

“I don’t understand,” muttered the pegasus, who peered at the scratches he had made on Four-One’s armor. “Titan, come here and look at this. Do you see any enchantments?”

Nick suppressed a comment about the hardened steel used on the outer skin of the tank, and the far tougher ceramic core that—

A last strenious jab of the spear broke through the outer steel skin of the tank and into the ceramic Chobham armor with a loud crunch. Only about a third of the spear’s blade had actually penetrated into the armor, which was still far more than Nick had expected, particularly after seeing one of the M1s in Afghanistan that had taken a half-dozen RPG hits with nothing more than paint scraping and some metal pits to show for the effort.

Getting the spear back out was a more complicated process, involving a lot of pony frowns and tugging, along with some masculine grunts. Eventually, Pumpernickel got the spear extracted and passed it over to Titan, who continued to use it to give little pokes and prods to the small hole as if it were some sort of toy.

“You were right,” admitted Pumpernickel grudgingly. “I was basing my estimates on the other armored vehicles I visited earlier.”

“The APCs the MPs are using? Aluminum,” said Nick. “That’s why I went into tanks. I’m not beer, and I don’t deserve to be in a can.”

“I suppose I owe you an apology,” rumbled Pumpernickel, looking significantly more abashed than his previous fierce demeanor, much like a fierce rottweiler who had just been whapped across the nose with a rolled-up newspaper.

“Think nothing of it,” said Nick with a dismissive wave. “I’m pretty sure if I was responsible for guarding one of the British little princes or princesses in some foreign dimension, I’d go stark raving mad. It’s bad enough just shepherding my crew through a deployment overseas.”

“We love you too, Lieutenant,” said one of the men on the tank, which triggered a group laugh, both humans and horses, although the laughter died away instantly when Titan put the tip of the spear against the tank’s glacis plate with his magic and pushed.

There was… Nick wanted to call it a noise, even though it was more an absence of sound and the intake of a half-dozen lungs as the magic-driven spear punched into the M1’s Chobham armor until the blade had completely vanished, and the hefty unicorn could not push the spear any further in.

Or pull it out, no matter how much he pulled, until his magic flared up in a white flash and he stumbled back, holding onto the wooden shaft of the broken spear.

“Fuuuuck,” said Nick in one long breath as he scrambled over to the hole in the tank’s armor and peered at the broken spear blade buried inside. “Holy fucking Christ.”

“Sergeant Hardhooves is going to kill me,” murmured Titan, still holding onto the spear shaft in his magic. “I don’t know if we can make another one before we go back on Monday with the tools here.” The hefty unicorn lowered his voice and cringed, looking up at where the humans were all peering wide-eyed at the hole in their tank. “Is your general going to be mad?”

“That you broke our tank?” Nick put both of his hands up to his face and breathed out. “Or that the aliens that are going home the day after tomorrow left an example of their technology embedded in a sixty-ton mobile safe? He’s going to yell a little, probably make some threats, but tomorrow I’ll bet there’s a brand new tank here while my baby’s going back to the most secure storage location Ft. Riley has. A few hundred scientists from the five-sided puzzle palace will be studying this until I’m old and grey.”

The baffled unicorn seemed to be having difficulty with translating his English, so it warranted some Mil-Speak clarification. “No, he won’t be angry. In fact,” added Nick as an officer-level idea came to life in his head, “didn’t you say something about making a replacement spear? Because the Army maintenance division has the metalworking equipment, and if your sergeant gives permission, I’m positive General Hackmore would roll out the red carpet to make it happen tomorrow. That is unless there are any classified enchantments on the weapon that your people wouldn’t want our people looking at.”

“I don’t think so,” said Titan, his solid face set in an expression of intense memory searching. “Specialist Grace would know for certain. I just don’t think we should leave…”

All of the pony guards looked over at the house, where Lucky had just managed to rock his little foal to sleep on the porch swing. It made a beautiful scene, with father and dozing daughter taking a few minutes of relaxation in the cool Kansas night, while a few feet away a small pony with a paintbrush gripped in his jaws was painting their picture in a fierce blur of motion.

“You don’t want to leave your secret Very Important Ponies unguarded,” said Nick. “Speaking of which,” he added, turning to the backup crew of Four-One and clearing his throat. “They’re classified need-to-know as of now, and nobody else needs to know until they’re gone. If I hear one fucking rumor about Prince Lucky or Princess Clover, or see one picture posted…”

Several of the crew promptly began poking buttons on their phones, while Sergeant Spasowski gave a short nod. “I understand, sir. I’ll take care of it.”

“Very well.” Nick turned back to the embarrassed unicorn. “Security for your special case shouldn’t be a problem. I know there’s a squad of Army Rangers out at the fort. I can ask the general quietly about rotating them in here while you gentlesapients forge a few spears and drive our physicists crazy. And in exchange, I’m positive the general will be more than happy to show off our human weapons out at the firing range.”

While the pony guards used the communication devices built into their helmets to contact the most probably sleeping and therefore more crabby then usual sergeant, Nick got out his phone and proceeded to hopscotch over about six superior officers as General Hackmore had ordered him to do in case anything weird happened.

And this certainly qualified.

“Hello, general,” said Nick when the phone was answered. He could hear cheering ponies in the background from where the pony movie marathon had proceeded into an extra show or two, so he relaxed slightly since he had not woken the general up, thankfully. “This is Lieutenant Comena. I’ve got something a little important to show you, but not critical, so it can wait a few hours if you want. Uh-huh. Okay, I suppose it can’t hurt to tell you over the phone.”

Restraining a smirk, Nick continued in his best military fashion. “Sir, I’m pleased to report that our tank platoon has disarmed the entire alien invasion. Yeah, when we were talking shop, one of them was playing around and stuck their spear into the bow of Four-One. Oh, not all the way through, sir. About half-way. Yes, it’s stuck as much as anything has been stuck in the history of stuckness. You’re coming out to see it? I don’t blame you a bit, sir. Oh, and we’re going to need a new tank. This isn’t coming out of my pay, is it sir?”

- - - - ⧖ - - - -
Time: Saturday June 20, 2015
Location: Kansas University Medical Center, Fourth Floor
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A hospital was a place where one stood a smaller chance of dying from a disease than from boredom. Claire was starting to think that she should pass the title of pony-sitter to some other human and sneak away before she expired from some of the most interesting boredom she had ever been through.

Then again, she had never been able to interview such fascinating people… err… ponies about places she was dying to go see herself.

She had recorded most of an hour of video with the KC Star photographer snapping away in the background, then edited a short segment of it for her blog, Claire Out There with Widget and Goose looking over her shoulder. Both ponies were a fascinating study in contrasts, small town and big city, light and dark, excited about people and excited about mechanical things, and both just as frustrated that they had been unable to see most of their world’s fabulous places.

Since the interviews were about them, not herself, Claire limited her own input to gentle conversational nudges to move things along or focus on the things that humans would find interesting. Granny Smith was awake during their chat, but kept perfectly silent, as if she too was feeling like a young pony back on her farm, looking at the big unapproachable world out there. Claire would have loved to talk with all of them for days on end, if not for the visit of US Ambassador Power, who turned out to be only the first in a long stream of visitors. Thankfully, the FBI temporary office somewhere in the building regulated the room time of the various ambassadors, representatives, and various VIPs to a maximum of ten minutes with five minute breaks. It miffed Claire just a little, since she had developed an irrational possessive streak toward ‘her’ ponies.

It was hard to think of them as their own creatures, even after Claire had caught herself talking in baby-words to Widget. Thankfully, the young unicorn was the forgiving type, and reassured the human that she did not resent the treatment, although she promised to remind Claire if she started to backslide.

Oh, and ear scratches were perfectly fine as an apology. Encouraged, even.

So for most of the remainder of Saturday morning, Claire had remained in the background as human VIPs of various stripes visited the incapacitated alien patients. Widget and Claire had even made a game out of it by counting how many of the same phrases the guests used, from ‘I and all of the nations of Earth are wishing you a rapid recovery’ to ‘We hope your medical treatment is to your liking’ and ‘May we take a few photographs?’ Each of the visitors had been given strict orders not to touch either of the ponies in order to reduce the chance of them catching some sort of new germs, so the visits resembled some sort of dance, with gestures, motions, and steps similar but not identical to each other. In the brief pauses between visitors, Granny Smith would open her eyes and chat with Claire, or one of the ponies would use the bathroom, or sometimes Goose would lift her head out of the pile of pillows she was hiding under and give the room a brief examination before returning to sleep. It was a unique perspective on a First Contact situation, but after several hours of it, the appeal was wearing off. After most of an entire day of it, Claire was really needing a commercial break in the ongoing reality tv-show, or perhaps an action scene to break up the stress.

Since part of the job of a pony-sitter seemed to involve being a gopher, Claire had slipped out of the room during dinner to run errands in the hospital gift shop and the cafeteria. Her mother had put some extra money into her debit card, so there was no risk of running out of money here, and she really wanted to know what Widget thought of the entire spectrum of junk food available in the CVS pharmacy down the street from KU Med. After a very thorough shopping trip, she was carrying two grocery bags full of snack foods and blank thank-you cards back upstairs in the elevator when she bumped into a familiar FBI agent who seemed to be headed the same direction.

“Agent Anacostia!” Claire quickly sat down one of the bags so she could shake hands with the dark-skinned agent. “I’m sorry we didn’t get a chance to talk since yesterday’s little misunderstanding. I just wanted to—”

Claire stopped due to the FBI agent’s rapid negating hand motions and the way she was mouthing ‘no’ , which ran completely counter to her calm and professional voice. “Miss Bruener, it is a pleasure to see you again. Do you think I could have a few minutes with your associates to pass along the Deputy Attorney General’s best wishes?”

It wasn’t until the agent tugged on her ear, then opened up her hand to show a half-dozen tiny black devices that Claire twigged to what was going on, and she could not help but smile to herself at what was going to happen next.

“Why, of course you can see Widget,” said Claire, giving Agent Anacostia a quick thumbs’ up. “I was just taking a quick break to pick up some things for her and vape, since they don’t let me do it in her room and I’m not sure what kind of reaction she’d have to nicotine vaping fluid.” Claire carefully opened up her Sneaky Pete holster and produced her cobbled-together vaping unit, which was entirely too bulky to store anywhere else. Besides, it leaked sometimes.

The look of realization on the FBI agent’s face was priceless, so Claire only shrugged and put away her damp vaper while the elevator door opened. The agent picked up the extra shopping bag and followed along, through the hospital corridors and past the two Highway Patrol officers on watch, until they reached the room.

“Hey, Widget.” Over the course of the day, the injured unicorn had been slowly losing bandages and gaining the same state of alert stir-crazy that Claire was suffering. Each gap between an ambassador or political functionary visit let the nurses check her condition, and allowed Doctor Stable the occasional quick visit to adjust his treatments. A human in the same situation would be unable to walk for a week or more, but the unicorn (with assistance from the unicorn doctor) had been able to put just a little weight on her foreleg by the afternoon, and was expected to be able to go back to Randolph by Monday, hobbling but mobile enough to go through their return portal. The ponies’ departure was going to be a great disappointment to Claire, because she had gotten more comfortable in their presence in a few hours than she had in years with her human friends. Plus the ponies didn’t try to go through her wallet when her back was turned, or if Widget did, she put everything back.

She placed her bag of goodies carefully on the nearby table and started unpacking. “I got one of every brand of chips and candy they had at CVS, a sample of everything in the cafeteria buffet downstairs including the chicken salad you asked about, and an FBI agent. No biting,” she cautioned at Goose, who had stirred from her pony pillow pile and was regarding the new visitor with baleful yellow eyes from beneath narrowed eyelashes. “She’s probably not good for you anyway.”

“Hello, Miss Anacostia,” said Widget, although her huge eyes abruptly widened, and her horn lit up. “You brought some of them too!”

The small black objects the agent had been carrying in one closed hand glowed and floated over to Widget, who peered at them with great delight, joined by Claire shortly afterward.

“The listening devices are smaller than most of the ones the other ambassadors left behind,” observed Claire. “I like that one there. It looks like a button.”

“This one’s magnetic!” observed Widget, floating the little black dot over and sticking it next to several others on a tablespoon. “They’re not very strong, though. I can barely hear them.”

“The FBI probably has some sort of base station repeater nearby,” said Claire, peering at one of the bugs. “I think this one has video. Hello, other FBI agents!”

“That’s…” Agent Anacostia hesitated, then came over to the meal tray across Widget’s bed where she had arranged the bugs. “You said the ambassadors left these listening devices?”

“Most of them did,” admitted Widget. “I didn’t understand until the second or third one, and Claire explained it to me. They’re just such neat devices! I mean I thought the infusion pump was just so nifty when it broke and the nice hospital repairman left me a toolkit so I could look at it and see how it worked but these are so much smaller and you can’t take ‘em apart with even the teeniest screwdriver.” The injured unicorn hesitated in her rapid chatter and looked at a second table, nearly covered in small circuit boards and tidy lines of wires with every screw and part laid out in a neat array. “I should put that together again, shouldn’t I?”

“I don’t think the hospital will mind.” Agent Anacostia took a deep breath and regarded the mechanical devices spread out on the unicorn’s tray table. “And it was quite impolite for the ambassadors to leave these behind. If you want to keep them, I suppose we can consider them gifts.”

“Cool,” breathed Widget, and both of her ears perked up sharply. “Thank you!”

“You’re welcome. Anyway…” The young woman took a deep breath. “The FBI has been informed that your portal home should be ready on Monday afternoon. We’ve been in touch with your parents—” Widget’s ears noticeably drooped “—and Doctor Stable agrees that you should be well enough to travel by then, so if it is acceptable, I’d like to drive you back to Randolph first thing Monday morning.”

“Not flying?” Goose’s voice was low and trembling, although she did not come out from under her pillows, and Agent Anacostia only twitched a little when she spoke.

“No flying,” assured the agent. “And no ambulance, unless it is really needed. The reporters are chest-deep out there since Randolph has been cordoned off from any non-residents. The Ponyville mayor has been holding news conferences for the press in Manhattan or I’m afraid there would have been a riot by now. It will be safer sneaking you out of here in a normal car, provided nobody leaks word of your departure,” she added, facing the collection of listening devices.

“As long as we don’t fly,” said Goose’s voice from inside the pillow pile.

“We?” asked the female agent.

“I’ve been texting my mother,” admitted Claire. “Monday morning, the ponies were going to send one of Missus Apple’s relatives here to watch over her for a few weeks, along with replacing Goose with one of their regular guards. They’re flying here, so Goose was a little worried.” Claire lowered her voice and whispered, “She’s afraid of heights.”

“Am not,” denied Goose, who stuck her head out of the pillows to voice her objection. “I’m afraid of open spaces. I’ve lived most of my life in Canterlot, and that’s about as high as you can get without climbing the rest of the mountain.”

“Yes, I heard about that,” said Anacostia. “We’ve been watching Miss Bruener’s videos down in the conference room. Short, factual, and quite entertaining. Some of the higher-ups in Washington—” The agent came to a sudden stop and glanced down at the listening devices, making Claire hurry to fill in the empty conversational space.

“I’m sure they’re all curious about our visitors. It seems to be a common trait of humanity.”

Agent Anacostia looked over at Granny Smith, who was feigning sleep again, then back at Widget. “Some of my superiors were hoping you could stay for a week or two, since your country is going to open a portal for Missus Smith then. They would be delighted to put you up in the finest hotel so all of the people in Washington could meet you. Wouldn’t that be nice?”

“I… don’t know,” admitted Widget, and Claire could feel a little burst of warmth in her heart when the injured unicorn looked at her for reassurance. “My parents will be expecting me, after all, and I’m not sure if Princess Celestia would want me staying here, even if it is just for a few weeks.”

“You’d need a guard,” said Goose from under her pillows again. “Since you’d be all alone, in a hostile dimension. I’m sure Optio Pumpernickel would be overjoyed to watch over you. I’m just not sure what the body count would be.” There was a brief pause, then a sigh. “Thank the stars, we’re out of communication range. Please don’t repeat that to him. He’s a little sensitive.”

“You could come with her,” suggested the young FBI agent. “We’d fly… I mean drive you out to Washington in your own limo, first class all the way.”

“That’s…” There was a longer pause, and Claire instinctively moved to the pile of pillows to scratch the single fuzzy ear that was visible.

“I’m afraid not, Agent Anacostia,” said Claire. “Goose is still a little traumatized from her trip here, what with her uranophobia and being dropped through a portal and then flying here in the medical helicopter. And I don’t think it would be very good to drag Widget through an all-day car ride across the country just to be gawked at by the politicians in Washington since she’s just out of surgery and still has to recover. I know my parents would never give me permission for such a trip after major surgery. Even though I’m old enough I don’t have to ask them,” she added quickly.

After a few more pleasantries, the FBI agent excused herself, and Claire walked with her to the elevator. It felt good to be alone with another human for a few minutes. Widget was admittedly fun and great to talk with, but all three of the ponies in the room knew exactly what they wanted to do with their lives: Granny Smith was going to raise Apples until the day she died, Widget wanted to pry into the mechanical secrets of every machine she saw, and Goose was determined to be the best pony guard that ever was.

Claire, much to her own internal consideration, was lost by comparison. She was not even able to get a full-time job doing what she wanted to do because she was not sure exactly what that was. Even her Marketing degree was a compromise from her start in Feminist Studies, then her change to Criminal Justice, then a desperate grab for anything she could use to just graduate. She liked writing and traveling and interviews and editing informative little snippets out of it, there just was no real money involved in producing travelogues unless she wanted to work overseas for the CIA, and that had never quite appealed to her.

“So, did you always want to be an FBI agent?” blurted out Claire while they were walking through the sterile hospital corridors. “And are we still being recorded?”

“Watched, at least.” Anacostia gave a little wave at one of the hospital cameras they were passing. “The agency has taken over surveillance in this area. And I’d guess we’re still being recorded somewhere. They’re starting to express some real interest in why I went into the aliens’ room twice in rapid succession, for starters. And I didn’t really consider a career in law enforcement until my father was killed.”

“Oh,” said Claire. “I’m sorry.”

“You didn’t do it. An undocumented immigrant shot him during a robbery attempt.”

Claire bit her lip. The memory of her own robbery a few years ago was still far too close, and she really did not want to talk about it, so she shook her head and tried to play it casual. “Wow. You even sound like an FBI agent off-duty. Then again, we might be recorded, so I see your point. Hold up a sec.”

The soda machine thankfully took credit cards, so Claire dug into her pocket and regarded the selection. “Let me buy you a pop, at least, Agent Anacostia.”

“Call me Karla, please. And anything with a sublethal dose of caffeine would be welcome.” The FBI agent yawned and rubbed something out from under one eye. “I’ve drank enough coffee to pee black since I got dragged into this. We’ve been watching the news and video about the ponies nonstop downstairs. Including yours, I might note. Very well done.”

“Thanks!” Claire made her selection and watched the machine whir and clunk. “Did you have any questions you wanted me to ask Widget for the next segment? I thought about just having a girls Disney movie night, but with the way they get into everything, I figured we’d wind up watching Frozen and she’d be dancing around the room, freezing everything.”

The FBI agent snorted while punching in her selection on the keypad, then looked thoughtful. “Really?”

“Really.” Claire fished out the bottle of Diet Coke and passed it over with a grimace. “Icky stuff. Widget drinks regular Coke, and Goose drinks Sprite like water. Have you seen her tongue? It must be a foot long. I think her kind of pony is some sort of nectar drinker.”

“I thought vampire ponies drank blood,” said the agent with a shudder as Claire plugged the machine for another bottle.

“Naaa,” scoffed Claire. “She’s the sweetest, kindest, most adorable little ball of fuzz in the world. And I’ll bet she can kick your ass across the mat at the dojo easy.”

“Really?” Agent Anacostia took a drink of her Diet Coke. “I’d almost take her up on that, but the closest mat I can think of is over at the FBI field office, and that’s in KC Missouri, outside of the Kansas governor’s restraining order. The agency would have them bundled into a plane and off to Washington in a minute.” The agent hesitated for just a moment before tugging her ear and adding, “As would be appropriate, since they are the first aliens ever to land on Earth, and Washington DC is the best place for them to be properly greeted by the leaders of other nations.”

“Nice catch. You’re really quick on your feet,” said Claire while punching in the code for Diet Pepsi. She had an idea rattling around in the back of her head, and it would only make sense if she could say it out loud. “Would you like to stay up with us tonight and talk? I was going to record a livestream for YouTube, and Goose thinks you walk on water, since you’re sort of like her world’s Royal Guards. It would help you get used to her, and if you’re going to drive them back to Randolph on Monday…”

“I was going to go home and try to sleep.” The FBI agent looked at her bottle of Diet Coke with disgust and screwed the lid back on. “Try, that is.”

“How often do you get to talk with a real alien?” asked Claire. “Besides, I could use another human as backup. One who doesn’t wear surgical scrubs,” she added, brushing one hand against her borrowed outfit. “Your boss will appreciate having an FBI agent in the room, and the girls know you already.”

“I’m not sure I’d be comfortable in the room with them,” said Anacostia.

“I’ll let you braid Goose’s mane,” said Claire.

“Okay, you win.”