Farmer Bruener Has Some Ponies

by Georg

24. The Best Plans

Farmer Bruener Has Some Ponies
The Best Plans

“When have any of our plans actually worked?
We plan, we get there, all hell breaks loose.”
Harry Potter, The Deathly Hallows

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Time: 4:15 P.M. Monday June 22, 2015
Location: Hunting Hill Farm, Randolph KS
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Assistant Secretary of State Doug Franz was beginning to think ‘alien race’ was a literal phrase. If he knew he was going to be running this much while doing his ‘diplomat thing’ in Kansas, he would have brought his tennis shoes.

“Hold on,” he gasped, running at about full tilt down the dirt path that an unknown number of Army soldiers had made between the temporary helicopter landing pad and the Bruener farm. There were indications that the ponies had contributed to the project, from the ‘coincidental’ flower beds scattered here and there, to the arched footbridge at the bottom of the hill done up in little stone hearts and interlocked diamonds. Lucky had kept ahead of his dead run with the most casual loping stride, and slowed down even further as the unadorned dirt path tilted upward when they approached the other horse farm. Four legs most certainly had the edge on two, particularly when pitted against an aging bureaucrat who mostly just ran for departing aircraft.

“Sorry, Doug,” called the pony back over one shoulder. “Need to catch Cheerilee.”

To be honest, Doug doubted that an Olympic-class sprinter could have caught the reddish schoolteacher. The moment she had even a hint that her students could have been in trouble, the mare had taken off like a shot, leaving the poor mismatched historians far behind. When they reached the end of the path where it crossed the neighboring Hunting Farm gravel yard, he slowed to a halt behind the pony and tried to make sense of what he was seeing.

There were two doctors, or at least people in white lab coats in the Kansas sun, sitting in a grassy spot with several impatient small ponies lined up in front of them. It appeared to be the end of a line to visit the chestnut horse in a paddock behind them, with several human children and pony children spoiling it rotten, scratching its ears, and generally adoring the big red thing.

Cheerilee, being a teacher, had come to a halt at the end of the line, obviously conflicted between going to ‘rescue’ her students from the unscheduled and unauthorized extradimensional educational experience, and the importance of following the rules.

“Should we get in line for the doctors, Doug?” Lucky had a quirky smile on his face, most likely because of the sight of his tiny foal curled up next to the brilliant pink of Specialist Thermal, with the little colt Standing Water snoring right alongside. The line must have been going slow enough for the little ones to have gotten bored and fallen asleep right there on the short-cut grass, and as a new mother, Thermal had followed suit.

Doug understood totally.

“It doesn’t look like too much of a disaster,” he put forth cautiously. “The kids are having a good time with the horse, and… they’re getting blood drawn.” Doug tried to reconcile the sight of patient small pony children and the dour veterinarian, with a tiny little chinese nurse handling the needles and blood samples.

“I guess they really wanted to see the horse,” admitted Lucky. He moved up behind the last pony child in the line and chatted with her for a bit before returning to his own child, still snuggled up to her foalsitter.

It was cute enough to make Doug Franz really concerned about having a heart attack.

“Well, at least all of the kids are fairly close to the Bruener farm,” admitted Doug. He settled down on what looked like a stepping stool for people to use for climbing onto tall horses, with Lucky beside him. “That way when your portal home gets opened up by Princess Twilight—”

The little green foal’s entrancing violet eyes popped open and she blearily looked around. “Mama?”

Lucky patted his foal until she snuggled back down into Miss Thermal’s sun-warmed coat, which gave Doug a warm feeling of his own until his internal calculator added up some disconnected numbers.

“If she’s your foal,” he started, “and calls… the princess who sent you here, ‘mama’ out of reflex…”

“We’d rather not spread it around,” said Lucky, giving the little foal an additional pat. “For your world’s sake, that is.”

“Our…” Doug swallowed and lowered his voice so the last young pony getting her blood drawn would not be able to hear. “Our world?”

“Of course.” Lucky sat back down next to Doug and lowered his own voice. “You see, young unicorns in their first year or two of life have no real knowledge of what they can’t do. Sometimes, they accomplish magical feats that adult unicorns would strain to accomplish. Well, in our world, two alicorn princesses raise the sun and moon. If a little alicorn gets angry and tosses the sun to one side, or turns everybody in the county into an orange, another alicorn princess can turn them back and put the sun back where it belongs.” Lucky shrugged. “You don’t have one, so we have to be careful.”

“The… sun? You mean that literally?” Doug was very glad he was sitting down, and made a mental note to apply serious thought to the more fantastic legends that Lucky had been talking about.

Lucky nodded. “Of course, my daughter hasn’t shown any of the ordinary magic that a newborn unicorn might display, so I don’t think she’ll go tossing your planet into the sun, but it never hurts to be cautious.”

A buzzing noise sounded from the cell phone that Lucky had clipped to his saddlebag strap, and while the pony was extracting the phone and studying whatever text message he had just gotten, Doug watched in stunned amazement. Some sort of ugly stuffed animal with huge ears floated unnoticed out of Lucky’s saddlebags and crossed over to the sleeping alicorn foal, who shared it with the similarly sleeping blue pegasus foal at her side, allowing the two adorable little disasters to snuggle down and resume their slumber while Doug considered the intelligence briefings he had recently received.

“You know, I was told one of your ponies might visit Washington this week,” he managed after some consideration. “Voluntarily, of course.”

Lucky snorted through the stylus he held in his teeth. “Yes, I heard that too. Don’t worry, though. I’m sure Specialist Rose sent them back here hours ago by pegasus carriage.”

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Time: 2:45 P.M. Monday June 22, 2015
Location: FBI Field Office, Kansas City, Missouri
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“Yes, sir. I understand.” Agent Hallman grimaced while the other restless agents around him pretended not to notice. It was a considerably uncomfortable phone call, and explaining how some little slip of a bat-winged pony who did not even come up to his waist just creamed his entire group, and then strolled away with the ‘guest’ that the FBI leadership expected shortly in Washington…

If he had been smart enough to fake a brain injury, perhaps a stroke or chain migraines, he could have picked one of the other agents as designated scapegoat and taken a pleasant ride to the hospital in an ambulance. Too late for that now.

“Of course, sir. We’ll catch up with them on I-70 before they get to Topeka. The batpony… that is the darker one doesn’t like the sunlight, so we shouldn’t have any problems apprehending Miss Widget and returning her to the airport a few hours later than expected.” He held a hand out as one of the agents began to say something, then continued, “I’ll get to it then, sir. I’ll call when we’re on the way back to the airport with Miss Widget.” He closed the call, made absolutely certain that he had hung up, and returned to thumbing through his electronic address book.

“Why didn’t you tell them the other ponies arrived by air?” asked Agent Dane.

“That red devil horse left by air,” said Agent Newton. “The two cute ones piled into Agent Anacostia’s giant pink SUV and left by ground.”

“I hoped that was the case.” After dialing Anacostia’s number, Hallman rubbed his head, which still hurt like he had been beaned by a baseball pitch even with the bottle of motrin that had been passed around, post-encounter. “The briefing said Cadet Goose was agoraphobic, and those two seem awfully stuck together. We’ll just take a lights-and-siren run down I-70 and look for a huge pink SUV. The sooner we get going, the quicker we’ll be taking Widget back to the airport and getting her out of our hair. And Anacostia’s not answering her phone.”

“One problem, sir.” Agent Newton stopped patting himself down and seemed to be fighting back a pained grimace. “I can’t drive without a license. Did that devil-horse steal your wallet too?”

She had. And from the quick inventory of the rest of the agents, Specialist Rose had accumulated a collection of several badges, cell phones, and one granola bar an agent had tucked away for a quick snack later.

The resulting profanity while they piled out into the parking lot was epic, and continued for several hours while the column of FBI vehicles went zooming down I-70 westbound without a single sign of their quarry.

They really should have checked the internet for videos that people were posting from behind them.

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Time: 3:15 P.M. Monday June 22, 2015
Location: Cabelas by Legends, Kansas City, Kansas
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“I had no idea you were going to break into song when you came into the store,” said Claire. “And that we were going to sing along.”

“I don’t think they expected it either,” said Dakota, taking a look at the small crowd of shoppers who had managed to recover from their synchronized dance number, climb down off the shelves, put the merchandise back on the hangers, and generally return to their original tasks, but with considerably awestruck attention to their Equestrian visitor. “I got it on film, but nobody is going to believe it.”

“Hey, how did you get the fish in the aquarium to dance along too?” asked one of the bystanders, who was climbing down from a stuffed bear.

“I… um…” The chagrined batpony darted off past the aquarium tanks and the impassive fish — who showed no more signs of choreography — but stopped cold after fluttering up into the air and getting a good look around the store. “Are those…?”

“Nothing sapient,” said Claire, who had nearly forgotten about the vast collection of trophies scattered around the store, who stared back with glass eyes. “They’re all animal trophies taken by hunters. It’s a barbaric tradition of a less civilized time that some of my professors in college could spend just days ranting about, but you know, venison,” she added quietly. “And elk steaks. And quail and pheasant, the way my father cooks it up. Speaking of which, I better text him so he knows we’re on our way.”

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Time: 4:15 P.M. Monday June 22, 2015
Location: Hunting Hill Farm, Randolph KS
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“Whoops, correction,” said Lucky, prodding his phone with the stylus. “Claire texted her mother and the telephone group she created for her. On their way back, they took a quick stop at some place called Cabelas, then grabbed a bite to eat.”

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Time: 3:47 P.M. Monday June 22, 2015
Location: Hooters at Legends, Kansas City, Kansas
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“I can’t believe this,” muttered Agent Karla Anacostia.

“I was hungry,” said Claire. “They’re hungry. Hooters has salads.” She continued following the two energetic ponies who were prancing and peeking in all directions, to the astonishment and fascination of the mostly male clientele. Kota had quit taking photos, most probably to keep his record of their trip to an E rating.

“Besides, there’s a Victoria’s Secret across the parking lot,” continued Claire, which only cemented her position on the local FBI’s Ten Most Wanted Felons list. “I thought we could take Goose shopping to get some frilly underthings for her studly boyfriend.”

Goose promptly turned about as pink as Widget around the ears. “I d-don’t need any underthings,” she stammered.

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Time: 3:50 P.M. Monday June 22, 2015
Location: The Bruener farm, Randolph, Kansas
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Nickolas Comena had been sweating up fairly well during the afternoon speeches, which thankfully he had not needed to be standing as some sort of prop during all of them or he would have been out cold along with the rest of his crew. The Class A Uniform (Dress, Army) he was wearing had been prepared somewhere on post and delivered by courier, glossed and arranged to perfection by an orderly this morning, and just as uncomfortable as ever.

Still, something was bothering him. He scratched one ear right under his cover and looked around, obviously enough that Corporal Frey caught his eye and strolled over.

“What is it, sir? Something the matter?”

“No, Rick.” Nick finished scratching and checked his gold cap braid to make sure it was on straight before replacing his cover. Being bare-headed outside after this long in the army was the next thing to being stark naked. “I just got this strange feeling that somebody’s talking about me.”

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Time: 4:15 P.M. Monday June 22, 2015
Location: Cavender’s Outfitters at Legends, Kansas City, Kansas
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“I have to admit,” admitted Kota through the viewfinder of his camera, “that really works for you.”

The armored batpony had been shucked of her metal shell, and was presently being fussed over by two of the store’s employees who were dressing her in an entirely different fashion than she obviously was used to. The black cowboy hat needed to have ear holes cut out, and one of the employees had snipped wingslits into the frilly dark cowgirl shirt, which she promised to hem in the back room before they left.

To one side, Widget was modeling much the same outfits in bright white and pink, only without the need for wingslits, and with the need for a hole in the cowgirl hat so her horn would stick out. There were, however, two items of clothing they refused to try on. One of which was pants. The other…

“I just don’t see how you can wear things made out of dead animal skin.” Goose stuck out her tongue at where Claire was trying on a new pair of cowgirl boots. “Ok, can we go now?”

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Time: 4:45 P.M. Monday June 22, 2015
Location: Dave and Busters at Legends, Kansas City, Kansas
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“But there’s a sale sign on the machine,” wailed Widget. “It has turtles and ninjas in it! We can get it into the back of the Expedition if we fold the seats down and move the rest of my stuff around!”

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Time: 5:15 P.M. Monday June 22, 2015
Location: Sweet Frogs at Legends, Kansas City, Kansas
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“Just one bowl of ice cream,” insisted Goose, who was wearing the black cowboy hat over her helmet as a replacement for the floppy sombrero. “Each. To go. I still have some money on Widget’s card.”

“I still think it would have fit in the back,” grumbled Widget with her ears folded down and a semi-permanent frown. “Can they mail it to us?”

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Time: 6:45 P.M. Monday June 22, 2015
Location: Tee Pee Junction, Lawrence, Kansas
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“Can we stop?” chorused both ponies from the back.

“No!” said Karla. “We need to get you back to Randolph before it gets dark!”

“Ladies,” interrupted Kota. “Those aren’t real indian tepees. They’re concrete buildings made to look like them. Back in the 80’s, stores just like them up and down every road in the US held whole rooms full of souvenirs, and,” he continued before the two ponies could get a full breath drawn to protest, “from the looks of them, they’re somebody’s houses now.”

“Maybe the owners could show us around,” suggested Widget.

“If you girls miss your portal,” snapped Karla, “I will use my awesome FBI powers to see if the owners will give us all a tour. Now will you two sit down and stop hopping? I don’t want Claire to drive into a ditch or something.”

“Look!” Widget jabbed at the back window with one hoof. “There’s another one of those big trucks. The drivers make such funny faces when we put our noses up against the glass.”

“I sense a Kodak moment,” murmured Dakota, moving closer to Karla and getting his camera out. “How old did you say those two were again?”

“Goose just started at their military academy, so I’ve got her spotted at about nineteen in people-years,” whispered Karla back. “Widget, I’m putting a little younger, about our eighteen. God, I was just like them at that age.”

“I was through Basic Training by then, just met my wife, and wound up with an overseas deployment just as she got pregnant,” said Dakota. He took several photos of the two ponies with their noses pressed up against the tailgate glass, then shook his head. “Never thought I’d be here. Thought some news organization would pay me to be a foreign correspondent and report on the places I wouldn’t go back to unless they shoveled money into my hands. I didn’t realize the agencies buy their news stories mostly from local stringers a lot cheaper than me.”

“So you’re married?” Karla tried to keep the hope out of her voice, but the close quarters of the back seat and a certain amount of not showering on Dakota’s behalf was flipping a number of interesting switches in the back of her head.

“Divorced, two kids in San Francisco,” he declared, waiting with one finger on the shutter release for the two ponies to do something else cute. “Working on getting back with her. My daughters need… Well, I better not get into that. I’m the only guy in a car full of girls, so I’m probably not going to get much fatherly sympathy.”

“My father wasn’t in my life much,” admitted Karla. “He was this big guy from Venezuela, part Indian and part Irish, so he always said he was born to drink and break stuff. At least he showed up occasionally. My mother dumped me on her mother when I was really young. I think I saw her about once or twice a year when she came by to ask Memaw for money. Dad dropped by whenever he got off an oil rig, gave my grandmother some cash out of his paycheck, spent some time with me, then headed out to the bars to drink until his next job.” She patted the slipcovered SUV seat. “This was hers.”

“How did she get the pink paint job?” asked Kota, disregarding the antics of the terrible twosome for the moment.

“Memaw knew a bunch of old ladies who sold Mary Kay. One of them was all full of herself, but she could sell ice to eskimos. Had a big old Chevy Traverse in Mary Kay pink, and if you heard her tell it, she built it herself. So Memaw makes a little deal with the local dealer and their paint shop next time she’s in the market for an Expedition to replace her horse trailer puller. Shows up in this monster, parks right next to that Traverse, and when the women’s group came out into the parking lot after their meeting was over, it was like she poked the blowhard with a pin and all the air came out.”

Karla let out a brief chuckle. “She died two years after that.”

“I’m sorry,” said Dakota.

“Don’t be.” Karla shifted in her seat to get more comfortable and looked out at the passing Kansas landscape. “The old girl lived her life at full throttle. When she found out she had cancer, she sold the horse farm, the house, all of the equipment, and traveled to all the places she wanted to see in her life. My mother and her siblings howled. All that money, vanishing out of her grasp. Memaw had me fly down and pick up the Expedition so there wouldn’t be any drama after she passed away. My family fights over money like seagulls over a tin of sardines.”

“I’ve got bad news,” said Kota. “Everybody’s family fights over money that way. Thank God my sister and I were on good terms when my folks passed. With just two of us, there was no way to gang up on each other.”

Karla gave a little grunt of acknowledgement and put on her best Agent Face. “It’s going to be dark by the time we get to Randolph and send Tweedledee and Tweedledum on home, since we’re going the back way. Know of any empty motel rooms I can rent for the night?” She hefted the stuffed GoDark bag and gave it a little shake. “Because when I take my phone out of the bag tomorrow morning, it’s going to be a nutcracker, and I’m going to be the nut.”

“We’ll find a place.” Kota snapped off a shot when the two ponies were making a particularly funny face at the trailing truck driver. “Worst case, you can stay in my RV with Crystal, the other reporter from the Chronicle while I bunk in the house. Tomorrow’s going to be mostly cleanup for me, since the ponies will all be gone, and I’ll sleep in… Oh, wait. Miss Bruener will probably want her room back. Maybe I can wrangle a blanket and sleep in the house I bought. You know, I still haven’t seen it.”

“Mom will find a place for you both if she has to,” called Claire over her shoulder. “Here, go ahead and text her.”

As the designated official representative, Karla took the cell phone she was handed and opened the texting app. FBI instincts drove her thumbs from there, and to one chain of texts in particular.

“Krystol is your druggie girlfriend, right?”

“She’s not a… Well, kind-of,” hedged Claire while cruising down the highway. “I haven’t texted her back because she’d just want us to stop by, and she’d freak out about an FBI agent in the place. She’d spend the whole trip in the bathroom, flushing. And then she’d be mad at me.”

“And I thought taking the girls to Hooters was bad,” mused Karla while reading on the phone. “Your parents are on the other group text here, I presume. Oh. Uh-oh.”

There was a thump from the back as both ponies threw themselves prone, a brief pause, then Goose peered over the seat. “Sorry,” she said. “Ponyville instinct.”

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Time: 6:28 P.M. Monday June 22, 2015
Location: Hunting Hill Farm, Randolph, Kansas
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“I never get time to just sit back and watch things unfold in Ponyville.” Cheerilee gave out a sigh and leaned up against the paddock’s rail fence, watching her students and the human children spoil the big chestnut gelding with baby carrot snacks and petting. “There’s always papers to grade, or a monster out of the Everfree Forest, or some celebration around town. An unexpected celebrity dropping by. Princess Celestia just walking right into my classroom without even a note to warn me.” She looked up at the sky and shaded her eyes with one hoof. “I keep expecting a meteor. It’s the only thing our town hasn’t gone through. Is that speck in the sky moving around in a big circle?”

“Probably a bomber just sent here to watch,” admitted Secretary Franz. “The Air Force wouldn’t admit it, but there’s a portal getting opened up in the area really soon, so if they didn’t have an arm of the strategic triad covering the opening, I’d be shocked.”

“You live in a strange world, Doug Franz.” Cheerilee returned to watching her students, obviously resisting an urge to run out and keep Scootaloo from getting a turn in the horse’s saddle. “Humanity’s greatest enemy seems to be humanity, while ponies…” She paused to think. “It does seem to be mostly unicorns, I suppose. At least half of them.”

Lucky just grunted and kept his sleepy foal cradled in the crook of one foreleg, a pose that constantly baffled Doug with its impossibility. The intense pinkness of Miss Thermal had moved up next to the gate, although she still seemed to be sleeping along with her small colt. It was difficult to think of her as some sort of dangerous guard, except for the breastplate and the armored shoes. It was far easier to think of her as some sort of pegasus of the evening, calling out invitations from open windows.

“I’m really glad Equestria isn’t hostile,” admitted Doug. “Humanity is a little proactive about such things. We’re like children shouting, ‘I hit him back first.’”

Cheerilee stifled a chuckle into her fetlock. “Been there. Heard that.” Her expression evened out while still watching the mixed collection of children playing. “After what I’ve heard from the other humans, I have to admit that I’m glad Princess Celestia doesn’t intend on setting up any permanent exchange here. Your history doesn’t show a very high regard for human tribes with inferior technology who have natural resources you want.” She stomped one hoof against the ground, kicking up a small puff of dust. “All across your world, tribes have owned land, had it taken from them, and taken from the takers, all the way back to the first humans. Mrs. Bruener let me see some of your textbooks and talked about it with me.”

“Historians see all the bad things,” said Lucky abruptly. “Children see all the good. Those kids out there don’t care about natural resources, or global conflicts. They just want to enjoy what’s left of today… and Sweetie Belle is looking somewhere she shouldn’t be looking. Miss Cheerilee, do you want to explain what a gelding is to the children, please?”

All of the adults at the fenceline turned their attention to a welcome distraction, as a loud cheer echoed in the distance from the direction of the pony encampment.

“And that would be the portal,” said Doug, pulling out his phone and looking at it for the first time in several hours. To be honest, it was self-defense, because if he had been responding to the constant string of text messages from State, he never would have been able to carry out his responsibilities. “Strange, I was supposed to get an alert from General Hackmore when it opened.”

“He could just be distracted.” Lucky shrugged his little filly into the foal carrier and turned to trot away, closely followed by Miss Thermal, who had shifted almost instantly from sleeping to alertness while doing nearly the same foal-stuffing maneuver for her own foal. “Just leave the children play while I go check it out. I’ll call you either way on the cellular telephone.”

- - - - ⧖ - - - -
Time: 6:20 P.M. Monday June 22, 2015
Location: Bruener Farm, Randolph, Kansas
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“Sir?” There was a tug on General Hackmore’s dress slacks leg, caused by a fairly innocuous young colt with big turquoise eyes. Since the diplomats on the distant stage had long since been replaced by projected speeches from Very Important People Around The World Giving Passing Words of Support To The Alien Visitors, Hackmore was more than willing to give the paint-speckled alien kid a little attention, and knelt down carefully so he would not wind up with grass stains on the knees of his dress blues.

“Yes, son?” he started, taking a fairly educated guess about the young creature’s gender. “Did you need me to find your parents?”

“Actually, I wanted to show you my painting, sir.”

Hackmore could remember the little thing watching when he had visited Four-One yesterday, particularly since he had to chide the tank crew for letting two of the unicorns look around inside what was supposed to be a secure area. Still, the littlest one, Ripple if he remembered the name right, had been so tickled about seeing the turbine opened up, or at least as far as it could be without a crane, that she had not let anybody get a word in edgewise. Specialist Grace had been much easier to deal with, despite the difficulty they had getting her pulled back out of the interior with two of the crew lifting and one pushing.

And through it all, the little creamy tan earth pony had just sat nearby and watched, like a bump on a log.

“Oh, you made a painting of my soldiers, did you? What’s your name?” Hackmore chuckled. With luck, he would be able to keep this one and stick it on the refrigerator door at home for his wife to see. It would make a nice souvenir to show the grandkids, and far easier to explain than the knife that kept reappearing in his pocket whenever he left it somewhere.

“Turpentine, sir. And it’s not quite done,” hedged the little pony.

“I don’t see why that would be a problem,” said Hackmore, standing up. “Let’s go look at it,” he added with the unspoken relief of getting away from bloviating politicians for a few minutes. He followed behind the little pony as he trotted across the farmyard, which brought up another question.

“I don’t see your little friends,” said Hackmore, looking around the crowd.

“They went to see Champion, sir. I… um… We snuck up and saw it yesterday. That’s what made me so slow with your painting. I had to paint it after we stayed up late last night with Grace to watch Patton on the television.”

“Perfectly understandable.” Hackmore let out a sigh of relief as he passed into the cool air conditioning of the old Bruener home, and picked up a glass of fresh lemonade from the nice earth pony couple who had been spending almost their entire visit in the kitchen there. “Thank you, Mrs. Cake.”

“You’re welcome, dear.” The chubby earth pony mare put a leg out to stop Turpentine before he could pass, and waited until the colt got a smaller glass of lemonade and drank it all. “Any word on the portal yet, Mister Hackmore?”

“Not yet. I’m sure they’ll tell us when it shows.” He finished his lemonade and placed the tupperware glass in the sink before asking, “Are your twins with the other kids?”

“Oh, yes.” Mr. Cake managed the job of talking while using a potholder in his mouth to remove a muffin tin from the stove, then slip a second tin in to cook, a process which still boggled Hackmore. “Apple Bloom said they were all going somewhere together for an educational experience. One of the guards was with them,” he added, giving the bottom of the muffin tin a solid thump with one hoof. The hot muffins arched across the room, and Mrs. Cake was underneath them, holding a large, towel-lined bowl, into which every muffin fell perfectly.

Well, except for one snapped out of the air by a rapidly passing grey pegasus, which was a sight that General Hackmore would never get used to.

“This way, General Greg,” said the little pony as he clattered across the linoleum floor and ascended the staircase around the corner. From the racket, Hackmore guessed that the old house would have been quite lived-in and cosy when Bruener’s father had been raising four children, or more put in modern terms, cramped. As he followed the pony up the narrow wooden stairs, which creaked beneath his weight, he could tell the amount of work the ponies had put into remodeling in just a few days. The air still held the scent of drying paint, the wooden steps glowed with new varnish and fresh non-stick strips, and the bedroom that he walked into at the top of the stairs…

This was Kansas. This was not an oceanside house. There was most certainly no underwater beach spread out below, an impossibly blue sky above, and fish swimming around at just under chin level. The repainted bedroom shimmered just like the underwater grotto it was obviously meant to depict, a happy place that any mermaid would have been overjoyed to make her home, right down to the swirl of bedcovers on the twin bed that seemed like some sort of aquatic nest.

He had a sudden and almost unstoppable urge to hold his breath and swim for the surface, except for the little colt from before who just kept walking forward to an easel in front of the window.

“Missus Bruener loaned me her painting stuff, but I wasn’t able to get your noses quite right with her brushes,” he said. “I’d like you to have it as a thank-you gift when we leave, although not everything is painted yet. It’s a good start, I suppose.”

Hackmore pried his eyes away from his painted ‘underwater’ surroundings and the beautiful fish swimming through green water weeds so he could look down at the easels where the young painter had been hard at work on several other projects. Among the damp canvases drying in his vicinity was a painting of a chestnut gelding who looked so real he might have been able to step into the room through the beams of evening sunlight and gallop away.

Or swim. Hackmore had still not been able to convince his hindbrain that he was not actually underwater, and he kept trying to hold his breath. It didn’t help that the main painting, a larger one that filled the whole knee-high easel literally took his breath away.

On the surface, it was an intensely good representation of Four-One out across the road, which he could probably see if he looked out the porthole. Err, window. The only thing was in addition to several Equestrian guards and the four crewmen lounging on the top of their tank, with General Hackmore chatting between them, there was… something concealed in the trees and shaping the clouds that kept catching his eye the longer he looked at it. Soldiers dressed in Confederate grey and Union blue. Two generals that could only be Patton and Montgomery squabbling over a map while Erwin Rommel in his dress field greys waited patiently. An ancient Sherman tank, battered and scarred flying a Confederate flag nearly concealed behind a cloud. An anti-tank gun dug into the Kansas scrub brush and camouflaged to help the M1A2 with its duty. The faint V of Equestrian pegasi in antique armor flying high above. And worse, the painting still had empty spaces where other enticing details had been sketched in, but not complete.

The Joint Chiefs of Staff would have paid a mint for it. The Smithsonian would have matched them, and pulled rank. The little pony had just offered it to Hackmore for free. There was only one thing he had to do first.

“Thank you, Turpentine. I’m honored. Let me make a call.” Hackmore got out his SMPED and dialed a number he had memorized by now.

“Hello, Lieutenant Comena. This is General Hackmore. You’ve turned my world on ear so many times this last week that I thought it would only be appropriate to return the favor. Come over to the Bruener’s old house, up on the second floor. Turpentine and I have something to show… What’s that noise in the background?”

The sound of loud cheering filled the room from outside, and Hackmore moved to look out of the window.

“Well, that’s something I didn’t expect,” he murmured.