• Published 17th Apr 2019
  • 820 Views, 48 Comments

Mark of Destiny - horizon



When the first portal to Equestria opened, and humans started coming back with Cutie Marks, it forever altered the fate of two worlds. Now, a young man must face the true consequences of that change.

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Earth

I want to say the road to my Cutie Mark began with friendship. That's how these stories are supposed to start, right? It's about Equestria, so this is a friendship story. But if the friendships had been worth a dime, none of this would have happened.

So it's probably most accurate to say it began with video games.

A little over two years ago — around the fourth anniversary of Contact — Kevin, James and I were crowded around the TV in the living room of my apartment. James and I had been playing Mareville vs. Capcom after classes every day in the weeks since its release. Kevin had suddenly walked in after vanishing for a month, and when we asked him where he'd been, all he said was, "Beat me at whatever you're playing and I'll tell you."

After humiliating both of us with three perfect victories in a row, Kevin set down his Playstation X controller with a smug grin. James and I just stared open-mouthed at the screen.

"Hard to say, only six games in," Kevin said, "but it seems like they did a pretty good job balancing the ponies against the superheroes. Except Fluttershy, she's OP. I can see why Mark mains her."

"Six —" I sputtered. "You are seriously trying to tell me that this is the first time you've ever played Mareville Vs. Capcom?"

"Yup!" His smirk redoubled, and he stared at us, waiting for the obvious question.

James asked it. "Where the hell've you been, bro?"

"Went to Equestria and got an ass-tat." Kevin slapped his hip and laughed. "And now I know it works."

"No," I cut in. "No, you didn't, because they did not let you waltz through a cross-dimensional portal locked down tighter than a goddamn nuclear silo to get a kiddie-mark in video games."

Kevin leaned back against the wall and shrugged. "They totally did. You do know who my dad is, right?"

I frowned. He was the son of some big-shot criminal defense attorney — not really the sort of person that either the American or Equestrian governments had been letting anywhere near the portal. "What's that got to do with it?"

"He knows some people. I got him to pull some strings so I could buy into the trial group."

"The what now?" James said.

"You don't —?" Kevin looked at us funny, then facepalmed. "Oh, right, the announcement's not until next week. In exchange for this year's aid package, the State Department made the Princesses an offer they couldn't refuse, so they'll be letting the public into the program."

James' jaw dropped. "Holy crap."

"And I got to jump the line." Kevin's smile broadened. "That career on the pro Starcraft circuit I've talked about? That's peanuts now, man. I can do that in my spare time in between breaking every speedrun record in the book. This was worth every cent."

I crossed my arms. "Dude. Even if that's true, they proved magic doesn't work on Earth. Therefore, getting a kiddie-mark did not just turn you into the world's best gamer."

"Now you're just being stupid," James said. "Even the scientists who discovered why unicorns can't cast spells here said that the tramp stamps work differently. Penn and Teller did a show on it and everything. And don't forget, ass diplomacy was how the Mideast accords got signed."

"Oh, come on," I said. "That's pure social engineering. If you can trick both sides into believing your 'magical powers' will give them the best deal of a generation, they'll call you a miracle worker no matter what load of crap you sell them."

"Don't tell me you're a denier," Kevin said. "Haven't you seen that video of the Marine bench-pressing that tank?"

I stood up and stomped toward the kitchen for a beer. "I'm not stupid enough to think that's a fake. But they obviously took that on the far side of the portal and buffed him up with magic."

"Six perfect wins says they didn't," James said, turning to Kevin. "Can we sign up?"

"Yeah! I heard them say the private trial for the big donors was so popular that they're running a few more rounds before the official launch turns everything into a circus. We'll go swing by my place. I can get Dad to put you on the list." Kevin raised his voice and called into the kitchen. "I'm serious, Mark. This is for real. Come with us and buy in."

For years, I'd scoffed at the idea that humans who had gone through the portal to Equestria had returned with hip tattoos and impossible abilities. For the first time, I had to stop and think seriously about it. Even if Kevin had spent several weeks secretly practicing the game to sell us his story, the walloping he'd given us should have been impossible.

"So what kind of 'donation' did your magic tattoo cost you?" I called back, taking a swig from the bottle.

"Ninety mil."

I sprayed beer over half the counter.

"Sweet Jesus, Kevin. Some of us aren't trust-fund kids here."

"So lie on the paperwork. Put me down as your financial adviser — I can snow 'em on the collateral. Then get a finance mark. You'll make the money in a week and pay them off before anyone's the wiser."

"No! That's …"

Cheating, I didn't say.

"… a permanent choice, you know? The mark would make the rest of my life about money. I didn't see you spend $90 million to become the world's best stockbroker."

He rolled his eyes. "Fine, so get something matching your degree. If it lets you do with engineering what I can do with games now, that sort of money will still be peanuts."

The uneasiness crept back into my gut, and I fell back on the comfort of skepticism. "C'mon, Kevin. You're asking me to gamble money I don't have, which I'm supposed to pay back with literal hand-wavey woo-woo magic." I frowned pointedly. "An awful lot of money I don't have."

He spread his hands, palms out. "Hey, look. I'm not gonna make you do this. I'm just telling you that you're missing out on the best opportunity of your life if you don't."

"I'll take that chance."

"Eh," Kevin said. "Alright, suit yourself."


That weekend, James came back with an empty speech bubble on his hip, a girl on each arm, and a triumphant smirk on his face.

"So what's that mark supposed to be?" I asked him.

"It's a symbol of how incredible he is in bed," one of his arm-candies said with a giggle, and kissed him on the cheek.

"It's amazing, is what it is!" James said. "Forget lifting tanks, now this is a friggin' superpower. Females believe every word I say — I can talk them into anything. No more negging. No more LMR. A one-night stand is as easy as telling them how awesome I am, then telling them to leave once we're done."

"You … buh … what!?" I sputtered, my gut twisting up.

His grin broadened. "Best. Mark. Ever."

I set my beer down on the table, feeling my heartbeat in my neck. "James, listen to me. Take it back. Go get something else."

James blinked, his smile wavering. "What?"

"You are my friend, but that predatory PUA bullshit hurts people, and I can't stand by and watch this." I stood up and faced him squarely, crossing my arms.

He looked momentarily wounded. "Predatory? What sort of beta propaganda crawled up your ass and died? Having a real man take charge is what all girls secretly dream of. I'm doing them a favor."

There was an odd tingling behind my sinuses, gone again before I could sneeze. Some voice in the back of my brain started screaming, but I ignored it — because there was something about the way he explained it which made it so obvious.

I felt blood rush to my face. "Oh! Uh … holy crap. I'm sorry. I never thought of it like that."

He looked slightly mollified. "I'm not surprised. Most men don't until they open their eyes. Females are evolved to be parasites, living off of men's hard work. All I'm doing is turning the tables and reasserting the natural order of male dominance."

"You're right. Look, I was stupid." My cheeks burned with shame. "Forget I said anything."

He scrutinized me for a moment, then the smile returned to his face. "No worries." He grabbed my beer and took a long pull. "Hey, these sluts have been trying to jump me all the way across town. Can I borrow your bed?"

"Of course," I said. It was the least I could do after overreacting so badly.

It dawned on me what the son-of-a-bitch had done about five minutes later, around the time I heard my lamp fall off my bedside table amid shrieks and giggles.

I slammed the door open. "James. Stop."

"Chrissake, Mark! You already said yes! Let me finish!"

"Uh …" I cringed, cheeks burning, head tingling. "Of course."

I closed the door awkwardly. As I sat and waited for him, a sense of unease gradually overtook my patience — and then realization hit. I bolted to my feet and scrambled around the corner to the kitchen, heart hammering.

I was halfway through dialing the police when my misgivings caught up to me. Would that even accomplish anything, if they reacted to him the way that I had? For that matter, what if I was merely convincing myself he had some sort of mind control? What would I be doing to him?

An entirely separate fear crawled into my gut. Right or wrong, what would calling the police do to our friendship?

I slowly set the phone down, throat going dry. If he's going to listen to anyone, I tried to convince myself, it'll be a friend. I'm going to lose my chance to get through to him and change his behavior if I call.

It's amazing the justifications we come up with for taking the easy way out.

Still, as appealing as talking some sense into him sounded, the direct approach was clearly not effective. I paced for several frantic seconds, considering my options, and then grabbed a pen — whatever he was doing wouldn't change a pre-written message. I was in the middle of my note when he staggered out of my room and into view, zipping his pants back up and glancing around the living room.

"Alright, Mark," he said. "Listen up."

I snapped my mouth closed, my full attention on him, lowering the paper I'd been about to start reading.

He noticed me in the kitchen and turned around. "Right. Look, I was going to let it slide after you apologized, but if you're salty enough to burst in on me having sex, you've gotta get your head on straight."

"What do you mean?" I mumbled. I felt like my brain was swimming through fog.

He ambled over and twirled a chair around, sitting across the table from me with his arms crossed atop its back. "I figured it out." He leaned forward, staring. "You're jealous because you missed out on the Cutie Marks."

A little knife twisted in my heart — and behind my sinuses — then guilt flooded in as I tried to hold his gaze. "… That does make sense," I said quietly.

"Well, don't take it out on me, man. You're supposed to be my friend." His eyes flicked down to the half-finished note on the table. "What's that?"

I hurriedly crumpled it and stuffed it into the garbage can. My friend deserved better than my backstabbing and second-guessing. "Nothing."

"You sure?"

"It's not important, buddy. Please."

James frowned. "C'mon, Mark. You've gotta be honest with me or you're not gonna fix this."

I tried to swallow through a suddenly-dry throat, but my lips were already moving as if they belonged to someone else. "James, I'm pretty sure that was literally rape, and I wish I hadn't been too scared to call the police. Your Mark can only end in tears. Please, get rid of it and get help."

He was silent for a terrifying moment. Frozen to the spot, I tried to tamp down my sudden surge of adrenaline.

"That's the jealousy talking," he said. "You don't mean that."

I sobbed and crumpled as the tingling in my head intensified. "No, buddy. I don't."

He paced back and forth for a moment, face contorting, then whirled back toward me, throwing his arms wide. "They wanted it!" He shouted to my bedroom: "Tell him you wanted it!"

"We wanted it," two subdued voices chorused.

"See!?" He took a breath between clenched teeth, then stepped over to the table and leaned over me. "Look at me, Mark." He gazed intently into my eyes as my head jerked up. "You're the one with the problem. And you have to fix it, or your jealousy will eat you alive. Go to Equestria and get your own powers."

James stormed out, dragging one of his companions along with each hand, while I was calling the signup number he'd given me. I'd already told them all my personal information, lied about my finances, and was halfway through the preliminary background check when I came to my senses.

I slammed down the phone. Then I yanked its cord from the wall, turned off my cell, shut all the curtains, deadbolted the door, and stuffed cotton in my ears in case he came back and yelled something from the porch.

It took me two full days to work up the nerve to go back outside.


I emerged into a world gone mad over Cutie Marks.

The government had hand-picked the brightest scientists, artists, and performers it could find for the public launch, and the result was an avalanche of genius. The newspaper devoted a full page to a short story by one of the newly Marked authors, and a dozen people were clustered around the newspaper vending machine, reading page 4 with tears streaming down their faces. When I turned on the TV, every news station I flipped to had wall-to-wall interviews with members of the launch group — a physicist was outlining his mathematical proof of stable transuranic elements and the experiment that would create them; an artist was painting swirls of color on a collection of canvases around the studio that, after a few seconds of staring, your brain unexpectedly assembled into a breathtaking portrait of the reporter interviewing him; a doctor was animatedly discussing his discovery of a genetic code inside human cells that could be selectively activated in cancer cells to cause the tumor to self-destruct.

The ads for the Cutie Mark program that ran during the commercial breaks were almost comically unnecessary. UNLOCK YOUR POTENTIAL, they said, and then the station cut back to their discussion with a Marked transit engineer whose ideas on urban development were about to overturn our roads the way that a Marked diplomat the year before had overturned centuries of war in the Middle East.

I realized that both Kevin and James had been right about exactly one thing, and picked up my phone. But overnight, the portal waiting list had stretched into years.



A few days later, the news was still a wall-to-wall barrage of stories of the newly Marked, and I figured the obsession had hit its peak.

Then one of the first Marked came back with a pair of dice on her hip, bought a single lottery ticket in a convenience store, and promptly paid off her trip with her jackpot. The next day, the stock market spiked, crashed, and staggered to an unexpected recovery; within hours, the Forbes 400 had six new faces, and rumors of tattoos were swirling about the ones who hadn't lost everything in hours.

Overnight, the Marked became the only people worth talking about, and the waiting lists became vague promises.

The sports leagues and the Olympics banned Marking. The entertainment industry had no such scruples — within the month, every new musical act was almost literally addictive. The first political scandal blew up when a Marked journalist published photos of a handshake icon on President Rand's hip. An impeachment vote was launched, with the opposition party shouting that he was compromised by a foreign power, but it crumpled in disarray when a different newspaper published leaked hip-shots of four opposition leaders.

It was barely a footnote when the story broke of the first human to be arrested by Equestrians. They didn't publish his name — let alone the charges — but when I saw the blurry, zoomed-in video footage from the Crystal Empire, I knew instantly who it was. I suddenly found myself weeping in relief — at least, before the shame kicked in. I'd failed both him and his victims. I should have done more.

James hired Kevin's dad as his defense attorney. Then he quietly took a sealed plea deal, and the whole thing vanished from the news.

Harvard, Princeton, and Yale announced deals to supplement their schooling with a guaranteed Mark upon graduation. The NML was born as Marked teams began to play exhibition games, and the athletic leagues schismed as that crack burst open the dam. A law to ban workplace discrimination based on Marking sputtered out in Congress, as corporations poured money into Marked lobbyists and into ad campaigns touting the revolutions in science, medicine, and industry created by their Marked employees.

The Department of Marks promised that they'd unlock the waiting lists again the instant they finished training enough new employees to assign priorities to the names they already had.

Two years later — long after the DoM announced that data storage errors were forcing them, in the interests of fairness, to discard all previous applications and make everyone apply again from scratch — I found a large manila envelope in my mail, with an Equestrian postmark and no return address. Inside was a signed and stamped Department of Marks processing form, its entry date three weeks away, with my information pre-filled in; a picture of a table lamp, the same model that James had broken on that fateful afternoon; and an unsigned handwritten letter.

You tried to tell me, it said.

Make better use of yours than I did.

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