• Published 17th Apr 2019
  • 831 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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Equestria was bright. Too bright. The soaring antechamber of the Department of Marks had no skylights, and was lit only by a few strips of fluorescent lights on the distant ceiling, but I wasn't the only one squinting as we stepped down from the portal and shuffled through the maze of barrier ropes toward the rows of clerks.

After half an hour of stop-start motion, I reached a red line on the floor with a set of shoeprints painted in front of it. "Next," a horned white pony wearing metal barding intoned, while the human soldier alongside him stood at parade rest. I stepped forward onto the prints, and the human glanced up and down at me and nodded.

I wouldn't have understood the significance of that if I hadn't watched a documentary about the new face of border security a few weeks before. After a successful pilot program, they were giving soldiers Marks in threat assessment — able to tell at a glance not only whether someone was carrying contraband or weapons, but also whether the slightest hints of their body language betrayed any hostile intention. Border interdictions had tripled overnight — although false positives remained a significant problem.

"Next," the pony said, before I even had time to properly panic about whether I'd be one of those statistics.

Shortly afterward, I reached another line on the floor in front of the row of grey, boxy clerk's booths. I stopped at the line, next to a yellow-coated, orange-maned pony dressed in what I could only describe as a drab full-bodied suit. A green light flashed up above one of the booths far to my right. "Number twenty-one," the pony said without looking at me. "Next."

Number 21 was occupied by a tired-looking mint-green unicorn slouched in a disturbingly human fashion in a padded fabric office chair. Unlike the guard-pony and the line-pony, she was naked save for a pair of gold-rimmed spectacles and a green accountant's visor; some sort of golden harp-thing was clearly visible on her flank. "Papers," she said, and an insubstantial golden glow snatched my processing form and photo ID out of my hands before I could even set them down on the counter. I jumped, jerking my hands back, and blinked rapidly, looking at the matching glow of her horn.

I'd watched magic on TV, in the shows that used pony actors and an Equestrian setting as a production gimmick, but that was a very different thing from seeing — feeling — it in person. The brief contact with the weird glow had left my hands tingling, and the aura had a strange depth to it, as if space itself wasn't quite obeying normal rules.

As the shock of the magic faded away, a different sort of unease settled in. I couldn't tear my eyes off of her flanks. A musical instrument? What was this unicorn doing here? Shouldn't she be in a concert hall somewhere?

I was belatedly snapped back to reality by my name. "Mumblety-something Mark," she said, flattening my form on her side of the counter and lighting her horn again to wrap its aura around something I couldn't see.

"Yes, ma'am?"

Her eyes narrowed. The flat line of her mouth across her muzzle tugged into a frown. "I said —" and her tone was surprisingly frosty, even given her expression —"I need the code for your Mark."

"Oh! Well …" I worked my jaw, but my brain supplied nothing for it to say. I'd been putting off the decision ever since verifying the form was real. "I … don't know?"

"I always get the slow ones." She sighed aggressively. "It's simple, two digits for category and then four for classification. If you can't remember six numbers at a time I can look it up for you."

I tugged at my collar. "I didn't forget. That's the thing. I don't know."

She stared at me for a moment before closing her eyes. Her hornglow sputtered and relit, lifting her spectacles off of the bridge of her nose, and she turned her head to the side as she raised a forehoof to massage her temple. "Form T-42, please," she said in a carefully controlled tone.

"I, uh …" I made a doubly pointless show of searching my pockets. "I don't have one."

"Yes, you do. You couldn't have gotten this approved without it."

"My friend handled the paperwork."

She opened her eyes then, staring up at me for a moment before silently shifting her raised hoof to the bridge of her nose.

"Look, I … this was a bad idea." I took a half-step backward. "I'll just go."

"Mis-ter MacKen-zie," she said, voice wavering for a moment before returning to its tight lack of affect, "Making a scene would result in your arrest — and also the termination of my employment, since I've already gotten one writeup this month. Please … I am begging you … do us both a favor and let me do my job."

I stepped back up to the counter, glancing back guiltily at the line of milling people. "I'm sorry."

She took a lengthy breath, muzzle twitching. "Okay. We can pretend your T-42 got lost, but I need your cooperation so we're not holding up the line. Let's start with the Mark category. Academic, economic, linguistic, personal enhancement, recreational, scientific, social, technical, thaumological, or other?"

"I'm really sorry, ma'am, but I've got no idea. This whole trip was somewhat unexpected. I figured the right idea would find me when I was ready. That's how ponies do it, isn't it?"

Her eyes instantly widened, and for several terrifying seconds she simply stared at me. Then her muzzle curled into a scowl. "That's … not … how … this … works," she hissed through clenched teeth. "How did you get this form?"

"I told you, a friend handled it."

"You still would have had to sign …" Her voice trailed off as she glanced down at the form. She flipped it over. "Oh."

" 'Oh'?"

Her horn lit, and a rubber stamp flew across the counter to leave a circle of red ink on the front side of my form. Then her glow surrounded the form itself, which swooped under a boxy machine with a mechanical thunk, coming back out with an equally red timestamp. "You have interesting friends, Mister Mackenzie. Looks like Destiny's smiling on you today."

"I what now?"

"Continue to your right. Follow the exit arrows. Have a pleasant visit." She shoved the form into my hands, then turned from me and pressed a button to her side. The green light atop her booth lit up.

"Wait, how —"

"Have. A. Pleasant. Visit."

A tingling pressure shoved at my butt, and I was vomited out of the far side of her booth, staggering for several steps and bouncing off of two people before catching my balance. The big linebacker-looking guy I'd collided with glared at me. "Sorry," I said for the too-manyth time that day.

Past the booths, there were no more barrier ropes — only waves of humans flowing toward a long grey hallway with big red arrows on the walls. I let myself get swept up in the tide, shuffling toward the literal light at the end of the tunnel.

Loudspeakers crackled to life in the ceiling. "Salutations, Citizens of Earth," a deep, flat voice said. "On behalf of the Diarchy, We wish to welcome you to Equestria, and express Our wishes that obtaining your Cutie Mark is a personally fulfilling experience. Kindly remember that the Department of Marks offers limited entry passes, not tourism visas. You are allotted one hour of travel time, fifteen minutes for Cutie Mark acquisition, and up to one hour of personal time outside the Department of Marks facility. This message shall repeat."

The pedestrian flow brought me to the door, and my feet stepped into Equestrian sunlight. I squinted against the blinding rays of an unfamiliar star. The sun was too large. Too bright. Oddly, not too hot.

The crowd pushed me forward into the street, and the loudspeaker's droning message faded behind me. "Salutations, Citizens of Earth …"

I worked my way sideways against the dissipating crowd, finding a spot to myself against the poured-concrete foundations of the Department building. I took a few deep breaths, letting my eyes finish adjusting. A tall woman in a candy-blue business suit, about my age, took refuge from the crowd in the same lull. She was glancing animatedly around, her gaze sweeping over the tall concrete buildings and down the promenade toward what looked like a street but was devoid of cars. Every few seconds, she'd glance down at a black-and-white paper map in her hands, and on one of those glances, her eyes slid sideways to meet mine.

"Isn't this amazing?" she said, giving me a bright smile. "Look at this. We're here, actually here, on Equestria. Another world!" She pointed at an ugly purple tree-like crystal growth in the distance. "Oh, that must be the Friendship Palace!"

"Yeah," I said, "pretty exciting. Where'd you get the map?"

She flipped her map over to reveal a form that looked identical to mine. "It's right on the back of your zed-two-twenty-five."

I fished my own form back out of my pocket. Its back side was labeled "For Canterlot Use Only" and had a bunch of incomprehensible departmental codes, some signatures, and a stamped seal similar to the clerk's but with some sort of heart insignia in the center. Up until now I'd assumed they'd all looked like that.

"Not this one," I said. "Is there a tourist center listed on that?"

She consulted her map. "Yeah. Go down to the street and turn left at the McDonald's. The Everfree Welcome Center is right across from the Starbucks."

"Thanks." I stuck out my hand. "I'm Mark, by the way."

"Lisa." She gave me a short but aggressive handshake.

"So … not to cut into your Equestria visiting time, but how does this whole process work?"

Lisa raised an eyebrow. "Your ess-eye didn't explain it to you?" At my blank look, she sighed. "Sponsoring Institution. Oh, you poor guy. Look … it's really simple. Just go do the thing you're here to get a Cutie Mark for, and poof, as long as you're interested in that Mark, it appears within seconds." She shoulder-shrugged. "It's got something to do with how this world sees us and ponies the same way, and since every adult pony has one, it's desperate to 'fix' us not being Marked yet."

I nodded. "So what are you here for?"

"Optimization of clean-room processes for quantum transistors. You?"

"I'm … not sure." I glanced down the street at the crystal spire. "Is there actually a Mark for that? I mean, not to be racist, but …"

Lisa laughed. "Ponies are smarter than we give them credit for, but you're right, QTs are human technology. That's why Intel set up a satellite office here for Mark training — it's that office building down the street. When I hit CR eng two, they sponsored me in exchange for a 10-year employment contract." Her watch chirped. "Hey, I gotta go, but good luck."

"Yeah," I mumbled as she vanished back into the sprawling crowd of humanity. "Thanks."

I walked. I walked right past the Intel offices, then right past the McDonald's — with its window advertising hamburgers priced in dollars — and kept going. I didn't know what I wanted on my hip for the rest of my life — a problem whose clock was rapidly ticking — but I knew it wouldn't be something out of a corporate lab.

Two blocks later, the human traffic was thinning out. I walked past a few delivery trucks parked alongside the curbs, and for the first time since the clerk in the DoM office, saw a pony. He was a huge, bright red thing, almost the size of a horse, wearing a giant yoke around his neck that was linked to a rickshaw. He plodded evenly through the street, head down, while the couple in his cart laughed and chatted and took pictures of the surrounding buildings.

I kept going.

Another two blocks later, the pavement came to an abrupt halt just past a three-story brownstone office building. The road continued as a muddy stretch of dirt, lined with grass at the margins, twisting between cream-walled thatch-roofed cottages. I had to stop to rub my eyes, then stepped gingerly over the line, feeling like I was finally walking through the portal I'd allegedly crossed ten minutes ago.

A soft breeze blew up, bringing an earthy scent to my nose.

With one final glance behind me — there was no chance of getting lost; all I had to do was head back to the tall urban buildings — I walked into the unknown.

The road was slightly squishy beneath my shoes. There was no traffic — pony or otherwise — though I did seem to be following along a pair of wheel-ruts from that red pony's rickshaw. As the whirr of fans and hum of generators faded behind me, I began to hear the hesitant chirps of birds. At one point, the road went over a tiny rise as the bridge underfoot spanned a dry creekbed.

Several of the cottages I passed seemed to have accumulated a layer of dust. One had a broken window. Past the jagged edges of glass, its curtains swayed in the thin breeze.

I realized as I walked that the road was heading into what looked like some sort of market square — a large, open area ringed with more of those oddly identical cottages and a number of stranger structures. One in particular caught my eye: it had that same cream-colored siding, but the roof looked like it had been ripped off of a gingerbread house, and there was some sort of tower-like structure plopped on top that resembled a double-decker cupcake. The scent of pastry drifted my way from it, and my stomach rumbled in response. I realized that, in between the plane trip and all the waiting at the portal, I hadn't eaten since breakfast. Maybe some authentic Equestrian food would help ground out the weirdness of my trip so far.

The sound of weeping from a table near the windows caught my ears as I opened the door. Feeling suddenly awkward, I slipped in as quietly as I could. "… just can't," a thin female voice whispered. "I just can't stay."

"Fluttershy," a second, firmer female voice said, "I don't care what the bank is telling you. I am not going to let what happened to Rarity occur twice."

I very deliberately didn't look at them as I shuffled forward to the display counter holding racks of neon-colored lollipops and cupcakes. Not my business.

"You don't understand. This isn't about bits — I just can't. It was already bad enough with the city only a hundred hooves away, but with the stream dry, none of them can forage any more — and Harry Beary, yesterday, he got too close to the humans, and … and … they …" The first voice collapsed into incoherent weeping.

"Fluttershy. Listen to me," the second voice said, gently, pleadingly. "I promise you, I will take care of this. Give me a chance. I can't watch a third friend leave."

The first voice sniffled, struggling for control, then whispered: "I have to. I'm sorry."

"You are the strongest pony I've ever known. Please, be strong for me, just for a little bit, and I will make this right."

I glanced behind the counter, my stomach twisting, trying to block out the conversation without much success. There was a stairwell disappearing around a corner toward the second story; a tall, fancy display case with a number of large sheet cakes; and a doorway into a kitchen. Nobody in sight. The counter had a small service bell off to one side, and I hesitantly reached over and tapped the top button, ringing a clear, high tone that made me flinch with its intrusion.

An angular yellow muzzle popped around the corner of the kitchen door, topped by a shock of orange hair. "Yes? Can I help …" he said with a smile that instantly destabilized as we locked eyes. "Oh. I'm sorry, until the Everfree board starts returning our letters so we can get that misunderstanding with the business license straightened out, we're not allowed to serve humans."

The sobbing from behind me instantly cut off into a strangled gasp. There was the abrupt rasp of wood on wood — "Fluttershy! Wait!" — a few rapid hoofbeats, and a sharp slam as the door behind me burst open, filling the room with indirect sunlight. I glanced back over my shoulder to see a purple pony, wings flared, standing and reaching a hoof over her table toward the door.

The empty chair across from her, in the process of tipping over, overbalanced and hit the floor with a thump.

"Road app—" the purple pony snarled, cutting herself off as she realized I was staring. She swiveled her head to me, and I realized with a start she also had a horn on her head. "What."

"I," I stammered, memories straining for my attention. A purple winged unicorn … big red-and-white star on her flanks … wait a minute. The winged unicorns were royalty … and I'd seen her on the TV news, along with the tall sisters, in those big diplomatic summits. Sweet Jesus, I had walked in on the Princess of Friendship herself. "Uh, sorry?"

"I'm sure you are," she snapped, then closed her eyes; I could see her forcing in a breath through clenched teeth, and she closed her eyes and extended a hoof from her chest in some sort of weird salute thing. "Look," she said, more levelly, "this is really not a good time. What are you even doing here? On Wingsday, all the tour groups are supposed to be in Cloudsdale."

I fumbled in my coat pocket for the form. "I, I'm here for the, for my Mark —"

She cut me off with a humorless laugh. "Oh! Of course you are. Because stars forbid our world is anything more than a source of supernatural skills, right?" A raspberry glow enveloped my hand, yanking it out of my pocket and snatching my Z-225, which leapt through the air toward her. "What magnificently Equestrian specialty are you here for? Theme park recruitment? Subprime lending management? Aquifer extraction? Hunting?"

I shuffled toward the door. "Look, I'm really sorry. I think I should go."

Her eyes flicked past the form's timestamp. "Stars, no! You've barely been here fifteen minutes and already you've traumatized one of my best friends. Think of how much more you could accomplish with the full two-and-a-quarter hours." She flipped the form over, and barked a sharp and bitter laugh. "Oh, perfect. No wonder. Just because he gets a royal classification waiver means he thinks he has to make a beeline straight for the nearest princess."

"It's not like that!"

The princess took an ominous step toward me, wings flaring to full extension. "Oh?" she said levelly. "What is it like?"

I swallowed. "I–I'm …" I looked around the room for help, but the only other being in sight was the stallion in the kitchen, staring at us in frozen open-mouthed unease. "My friend set this up for me. I had no idea what to expect. I'm not even sure what I came for."

She tossed her head back and let out a strangled, incoherent scream. "You don't even know —" She slammed her hoof down onto the floor, cracking the wood and making both the shopkeeper and I wince. Her body began to heave, somewhere in between laughter and a sob, and she continued more softly as I backed toward the door. "So you came to me for help."

"No, I —"

"It's the easiest bucking thing in the world!" she screamed, flinging my paper back in my face. I staggered backward, lost my balance, and hit the floor heavily, desperately wrestling the smothering form out of its raspberry-colored grip. "As long as you're looking for a Cutie Mark, literally anything you do here will rip a superpower out of the beating heart of Harmony! You want a suggestion?" As I jammed the crumpled form in my pocket and crab-scrambled backward, she glanced around the room and picked up a salt shaker from the nearby table. I yelped and flung myself sideways as it rocketed in my direction, shattering on the floor behind me. "Eat some salt! Become the leading salt expert of two worlds! Learn fun and exciting facts like how to use it as a broad-spectrum herbicide, raising soil salinity levels so that nothing can ever grow there again! Or how about this one: The acute lethal oral dose of salt for an average equine is 440 grams!" She grabbed another salt shaker, and I bolted for the door. "Learn how to kill us all at once because it's a damn sight kinder than how you're killing us now!"

I dove through the door as the second shaker exploded against it, glass shards slashing across the backs of my hands and neck, a cloud of salt billowing out and raining to the ground.

I scrambled to my feet, ignoring the intense stinging from the lines and dots of red that were rising from my exposed flesh, and sprinted away at top speed. Behind me, anguished sobbing echoed from the open door.

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