Foreign Nationals of Unusual Importance

by Dave Bryant

First published

All his young life Cookie Pusher has wanted to be a diplomat. Now he has his chance—but his first assignment is more than a little out of the ordinary.

When the nation hosting the portal terminus at Canterlot High School finds out about it, and the fiery-haired young woman who isn’t what she seems, what do the Powers That Be do about it? Why, send shiny new foreign service officer Cookie Pusher to investigate, of course.

Cookie Pusher

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From the time I was old enough to understand what the word meant I wanted to be a diplomat. I started by reading everything I could get my grubby little hands on that my not-so-grubby little brain thought was relevant. Tuxedos and gowns, marble halls and grand staircases, champagne and caviar, rarefied heights of power and influence.

By the time I hit high school, I realized there was a great deal more to the job than the glamorous image portrayed in novels and movies—which didn’t dampen my aspirations, but did redirect them. I loaded my schedule with electives and buckled down. I quickly realized I also acquired an informal extra course in interpersonal conflicts, thanks to the less . . . understanding of my fellow students, unpleasant at the time but in retrospect a valuable lesson.

University was better so far as hazing was concerned, but the workload intensified enormously. I majored in international relations and studied abroad more than once for several grueling and expensive years. Still, partly by living like a monk, I managed to graduate near the top of my class. It was as well I did; had I not, my career ambitions would have ended then and there.

Simply to be considered for employment as a foreign service officer, an applicant must pass one of the most stringent and difficult civil-service exams in the world. The fortunate few who do so earn the honor of being put under the microscope, literally and figuratively, for medical and security clearance. The survivors are placed, from highest score to lowest, on the employment register (a fancy name for a glorified waiting list, really) for eighteen months. Anyone who hasn’t received—and accepted—an assignment offer in that time falls off the register, never to return; one offer can be refused, but not a second.

The odds are long. Fewer than two percent of applicants make it all the way through the gauntlet to matriculate as commissioned foreign service officers. Those commissions are the same legal instruments received by military officers, conveying authority and responsibility in the service of their nation.


Less than three months remained on my listing, and I was sweating bullets. I hadn’t even the chance to refuse an offer; none had been forthcoming. I was beginning to consider regretfully what else I could do with my life when the coveted fine, stiff envelope finally arrived.

It was the oddest offer I’d ever heard of. I would be a political officer, as I’d applied to become—and the sort people tend to think of when they hear the word diplomat—but serving domestically, which is somewhat unusual. The word unique showed up unexpectedly often in the exceptionally vague description, as did the word classified. The only other substantive information was the arresting phrase “interview and thereafter monitor a resident foreign national of unusual importance.”

How could I refuse? On the one hand, almost certainly no other offer would arrive before my time was up. On the other, the mysterious nature of the offer intrigued me. Perhaps I’m a glutton for punishment.

Contact

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It’s a mystery to me what they see in the place. After a casual glance at the text message on what appeared for all the world to be perfectly ordinary SMS client software, I returned the phone displaying it to my pocket.

I was in the process of lounging assiduously on a sidewalk bench in an attractive upscale commercial neighborhood of two- and three-story buildings, enjoying the warm midsummer day. My correspondent, a strapping fellow from the Diplomatic Security Service whose real name was not furnished to me (nor mine to him, I was sure), had succeeded in step one of our little shell game. Alas for the poor Mystery Readers Club; their usual venue was abruptly unavailable on short notice. Luckily, a frantic search for an alternative turned up Lectern’s New and Used Books, which featured a front parlor where visitors could relax and read or chat. With the addition of a few dozen folding chairs, it would do the job in a pinch.

Luck, of course, had nothing to do with any of this. I had to hand it to my accomplice; his talent for skullduggery and contrived coincidences was remarkable. Gaining employment at Lectern’s as a clerk and stockboy, where as often as not he was the one who answered and redirected telephone calls to the business, gave him all the scope he needed. I had no idea how he—or someone else—had managed to put the club’s normal meeting place out of commission or had arranged for Lectern’s to come to their notice, but I didn’t need to know. Results were what mattered.

All of it had to be set up on some sort of trip-wire, though, with a slew of other options besides the Mystery Readers Club. The real subjects of our elaborate little scheme had decided only an hour ago to visit that very bookstore, which meant the whole rigamarole had to go off on a moment’s notice and proceed without a hitch. The phone buzzed again.

They sure do like it, though. Ah. That was my cue. The phone went back into its pocket, and I went back to relaxing on the bench. A few more minutes’ wait made my eventual stand to stretch seem perfectly ordinary, and I set off down the sidewalk at a leisurely saunter.


I arrived at a gate sandwiched between a property fence and a tiny single-car garage, at the back end of a corner lot, on the street that ran along its side. I did not hold my breath as I worked the gate latch. My faith was rewarded when it opened—unlocked, as promised—and I entered, but it rattled closed more loudly than I’d intended, and I grimaced briefly. Well, in for a penny . . .

I stepped out with all the confidence I could muster, following the concrete path beside the garage. When I rounded the corner to face the back of the bungalow, I caught sight of the group I’d come to see, gathered around a couple of outdoor tables pushed together on a raised and tiled patio. They saw me at the same time, of course. The plan had worked; unable to use the front room, where we would be under the eyes of staff and customers, they had been forced out to the more isolated, and therefore more private, back yard.

Three of the young women already stood with feet aggressively apart, ready for action, doubtless alerted by the noisy gate. Two more hunched slightly on the far side of the table and the other two fidgeted uncertainly, all four still seated on redwood chairs that matched the tables. One of the standing girls called out. “That’s far enough, Mister. Y’ain’t s’posed to come in through the back; Mister Lectern don’t like it.”

“I’m aware of that, Ms. Applejack, but I’m afraid I must. I came expressly to speak with you and your friends, after all.” My voice sounded poised and unruffled thanks to relentless drill. I was thankful a particular dog wasn’t present to catch my scent and betray my nerves. There were oh so many ways this could go dreadfully wrong, especially if these seven teens decided I posed a danger. I may be slightly taller, but they outnumbered me, at least two outweighed me, and all of them had certain . . . extraordinary advantages I felt no desire to test. Moreover, skilled as he no doubt was, the DSS man even now somewhere in the store almost certainly couldn’t come to my rescue without escalating the situation catastrophically.

They clearly disliked the notion a total stranger appearing from nowhere seemed to know who they were. The hesitant ones made up their minds and stood to join the other three, who fell into more guarded positions. I reminded myself to stay calm.

“Who are you?” The rangy cyan athlete’s raspy voice and whipcord build projected a creditable air of menace—highlighted by an edged tone and truculent forward lean—though it was undercut a bit by apprehension. Well, that was fair enough, given my own trepidation, though I hoped my acting job was better.

“My name is Cookie Pusher, but you can call me Cook.” I reached the wheelchair ramp running from the walkway to the patio and started up. “On second thought, please call me Cook.” I always have preferred the nickname, truth to tell.

“Fine, Mister . . . Cook.” Applejack drummed her fingers on the table beside her. “But that don’t really answer Dash’s question, now does it?”

I stepped onto the patio and stopped a few feet away from them, an unthreatening distance and out of arm’s reach. Even so it took a conscious effort to relax and stand comfortably, hands clasped behind my back. I’d chosen my polo shirt and chinos, both in pastel earth tones to complement my stone-gray complexion and short crisp dark hair, for a businesslike but approachably informal impression. My glacier glasses might seem a bit more movie-villainesque, but there was some value in sending mixed signals. “I am a foreign service officer—an FSO, if one is addicted to three-letter abbreviations.” I didn’t hide my smile at the looks of bafflement exchanged among my audience. “More commonly known as a diplomat.”

Applejack put one hand on her hip and tipped back her hat with the other. “Now why in the world is a diplomat comin’ to see us?”

“Not us, AJ.” The flame-haired girl’s voice was thin. “Me.”

I nodded. “I’m here to speak with all of you, but Ms. Shimmer is the reason I was sent, both personally and as a representative. I see you are every bit as perceptive as I was told.” I took a breath, for myself as much as for them. “Please, all of you, be seated. None of you are in any trouble of any kind with anyone at any level, I assure you. That’s part of why a diplomat was sent, rather than someone from a military, law-enforcement, or intelligence organization, though I’m sure my contact report will circulate through all those agencies.”

“What about me?” Sunset Shimmer asked, her voice quavering slightly. Her fists clenched; the others stood their ground, wary and uncertain.

I long since had learned people sometimes found my pale eyes a bit disconcerting, part of the reason for my glacier glasses—and for removing them to give her a level look. “Technically you’re an illegal alien. You have no passport, no visa, and no diplomatic immunity. Arguably you have committed fraud and a number of other crimes in this country, both felonies and misdemeanors, not to mention a minor reign of terror among your fellow students at the school you currently attend. If I understand correctly, you may have committed treason in your own country.” Flashing a glimpse of the iron fist within the velvet glove wasn’t nice, but I needed all the leverage I could get with her and her very protective friends.

Naturally, those friends protested noisily, but she just bit her lip. I held up both hands, sunglasses still dangling from one, and continued, “I did say technically. You will not be charged or deported. Those were considered, but only as part of the process to resolve the difficulties and irregularities of the situation, which includes our discussion here today. I can’t speak to the possible treason charge, though I’m given to understand your ruler—and mentor, I believe—almost certainly has no intention of laying that charge. Even if she did, hypothetically speaking, there’s no extradition treaty in place, so we would be free to refuse any request to return you.” If I could keep them off-balance with whipsawed emotions until I established my bona fides, my chances of success (and more importantly to me, at least, leaving the scene intact) greatly increased.

“How . . .” By now Sunset was reduced to a near-whisper. Her friends sidled closer to her.

“I don’t know how all the information was generated,” I answered honestly. “One, I have no need to know; two, even if I did, the list probably goes on long enough to bore even Ms. Sparkle.” The bespectacled girl stared at me, obviously trying to decide whether she could get away with glaring, and I let my smile get a little broader.

“What I can tell you is the resources available to piece together even tiny fragments are rather staggering, such as satellite photos of clouds gathering much too quickly to be natural and strangely shaped rainbows at night—weather and environmental satellites, by the way, not spy satellites if that’s what you’re thinking. The briefing material I received was, well, as complete as one can expect in this business.” I was resigned to pretty low expectations in that regard and didn’t bother to hide it.

I gestured at the chairs. “Now, please, can we all sit down and discuss this as mature individuals? I know you’re capable of that—even you, Ms. Pie—when you put your minds to it.” Sitting should make it harder for them to do something untoward, at least physically, and should have a relaxing effect on them psychologically.

As they reluctantly lowered themselves to their seats, I pulled a chair from one of the other tables and swung it around backward in front of me, then sat and rested my forearms across its back. Now that the need for mind games seemed past, I could lay a few cards on the table.

“My job is to gather more information and, as much as I can, to push along the process of regularizing matters. As part of it, I interviewed Principal Celestia and Vice-Principal Luna earlier today. They told me everything about your backgrounds they were able to—yours too, Ms. Shimmer. They even allowed me to peruse your files.”

General indignation greeted this announcement, and I waved a hand to quiet them. “Hold yo—on there.” It seemed impolitic to mention equines in this particular context. “I should add they did so as part of a passionate defense of your characters. They made very certain I understood how completely you’re turning your life around, Ms. Shimmer, and how all of you have stepped up to deal with threats not only to your school or this city but possibly this world, and even Ms. Shimmer’s world. They have on file their own testimonial letters and similar letters from two of the princesses in her homeland, which is how I can be fairly sure no charges will be filed there either.”

I shot Sunset a humorous look. “They even have transfer forms from your old school to your new one, backdated of course. I’m sure they only thought of it as going through the motions, but believe it or not, it actually helps. Paperwork always warms the cockles of a bureaucrat’s heart.”

Pinkie Pie tilted her head. “But aren’t you a bureaucrat too?”

Instantly I replied, “Of course. That’s how I know.”

To my vast relief, all the girls burst out laughing. “Okay, Mister Cook,” Applejack allowed after her chortles had subsided. “I guess you’re all right. But I gotta ask: Y’all seem awfully cool about the notion of a magical portal to a world o’ talkin’ ponies, not to mention griffins and everythin’ else.” Her “y’all” and expansive gesture took in not just me but the masses of government functionaries throughout the country.

I shrugged. “You might be surprised. Government agencies, even at the highest level, conduct quite a few role-playing simulations—though they prefer to use the term ‘exercises’; it’s more dignified—about all kinds of possibilities. Most are fairly ordinary, or at least plausible, like the recent one exploring how to respond to a meteor strike offshore generating tsunamis and other natural disasters, with only a few hours’ warning. But there’ve been others based on wilder ideas, including a military scenario based on the notion of magic suddenly leaking into the world.”

They gasped, but I went on reassuringly, “No, it had nothing to do with our current situation. It was years ago, well before Ms. Shimmer appeared on the scene. From my reading of it, they set up a bunch of different variations depending on how the magic was supposed to work and where it came from, but none of the variants looked like what we’re seeing now. Anyway, the idea behind the weirder concepts is to keep everyone mentally flexible and able to handle anything a crazy world throws at them. It doesn’t always work, but it’s the best method anyone’s come up with.”

I smiled and spread my hands invitingly. “Besides, a lot of people read science fiction and fantasy these days, even in the government. So then, Ms. Shimmer: Tell me a story that doesn’t belong in Lectern’s fantasy section.”

Interview

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Sunset spun out her history since emerging from the fabulous magical portal that connected her world to mine. As far as I could tell she held back nothing, presumably convinced doing so wasn’t a good idea, though her voice roughened as she struggled through the more difficult passages. The others chimed in with their own perspectives at various points, and eventually Twilight Sparkle took up her part of the tale, voice shaky at first. Through it all I listened closely without interrupting, taking shorthand notes on a small notepad I carry, as much prop as memory aid. More than an hour passed before they all wound down and looked at me in silence.

Only then did I begin asking follow-up questions. I kept my tones respectful and sympathetic and matched my approach to the personalities before me—blunt and direct to Applejack and Rainbow Dash, quiet and coaxing to Fluttershy and Twilight, polite and gallant to Rarity and Sunset, outrageously casual and teasing with Pinkie Pie. Finally I was satisfied I had a complete picture of events. It was time to reward them for their frankness and forbearance.

“And now it’s your turn,” I encouraged. “Obviously I can’t provide answers on classified matters, but I’d say you’ve earned your chance to gather your own intelligence. In fact, given your role as magical defenders, I’d say you need to gather intelligence.”

The girls looked surprised but gratified, and spent a few moments in thought. Predictably, Pinkie was first to stick up her hand and wave it energetically. I nodded to her.

“So you aren’t going to kidnap us and put us in a laboratory and dissect us or put radio trackers in our—”

“Pinkie!” the others cried out.

I cracked up, laughing uninhibitedly and doubling over. I simply couldn’t help it, between the effervescent young woman’s uncanny ability to blindside people and the scandalized reaction of her friends. After I caught my breath, I straightened and answered, “S-somebody’s been watching too many bad B-movie thrillers. No, for heaven’s sake, nobody ever even mentioned that! Who do you think we are?” I took a moment to consider my explanation. “Look, six of you are citizens of this nation, and the seventh is a foreign national and a subject of the crown, not to mention having personal ties to both the most senior and most junior royals in that nation. I’ll grant the government and its employees aren’t perfect, but most of us wouldn’t countenance treating any of our citizens that way—and doing so to a foreigner is a guaranteed diplomatic incident if not an act of war! No. Just . . . no. Next question.”

Sunset half-raised her hand and got a similar go-ahead; she asked simply, “The sirens?”

“Not my department, so I don’t know. My best guess is they’re getting their own case officer, who’ll get a support staff, but I couldn’t say which agency that’ll be from. Law enforcement or social services seem most likely, though. They need it, especially now that they probably are more helpless and powerless than they’ve ever been in their lives—at least, I’d bet they feel that way. I may be asked to send an inquiry through you about returning them, but I can’t say for sure. Without their magic, they may be better off here, especially since they might suffer pretty severe culture shock if they went back, based on your speculation about the portal’s possible time slippage.” I got askance looks from one and all, so I elaborated, “They seem to have adapted to modern technology just fine. I’m thinking more about the changes to the world they came from. It’s got to look radically different now from what they remember. Who’s next?”

Twilight brought up a hand just enough to wiggle the fingers. “I have to ask. What’s next? Will we be seeing more of you?”

“Next I go and write a very long report. And to think I fondly imagined, after graduating from university, I was done with homework.” I sighed; it was all too true. “After that, any number of things might happen, but most of them won’t involve you girls directly. Yes, I’ll be in touch, though we may not meet in person very often—more because we’re all very busy people than for any other reason. In fact . . .” I pulled a small metal clamshell case from another pocket and extracted a sheaf of very official-looking business cards to hand out. “As for another possible meaning of your ambiguously worded question, you might hear from or meet some of my superiors, but only if something urgent or unusually important happens. I’m the case officer, so most of the time everything should go through me, both ways, to prevent confusion if nothing else. Anyone else?”

Applejack leaned forward, not bothering with niceties. “Mebbe y’all ain’t gonna haul us off or nothin’, but yer just gonna let things go? Yer not doin’ nothin’ else? I mean, we’re right grateful an’ all, but . . .” She trailed off and held her hands out to the sides in a shrug.

“What do you propose we do?” I asked rhetorically. “Announce the existence of the portal to the world?” Everyone winced, including me. “No. Keep it secret but close the school and the neighborhood around it, disrupting the city for no apparent reason?” Another wince. “No. In a lot of ways, our hands are tied. Besides, it’s the only contact you have—especially you, Ms. Shimmer—with her home. For that matter, it’s the only contact we have. What if something happens to you? Who else do we get in touch with but them in the event of a magical emergency? What if they need to get in touch with us for some reason? After all, the portal goes both ways, and I can think of all kinds of problems our world might generate for them, accidentally or, worse, on purpose.”

I shook my head ruefully. “For now, all we can do is go on as we have, with you girls acting as our first line of defense. Yes, it’s strange and awkward, and a lot of people are having sleepless nights over it for a lot of reasons, including worry over seven young women being in the line of fire as well as more practical considerations. But in the short term, at least, it’s the only workable solution.” Everything I told them was true, just not complete or strictly accurate; most of the worries were more pragmatic than humanitarian, but I wasn’t about to admit it. “Next?”

Dash spoke up. “So what if we hadn’t beat Sunset and Sci-Twi here and made friends with them?”

I replied coolly, “Then all of you would be talking to someone else, probably several someone-elses, and it wouldn’t be a very pleasant conversation.” Starting with local law enforcement, no doubt, and working all the way up to military authorities at the highest level. None of those people would treat anyone involved with kid gloves, especially the pair in question. Powerful as they may have been, I suspected they wouldn’t stand up to, say, battalion- or regimental-strength combined-arms operations involving armor, gunships, and infantry. What a mess that would be. “The less said about that the better. Next.”

Rarity rubbed her chin with a fingertip. “Why you, Mister Cook?”

“Because I am a sophisticated and debonair man of the world, just the sort to charm a group of lovely young ladies.” I held a straight face until they responded with snickers and rude expressions, then grinned and continued, “I’m closer to your age than most career diplomats, I was available for the assignment, and I think the powers that be figured I have the right personality and, well, flexibility of mind for the job.”

Realizing I hadn’t heard from one of them, I turned and asked quietly, “Do you have a question, Ms. Fluttershy? You’re the only one who hasn’t asked yet.”

Fluttershy shook her head mutely, and I spared her a small smile. “All right, then.” I sat back and spread my hands invitingly. “The floor is open.”


A chime and a buzz from my phone interrupted the discussion most of an hour later. By that time the whole group seemed to have warmed to me at least provisionally, talking more freely than I think they realized. I was more pleased by this success than I expected, for the vivacious and likable young women had charmed me as well. Conscious of my security clearance, I wasn’t quite as open as they, but I gave them a bit more of my personal background than I originally intended.

I slid the clamoring phone out and glanced down at it as I silenced the alarm, then up again. “I must be off; other business awaits—but I have two more things to say before I go.” I stood and swept my gaze across the group. “Remember in the months and years ahead you have friends and champions in unlikely places. And last but not least, I hope someday I have a daughter who grows up to be as fine a young woman as all of you are—including you, Sunset Shimmer.”

Sunset’s eyes were misty and she raised a trembling hand to her mouth, unable to speak.

“And with that, I must bid you all adieu, adieu, fair maidens, adieu.” With the ease of much practice I clicked my heels and bowed, then pivoted and strode back down the ramp.

I didn’t breathe easy until I was back on the street, just another passerby tending to his business, purposeful but not hurried. It would be up to the DSS ringer to tie up loose ends, such as locking the gate behind me.

Briefing

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“Mister Cookie Pusher. Come in.” Permanent Undersecretary Pin Stripes sat back in her high-backed button-tufted chair and pinned me with a gimlet eye. I edged into the generously proportioned and well-appointed office, caught between the euphoria lingering after my commissioning ceremony and an incipient case of nerves.

“Shut the door. Have a seat,” she instructed. Mechanically I obeyed, ending up on a fine but not overly comfortable visitor’s chair in front of a desk only slightly smaller than an aircraft carrier.

I endured her visual inspection, feeling as if she was examining every cell in my body, until she snorted and left off. “Don’t look so nervous, boy. You haven’t done anything—yet—to deserve getting burned to cinders, so relax.”

Easier said than done; Pin Stripes was a large woman with a large reputation. I wasn’t sure of her exact age, but I knew she was old enough to be my mother. As I understood it she’d started in the same position I was and had come up through the ranks to reach the title she held now, as high as any career FSO could rise. I’d heard a few awed whispered anecdotes of her tough-minded and hard-shelled methods of dealing with hot spots, war zones, misogynist dictators, and everything else a difficult and troubled world had thrown her way. A single baby diplomat wouldn’t even be a decent workout for a personality like that. Being ushered into her august presence had come as a surprise, and not an entirely pleasant one; normally initial briefings for new assignments were handled at a lower level.

“Bet you’re wondering why you’re here and not in a conference room somewhere,” she observed knowingly.

“Yes, ma’am.” It seemed best to limit my response to the minimum courtesy allowed.

“You drew the short straw, that’s why. And here it is.” She lifted a file jacket lying on her blotter and leaned forward to extend it toward me. Perforce I took it and turned it right-side up so I could look it over.

“‘Eloptic Machine’,” I read aloud. “That’s . . . rather colorful. More so than usual, I would think.”

Another snort endorsed my conclusions. “Someone didn’t follow procedure. Probably thought they were being clever. Sounds like it came off the list, but it didn’t. Don’t bother protesting. I already did. Came from the top, I’d say.”

“I see.” I did indeed. A newly assigned code name is supposed to be the first item on a master list of randomly generated word pairs, which then is struck from that list—the goal being to prevent shrewd guesses about the code-named program or operation by unfriendly (or even friendly) interested parties.

“You’re cleared for the whole compartment. I’ll warn you, it’s bigger than you think. Right now there are at least half a dozen sub-compartments. Could be more before too long, from the sound of it.” She pointed at the jacket I held. “That’s just the précis for the whole ball of wax.”

“Should I . . .”

“No, just read it here. I’ll wait.” She waved at the keyboard and other jackets littering the desk. Yes, she certainly had plenty of ways to occupy her time.

I pulled the stack of paper from the jacket and started reading.


“This is all verified?” I asked some while later in a shaken tone. The jacket and its papers lay half-forgotten in my hands.

“Course it is, or it wouldn’t be there.” The sharp tone chided me for my fatuity, but a sigh softened it. “Guess I can’t blame you. Does sound like something out of a storybook.”

“‘Interview and thereafter monitor a resident foreign national of unusual importance’,” I quoted my assignment offer from memory as I thumbed through the jacket’s contents again. “That would be this . . . Sunset Shimmer, I presume?”

“Got it in one.”

Unusual doesn’t begin to describe this.” I replaced the stack in its jacket and put the whole package gingerly on the edge of the desk. “On the other hand, it certainly is both outside the usual and greater than the usual.” Just in time I bit my tongue on a sardonic comment about the writer’s half-witty play on words. For all I knew it had originated in this very office.

“You’re a sharp one.”

“As you say, ma’am.”

“You’ll go far, Mister Cook. If you don’t hang first.” But a gleam of amusement and maybe even respect lurked in the narrowed eyes. “The rest of it is in Secure Docs. Your pass will get you down there. Come back here when you’re finished.”


I signed out a batch of jackets at the counter in Secure Documents and took them directly to a small windowless office assigned to me—one of dozens opening off a maze of bare narrow corridors within the section—and read, or sometimes viewed or listened to, reams of material. When lunchtime rolled around, I signed everything back in, finished or not. After a hurried meal of indifferent quality in the canteen on the building’s mezzanine level, I returned my nose to the grindstone.

The more I learned, the more fantastic it all sounded, like something out of an adventure movie for teens. Still, for all the minutiae, there were gaping holes, often covered with a thin tissue of guesswork or nothing at all—at one point some wag even wrote “here be dragons”. By the time I finished, it was clear why someone was being sent to find out more; the situation seemed to be developing in several directions at once, and not slowly. The last jacket consisted of disconnected bits and pieces, recent additions not yet categorized and redistributed to appropriate sub-compartments.

After I turned that in, I returned to the cubby and sat, a little dazed. Part of my reaction was a sort of mental indigestion after absorbing so much information, but the rest was a mix of sheer wonder and honest fear. The vast potential for both good and ill that rested on such a tiny fulcrum was breathtaking; the recent affair dubbed the “Battle of the Bands” illustrated that clearly enough. I leaned my elbows on the cheap laminate desktop and rubbed my face with both hands. This called for a mature and experienced handler, not a thirtyish first-timer who wasn’t even a parent, let alone a parent of teens. Why in the world did they pick me to deal with it?

One elbow slipped, and I jerked upright again. I looked down at the remaining sheaf sitting on the desk, CVs and recognition photos scooted willy-nilly across the smooth melamine surface. A golden face wearing a shy but hopeful grin and surrounded by waves of bright red and yellow hair gazed back from one of the eight-by-ten glossies, the collar of an open leather jacket just visible at the bottom of the frame. A cyan arm and hand reached into the side of the shot and behind the head, index and second fingers extended together, rather than apart as one might expect for “bunny ears” or mock antennae. After a moment I recognized the gesture as representing a unicorn horn—an alicorn, a wisp of university memory insisted—instead. I couldn’t help a bemused smile.

Unbidden a fragment of lyric, part of the audio material I’d encountered, rolled through my mind.

I may not know what the future holds

But hear me when I say

That my past does not define me

’Cause my past is not today

I stood and gathered the papers and photos, then jogged them and put them back in their jacket.


Pin Stripes looked up, beckoned me in, and pointed at the door. After entering and closing the door, I settled into the same guest chair I’d occupied previously, rested the CV jacket on my lap, folded both hands on it, and returned her searching gaze calmly.

“Made up your mind?” she asked after several seconds. “Last chance to bow out.” She didn’t bother to point out that, if I did, my career was over before it started.

“Yes I have.” I took a deep breath. “I’ll do it.”

Transit

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A haze-gray four-engine behemoth crouched before me on the windswept apron’s heavy-duty concrete. The racket surrounding it—and me—was appalling, the mingled odors hardly less so. Turbines shrieked and blew clouds of JP-8 smoke. Diesels rumbled and belched fumes. Caterpillar tracks squealed and friction-heated landing gear smelled of rubber and oil. People shouted and sweated.

Men and women in baggy BDUs labored busily around and inside the gigantic airplane, appearing and disappearing as they exited or entered on the cargo ramps under the tip-up nose and high-rise T-tail. Another line of people stretched from me to a side hatch, most but not all of them in green as well. One fatigues-clad individual strolled back along the queue in which I stood, consulting a clipboard and occasionally stopping to exchange a few high-decibel words with one or another line-stander. Finally he reached me. “Mister Cookie Pusher?” he confirmed loudly.

I nodded and held up the plastic pass-card bearing my name and photo. Like everyone else I’d kept it in my pocket rather than around my neck on its lanyard; the gusts from nature and turbofans made it annoying if not dangerous to do otherwise. The fellow nodded back and checked off my name on his list. “Okay, they’ve loaded your ULD already, so you’re all set there. Enjoy the flight.” Then he moved on.

With a wry grin I shook my head. It wasn’t exactly white-glove treatment, but then the military tends to be aggressively utilitarian except when performing ceremonial theater. I couldn’t begrudge them that important element of corporate identity; being able to hitch a ride for free was well worth the eccentricity.

Few people realize that space on Air Force transport flights is available to government employees on a standby basis. Most of it is gobbled up by military personnel and their dependents, but civilian professionals—especially commissioned officers like me—can wangle seats if their timing is right. Mine was.

My possessions were another matter. Knowing I might have to pack up and move halfway around the world if and when I received an assignment offer, I’d lived a minimalist lifestyle. Even so, and even after returning rented furniture, hastily disposing of excess belongings, and suchlike, what remained was enough to fill a unit load device, a standardized container for air transport. One of the unexpected fringe benefits of the assignment I actually got was permission to send the ULD through the same standby program, a much less common perq. O frabjous day, it even found a spot on the same flight I was taking. I couldn’t help wondering if a certain permanent undersecretary’s hand was behind the fortuitous coincidence.

When I finally reached it, the passenger compartment proved unique, positioned as it was above the cargo deck between the wing box and the tail—and facing backward, something civilian operators refuse to do despite the (minor, granted) improvement in safety. A ladderway from below was the only routine access, and windows were sparse, which along with a ceiling arched slightly fore and aft, as well as greatly side to side, gave the space a cavelike ambience. Fixtures were functional but bare-bones and not exactly squeaky-clean, like a budget bush airline on the edge of bankruptcy. Ah well.

I found my assigned seat and squeezed into it past a burly sergeant and a woman I presumed to be his wife. A nod and perfunctory smile were all the social pleasantries needed or apparently desired. I sat, stuffed the messenger bag serving me as carry-on luggage under my seat, leaned back, and closed my eyes. It would be a long flight.


Once the marathon session in Secure Docs provided the background I needed, Pin Stripes herself had given me the details on my mission the assignment offer couldn’t divulge. As I’d surmised, I was to establish and maintain long-term contact with Sunset Shimmer and the circle of friends in whose care she’d been left by a mysterious pursuer from the other side of the portal. I didn’t have to breathe down their necks, unless the situation turned out to be very different than current information indicated, but I did have to keep tabs on them.

I’d known better than to ask any of the hundred and one questions that leaped to mind during the surprisingly brief . . . brief Pin Stripes gave me. After all, part of my job would be to answer them, both for myself and for the powers that be. I’d contented myself with a mental note to write out a list on my secured notebook computer when I had the chance. My frantic preparations to relocate hadn’t left much time for it, and for obvious reasons I couldn’t work on classified material during the flight. I was too keyed up to try reading or playing games, and more queries multiplied like yeast in my distracted mind. My sigh was lost under the howl of engines spooling up.

Just as I finally managed to drift into an uneasy doze at thirty thousand feet, I recalled the undersecretary’s final words before sending me on my way. “One last thing, Cook. Usual warnings about clientitis go double—or triple—for something like this. Don’t forget that.”

“Yes ma’am.” It was difficult enough under normal circumstances to avoid the tendency as time passed to start over-identifying with a host country, bending over backward to defend its actions or give it the benefit of the doubt. Dealing with a gaggle of lively teenage girls, most of them fellow citizens, would make resisting a drift toward clientitis all the harder.


It was a beautiful city. The surrounding low rugged mountains were two-toned gemlike green with pine forest and meadows. The modest but ambitious downtown reached for the heavens near one edge of the valley; suburbs fanned out from it across the floor, with small farms and other open-space properties in a belt around three-quarters of the basin’s perimeter. Surprisingly for a city of its moderate size, no major freeways or airports served it directly, which was why I rode in a government-issue black SUV with a garrulous driver who eagerly extolled the virtues of the region and described points of interest as we passed. “Camp Everfree’s off that way. Nice place, but the rumor is the owners are having money trouble. Sure hope they manage to pull through.”

The occasional noncommittal noise of acknowledgement seemed sufficient to keep the fellow going, but I only half-listened; the rest of my attention was on the bundle of brochures, reports, and other documents pulled from the bulging manila envelope hurriedly thrust into my hands before this final leg. Some of it was tourist fodder, puffery but still important for giving a general impression. Other items were more substantial, including lists of neighborhoods and the businesses serving them. I was fortunate enough to have a small rental flat awaiting me in a downtown apartment building, not far from a government-leased office building, thanks to General Services. Still, finding my way around a new and strange town would take time and effort, and it didn’t seem too soon for a start on that task.

I looked up again as the highway started its final descent out of the pass and the hills fell away to reveal the expected, but still spectacular, panorama of the vale below. There certainly were worse places I could have been assigned.


“Here you go, sir, and welcome to our fair city!” The overly chipper business-suited assistant manager, with a bright smile pasted on her rose-tinted face, dangled a ring of keys from thumb and forefinger. “Can I help you with anything else?”

I gave her a tired smile, more so than I really felt—though that certainly was bad enough—and let her drop the jingling ring onto my cupped palm. “Thank you, no. Right now all I want to do is fall face-first into bed. It’s been a long trip, and jet lag is setting in.”

“Oh! Well, I understand. Remember you can always call the concierge if you need anything we can provide. Have a good day!”

I nodded, reciprocated her wish, and took my leave. The paperwork had been less onerous than I feared but more than I hoped, and while I really didn’t need to go so far as a nap, a nice sprawl on the couch would feel good.

The third-floor furnished studio was gratifyingly pleasant. From long habit I favored simple, open plans, part of my minimalist leanings; this one was well-designed and moderately large for its type, giving it a surprisingly expansive feel. The furnishings were basic and modernist, albeit sturdy and reasonably comfortable. If they looked a trifle worn, I could live with that. The place wasn’t cheap, but I drew a decent salary, and this would be less expensive than a larger dwelling while serving my needs adequately. Moreover, I was willing to trade off some of the savings for a smaller place to get added amenities like concierge services.

The ULD’s contents would be following on in the morning, so I had an afternoon and evening to myself. First on the agenda was that sprawl I was looking forward to, then maybe dinner at a nearby restaurant, since I had no groceries yet. The evening was soon enough to work on that list of questions I’d promised myself.

Performance

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I applauded with sincere enthusiasm from the resin outdoor chair on which I sat. Glittering figures floated back to the concrete floor as a last few notes rang and faded; pricked equine ears, oddly tail-like hair extensions, and in a few cases tiny angelic wings winked out of existence in fountains of sparkles. It was a testament to the group’s musical ability that the transformation, bizarre as it was, still failed to outshine their performance—though, admittedly, the reverse was true as well.

The seven teens immediately sagged, exhausted and universally glowing with a distinct sheen of sweat instead of magic. One fact I’d learned already about the magic in, and from, Sunset’s world was that it consumed the body’s energy just like any other form of exercise; wielding enough of it tired one out. That they had spent the day helping out on the farm surrounding us contributed too, no doubt.

I pulled out and pocketed the foam earplugs I’d worn thanks to a warning this would be an all-up rehearsal—partly because the band really was due for such a practice session and partly to demonstrate exactly what I just witnessed. Without that protection, being only a few yards away from a rock-pop band at full volume would have been deafening. When I started to rise in concern, Rainbow Dash waved me back. “We’ll be okay. It’s been a long day, that’s all.”

Unwillingly I settled back on the chair and let them be, instead watching and waiting. After a minute of resting or stretching, they fell to again, casing their equipment and moving it to a corner of the large work shed, almost a small barn. Even before they finished, a lively discussion erupted over the next agenda item. I didn’t even try to follow the thread as almost all of them spoke more or less at once, but they seemed to have no trouble understanding each other. Eventually Rarity’s emphatic insistence on showers before anything else won out, and they trooped off to monopolize every bathroom in the farmhouse for the next half-hour or so.


“So what’ll y’all have?” Applejack asked after we all reconvened on the farmhouse’s front porch. The girls wore fresh clothing brought along in anticipation, and most sat on mates to the patio chair I’d occupied earlier, though Pinkie Pie and Sunset perched on the railing. I leaned a shoulder against a support pillar.

Late-afternoon shadows stretched across the fields and homestead as well as the nearby hills and woods. Dinner wasn’t far off, to judge from the delectable aromas wafting from the house, along with cooking-related clatters and the voices of the household’s eldest and youngest members. Even I had been invited to share the meal; to be polite I’d accepted, though not without mixed feelings.

Sunset heaved a nostalgic sigh. “What I wouldn’t give for a cold bottle of Kölsch, but cider’ll be fine.”

“Beer?” Sheer surprise, instantly regretted, wrested the question from me.

A disgusted expression greeted my reaction. “Where am I from, Cook?”

It took only a moment for the penny to drop. “Oh. Right. Someplace where the idea of a legal drinking age doesn’t exist yet,” I answered in a chagrined, and apologetic, tone.

Mollified, Sunset waggled a hand palm-down. “It isn’t quite that cut and dried, but close enough. And it’s not like I ever drank, or still drink, very often, but I do appreciate a good beer—or cider or whatever—once in a while.”

“Hard cider it is,” Applejack cut in with a teasing tone. “After all, fizzy apple drinks are for yokels, right?”

Sunset rolled her eyes, but couldn’t help a small smile. “You’re never going to let me live that one down, are you?”

Amidst the snickers and good-natured ribbing of the reformed ex-bully, Applejack buttonholed each of her friends in turn, collecting preferences for drinks. My attention followed; even seemingly trivial interactions like these could reveal useful insights into the personalities around me. I bit my lip on an amused smile when the crowd broke down roughly half and half, the bolder ones following Sunset’s lead in choosing the hard cider pressed on the premises, the others opting for soft cider or cold well water. Finally Applejack got around to me. “Cook, what about you?”

“I’ll take the hard cider too. Haven’t had a chance to try it yet since I relocated.” I was genuinely curious and had high expectations. In an age of industrial farming, surviving family establishments like Sweet Apple Acres competed by offering local products, artisanal processes, and heirloom cultivars. This branch of the far-flung Apple clan didn’t go in for the full historical-farm treatment, though some did, depending as much on the tourist trade as on their produce. Still others had ridden the wave, rising to prominence in modern agribusiness.

Applejack, gracious hostess that she was, headed inside to fetch the requested refreshments. Everyone else chattered happily about the day’s doings, even Fluttershy venturing an occasional comment. I held my peace, as much to avoid intruding on their cheerful socializing as to eavesdrop, but before long Twilight Sparkle gave me a challenging look. “So how ’bout you, Cook? You haven’t said much.”

I shrugged and in a self-deprecating tone replied, “There really isn’t anything very interesting to say.”

The entirely-too-bright young woman gave me the hairy eyeball, not buying my casual deflection. “Aren’t you the one who claimed to be a debonair and sophisticated man of the world last time?”

I puffed out a small sigh. “Look, this isn’t supposed to be about me. Besides, right now I’m a boring old worker bee settling into a new post in a new location. No super-spy swashbuckling, or cloak-and-dagger hijinks, or thrilling adventures to tell.”

That was a mistake. At once I had their full attention. Sunset broke the sudden silence with a quiet question. “Not what you expected to be doing, is it?”

I hesitated. My intent had been to fob them off with the impression of being a forgettably stodgy older adult, at least from their youthful perspective—but there was enough truth in my words to sting a bit, and I’d forgotten for a moment just how sharp the whole group was. At this point the only way out was through. Besides, if I wasn’t honest with them, they might well decide they didn’t need to be honest with me. “. . . No, not really. I expected to serve in an embassy or consulate overseas.” I held up a finger. “But. This is a unique situation and a unique opportunity. It isn’t thrilling, but it is necessary, and it certainly is not boring. Strange, but not boring.”

They didn’t seem convinced. I shook my head. “I accepted the assignment, okay? I volunteered to do this.”

My gamble paid off. They still looked dubious, but not even Twilight challenged my half-truth—none of them could know the assignment offer hadn’t provided enough details to make my decision an informed one, or that I had to jump at the only chance I was likely to get. Just then, fortunately, Applejack returned with a bang of the screen door, arms laden with frosty bottles. “Here ya go!” She paused and looked around. “So what gives?”

I pushed myself upright and leaned forward to pluck a bottle from among the assortment. “Ah, there we are! Just what I needed,” I observed in a hearty tone.

Sunset, bless her little unicorn heart, followed up by hopping to her feet and, a bit more loudly than necessary, volunteering to help hand out the bottles, even producing an opener from a pocket. It took a moment longer for the rest to catch on; Twilight eyed me and opened her mouth, but Sunset hurriedly shoved a bottle of soft cider in front of her face. “Here, Twi!”

The resulting indignant but cross-eyed expression was priceless, and only my training kept my face straight. Reluctantly Twilight held off and accepted the bottle, though she shot me a fulminating sidelong glower that all but shouted, “Later.” I produced an artfully innocent look that made her snort.


The cool, tart, full-bodied cider was every bit as delicious as I anticipated, but hardly was the bottle empty before an actual honest-to-goodness dinner bell rang. I hung back while the girls bounded through the door one by one, thereby bringing up the rear of the cavalcade as it wended through the house. Seating eleven people strained even the Apples’ commodious dining room, but with some creative arranging they were able to shoehorn in enough place settings around the refectory-style table.

The sole male resident, McIntosh, returned from tending to a last few chores out among the orchards, just in time to help. As a guest, I was allowed only to stand by and watch while the Apples and their friends—family by informal extension—bustled with final preparations. After nearly being run over twice, I tucked myself in a corner and just tried to stay out of the way until at last everything was on the table and everyone was seated according to Granny Smith’s iron whim.

Even then the affair remained lively. Voices filled the room. Serving dishes all but flew from hand to hand. Plates were piled high and tumblers filled to the brim. Those who’d had the hard cider were smart enough to switch back to juice or water with the meal, and plenty of it—rehydration had to be a pretty urgent necessity, especially with a little alcohol to dry one out even more. Appetites were similarly ample, regardless of age; the Rainbooms in particular ate like horses, to use an obnoxiously appropriate simile. I didn’t doubt they’d poured who knew how many thousands of calories into the day’s physical and magical labors, yet I also couldn’t shake the conviction they vacuumed up every meal the same way.

Conversation and laughter flowed unabated, as vital and sustaining for the spirit as the food was for the body. In-jokes and shared experiences made for stories half-told, the gaps filled in by the listeners’ memories, and mutual affection was palpable among the disparate personalities around the table. More than ever I felt the outsider, which inspired both a mild personal melancholy and a strong professional satisfaction. My job wasn’t to make friends; it was to watch, learn, and report. And, I reminded myself, once I’d spent some time in the city, I’d make enough connections to feel more at home.

As the meal progressed I caught Sunset and Twilight shooting me a few looks, the former thoughtful and the latter skeptical. That was understandable enough. Ms. Runaway certainly had her own bumps and bruises associated with thwarted ambitions, and Ms. Bookworm was congenitally inquisitive to a fault. I returned them what I hoped appeared to be bland, incurious glances in the course of attending to the discussions and requests for passing of food or condiments.

By the time dessert—apple pie à la mode, naturally—capped off the meal, even the voracious teens seemed replete, wilting slightly and blinking sleepily. This time I was permitted to help cart stacks of dishes to the kitchen sink and surrounding counter, thanks to the “food coma” afflicting one and all. Talk was more subdued and sporadic, consisting mostly of directions from the matriarch, now that topics, and constitutions, had been spent. I was able to avoid further interrogation from anyone with adroit physical and verbal maneuvers; alas, for the same reasons I was equally unable to further my own investigations.

Well, this wouldn’t be the last opportunity, and at least I had enough new material to fill out a report of adequate length and substance. Not everyone understood some jobs require lots of time and patience—even in the rarefied heights of government, where answering the question “what have you done for me lately?” could be life or death for one’s career. I hoped I could rely on Pin Stripes to keep my neck from the chopping block long enough.


Once the whole younger crowd melted away into the private spaces of the house, after-dinner chores complete, I was able to plot my escape. Only Granny Smith was left to see me to the door. As I reached for the knob, she touched my arm. “Mister Cook.”

I turned back to her courteously, and she continued, “Them girls mean th’ world ta me. Even that Sunset Shimmer’s doin’ a fine job o’ turnin’ herself around. Ah don’t want ta hear nothin’ ’bout you givin’ ’em trouble. Ah’ll write all th’ letters, an’ make all th’ phone calls, Ah gotta if’n ya give me reason to. Ah pay m’taxes, so folks like you work fer folks like me, ya hear?”

“Yes, ma’am,” I acknowledged respectfully—and ambiguously. I couldn’t fault her sentiments, and in her position I’d feel the same way, but when push came to shove, I’d sworn an oath, and I was duty-bound to honor it. Short of plainly illegal orders, what I was required to do, I would. “Good night to you, and thank you for a lovely meal. Please convey my thanks to the girls for accommodating my request to see them today.”

She gave me a searching gaze, then nodded and stepped back. “I’ll tell ’em whatcha said. Good night, lad, and yer welcome.”

Investigation

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“Thanks for the help, fellas. A little something extra for your trouble.” I handed out twenties to the coveralled crew. They mumbled or nodded thanks before shuffling out, leaving me to shut the door behind them.

Once I had, I leaned my back against it and blew out a breath. The much larger and brawnier professionals had done most of the literal heavy lifting, but I’d pitched in to some extent, along with directing their efforts. The latter turned out to be more work than I expected, though I tried not to micromanage. To them, a box was a solid object of varying size and weight, not a collection of cherished possessions, to be dropped off—or maybe just dropped—as quickly as possible, because time is money.

I stared down the short hallway at the visible slice of the main room. Packed neatly in a ULD, the boxes didn’t seem like much. Stacked on the floor and furniture like cardboard menhirs, they took up an astonishing amount of room. I rubbed my forehead and decided I was just too tired to tackle any of them right now. After a moment to gather a little energy, I wandered back to the couch and dropped onto it with another sigh.

In my case time might not be money, but it certainly was wasting. Both conscience and expectations from above demanded I start doing something constructive beyond my immediate needs, even if I arrived in town only yesterday. I tipped back my head and closed my eyes to consider a plan of action for the next few weeks.


The first order of business was to cross-check the curricula vitae provided with my briefing package against public records—births, school enrollments, and the like. I visited city hall, the county clerk, and a few other jurisdictions, just another anonymous citizen availing himself of the services and facilities built with his tax money.

As expected, Sunset Shimmer existed in the files of institutional memory as a mere wisp. Indeed, the real surprise was how much of a legal identity this obviously bright and capable young woman cobbled up after arriving just over three years ago, apparently as a freshman-age teen with few if any resources, from what I’d come to suspect was a pre-digital society. Still, while that identity had taken on a bit more color and dimension over the last few months, it remained barely sufficient to slide by if nobody looked too closely . . . as I was doing.

For her friends, on the other hand, the results proved as complete and ordinary as I anticipated, barring the occasional hiccup—a missing form here, a data-entry error there, the sort of mistake or inconsistency that’s plagued large-scale recordkeeping since time immemorial. Every one of them was an open book until those same last few months; even then anything outside the secrets I’d come to investigate still lay more or less in plain sight. They were, in short, the sort of good, pleasant girls any parents could be proud of.

From there I followed the threads to their families, friends, and other connections, gradually building a webwork of facts and figures. As the days piled up, I developed a steady routine. Every weekend I sent off a report to the home office, sometimes accompanied by specific queries. Sporadic updates and responses arrived in return; I was relieved to find no imperious demands for more rapid progress among them. So far, at least, Pin Stripes was living up to her tough-but-fair reputation, staying off my back and, I presumed, shielding it from others, so long as I could document genuine advancement. My putative spare time went to unpacking, stocking my abode with necessities, and learning my way around the city.

I wasn’t about to examine in detail all the myriad people whose lives intersected with the group at the center of my quest—that, after all, was part of the reason for my reports. Cursory checks on my part didn’t raise any red flags, and plenty of manpower was available elsewhere for that sort of toil. I’d be informed of anything pertinent, and anything that wasn’t I had no need to know, either as an individual or as a government employee. In the mean time I turned my attention from personal backgrounds to actions and events.

Work orders on file with the city for reconstructing Canterlot High School’s front façade and plaza, after their mysterious and dramatic destruction during an eventful dance the previous autumn, earned my amused admiration as bureaucratic masterpieces of obfuscation and double-talk. On the Web I teased out the occasional deleted social-media post or video, either through an “unavailable” notification or by visiting the Wayback Machine—it’s amazing how often people trying to clean up digital indiscretions overlook back-ups, archives, or metadata. Calling the affair a conspiracy of silence might be an overstatement, but I could discern real efforts, official and not, to keep the shenanigans as quiet as practicable.

Quite recently Crystal Preparatory Academy across town suddenly exhibited similar symptoms, albeit to a lesser degree, beginning with a competition between the two schools that took place, unusually, every four years rather than annually. This time around it seemingly ended as spectacularly as the CHS dance earlier in the school year, leading to comparably vague, subdued, and confused reports. The abrupt resignation afterward of Crystal Prep’s principal was typical; a single bald press statement explained nothing, not even whether she departed voluntarily or under pressure. The only addendum was the promotion of her successor from the position of dean.

To me, though, the consequence of immediate interest was the addition of one Ms. Twilight Sparkle to the coterie under my scrutiny, thanks to an astoundingly fast-tracked transfer from one school to the other on the heels of what I gathered was a central role in the competition’s colorful climax. The name caught my notice instantly. I already had uncovered, or been sent, tantalizing hints regarding the school dance that not only changed so many lives—including, indirectly, mine—but had brought the situation to the attention of those in power. One such tidbit was a name for Sunset Shimmer’s enigmatic pursuer: Twilight Sparkle.

The transfer student was every bit as easy to pin down as her newfound friends, which made short work of building a matching dossier and a complete alibi proving she hadn’t been anywhere near Canterlot High before or during the dance in the fall. Her Doppelgänger, on the other hand, didn’t exist at all in any official sources, including CHS enrollment. Combing social media turned up only a handful of passing references and a group photo, somehow missed in the efforts to sweep everything under the rug. Metadata on the photo indicated it had been taken during the so-called Battle of the Bands, the latest I could confirm a sighting.


With chin on palm I studied the two photographs on my laptop monitor. To one side, a poorly lit, slightly blurry, and greatly magnified crop presented a young woman standing on stage, curled fists drawn up under her chin, singing into a microphone on a stand. To the other, a studio portrait depicted a diffident girl peering through squarish horn-rim eyeglasses, dressed and coiffed formally and rather severely, though a few unruly hairs had escaped their prison. What I really needed was a photo-analyst, but I didn’t have the authority to read anyone else into the Eloptic Machine compartment, so for now I’d have to rely on my own eye and reason.

Allowing for the differences in lighting, coloration did look the same for both—mostly shades of purple, with a hint of pink in the long, straight hair. I couldn’t tell for sure, but there seemed to be a little more of the pink on the transfer student. What I could see of their faces and physiques also seemed to match at least as closely as healthy identical twins.

Everything else diverged wildly. The singer’s simple but attractive blouse and skirt and her loose, free-swinging hair suggested a less withdrawn, more confident personality. Of course, the student wore a school uniform, which included provisions for acceptable hairstyles, but what I’d dug up on Crystal Prep’s dress code allowed a fair amount of leeway in exactly how one could wear the uniform, especially for female students. Even so, this Twilight Sparkle adhered fairly rigidly to the letter of the code, more than many of her now-former classmates. I sat up again to type notes in yet a third window. This topic alone demanded its own report.

The existence of two Twilight Sparkles, so alike yet so different, raised profound and disturbing questions about the nature of the portal and the two worlds it connected. The evident lack of a second Sunset Shimmer simply added to them; the only other individuals by that name I’d found bore no real resemblance to my quarry in looks or discernable personality.


Having established biographies and connections, I moved on to habits and activities, movements and stamping grounds. An animal shelter. An amphitheater. A boutique. A bookstore. . . . I visited them all, and other places besides, choosing off hours to minimize the chance of premature contact with the now-seven young women. I made casual-seeming conversation with staffers and managers and where possible wandered idly through the premises, noting details.

I needed to confront all seven at once, on neutral ground—public enough to forestall precipitous action on their part, private enough to discuss matters everyone involved considered sensitive. I had to question a secondary circle of witnesses in advance, but shortly enough beforehand to avoid giving warning; some or all of them might agree to hold our meetings in confidence, but I couldn’t count on that.

Narrowing down the possibilities left me with a rough timeline and a list of locations along with the roll of witnesses. A tentative plan started to take shape in my mind, but I’d need help to refine it and carry it out. That request went out with my next report.


“Mister Gray?”

I looked up from my laptop sitting on the generic peninsula desk. “Mister Brown, I presume. Please come in.”

The tall, well-muscled man, whom I judged to be within a few years of my own age, stepped into the small, mostly bare office. His business suit was inexpensive but well tailored, which looked far better than the reverse and said interesting things about the person wearing it. Without bothering to ask he shut the door behind him. “They told me you need assistance with an operation, and you’d provide the brief.”

“Yes indeed. Get comfortable; it’ll take a little while, and afterward I’ll want your help to plan out the particulars.”

Mister Brown, whatever his real name, was everything a special agent of the Diplomatic Security Service should be. He grasped immediately what I had in mind and seemed to take a sort of intellectual delight in the challenge. His questions and suggestions were concise and to the point—and, even better, scrupulously avoided anything he didn’t need to know.

“The bookstore’s our best bet, I think.” He rubbed his chin with a fingertip, then brought it down to tap the entry on the handwritten list in front of him. “Can you show me the diagrams again?”

I called them up and turned around the laptop for him to look over. I had them more or less memorized, along with several other locations frequented by the girls singly or together, so I simply waited patiently as he leaned forward to gaze narrow-eyed at the screen.

After a couple of minutes examining the floor and lot plans and occasionally asking for clarification on one point or another, he sat back and met my eye again. “The front room’s too public, but the back patio’s perfect—better’n just about anyplace else you showed me. So we need to find out when all of ’em are going there at once, make sure they can’t use the front room, but without driving ’em off someplace else, and get you in through the back way to talk with ’em.”

I nodded. “Sounds simple enough, but the devil is in the details.”

A small smile quirked one side of his mouth. “Yeah, well, that’s why I’m here. Tell you what: I’ll start rounding up some assets and do a little more thinking, then meet you back here in, say, a week. How does that sound, Mister Gray?”

I grinned back. “It sounds just fine, Mister Brown.”


Celestia, Luna, Abacus Cinch, Mi Amoré Cadenza. Anyone else of interest could wait until after my initial contact, but I had a hunch talking to those four women beforehand could prove useful. I sat back on my couch, arms folded, and gazed unseeing across the room. On more mature consideration, I decided to leave Cinch out of it for now. By all accounts she was a . . . difficult personality, and likely would be even more prickly on that particular subject. Anything she knew I probably could get from the other three.

I suspected Mister Brown had his hands full putting the finishing touches on our little plan, but he’d expressed enough confidence at our last meeting to hazard a time window for execution, and the clock was ticking. My part was pretty much set in stone—I just needed to follow his lead as we discussed—which left me free to pursue other avenues. I slid my phone from a pocket and called up the contact list. Time to see if my silver tongue and lucky stars could pull off this feat of scheduling.

Excursion

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I stared in slightly bleary bemusement as my phone’s buzzing resonated on the cultured-stone countertop and started it edging across the smooth surface, like a plastic playing figure on my father’s ancient electric football game. Its screen lit up with the originating number and the legend Sunset Shimmer, which only redoubled my surprise. Still, regardless of the early hour, I couldn’t ignore a call from her of all people. I put down my forkful of scrambled egg, fumbled the phone into a paw, and cleared my throat.

“Hello?” My voice still was a bit rusty this soon after waking up—I’ve never been a morning person—but at least it was comprehensible.

“Hey there!” The now-familiar, slightly throaty voice was breezy and wide awake.

I leaned an elbow on the counter and rubbed my eyes with the fingers of that hand. “What’s up?”

“Busy this afternoon?”

Taken aback, I left off the rubbing and asked in genuine puzzlement, “What did you have in mind?”

“We could meet up around noon for lunch, then maybe see some of the city. The girls are off doing other things—summer work, mostly—and I’ll bet you’re still learning your way around. I figured I could play trusty guide. Maybe not native, but close enough these days.”

“Let me think,” I stalled. A hasty mental review confirmed nothing time-sensitive was on my original schedule for the day. “Okay, I can swing that. Where?”

From my investigations I recognized the name of the coffee shop she suggested, but when I opened my mouth to inject a cautionary note, the imp of the perverse whispered in my ear. I switched to, “Sounds good. I’ll see you there at noon.”


I pushed open the double-leaf glass door set in a bevel off the street corner and, on entering, glanced around the rather generic-looking diner. Sunset, clad in her trademark short dress, leggings, and leather jacket against the air-conditioned chill, sat facing me in the far end booth along the side of the dining hall on my left. Chin on palm, she stared pensively out the picture window beside her at the busy street. A cup of coffee steamed gently on the table in front of her, probably refilled in the last few minutes. I guessed she’d arrived early enough to drift into a brown study while waiting; besides, despite turn-by-turn directions I was a few minutes late, still not completely accustomed to local traffic patterns and street grids.

Sunset wasn’t the only CHS student in the mostly full room, though there were fewer than I expected. I suppressed a grin and sauntered toward her booth. When I was close enough I commented, just loudly enough to be heard over the ambient surf-noise of conversation, “A penny for your thoughts?”

She jumped and whipped her head around. “Cook! For—” She bit off whatever blue curse, from her homeland I suspected, she was about to utter. “Sneaking up on me like that,” she grumbled instead with a disapproving scowl as I slid onto the bench opposite.

Deadpan, I remarked, “I can’t help it if you weren’t paying attention.”

Her eye-roll was eloquent. “Why do I get the feeling your awful sense of humor was one of the reasons you got this job?”

“Maybe.” I picked up the menu awaiting me. “And you haven’t answered my question.”

The pause that followed drew my eye back to her. She, in turn, looked down into her cup as if it were a scrying pool, her hands folded around it. “Everything. Nothing.” She sighed and flung up her hands, though without raising her arms. “I’d say ‘don’t worry about it’, but the whole reason you’re here is to worry about it.”

I put down the menu and let my smile slide away. “Okay, yes. I’m a spy, at least in the conversational sense of the word. We both know that. But that’s not the only reason I’m keeping an eye on you, or even the only reason I was sent to keep an eye on you.” When her expression turned dubious, I flipped a hand, also without raising my arm. “I won’t deny it was the main reason, but if it was the sole reason, the whole thing would have been handled completely differently. And no, I’m not going to explain how, mostly because it would be long-winded and boring—and irrelevant.”

She flashed a brief smile that didn’t reach her eyes, but before she could speak, a movement in the corner of our eyes brought our heads up. Two of Sunset’s schoolmates took another couple of steps before stopping beside our table, both wearing similar sun dresses and identically concerned expressions. I raised my brows and sat back.

“Is everything okay, Sunset?” asked the mint-green girl. Her pale-yellow companion elaborated with, “You’re not having any trouble here, are you?” Both of them favored me with distrustful sidelong looks.

“Uh, everything’s fine, Lyra—Sweetie. This is, ah, Mister Cook. He’s, um—”

Conscience and larger concerns moved me to intervene. “I’m Sunset’s case worker. She’s doing fine, but she’s still under eighteen, so the law requires that someone keep an eye on her to make sure she keeps doing fine. If there’s a major problem, I’m supposed to call in a full-fledged social worker, but I’m qualified to handle her normal routine or small, simple difficulties. Most of her friends are busy today, and I’m still fairly new in town, so she thought lunch and a city tour would kill two birds with one stone. Right, Sunset?”

“Yeeeah.” Realization colored Sunset’s drawn-out acknowledgement. “It’s no big deal, girls. I just needed someone to talk things over with, and like he said, the rest of the gang are off working or dealing with other stuff.”

With complete sincerity I added, “I’m pleased to see Sunset has so many friends who care so much about her.”

They smiled, flattered, but still stuck around long enough to assure themselves all really was well before heading back to their table and the bill that awaited them. The moment they were out of earshot, Sunset leaned forward and hissed, “You enjoyed that, didn’t you?”

I let a grin blossom. “Yes. Yes I did. When you proposed this place, I had a feeling something like that would happen. Next question.”

She blinked and her mouth flapped a couple of times before she managed, “Uh. Yeah. Why didn’t you say something if you knew that would happen?”

Blandly I returned, “I have a better one. Why didn’t you think of it, Ms. Smart-enough-to-create-a-new-identity-from-whole-cloth?”

After a couple of seconds she replied in a small voice, “I don’t know. I . . . just didn’t.”

“I do. This place is within easy reach, affordable, and comfortably familiar.” This time my smile was crooked but, I hoped, sympathetic. “More importantly, you like it, and you trust your classmates—and vice versa.” The implication she trusted me as well I kept to myself.

Her expression was one of dawning revelation, and she looked around with fresh eyes. “I guess I do. Both.”

I couldn’t resist. “And you’ve fallen out of the habit of scheming.”

She turned back and made a face, but her good humor was restored. “You’re terrible, Cook.”

I raised the menu again. “I work hard at it.”


The place turned out to be “neighborhood good”—not worth driving across town for, unless there was some overriding reason like mine, but more than adequate to become a staple if one lived nearby, as Sunset did. By tacit agreement, during the meal we kept the conversation focused on the day’s itinerary. After the uniformed and aproned waitress laid the little black folder on the table between us, Sunset didn’t contest it when I solemnly pulled out a wad of cash, but did insist on paying her share.

Only as we stepped out onto the sidewalk, double door swinging shut behind us, did Sunset pounce. “That song and dance you gave Lyra and Sweetie—did you just make that up on the spot?” Her tone was notably suspicious.

“Nope.” I swept a hand in the direction of the shiny black government-fleet mid-range sedan parked nearby. “Every word of it is true.”

She stopped in the midst of pulling off her jacket under the warm summer sun. “You’re kidding!”

“Wanna see my documentation?” I reached for my wallet, but she shook her head hastily. “Between the time I accepted the assignment and the flight out, I was run ragged. Part of it was taking the tests and getting certified for the social-services job. It’s a great cover; it works for everyone, whether they know what’s really going on or not, and it actually does satisfy the legal requirement. But it is kind of awkward.”

“Why—oh. Yeah, I guess it would be.” To my relief, she dropped the subject, and we set off on our peregrinations.


Initially casual, Sunset grew more eager as the afternoon progressed, and we ended up bouncing all over the valley in a frenetic steeplechase that rarely slowed down. There always was one more thing to see, one more place to check out. Sometimes it was a new discovery even for her; in other cases it was a favorite haunt she wanted to share with the ardor of a transplant for her adopted home. A few times we got lost, but even then serendipity was around the corner as often as not.

Her enthusiasm was infectious—and well deserved. Every metropolis has its seamy side, of course, but this city was as lovely as any I’d ever seen. We visited quiet residential neighborhoods, thriving business districts, and everything in between, leaving aside wide berths to avoid bumping into any of the other Rainbooms and thereby derailing our plan, such as it was. My tourguide kept up an almost constant patter, liberally laced with anecdotes, by turns humorous and personal or stilted and historical.

The panorama from the observatory perched above downtown was magnificent. Sunset assured me Sci-Twi adored the place, and I should take the tour when I had a chance. The stadium on the outskirts of town, not far from the highway by which I’d arrived, was like most of its kind a local landmark. Since neither of us was a big sports fan, we saw it mostly in passing, but I gathered it was more central to Rainbow Dash’s life. We even swung by the movie studio the whole group of them recently toured, though we didn’t go inside; for my professional edification Sunset provided more details on that unexpectedly dramatic outing.

By the time we headed away from the studio lot on a nearby boulevard, the sun balanced on the ridgeline that made for sudden and brief dusks. It had been an unexpectedly enjoyable—and tiring—day, but we’d managed to work our way from one side of the valley to the other. We had one last stop before we would call it a day.

Dialogue

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Sunset and I sat quietly, knees drawn up, on one of the rolling grassy hillsides surrounding the amphitheater where the Battle of the Bands had seen its, well, dazzling climax. Beside us small piles of crumpled waxed paper and cardboard gave mute testimony to dinners supplied entirely by vendors strategically spotted along the park’s winding concrete paths. The rich, and not entirely healthy, food combined with the surprisingly strenuous day of touring the city to leave us pleasantly lethargic.

The sky was a bowl of deep blue edged with the last hints of red and gold and, away from most of the city lights, spangled with stars in profusion. Faint snatches of music wafted to us on the cool breeze. Summer fireworks were yet to begin. Somewhere in front of us, across one of the valley’s creeks, Sweet Apple Acres lay shrouded by nightfall at the foot of the mountains. One of the tiny lights echoing the stars above undoubtedly shone from the windows of the homey red-and-white farmhouse.

After a few minutes Sunset climbed to her feet, prompting me to look over at her, and in a soft, wistful voice, began to sing a cappella.

Things may come and things may go

Some go fast and some go slow

Few things last, that’s all I know

But friendship carries on through the ages

She shivered once and bent to retrieve her jacket. “They wrote that for me after the Battle of the Bands. It was a surprise, and it’s one of the most amazing gifts I’ve ever gotten.”

After donning said jacket against the falling temperature, she sat again, crossed her forearms on her knees, and put her chin on them. “Those girls are the best thing that’s happened to me—maybe even better than Princess Celestia choosing me as a student.” In the gloaming I just caught a glimpse of her brushing at her eyes.

“This is the real reason you called me bright and early this morning, isn’t it?”

“Yeah. If it weren’t for me, none of this crazy stuff would be happening to them, and you wouldn’t be here to—to spy on all of us. No offense.”

I had to laugh. “None taken. They don’t seem to be put out by all that crazy stuff, though.”

She snorted. “They weren’t too thrilled at Camp Everfree, but they got over it.” I knew for a fact she had a lot to do with them getting over it, but I didn’t interrupt. “Most of the time they think it’s all a big adventure, and I gotta admit sometimes I feel the same way. But . . . who knows what’ll happen next? And when? It could be something a lot more dangerous.” I couldn’t see the expression on her face, but her troubled voice let me picture it easily enough.

“Have you written to Princess Twilight about it?” I asked curiously.

“Some. But she hasn’t written back about it yet.” Hurriedly she went on, “It hasn’t been very long, and she’s been at least as busy as we are. Part of it is, she’s promised to enchant another pair of journals, since the ones we have now are running out.” She turned her head to look at me. “Come to think of it, you’ve never asked to look at mine. Why not?”

My reply was prompt and automatic. “Because it’s privileged diplomatic correspondence; even if you’re not a government official, both Princess Twilight and Princess Celestia are. It doesn’t matter that we’re talking about an exotic magical artifact communicating with another dimension, the basic principle is the same as any diplomatic pouch or sealed envelope.” I shrugged. “That’s the practical reason. It’s also just plain private.”

“Thanks,” she murmured absently. I waited silently and a bit uncomfortably, letting her chase down the thoughts I was sure were racing through her head. Finally she took a deep breath.

“I’m scared, Cook. The magic that’s getting loose isn’t working the way it does back home, and it’s hard to get a handle on it and what it’s doing, even to us. Now you’re here, which means there are people, powerful people, who know about me—about us, and about that wild magic. I like it here. I love my friends, really and truly. I even like CHS. It’s a little tough being treated like a kid again, but all the rest of it makes that worthwhile.” A barely audible sniffle escaped her, involuntary I was sure.

I sighed. “Sunset, nobody’s going to come to your door tomorrow, grab you by the scruff of the neck, and bundle you back through the portal, okay? For one thing, it could be seen as a mortal insult by your friends the princesses, and I guarantee you the Foreign Service has that firmly in mind.” In reality, the situation was much more complicated, primarily because no formal relations existed between the two nations, but I wanted to keep things simple, and the net effect was the same. “For another, don’t think those powerful people haven’t noticed how hard you’ve worked to become a good person; heaven knows I’ve written enough reports on that. Yes, they have to be hard-nosed and pragmatic about national security, but a lot of them are parents—or grandparents—too. As long as you keep your nose clean and do your best, they should leave you alone.”

“Promise?” The note in her voice told me she knew full well I couldn’t do any such thing.

“You know better than that. All I can promise is to be as straight with you as I possibly can. Like right now.”

Sunset fell back onto the slope, arms spread, and looked up at the stars. “You can’t even do that, if they tell you to keep quiet about something, right?”

“Don’t get paranoid,” I told her, sharply enough to bring her head around for another glance at me. “I know, you’re worried to death all these wonderful people and things you’ve discovered, this new life, will be taken away at the drop of a hat. It’s all right to be concerned, but you can’t let it run your life—or ruin it, more likely.”

She lay there, her only movement the slow rise and fall of her breaths, for a long moment before musing distantly, “I never used to worry like this. I’d get angry, or jealous, or entitled, but not worried, usually. Ever since the Fall Formal, though, I’ve spent almost every day worrying about something.

“Oh.” It was my turn to be struck by blinding enlightenment. “I never thought of that. I’m sorry, Sunset. Of course you would. Overnight you went from lording it over everyone, never bothering to consider how they felt about it, to pretty much the opposite, and that’s got to be rough.”

“Everybody hated me. The girls were the only ones who treated me like anything but dirt, and the worst part was, I couldn’t blame anyone for feeling the way they did. They were right to.” The words poured out of her like the tears I suspected were clouding her eyes. “Even Principal Celestia and Vice-Principal Luna didn’t trust me, at first anyway. An-and then last winter—”

“That smear campaign by, um, Apple Bloom and her friends?” I asked gently.

A groan answered me. “I was ready to dive back through the portal, or something worse. It was almost as bad as the crown hitting me with a rainbow sledgehammer. Y’know, there was a little part of me that felt like it was nothing more than I deserved. I’d done things just like that to so many other students. But the rest of me was desperate not to lose the progress I’d made, to slide all the way back down the stairs, and not be able to climb up again.”

“Bump-bump-bump,” I acknowledged with a wince as I raised a hand and mimed a body bouncing down a staircase. “Ouch. But surely they wouldn’t have abandoned you that easily, not after the promise they made to Princess Twilight?”

“We’d been friends for—what?—two months, Cook. Before that we’d been enemies for two years! It wasn’t that hard to believe maybe I’d fallen back into my old ways, that I’d just been faking it so I could gain their confidence. After all, who changes that much in a flash, even a magical rainbow flash? We all felt terrible about it afterward, even AB, Scoots, and Belle, but the silver lining was, we all learned a heck of a lesson about ourselves and each other.”

I pondered briefly. “That’s twice you’ve mentioned how quickly you turned around.”

“It didn’t seem quick at the time. I don’t know how much of it was the thing that happens when your mind seems to slow down time—”

“Tachypsychia,” I put in helpfully, then shut up again.

“—Yeah, that. Or how much really was the magic stretching things out, but it felt like it went on forever. A long time, anyway.” I could tell Sunset was struggling to put into words an inherently visceral and nonverbal experience. The least I could do was keep my bloody trap zipped and listen. “It was like . . . a kaleidoscope, not just images but emotions too. I knew exactly how the girls felt about me, about each other, about what I was trying to do.” Sheepishly she added, “I also realized just how stupid my plan was, trying to herd a few hundred hypnotized high-school students through the portal, into unfamiliar bodies, and throwing them against a professional army.” She paused, as if inviting comment.

“I did wonder about that,” I responded as mildly as I could. I hadn’t been the only one, but this wasn’t the time to remind her of that.

A sigh drifted out of the darkness. “I was just too mad to think straight—seeing red, I think they call it. There was the high-and-mighty Princess Twilight Sparkle, who had everything I should have had, and what did she do to deserve it?” A note of self-loathing crept in. “I wanted to smash her, and Celestia, and anypony else who got in my way, if that was the only way to get what I had coming to me.” Her laugh was bitter. “I sure got it, didn’t I?”

“You got some of the best friends anyone could ask for,” I pointed out quietly. “You got a hard, hard lesson you took to heart, but too many other people—and ponies, I’ll bet—never learn, thanks to the power that gave you the gift to see yourself as others see you. You got the chance to build a new life in a place you’ve fallen in love with. You even wrote to Princess Celestia and reconciled with her, right?”

“Yeah,” she confirmed a little more brightly. “That was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, but all the girls were with me. I cried for a solid hour afterward, but I felt so much better.” She sniffled again, but in a stronger voice continued, “I think she—Princess Celestia, I mean—did too, from what Princess Twi said later. Of course, she probably didn’t bawl like a baby, which is what I did, but—” I had the impression Sunset shrugged, and she really didn’t need to say any more, after all. Every impression of the ancient princess I’d gotten suggested she was a creature of immense dignity.

“Harder than this?” I teased, and was rewarded by a wadded-up paper napkin sailing out of the gloom. Needless to say it wasn’t aimed very well, but it said everything necessary. “Have you got everything off your chest?” I asked more seriously.

“I think so.” Sunset’s slow words were thoughtful. “Besides, when you found us at Lectern’s, we told you what happened, but we didn’t always explain why, or how we felt, or anything like that.”

“And you wanted to provide some context for me to pass on in my reports,” I guessed.

“I have to do everything I can to—to help my case. More than anything else in the world, this one or that, take your pick, I want to stay and . . .” Words failed her.

“Follow your new destiny,” I supplied. On the heels of my comment came a rippling crackle and a light in the now fully dark sky. We both twisted around to look up at the colorful starbursts behind and above us.

I stood and brushed off my slacks. “Come on. We can dump the trash, then head over to watch the fireworks. That’ll be a great way to end the day.”

Sunset laughed, which was worth more than the whole rest of the day’s expedition combined.

Cadenza

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“What can you tell me about Ms. Twilight Sparkle?”

The immediate answer to my question was a clatter of teacup on saucer. Whatever my hostess was expecting, that didn’t seem to be it. Either that, or I’d scored enough of a bulls-eye to rattle her in a rather literal sense. I suspected the latter.

“Ms. Twilight Sparkle?” Principal Mi Amoré Cadenza responded in a tone of polite inquiry, as if confirming she’d heard me correctly . . . or stalling. One hand tugged lightly, and covertly, on the lower hem of her jacket; the sober but attractive suit with skirt looked new, which led me to wonder if the discomfort was less about the tailoring than the recent promotion the ensemble symbolized.

“That’s correct,” I said calmly. “The young lady who transferred from Crystal Prep to Canterlot High in a matter of minutes the very day the last Friendship Games ended. As I understand it, the transfer was expedited by a Dean . . . Cadance.”

The principal—and erstwhile dean—of Crystal Preparatory Academy sat back in the wing chair and sighed. “You’ve done your homework, Mister Cook.” She glanced around her cavernous office as if looking for a way out, not of the physical space, but of the rhetorical corner she’d been backed into.

The place had been Cinch’s lair, I was sure; the sheer size of it comported with the previous principal’s alleged ego and self-importance. The walls alternated broad windows, heavy drapes pulled aside to flood the room with indirect summer sunlight, and built-in display cases that held more books and fewer trophies than Cadance’s predecessor likely maintained. The desk, while large and fine enough to uphold the headmaster’s dignity, was simple and workmanlike enough not to overawe; slight dimples on the floor outside its perimeter indicated it was a recent, and somewhat smaller, replacement. A conversation group of matching wing chairs ringing a coffee table, currently occupied by the pair of us and a porcelain tea set, filled much of the space between the desk and the double-leaf main door. I waited patiently and carefully did not fiddle with the tie of my bespoke three-piece suit.

Finally Cadance looked back at me. “Before I do anything else, I need to know who you are, Mister Cook. She is a former student, and we take our confidentiality policy seriously.”

“I am a commissioned officer conducting inquiries on behalf of the government.” I looked her in the eye. “I’ll be blunt. I was sent as an alternative to a full-scale investigation that would be extremely disruptive to everyone and everything involved. That, however, remains an option.”

A silence hovered for a time before Cadance said with commendable steadiness, “Show me your identification, Mister Cook, and please be good enough to allow me to verify it before we proceed.”

That I was more than willing to do. I’d set aside ample time to allow for just this sort of contingency.


An hour or so and several phone calls later, Cadance was satisfied I was who I claimed to be, and had the authority to ask the questions I brought. She acquiesced courteously, if not exactly happily, calling for the appropriate file to be delivered to her office.

More for the sake of politeness than in earnest, I skimmed through it. Even that desultory reading impressed me. This was a student who excelled at every academic subject she encountered. Her athletic scores were no better than adequate, however, and her lack of social involvement was sufficiently worrisome to inspire more than one annotation. Other notes provided an oblique explanation; the passive-aggressive hazing from her fellow students would have intimidated far hardier souls. My own educational history moved me to sympathize, but I had a job to do.

“Thank you, Ms. Cadenza.” I placed the folder back on the table. “I apologize for the intrusion, both on your time and the school’s records, truly, but she and her friends at CHS have become a matter of real concern, for reasons I believe you understand even better than I.”

“To return your honesty, Mister Cook, I can’t say ‘you’re welcome’, but I accept your apology. Was that all?” The unspoken I certainly hope so hung in the air between us.

I shook my head regretfully. “I’d like a more . . . personal perspective from you. These records are useful for background, but what I’m looking for is a sense of who Twilight Sparkle is as a person, and exactly what happened to her—and everyone else—at the Friendship Games. The reticence I’ve encountered so far is nothing short of amazing and in a certain sense admirable, but carrying out my assignment requires me to get past it.”

She sighed again. “All right. Let me see . . .”


Cadance’s tale was, in a word, spellbinding, but other than the Games themselves and the odd research by Twilight that led to such dramatic results, it did little more than confirm, or invalidate, some guesses and shed a little light on preceding and following events. Portions of the story were reconstructed from the testimony of other students, both CPA and CHS, but she stood by the substance of those statements.

She also revealed a strong, almost sisterly, affection for the girl that went beyond the professional, although I wasn’t certain whether she was aware she had. Her devotion to her own, and the school’s, principles was equally clear and firm, however, so I was sure she wasn’t playing favorites, and would have defended the privacy of any student, past or present, with similar fervor. It was clear why she’d been promoted into the vacancy left by Cinch’s departure despite her tender age, which I thought to be no greater than my own and possibly less.

The retelling was succinct and lucid, the delivery nearly toneless—both, I assumed, to maintain a professional manner and out of disapproval over what she had to regard as a betrayal of confidences. “It was almost as if Sunset and her friends already knew Twilight.” Cadance sounded baffled but pleased as she wound up the account. “As far as I know, though, Twilight had never been to CHS before, and certainly didn’t seem to know any of them. I was sorry to see her go, but I couldn’t very well keep her from the first friends I’ve ever known her to have.”

“I certainly can’t disagree,” I assured her. “Thank you, Ms. Cadenza, that was very clear. I wish every educator could do as well. Still, I do have a few questions. I promise to go away and leave you in peace after that.”

“Very well.” From her tone, she wanted to add but only under protest. I affected not to notice.

“Before I move on to more substantive matters, I have one point of curiosity. Do you know how Ms. Sparkle’s parents reacted to her abrupt unilateral decision to transfer from this prestigious private academy to a suburban public high school?” Tactfully, I left off expensive, which I felt sure would be a far more important factor from their point of view.

The elegantly thin pink eyebrows went up. “Truthfully, I can’t say for certain. I wasn’t around for that discussion, which I’m sure went on in the privacy of their home. She didn’t return here, so in the end they must have accepted her decision, but beyond that I have no idea. I suggest you ask her.”


I really didn’t bring up many other questions. In part, I wanted to smooth ruffled feathers; while I doubted I’d consult with Cadance again, I didn’t want to burn any bridges I didn’t have to. On top of that, she’d been quite thorough, leaving few gaps I believed she could fill. While my respectfully collegial mien succeeded in soothing her ire, pressing her not to let the cat out of the bag with Twilight and company cost me some of that hard-earned goodwill. Thus is the balance of the universe maintained.

It wasn’t until I’d left the building late in the afternoon, returning to the sedan I’d requisitioned via General Services, that I realized I’d overlooked including certain other parties in that promise. I could rely on Cadance’s discretion where the general public was concerned, but I might have more of an uphill struggle at the appointment I had for the following morning. In the mean time, however, I had homework to do, in the form of yet another report.

Princessipals

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“Cadance warned me what you were up to.” Vice-Principal Luna, arms crossed, leaned against a wall of her sister’s office and regarded me with scant favor.

Other than the sunlight filling it, the small room bore little resemblance to the palatial chamber I’d visited the afternoon before. Principal Celestia, seated behind her unexpectedly decorative desk, shot her sibling an indecipherable look before turning back to me. “Mister Cookie Pusher, when I agreed to this meeting, I didn’t realize how much of an invasion of privacy it would involve. I’m not sure I’d have consented if I’d known what you had in mind.”

“I’m relieved you did. As I told Ms. Cadenza, the alternative would be a full-scale investigation. I’m sure I don’t need to explain what that would entail.” I stood with feet slightly apart, hands clasped behind my back, and wondered if I should have gone with the suit after all, instead of polo shirt and slacks. I’d hoped the informality would help put them at their ease, but it didn’t seem to be working.

“Yes, she mentioned that too,” Luna commented disapprovingly.

I sighed and refrained from rolling my eyes. “I know this is intrusive, and I’m sorry it has to be. Whatever happens here, though, my next step is to interview Ms. Shimmer—and her friends—sometime in the next few days. I just thought it would be a good idea to get a little background before I met them for the first time.”

“What kind of background?” Celestia jumped in before Luna could make another acid observation.

“All kinds.” I shrugged. “Who are they? What kind of history do they have here, especially Ms. Shimmer? What happened before and during the Fall Formal, the Battle of the Bands, the Friendship Games, the trip to Camp Everfree? What is your assessment of them, individually and as a group? What does the other Twilight Sparkle have to do with it all?” I essayed a faint smile. “Just how deep does the rabbit hole go?”


It went pretty deep.

Cadence’s truncated version was a mere anecdote by comparison. Not all or even most of my questions were answered, of course, but that wasn’t necessary. What I did get was, at the moment, more important—the first inklings of a coherent and comprehensive timeline. No longer would I be groping in the dark, stumbling toward or over scattered clues under, at best, small spotlights.

Sunset Shimmer showed up essentially from nowhere to enroll at the school, part of the same class that included the circle who eventually would become her friends. At first she simply was a nuisance, ambitious and self-aggrandizing, but her behavior escalated rapidly through her freshman year until she’d become queen bee of the student body. Her schemes and antics terrorized even juniors and seniors.

Her ability to drive wedges and pull puppet strings from behind the scenes was unprecedented in the veteran educators’ experience. Everyone knew exactly what she was doing, but there was little proof on which to take action. The usual cliques of a modern high school were reinforced almost to self-parody, and tensions ran high. Sunset herself joined none of the camps, yet moved among them largely at will, even claiming a well-liked rock guitarist as boyfriend almost without reference to his own views on the subject. As a former teenage male myself, I didn’t find it at all hard to understand the dynamics of that situation. To his credit, eventually he realized what was going on and broke off the relationship, at no small risk; surprisingly, Sunset apparently didn’t bother exacting any retribution.

Then came the Fall Formal early in her junior year, most of a year past by now. Twilight Sparkle suddenly appeared on the scene, claiming to be a transfer student whose paperwork was delayed, and in the space of two days turned everything on its head. Celestia and Luna described the finale vividly, including their own breathless incomprehension and anxiety over the titanic forces wreaking havoc on the building and the students for which they were responsible. Sunset’s defeat and subsequent near-breakdown seemed almost an anticlimax after the chaos and destruction. The arcane light show accompanying that downfall, photographed more or less accidentally by a low-orbit earth-science satellite, I already knew to be one of the first harbingers of what would become Eloptic Machine.

Princess Twilight Sparkle—and her talking canine companion Spike, who claimed to be a dragon, of all things—returned through the portal from whence she came, leaving behind a tremendous mess for the principals to clean up, though they seemed to feel no animosity toward her for doing so. They’d required a token bit of labor from Sunset and her cronies as part of the punishment meted out, but all manner of laws and regulations put a quick stop to that in favor of professional reconstruction. The noise and inconvenience were constant reminders of Sunset’s sins; her two henchmen were regarded largely as biddable annoyances, and so didn’t come in for the same level of hostility the mastermind did.

By the time the work was completed, everyone at the school was thoroughly sick of the whole affair and the person who’d caused it. The brief smear campaign that followed during the holiday season played into that resentment. The whole group was driven nearly to despair, but in the end the real perpetrators confessed, leading to an awkward reconciliation and lingering attempts to clean up the resulting mess.

The rest of the winter and the early spring were less eventful. Sunset was on social probation, no one outside her small circle of friends willing to trust or even put up with her any more than they absolutely had to. Even the faculty regarded her warily. That she stuck it out anyway was a testament to her innate tenacity and the support of those friends. Of course, at the time she really didn’t have any place else to go, which probably helped.


The sisters’ demeanor, initially as dispassionate as Cadance’s, shifted as they went on from there. Before long they began finishing each other’s sentences, Luna pacing and Celestia bouncing back and forth between seated and standing. One or the other conjured documentation as needed, pulling open drawers on the cabinets in the office or vanishing briefly through the door, returning to plunk folders emphatically on the desk in front of me.

Those folders were every bit as illuminating as the ongoing lecture—and lecture it had become. The Battle of the Bands changed everything, much as the Fall Formal had before it, but for the better from Sunset’s point of view. The princess returned to help, two years before she should have been able to, and afterward established more formal and regular contact with the school’s bureaucracy. A whole file folder of documents was presented to me, by far the greatest treasure trove I’d seen yet.

Testimonial letters, one from a Princess Celestia and another from Princess Twilight Sparkle, were calligraphed on the finest grade of paper, complete with royal watermarks I’d never seen before. Matching letters by the principals before me were more prosaic mass-market sheets full of ink-jet text. A transfer form from Princess Celestia’s improbably named School for Gifted Unicorns, which looked to be letterpress-printed, had been filled out with fountain pen and backdated to Sunset’s freshman year at CHS.

A brief report summed up Princess Twilight’s perspective on both incidents and all seven girls’ participation in them, notarized with the privy seal of a literal new country heard from, the principality of Equestria. I noted with interest the stamp, sharp and clear enough to have made by a brand-new dry seal, which incorporated a sun-and-moon motif and the names Celestia and Luna.

Their namesakes then expanded the documentary barrage to include the whole set, declaiming as they did the virtues both personal and scholastic of each and every member. Even Sunset’s rehabilitation came in for its share of praise. Finally I held up my hands in a warding gesture. “All right! I’ll stipulate all seven—or eight—of them are good students and fine young women, if it means we can move on.”

That took the wind out of their sails, as I intended, and after a minute or so of luffing they resumed the history lesson with slightly dampened zeal. Their take on the Friendship Games differed little from Cadance’s—more detailed in some respects, less in others. The unorthodox fundraising for summer camp shortly after raised a smile; I’d seen the result myself more than once.

The recent trip to Camp Everfree itself was every bit as disturbing as any of the previous three magical showdowns, not least for the new and more . . . active turn the girls’ magic had taken. I’d found or received almost nothing on it yet thanks to the delays inherent in any intelligence-gathering, and what I learned from the principals was more than a little chilling. I must have paled, for both women stopped, Celestia mid-sentence, and eyed me uncertainly.

“Let me get this straight. Each of them now has what amounts to a superpower?” I managed in a tone that came out only a little strangled. “And Sunset’s is mind-reading?”

“Yes.” Luna was enjoying my discomfiture, I was sure. “The magic seems to be concentrated in the pendants they acquired.”

“But my sister and I didn’t inquire into the details, other than to get promises they won’t use it to cheat when school resumes in the fall,” Celestia added hastily with another glance at said relation.

I closed my eyes briefly. “All right, go on.”

“There isn’t much more to say.” Celestia held out her empty hands palm-up. “With school out for the summer, we haven’t had much contact with any of them.”

“According to rumor they’ll be touring the studio sets where the new Daring Do movie is being shot,” Luna added with a whiff of malicious glee. “Or perhaps that’s happened already; I don’t recall at the moment.”

“Thank you,” I said a bit through my teeth before taking a deep breath. “I appreciate your thorough and complete cooperation. You both have been a great help, and I feel sure—”

My phone buzzed in its pocket. “Excuse me a moment, please.” I pulled it out and peeked at the illuminated screen. A text message from Mister Brown informed me It’s showtime!

It looked like I’d be meeting those seven girls a little sooner than I thought.

Incident

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“You did what?” I wanted nothing more than to shout at the top of my lungs. Maybe I did; it was hard to tell through the pounding of my pulse and the tooth-gritting rage inspiring it.

Sunset cringed. The other eight young women present shuffled in place and exchanged uneasy glances. I squeezed my eyes shut and took the deepest breath I could. “Sunset. You went through the portal to pick up your new pen-pal journal. Fine, no problem there.” Notification and approving acknowledgement of that errand already had gone up and down the line, so I was telling the full and complete truth. “But you didn’t bring back just the journal, did you? You also brought back someone else without asking or even telling anyone!” My voice rose again and I struggled to bring it back under control. “Do go on. I’m sure there’s more and better to come.”

Applejack stepped forward and cleared her throat. “Cook, Ah know yer mad, and Ah guess Ah can’t blame ya, but ease up on Sunset, will ya? She already knows it ain’t the best idea she’s had, and it ain’t like she had anything ta do with the rest of it.” There were bobble-head nods of agreement from everyone else aside from Sunset, who simply looked down and hugged herself.

Her woebegone look more than her friends’ support moved me to calm down a little. “I’m sorry, Sunset. I shouldn’t have blown up like that. But you did something pretty rash, and I’m human enough to be worried not only about the effect it could have on you and the city, but on my career too.”

She looked up again quickly. “Oh stars, Cook. I didn’t—I didn’t even think about that. Are they gonna blame you for something I did?” Her expression quickly went from stricken to horrified as the potential consequences, probably not just for me, clearly began playing out in her mind’s eye.

I rubbed my face with both hands, muffling my first few words. “I wish I could say ‘no, of course not’, but the truth is I have no idea one way or the other.” When I caught sight of her huge frightened eyes, I sighed. “Let me worry about that. I shouldn’t have brought it up, but . . . I’m pretty rattled right now, to tell the truth. Done is done. Move on.”


The enigmatic text message from Sunset arrived out of the blue, conveying nothing other than where to meet and when—at the front of CHS and as soon as possible. I was not best pleased to be interrupted in the midst of composing yet another weighty tome to send off to my lords and masters, especially on such thin and peremptory notice. My role as Sunset’s case worker gave me a fig leaf of an excuse to visit the school, but the very prospect gave me a crawly feeling reminiscent of “no pants” nightmares, given how visible the plaza was to an entire neighborhood.

The whole affair seemed designed to annoy. The streets immediately around the school were no-parking zones and its doors and gates were locked for the summer. I was forced to park some blocks away and hike to the plinth, where the whole female herd awaited me. Even in my irritation, though, I recognized it was uncharitable to blame a gaggle of high-school students for not thinking to meet me in a more convenient and less exposed location. Besides, I’d gotten the impression Sunset and her friends viewed the portal site as a sort of anchor in their lives, so proximity to it probably felt comforting to them.

The addition of two strangers to the familiar faces was a dire omen. Their introduction, complete with a summary of the circumstances behind their presence, briefly convinced me I would perish on the spot of an apoplectic fit. Even after I reined in my temper, Sunset’s jitters so affected her stammered explanation that Twilight, of all people, took up in her stead. Her story was bolstered by supporting testimony from everyone else—including the sheepish Starlight Glimmer and the alarmed Juniper Montage; the latter looked ready to bolt any moment. My sardonic prediction turned out to be dead on the money.

“Oh my aching head,” I groaned when the whole dreadful tale was told. I swiped both hands through my hair in a harried gesture I rarely allowed anyone else to see and tried to force my paralyzed brain into motion. “I’ll fire off an alert about the scene at the mall as soon as I can, but there isn’t a lot else I can do. That’s way above my pay grade, and way out of my jurisdiction. I’m not sure how much anyone else can do about it, but you can bet there’s somebody available to take on the job.” I moved on quickly, not wanting to give the agile minds before me time to consider the full implications of my last point.

“You said Princess Twilight retroactively blessed Starlight’s junket, right?” Upon enthusiastic nods of confirmation I continued, “All right. That covers my a—back. I can argue it’s tantamount to issuance of a temporary travel document by competent authority. There’s no formal border-crossing procedure in place anyway, so I predict the lawyers and scholars will have a field day. With luck, they’ll be so busy arguing they won’t do anything else. If you’ll let me photograph the journal page, Sunset, I can include that as part of the documentation.” The now-calmer unicorn-girl nodded again, looking more hopeful. “Also, if you could ask Princess Twilight to write out something more explicit, it would help, although I might be able to tap-dance fast enough even if I can’t get that.”

The whole group listened attentively, making me all too aware of my task as metaphorical fireman. “Juniper, I’ll have to debrief you at your earliest convenience. Not immediately,” I added as faces started to cloud. “Tomorrow, or the next time you’re off shift, is soon enough. Let me get your contact information.” I duly noted everything down, then asked, “What about the mirror?”

More glances were exchanged. Juniper said in a small voice, “I still have it—what’s left of it. There isn’t much except the frame. I was just gonna throw it out.”

“No, don’t do that,” I implored her hurriedly. “I’ll take it, or as much of it as you still have. I can package it up and send it off as a peace offering. Let some back-room boffins gnaw on it for a while.” I pulled out my wallet and handed her some cash. “There. Bought and paid for, right?”

“I guess,” she allowed, staring at the bills in her hands. She jumped when Rarity, standing alongside, elbowed her lightly, then explained, “It’s in my locker at work. I can give it to you when we talk, right?”

I bit my lip briefly. “Fine. I definitely will need it then, though.” I took a deep breath. “Am I forgetting something?”

Mumbles, head-scratches, and shrugs averaged out to a consensus; nobody could think of anything to add. “Okay. I’d better jump on this as soon as I get back. You girls . . .” I sighed and pinched my eyes. “Enjoy the movie.”


A week or so later the immediate aftershocks seemed to have died down. Within a day I’d sent all the urgent notifications I could. Starlight eventually returned home through the portal, glowing from her vacation of sorts. Her perspective on Sunset’s friends and their counterparts in the other world had been enlightening and sometimes hilarious, as well as providing more fodder for assessments. Juniper was meek from shell-shock, which I mentioned discreetly to her new friends, urging them to see what counseling they could find for her. I dispatched the remains of the mirror through channels, imagining it would end up in a desert hangar somewhere. Finally I settled back into my routine of keeping tabs and writing reports.

That ended abruptly with the arrival of an ominously official-looking envelope via departmental courier. I was being recalled.

Recall

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“Mister Cook. Right on time.”

Once more I stood on the threshold of the lion’s den. Pin Stripes regarded me with hooded eyes for a moment, then nodded to the same chair I’d used weeks, or lifetimes, ago. I closed the door on my way to the seat, and even after lowering myself onto it, said nothing. She in turn sat back on her throne. Only then did I realize her desktop was utterly pristine, not a single jacket cluttering it, in sharp contrast to my last visit.

I had no idea why I had been summoned. The recall order had been bald and terse, offering no clue to its purpose or reason or even duration, just the barest minimum of time and place to report. Finally I drew a breath to speak, burning with questions, but was waved silent by a pair of fingers. Perforce, then, I held my tongue; the gray eminence before me did likewise. Her chair swiveled in small, steady arcs and her gaze moved from me to the door and back again. Unease stirred at the hint, however slight, of nerves in a figure legendary for her composure and assurance.

A seeming eternity went by—how long I wasn’t sure, since I wasn’t about to make any move toward checking a timepiece. It felt like a half-hour or more, but it might have been only a few minutes before the door opened again to admit a third individual. By reflex I turned toward the sound, then, startled, shot to my feet. “Mister Secretary!”

Framed in the doorway was a man, of middling build and height, fighting a rearguard action against the march of age with its advancing belt line and retreating hairline. The slight flush of his cerulean complexion matched the choleric expression of his face, but neither seemed significantly greater than the norm based on my admittedly limited experience of him. His suit was expensive but a bit more rumpled and creased than the cognoscenti would approve. Still, he was my, and Pin Stripes’, penultimate boss, though seeing him here made me more, not less, confused.

“You must be Cookie Pusher.” His response was unpromisingly cool and abrupt.

“Yes sir.” I stood straight, heels together, and clasped my hands behind my back.

He stepped in and shut the door behind him, then stood, back to it, and looked me up and down with a disapproving air. “I’ve been keeping up with Eloptic Machine . . . and your reports, young man.”

I was at a loss. “Sir?”

His scowl intensified. “Your job was to keep an eye on that girl and her friends. Instead, you barely saw any of them at all—well, there was that joyride around the city in a government vehicle—and what happens? Trouble. Lots of it. That scene at the mall was the last straw.”

By now my stance had become not simply straight but rigid. “Sir, Ms. Montage herself stated the enchantment of the mirror seemed to occur spontaneously and without warning. According to Ms. Shimmer, the incident that followed couldn’t be predicted or prevented, not even by her or her friends, much less anyone else.”

“Making excuses?” Before I could respond he went on, “If you’d been doing your job keeping a closer eye on those girls and getting more information from them, we might not have to clean up messes like that. A phone call or text message whenever you feel like it just doesn’t cut the mustard.”

My jaw clenched. In fairness, my protest could be interpreted as an attempt to cover my back, though I was perfectly honest in pointing out how wild and erratic ambient magic seemed to be on this side of the portal. I certainly had heard an earful from Sunset about it, after all, and had passed along that concern. Granted, she was a student, not a scholar with a degree—a wizard, in the parlance of her homeland—but she was the only person available even remotely resembling an expert on the subject, especially since her pre-portal curriculum strongly emphasized it.

Doggedly I replied, “Sir, I check on them frequently, not just occasionally, and I’ve met with them in person several times. My interpretation of my orders indicated that was sufficient, and constant surveillance was unnecessary. If it were—” Covertly shadowing seven young woman through their active lives would require an appalling amount of manpower, not to mention being completely outside an FSO’s purview.

“This isn’t a matter of interpretation,” he broke in. “You were assigned to watch them, and that’s what you should have been doing—not quizzing them about their activities and movements, ‘frequently’ or not, and taking their word for it.”

“My reports included my evaluations of all seven, sir, built not only on personal observation but on the testimony of other adults who’ve known them much longer than I have. If you’ll recall, I concurred with the unanimous verdict every one of them is reliable and trustworthy. That includes the statements of experienced educators with considerable professional credentials,” I reminded him in a stiff tone. “Based on that evidence, I felt the best approach was to go lightly, not to treat a bunch of high-school students like criminals or spies.”

“Don’t get snippy with me,” he growled. “So you think just because everyone claimed they’re good girls everything’s peaches and cream? You said yourself, in some of those reports, people were covering for them!”

I drew a breath for patience. “Yes sir, their classmates and those adults who understood the situation did, and do, their best to keep it quiet out of a desire to safeguard their friends or charges. That is not the same as lying to me in response to direct questions. I made clear I was there only to inquire into the matter, and was neither required nor permitted to take action against any of the Rainbooms, even Ms. Shimmer, without a clear and lawful basis for it. Once the people I was speaking with were assured I was not a threat to them or to the young women they were protecting, most were reasonably forthcoming.” If not always happy about it—but I kept that proviso to myself; it didn’t seem helpful.

He shook a finger at me. “You’re dodging.” After a beat he asked with some puzzlement, “What did you call them?”

“Ah—the Rainbooms.” I bit my lip on a silent curse. “It’s the name of their pop band, and it works as a label of convenience. Surely I mentioned it?” I thought I had in at least one of my reports, but I was beginning to wonder. And sweat. Not just metaphorically.

The glare I got in return didn’t answer my question, but did indicate he took it amiss. “This isn’t the time or place to be flip, son. I’m still not convinced they’re the angels you make them out to be after swallowing all that hearsay.”

“Sir, I have to start somewhere. I performed summary background checks, and sent off any doubtful indicators for additional investigation. Nobody found anything untoward that I’m aware of.” I cleared my throat of the desperate tone starting to creep in. “The correspondence file Ms. Celestia showed me corroborated—”

“Oh yes, those movie props you mentioned.” His interruption dripped with sarcasm. “And I suppose you found a chunk of green cheese from the moon, too.”

I could feel my cheeks heating. “Sir, I’ll grant the few royal courts left still use calligraphy and watermarked stationery for personal letters, but I’d never seen those particular watermarks before, and nobody uses letterpress printing and fountain pen for bureaucratic forms any more. That seemed to be adequate authentication.”

He rolled his eyes. “Fountain pens are still on the market, and printing presses in museums are a dime a dozen. It’d be easy enough to fake something like that. Besides, anyone can order up custom watermarked paper or dry seals.”

“Yes sir, but why? Why bother going to that much trouble? Assuming someone could talk a curator into letting them mess with an exhibit like that in the first place.” My hands tightened behind my back. “The simplest explanation is most likely to be correct. There are much easier—and cheaper—ways to cobble up a cover story and create documentary evidence for it, especially considering how fantastic the story is in this case!” I realized suddenly my argument, in effect, was ‘truth is stranger than fiction’. At the time that seemed reasonable; in retrospect maybe not so much.

“The point is, you didn’t submit the documents to any kind of analysis, now did you?” A raised hand waved. “Sunset Shimmer could be a fugitive criminal, or a fairy-tale princess, or an eldritch horror, or exactly what she claims, but we. Don’t. Know. She spins a tale, and those papers back it up, but if we can’t get any kind of independent forensic report on them, we can’t even make a guess at a reliability score, can we?”

“Sir, Ms. Celestia flatly refused to let them out of the building, and there was no legal justification to seize them. I had no authority or means to bring in a team or even a single document examiner, at least not immediately, and some of their equipment isn’t portable anyway.” I reined in my rising voice. “I had no other choice but to proceed on my own judgment and discretion, so that’s what I did.”

A doleful shake of his head dismissed my rebuttal. “You’re dead set on this, aren’t you, boy? Well, I suppose the only way out after such a screw-up like that is to defend it all the way down and hope it’ll work.” His lips pursed and his eyes narrowed. “Or maybe there’s another reason.”

I blinked, feeling a bit of mental whiplash, and my mouth opened, but for the life of me I couldn’t come up with any way to respond to the kangaroo court I’d been thrust into.

“I’m beginning to think you might be covering for them too.” The accusing finger shook at me again.

“My reports have been as full and complete as I could make them, sir. I don’t see how—”

He flung up a hand to stop me. “I do. It’s clear to me now you’ve got a bad case of clientitis, Mister Cookie Pusher.”

If he said anything more, I didn’t hear it; my pulse thundered in my ears. My fists came out from behind my back and I leaned forward, on the verge of stepping toward him. He broke off and gaped at me with an odd expression for a split second before a sharp crack broke through the red haze blanketing my senses.

“Cook!” Pin Stripes’ voice held hardly less snap than the rap on her desk. I glanced over my shoulder to see her sitting bolt upright, magnifying paperweight still held like a gavel in one hand. Her eyes met mine for a moment before flicking to the side. Obeying the implicit command, I straightened, took a deep, lung-filling breath, then stepped aside and turned to put both of them in view.

With an expression of mingled triumph and disdain, the secretary spoke past me. “You know, I told you then he wasn’t the man for the job. How I let you talk me into signing off on the recommendation—”

The look she turned on him burned somehow despite appearing almost deadpan. “Questioning my judgment, Mister Secretary?”

His face tightened. “You’ve done well for the country, Pin, but everyone makes a mistake once in a while.”

“Fine.” Without looking away she opened a side drawer on her desk and reached in to extract an envelope, then laid it square in the middle of her blotter. “If you think I’m losing my edge, I have no business running the show.” Her words were crisp, without the clipped quality she normally affected.

Both of us goggled at the innocuous envelope as if it were a bomb—which, after a fashion, it was. A long, still moment, taut as a wire, held all three of us en tableau. At last the secretary shook his head in seeming disbelief. “You’re willing to take this to the mat, Pin?”

She didn’t deign to answer, instead sitting back in her chair, lacing her fingers on her ample midsection, and returning his stare measure for measure.

He glared at her. He glared at me. Lacking anything else to glare at, he snorted and, without another word, pivoted on his heel and left. The door slammed behind him.

I couldn’t stop myself from falling back onto my chair like a string-cut puppet, all but hyperventilating. Pin Stripes waited me out patiently, once again swiveling her chair a few inches left and right, until I asked in a weak voice, “What was that all about, anyway?”

“Doesn’t leave this room, Cook.” After I nodded acquiescence, she continued, “Just what it sounded like. Part of the old-boys’ network, had in mind one of the Seniors.” A member of the Senior Foreign Service effectively was equal to a general or admiral, and while that seemed like overkill, I could see how someone might consider my assignment oddball enough to warrant such a seasoned veteran.

I rubbed my face. “Agh. So he had it in for me from the start, didn’t he?”

“Told him the job needed someone those seven girls would like—and trust. Called for a big brother or uncle type, not some old relic who’d remind ’em of teachers or parents.” She shrugged massively. “Didn’t believe me.”

“He still doesn’t, I think.” I tipped my head back and ruminated on the possible consequences.

“‘A man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still’,” she quoted.

Still looking at the ceiling, I mused, “I suppose he was angling for a formal hearing to get me yanked—maybe even fired.”

“Got it in one.”

I lowered my eyes to glance at the metaphorically radioactive packet resting on her blotter. “So he can’t move ahead with that now unless he’s willing to . . . Is that real? Or were you bluffing?”

For the first time a ghost of a smile touched her lips. She swept up the unmarked envelope and dropped it back in its drawer. “Does it matter?”

After a moment’s thought I conceded, “I guess not.” I let out a relieved sigh. “What now?”

“Now? You go back. Still have a job to do. And friends to do it with.”

I gave her a sharp look. Her bland expression made me blink—and consider. “I guess they are, aren’t they? Is that the reason he accused me of clientitis?”

“Probably. Difference is, I can tell ’em apart. Okay to be their friend, s’long as you don’t forget your duty. Haven’t yet and don’t think you will. Got a good head on your shoulders, Cook. Long as you keep doing a good job, you’re covered.”

I basked in the praise, faint as it might seem to an outsider. Coming from Pin Stripes, it was better than a medal.


Despite her breezy assurance, several days of maneuverings and machinations went by before I was able to escape and return . . . home. I wasn’t sure just when I started thinking of it as such; the realization came as a bit of a shock, but certainly illustrated the truth of the old homily about where the heart is. Even my generic studio with its generic furnishings seemed a welcome refuge and respite when I returned, jet-lagged and bleary. After tossing suit jacket and luggage on the queen-size bed, I flopped on the couch with a sigh of relief and tipped back my head for a few minutes of rest.

Once I gathered a little energy—and nerve—I pulled out my smartphone and toggled off the privacy blocks I’d activated the moment I received the recall. I hadn’t been allowed to tell anyone of my impending sojourn in durance vile, so to everyone else it must have seemed as if I simply vanished. I watched as badges blossomed on phone, SMS, and e-mail icons and started counting up with blurring speed.

Once the numbers settled into their intimidating final totals, I skimmed through originators, headers, and time stamps. A few casual queries quickly became a torrent of concerned, then worried, entreaties for replies. After a few days the spate subsided; I winced, imagining the moods behind that trailing off. Exhausted as I was, conscience and duty prickled. I bit my lip and tapped the screen for my first call.

Seven very important young women were very likely to be very upset with me. To soothe their ire would require every scrap of charm and diplomatic training I could dredge up.

Coda

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From my perch on one of the picnic tables I surveyed the idyllic panorama surrounding me. Evening shadows chased golden afternoon sunlight from the nearby orchards and the hills beyond. Strings of outdoor globe lights, competing with fabric shade canopies for space in the limbs and boughs overhead, were beginning to wink on. At the far end of the yard, opposite the back of the Apple farmhouse, stood a temporary stage, the Rainbooms’ racked instruments and equipment still cluttering it and a space clear of tables before it.

Snatches of talk, laughter, and music, none so raucous as they had been earlier, echoed the relaxed mood of a long, exciting day gradually winding down. Children pelted amongst the inadvertent obstacle courses of tables, trees, and adults or teens standing in clumps conversing, guffawing, gesturing. I smiled in a mellow contentment, then started slightly as the table bounced and thumped under the sudden weight of another body plunking down beside me.

“A bit for ’em,” a slightly sweaty Sunset said in a laughing undertone as she bumped her shoulder companionably against mine. One hand gripped the handle of a metal stein, foamy head overflowing its lip; the other steadied the vessel belatedly against any more sloshing.

I couldn’t help a bark of surprised laughter at her inside joke. “Do you still have any bits?”

She shrugged, not quite hiding her own smile in a swig of her fresh mugful of beer. “Yeah, some. I couldn’t bring myself to part with all of them. Besides, it was getting harder and harder to find ways to move them, even melted down. Coin and metal dealers goss—uh, talk to each other, y’know, even back home.”

“I imagine so.” We paused for a beat or two, simply enjoying the moment, and I took a pull from my bottle of Sweet Apple Acres hard cider. “‘Cook’s Summer Cook-out’?” I mused at last in answer to her original question. “Really? I just about choked when I saw the banner on the front of the house!”

Sunset rocked with laughter and slapped her knee. Once she was able to stop cackling, she replied, “I thought you were going to explode right there on the spot. The name was Pinkie’s idea.”

“Of course it was,” I observed wryly. “I was expecting . . . I don’t know. Another quiet family dinner or something like that. Not a picnic with half the city!”

Sunset’s eyes danced with mischief. “It wasn’t even a hundred people, Cook, let alone half the city. We only invited people who were in on the story—at least part of the story—and we were careful about it.”

I had to grant that one. Twilight, I suspected, was the mastermind behind the brilliantly simple solution to the problem of knowing what one could say to whom. Everyone wore a name tag garnished with a cheery ribbon rosette—Rarity’s contribution, no doubt—but the seemingly random distribution of colors was nothing of the sort. Red ribbon, wound in one pattern, signified those who knew only the cover story; blue, in another pattern, was reserved to those who had the whole truth.

“Still, it can’t have been cheap,” I pointed out. “As much as I appreciate all this, I’d hate to think you girls blew all your cash on it.”

“We didn’t, I promise.” Sunset held up her free hand mock-solemnly. “Some of it, yeah, but not all of it. We told people the party was a potluck and asked for volunteers to help with contributions and set-up. That worked pretty well. Even the Crystal Prep families and the principals pitched in.”

I grinned. “I was a little surprised by that. I didn’t exactly make a good first impression on Celestia, Luna, or Cadance.” After a brief hesitation, I added, “And I wasn’t sure how the CPA parents would react to a shindig like this. They struck me as more the sort for champagne and cavier in marble halls.”

“You’re a fine one to talk, Mister Highfalutin’ Diplomat. They’re not all like that, at least not all the time. I mean, look at Sci-Twi’s folks. And, hey, it gave you a chance to make it up to the principals, right?”

“I guess it did at that,” I said slowly. “Not that you seven had anything to do with it.” Throughout the late morning, one or more of the Rainbooms periodically all but bodily carried me off to meet some new arrival, including the three schoolmasters. In fairness, the latter trio had been gracious, willing to give me the benefit of the doubt thanks to the character witnesses accompanying me, and I’d made the most of the opportunity to adjust their perspectives. Celestia in particular seemed swayed by my genuine credentials as Sunset’s case worker.

Sunset snickered, then cleared her throat and asked more seriously, “So did you have fun, Cook?”

“Yeah,” I said quietly without any hesitation. “I did. More than I thought I would. It’s been a wonderful day and a wonderful gesture. Thank you, Sunset—all of you.”

“You’re welcome. It’s the least we could do.” She fell silent and took another sip.

“What, to make up for doubting me?” I asked gently. “I don’t blame any of you for being upset, even angry, when I disappeared without even a puff of smoke. I didn’t like it one bit either, but orders are orders. I’m just glad to be back here, and back on the job.”

Sunset’s smile turned crooked and she crossed her ankles. “You shoulda been around when it dawned on us why we were so mad at you. You probably woulda laughed your a—head off. It was mental whiplash. Who’da thunk we’d make friends with a guy sent by the government to spy on us?”


All the girls had been furious from mingled hurt and worry when I reappeared from nowhere; none had been inclined at first to accept what little explanation I was allowed to offer. Of the fraught confrontation in Pin Stripes’ office I said nothing beyond a brief sardonic mention of a performance review. The rest of my trip I passed off as administrivia, awkward but necessary for my job and position, which at least came within shouting distance of the facts.

Twilight and Sunset in particular had expressed dark and all too accurate suspicions I was glossing over more than I was telling. The former’s comments had been merely trenchant, the latter’s unfit for polite company. Applejack had limited herself to a passive-aggressively dubious “If’n ya say so.” The others had been nearly as skeptical, if less outspoken.

Only after I groveled verbally with abject apologies, confirmation my assignment would continue, and promises I’d be permitted to let them know of any future absences did they relent. Even so, I hadn’t been able to see them in person before today, though that had more to do with frantically busy lives—on my part picking up the threads of my interrupted work; on theirs summer employment, a fast approaching senior year at CHS, practice for a music festival in the late autumn. Not to mention all the secret preparations for the massive picnic and party.


The pair of us held court there on the table, chatting with individuals or groups who happened by. Some wandered over more or less randomly, while others beelined specifically to us. The other Rainbooms, a few close classmates, the girls from Crystal Prep whom they’d befriended after the Games; all three groups had brought their families to the grand affair. The three principals. The siblings from Camp Everfree, who I was sure were invited partly to give Twilight a chance to make time with her boyfriend—I’d spotted them hand in hand several times over the course of the day, which never failed to raise a smile. Even Spike eventually curled up on the table nearby, yawning sleepily after a busy day playing with the Apples’ dog Winona and some of the kids, who thought a talking dog was the best invention ever.

As the skies darkened and the lamps brightened, snacks and finger foods appeared on some of the tables nearby to tide over those who hadn’t gotten enough already from the gigantic afternoon meal that had stood in for both lunch and supper. I was still pretty full, but Sunset skipped off briefly. When she returned with a plate piled high, I shook my head. “Good grief. Where are you going to put all that?”

She snickered but declined to answer, instead kicking her heels under the table and glancing up toward the stage. At its front edge the blue-haired DJ in mirrorshades, invited in her own right, was setting up her portable deck—complete with decorative façade and banner—and surveying the cleared area between her and the rows of tables. It seemed the evening would end with dancing.


I woke the next morning, later than usual, sore from a slight sunburn and an unusually physical day, not to mention a bit of dehydration. Attending to my discomfort in a sleepy mental haze took rather more of the remaining morning than I’d intended or desired. After a salve, some stretches, several glasses of water, and a hearty breakfast at the same coffee shop I visited on arriving in the city, I felt better, but that didn’t mean I felt great.

Thus it was with an unpleasantly powerful sense of déjà vu I greeted an unexpected text message from Sunset, almost identical to the one that had summoned me to meet Starlight and Juniper. I groaned and rose creakily from my couch, hoping I wasn’t headed for another sudden crisis.

By the time I’d driven to the school’s neighborhood, found a curbside parking spot, and trudged to the campus, it was midafternoon. As I approached the plaza and the plinth on it, I could hear a couple of familiar voices chatting in low tones, presumably from the far side of the stone block. “Hello?” I called out. “Sunset? Twilight?”

Two figures stepped out from behind it, and I blinked. “Wait—”

Sunset grinned crookedly. “Hi, Cook. I’d like you to meet Her Highness Princess Twilight Sparkle. Twi, this is Cookie Pusher, the diplomat I wrote to you about.”

Her companion extended a hand. “Hello, Mister Cookie Pusher. Sunset’s told me a lot about you. Things have been pretty busy for me lately, but I had an appointment in town earlier today, so I thought it would be a good chance to meet you. Shall we talk over a late lunch?”