Farmer Bruener Has Some Ponies

by Georg

First published

When a disaster causes Princess Twilight Sparkle to evacuate most of Ponyville, the inhabitants find themselves in a much different place than expected. The people of Kansas are a little surprised about it too.

During an attack on Ponyville in the middle of the Summer Sun Festival, Princess Twilight Sparkle evacuates the town by teleporting the entire population to safety in Manehattan. It turns out that her idea of safety needs some work. As well as her aim. And spelling.

Meanwhile, on a hot summer day outside of Manhattan, Kansas, Jonagold Bruener had a fairly successful life with few complications. Until while out mowing hay, he had a very strange visitor fall from the sky. And then another. And another. And another....

Editors: Tek, TheMaskedFerret, Peter, BluePaladin42, Edward Becerra

Picture credit: Manhattan Water Tower

1. Oops

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Farmer Bruener Has Some Ponies
Oops

"No one would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man's and yet as mortal as his own; that as men busied themselves about their various concerns they were scrutinized and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinize the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water. ... Yet across the gulf of space, minds that are to our minds as ours are to those of the beasts that perish, intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic, regarded this earth with envious eyes, and slowly and surely drew their plans against us."

H. G. Wells, The War of the Worlds

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Time: 7:32 A.M. Central Standard Time, Friday June 19, 2015
Location: Earth. 39.417162, -96.754254 to be specific.
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Jon Bruener was having a perfectly ordinary morning on his Kansas farm, at least until the first pony fell out of the sky onto the cab of his hay swather. That’s not to say that a normal day on the farm was totally without excitement, but a certain routine was a good thing in farming. A break from routine meant broken parts, accidents, insurance claims, or dealing with a bunch of bureaucrats who thought they could do a better job administering his acreage from a desk in the county seat than he could on the seat of a tractor.

Did we mention a pony had just fallen on top of his swather? We will get back to that in a moment.

From the time the first morning ray of sun had touched the dense green pasture, Jon had been at work, leaving behind a long trail of damp hay in a thick windrow to dry in the blazing Kansas sun by afternoon and be in a big round bale by evening. This was the longest day of the year, and that meant more daylight to get things done over the weekend before the whole spiral of paperwork at his ‘real’ job started again on Monday morning. Some years he made less per hour as a small farmer than he would have working in a burger joint, but farming still produced the small amount of extra money it had taken to get Nathaniel through school and into the Judge Advocate General Corps, and the rather sizable lump it had taken for his rather skinny lump of a daughter Claire to get a useless degree in, of all things, Marketing.

Don’t forget the pony falling out of the sky.

Still, it was freedom of a sorts to be out on the bellowing hay swather, turning waves of green grass into a neat windrow while singing along to the music piped into an expensive set of sound-damping headphones from his iPhone. Nobody could stand his singing at home, not even in the shower with the water turned up high and the door locked. Admittedly his octaves only had six notes, and he always had a certain disdain for the difference between sharps and flats, but enthusiasm trumped skill, and volume ruled them all, at least out in the fields where nobody but him could hear.

Yes, we’re almost to the pony. Well, ponies.

Jon had just finished the last of the edging around the field, leaving a twisty path of mown grass outlining the entire huge meadow like surrealist art as it dipped into draws, curved around gullies, and bumped over small hills, when something in the sky… flickered. He frowned at the sound of a loud popping noise while peering up into the few fluffy cumulus clouds drifting along in the sky, but the disturbance did not seem to be an unexpected rainstorm. He had just begun throttling the swather back to a halt so he could double-check the weather on his phone again when something slammed into the top of the swather with a horrible scream. A calf of some sort tumbled over the front of the cab and dropped into the swinging windmill of the moving reel before Jon could slam his foot down on the clutch, and the resulting screech of pain when the chattering cutter bar came to an abrupt stop on the baby calf’s leg drew an icy jolt up his back.

Slamming the throttle closed to the stops and switching the key off, he managed to keep enough presence of mind to stomp down on the locking brake before tumbling out of the swather cab, his phone in hand and cable dangling behind. A smear of red blood dripped from the cutter bar, much like the time in his youth when Jon had accidently cut the leg off of the family dog with a sidebar mower when the stupid mutt had darted into the way. This time, the creature he had hit was much larger, and was screaming in pain with a shuddering quiver that traveled down its sides with every bellow. The creature looked like a young calf at first glance, but now that he was closer, he could not believe his eyes or his ears. It appeared like some sort of miniature horse that somebody had dunked in pink and blue dye, but the huge tearful eyes nailed Jon’s attention to the ground, combined with the short pink horn protruding out of its forehead and the blubbering cries for its mother that it was screaming in short and quite distinct words.

He stumbled to a halt before ripping off his shirt and dialing the phone with one hand. Whatever the creature was, it was losing blood far too quickly, and he tried to be as soothing as possible while wrapping the shirt around the spurting wound and applying pressure.

"Riley County Emergency, what is the nature of your—"

"Operator!" he shouted over the sounds of the sobbing unicorn. "This is Jon Bruener, and I need an ambulance out at Randolph around 400 Seacrest Road, just to the south of the intersection. I’m out in the hayfield and I hit a—"

He really didn’t want to say the U-word, but he was spared by a bright flicker and another sharp pop up in the sky that drew his attention, despite his frantic efforts to keep the blood-soaked crude bandage wrapped around the squirming creature’s injured leg. Another pony, this one a light grey with a blonde mane appeared nearly a hundred feet up in the air, only instead of plummeting to the ground, it spread wings and hovered while looking around in obvious panic.

Then there was another flicker and pop, and another pony without wings, who thankfully was caught by the first pegasus before hitting the ground.

"Operator," he said in just as clear and distinctive voice as he could to be heard over the whimpering unicorn, who was now holding onto his shoulder and sobbing in pain. "Send ambulances. And the sheriff. Send everybody on the emergency response team." He watched as the flickering in the sky grew and more ponies began to fall, not all of whom could possibly be caught by the winged ones.

"And hurry!"


Author Notes
(inline for E-readers)


Welcome to Manhattan, Kansas. In the center of the United States (plus or minus a few hundred miles), it will be the future home of several hundred ponies for an undetermined amount of time. Distinguished tourism locations nearby include Kansas State University and their famous School of Veterinary Medicine, as well as the home of the National Bio and Agro Defense Facility (NBAF) currently under construction for most of the last decade and planned for opening in 2021. (Yeah, at times it seems like they’re building it one brick at a time) Just down the road, we have Fort Riley, Home of the Big Red One. In the event that the earthlings are a little overwhelmed by a force of a few hundred little pony aliens, a full armored brigade of tanks and artillery supported by helicopters will be available at short notice. Since this is summer, K-State will not have the Wildcats football team to show off, or their basketball team (Yes, we have one. Shut up.) but the baseball team will be available, as well as intramural soccer.

That is, provided the small group of ponies is not immediately dragged off to some government laboratory somewhere. Keep watching. Author notes will be at the end of each chapter for the convenience of people who read their ponyfic using e-readers.

2. Riley County Emaregency Response

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Riley County Emaregency Response

"Doctors are men who prescribe medicines of which they know little, to cure diseases of which they know less, in human beings of whom they know nothing."
Francois Marie Arouet Voltaire (1760)

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Time: 7:58 A.M. Central Standard Time, June 19, 2015
Highway 77, Northbound out of Manhattan
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If asked, Steve would never admit that sounding the siren on the ambulance was the best part of the job. That and the ability to drive just as fast as practical on the highway without worrying about getting another ticket. The big engine in the ambulance really did not counter the heavy contents enough to get up to the same speeds he could in his Mustang convertible, but it was about the only fun part about being a paramedic and having to deal with auto crashes, household accidents, and the occasional messy suicide. Still, it was better than his four years doing much the same job in the military. At least nobody left bombs under bodies in Kansas.

"Turn right at the next exit onto the utility road, then another right onto a gravel road," said Dave, his fellow paramedic from the passenger seat where he was securely buckled in and clutching his phone as if it would save him from a collision. The GPS onboard the ambulance was good, but once you got off the highway, it was handy to have a backup. "About three quarters of a mile, we’ll want to turn south into a hay field and look for a swather. You know what a swather is, right Steve?"

Since he was busy braking in anticipation of the sharp corner, Steve did not respond in the profane and profound manner he wanted to, but instead grunted as he hit the gas after the swaying S-curve and barreled down the gravel road in a cloud of dust with the barbed-wire fences on both sides of the road passing in a blur. Injured little kids were the worst, particularly farming accidents. He had grown up on a farm in North Carolina, so he was fully aware of just how many sharp edges and uncaring power take-off shafts there were on the equipment, as well as how dangerous it was to drive at the speed he was going down the gravel road. He slowed down, but just a little.

"Dispatcher said it sounded bad," said Dave. "I hope the kid doesn’t lose a foot."

"I’ve seen worse." Steve slowed down a little as the indicated corner came up, although he was a little distracted by the sight of circling hawks or vultures above the hay meadow that appeared to be his destination. It was even more distracting as he pulled into the open gate in the barbed wire fence and stopped, because a small grey horse ran up to the window and tapped on the glass with one hoof.

"Are you the ambulance?"

It was a horse. A small horse, but still quite certainly a horse, even though it was dressed in golden armor in the Roman style of lorica segmentata with articulated plates and a one-piece galea helmet bearing a rather mussed blue fuzzy frill. Really, Steve could have handled the talking, as a lifetime of talking cartoon animals had somewhat hardened his mind to the concept, but armor was something he really had not considered. He had a full set of display armor from his days in the Society for Creative Anachronism, so he knew what the difference was between costumes and real armor, so even if somebody had decided to dress a little horse up in an outfit as a prank, he would be able to tell the difference.

And as he looked around, he realized nobody could possibly be carrying out a prank on this scale.

There were hundreds of ponies scattered out across the field, in a dazzling array of colors, making it look more like some twisted Easter egg hunt than a hay meadow. Not all of the ponies were lying in the green grass like eggs waiting to be found either. What he had originally thought were hawks were actually flying ponies, wheeling around the sky in a large open circle, whose purpose became obvious as there was a somewhat weak flicker in the sky accompanied with a loud popping noise, and yet another colorful equine appeared at least a hundred feet up. Two of the flying ponies immediately swooped to intercept the falling pony before Steve became aware of the prodding of one golden-armored hoof to his chest through the open window of the ambulance, which he had rolled down out of habit.

"Hey!" The same armored hoof tapped Steve on the side of the face in a mild slap that brought him abruptly back to earth, or at least able to look at the armored pony without his mind going off into a corner and babbling to itself for a few hours.

"Accident!" said Steve before his brain could catch back up with what he was seeing. "Paramedics. Kid hit by farm equipment. Yes, this is the ambulance," he finished as a set of flashing lights in the rear view mirror caught his attention. "That’s probably the police."

"Good!" snapped the armored pony. "Your patient is over there by the big metal wagon. Do you have additional medical supplies for our injured?"

"Y-yes," stammered Steve.

“Excellent! I’ll dispatch one of the civilians to assist. Now move it! Move! Move!”

His foot hit the gas pedal without asking permission from his brain, and the ambulance lurched forward out into the bumpy hay meadow. There had been a pony-free path cleared between the gate and the swather, which was a very good thing as Steve was not too certain of his ability to drive at the moment. He barely remembered to set the parking brake when he pulled the ambulance up next to the swather and dashed over to a large bare-chested man who was holding onto one leg of the patient.

Who was a pony.

As was the blood-splattered mostly-white pony to her side.

"Blood pressure is dropping, and we’re having problems controlling the bleeding without supplies," said the white pony while she shifted to one side to provide space for Steve, who had grabbed for a tourniquet out of reflex immediately after seeing all of the blood.

"Dave!" he bellowed while wrapping one pink leg with the plastic band and moving it down the hairy leg to get it closer to the bloody wound concealed by the blood-soaked shirt the man was holding. "Open as many Celox packs as you can lay your hands on! Do you know what his blood type is?"

"P-negative," said the nurse, as Steve’s brain had conveniently pigeonholed the pony into that human category as not to cause any additional mental strain on a mind that just wanted to stand there and stare.

"Crap," he muttered while fixing the tourniquet right above the bloody injury and giving it a firm yank. "I know we don’t have that kind of blood at the hospital."

"A-am I going to die?" sobbed a very female voice from the little pony, who had not quit hanging onto the farmer with her good forehoof while bawling her lungs out. "It hurts! It hurts so much!"

It was no wonder her leg hurt so much, with as little Steve had seen under the blood when he had applied the tourniquet. He slapped the coagulant packs on the jagged wound and applied pressure while trying not to swear. The swather’s steel cutter bar had nearly severed the little pony’s leg, with a deep chunk cut out of the bone and the odd pinkish stringy look of cut tendons and muscles that made Steve’s leg ache with sympathetic pain. Even if she survived the blood loss, she was likely to lose the leg, although he would kill the first person who suggested that she was just a horse to be shot and put out of her misery.

"Not a chance, missy," said Steve with as much of a smile as he could muster while he worked. "Ten minutes from now, you’re going to be in a big hospital full of nice doctors who will all be fussing over you like you’re the new Princess of England. Now let’s give you a little something for the pain."

He paused with the morphine injector in one hand before plunging it into what he could best estimate as the right spot and giving her a partial dose. It seemed to be exactly the right decision in hindsight after he finished with the emergency pressure bandage over the coagulant when the little pony finally began to relax slightly and muffled her anguished wails to a quiet whimpering.

Congratulations, Steve. You’ve just been promoted to Extraterrestrial Veterinarian for taking a wild-assed guess that our medicines aren’t toxic to colorful little alien horses.

"We found Doctor Stable," called out a voice in the distance. "He fell into a gully and twisted his ankle, but he’s headed this way."

"Dispatch, this is Riley County EMS-5," said Dave into the radio behind him. "We’ve got a mass casualty event with over a hundred victims, mostly blunt trauma and fractures, possibly some fatalities. This is not a drill. Repeat, this is not a drill. We’re going to need at least a dozen ambulances at our location. Notify KSU Vet Med and clear Manhattan Memorial Emergency to receive a large number of… um… unusual patients."


Author Notes


In real life, the two hospitals in Manhattan have been consolidated, with the older one sold/given away to K-State and the new one renamed Via Christi (formerly Mercy Regional Health Center). I’m keeping the Memorial name for the story in order to keep away from the hospital’s legal department. The Society for Creative Anachronism has a fairly large presence on the K-State campus, and has some of the most wonderful people as members. K-State Veterinary Medicine is one of the top-ranked vet schools in the country. The road between the pony landing area and the hospital is mostly K-77, which is fairly straight and in good repair, but only two lanes, which will cause problems later in the story.

For those of you who have used Google Maps to identify where the ponies landed, you will notice the sprawling metropolis of Randolph, KS (Pop. 163) right next door. It will come into play later. Tuttle was created primarily for flood control, but they added recreation as a selling point.

By the way, if you really want to see somebody looking confused, go to your local emergency management agency and ask just what their process would be for a few hundred aliens dropped into a field just outside of town. Make sure you tell them you’re an author, though. They’ll still think you’re crazy, but won’t lock you up. (You know, there has been a police car parked outside for the last few weeks. Naaa, probably a coincidence.)

3. Chain of Command

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Chain of Command

"I was constantly amazed by how many people talked me into arresting them."
Edward Conlon, Blue Blood

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Time: 6:41 A.M. Central Standard Time, June 19, 2015
Highway 24 out of Clay Center, en route to Manhattan, Kansas
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Occasionally all the good policing in the world could not beat coincidence, but then again, coincidence is where random chance meets good planning, and the Riley County Police Department tried to plan for everything. Prisoner transfers normally went to the lowest rank officers, but on a whim, Captain Samantha Rietz had decided to run up to Clay County herself to pick up the check kiter they were holding for booking back in Manhattan on prescription pad forgery.

Friday was a fairly relaxed day, and it had been a productive trip in the early morning Kansas sunshine, with the ventilated plexiglass partition between the back and front seats allowing a conversation with the young lady involved, and the electronic recorder chugging along silently while they chatted. All it had cost was a cup of coffee for the bleary-eyed prisoner, and the woman-to-woman talk that had resulted was happily revealing all kinds of names who were going to be of great interest to the detective division back at the station on Monday. It was a little deceptive, but so was running drugs into town. Naturally, everything she said was going to have to be checked pretty hard, since the check kiter had a long history, but jails were built one brick at a time.

Unfortunately, the radio crackled when the prisoner was just getting to a good part.

"Captain Rietz, we have an emergency call in your vicinity. Mister Jon Bruener in Randolph is reporting that he hit a child with some farm equipment, and said that there are a large number of casualties in his area. He sounded pretty rattled, and the dispatcher said it sounded like there might be gunfire in the area."

"Jon Bruener?" she asked while flipping on the light bar and mashing down on the accelerator. "Over on Seacrest road?"

"Yes. An ambulance is en route."

"So am I." She hit the siren as the police car continued accelerating to a totally unsafe velocity, despite the muffled curse from the back seat when the prisoner spilled her coffee. "Send any of the other cars in the vicinity. I know Jon from church, and he’s not one to exaggerate."

To her credit, the prisoner was silent during the most of the short trip until the sharp S-curve onto the gravel road, where Sam had to leave up on the accelerator. The ambulance the dispatcher had mentioned managed to beat her to the K-77 intersection by less than a minute, and she moderated her speed in order to keep from running it off the narrow road. While they were driving through the resulting plume of dust, the prisoner leaned forward as close to the plexiglass partition as she could get and raised her voice to be heard over the road noise.

"I’ve got my CNA and I'm working on my RN, you know. In case anybody there is hurt."

"Ma’am, I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask you to remain in the car," snapped Sam while concentrating on keeping from running into the ditch or the back end of the ambulance from all the dust in the air. She swung a little wide to one side when the ambulance pulled into an open barbed-wire gate and stopped, before a…

Sam took her glasses off and ran a quick cleaning cloth over them. It looked like a bunch of calves were out — if somebody had gone insane with food coloring — and she could have sworn that first calf that had stuck its head into the ambulance window had been wearing some sort of golden object over its back. She had just gotten her glasses back on when there was a sharp rapping at her car window.

"Officer? Do you represent the governing authority in this country?"

That’s not a cow.

Her finger had moved to push the electric window button out of habit, although that was the last conscious muscle movement she was able to make for a few moments as her brain tried to make sense of the stern and possibly just slightly panicked horse outside the car window. It was dressed in golden armor of some sort with a distracting blue fuzzy frill on its helmet, but there was a trickle of blood oozing down the pony soldier’s pale grey cheek that brought Samantha back to awareness of the rest of the multicolored little horses spread out across the green grass, all of whom seemed to be injured or traumatized in some fashion.

"Yes, I’m the local law enforcement officer," she could hear herself say. "What seems to be the situation here?"

The armored pony saluted, in a sharp motion that appeared to be reflex. "Evacuation, Ma’am. The town of Ponyville had been attacked by some shadowy creatures from the Everfree Forest. The creatures had captured or trapped many of the townsponies, and were proving resistant to magic and physical force when Princess Twilight Sparkle ordered Contingency Plan Twelve Delta to be enacted."

"Contingency Plan Twelve Delta?" she echoed.

"Mass evacuation by means of a teleport spell to the Manehattan Teleportation Beacon on the shores of Turtle Lake by the town of Rain." The pony looked around with an expression that Sam caught immediately. It was a look of suppressed impending panic while searching for the elusive Somebody Else In Charge Of This Clusterfuck.

Oh, no. That’s me.

"And they evacuated here because… why?" she asked, afraid she was going to get an answer and still a little… well, more than a little rattled at talking to a horse.

The armored pony shrugged. "I suppose, since the creatures were resistant to magic and the civilians were not, it cleared the field of non-combatants so that the Princesses could give them one serious flank-whupping."

That really did not answer her question, and it was a little odd that she could hear the capitalization of the word ‘Princesses,’ but since Sam was talking to a small horse while looking out at a field of injured colorful talking horses, some of whom were flying above the whole mess, she put that question a few pages back on her list. It was getting to be a long list, and it was still quite early in the morning. And she was almost out of coffee.

"So how long…" Samantha Rietz tried to put together a set of words that would indicate how her police department was pleased to have their unexpected visitors, but would like to know what their plans for going home were. Thankfully, the armored pony officer was thinking along the same lines.

"The Princesses should have a return portal up shortly, so we should be out of your mane in an hour or two," he said. "I hope." There was a thread of doubt in the pony’s words when he looked up into the air. "One of our unicorn officers confirmed that we’ve been displaced dimensionally, so the evacuation spell must have glitched somehow. At least the regular evacuation was nearly completed before the spell was cast, or we would have had a lot more residents here, along with the diplomats attending the Summer Sun Celebration."

Sam looked out at the ponies scattered across the field, trying to wrap her mind around unicorns mixed in with the pegasi and ‘normal’ ponies. "So this is all of them, right? Any other major injuries?"

"At the moment, it looks like all scrapes and fractures, with Widget over there being the most injured. As for if this is everypony yet?" The guard shrugged. "The original spell was supposed to cover all the remaining citizens in Ponyville over the course of a few moments, but we’ve had ponies drop through individual dimensional interfaces for about twenty minutes now with decreasing frequency. It’s just one or two now in an expanding circle, so there could be some sort of interference between worlds that stretched out the spell on this end, or it could be a result of chronological imbalance where time flows at different rates between worlds. The unicorns will know more after the civilians finish triaging the wounded and we take roll call, but for now the situation seems to have stabilized."

"I better move the car so the ambulance can get out," said Captain Rietz. "We’ll set up a command station right here by the entrance to the field so any of the injured can be loaded without bumping across the uneven ground. I’ve got a couple patrol officers on the way up so we can set up a perimeter, look for any injured who might have fallen where they would be overlooked and so forth." She hesitated with a long look at the field full of colorful ponies. "I better brief them over the radio before they arrive, and have Search and Rescue notified in case there are any stragglers out there."

"Thank you, ma'am!"

The armored pony moved a few of his frightened multicolored brethren to one side so Sam could park the cruiser, and after a moment’s worth of consideration, she released the prisoner with the cruiser’s first aid kit to assist with whatever medical treatment she was able. A Certified Nurses Aide in the hand… or hoof, was worth any number of trauma specialists miles away.

For a long moment, the only sound Sam could hear was the wind blowing over the grass. There had to be over a hundred ponies scattered across the field and drawing together in small clusters around their injured, but the wind caught their voices and blew them away. It was the calm before the storm, but the calm would not last long. Whenever humans met aliens in the movies, there were always explosions and gunfire as the earth became a battlefield, or buffet, or just an inconvenient place that happened to be in the way of two well-armed armadas. For all of their alienness, Sam could not put the ‘alien’ tag on the small horses, because they were all acting and reacting much the same as people would have in the same situation, only with less wide-eyed panic.

The contemplative quiet quickly changed as the wind shifted back around, and Sam took the moment to get her phone out and record a long panoramic shot of the ponies, from several older ponies who were gathered together to watch the sky for more falling ponies, to several younger ones who galloped through the tall grass with all of the restraint of their youth. The little wounded pink pony being loaded into the ambulance was the most heart-rending, as she whimpered and clutched onto the paramedic’s neck with one working foreleg while the other stuck out in an awkward fashion, wrapped from hoof to shoulder in a thick restraint.

Reluctantly, she considered pushing the stop button on the voice recorder in her pocket, but decided against it for posterity's sake and continued to work with the phone and radio until the pony soldier came trotting back up.

"Ma'am, our unicorn detachment reports the dimensional incursions appear to have ceased, leaving this area with somewhat over two hundred civilians, seven members of the Royal Guard, Household Regiment, and Spike. Are you going to need any of our pegasi detached for courier duty?"

"Um…" Sam considered her phone for a while before answering. What she was about to do broke several dozen rules and regulations, as well as hopped over some significant links to the Director of the RCPD who may have been on vacation in Montana today but was going to be livid when he found out. Then again, she was the officer in charge at the scene, talking to a little horse from another dimension, and that warranted some extreme measures no number of regulations could possibly take into account. Somehow, ‘First Contact by Disaster Response’ had been left out of the manual which she had inherited when she had been been promoted to Patrol Captain a few years ago.

Still, jumping over the chain of command as far as she could felt like the right thing to do at the moment, so regardless of any possible repercussions, she pressed the 'send' button on her phone and turned back to the short and quite otherworldly visitor.

"No, I've talked to the office and gotten the process started to get most of my available patrol officers out here, so I don't think I'll need any couriers, Officer…"

"Sergeant Hardhooves," responded the pony with a sharp salute. "I know this is quite unexpected, and we appreciate what you’re doing for us, Ma'am."

"I hope you still are willing to say that in a few hours," said Sam. "If your Princesses do manage to whisk all of you home here in the next few minutes, that’s one thing, but if you’re here for a few days or even weeks…"

She eyed the narrow country road and tried not to think of a stereotypical movie military convoy sweeping down it to capture all of the little aliens and shove them into big laboratories. The situation should not get that out of control, even though there were certainly Military Police on the way from Ft. Riley even now. Their participation in mass casualty events were fairly routine, although they too would have quite a bit of adjustment in front of them, and simply having the MPs present to maintain order in the upcoming chaos would be a hell of a good idea when word got out.

And she was positive it would, particularly because of where she had forwarded her phone video.

The longer it took for these ‘Princesses’ to pick up their wayward ponies, the larger the impact on human society and the more insane it would drive people until some important people who were living examples of the Peter Principle did something really, really stupid. If the ponies had shown up in parts of Sub-Saharan Africa, it probably would have only taken a few minutes for them to have been turned into cutlets. In Southern California, they would be declared some sort of endangered species and dragged off to a nature preserve, but people would still steal them to keep in their basements as pets. In Washington D.C. even outside of an election year… The police officer suppressed a shudder. Better to not even think about that.

When the incoming call she was expecting began to buzz on her phone, she turned her back on the wind and touched the screen. "Hi, Brian. You still on the governor's protective detail? No, slow down. Yes, the video clip I mailed you is real. Yes, I expect you to believe it, because I’m standing right here. Alien ponies, that’s right. About two hundred of them. No, I don’t think they’re registered to vote."

Sergeant Hardhooves raised one hoof and whispered, "Actually, I’m registered with the Lower Reach party. My wife is a pegasus, you see, and she talked me into it."

Taking a breath, Samantha continued, "Well, I suppose they’re registered to vote in whatever place they came from."

"Equestria," whispered the soldier.

"Equestria," echoed Samantha, although after a moment she added, "No, it’s not on Earth anywhere! Look, just put the governor on the phone so I can— Oh, hello, Governor Brown. This is Captain Rietz of the RCPD in Manhattan. We have a little problem. A few hundred of them."


Author Notes


As a reference for people who don’t live in Kansas, Topeka is just down I-70, about a little more than an hour away from the scene location. The governor has a security detail drawn from the Kansas Highway Patrol who handle driving him or her places, which once made for a brief panic when Gov. Joan Finney caught a ride with a friend to work and did not tell them. Even though it is a generally conservative state, the governorship has bounced back and forth between republicans and democrats for years with fairly friendly (as compared to certain other states) relations between the parties, with the most hard-fought battles being over school funding and taxes for school funding. And I’m going to stop there before about half of the readers get all aggravated. (Really, don’t get me started.)

The Riley County Police Department (RCPD) covers the entire county including Manhattan, Ogden, and Randolph, as the various city police departments and the sheriff’s department were consolidated back in 1974. Most of the rest of Kansas counties have an elected sheriff and deputies, but RCPD has a director, with several direct staff and five captains (Captain Sam Rietz is the Patrol Captain of the Patrol Division) with the officers in the field holding the title of Patrol Officer.

Just a reminder: Any names used in this story are made up, and should not match any real people. If they do (by accident), and the person doesn’t like it, just tell me and I’ll change the name.

4. Family Matters

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Farmer Bruener Has Some Ponies
Family Matters

"Youth can not know how age thinks and feels. But old men are guilty if they forget what it was to be young."
J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

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Time: 7:47 A.M. Central Standard Time, June 19, 2015
Manhattan, Kansas
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The life of an independent reporter in the era of the internet was a crazy thing, with one long hustle after another to get stories written and sold. It also would have involved starving to death if Koni had attempted to survive entirely off the proceeds, so she also had a number of side-jobs, one of which was a Canine Search Specialist. Well, technically Poppy was the employee. Koni was just the chauffeur/chef/medical officer/trainer/entertainment coordinator and best friend to the mixed-breed chocolate labrador who had a mind of his own.

Something must have gotten into Poppy's dog food this morning, because instead of waiting for a reasonable time of day to go on an early-morning run, Koni had been awakened by an enthusiastic licking to the face and that plaintive whine that indicated sudden and immediate failure of bladder control unless somebody got up right now and took him outside to water a bush. The stupid dog ran circles inside the apartment while Koni stumbled out of bed and groped for her clothes, shoes, and the most inconvenient ringing cell phone.

What she heard on the call banished all thoughts of sleep from her head. Five minutes later, her station wagon was peeling out of the driveway with Poppy loaded into the portable kennel in back.

Emergency. Lost kids. Special circumstances. Texting directions. Hurry.

Leaving the navigation to Google Maps, Koni was treating the speed limit as a bottom instead of a top as she roared up Tuttle Creek Boulevard with a brief and succinct curse for whoever decided to get themselves lost out in the outskirts of Tuttle Creek Reservoir without even giving her enough warning to get coffee. An explosion of sparkling red and blue lights in the rearview mirror made her curse again as she pulled over to the side of the road, only to see a RCPD cruiser zip by without even a pause. The same thing happened twice more, only with ambulances, and the cold feeling in the pit of her stomach grew as she tucked in behind one of them and tore up Highway K-77 at a speed that had the old Taurus station wagon straining.

In far too little time, she reached the turnoff Google indicated, but there was an officer there who flagged her down and was bellowing even before she got the window all the way down.

"Sorry, ma'am, but we've got a situation here. You're going to have to—"

"Search and Rescue," she snapped back, holding up her identification from the bugout bag she had thrown into the front seat.

"Ahh…" The cop froze with a glance over the top of her car at more flashing lights headed in their direction. "We're trying to set up a perimeter. Use channel 14 on the radio, give me your phone number and drive up this road until you hit the intersection and turn right. Keep your eyes out for injured ponies and I'll give you a call once we have a better idea where we're going to need you."

"Ponies?" Koni handed over a business card, but the officer waved her on before she could get any more clarification.

There was a farmhouse a short distance up the road, but no signs of activity despite all of the flashing lights in her rearview mirror. The intersection the police officer had seemed to indicate was more of a dry dirt track beside a hedgerow, but it lined up roughly parallel to where the flashing lights were heading. She drove the old Taurus down the track about as far as she was comfortable before parking and opening up the back. Fighting down the habit of taking the keys with her in case somebody would need to move the car while she was out searching, she shouldered her knapsack, checked her phone and radio, and opened the portable kennel with the intent of attaching Poppy's leash. The dog had other ideas, bolting past her and across the pasture at a dead run.

"Wait up, you dumb dog! Heel, Poppy! Heel!"

Whatever had triggered the half-trained labrador's instincts was far too strong and far too fast for Koni to keep up. She cursed the high probability of a stray cat or rabbit while scrambling down the narrow earthen walls of a shallow gully in the pasture, hopped over the stretch of mud at the bottom, and climbed up the other side.

"Poppy, if this is just a rabbit, you're getting dry dog food for a month!" she bellowed at the howling dog. Koni bent over for a moment to catch her breath and to wipe off some of the mud she had not quite been able to jump over, but nearly fell back into the gully at the sound of another voice.

"Excuse me! Have you seen Dinky?"

"Wha?" Koni whirled around, looking for the source of the voice, but it was not until she looked up that she spotted the speaker.

There was one long moment where all she could do was critique its appearance. Over the years, Koni had gotten into several hobbies, one of which was drawing horses. Fantastic horses with horns on their heads or wings on their back, leaping through rainbows or standing in misty forest glades. She had even sold a few of the paintings, but after accounting for the cost of supplies, she would have needed a winning lottery ticket to break even as a painter.

The coat is too pale to be a proper grey, no horses have manes that blonde, the postman's hat and uniform look totally out of place, the saddlebags are overstuffed, the wings are too small to hold it up, the eyes too big and mournful, and they don't even both point the same way.

Wings?

The excited barking of Poppy broke Koni out of her trance, as well as the small, thin voice of a child crying out, "Mama! There's a dog over here! Mama?"

"I'm coming, Muffin!" The light-grey pegasus zipped away in the direction of the young voice, vanishing into a copse of green trees around the intermittent stream with a crunch and crackle of broken branches and a loud thud, which sent Poppy into a frenzy of barking again.

Koni stumbled as she began to run forward, shaking off the unreality of the hovering pegasus with the realization that the colorful specks she could see in the sky were most certainly not bald eagles from the South Tuttle spillway park. If it was an alien invasion, they were at least cute and harmless looking, although so were gremlins until they were fed after midnight.

She shouldered her way through some thick brush and eased down a cow path over to a tiny muddy puddle, even though it didn't have any cows around it at the moment. Poppy was barking vigorously at the three creatures who were in the small clearing. A few envelopes were scattered around the grey pegasus from before, who had become stuck up to her shoulders in an old hollow tree with various muffled exclamations and a vigorous struggle that indicated she was only inconvenienced for the moment. A much smaller and mud-splattered little violet unicorn was darting back and forth between the stuck pegasus and an elderly green pony, who was draped across the muddy bank and glaring at Koni with a sharp frown.

"Oh, fiddlesticks. You ain't one of them hummans that my granddaughter's been all bent out of shape about, is ya? Hep me out of this dad-blamed mud so I can go give Princess Twilight a piece of my mind."

There was something wrong about the way the elderly mare's rear leg looked, made only worse as she tried to stand and the leg twisted in the wrong direction. Koni splashed through the low water to put a hand on the little horse, calling out, "No! Down! Stay! It looks like you broke your leg. Your back leg. Your…" Swallowing once, Koni pulled out her radio and mashed down the talk button, hoping that she remembered the correct frequency for the police band the deputy had given her.

"This is Koni with Kansas Search and Rescue Dog Associates, approximately a half-mile north north-east from the K-77/Gardiner-Seacrest turnoff. I’ve got an injured patient here with a broken femur… or whatever you call that bone in a horse. She's elderly—"

"I ain’t elderly, I'm old!"

"—and in no condition to be moved without a stretcher."

Koni gave a quick glance to the pegasus, who had managed to pull her head out of the hollow tree and was sitting down, blinking those impossibly large eyes to get the dust out of them. Other than her eyes still pointing in different directions, she did not seem to be severely injured, and Koni added, "I’m in a clearing in the middle of a clump of trees with two other… ponies, neither of which appears severely injured. Tell the ambulance crew to watch their step. The brush is pretty heavy in here, over."

The radio crackled briefly and a female voice responded, "Search and Rescue, this is Captain Rietz. Ahh… You said you’re in a clearing. How is your overhead cover, over."

She glanced up at the open circle of blue sky and keyed the microphone again. "Too small for a helicopter, officer."

"Search and Rescue, please stand by."

Koni stood by as requested, eyeing the elderly green pony, who had stopped struggling against her hand and was just laying on her side while muttering. It was remarkably quiet, although her head was still whirling a mile a minute while she looked around. The little unicorn filly and the pegasus were sitting side-by-side while talking back and forth. Poppy had quit barking in exchange for a considerable amount of petting from both little horses, and Koni decided that if the dog liked them, they could not be too dangerous. Then again, Poppy had tried to make friends with the wrong end of a skunk. Twice.

"Do you want me to go get help?" asked the grey pegasus with a helpful expression just one step away from pitiful begging. "I’ll be right back," she added before Koni could take a breath.

With a whir of grey feathers sounding much like a spooked quail, the pegasus shot straight upwards, somehow managing to clip two tree branches and send a rain of leaves over everybody else in the clearing. There was something else that drifted down too, which took Koni's overloaded mind a few seconds to understand.

"…Letters?"


"Don't let 'em fall into the water!" called out the wrinkled little horse who Koni was still resting one hand on. "Ma cousin is supposed to been writtin' me for the last week, and I ain't seen none of 'em yet!"

"I'll get them, Granny Smith," declared the little pale-purple pony. The stubby horn that barely stuck out of her mane flickered with golden light, which matched a light around each of the falling letters, making them flutter off to one side and land in the tall grass instead of the water where they had been headed. "Whoops, I'll get them."

"She’s a good kid," whispered the old green pony to Koni as the little pony dived into the tall grass after the letters. "Dinky's a little odd like her mother, but she's smart as a whip." The old pony shifted positions with a pained wince. "I didn't want to make her all nervous or anything, but mah hip hurts like the dickens. I right appreciate you calling for the pegamedics on that fancy gadget of yours, but if I'm gone by the time they get here, make sure she doesn't get all worked up over it."

"Don't say that," whispered Koni over the sound of the little unicorn rustling through the tall grass. "You're going to be fine. I saw more ambulances and firetrucks on the road than I could count. It might take a chainsaw to get them through the brush, but they'll be here in just a few minutes."

The elderly pony's eyes drooped as she smiled up at Koni. They were an odd color, which was saying something for the day so far. The irises were somewhat of a reddish-orange, much like a variety of ripe apple, with a little twinkle to them that age had not dimmed. She placed her head down on the damp gravel at the edge of the small pool and sighed, giving one last futile attempt at getting her hindquarters out of the water before relaxing under Koni's hand. "I've lived a long life and seen a lot more than most ponies half my age. Didn't never think I'd see a hoomin, though."

"Well," started Koni, "I really didn't think I'd ever see a talking pony either."

"Ah really wish we had more time to talk," said the old pony, relaxing a little with a yawn.

"We've got lots of time to talk," said Koni in a rush, suddenly horribly afraid of where the conversation was headed. "I'm a freelance reporter, and I'd love to sit around and talk to you all day. I mean, you must have all kinds of stories, what with as old as you are," she added in order to keep the old mare from fading away in her sleep.

"I may be old, but I ain’t foolish enough to miss you tryin’ to poke mah buttons, you young ‘un." The old and wrinkled pony opened one eye to wink at Koni. "When you get good and into your second century, ah bet you’ll have a few wrinkles too. Lessn’ you hoomins don’t age, or something like that."

"We age," replied Koni, trying to figure out just who was trying to manipulate who in the ongoing conversation. "I’m almost thirty."

"Shucks, you ain’t barely got the yolk licked off yer egg then," said Granny Smith, shifting positions painfully in the mud. "Already got a feller and a house full o’ young ones then?"

"No!" she spluttered. "I’m still looking."

"Look fast, and strike while yer iron’s still hot. Theirs too. I reckon stallions are all the same, hoomin or not."

While waiting on who or whatever would come next, they sat there for a while. Human, dog, old mare and young filly. Dinky sat by the pile of letters, petting Poppi, while Koni sat next to the old mare, trying not to pet her. The radio crackled with police commands, mixed with the call of meadowlarks from the nearby meadow, and the low buzz from Koni’s phone.

She shifted position to get partially out of the sucking mud before pulling her phone out with her unoccupied hand. "Hi, Sheila." Koni glanced at her otherworldly companions. "Yes, I’m out in the field." Pause. "Yes, I found two of their lost ponies already." Pause. "Ponies." Pause. "Po-nees. Little talking multicolored horses." Long pause. "Look, Sheila. I’m a little busy right now. Why don’t you talk with one of them on speakerphone?"

Koni reached out as close to Dinky as she could and held out the phone. "Here you go, kid. Sheila’s with Kansas Search and Rescue Dogs. Talk into that end and listen— Oh, you’ve got it." The golden glow surrounding the android phone tingled her fingers a little as the phone took flight and floated over to the little pony, who promptly began chattering into it. "Smart kid," she remarked to Missus Smith, who had perked up a little at the strange noise.

"Town’s full of ‘em," said Granny Smith proudly. "Mah granddaughter’s the smartest of ‘em all. Her and her little friends just got their cutie marks not long ago, an’ they been so excited about it, they’s been even more active than before."

A chill breeze swept down from the treetops and made Koni suppress a shudder in the humid Kansas summer air. The whisper of wings followed, along with the blonde pegasus who plunged down through the opening in the clearing with a glad cry of, "Here they are! Watch out for the— Whoops!" The pegasus rebounded off the thickest tree surrounding the clearing and ricocheted out of sight, although her progress could be tracked by the crashing of limbs and twigs that followed her path and the ground-shaking thud afterwards.

"I’m fine!"

The little unicorn seemed less than reassured by her mother’s reassurance, and galloped off through the cluster of trees with a barking dog in close pursuit. Almost right behind the crashing pegasus were two more of the flying ponies descending through the clearing, only these pegasi were nearly snow-white with matching blue manes and golden armor. They were carrying a bright blue medical backboard between them, which had been modified for their use by the liberal application of duct tape and two long wooden boards on the sides, sticking out far enough for each pegasus to fit between and hold onto with their forelegs. Almost as if they were angels stepping from heaven and reluctant to set hoof on base soil, the matching pegasi touched gently onto the ground right next to Koni and held very still as the unicorn on the backboard rolled out onto the ground with a soft thud.

Amazed at how quickly she was adapting to flying ponies and unicorns, Koni nodded to the newcomer and cleared her throat. "Excuse me, are you some sort of doctor?"

"Just a guard, Ma’am. Don’t like flying," rasped the dark green unicorn, who was still intently staring at the ground and swallowing as if she were about to be sick. The metal armor on this pony was significantly different than the golden-armored pegasi, more violet shading to black and slightly chased in silver around the edges, with what appeared to be a dark frill on the back of the helmet instead of the bottle-brush horsehair crest like a Roman legionnaire that adorned the helmets of the two pegasi. It really did not appear to be effective as body armor, and left the throat and sides of the little horse vulnerable, but did not appear to impede her movements when the female unicorn staggered up to her hooves.

"Sorry about that, Specialist Grace," said the first of the two identical snow-white pegasi, who was looking between Koni and Missus Smith with an evaluating expression as if he were trying to figure out the ‘hoomin’ diet and if Pony were on it anywhere, although they maintained their hold on the modified backboard. "Granny Smith, your grandson wanted us to ask how are you doing."

“About ready to go kick Princess Twilight Sparkle’s little royal tush," snapped the old mare. "Jus’ as soon as this hoomin lets me get up.”

"She’s got a dislocated hip, at least," explained Koni rather quickly while putting a second hand on the warm pony to hold her down. A faint green glow began to filter out from between her fingers and Koni stared in amazement as the glow began to chase up and down the old mare’s legs and hips.

"Shear fracture on the upper fovea and lacerations on the stifle," said the dark green unicorn as she stared at Granny Smith’s hindquarters as if she could see through the skin to the bones underneath. The glow filtering out from between Koni’s fingers matched the color of the glow around the unicorn’s horn, and made the sensation of tiny insects seem to tickle all of the hairs of her arm as it passed back and forth under her fingers. "There are loose pieces of bone in the area, but nothing seems to have cut through any tendons or arteries. Yet," she added with a firm glance at the older pony. "You need to be securely immobilized for surgery at the very least, Ma’am."

"Oh, horsehocky," scoffed Granny Smith. "Find out where my walker went and I’ll be fine."

"You need surgery," insisted the unicorn again. "Ma’am, if you would step back, please."

Reluctantly, Koni took a step backwards while green light crawled all across the elderly pony, lifting her up into the air and placing her gently on the backboard in exactly the same position as she had been in the muddy puddle. A series of white bandages seemed to just materialize out of thin air and began to tie around Granny Smith’s hindquarters as the unicorn continued to concentrate, eventually leaving the elderly pony tied securely to the backboard and looking a lot like a partial mummy in the process, although still dripping a little mud.

"Ah can’t move!" complained Granny Smith.

"Good," said the unicorn. "Specialists Left and Right, please transport our reluctant patient to one of the human ambulances. Put her at the front of the line and make sure to pass along her condition."

"Shear fractures on the upper fovea and scratching on her stifle bone, with loose pieces of bone in the area," repeated the first identical pegasus. "Are you sure you don’t want us to fly her directly to the hospital, Grace?"

The unicorn eyed both armored pegasi, who somehow seemed to just radiate the same eager attitude that Poppy displayed whenever she spotted a squirrel. "No," she said flatly. "As much as you want to go explore, taking the injured grandmother of the Element of Honesty on a tour of the unfamiliar countryside in an unexplored dimension is not on the agenda for today."

The second pegasus seemed ready to object, but was quickly quashed by a pointed glare from the pointed mare. Together, they ascended into the sky with the subdued muttering of their reluctant passenger fading into inaudibility as they flew off in the direction of the farmhouse and all of the ambulances in the vicinity.

"Thank you for your assistance, ma’am," said Grace as she stood on the driest ground in the muddy clearing and began looking for the nearest cow path out of the copse of trees. "We should be out of your mane shortly, as soon as Princess Twilight realizes what has happened and opens a portal for our return."

"Wait a minute!" blurted out Koni, slogging out of the mud and looking around in the dry grass for where her phone got dropped when the little unicorn went chasing off after her mother. Grabbing the phone and ruthlessly hanging up the call, she flipped it over and punched record. "Where are you from, and who is this ‘Princess Twilight’ that Granny Smith was talking about? And why are you here?"

The forest-green unicorn paused before turning back to Koni. "Equestria, a Princess of Equestria, and Her Highness apparently has made a—" Grace paused, looking at the phone in Koni’s hands. "Is that some sort of weapon?"

"No, it’s an android phone." Seeing no spark of recognition in the unicorn’s expression, Koni elaborated. "It’s a communication and recording device."

"So we’re being recorded?" The unicorn straightened up her shoulders and settled the dark violet armor across her back with a faint green flash from her horn. In a moment, her armor was left looking freshly-polished and her mane brushed back under the violet helmet with only a few small strands of reddish-brown mane still peeking out around the edge.

"Yes," said Koni, putting on her best encouraging smile and thinking about Pulitzer Prizes.

"Pending a resolution of the ongoing investigation into the circumstances of our extradimensional jaunt, it would be inappropriate for me to comment in this regard. If you will leave me your contact information, I will be certain to pass along a copy of the investigation once it has concluded and been reviewed. In the meanwhile, I can assure you that our visit here is totally accidental, and that with the combined efforts of the Royal Princesses, we should be out of your mane shortly. If there are any further questions, I would encourage you to bring them up with our public liaison, who will be glad to answer whatever she can. Will there be anything else before I return to my post, Ma’am?"


Author Notes


I’m not saying Kansas has a relatively low crime rate, but when I started attending K-State, it took forever for me to get used to taking my car keys with me. Summer is an interesting time around a university town. Most of the dorms are empty, with only one kept open for the students, although other groups such as Upward Bound and Boys State use the facilities for their activities. The size of a "Small Town" place like Manhattan always baffles me. If needed, two hundred and fifty ponies could vanish into a small fraction of the dorm space available or just the old Holidome (It’s a Holiday Inn, which is now the Four Points hotel)

Other than the ATA busses, Manhattan does not have a very robust public transportation network compared to many major cities, because just about *everybody* owns a car or sometimes two. We drive everywhere. We drive a block away to get something that would take less time to walk. Had a friend send his kid to college with a truck pulling a trailer with a second car on it, *both* of which would spend the entire year in the dorm ‘archive parking’ area and undriven for nearly the entire school year (because finding a parking place on campus stinks, particularly for dorm residents, who are most likely to find a parking place further away from their target than if they had just left it in the original spot.)

5. Army Strong

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Farmer Bruener Had Some Ponies
Army Strong

“But in the military you don’t get trusted positions just because of your ability. You also have to attract the notice of superior officers. You have to be liked. You have to fit in with the system. You have to look like what the officers above you think that officers should look like. You have to think in ways that they are comfortable with.

The result was that you ended up with a command structure that was top-heavy with guys who looked good in uniform and talked right and did well enough not to embarrass themselves, while the really good ones quietly did all the serious work and bailed out their superiors and got blamed for errors they had advised against until they eventually got out.

That was the military.”
Orson Scott Card, Ender’s Shadow

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Time: 8:15 A.M. Central Standard Time, June 19, 2015
Colbert Hills Golf Course, Manhattan Kansas
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There was something magical about sunrise at the golf course, with the cool morning wind coming from over one shoulder and the feel of the damp grass underfoot. With all of the chaos and confusion surrounding the entirety of Fort Riley every day, it was important to have at least one day a month when the stress in General Hackmore’s life was forgotten and he turned into his other identity, just plain old Gregory Hackmore attempting to chase a little white ball around a bunch of green grass. It was a driver day on the fourth tee, or at least that was the club he was most comfortable with making the attempt at par. Straight down the middle and between the rough, address the ball, ease up on the backswing, and twitch when his aide’s phone started buzzing away.

“Corporal,” he started, keeping an eye on his ball as it bounced down the fairway on the left side, where he was going to have to loft it over the stubby trees to even get close to par. “Didn’t I tell you to shut that infernal thing off? We’re playing golf here, not babysitting my second in command. He can handle the job for a few hours.”

“Just a moment.” The corporal looked up and handed his phone over with a whispered, “It’s Lieutenant Colonel DeJoya with the Division MPs, sir. They have a situation.”

His first instinct was to simply order the captain to deal with the situation, but DeJoya was a competent officer and would not have jumped ranks like this for any ordinary problem. Hackmore listened on the phone for a while, interspacing his grunts of acknowledgement with short comments such as “They can fly?” “So, where is their spaceship?” and “The only weapon the police reported was a spear?”

At the end, he remained silent for a while as he thought. He had seen far too many movies where the sole use of the US military might was to provide popcorn for technologically advanced aliens to detonate in pretty explosions, even if most of the movies had been so tactically ridiculous that he had to keep himself from shouting orders at the screen. There had been a science fiction story⁽*⁾ he had read in his youth once which seemed to roughly parallel the situation as described, where a starship full of little teddy bear-like creatures had landed their steam-powered spaceship in New York, marched out with their flintlocks and black powder weapons, and had been promptly chopped into hamburger by the modern military response.
(*) The Road Not Taken by Harry Turtledove.

He had never dreamed of being in a First Contact situation, but as described, the ‘situation’ was little more than a cosmic bus with a flat tire, breaking down by the road until a few friendly neighbors helped patch it up and send them on their way. Still, the potential for an international… make that interdimensional incident of immense magnitude existed, and would only be exacerbated by micromanaging on the massive scale that modern electronic communications tended to lean toward. Plus, there was always the possibility of this being some sort of feint or diversionary tactic for a larger invasion of… herbivorous quadrupeds, out to strip the green and fertile earth of its grass.

That’s a story Hollywood will never film. Killer Cows from Mars Invade Kansas. Take me to your alfalfa.

There really needed to be somebody on the scene to properly evaluate the situation before a few hundred generals in the Pentagon started demanding mutually-contradictory actions from his division. Hopefully, if what the RCPD had told the MPs was true, long before that would happen the odd alien invasion would be over and they would all be gone except for the inevitable trash. Besides, he was curious. He had never seen an alien before and most likely would never see one again before retirement.

“Colonel DeJoya, I presume you’re already sending some MPs to the scene. Send one of the cars to stop by the golf course and pick me up. Yes, Colbert Hills. I’ll be at the clubhouse, waiting on them, so don’t make me wait long. Just to be cautious, we’ll be going to FPCON Bravo just as soon as I get a hold of the S3, so expect the orders shortly. If the aliens are really peaceful, I don’t want any screwups, but I’d rather not wind up in a Pearl Harbor situation either. We’re going to be balancing a thin line here between preparedness and not having a bunch of people screaming about an invasion, so make sure your men are properly briefed. And thanks for the heads-up. I’ll make sure it doesn’t roll back downhill on you. Dismissed.”

Thank God I threw my ACU’s in the car, or I’d be meeting aliens in my golf pants.

The general tossed the phone back to his aide with a short sigh. “Golf is going to have to wait. We’ve got some unexpected visitors from out of town, and I need to go say hello. Send a text to the wife telling her something’s come up, but don’t mention aliens. God, please don’t mention aliens.” Then, thinking about his granddaughter who was staying with them for the week, he added, “And ponies. Whatever you do, don’t mention ponies.” Grabbing the handle of his golf bag, Hackmore began walking back along the cart path to the clubhouse as he got out his own phone, turned it on, and started to make calls, unaware that the first meeting between the two military forces had already begun.

* *

Lieutenant Nicholas ‘Nick’ Comena had been determined to make the most of every minute of his extended weekend away from Fort Riley. With his civvies in the truck and all of the camping gear packed, he had been on Hubner road out of the fort five minutes after final inspection, and cruising down the gravel road leading to the Tuttle Creek Off-Road Vehicle Area less than a half-hour later. Well, after a brief stop for supplies, including a bag of ice and a case of Prince of Pilsen, a fine pale lager horribly underappreciated in this barbarian state.

A friend of a friend of an army buddy who knew somebody had told him of a little farm pond just jumping with hungry perch, and a few phone calls had gotten him permission to pitch his tent in the spillway as long as he picked up his trash and didn’t scare the cows with fireworks. Since the only cows who wandered by his camp kept to the other side of the barbed-wire fence, he had free rein over his little slice of heaven, which he could imagine as his native Georgia if the heat was a little more intense and the mosquitoes twice the size. It beat the holy hell out of the dusty baking clay of Afghanistan, which was probably where he was going to wind up redeployed again if things kept hissing and popping there.

The night had been filled with cold beer, hungry fish, and a hot campfire full of miniscule perch fillets, without the primary negative aspect of Georgia night campouts: alligators.

Morning had dawned just a little too brightly and too early for Nick, but the rest of Four-One was supposed to show up sometime before noon for a little team bonding where their big black boss would show them the world did not revolve around the sixty tons of steel and depleted uranium of their charge. They were a fairly new team, and a day of informal drinking and bullshitting outside of the range of spouses and girlfriends would help cement the working relationship they had so far. Still, whatever politically incorrect asshole who had alliteratively assigned Nick a gunner nicknamed ‘Spic’ and a driver named Rick deserved a few dozen trips through the extensive collection of Army training materials on harassment, doubly so for whatever wise ass who had named their tank ‘Fury.’

Nick unzipped the nylon cover to the tent and took a cautious step outside in his bare size-fourteens, wriggling his toes into his sandals and enjoying the morning breeze through his boxer shorts. He had picked the fairly remote location in order to be away from the constant pop-pop-pop of training at the fort, or the earth-shuddering thuds of rounds on the impact range, but some asshole over in Randolph had started the Fourth of July early, and had been popping off firecrackers in the distance for nearly half an hour. The first pop had woken him up out of a sound sleep with the thought of incoming fire, but the pitch and timbre of the sharp sounds was all wrong for small arms, and the erratic popping ever since had just made him regret the inability of calling in a drone strike in the middle of Kansas.

“Asshole,” he muttered before shuffling over to the open tailgate of his truck and rummaging through his campout gear for something to deal with his headache. He washed the Motrin down with bottled water, because twisting open another bottle of beer this early in the morning was for Marines.

Halfway through drinking the bottled water, all thoughts of his headache went away. “Sheeet.”

Something high above had given off a sharp pop, followed by a hideous squeak of pure terror, and it sure was not a Bald Eagle from nearby Tuttle Creek Reservoir. The noise grew into a louder scream as Nick threw the bottle back into the cooler and looked for the origin, but at first glance, he could not see anything.

It could not be good news. Months of experience in the mountains and hills of Afghanistan had trained him that unexpected events were never good. Fighting an urge to drop his seat down into the comforting coolness of sixty tons of steel, Nick nearly jumped out of his sandals when the water out in the pond geysered up into a fairly large splash and the high-pitched screech abruptly cut off.

He started toward the pond, then broke into a dead run with his sandals flying behind him when the voice of whoever was flailing for their life out in the water called out, “Help!” The greenish water splashed to both sides as he hit the surface in a long dive and swam out to the flailing child with strong strokes, snagging the struggling victim under the forelegs before turning and swimming back toward the shore. Only then, did a certain peculiarity soak into his mind.

Forelegs?

“Thank you, mithter,” gasped the little horse he had trapped under one arm in the approved American Red Cross lifesaving technique. “I can’t thwim.”

“Really?” It was all he could say as he swam, but he managed to catch his breath a little as he stood up and began wading up onto the shore. It also gave him a better view of the little dog-sized horse under his arm, which might have been some sort of a delusion if it had not also been wearing a huge pair of glasses in addition to the reddest blaze of its mane and tail.

It could not possibly be a joke his new crew was pulling. That was the only possibility which floated to mind at the moment, but standing almost naked and soaking wet while holding a little pony under one arm was not conducive to coherent thought.

He sat the soggy little pony down on the grass at the edge of the pond and picked off a few strands of water weed. It did not help his state of mind. Despite the huge purple glasses, the little pony had a fascinated gaze that scanned him from top to bottom, making him suddenly self-conscious about having slept in his boxer shorts last night. “Let me get you a towel,” he blurted out, fumbling his feet into the discarded sandals and digging his towel out of the truck. “Where did you come from?”

“Mama alwayth thaid thhe found me under a cabbage leaf.” The little pony shook vigorously before taking the towel he handed over and starting to dry her glasses. “Did you thee the retht of my friendth?”

“No, I…” Nick blinked several times as he looked around the sky, his eyes finally making sense of the odd birds in the distance as horses with wings, circling in large loops and curves as if they were searching for something. It was weird enough to shut his mind down for a few moments as the little pony behind him excitedly lisped something about some huge dark monsters which had attacked their town during some ritual involving sunrise, treating the attack just as if she were describing a trip to the county fair.

A second motion over by the edge of the scrub brush at the other side of the pond caught his eye as a dark, shadowy creature much like the little pony was talking about paused at the top of the low hill, then began to gallop at full speed toward him. It certainly looked like some strange and hostile alien from this distance, about the size of a small horse, but with glossy violet armor plates wrapped around its pale grey coat and a featureless visor across where its eyes probably were, although weirdly enough it had a floppy hat perched on top of the helmet with a broad brim much like a black sombrero.

Nick was just wondering if the bizarre creature was going to dive into the pond too when it spread a huge pair of wings for its size and almost casually glided across the water directly in his direction. He took a step backwards and groped for a piece of firewood as the cyborg-dragon-horse swept nearer, grabbing the biggest chunk of wood he could find and bracing himself in front of the little pony he had just rescued. If this was one of the aliens who had attacked the little pony, he was going to be damned if he did not put up a fight.

Yesterday, I was commanding a twenty-first century fighting vehicle able to kill anything within sight, and now I’m a nearly naked black man with a club. This isn’t fair!

The weird hybrid pony slowed its skimming forward across the pond as it grew closer, eventually hovering over the shallow water with almost laconic strokes of its wings that—according to his knowledge of aerodynamics—could not have possibly held it up. It looked at him from under the sombrero, then craned its head to look behind him where the little pony was still cleaning her glasses and chatting away, and then it looked back at him again.

“Twist,” it called out in an extremely female voice, completely different than the robotic voice he had expected. “Are you safe?”

“Mith Gooth!” exclaimed the little pony, shoving her water-splattered glasses back onto her face and squinting. “I’m thafe now. Thith nith minotaur fithhed me out of the water. Where did Mith Twilght’th thpell put uth?”

“We’re supposed to be at the Manehattan emergency teleport beacon,” said the dark batwinged pony, still hovering casually over the edge of the pond. She eyed Nick again from under her dark sombrero before adding, “I think she missed.”

“Wait just a second,” said Nick, trying to resist a powerful urge to hold his hands over his boxer shorts. “What are you? Where did you come from? What’s going on?”

“Just one moment, sir.” The armored pony put one hoof up to her helmet and tilted back the visor, revealing a pair of big golden eyes with vertical pupils which were contracted to thin lines in the bright morning sunlight despite her broad-brimmed hat. “Sergeant Hardhooves, this is Wings. We’ve got a straggler. I just picked up Twist outside the perimeter by almost a furlong, so we’re probably going to have to increase the search area. Uh-huh. Yes, sir. No, sir.” She held up a hoof as Nick was about to interrupt. “She’s in the care of one of the locals, sir. Name of…”

“Nick,” he blurted out.

“Nick,” repeated the batwinged pony. Yes, sir. Copy and out.” Taking her hoof from the side of her helmet, ‘Wings’ looked at Nick with a brisk nod. “We appreciate your assistance, Nick. If you could rendezvous with the rest of the civilians about four or five furlongs that way—” Gooth waved a hoof vaguely in a westward direction “—and take Twist with you while I check out the perimeter for more stragglers, we’d appreciate it.”

“I’m not a civilian,” said Nick somewhat defensively, despite his near-total lack of uniform other than the army-issue boxer shorts. “Lieutenant Nicholas Comena, platoon leader for 4th Squad, Fourth Cavalry, Armored.”

The dark batwinged pony seemed impressed at that, with one eyebrow vanishing up into the shadows under her helmet and a sly smirk on her face. Still hovering, she saluted and snapped off in a military-precise voice, “Cadet Goose Down, Pegasus Trainee for the Royal Guard Academy, provisionary.” Goose gave a sharp nod at the end and a small smile for Twist. “You two had better head to the rendezvous point. Princess Twilight Sparkle will probably have a return portal set up by now.”

Nick found himself saluting back, because it was a thin thread of normality in a world gone suddenly crazy, although he used his other hand to cover something which the thin, wet boxer shorts were doing an insufficient job of concealing. “Let me grab my pants first, Cadet. Don’t want to show up there in only my underwear.”

This time the dark pegasus most definitely gave his wet boxer shorts a subtle glance, although there was nothing subtle about the brief lick of her lips and the sly wink afterwards.

“Why not?” she said. Then Goose turned and glided away across the pond, extending her legs like landing gear and resuming her rapid gallop once she was back on dry ground, which left Nick to stare until she vanished behind the trees.

Still, Nick put his ACU shorts on and his ‘Army Strong’ t-shirt before taking the damp young pony in the direction indicated, talking on his phone as he walked.


Author Notes


One of the joys of living in a city right next to Fort Riley is the artillery range. There’s a thick layer of limestone that goes right under the impact range (that’s where the artillery shells land when they’re practicing) and all the way under Manhattan, about a half-hour away or fifty seconds worth of acoustic travel along the rock plate. One of the things the fort does is practice what are called Time on Target barrages, in which *all* of the shells in a barrage blow up at the same time in order to catch the enemy troops out in the open. It’s a little distracting, particularly the first time your pictures rattle on the wall, but after a few years, you get used to it, even at 5 AM. At this very moment while I’m typing, the windows are rattling in my house because the fort got a new Paladin artillery system and they have to play with their toys. For the record (and measured on the map) I’m 37 miles away from the impact range. I hope they’re wearing earplugs.

(FYI: For those of you in California who get jittery when the earth moves and the pictures rattle, tough. We refer to the time between those events as ‘reloading.’)

Goose Down is an aged-up to late teens version of Luna’s Nocturne from Peter’s story, Jake and the Kid as well as the sequel, How To Train Your Batpony. She will be one of four Nocturne caught in the transdimensional portal accident along with Pumpernickel, Laminia and Stargazer, although you may want to count Laminia twice as she is newly pregnant (again) even while nursing Stargazer (which I looked up, and is not that odd of an occurrence in equines). Goose is indeed the odd duck, because… Well, you’ll see.

6. Volunteer Service

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Farmer Bruener Has Some Ponies
Volunteer Service

“Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, What are you doing for others?”
Martin Luther King, Jr.

- - - - ⧖ - - - -
Time: 8:05 A.M. Central Standard Time, June 19, 2015
Manhattan, Kansas
- - - - ⧖ - - - -

The annoying buzz of her iPhone dragged Claire up from a fuzzy dream involving being violated by an affectionate octopus, only to find it less than a dream. Krystol had her arms thrown over Claire’s shoulder, but her long, thin fingers were not reaching for anything on her body. They were reaching for her pillow, and the wallet concealed inside it.

It had happened before, and even though Claire was upset about her friend’s tendency to steal anything that was not nailed down to feed her habit, she was still a friend. A good friend, well-worth spending a day with her to help clean up before the landlord did an inspection, even though Claire had to provide the cleaning materials, the pizza, and most of the labor.

“Kris!” Claire rolled off the couch, taking the rolled-up pants she had been using as a pillow with her. “What did I tell you about getting into my wallet?”

“I wasn’t!” protested her friend. “I was just… turning off your phone.”

“Yeah, right.” Claire scooped her phone off the charger on the end table, checked her messages, then unrolled her pants with a brisk snap. They had made a good pillow when she fell asleep on Krystol’s couch, with the credit card wallet and cash on the inside where her friend would be unable to steal them, and more particularly, the Sneaky Pete holster and contents.

“Sorry, Krystol. I gotta go. It’s an emergency. Dad says he hit some girl on the swather, and they’re taking her to Memorial. Wants me to run over there. Look, if you need some money…”

Claire paused with her pants half-on to dig into one pocket and pull out her clip, peeling off a pair of twenties that only lasted an instant before the long, dark fingers of her friend plucked them away.

“Just to cover expenses,” said Krystol, stuffing the bills into the waistband of her panties.

As much as she wanted to comment on what drugs those ‘expenses’ covered, Claire kept her mouth shut until her pants were fastened and she had gathered up her stuff. Sparing a quick kiss on the cheek, she darted out the apartment door and unlocked her mountain bike with a few motions, then was pedaling fiercely on her way to the hospital. Thankfully, it was just a few blocks away, barely enough distance to get a good rhythm before she was flinging the bike into the rack and locking it down.

“Excuse me?” Walking in the emergency exit of the hospital, Claire caught the arm of a passing nurse and added, “Do you have a Bridget here? My dad hit her with a swather up in Randolph, and he wanted me to come over and make sure she was okay.”

“Oh!” The nurse held one hand up to her mouth as if Claire were some sort of celebrity. “We’ve got a half-dozen ambulances on the way from Randolph now. I’m not sure what’s going on, but it’s going to get very busy here in a few minutes. You may want to stand out of the way.”

Trying to imagine just how many kids her father could have hit with one piece of haying equipment, Claire countered with, “My father wanted me to see what I could do for the girl. I’ve taken the Introduction to Nursing course offered by Highland, so I could help, if you need me to. Since you’ve got so many ambulances coming in, that is.”

“Ahhh…” Catching the eye of a short Indian doctor, the nurse physically turned Claire and gave her a little push. “We’re really busy right now, but see if Doctor Putt has anyplace you can be helpful at.”

“Doctor Putt?” Turning to the doctor, who only came up to Claire’s admittedly short shoulders in the first place, she put on her best smile and gave him a brief bob of the head instead of shaking hands.

In clipped but precise enunciation, the doctor took her hand in a powerful grip and said, “My name is Doctor Singanluru Puttaswamaya Muthuraju, but I tell everyone just to call me Doctor Putt. It saves time.”

“I’m Claire,” said Claire, “but everybody calls me Claire. I take it Bridget isn’t here on the ambulance yet?”

“She should be here shortly,” said the doctor without stopping his progress toward the emergency room doors. “Nasty wound, from what I’ve heard on the radio. Nearly cut through her wrist, although the paramedics did not specify how much bleeding the injury caused, or what blood type the child had. I’ve got nurses finding the testing kits to cross-match her blood and orderlies scrambling to find more beds for the other patients they told us about, but what I don’t have is somebody to hold her other hand and reassure her. A friend of the family would be useful.”

“I can do that,” volunteered Claire, trying not to think of the babysitting sessions she had where ‘reassuring’ was the last thing her presence did to a screaming toddler. They held position at the doors for several minutes while the doctor passed on instructions to the nurses running by, then the ambulance pulled in, and everything started moving really fast.

The only thing Claire could do was try to stay next to the doctor when the blood-splattered gurney was pulled out of the ambulance and wheeled into the hospital. He was rattling off orders and the nurses were darting in all directions, but one huge thought occupied her head and scrambled her thought process by the time they had all gotten situated in the treatment room.

It’s a pink horse. It’s a sobbing, crying, panicked pink horse who keeps calling out for her mother.

“There, there,” whispered Claire into one of the horse’s ears. She had to hunch her back to bend over the gurney, and the hoof that she was holding had her hand in an unbreakable grip somehow, but the words seemed to calm the horse slightly. “What’s your name?” asked Claire for lack of anything else in her confused brain.

“Widget,” sobbed the little horse.

“I can’t find a vein in all this fur!” protested the nurse, running her fingers up and down the blood-splattered leg that was not bundled up in a gigantic white bandage.

“Horses don’t get IVs in their legs,” said Claire automatically, thinking of the time the veterinarian had visited their farm well over a decade ago. “You have to shave a patch on her neck to put the needle in. And are you sure that’s… horse-friendly?”

“Don’t want needle!” squalled the horse and a horn poking through the blood-matted mane on the front of her head glowed blue, much like the aura surrounding the IV kit the surprised nurse was holding. Claire reached out with one hand and grabbed the glowing horn, feeling a sharp but not unpleasant tingle travel up her arm while the light faded away.

“You have to let them give you an IV, sweetie,” said Claire firmly into the horse’s ear. “You’ve lost a lot of fluids. Just trust me, okay? Don’t be afraid.”

“Not afraid,” whined the little horse. “M’big pony.” The pony’s actions spoke louder than her quiet words when the tight grip she had on Claire’s hand only strengthened.

“Paramedics say they gave her two milligrams of morphine sulphate,” said the nurse who was shaving a patch on the horse’s neck, right back at her job despite the weirdness of the situation. “Doctor, do you think we should give her another milligram?”

“Hurtsss…” whined the little horse.

“It doesn’t seem to have caused an allergic reaction. One for now, be ready with a second if she’s still in pain,” said Doctor Putt. “Let’s get this arm… or leg immobilized so we can cut away the bandages and see what we’re working with.”

“Don’t leave,” moaned Widget, holding onto Claire’s hand with a powerful pinch between her hoof and foreleg. “Please, don’t leave.”

“Don’t worry,” said Claire. “I’ll be right here. I’m not going to leave you.”

- - - - ⧖ - - - -
Time: 9:15 A.M. Central Standard Time, June 19, 2015
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One of the advantages of retirement was supposed to be more free time and not being called into work on a moment’s notice. The call Lee Killough had gotten from KSU Vet Med pretty much put the end to her lazy Friday morning, and thankful that she still lived fairly close to her former employer, allowed her to pull into the campus parking lot just a few minutes later. She was fairly certain that she was going to get a ticket for parking there without a current permit, but the campus cop directing traffic did not seem bothered at all by it. Instead, he just waved her on into the half-full parking lot, which looked a lot more busy than any normal Friday during summer school. There was even an ambulance parked back in Equine Receiving, but not the large animal transport Vet Med had for moving horses or cows. It could only mean one of the animals had injured a staff member or student, which gave her a cold lump in her stomach due to the morning’s panicked phone call.

Lee had barely parked the car and started up the front steps of the building before being met by a young lady she recognized as a grad student back before her retirement. She was babbling too fast to be understood, but had the strength of the young and obviously knew what was going on by the way she practically dragged Lee through the familiar hallways of the Large Animal section of Mosier Hall. The sound of complaining came from ahead, growing louder when they burst into the Large Animal X-ray room to see a panicked huddle of students and faculty gathered around. The complaining of itself was not unusual, particularly when an animal disagreed with whatever the staff was trying to do and managed to fight back, but the complaining was coming from an equine patient, which seemed to be patently impossible. That is until Lee got a little closer and saw the small green pony, strapped down to a blue backboard with what appeared to be about a mile of white bandages. The little pony glared straight at her and talked.

“Another durned hooman? Ah’m tellin’ you, ah ain’t gonna let you use that durned contraption on mah hip, no way, no how! Get me out of this thing and get mah walker!”

The muddy pony, who was struggling fruitlessly against her bonds, drew Lee’s attention like a magnet. She was talking, actually talking! Lee walked right up to the little horse, violating all of the rules of equine handling, and knelt down beside her with a popping of old joints. “You’re talking,” she said in a near whisper.

“Yeah, it’s getting her to shut up that’s the problem,” mused one of the younger student assists behind her.

“Shut it, kid,” called Lee over her shoulder. Turning back to the pony, Lee said, “I’m sorry, Ma’am. He’s just a mouthy kid who doesn’t know how to treat his elders.”

“Humph!” snorted the wrinkled little pony. “Hoomins and ponies are a lot alike, I guess. So, is you the hoomin in charge of all this foolishness?”

“No, ma’am. I retired a few years ago, and got a call from one of my former students that she had a patient who was right up my alley. I’m Lee Killough, by the way.”

“Granny Smith, of the Ponyville Apples. You gonna get me outta this cocoon or do I need to turn into a butterfly first.”

One of the rattled staff flipped through a few sheets of paper behind Lee. “The paramedics said she supposedly had… Shear fractures on the upper fovea and scratching on her stifle bone, with loose pieces of bone in the area. There’s supposed to be a bunch of other ponies with lesser fractures being sent to hospitals all around the area. The paramedics said something about a….”

The hesitation swept through the surrounding crowd, as if none of them wanted to repeat rumors about their obviously alien guest. Lee rolled her eyes and turned back to Granny Smith.

“Miss Smith, do you know how you came here?”

“In that big ole’ wagon with the nice para-whozie-whatizits, of course. They said Princess Twilight accidentally sent us to this parallel dee-mension where all the cities got weird names, but I ain’t got time to lollygag around. I need you to dig me outta these bandages so I can get back. Princess Twilight’s probably got the return portal set up by now, and I got sewing circle in an hour.”

“Unless you’re not hurt as bad as the vet said, that’s not happening, Miss Smith. We’re going to have to take some pictures of your injury.”

One of the students behind Lee cleared his throat. “The old goat won’t let us get her into the x-ray unit, Miss Killough.”

Lee looked over the well-wrapped elderly pony, who had only one hoof free at the ankle. “You really have the staff terrified, Miss Smith.”

“Call me Granny.” The pony gave a harrumph of frustration, but she did sound more comfortable talking to somebody closer to her own age. “Bunch of crying little foals, if you ask me.”

Unable to keep from smiling, Lee gave the collection of embarrassed students and staff a quelling look. “Well, after we get their diapers changed, how about we get you onto the station and see about getting that hip of yours looked at. If you hold still, I’ll even see if one of the students can run and get you a cold apple juice while you wait. Does that sound acceptable?”

“Send the mouthy one,” responded Granny Smith almost instantly. “He looks like he could use some exercise.” With as little as the pony could shift inside the wrapped bandages, she still winced when trying to get comfortable. “Ah might need just a little something more to take some of the edge off the pain, though.”

It made sense, although this was the first time Lee had dealt with a patient who could talk back. “Okay kids, let’s get Chris in here and see if we can get Miss Smith… I mean Granny a little something to make her more comfortable without knocking her out. While we’re waiting, how about we get you up on the platform and I’ll have them bring the x-ray unit down so I can show you how it works.”

Suppressing a giggle, Lee added, “I’ve published books about alien races for longer than most of them have been alive, so I suppose I’m used to it by now.” She patted the elderly pony gently on the uninjured shoulder. “Welcome to Earth, Granny Smith. We’ll take good care of you.”

- - - - ⧖ - - - -
Time: 9:17 A.M. Central Standard Time, June 19, 2015
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Claire was tired beyond words, holding her awkward hunched-over position for what seemed like hours even though some friendly nurse had scooted a plastic chair next to her. It was a nice gesture, but she could not both sit down and still hold one arm over the unicorn’s head to brush at her blood-crusted mane, a caring touch which seemed to calm the young pony. Doctors and nurses had come and gone in a long stream, but every time one of the nurses suggested that Claire go somewhere else to get some rest, that desperate pressure on her hand increased and the young unicorn trembled. At some time, the bags of fluids had started to be replaced by red containers of whole blood, and the little gap in the doorway of the exam room that Claire could see out of showed colorful winged ponies hesitantly clattering past, some of which had bright white bandages against their necks indicating just where the blood donations had come from.

“Ah, there you are.” A golden-brown unicorn a little taller than Widget poked his nose into the crowded room, taking in the sight of the two doctors working on her leg with a worried expression. “Doctor Putt, I presume? I’m Doctor Stable. How’s our patient?”

The doctor in question looked back, took a brief moment to get acclimated to the species of the new physician, and responded, “Not good. We’ve managed to get some circulation back, but she needs to get to KU Med for microvascular reconstruction or she’ll lose the leg.”

“And this Kay Who Med is where?” asked the unicorn, seeming hesitant.

- - - - ⧖ - - - -
Time:12:05 P.M. Central Standard Time, June 19, 2015
- - - - ⧖ - - - -

A LifeStar helicopter could fit four passengers, or five if they were fairly light. Fortunately, Claire’s weight when added to a paramedic and two unicorns, one of whom was the patient, came in under the limit. Unfortunately, Claire had never been on a helicopter ride before, and after over an hour in the air fighting turbulence and a punishing noise that even the provided helmet did nothing but dampen, she never wanted to go flying again.

Still, she was doing better than the other two equine passengers, neither of which had a head the same shape as a human, thus making the helmets provided nearly useless. They did have foam earplugs, and Widget was so wacked out on morphine that Claire thought she could sit through a speed metal concert. She still had a tight grip on Claire’s hand, and whenever she thought her human teddy bear was going to get away, that strange hoof-clench was boosted by whatever stranger thing she was doing with her horn.

The landing at KU Medical was bumpy, but it was solid ground, filled with busy nurses and doctors who escorted their patient and the rumpled young lady still being dragged along at a good clip into the building. Somehow, Claire had managed to retain her backpack, most probably because the injured unicorn had not let go of her hand yet, but there was something very important that was becoming even more important with every step.

“Widget!” hissed Claire. “I gotta pee!”

“Pee?” The unicorn’s tight grip slackened. “You’ll come back, right?”

“Yes, yes! Just— thankyou!” Claire burst out running, following the pointing fingers of several of the nurses and heading down one of the featureless hallways of the hospital. It only took a few frantic minutes to find the aforementioned bathroom, a short time to do what one did in bathrooms, and when she came back out…

You are in a maze of twisty passages, all alike.

Heading off in the direction she thought was right turned out to be wrong, and asking directions only amplified the wrongness of her location. Eventually, Claire found a map and backtracked to the helipad in the hopes that she could just head in the direction they had last taken and have at least a small chance at finding where Widget had gone.

There was another LifeStar helicopter landing, and Claire stood back to allow the gurney and associated pushers, pullers, and walkers alongsiders to pass at a near jog. This patient appeared to be some sort of green wrinkled pony, like an apple than had been left out in the sun to dry, and to Claire’s amazement, was being followed by a fast-walking dark pony with wings.

Big honking wings.

Admittedly, Claire had not seen many ponies with wings other than brief glances back at Memorial Hospital in Manhattan, but those wings had all seemed undersized for the volume of the pony carrying them. This pony had a full set of membranous bat-like wings that were large enough to poke out behind him as well as cover his shoulders up to the neck. In addition, he was wearing a full set of glossy violet armor like some knight, complete with a helmet that had a darkened visor which must have functioned as sunglasses, topped with an odd, broad-brimmed hat much like a sombrero. Since they were most probably going the same place that Widget was going, Claire picked up her pace to walk alongside the dark pony, trying to ignore the astonished looks from the patients and staff they were passing, and said, “Hey.”

It was the only word she could think of at the time.

“Hey,” replied the pony in a stiff, controlled, and female voice, not slowing her brisk pace by one step. “Are you with the hospital?”

“Not… um… No. I came here with Widget.”

“I need to get a message back to my sergeant,” said the dark, winged pony. “I’m under orders to accompany Missus Smith to the physician’s office, but I’m out of range of the communication spell in the helmet and I’m really a long way away from anything in the manual and was that helicopter flying?”

The last word came out in a squeak barely louder than a mouse, far from the kind of voice that Claire expected. In fact, the pony had a very young voice, and sounded much like Claire imagined she might feel if stuffed through some sort of portal and dropped in the middle of a bunch of aliens.

All of the alien invasion movies she’d seen had terrifying aliens, not terrified ones. It tweaked her compassion, and Claire found herself walking next to the little winged alien horse thing, resting a hand on her trembling back. “Don’t worry,” she murmured. “Did your ship crash by my dad’s farm?”

“It’s not an airship,” said the pony in short, clipped syllables. “It was an evacuation spell that went wrong and dumped us out over the farm. Princess Twilight Sparkle probably has the return portal up by now, but Missus Smith is hurt really bad. Broke her hip in the landing, and I’ve been ordered to stay with her.”

It was a lot for Claire to take in at once, but there was something obvious she could do to help. She dug out her cell phone while walking along with the strange pony, behind the collection of nurses, doctors and whatever else clustered around the hospital gurney. Missus Smith, whoever that was, seemed well attended, and her father’s phone was busy when she called, so an alternative was needed.

“Miss… what is your name?” Claire fumbled with her phone while the dark pony gave her a quick sideways glance from under the brim of her broad sombrero.

“Cadet Goose Down.” Goose gave a nervous flick of her immense wings, which made a stiff breeze move down the hospital corridor before she continued in a rapid patter. “On loan from the Academy to the Household Regiments, assigned to Princess Luna’s personal detachment as her personal command. I was the covering staff member for Hoofmaiden Laminia while she was indisposed due to maternity issues, and have not yet been reassigned.” Goose’s rigid shoulders tensed up more and she glanced from side to side as they passed through a connecting corridor. “Do you think this will reflect badly on my record?”

“D-o-w-n,” said Claire while typing on her phone. “Smile.” She poked the camera button when the dark pegasus looked back, then resumed typing. “I texted mom, and she’ll pass it on to whoever else you’ve got back there, unless mom and dad both forgot about me. Dad didn’t text me once, and nothing’s on voicemail. Now, let’s go find the other ponies in the hospital before Widget freaks out.”

7. Communication Issues

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Farmer Bruener Has Some Ponies
Communication Issues

“With more than 50 years as a journalist, I have at least had the opportunity to blow more stories, make more mistakes than maybe anybody in television.”
Dan Rather

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Time: 9:35 A.M. Central Standard Time, June 19, 2015
Bruener Farm, Randolph Kansas
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By the time Jon made his way back to the house, it was buzzing with activity. Ponies were everywhere. It was understandable since he had pointed them in this direction to get a glass of water or use the bathroom, but with hundreds of the colorful quadrupeds around the farm, it was getting a little surreal. And less than a step into his house, it got surreal-er.

“Mister Bruener!” A tall man with a short-cut mop of curly hair sprang up from the kitchen table and advanced with his hand held out in front of him. “Governor Brown. We just got in a few minutes ago, and the mayor has been filling us in on the situation.”

Jon shook the proffered hand, of course, but could not see Randolph’s mayor anywhere in the room. There was a grey-haired older mare who was shuffling through some papers, and since only a politician could possibly get dropped naked on an alien planet and immediately find paper to shuffle, he turned and nodded with a polite, “Madam Mayor.”

“Mayor Mare,” she said with a terse nod in return. “Specialist Grace,” she continued, nodding at an emerald-green unicorn mare with a short-cropped mane beside her. “And Spike the dragon,” she finished, looking down at the end of the table where—

Jon blinked. Admittedly, he had been overexposed to a torrent of winged, horned, and bare ponies in a multitude of colors over the last two hours, but this was most certainly not a pony. For starters, it was bipedal and using a clawed hand to hold a ‘Bruener Seeds - For all your planting needs’ pen while scratching away on a piece of paper. The pale purple shade of his skin was not unusual, in recent context, but the pebbled tint to it indicated he was covered in scales, of all things, and the thin green frills on his head made him look adorable, quite unlike Smaug.

“Just about done… and there,” said the dragon, finishing off the line with a flourish and passing the paper over to the unicorn, who examined it briefly and passed it on to Jon. “A complete census of the Equestrians who we’ve been able to find so far. Complete, as far as we know, but we’ll have to send it back to Princess Twilight for validation against any ponies missing there to make sure we haven’t lost one.”

The paper looked like hash, with scribbled dashes and symbols that he could not make heads or tails out of, and neither could the governor when Jon passed it over.

“Translation spell,” said the unicorn, who had one of his seed company pens held in her magic and was scribing away on another sheet of blank paper. “Starswirl the Bearded incorporated a dimensional compensation section to all of his portal spells. It gives the portal traveler an image of the destination linguistic capacity and incorporates it into the subconscious language center of the brain. I’m making a translated list for you now,” Grace added. “Unless you want me to cast the translation spell on you, so you can read it before we send it on.”

“Um… I’ll pass. My brain has been battered enough today. Just a minute.” He stepped into the cramped room next door where his office lurked and ran a few quick copies on the printer. “Here you go, Governor Brown. Mayor. Spare copies for you. Um… Governor?”

“Oh!” The governor looked up from the page of incomprehensible scribblings. “Yes?”

Jon wanted to ask what he was doing there, but then again, if Jon was the governor and heard about a herd of extradimensional ponies visiting just an hour’s drive away, and had the Kansas Highway Patrol as a bodyguard…

“How was the trip down from Topeka?” he asked instead.

“Fast.” The governor grinned. “The Highway Patrol wanted to make this trip pedal to the metal and lights flashing, but we just nudged the speed limit a little so we could do some work on the way here. My aide is in the other room on the phone, trying to keep the state from falling apart while I’m out and about. There’s a few patrol officers up by Highway 24 directing traffic with the Ft. Riley MPs, and the last ambulance left about ten minutes before you showed up here. All we have left for emergency personnel are RCPD and some of the fire trucks. I’m supposed to liaison with the Army base commander when he arrives, but there’s been some problem with communication. He should be here shortly.”

The pony mayor had a pensive expression of worry while she tapped on several pieces of paper in front of her. “Governor Brown assures me that our citizens are being well cared for and they will be returned as soon as they’re ready to travel, which is good. Princess Twilight will have the return portal up soon, and I want to make sure everypony here gets through it as soon as possible, even if she has to make a second casting later to get everyponyelse home safely.”

“What about the…” Jon tried to think of how best to phrase what the ponies had been telling him about a ‘swarm of shadow creatures which had taken over Ponyville’ in a way that would not make him sound crazy.

The mayor shook her head. “There were four princesses in our town for the Raising of the Sun ceremony. Even if the shadow monsters were resistant to magic, they were certainly overmatched. Their taking us hostage was an act of desperation. By now they’ve been defeated, so we’ll be back home and dealing with repairing the damage shortly.”

“Since the original portals—” Governor Brown paused with a peculiar expression, as if the governor of a state was unused to saying ‘portals’ in his official capacity, but he picked up quickly “—showed up here, Specialist Grace speculated that any return portal will show up here too, since it would be easier to anchor in this location. If everything goes as expected, they’ll be gone by noon except for a few of the ponies who had been more severely injured. Those, we’ll have to watch over for a while, but they should be able to be picked up in a week or two without incident.”

Jon rubbed his stubbly chin. Getting out to the field early this morning had been more important than shaving or showering, and after having been splattered with blood, all he really wanted to do was take a shower. “If so, the human crazies won’t have enough time to get all worked up about an alien invasion, and the lookie-loos won’t get here until it’s all over. I’ll still have to charge for tours of the alien landing site and chase nuts out of my milo fields for a few years, I suppose. Still, you’re all welcome to stay here as long as you need to.”

“I’m more worried about finding enough bathrooms,” said the pony mayor. “Three in this house and one next door with over a hundred mares.”

“We should be good there for the short term,” said Jon. “I called Pastor May and he’s got a few friends from our RV club bringing their units over, in addition to however many porta-potties Riley County Emergency Management brings. How many ponies are we talking about for the next few hours?”

“Two hundred and forty three,” said Grace without looking up from her writing for a moment, although she backtracked somewhat immediately after. “That’s a grand total, of course, including the two griffons, the changeling, and discounting the duplicated report we had of Sweetie Belle.”

“And me,” said Spike.

“And Spike.” Grace looked up from her writing, used her magic to lift the census out of Jon’s hands, and passed it to the dragon.

Governor Brown spoke up while Spike was rolling the paper up and tying with a piece of red ribbon. “Between Randolph, Ft. Riley, and Manhattan Emergency Management, we should have plenty of restroom facilities and cots, in the worst case. The Randolph mayor is coordinating with the local churches, and most of the younger ponies are are over at the Methodist vacation bible school.” The governor paused and pinched the bridge of his nose. “That’s going to drive the atheists crazy, but it was the closest spot with facilities for the thirty or forty little ones and parents.”

Jon nodded, then passed a look between the two ponies and the dragon. “So how often do you visit other dimensions?”

“Actually, if you don’t count fighting that Tantabus monster in the Dreamscape, it’s the first one for me,” said the pony mayor.

“Second,” said Grace, still writing. “Graduate school. Minor accident during finals.”

Spike the dragon was looking up at the ceiling, counting on his claws. “Do you count time-related paradox desolate worlds split off from the main timeline when a unicorn bent on vengeance goes back in time repeatedly to prevent a series of events which are the only way to save Equestria? If so, I think twenty-three, although at least I’m not a dog in this world.”

“He’s Princess Twilight Sparkle’s assistant,” said Grace before Jon could ask.

“Her number one assistant,” corrected Spike.

“I…” Jon paused, then shook his head and turned for the bedroom. “Let me get a shower and shaved.”

- - - - ⧖ - - - -
Time: 10:05 A.M. Central Standard Time, June 19, 2015
- - - - ⧖ - - - -

After he had grabbed some clean clothes and returned from the ‘mud-room’ shower in the basement (passing several ponies waiting in line), the oddity of the situation had not changed much. The Army had arrived, in the persona of General Hackmore with an additional SUV of MPs and a sense of military frustration that Jon had gotten quite used to during his four years in the service several ages ago.

After a brief introduction around the table, Jon excused himself to get a cold soda for each of the ponies and people gathered around his dining room table, and a beer for himself. He, at least, was not on-duty, and needed it.

“What took you so long?” quipped Jon once a hole opened up in the ongoing conversation, and he had taken a first swig of his beer. “In the movies, the Army has tanks at the scene of the alien landing in about five minutes, followed by men in dark suits and politicians.”

“I’ll have you know one of my best tank commanders was at the landing,” said the general with a bit of a smug smile. “Fished one of the little ponies out of a pond and has been out with the sorting and recovery effort for two hours now. Had the little thing practically land in his arms.” A twinge of pain wiped out the general’s smile. “Captain Rietz tells me the pony hit by the swather is going to be fine. They’ll be medevaced to KU Med along with Missus Apple, for surgery, but it doesn’t sound life-threatening. You did a good job stabilizing her and calling for an ambulance.”

“Army training, sir. I was in 21st TSC, 1st Armored in Germany back in the late 70’s. We… um… had a lot of traffic accidents.”

“Good answer, too. Army’s changed a lot since then. We’ve got all these newfangled gizmos.” He held up what looked like a blackberry with a color screen, only with a cable and a fat external battery. “Didn’t take mine today since I was golfing and my second had things under control. Then I get news that your guests—” he nodded to the ponies at the table, who nodded back “—had landed. Half-hour later, I’m on the way here when I get a call on my unsecured phone requiring me to go back to Ft. Riley to get my SMEPED.” He rattled off the familiar acronym as Smeeped, which made Jon chuckle.

“Let me guess. The battery was flat.”

“As a stone. No place to charge it inside the vault. So I steal a charging cord from one of the tech weenies and a battery pack from their video games, and check my ultra-secure have-to-have-a-SCIF-before-reading message.”

“Let me guess again,” said Jon. “Something on the order of ‘Treat the situation carefully and avoid conflict’ I would presume. Oh, and ‘Take no action without authorization’ is a must.”

“Close, but too long.” General Hackmore cleared his throat. “Paraphrased, it was ‘Await further instructions.’”

Jon chuckled. The governor had a short coughing fit into his fist and turned a little pink. The jade-green unicorn writing on a sheet of paper merely looked up with an expression of bored indifference.

“So, had this been some sort of alien invasion, your world’s guards would be just as ineffective as ours, until whatever princess you have here fights back?”

“No princesses here,” said Hackmore, deflecting the question as expertly as Jon could have expected from a military commander with an armored division of several thousand men including artillery and helicopters just a few minutes away. “Excluding a few D.C. residents with delusions of nobility.”

“Then who raises your sun?” asked the unicorn.

The general started to reply, hesitated, then very carefully repeated, “Raises our sun?”

Grace nodded, although her expression tightened into something approaching caution. “In Equestria, Princess Celestia raises the sun every morning to bring on the day, and Princess Luna raises the moon at night. Seriously,” she added at Hackmore’s blank stare. “Are you telling me that your world’s sun raises itself?”

Ten minutes later after several short YouTube videos had been shown, the dense cluster of ponies around the table all had a look about them as if they had been dropped into a shark tank by accident. To make matters worse, the dragon took that moment to belch, complete with green flames, smoke, and a rolled-up scroll. While Jon took the battery out of the beeping smoke detector, Spike unrolled the missive and began to read.

“Spike. No ‘Dearest’ or anything.” He sighed and continued reading. “Unclassified dimensional beings… Huh, I thought they were shadow monsters. Oh, well, they were beaten. A paragraph on that. Here we go. Received your letter and checked against the attendance list. It appears we have all ponies and griffons accounted for. And your number one assistant,” Spike added. “Anyway, blah, blah, return portal may be delayed, differences in the long and complex blah something about time differences between here and there, and she doesn’t want to goof it up in front of Princess Celestia. She doesn’t really say that, but it’s pretty much a given. And… three days here in your world, it looks like, if she’s guessing the time factor correctly. Cool. Not much time to see the sights, but it’ll have to do.”

“No, by tomorrow, K-77 will be backed up to the Nebraska border,” said General Hackmore. “We’ll have to helicopter everything in and out.”

“Do you think having RCPD put up about ten miles of ‘No Parking’ signs would help?” said Captain Rietz, who had been remarkably quiet until now.

“And fifty tow trucks,” said the general. “Or one Hercules, if it could squash the cars and stack them like pancakes.” He shook his head. “I suppose not. Signs will have to do.”

Samantha Rietz typed with her thumbs on her phone while talking. “I’ll get the signs started going up today, and put a dozen tow trucks from the area on duty. That should take care of most of the rubberneckers.” She started to say something else, but after a quick look at the nervous ponies, held it back.

“Security,” said Grace in her stead. “If the townsponies don’t feel secure, things will get out of control, fast. The pegasi will scatter to the five winds, and what’s left will run around in circles and panic.”

“It’s not that bad,” objected Mayor Mare, only to pause and admit, “Well, yes.”

“It’s bad enough the Army’s moving in. I don’t want to turn your farm into an armed camp, Mister Bruener.” General Hackmore considered his quiet SMEPED, but Jon removed a framed map of the farm from the wall and put it down in the middle of the dining room table before he could say any more.

“You don’t have to bring down the whole division, sir. Just enough to show the flag and keep the civilians back for a few days. I’d take a platoon of M1s and put one here, here… Give me that bowl of candy, please. Okay, the M1s are Lifesavers, M3s are wedding mints, and MPs in Humvees are these red things that nobody likes. There’s only one highway entrance to this area, so park an M1 at the top of the hill on the utility road for intimidation factor, out of sight from the highway so people don’t rubberneck and rear end each other. One at the bottom of the hill by the farmhouse to handle anything that gets by. Duplicate that on the dirt road by the pasture where the RVs are parked, and spot sentry posts on these high points. Make sure to pick vehicles with new paint jobs, because the press is going to be all over, and the least we can do is give the Army some PR.”

Samantha craned her head over the map and got out some pennies. “We’ll probably have to put up a temporary traffic signal at the Randolph main street turnoff, since there are so many ponies in town now. We’ll put traffic control points at the three highway exits that we can swap between MPs and RCPD as needed, and restrict access to residents and invited guests. That should handle traffic in town. Now for your house, we’re going to have to shut off access to the Tuttle Creek off-road vehicle area.”

“No argument here,” said Jon. “Those guys pulling trailers go blasting by the house too fast as is. Do you think we can get that gravel road paved to cut down on the dust?”

“That’s not my area,” said the police officer, “and it would take the Second Coming of Christ to get the highway department’s asphalt machines out here on this short a notice. Anyway, the dirt back road between your farm and the town is going to be a security nightmare, so I’ll cut off vehicle traffic except for emergency vehicles and ponies. Thank God you don’t live on the highway. We can put a RCPD checkpoint at the highway entrance to your farm to chase off unauthorized vehicles and send them down the service road toward town. General, if you can put one of your MP units over here in this draw, you can catch the trespassers who get turned away at the checkpoint and decide to try sneaking in anyway. You bust ‘em, we’ll cuff ‘em.”

“You mentioned helicopters, General Hackmore.” Grace floated several buttons over the map. “Is there any way you can keep them from flying over the farm? Our pegasi may not be familiar with your kind of aerial craft, and may be injured.”

“As governor, I can designate an emergency no-fly zone for endangered species through KDWP,” said Governor Brown. “It may not stop people from flying over, but we can fine them until their ears bleed.”

There was a brief pause, and four people produced cell phones to take a quick picture of the colorful map, the general using both his personal phone and his SMEPED.

After they all spent some time clicking away in silence on their phones and considering the map, Governor Brown checked his phone and said, “Looks like WIBW will be here in less than an hour. Mayor Mare, did you want to restrict the press contact to a pool of just two or three vehicles? Otherwise, you could have a hundred of them out here. One at a time is about all anybody should have to deal with, and WIBW has the satellite equipment to use for any other news agencies. They’ll share if they have to. They’ll whine about it like little children, but they’ll share.”

“One vehicle should be enough, although if you need to bring in one of those satellites for the newspapers, we can park it somewhere, I suppose.” The pony mayor adjusted her white collar and tie, which had gotten a few grass stains and wrinkles on it, but still looked fairly good. “Our news reporters always get so many things wrong. I swear half the morning paper is made up of corrections and the other half made up.”

“Hm…” Governor Brown checked his phone again. “We really should call local radio first since KMAN has a call-in show running right now, but if you’re up to doing a bigger radio interview before WIBW gets here, I may have a way of getting your story out unfiltered before the national news media goes crazy.”

8. Mass Media

View Online

Farmer Bruener Has Some Ponies
Mass Media

“If we were to do the Second Coming of Christ in color for a full hour, there would be a considerable number of stations which would decline to carry it on the grounds that a Western or a quiz show would be more profitable.”
Edward R. Murrow

- - - - ⧖ - - - -
Time: 9:03 A.M. Pacific Standard Time, June 19, 2015
Olympic Golf Club, California
- - - - ⧖ - - - -

“Three weeks until my KMA time.” Senior USSS Agent Conner O’Malley kept driving the cart down the smooth pathways of the golf course to their position downwind of the tee, where he stopped with a practiced look around the course and the other Secret Service agents in their assigned spots. “Been doing this since the Clintons, and this is as far up the career ladder as I’ve gotten. Why do you think that is?”

The newly assigned agent in the other seat looked blank for a moment, but kept his voice down as he replied, “I really couldn’t say, sir.”

That is why you’re going up past me in record time. And don’t call me sir when it’s just the two of us. I’ll be retired from here and doing background checks for the government in D.C. in a few months. Look me up and I’ll buy you a beer, as long as you never call me sir in private again.”

The other agent sucked on his bottom lip for a moment before venturing, “I still don’t understand… Conner.”

“You have great scores, good empathy, by the book reflexes, and just enough flaws that the higher-ups will have no problem promoting you, if you make one change. Remember, tallest dandelion gets the lawnmower.” The two agents remained silent while one member of the presidential foursome took a brisk swing at the golf ball and hit it far down the fairway.

Conner flicked his eyes back and forth across the convivial group of golfing politicians, then spoke almost without moving his lips. “I figure we’ve got about ten minutes with the way they’re arguing, Anthony. Give me your phone. No, your personal phone,” added Agent O’Malley when the Secret Service officer reached for his waist.

“I keep it in my pocket while I’m on duty,” said Agent Washington, “and on vibrate for critical calls. We’ve got a newborn—”

“I know, Tony. Oh, two changes, now that I think of it. First, you need to set a lock for your personal iPhone,” said Conner as he opened the leatherette case. “And second—” He pointed to an application.

“Hey, don’t take away my Limbaugh, man,” said Anthony with a brief chuckle, low enough that there was no chance his voice would carry to the politicians at the distant teebox. “Sometimes he’s the only thing that keeps me sane in D.C.”

“I’m not criticizing your choice in political talk shows,” said Conner. “God only knows the service has agents from every corner of the political spectrum. Worked with one a few years ago who wouldn’t shut up about Bernie off-duty, and we got along just fine. My super when I started was a crusty old dinosaur Repub from the Reagan era who got hit by a lamp during the Clinton years, but never skimped on his job. We’re all professionals here.”

He closed the phone case and handed it back, then pulled out his own personal phone, unlocked it, and opened a sub-folder where an identical icon resided. “You don’t have to ditch 24/7. Just don’t put it on your front page, and always use earbuds when listening off-duty.” A single tap opened the application and the low beats of ‘My City Was Gone’ came out of the iPhone speakers, quickly lowered in volume in order not to disturb the distant golfers.

“You’re a dittohead too?” asked Anthony, giving his fellow USSS agent a gentle poke in the shoulder.

“That’s why my career came to a screeching halt seven years ago.” Conner shrugged. “I was listening off-duty, somebody threw a fit, a note got put in my record, and that was it. Most everyone at the agency is pretty flexible about what you believe and who you listen to, as long as you keep your mind on the job. Still, there are always assholes hiding in the bushes waiting for something, anything they can use against you.”

As both agents were scanning across the golf course for threats at the time, the irony was fairly low.

“I know, man,” said Anthony. “I can’t listen to Rush at the relatives or they go ballistic.”

“And the agency is just like family, only more… specific,” said Conner. “Outside, it’s more like a war zone. Cross the wrong political appointee, get caught expressing an opinion they don’t like, and they will move heaven and earth to get you gone, not just out of the service, but from any Federal job you might want after.”

“You’ve heard about my Catholic in-laws, I see,” said Anthony. “They’re— wait a second.” He looked down at the screen where a tiny image of the Kansas governor and a smaller horse looked back. “Turn that up a little.”

...as you know, it’s my policy on the EIB network not to do interviews or plug books except in extremely special circumstances. Well, since it’s open line Friday, and there seems to be a unique circumstance, I’m making an exception to my rule, but only for visitors from another planet. On the line with me and on the Dittocam by Facetime, I have Governor Brown from Kansas, and a very special visitor from Equestria, I believe you said?

Yes, I did, Rush. And I’d like to first thank you for letting us on your show. I know this sounds a little nuts, and I’ll admit I really didn’t believe our extraterrestrial pony visitors at first either, like Mayor Mare here.

Thank you, Governor. To be honest, I never thought I would meet a human either. They’re a great deal more friendly than I expected, Mister Rush. Governor Brown has provided a great deal of assistance, and so have all the other humans we’ve met since we arrived. For me, I’m just glad to be able to go on the radio again to explain our situation and help smooth any interactions before we go home in a few days.

I’m glad to hear that, Mayor Mare. Tell me, what brought you to Kansas instead of visiting somewhere a little closer to my home town of Cape Girardeau or even taking a tourist trip to Florida?

Well, we really didn’t have much of a choice. Princess Twilight Sparkle made a simple mistake with an evacuation portal spell for the town, which I’m assured will be reversed in a few days…

Both agents sat in silence while listening, their habitual scanning across the greens for invading ninjas or terrorists suppressed by the fantastic image of First Radio Contact. It lasted until the commercial break where Anthony let out a long, “Sheeeeit. If that’s a prank, it’s legendary. Little green men with hooves for realsies.”

“That explains the aide who came scurrying up at the last hole and got sent home with his tail between his legs,” murmured Conner once he had closed the 24/7 application. “Probably had a preliminary report and didn’t have the right paperwork to back it up.”

“So…” Anthony eyed the golf foursome, which was headed back to their carts for the trip down the fairway.

“So we head to our next station,” said Conner. “Where we sit while they golf until another aide shows up to talk with the president. Then we’ll probably head back to Home Plate.”

“Ah.” Anthony watched his partner put the golf cart into gear and begin to guide it down the path. “Wouldn’t do for the help to know what’s going on before the boss, I suppose.”

“Hush, newbie,” chided Conner before toggling his microphone. “Bowtie Five, heading to midpoint of Hole Seven. Status green.”

“Rodger, Bowtie Five. Out.”

“Wonder what Kansas is going to be like,” mused Anthony.

“Hot, dry, and full of wheat, I suppose.” Once they reached their next station, Senior Agent Connor O’Malley propped his trim black shoes up on the dash of the golf cart for a moment and stretched in the warm California sunshine. “Guess we’ll find out for sure. Wanted to see an alien on this job before I retired anyway. I just always thought they’d land on the White House lawn.”

- - - - ⧖ - - - -
Time: 11:30 A.M. Central Standard Time, June 19, 2015
Bruener Farm, Randolph Kansas
- - - - ⧖ - - - -

“Whew.” Mayor Mare sagged into the tall-backed dining room chair and cast a longing look at Jon Bruener, who was holding the pitcher of iced tea. Following the unspoken cue, it only took him a few minutes to pass over a tall glass of tea for the tired mayor, as well as one for the governor and one for himself.

He stopped himself before pouring a glass for Spike, who had gone outside with the radio intern from the WIBW radio station, a pleasant young fellow with a smile for everyone. Dragon and human had each given a quick wave over the shoulder before hustling to the vehicle to upload the interview with the Equestrian to his office. The kid seemed more than happy that colorful little alien horses from another dimension were not a delusion or some kind of hoax, and had accepted talking horses and a dragon, which spoke quite well of his prospects in radio over the next few days.

In a few minutes, the intern and Spike would return with a camera from his van for a video interview, which would be shown on the local Kansas channels later. That left a few moments of relative privacy for the the human farmer and governor, who had been very quiet while watching the pony giving the radio interview.

“So, Mister Bruener,” started Mayor Mare. “Three radio interviews in under an hour. That’s pretty good for Equestria. How many radio stations do you have here anyway?”

“Oh…” Jon looked up from his cell phone, which had not quit buzzing yet and was showing triple digits in the unreturned calls alerts, as well as a scrolling list of text messages. “A few thousand in the US, I guess.”

The governor spoke up. “Most of them will just use clips out of your first few interviews anyway. And I’ll bet CNN will want one of their own exclusively for the international market.”

“Thousand?” The mayor blinked several times very slowly. “How many humans was I talking to on the radio just now, Governor Brown?”

“KMAN was just Manhattan, so a couple hundred thousand at most. WIBW covers north-east Kansas, so maybe a million listeners there. Three million in the state, once the interview get re-run on all of the stations.”

“Oh.” The mayor swallowed a sip of tea with great effort. “Million?”

“Yeah,” said Jon, who was still trying to clear off his missed call list and was swiping while talking. “Rush has got about twenty million listeners live, so you’re probably over the worst of it.”

“Twenty…” The mayor put her nose down in her iced tea and took several large gulps before coming up for air. “How many humans are on your world, anyway?”

Jon shrugged. “Seven billion or so. CNN will reach most of them. They’ll edit your interview so it looks good, and probably play it world-wide for the next month. It should go fine now that you’ve got the basics of interviewing for the radio down cold. Where are you from, how long do you expect to be here, what have you found the most interesting thing about our world so far, that kind of stuff. You just need to smile on camera. Shouldn’t be an issue. The first responders must have posted about a million videos on YouTube and Facebook by now, and they’re all sorts of adorable. I’m just glad the RCPD is up at the Methodist church watching over the kids or you’d have people trying to smuggle them away. Particularly that cute little unicorn. Mayor?”

Jon turned around to see the mayor over at the glassed-in bar at the side of the dining room, trying the latch. “Tell me you have brandy in this world,” she said in a bare whisper. “Please.”

He rationed her to only two shots, and one for himself. After all, he wanted to save space for lunch.

- - Ω - -

Vera was used to loony nuts at the West Loop Pizza Hut in Manhattan, but mostly later in the evening when the bars were about to close. Thankfully, closing time in Aggieville was half a town and half a day away, and business was doing just fine without having to deal with drunk students today. She was a little short-handed because Claire had texted her about being in Kansas City with some sort of injured horse, which was at least better than most of the waitstaff and their numerous dead grandmothers for an excuse.

Then she spotted the nut.

A tall, lanky fellow came striding in the front door of the restaurant as if he owned the place, with some sort of livestock dressed in fake black armor trailing along behind him. She wiped her hands and came bolting out of the kitchen, her face set in the most discouraging expression she could manage as she barked out, “Hey! You there! Take that creature outside!”

Both human and armored horse-thing looked back at her, then the short green horse spoke.

“I assure you, he’s fully housebroken. Isn’t that right, Governor Brown?”

“Ruff.” The man grinned at the exact moment Vera recognized him from the political advertisements a few years ago. “Sorry to disrupt your operations, Ma’am, but Officer Grace here has been stranded here in Kansas with a few hundred of her fellow ponies, and we were wanting to order out for lunch. Officer?”

The horse’s horn glowed a pale green under her curly red hair and she looked as if she were concentrating, or perhaps counting under her breath. “Nothing seriously contrary to an Equestrian diet in the kitchen, sir, except a preponderance of meat products, and a little more grease than our digestive systems can handle. There is a bag of mushrooms in the cooler a week past its expiration date, and one of the soda canisters in the storage room has a slow leak that should be cleaned up, but other than that, this establishment appears to be suitable.”

“Good.” The governor passed over a sheet of paper that looked as if it had been scribbled on in the car, with a series of pizza orders on it. “If you can get those started, we were going to make a side-trip to Dillon’s for some vegetable shopping while you’re working. I’ve got a few volunteers to get everything shuttled up to Randolph as they’re done. We’ve got a number of first responders who need to be fed, and some hungry visitors I’d like to show real Kansas hospitality.” Still smiling, he took out his wallet and passed over a credit card. “On me.”

To be a manager at Pizza Hut, you had to be quick on your feet. No two days were exactly the same, and this was an exceptional circumstance that rose above all the rest. An alien, a real alien standing right there beside the governor of the state, which were two completely different creatures that she had never thought she would encounter, together. Her heart was beating almost as fast as it could, although her mind raced through chains of possibilities even faster.

“Oh, no,” said Vera in a move that would earn her a special commendation from the home office a week later. “This one is on the company, Governor Brown. Officer Grace. Um…” Her hand crept forward despite Vera’s best efforts and touched the unicorn on the top of her head, which after a quick rolling of the eyes, Grace reciprocated by rubbing her horn up against Vera’s hand.

“Ohgoodgosh,” she gushed. “You’re so fuzzy! And the horn is real!”

Grace gave a subdued grunt and allowed her ears to be scratched. “Just as long as you wash those hands before you make the pizzas,” she admitted grudgingly. “And scratch a little lower. Yes, right there.”

- - - - ⧖ - - - -
Time: 12:30 P.M. Central Standard Time, June 19, 2015
KU Medical Center, Kansas City
- - - - ⧖ - - - -

Vascular Microsurgery was not exactly a common occupation for a doctor. It took steady nerves, a delicate touch on the equipment, and the ability to tie a dry fly in under a minute. Well, the last was more of an option than a requirement, but Louis Schwartz believed it helped. There was supposed to be a football player undergoing arthroscopy in Surgery Two right now, but aliens from some other dimension ran right to the top of the priority list, and from the look of the little pony’s ankle, it might not matter. Thorough irrigation and antiseptic cleaning had removed the vast majority of foreign material, while forced clotting had stopped the pony from bleeding to death, and two precious pints of whole blood supposedly its type were in the operating room, but…

“Look at all those fine ligaments and capillaries,” mused Doctor Schwartz to his assisting physician. “It’s more like the palm of a human’s hand than a horse. I don’t know if we’ll be able to restore enough blood circulation to save the hoof. The sooner we start trying the better, I suppose. I don’t think we can afford to wait on that vet.”

“Coming, coming.” The thump and rattle of another person coming into the operating theatre clashed with the muffled clatter of hooves on the floor, and Louis felt a little shock go through his chest at the sight of another horse-like creature, dressed in trimmed booties and taped-down scrubs, stride confidently up to his side. “Doctor Schwartz, I presume?”

“Doctor Stable?” Louis would have shaken hands/hooves out of reflex, but that would have put him back into scrubbing up again. Instead, he looked between the mostly-underutilized machine and the undersized pony physician. “Uh, I don’t think we have a set of eyepieces your height.”

“Oh, don’t be silly. I brought my own table.” Lighting up his horn with a pale blue light, a draped surgical table on wheels obediently rolled over next to the pony patient, and the doctor jumped up on top of it with one swift hop. “There we go. Be a good boy and push that headset over here, please.”

Glancing down at the patient showed a similar cranial horn that the human doctor had missed the first time he had examined the unicorn patient, since he had been so focused on the gaping wound on the creature’s foreleg. It took a little bit of adjusting for Doctor Stable—

It’s a unicorn. I’m sharing the operating room with a unicorn. What’s next, a elf?

—to get his eyes up to the lenses and focus them for his differently shaped head. Giving out a low whistle, the equine doctor moved the eyepieces back and forth slightly with a faint glow from his horn.

“I didn’t have a tool like this back in Ponyville, or over in Manehattan,” said Doctor Stable. “You can get right next to the wound and see what needs fixing, can’t you?”

“Y-yes, it has been quite useful in my field.” Doctor Schwartz put his eyes up to the headpiece on his side and began manipulating the first set of remote forceps, giving a short summary of the upcoming operation, along with the difficulty of getting all of the damage repaired. “Arterial anastomosis should be our first priority in order to prevent post-surgical degradation of tissue, while—”

“Just a moment.” The unicorn doctor’s horn glowed again, and Doctor Schwartz felt a momentary tingling across his balding head, as if he had suddenly been run over by a swarm of feathery ants. “<There, that’s better,>” continued the pony in Hebrew. “Oh, wait,” added Doctor Stable, switching back into English. “Linguistic multiplex. I wasn’t getting a good translation of the medical terms. Continue.”

Rattled, but only for a moment, Doctor Schwartz returned to his professional description, and in a few minutes, had almost forgotten about the equine nature of his assisting surgeon. That is until he manipulated the remote forceps to bring the ends of a severed artery together, and a tiny dot of pale blue light joined them flawlessly before he could even get the microsuturing started.

“Marvelous machine,” murmured Doctor Stable. “Brings the operating field right up to my nose. At home, I never could have managed a bilateral anastomosisic fusion on a vessel that small. Just a moment while I run a thaumic charge to get blood circulation started in that connection, and we can go on to the next one.”

...and fifteen minutes later, in what would have normally taken two hours at absolute best on a good day, the last of the severed vessels were joined, allowing the surgeons to begin the delicate task of reconnecting nerves, tendons, and tracking down little splinters of bone while venturing into the odd conversations that doctors at work tended toward.

“So, how long are you going to be here, doctor? Clamp that.”

“Got it. Don’t know. Thought we’d be going back already, although one of the nurses said she heard a few days. Does that lateral nerve fragment tie up here?”

“No, it matches back in this knotted cluster. Let’s see if we can’t open them up a little. You know, we’re making so much progress, I may still be able to get Mister Berry in for his lateral rotator cuff surgery. He’s part of our local football team. I think he has a little tear in the anterior section of the tendon, but you never can be too careful with football players. You up for observing, Doctor Stable?”

“Depends on how Granny Smith is doing. Status on her, nurse?”

“They’re milling a new pin for her hip to match pony bone structure, and should be ready to have her in surgery in about three hours.”

“Good, good. I suppose I can at least assist with your human patient to get some practice with your human machines. Go ahead and release the clamp. That should hold pressure.”

“Got a little dribble here. No, it’s a capillary. Fix or seal?”

“Don’t see the other end— Wait, that’s it. Done.”

“Can’t believe the way you make them just twist together like that. Our Board of Directors would break a leg to have you at the hospital.”

“Just glad to help. Let’s do a final check so we can get Miss Widget closed, then we can take a look at your hoofball player.”

- - - - ⧖ - - - -
Time: 1:13 P.M. Central Standard Time, June 19, 2015
- - - - ⧖ - - - -

“Are you sure that was necessary?” Goose Down complained, but the glistening batpony had taken on a new lustre after going through a vigorous shower, complete with two shampooings and conditioner donated by one of the nurses. “I mean, I’m supposed to be guarding Granny Smith—”

“Who is in pre-op, with about a dozen doctors and nurses around her, all of which are dressed in bunny suits to prevent post-op infection. She must have dropped in a mud wallow from as much as they’re scrubbing, and you smelled like a sweaty horse,” said Claire forcefully. “They scrubbed down the recovery room for her and Widget to the point where I’d eat off the floor, and if you’re going to guard either of your wards, it’s going to be from a clean perspective.”

“Coming through,” announced a voice in the other room, accompanied by what sounded like a parade full of people. “Who’s in the bathroom?”

“The Equestrian security guard and one of the handlers,” said a voice before either of the subjects in the bathroom could speak. “They’ll monitor Widget’s recovery out of anesthesia, since Doctor Stable said she’d spook if she woke up in a room full of strangers.”

“Security guard,” muttered Goose under her breath.

Ignoring the damp, cranky pony for the moment, Claire stuck her head out of the bathroom and nodded at the swarm of nurses around the terribly drawn-looking pink pony. Large patches of her pink coat had been shaved to allow tape to hold down wires and sensors, there was a oxygen tube up her nose, and somebody had made a futile attempt at cutting a hospital gown to fit her, giving the injured pony a distinctly alien appearance, or more accurately, an alien who had gone through a wood chipper. Even her powder-blue mane had been taped and brutally trimmed back, and somebody had attached a pair of wires to her horn like it was some sort of radio antenna used to get a better signal. The whole mess was topped off by a human-style hospital sock on each of her legs except the injured one, which was topped by half of a sock just to cover the hard portion of her hoof, while leaving the bare shaved leg exposed and a thin red line with dark stitches where the gaping hole had been.

Claire was not sure if it was an improvement, but at least she still had the leg.

“How’s Widget doing?” she called out in a quiet whisper that lowered the noise level of the room considerably as the nurses became aware of their previous actions.

“Pulse, BP and other vitals are very strong,” said the taller of the nurses, who had a magenta ribbon tying her hair back. “We’ll be monitoring them from the station for any change, so we don’t startle her. Surgery went well, and the doctor thinks she’ll make a full recovery in a few weeks. She’s just going to need some therapy and some time for all the shaved hair to grow back. How’s your… um…”

The nurse’s gaze shifted as if she were trying to see through the bathroom door, making Claire roll her eyes, then chortle a little when the batpony’s deep voice sounded.

“I can’t get these stupid blue booties to stay on my hooves,” growled Goose. “You humans have huge feet.”

“I’ll go grab a box of slipper socks from Pediatrics,” said the nurse with a suppressed smile. “By the way, some of the kids saw… what’s her name?”

“Goose Down,” said Claire. “And she’s a royal guard back in her home, so I don’t think she’s going to want to go play with the children,” added Claire in order to cut off the anticipated question.

“Do you have anything I can use to polish my armor while waiting?” asked Goose from behind Claire. “I don’t want any rust spots, and your towels are too nice.”

The nurse hesitated with her mouth fractionally open to respond, then thought for a moment. “Go ahead and use as many towels as your want,” she said. “I’m really not sure what the scrub protocols are for extra-terrestrial patients. I mean, Doctor Stable seemed confident that whatever microorganisms you have wouldn’t affect us and vice-versa, but…”

“They’re going to smell like wet horse forever,” said Claire with a little giggle, ending in the sharp snap of a towel and— “Yike!”

She put both hands over her abused rump while Goose spun the towel, holding one end in her mouth and swaying the other end for a second shot at the wise-ass she was sharing the bathroom with.

“Actually,” said the nurse, “if what we heard on the radio is correct and you… ponies are going home in a few days, they’ll probably collect the towels for sale. We’re talking major league Elvis-like memorabilia trading in the foreseeable future.”

“Thank yew, thank yew very much,” sounded Goose. “Elkvis has left the building.”

“Wait a minute, hold on.” Claire eyed the suddenly cautious pony. “You had an Elvis too?”

Goose nodded slowly. “Elkvis Przewalski, the greatest entertainer on stage. You?”

“Elvis Presley, the King of Rock and Roll music.” Claire shook her head. “Okay, alien horses from a different dimension I can fathom, but they have Elvis?”

“Why not?” The nurse winked and turned to walk away. “Elvis is everywhere. I’ll go get those socks.”

- - - - ⧖ - - - -
Time: 2:20 P.M. Central Standard Time, June 19, 2015
- - - - ⧖ - - - -

Contrary to expectations, batponies did not hang upside-down in a closet to rest. Goose had instead made a ‘nest’ of sorts out of several blankets and cushions beside Widget’s bed and worked on polishing bits of her armor while chatting with Claire. To her surprise, the batpony was actually younger than Claire by a few years, although agoraphobic to an extent that was more than a little puzzling for a winged pony. Despite that impediment, Goose was dedicated to her military service, and just loved to talk about all of her relatives who guarded the Equestrian princesses, and the human military man she had briefly met at the Bruener farm.

There was an intensity burning in the young batpony that Claire had sought most of her life. She knew exactly what she wanted to do in life, where Claire had just wandered from place to place, looking for something she could not find. It was both irritating and refreshing to find a personality trait like that in someone… or somepony so different and so far from home.

“Thank you, Optio. Orders received and understood.” The batpony had to hold Claire’s iPhone flat with one hoof and turn her head awkwardly to keep the speakers near one fuzzy ear and still be heard, but she was adapting to the technology with no hesitation. “Tell her parents that Widget is recovering fine. The nurses are monitoring her condition and stop by every ten minutes, so there’s no reason for them to come up here. The doctors say Granny Smith is almost through with her surgery and should be here in an hour or so, depending on how she recovers, although the humans will be monitoring her much more closely, on account of her age. I would advise that the Apple family should not come up and visit either. Particularly Apple Bloom,” added the batpony with a glance at the complicated machinery around the bed. “Oh, and tell Claire Bruener’s mother that she sends her love.”

“Goose!” hissed Claire.

“Kissie, kissie,” added Goose with a giggle. “Over and out.” She pawed with one hoof at the phone, but was not able to get the red dot to go away before Clare snatched it away from her.

“Mom? Oh, Optio Pumpernickel. Um. Could you give mom her phone back. Without the kissie kissie?” Claire rolled her eyes while waiting. “Hey, mom! Yeah, I’m up at KU Med with the pony dad hit with the swather and somepony called Granny Smith, who will be coming out of surgery shortly. Yes, I am excited. Yes, mom. Yes, I know the house is full of ponies. We’ve got CNN on, and they’ve been promising exclusive footage for about an hour now. What’s going on with dad’s phone? Oh? Total meltdown, yeah. I’d guess there’s a lot of people calling him now. Okay, I’ll be fine here for a day or so. Yes, mother, they have clean clothes at the hospital, and I’ve got my debit card. Bye. Yes, kissie, kissie.”

Claire hung up her phone and promptly stuck her tongue out at the giggling batpony.

“At least Widget hasn’t made fun of me.” Claire got up on her feet and peeked at the snoozing unicorn, all wrapped up in sensors and tubes with one bare leg held in a suspension rig to keep it from shifting. Only a few small bandages around the injury and a bright red line marked where Earth’s first extraterrestrial visitor had her immediate experience with mechanized agriculture. It was only by taking a closer look that Claire could see the colorful bruises and bumps under her coat along one side where Widget had bounced off the swather cab, as well as the long raised lines under the skin on the other side where she must have gotten smacked by the swather reel during her collision.

Widget had moved a little in the past hour, and taken a few sips of water from the hospital glass. She was on a thick absorptive pad instead of a catheter because the hospital was worried about sticking anything more inside her than absolutely necessary, and pee at least would clean up easily. After a brief brushing back of Widget’s unruly mane and a soft touch along her smooth, unearthly horn, Claire whispered, “How are you doing in there, Widget? This is Claire. We met at the emergency room back in Manhattan.”

The unicorn moved her lips, and Goose was there in a moment with the water glass and straw. The two of them watched Widget take a drink, lick her lips with a strangely orange tongue, and then she rasped out one word.

“Thanks.”

“You’re welcome.” Claire let her have another sip. “I’m sorry dad hit you with the swather, but from what Goose was saying, it was raining ponies for a while. You must have been the closest to Princess Midnight when she whomped you out of there.”

“Twi-light,” said Widget. “So cool.”

“Twilight Sparkle,” clarified Goose with a yawn.

“So.” Widget licked her lips several times and cracked one eye open just a bare slit. “Who is Nick?”

“Nopony!” Goose, who seemed wide-awake now, held the glass up to Widget’s lips again with such vigor that she slopped some water out. “Besides, you were sleeping when we were talking about him.”

After taking another sip, Widget gave out a raspy giggle. “Just had my eyes closed. Listening.”

“It didn’t sound like you were just listening to the guy, Goose,” prodded Claire. “Poor army guy, out at the frog pond and comes face to face with a pretty young mare from outer space.” She giggled. “It didn’t sound like you were that interested in his face, though.”

By now, Goose Down was blushing so much that the tips of her ears were nearly crimson. “It’s not my fault! He was soaking wet from rescuing Twist! And he—” Goose closed her mouth with a snap and abruptly sat down on the collection of pillows she had accumulated. “He was wearing shorts,” she protested.

“Whoa!” declared Claire. “Are we talking pup tent here or a full—”

Goose tunneled under her pillows and brought her enormous wings up over her head so that she looked more like a giant black pillow than a pony, leaving both Claire and Widget to giggle helplessly at the sight.

“I could text mom,” suggested Claire once she had gotten her breath back. “I’ll bet she could take a picture of Nick and send it to us.”

Goose tunneled a little deeper.

“All right,” said Claire a little grudgingly, although she added at Widget’s subtle wink, “Seriously, though. Was he cute? I mean from a horsey perspective.”

The Goose-lump seemed to nod briefly.

“Is everything okay in here?” The tall nurse from before looked into the room, taking in the bleary pony, the giggling young lady, and the odd lump in the middle of the pillows. “Oh, you’re awake. Do you think it would be okay if I check on you?”

Widget nodded and shifted uncomfortably. “Just for a minute. I’m tired.”

It took far longer than a minute for the nurse to check the bedding, the support brace, and the bandages, fidgeting over every piece of tape and electrical connection, as well as folding a blanket over a portion of Widget’s bare pink tummy. “There we go,” she said when done. “Feeling better?”

Widget gave a little snore.

“Well, how about you, young Goose. Did you like the hair conditioner we found?”

A similar snore emerged out of the pillow pile.

“She’s nocturnal,” whispered Claire. “Not to mention afraid of heights, dropped out of an interdimensional portal over my home, saved three ponies on the way down, and rode on a helicopter all the way to Kansas City.”

“Oh. Long day, I suppose.” The nurse turned to Claire. “How about you? Need anything like another pillow?”

Claire raised the plastic bottle of Diet Pepsi the previous nurse had gotten for her. “I’m good. I’m just so hyped over talking to actual aliens that I may not sleep for days. I keep expecting somebody from Men In Black to drag me away.”

The nurse gave a small smile. “Well, you should be safe there. The office got a call from the FBI and they’re sending an agent over, but no black helicopters or secret government agencies. Probably just pages of paperwork. There’s probably a government form for this, after all.”

“Yeah.” Claire pursed her lips and considered all the gadgets in the room. “So… who’s footing the bill for this?”

“For treating the first aliens ever on the planet?” The nurse shrugged. “The hospital will eat the cost ten times over for publicity. If we had to, I think we could break even just by charging reporters a thousand dollars a minute to peek into the room. Security has stopped several of them in the hallways, and it’s getting to be a pain separating out the regular ward visitors from the paparazzi.”

Claire nodded, but inside she worried about her actual status as a unicorn petter and reassure-er. Oh, and batpony teaser. And whatever Granny Smith was in an hour or so when she was out of recovery and put into the room too. Her thoughts must have been fairly obvious on her face, because the nurse patted her on the arm in a reassuring fashion, thus making her a reassure-er reassure-er.

“Don’t worry, hun. Having you here is a godsend. You really seem to have bonded with them. If there’s anything you need at all, just buzz the station and it’s yours. Except for the pediatrics doctor with the curly hair.” The nurse winked. “He’s mine, but just doesn’t know it yet.”

- - - - ⧖ - - - -
Time: 3:48 P.M. Eastern Standard Time, June 19, 2015
Washington, D.C.
- - - - ⧖ - - - -

Politics in the nation’s capital only seemed to be focused on the elected branches. In actuality, it flowed in an endless morass of competing agencies and departments, all of which were staffed with political appointees who considered their own private fiefdom to be the top of the mountain, and all other governmental entities to be vastly inferior. To make matters worse, the Equestrians just happened to drop into the country in both the worst time and worst place for rapid, organized response.

In movies, aliens were supposed to land their spacecraft on the White House lawn at around noon in the middle of the week, and emerge after an hour or two in order to give the government a chance to line up tanks and politicians, each eager to fire barrages at the newfound intelligences.

However…

Friday afternoon, during the run-up to the 4th of July weekend, was a light day in Washington, with only about half of the federal employees actually at work, and most of the rest only physically present. Since word of the alien invasion only really reached the federal bureaucracy during the lunch hour, Eastern time, even that half of the federal employee base was rapidly dispersing through flights out of Reagan International and the clogged arteries of the antique transportation system. During the Cold War, it had been joked that a nuclear weapon could be dropped on DC on a Friday afternoon and not affect the bureaucracy, although that was a slight overstatement. Every political position had a mandated alternate at work, from the Presidency all the way down to the Third Undersecretary for the Foreign Agriculture Service, so if Secretary Whatnot was out of the office, Deputy Secretary Somebody would be in charge.

Then 12:06 P.M. Eastern Standard Time rolled around. Just because the vast majority of bureaucrats do not listen to Limbaugh on the radio, does not mean they all don’t, and add in the ‘Cats away and the Mice can play’ attitude over lunch hour for many closet conservatives with earbuds…

Those who heard, grabbed onto nearby workers to listen, regardless of political affiliation or party. The complete political spectrum then proceeded to text as fast as they could. From there, unofficial emails were sent with YouTube links. Rumors flew. Some of them even had an element of truth in them. A great number of government lunches remained uneaten, traded for the opportunity to devour even more delicious gossip. The Verizon and Sprint internet nodes in the central Washington region went dark as ten thousands of government and civilian cell phones were produced and videos reviewed. Then the local agency internets failed under the increased load.

And in the wake of the great DC Network Meltdown, as fading echoes of Rush Limbaugh’s voice were heard for the first time ever inside several Washington D.C. office buildings, it was the second bananas who found themselves with the unexpected task of actual decision-making.

One thing about deputy directors and undersecretaries is they are only expected to make easy decisions. When the director comes back, the last thing he or she wants to do is to unwind a series of incorrect (in their opinion) decisions taken in their absence. This meant appearance of an actual race of intelligent alien beings triggered immediate denial in many government entities, of course. Doubly so for it having been broadcast on the Limbaugh show. The absence of a decision is never treated as a bad decision in the brief absence of a directing force, so for the large part, several thousand government entities promptly put their metaphorical fingers in their ears and began to whistle.

The rest of the Washington D.C. bureaucracies prepared plans to put these new creatures under the benevolent protection of their respective agencies.

The Center for Disease Control immediately put out an order to quarantine the aliens and every human who had contact with them, as well as any humans who had contact with them, and so on.

USDA Animal Plant Health Inspection Service ordered much the same, only demanding that the creatures to be quarantined at their facility at Plum Island in New York and overseen by the Foreign Animal Disease Diagnostic Laboratory.

US Citizenship and Immigration Services took another approach, considering that the entire population of displaced alien ponies would have fit into a 747-400 twice over. They made the determination that the alien visitors were guilty of only ‘inadvertent entry’ into the US, much as if the same aircraft had made an emergency landing, and that a brisk evening of emergency B-1 visa printing should cover the extraterrestrial guests for whatever commerce they might conduct before returning to their homes.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation… had a different reaction which will be covered later.

The end result of the most dramatic responses varied greatly.

Due to a series of awkward miscommunications, the CDC’s ‘rapid’ reaction force did not arrive until early next week, without most of their gear, and in the middle of preparations for the Country Stampede music festival at Tuttle Creek, so they were unable to find any hotel space in Manhattan. Thankfully, some nearby farmers felt pity on them and allowed the scientists to rent rooms at their homes, as well as provided transportation to the music festival so they would not feel too left out of current events. By happy coincidence, Doctor Stable’s schedule had gotten freed up by then, and being a country fan himself, organized the first Interdimensional Symposium on Cross-Species Virology and Immunology in a volunteer’s Winnebago between the major music sets of Stampede. And they all got cowboy hats signed by Blake Shelton.

Various intelligent people in APHIS considered the order they received, compared it to the fuzzy colorful aliens they could watch on YouTube, multiplied by the number of people who had indirect contact, and came up with an immense number of individuals who would be covered by the order, able to cover the surface of Plum Island a thousand miles away to several layers and growing every minute. The quarantine order was promptly sidetracked into an endless loop of approvals, mostly by people who happened to be out of the office, while a dozen trained veterinary virologists, pathologists, and internal medicine specialists slipped out the back door that afternoon with airline tickets for some direct observation. By coincidence, some of their families traveled with them, mostly those with young girls below their teenage years. They also wound up attending the Stampede Symposium. And got hats.

An innovative employee in US Customs and Immigration Services made almost immediate landline phone contact with the Kansas Governor’s office, which also had dipped into overtime funds and sent out both of the available ‘Kansas Non-Driver’s Identification Stations, Portable.’ The stations had been acquired to deal with Kansas voter id issuance, and now found a new use, as each of the devices were whisked to Randolph to turn out the two hundred plus identity cards needed by the new Kansas guests. ‘Needed’ was admittedly a bit of a push, but the ponies were thrilled by the ‘souvenir’ and it did help with local identification.

Photographs taken by the Kansas stations were uploaded by way of the Bruener’s overloaded fibre optic network connection to the USCIS Washington office, turned into B1 visas, and by late that evening, were packaged up and sent in a bundle by overnight courier to Kansas City International Airport and then to Randolph. It broke several policies internal to the agency, but all of the employees involved remained remarkably vague about just who approved the overtime, and who was actually in charge during the sudden burst of productivity. And who printed all the colorful posters that decorated their office for the next few weeks.

Which brings us to the FBI, and the actions of one Deputy Attorney General, Quillian Gates.

At first glance, one might wonder what authority ‘Quills’ had over dimensional travelers from Equestria. Technically, each of the ponies had illegally entered the United States without going through border security, although that was nominally the bailiwick of Customs or USCIS. Still, the FBI was a Federal agency under the Justice Department, and the illegal aliens (literally) in question had not so much crossed a national border as appeared inside of one.

The details that eventually came out were a little fuzzy. Gates had been on a flight with a connection in Kansas City, and received word of the alien invasion there while walking to her second flight. Phone calls happened, or at least were attempted, and since the Attorney General and the FBI Director were likewise airborne and out of reach, ‘Quills’ determined the best decision was to take immediate action, bringing the bulk of the aliens to Quantico and housing them at the Marine base while taking the injured to Walter Reed Medical.

How exactly the three FBI agents in the Manhattan vicinity were going to transport roughly one hundred ponies each to Maryland was a question which would come up later, but the Kansas City office was substantially larger, and the two injured ponies (that they knew of) there far easier to deal with. Several of Miss Gates’ phone calls involved chartering a special medical flight, arrangements for ambulances to transfer the aliens to the airport, and of course, a direct call to the Special Agent in Charge of the Kansas City FBI Field Office.

In short order, Agent Karla Anacostia was roused from an unsound sleep where she had been attempting to recover from a previous day’s date, which had involved terrible food, a horror movie, and most of a bottle of wine. Thankfully, she awoke alone in her own bed when the phone started giving out the chirping sound of a cricket, because her snarled response to the interruption could have peeled paint.

The wine was mostly to blame, because it had been finished off around midnight when dreams of poltergeists drove her to a socially acceptable sleep aid, and only left her with the unwelcome side-effects now. Unthankfully, her protestations of being on her extended weekend off had no effect on the boss’s boss when he called her and in no uncertain terms ordered her to report to KU Medical now or before.

She complained vehemently, of course, but only in the car on the way to the hospital, because she liked her job. Likewise, she only complained inside her head when meeting her boss in the parking garage of the hospital, and stayed quiet when she was abruptly assigned to be the agent in charge of establishing the location of the aliens the whole hustle and flurry of action seemed to be responsible for.

It was most probably because she looked like hell warmed over.

Thankfully, all she had to do was remain physically present in their room while the details were being worked out by other, more kempt and habile agents.

Despite the fog of fatigue poisons and toxic wine residue, the assignment irked Anacostia more than a little. After all, Deputy Attorney General Quillian Gates was coming to the hospital in a few hours to oversee the arrest and detainment of a couple of high-profile illegal aliens, which would have given Agent Anacostia enough time to clean up, be seen, maybe shake hands and be in the background (with sunglasses) for the inevitable press conference. With the current administration, agents were expected to be posted to the Headquarters office at least once before promotion, and this would have been the perfect opportunity to ‘press the flesh’ with the new DAG. Such small social interactions could grease her move to Washington D.C. and further promotions. Although the dating scene was crazier in the Asylum, as agents tended to call the main branch, there had to be at least one sane person in Washington to occupy her weekends. She suppressed a shudder as she got into the elevator and poked the floor button.

Make that one sane person who doesn’t like horror movies either.

It didn’t help that Karla disliked hospitals. Taking statements from shooting victims, trying to convince a cancer patient to testify, they were all roles that the older agents disliked too, and thus they fell on the young female rookie who spoke three languages and looked less intimidating than some of the big, white, former football player types who populated so many FBI slots. Flashing her badge to get past the hospital security guards was as routine as breathing by now, although there were a lot of security guards around, and more than a few reporters lurking in the background.

The sterile air of the place made Karla’s head throb even worse, but aspirin here were probably fifty bucks a tablet. She gave the nurses at the station a quick flash of her badge and strolled down the hall to the correct room, giving a perfunctory tap to the doorframe before striding inside.

And freezing in terror.

All of the images from the movie yesterday fairly slammed through her system with the thing on the hospital bed, tied down by wires and bandages like a human would be, but a shocking shade of bubblegum pink fur and stripes of shaved skin that no human being could possibly match. One hand darted into her blouse while she backhanded a Hispanic girl to one side, out of the line of fire. As terrified as she was, Agent Anacostia barely got a firm grip on the Glock, bringing her second hand up to support the pistol as the monster filled the sights, shifting in sleep and flickering a drowsy blink with those huge unearthly eyelids.

“Freeze!” hissed a voice in Karla’s ear as something cold and gun-shaped jammed into her back. “Drop the— Wait, that’s a Glock. Put the gun down on the table and step back.”

There was no safety on a Glock 22, only the little tab on the trigger and a few internal widgets to stop it from firing if dropped, but Karla could feel the plastic piece on the trigger move back into position as she lifted her finger. The slightest bit more pressure and a hollow-point .40 caliber round would have gone into her target, which looked much less dangerous but still weird as hell after a few slower breaths. She lifted the muzzle of her weapon up, took her finger out of the trigger guard, and held the service pistol loosely while trying to control her panicked breathing.

“Let’s not get—”

“Put the gun down,” hissed the voice again, far quieter than she expected.

“I’m an FBI agent,” said Karla. She was thinking of what else to say when the voice from behind her gave a little gasp and the pressure on her ribs abruptly eased.

“Oh, gosh. I’m sorry! Just— Can I see your badge?”

Moving slowly, Karla edged the folded leather badge holder out of her pocket and flipped it open.

“Ohgosh! Sorry, Agent Anacostia!” The Hispanic girl put away whatever she had been holding, although she was still speaking in a whisper, most probably to avoid waking up… whatever the thing in the hospital bed was. “I’m Claire Bruener, and that’s Widget. She’s an extraterrestrial pony, but I suppose you know that already.”

Once Karla could breathe again, she said, “Actually, no.”

Although she wanted to pin Miss Bruener against the wall and cuff her for pulling a gun, Karla put away her own pistol and just tried to breathe for a bit while splitting her attention between the fuzzy alien creature in the hospital bed and the girl. As much as her instincts screamed ‘office prank’ in one ear, her eyes took in the wounded pony in the hospital bed, the way its legs did not bend the same as real horses, and the sheer amount of medical equipment hooked up to the creature by way of tape and improvised wrapping.

This was nothing out of Star Trek, with a human wearing a funny nose, but an alien from outer space, an actual alien, something she had been afraid of ever since she was a little girl. Once the concept soaked in, there was a small section in the back of her brain that went off and gibbered somewhere, repeating ‘alien, alien, alien…’ over and over.

And yet when Karla had been small, several of her relatives in Louisiana had owned horses of various sizes, and the largest regret she had upon becoming an FBI agent was giving up her favorite equestrian hobby. This conflict in her brain was going to take some serious thought, which she really was not prepared for at this time, and some control over her mouth, which was only emphasised by her next words.

“My boss said there was an alien up here. I had no idea he was being goddam fucking literal!”

“It’s probably better than my dad’s reaction.” Claire Bruener giggled with the release of nervous tension. “He ran her over with his hay swather. That’s why she’s here.”

“An alien. A real, live alien.” Karla swallowed hard and took a glance over her shoulder at the thankfully closed door to the hospital room. “Sweet Jesus, and I almost fucking well shot her. This is going to kill my career.”

“I didn’t see anything, if you don’t say anything about what I did,” said Claire quickly. “How about you, Goose?”

A creature in the pile of pillows moved, and if Karla had not put away her service weapon, her instinctive reaction might have emptied the magazine into the thing that emerged with narrowed, golden eyes and tent-like bat wings. The nightmarish pony was no terrestrial goose, although it was smaller than the unicorn on the hospital bed, but considerably more dangerous due to exposed sharp teeth and the sense of a coiled, lethal spring, waiting for a trigger.

And the little section in the back of Karla’s head began gibbering ‘alien, alien, alien…’ all over again.

“Is she going to hurt Widget or you?” asked the creature in a disturbingly beautiful feminine voice that would have sent the choir director from Karla’s Baptist church into a frenzy of joyful recruitment. Liquid chocolate voice aside, the armored dragon/pony/thing held herself in cautious readiness, making Karla suddenly aware of how her own dark face was reflected in those golden unearthly eyes. If their positions were reversed, Karla could not imagine keeping this calm in the face of a world full of strange monsters. Particularly with how young Goose seemed to be.

“No, she’s an FBI agent. That’s a lot like our world’s royal guards. She’s here—” Claire stopped and turned to Karla. “Why are you here, anyway?”

Thankfully, the pause had given her enough time to collect her wits. In a few succinct sentences, Karla explained how the bureau was planning on relocating the alien visitors to Maryland, and how the Deputy Attorney General was organizing their forced transportation. The bat-pony did not take her eyes off the FBI agent and vice versa during the entire explanation, but both of them relaxed a little by the time Karla was done.

“Bad idea,” rumbled the dark bat-pony thing. “The return portal should be up in a few days time, and I really doubt they’ll be able to move the endpoint. How far away is Merry Land?”

“About a three hour flight.”

That last word triggered something in the dark creature, which made Karla resist a distinct urge for the comfort of a loaded automatic in her palm.

“No more flying,” spat Goose, with her lips drawn back over sharp teeth and her long, furry ears laid back against her skull. “This floor is as high off the ground as I’m getting until I go home.”

“All right, I think I can talk the deputy AG into driving you cross-country,” said Karla with a calming hands-out gesture like she was trying to calm down a rottweiler. “It’ll take a little longer… actually by car, you’ll probably get to Quantico about in time to turn around and come back if… Portal?”

This time, the information flow went the other way, with the fierce dark pony explaining how a small portion of her town had been evacuated by teleportation through individual portals to Claire Bruener’s farm… or more correctly above the farm, with ‘Granny Smith’ being the worst injured. The elderly pony was currently in surgery for a broken hip, and if she had been Karla’s own Jamaican grandmother, she certainly would not have wanted to transport her old bones all the way across the country to be poked and prodded by some Washington hospital team of bureaucrats. Worse, there were over two hundred ponies who were stranded in central Kansas, and having the FBI forcibly round up the peaceful alien visitors and drag them to the Washington D.C. metro area would be the biggest cluster f—

Agent Karla Anacostia took a quick peek outside the hospital room and turned back to Claire. “This may sound odd, but I’ve got an idea how to keep your furry friends in Kansas. After all, I’m going to get canned for pulling a gun on her anyway, so might as well make it good.”

“Actually, I’ve got an idea on that too,” said Claire, who was messing with her Android tablet. “Let me call the nurse and get the video app set up.”

- - - - ⧖ - - - -
Time: 1:32 A.M. Moscow Standard Time, June 20, 2015
Central Council Chambers, Moscow
- - - - ⧖ - - - -

Facebook is a wonderful thing in the modern world.

So is YouTube.

In minutes, a video can be uploaded and watched by anybody in the entire world.

Literally.

Admittedly, there are certain restrictions in some countries. Some content may be blocked. Some users filtered.

Of course, those restrictions do not restrict the restrictors, which is why the Federal Security Service for the Russian Federation had a flawless internet connection to Facebook which allowed the Central Council to watch a video in stunned silence, narrated by the voice of an interpreter with the highest of security clearances.

“Good afternoon.” A dusky young woman of indeterminate ancestry strode into the hospital room and nodded, first to the person doing the filming, then to the nurse at the side of a bed. The contents of the bed were blurred by motion, but several still images of the horse-creature had been captured beforehand and held in freeze-frames on secondary screens around the room. Under the bandages and sensors, it looked to be an odd pink horse with a horn on its head like some sort of American practical joke, but the humor of the situation was rapidly turning serious, which is the only reason the Central Council was still awake at this odd hour of the morning. Well, that and enough black coffee to dissolve a GAZ limousine.

“I’m afraid you’ll have to quit filming,” said the young woman, after which the cameraperson shook her head and the camera, making the scene wobble all over.

“No, ma’am. I’m fully within my rights to film here. It’s a public place.”

The watchers expected the young woman in the professional blazer to arrest the disobedient camera holder at that point, but all she did was look pensive for a moment, as if she were listening to an earpiece. Then she turned away from the camera and addressed the nurse who was checking the bandages on the alien horse-creature, in particular, the large bundle of elastic bandage around one foreleg. “Nurse, I’m Agent Anacostia of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. How soon can this alien patient be prepared for travel?”

“She’s too injured to be moved,” said the nurse. “Miss Widget nearly lost a leg before surgery. She’s in a very delicate state since her surgery, and it could endanger her life. Now, you’re going to have to leave the room, Agent Anacostia. We’ve got a second pony even worse off who is being moved in, and she’s not going to be in any shape to be transported anywhere either.”

“I have my orders,” said the FBI agent. “The alien patients are to be transferred to Walter Reed Medical center where they’ll get the finest care on the planet.”

The nurse looked as if she were going to give a sharp retort, but several nurses and doctors came into the room with a blanket-covered pony on another hospital bed, spending some time arranging it on the other side of the room before one of the doctors came over at the nurse’s signal.

“Doctor Jimenez, this is Agent Anacostia,” said the nurse. “She wants to move our patients to Walter Reed.”

“Not a chance in hell,” scoffed the curly-haired doctor. “They’ve just started treatment here, under the care of one of their own physicians. Granny Smith just underwent a two-hour operation to restore functionality to her broken hip, and Miss Widget here nearly had her leg amputated. Their recovery is going to be delicate enough without your interference, and we’re very busy here, so I’m going to have to ask you to leave.”

The FBI agent appeared ready to argue the point, then took a look at where the nurses were arranging the elderly green pony and making sure her oxygen was set up just right. The second pony was in a maze of sensors and tubes, an incredible expenditure for a patient as old as the pony appeared, making it probable that the alien was some sort of high government official. Broad sections of her flank had been shaved down, and a thin red line marked with stitches was still exposed to show the effects of the surgery. That frame had been blown up by specialists and posted on one of the wall monitors with little notations in Cyrillic showing the estimations of the depth and complexity of the hip replacement, another incredibly expensive surgical option, particularly since it had been done immediately without any waiting in a queue, thus only confirming the identity of the alien as some sort of high government official.

After a moment’s consideration, the FBI agent obviously came to the same conclusion and walked out of the hospital room while the camera panned back over to the nurses caring for their alien patent. Then the camera operator turned off the video, obviously to upload it.

There was absolute dead silence around the room with the last frame of the video still frozen on screen, then one of the council asked, “Has President Putin seen this yet?”

“Da,” said the council chairman. “Combined with the other videos and recordings out of the Kansas providence, we believe the aliens are real, although their claims of having reached our planet by some sort of dimensional portal are dubious, at best. Our best intelligence analysts all say there must be a starfaring ship of some sort involved in their appearance. Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin has tasked several satellites for greater coverage of the area so that we may be able to spot their landing craft, and radar surveillance records are being reviewed. The Americans cannot be permitted to gain access to alien spaceflight technology of this level.”

“I for one am not that certain of your theory.” One councilmember brought up a video in which several of the younger pony aliens were playing with the flashing lights of a fire truck, along with an adult white alien of the ‘unicorn’ type, who expressed a childish glee in pushing the button and watching the bright flashing and hooting that resulted. “Does this look like the actions of a superior spacefaring civilization?”

His point was only boosted by the way a fluttering grey ‘pegasus’ seemed to be entranced by the flashing lights and flew directly into the fire truck windshield with a solid thud and a spray of letters from her postal bag.

“Perhaps… they are just faking it,” said the first councilmember. He watched along with his Russian peers as the pegasus was straightened up and sent on her way, only to loop around and wind up head first into the windshield again, only this time leaving a noticeable crack across the glass.

“They are exceedingly good actors, then,” said the second councilmember.

9. Power Games

View Online

Farmer Bruener Has Some Ponies
Power Games

“The measure of a man is what he does with power.”
Plato

- - - - ⧖ - - - -
Time: 5:30 P.M. Central Standard Time, June 19, 2015
KU Medical Center, Kansas City
- - - - ⧖ - - - -

The second FBI visit to the alien’s hospital room took place much later than Deputy Attorney General Gates wanted. The last few hours had seen just about every obstacle thrown into her path, starting with the failure of the agent sent to secure the aliens, and progressing rather quickly afterward when the video of the agent’s visit hit the internet.

Hit like a water balloon full of gasoline into a fireworks factory.

Reporters for every newspaper, radio station, tv station, internet blog, and local penny press had started crowding into the hospital like bureaucrats around an open bar, and there was no end in sight. Tow trucks did a merry business keeping the emergency room entrance clear, the local police had to break up three fist fights between photographers, and that was before Gates found out the few additional ponies three hours away was actually more than two hundred of them, already under the protective custody of the US Army.

Several of the FBI agents later privately hypothesized that Gates had once been a sailor.

By the time Gates managed to make it up to the patient’s floor, she had cooled down to simply seething. At this rate, evacuating the two ponies here would take until past midnight before their medical charter plane would touch down at Reagan International. That would push the entire team of agents into double-overtime, and that was without even considering the difficulty in getting enough agents into Randolph to handle the mass of aliens there.

After all, the last humans who should control supposedly friendly aliens was a bunch of soldiers! It would only be a matter of time before some half-trained private just out of school would panic and shoot one of them, then the whole situation would break down into chaos. The crushing crowd of civilians outside the hospital only made it more obvious in her eyes that the creatures needed her government protection, and the quicker, the better.

There was a Kansas Highway Patrol officer standing outside the hospital door, who nodded and stepped aside when Gates flashed her identification, but only after examining it closely, along with the badges of the other four agents she had with her. Since the local police were involved, this first transfer should proceed without any more problems, which was a good sign.

The hospital beds were much as they had been pictured in the video, only with more wires and tubes around the extraterrestrial visitors. There were two nurses around the Granny Smith alien, carefully monitoring a blood pressure cuff around one green leg and adjusting sensors, but both of the aliens appeared to be sleeping, which was good. The aliens needed to be kept anesthetized and unconscious until their arrival at a detention center in Walter Reed, because Gates was not looking forward to finding out if a taser had any effect on their alien physiology, doubled since they were already injured. None of the agents in the delegation assigned to transport the two aliens to Maryland were nurses or doctors, but one of the agents was hiring an anesthesiologist to keep them drugged up during the flight, and should have him at the charter by the time they were ready to take off.

Before Gates could say anything, a distinguished older man in a rumpled suit stood up from a visitors chair near the window and moved forward.

“Ah, Deputy Gates. I was wondering when you would arrive.”

At first glance, the man in the rumpled suit did not look like a physician, or even that impressive. Age had made his hair go entirely to grey while his gut expanded, making him look a little like a Santa Claus with a shorter beard and less of a jolly attitude. There was no twinkle in those dark eyes, or smile making his cheeks dimple, but rather an expression of great solemnity that bothered Gates.

“Sir, I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask you to leave,” said Gates. “We have two patients to transport.”

“Actually, not.” The old man produced several sheets of paper bearing official seals and dark signatures. “A restraining order prohibiting the removal of two individuals listed as Jane Doe One and Two, from the Kansas University Medical Center until their medical situation has been suitably resolved. Oh, and another one for a group of Jane and John Does currently residing in Randolph, Kansas. You see, Miss Gates, you lack Federal jurisdiction, as the individuals have been determined by Judge Pendergast to be present in Kansas without having crossed across any state borders. It’s an interesting legal question that our founding fathers seemed not to have anticipated, and I’m looking forward to seeing how various legal counsels interpet interdimensional portals in regards to existing law. In any event, since they are here, and the Kansas authorities have not requested assistance from the Federal Bureau of Investigation, you’re stuck.”

Gates spluttered. “This is outrageous. Who’s going to provide security? Who’s going to protect them?”

The older man continued to put away a number of things into his briefcase, only stopping when his chair was clear of the papers he had been working on. “Currently, local law enforcement and members of the military are doing a fine job, from what Governor Brown has told me. He will be putting in a request to the president to allow the continued use of the National Guard and related forces to counter any major security risk, while the locals handle the day to day activities of our guests until they return home. Isn’t that right, Governor Brown?”

“Quite correct, Judge Pendergast,” sounded a voice in the room which Gates identified as coming from the speaker of a cell phone sitting on the nearby table. “Deputy Attorney General Gates, I presume? This is Governor Brown, and I’m the one who contacted the Federal District Court to get a restraining order against your agency until things can get worked out legally. I hope you don’t mind.”

“I do mind,” snapped Gates. “The aliens need to be under Federal protection.”

The governor laughed. “I think you’ll find it easier to think of them as misplaced tourists, stranded in our state for a day or two rather than aliens. It’s only right that the State of Kansas makes sure they’re taken care of until their metaphorical bus comes back and picks them all back up again, and that will be a very difficult time if they’re all ‘protected’ in Washington when their governmental leaders get their return portal set up here.”

“But they’re aliens! From space!” added Gates while pointing at the sleeping ponies, but lowered her voice at the gesture of one of the nurses who put a finger up to her lips.

“We’re considering them just to be extremely foreign nationals without citizenship papers,” explained the governor. “We’ve notified their home nation, and duplicate copies of their paperwork will be sent here as soon as possible. Their home seems very organized.”

“You’ve… talked to their leader?” Gates gave a nervous look at the door to the hospital room as if some giant space-horse was about to step into the room, but there was nobody there except the Highway Patrol officer who was pretending not to listen to the ongoing conversation.

“We’ve exchanged several letters,” explained the governor. “Between us, we have determined it will be best to keep the Equestrian nationals as close to the site of their first appearance as possible to facilitate their return when they get their return portal set up on Monday.”

“There are security matters with that—” started Gates before the governor cut her off.

“Security is taken care of. The entire First Infantry Division is parked about thirty minutes away from Randolph, if that will make you feel any better. In any event, it is my judgement as governor that our interdimensional visitors are peaceful, and mostly a little embarrassed about dropping in on us without an invitation.” There was a clicking from the phone and the governor started talking faster.

“Well, that’s a call from the 202 area code, so it might be the president. Sorry to step on your toes this way, Deputy Director, but you might as well stick around Kansas City for a few days, see the sights, and stay available if your boss needs anything. Enjoy your stay in our fair state. Later.”

With a sharp click, the call cut off.

- - - - ⧖ - - - -
Time: 5:45 P.M. Central Standard Time, June 19, 2015
- - - - ⧖ - - - -

It was a quiet and sullen group of FBI agents who waited at the hospital elevator, with Deputy Attorney General Gates holding the leading position in both position and mood. She quirked her lips to one side while working through her thoughts, then turned to Agent Anacostia and held out her hand.

“Phone.”

“What, Ma’am?” Karla Anacostia swallowed, but took her phone out from under her jacket and passed it over to the deputy AG, then unlocked it when she passed it back with a frown.

“Personal phone too,” said Gates with her other hand out.

“I don’t have a personal phone on me any more,” said Karla. “We’re permitted to use our government phones for limited personal use, and it was a pain to carry two since I never called anyone on it. I’ve got a TracFone in my glove compartment for emergencies, if that will help.”

Gates only grunted and thumbed open the call history on Karla’s phone, as well as the few of her recent text messages, before passing it back. “Somebody clued the governor in to our visit here,” she grumbled. “And if it came out of our department, I’ll skin the bastard alive.”

“Probably one of the press downstairs,” suggested one of the other agents.

“Maybe.” Gates jabbed the illuminated down button on the elevator again. “When we get back to the conference room, I want to get every agent we’ve got together and work out a plan to transport the aliens to Quantico. The governor’s restraining order only applies in Kansas. Once they cross state lines, they’re a Federal responsibility, and I want them in Maryland before they know what happened.”

“You’ll want one of the hospital staff to notify us in case they move the patients,” said Karla. “If you give me one of your business cards, Miss Gates, I’ll leave it with the nurses. I sat my coffee down back there anyway, and that gives me an excuse.”

“Good idea.” Gates peeled off several business cards and passed them to Karla, who turned and headed down the hall just as the poky elevator arrived. She kept her pace regular and measured, passing the nurse’s station and nodding at the Highway Patrol officer at the door before slipping inside the hospital room with a quick glance behind her.

“Claire!” Karla nodded her head at the elderly judge and gave a quick cough. “Judge Pendergast. Um…” She tugged at one ear with a questioning expression directed at Claire.

“I’m not recording,” said Claire.

“OhthankGod,” said Karla in one burst, turning back to the judge. “I’m sorry, Your Honor. I thought you’d be gone by now.”

“Just talking to these two lovely, intelligent ladies,” said the judge, casting a quick glance at the tall nurse and Claire Bruener in a borrowed set of scrubs. “Seems quite a coincidence that the governor of Kansas had my personal cell number. I distinctly remember giving it to you during that kidnapping affair a few months back, although things here seem to have worked out for the best.”

“About that.” Karla gave Claire a sharp glance. “What did you do with the tablet camera? I saw it propped up in the corner there.”

“Turned it off when you guys left.” Claire produced her android tablet and showed the video window with Director Gates in the rough center, frowning fiercely. “I was just about to upload it to YouTube, but the hospital wifi sucks.”

“A few hundred reporters sponging off it drags down the bandwidth,” said Karla rapidly. She peeked out the hospital room door to make sure no other agents had wandered back in her direction before turning back to Claire. “Don’t. Just don’t. Putting that on YouTube is a really bad idea.”

“What, is it illegal?”

The judge interrupted. “Kansas is a one-party consent state, so technically recording Miss Gates and myself was not illegal. It was, however, unwise.”

“You don’t get to her position in Washington by being nice,” said Karla. “You get it by winning fights. She wants to win this one bad. A nice, mutual press conference in Walter Reed with all the major networks listening to how she provided assistance to our alien visitors would play nicely. Then in about a year after the next election, the Attorney General retires, and she moves up, along with everybody who helped her.”

“I see.” Claire slid the video into a folder and closed it. “And anybody who doesn’t help—”

“Bounces under the bus like a dead possum. Oh.” Karla pulled out the DAG’s business cards, then scribbled a number on the backs of two of them. “Deputy AG’s cell on the front. My personal TracFone on the back. Find something that makes her look good, give her a call. Otherwise, give me a call, and we’ll try to fix it. And try to keep them in Kansas. If they cross state lines, she’s going to try to hustle them off to Quantico, but I don’t think she’ll break a restraining order. Go around your back maybe, but she’s got enough respect for the law to keep to it. Unless she can get somebody else in the court to overturn it.”

“I’ll talk to my peers. I think the quieter we keep this, the better off everybody will be.” Judge Pendergast took one of the business cards and tucked it away before looking at the tall nurse in the room, who had been very quiet to this point. The nurse silently nodded back and put a finger to her lips before turning back to Granny Smith and checking a sensor wire. Likewise, the Highway Patrol officer at the hospital room door gave them all a short nod, touched his lips like he was closing a zipper, and returned to his silent observation of the corridor.

Karla picked up the foam coffee cup she had intentionally left behind and took a quick drink. “Well, that’s it for now. Not enough coffee in the world to handle the upcoming hours-long meeting on my day off to deal with planning for an alien invasion ex post facto. Uh,” she added, looking around the room. “Speaking of which, where is the scary one? Goose, I believe?”

“Watching my granddaughter. She was visiting today, and I had to tear out of the Federal Building so fast, I didn’t get a chance to find a sitter,” said Judge Pendergast.

He opened the door to the bathroom where the young girl and the dark batpony were sitting quietly in the middle of the tile floor. The judge’s granddaughter had stripped Goose of her armor before giving the reluctant human-sitter a long brushing, ending in what had obviously been an epic fun time of tying the batpony’s long mane up in colorful ribbons, including one that held the short mane on top of her head straight up like a dark violet haystack. “Come on, honeybunch,” called out the judge. “Time to go.”

“Aww, Grandpa. I wanted to braid her tail.” The little girl looked heartbroken, although her ribboned and bowed pony target perked up as if she was being released from a jail sentence.

“You can come back later,” assured Claire. She scribbled a phone number on a nearby piece of paper and handed it to the young girl. “You and Goose were very good, and since we’re going to be here for a few days, you can come back and braid her tail then.”

Karla stood next to Claire and watched the judge and his granddaughter go away, with one tiny wave thrown back over the girl’s shoulder before they went around the corner of the corridor. Then Claire looked back into the bathroom and giggled.

“Don’t take those ribbons out. They look adorable, and if you’re going to go visit the children’s ward like you promised, they’ll keep the kids from being spooked.”

- - - - ⧖ - - - -
Time: 5:40 P.M. Central Standard Time, June 19, 2015
Bruener Farm, Randolph Kansas
- - - - ⧖ - - - -

“Glad that’s over,” said Governor Brown as he thumbed the phone over to the other call. “Hello, who is this?” He listened for a moment, then hung up with a low grumble. “No, I don’t need to refinance my student loans, spammer!”

“At least you can use your phone.” Jon Bruener jabbed futilely at his iPhone, barely able to clear out one text message before another dozen flashed across the screen. “Damned Google. Everybody across the world sees my name on TV, Googles my seed company, and has my phone number to send me a text.”

Spike laughed with a remarkably human sounding snort at the end. “Glad I don’t have that problem. Only Princess Celestia and Twilight have the spell to send me—” He put both hands over his face, then belched mightily with a burst of green flame that spilled out over the dining room table and left several packages behind.

“Whoa,” said Jon, patting a scorched corner of the tablecloth. “Careful. My grandmother embroidered this.”

“Sorry.” Spike thumped his chest with one clenched fist to get the last burst of smoke out. “Ow. Well, at least Twilight sent me a snack along with the mail. Good thing, since I missed breakfast.” He picked up a bag full of sparkling rocks and popped one into his mouth with a deafening crunch.

“Pill bottles?” asked Governor Brown, poking cautiously at the collection of items on the table.

“Prescriptions, most likely,” said Spike as he unrolled a scroll and popped another rock in his mouth. “Registration papers, spell notes for the unicorns here to help out with the portal spell in three days. Ah, and a note.”

“Are those… gemstones?” asked Jon, reaching into the neck of the bag and running his fingers through several red and green stones that looked a little like… no, that was quite impossible.

“Rubies, emeralds, a few opals, some peridot, and citrines,” verified Spike, grabbing one chubby handful and popping them into his mouth with a noise like an industrial gravel grinder destroying a boulder. “Some of these are fresh, too. Rarity must have just dug them up today.”

“Uh… Yeah.” Governor Brown peeked over Spike’s shoulder at the long letter, written in the indecipherable Equestrian script. “So what does your Princess Twilight Sparkle say this time?”

“Not much.” Spike kept eating while reading down the page, but talked loud enough to be heard over the destruction. “A week’s worth of prescriptions for everypony with any health issues, just in case. Affirmations of Equestrian citizenship for the ponies stranded here. Uh, I’ll translate them for you later. Extra quills, ink, parchment, and a note for me. That’s nice. I was starting to feel a little ignored.”

The little dragon popped the last of the gems into his mouth and shook the empty bag to get the last fragments of gem dust out, then flattened the scroll down on the table. Jon took the empty bag as it was passed to him and tried to wrap his mind around just how many millions of dollars worth of precious stones it had held. Some of the rubies in the collection were as big as his thumb… or had been that large before being consumed.

“Dear Spike,” started the dragon. “Oh, good. She remembered my name. Anyway, I’ve sent a full week’s worth of prescriptions for all of the residents, along with forms of identification that I hope that world’s governmental authorities accept as official. Included are spare writing materials for you to return a note in case I’ve forgotten anything, and extra writing materials to request any more writing materials if you get low.”

Jon tried to keep a straight face. “I think your Twilight needs a good, long talk with my wife, the therapist.”

“She just drives them crazy,” said Spike. “Anyway, some more about writing, she’s going to try to keep the library sorted without me, Starlight Glimmer— Uh-oh.”

“What?” Jon and Governor Brown looked over the dragon’s shoulder, despite not being able to make heads or tails out of the letter he was reading.

“She’s a really powerful unicorn, and she tries hard to be good, but sometimes she gets a little… scary.” Spike took a deep breath and continued down the page. “I’m supposed to give the notes on the portals to the graduates of Celestia’s School for Gifted Unicorns who wound up here so they can work the problem from this end too, and use the Ponyville Emergency Fund to pay any expenses we run up until our return. Uh-oh.” Spike looked at the empty bag that had recently held gemstones, then turned it over to reveal a series of Equestrian symbols that seemed to say ‘Do not eat!’ if Jon squinted at them just right.

The governor patted the dragon on the shoulder. “The State of Kansas and Riley County will pick up most of the security and housing tab, since it’s only going to be three days. In all odds, the increase in tourism will make up the difference and then some.”

“Besides, I’ll chip in for any immediate expenses,” said Jon. “You landed here, after all. One of the phone calls I made was to my lawyer back in Leonardville and the bank. She’s setting up a lead trust for your town’s use if needed, and I moved some of my savings into it so the bank can issue a debit card. She should have it here this evening, pro bono.”

Governor Brown checked his own phone, which had been buzzing fairly frequently. “I’m not sure it will be needed. Every charity from the American Red Cross to the Lutheran Women’s Missionary League is lined up to help. The Shriners are even covering Widget and Granny Smith’s hospital bills. My aide says the hardest thing the Riley County Emergency Management staff is dealing with is people who think that we’re going to need a few semi-trucks full of hay and bottled water.”

“As long as it doesn’t get as bad as ‘93,” said Captain Samantha Reitz. “We must have thrown away a couple semi’s worth of the most amazing useless stuff after the flood. Anyway, Governor, I’m headed back into town, but the other shift commander will be along shortly, and we’ve borrowed a few deputies from surrounding counties for traffic control. We’re not having to tow as many people as I first thought to keep K-77 clear, but—” She paused, then continued a little slower. “I’ll have to show you the video the highway department shot. It’s really… different.”

- - Ω - -

The Riley County Highway Department pickup was covered in blinking yellow lights and signs like the pace car at a race, but regularly poked along fairly slow like today. The crew it carried could normally put in about four traffic control signs an hour, due to the time required to assemble the sign, dig the hole or hammer in the post, and make sure everything was all correct. Roberto was driving his truck down the edge of the road at a fair trot this afternoon, which was more than unusual because normally he never would have used ‘trot’ as a measure of speed. However, the chunky armored unicorn trotting along just to the side of the pickup was setting the pace, along with one of his companions sitting in the bed of the pickup and using his ‘magic’ to assemble signs. It was a fascinating sight to see Specialist Epsilon surrounded by glowing bolts, nuts, poles and the ‘No Parking - Tow Zone’ signs, spinning and tightening all the parts together until he would float the assembled sign over the edge of the pickup bed to Specialist Titan, who would—

There was another one of the strange ‘chunk’ noises and the bottom half of the steel signpole Titan had floated in front of him just vanished underground, leaving a perfectly straight ‘No Parking’ sign in his wake as he trotted forward to the next location.

- - Ω - -

“In any event,” continued Captain Reitz, “the MPs are set up, we’re arranging for shift changes, and we’ve got less of a traffic problem than anticipated, mostly because we’ve been pretty stringent about who we allow into town and the farm. After discussing things with the mayor, we’ve decided to house the children both here and in the Brueners’ old farmhouse next door, since keeping them together will allow us to move them to the return portal in one herd, so to say. Mister Bruener has been coordinating with Randolph to see about housing the rest of our temporary residents in something other than the Emergency Management cots starting to stack up at the Methodist church. How did that go, Jon?”

- - Ω - -

Jon really had expected to see just a few Winnebagos and travel trailers in the flat grassy field around back of his house. The field was really too small to rent out for grazing, since it had once been a horse paddock a decade ago until his father had gotten too old to deal with the horses and sold them. Then he passed away and Jon could not keep up with mowing the fenced area either. So he had pulled up the fence and hayed the sparse grass off it every summer while waiting for the compacted soil to spring back.

Years ago, his father had traveled the country with a Winnebago-Itasca Travelers group, and once had brought them over for a visit which filled the yard up with their expensive motorhomes, but Jon really had not expected to see quite so many of them parked in neat lines behind the house again. Thirty or forty was a good guess, under a set of shady clouds that the pegasi were anchoring above the motorhomes. Technically, almost all of them slept four comfortably, or six uncomfortably, so between them, dad’s old house, and his own home, they could probably temporarily house the whole collection of Ponyvillians, even if they would be a little cramped.

The only question he had was why there were so many motorhomes and fifth-wheel trailers in his back pasture next to the dirt utility road that ran up toward Randolph. Jon had called Pastor May and asked if he could bring his fairly small RV up because it had a toilet, although Jon could vaguely remember asking if he could spread the word among the RV crowd.

It had not seemed like too much of an imposition because the pastor only really used his fifth-wheel trailer for the Fourth of July church youth group fireworks stand, and Jon could see it next to his own worn Winnebago Rialta. Then there was Mister Foreman’s travel trailer next to it, and… actually, quite a few of the motorhomes looked familiar, and when Jon went over to the pasture where the owners were showing the temporary residents, it was like going to a church meeting.

Ponies and humans were crawling all over the vehicles because RV owners loved to show off their expensive toys, and the ponies were tickled pink—literally in some cases—to explore and prod the strange machines. About half of the RV owners wound up being from Jon’s church or social circle of some sort. A few quick questions around the gathering revealed the calling tree had caught fire and spread out to the point where Jon noticed Pastor May answering his phone every few minutes with a “No, I don’t think we need any more RVs, but leave a note in the church office in case we need to give you a call.”

To Jon’s intense amazement, the clouds being ‘parked’ over the RVs by the pegasi were also being shaped and moulded by energetic pegasi hooves into temporary housing. The sight of a winged pony climbing over a cloud and patting it into roof or a wall was stunning at first, worthy of a few minutes of video for Facebook, but after everything that had happened today, he was starting to feel more than a little stunned.

Still, not as stunned as some of the people in the town of Randolph.

- - Ω - -

Howard Baker was retired, which had a lot of ‘tired’ in it, and enough ‘re’ to repeat tired many times. Oh, there were still activities and such going on in his life, but today he had taken the peace and quiet of the empty house to catch up on his magazine reading and sand a few more pieces of the parquet table he was assembling out in the garage. The wife had been at Vacation Bible School at the Randolph Methodist church all day and had returned just a few minutes ago, talking a mile a minute about some sort of disaster that had dumped a bunch of ponies into the town with no place to keep them. She was a wonderful wife, but entirely too volunteering for Howard’s preferences, in particular the way she had volunteered their back yard to hold several of the lost ponies until they were picked back up.

He was just considering how large the truck accident had to have been to keep all of the ponies from being penned in some farmer’s pasture when the doorbell rang, and he got up from his recliner to answer it. After all, the wife was busy in the kitchen, and she would have needed to walk past him to get to the door anyway, which would have gotten him a sharp talking-to.

“I got it, hun,” he called out as he opened the door and looked out… at nothing.

“Mister Baker? Ohmygosh another human! Isn’t this great, Bonnie?” said a voice down below his line of sight.

There was a grinning horse… well, not really a horse, because a horse would not have been that shade of mint green, or nearly that short, and certainly would not have a mane with blue-green and white stripes flowing down its neck. And a horn. Really, the horn threw him most of all. With the horn, it looked like a unicorn, and nobody sober or sane saw unicorns standing at the front door in the middle of the day. Admittedly, he had gotten out a beer for lunch, but just one beer, and a domestic one at that.

The hornless pony standing next to the green one was a more normal golden-yellow, but with a totally impossible blue and pink mane that curled up in front. She was not grinning so intently as her companion, but rather looked around at her surroundings with a casual intentness. “Lyra,” she admonished in a high, squeaky voice. “They’re all humans around here.”

“But this one is a baker!” said ‘Lyra’ with an even larger grin that nearly could not fit on her face. “You two will get along great! Do you throw parties or are you more a bread baker or a candy maker like Bon Bon here or—”

“Lyra!” The cross-looking yellow pony stuck a hoof right into her companion’s mouth. “Manners.” Turning back to Howard, Bon Bon gave a small, respectful nod of her head and a polite smile. “Mister Baker, the human ladies at the Methodist church were looking for volunteers to house us while we’re waiting on Twilight to make a return portal. Your wife, I believe, said you have a spare bedroom.”

“Honey?” called out Howard. “It’s for you.”

10. Moving Party

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Farmer Bruener Has Some Ponies
Moving Party

“There is no real need for decorations when throwing a barbecue party - let the summer garden, in all its vibrant and luscious splendour, speak for itself.”
Pippa Middleton

- - - - ⧖ - - - -
Time: 10:15 A.M. Pacific Standard Time, June 19, 2015.
San Francisco Chronicle building, California
- - - - ⧖ - - - -

The San Francisco Chronicle was smaller than most people thought, and still large enough to harbor the worst of energy-sucking parasites. Staff meetings drew them out like ticks to a hound dog, so Dakota Henderson felt glad that the lead editor had limited the pony-discovery discussion between various writers to a brutal few minutes. A story such as this out in the blighted American midwest would be of interest to the newspaper readership, even if it did not measure up to some of the fanciful editorial theories about the aliens fleeing an ecological catastrophe or being oppressed by a carnivorous race. Two poor suckers had been selected out of the volunteers to travel out into the wilderness to gather information for the more enlightened writers back home to craft into columns, and to Kota’s hidden delight, he was one of them.

Kota had not disclosed that he found out about the aliens over an hour earlier from a military buddy, and had already hit Orbitz for a plane ticket to Kansas, so having the Chronicle pay for his purchase was going to be a nice bonus for a part-time stringer. The fly in the ointment so to say was the other reporter volunteered for the trip, who chattered along by his side with a cell phone held to her ear as they walked through the halls of the building.

“They’re ponies, like little horses who talk English of all things, Dawn. Isn’t that just divine! Romping through the grass, naked to the world. It’s no wonder they’re advanced intelligences who can travel through dimensions. Of course, I’ll bring you one of their crystals for your girlfriend. Hey, Kota! Are you going to make our plane reservations for tomorrow?”

It took him a second to realize the question was directed at him, and Dakota shifted the duffel bag higher on his shoulder before responding. “I keep a bag at the office for just this occasion. My ticket is for about two hours from now, so I’ll have to hustle to make the plane as is.”

“Just a sec,” said Crystal, mashing her thumb down on the Android phone ‘mute’ button. “Look, weirdo. You’re not stealing my story! Jeff is sending us there together! I’ve got to pack and make arrangements and get tickets and—”

“And I’ll be in Kansas City in five hours,” said Dakota. “I’ve got my bug-out bag, my laptop, some clothes, and my traveling gear, so I’m good. I’ll be talking to alien ponies by the time you’re done talking to your plants tonight. Bye.”

It probably spelled the end of his journalism career at the Chronicle, but it still felt good to slip into the Uber he had called for the trip to the airport and leave the blonde chatterbox behind. There was no time to relax, because what little he had managed to get off YouTube and his Army buddy at the site indicated that the town was going to be sealed off from anybody who was not a resident, and that included a few thousand reporters—domestic and imported—who most probably would be trying to crowd into the tiny town in the next few days.

Thankfully, he had actually written a chapter in one of his fantasy novels about such a dilemma, and it took literally less than ten minutes during the drive to the airport for Zillow to find an affordable house for sale in Randolph. Then a call to his lawyer in North Carolina to set up the deal, a conference call with the real estate agent, and he had a purchase agreement by the time the car reached the airport.

Over the last ten years, his lawyer friend had taken care of his book deal, the life insurance his parents had left behind, and whatever other money Dakota had sent his way, leaving a tidy growing balance locked away from his ex-wife’s grasping fingers. A fellow Marine, he also held a power of attorney over his investments, so by the time Kota was in line for TSA, a little over sixty thousand dollars of his cash reserves from his parents’ estate was on the way to a bank in Leonardville, and the digitally signed documents were being finalized to be delivered to his mailbox while the airplane was still in the sky.

Bruce Wayne had it right. Cash is its own superpower.

TSA was moving at a good clip for a change, although Dakota had a brief moment of panic over the thought that a few loose pistol rounds may have been lost in the corners of his carry on bag from his last trip to Montana to go hunting with some military buddies. After some time in line checking for spent brass, it turned out to be a false alarm, allowing him to pass through TSA and head for his gate without incident.

Boarding pass, ticket, debit cards, check, check, and check. Transportation was going to be a sticky link at the far end of the trip, and Dakota was not looking forward to sleeping on a bare floor or in the backseat of a subcompact rental car, but there was an option he had always wanted to try.

And surprisingly, it only took another ten minute phone call and the wave of a magic credit card to accomplish the task of creating Cinderella’s pumpkin in Kansas City, all ready for pickup when he got there. A two week RV rental was probably guessing long, but he had the cash, and if this worked, he would be one of a very few reporters in the world with alien access, which should be able to make back his investment plus some.

He was feeling pretty good about himself and mentally putting together some story outlines for his horsey interviews when a sharp fingernail poked him from behind and a familiar voice said, “Hey, Kota. They’re boarding in a few minutes, so you might want to get that bag checked.”

“Crystal!” Dakota whirled to find the blonde bombshell looking back, with her beaded purse slung over one shoulder. “What are you doing here?”

“My friend got a plane ticket and texted it to me,” she explained, counting off points with her immaculately manicured nails, “and I’ll get a hotel in Randorf tonight. She’s going to FedEx me the bare essentials today, and they should show tomorrow morning. Until then, I’ve got my little red dress and some spare underthings. How about you?”

Dakota could not resist. “There’s no hotels in Randolph. I bought a house there, so I’ll be staying right there at the landing site, while you get a hotel room in Manhattan and have to fight your way through a few thousand reporters to get a story.”

“Manhattan?” Crystal wrinkled up her perfect nose. “Isn’t that a long way away? Like I didn’t think Kansas was that close to the coast.”

Three hours of being trapped in an aircraft seat next to the blonde did nothing to raise her level of conversation. She was smart enough to swap seating assignments to be next to him, but dumb enough that Dakota could feel his brain cells begin to wither and die with every word she spoke.

Or at least until the refrigerator door opened and he could see a little light bulb turn on.

“Dakota Henderson, single, divorced father of two,” she mused almost under her breath, or at least loud enough for him to hear over the aircraft noise. “You bought a house in this podunk little Kansas town.”

It was certainly not a question, so Dakota just grunted and kept writing in his notebook.

“Scuttlebut around the newsroom said your ex soaked you for every dime she could get her hands on,” said Crystal. “So what, did you dig a hole and bury some cash?”

“After our divorce, my parents passed away,” said Dakota. “The estate only split two ways with my sister, and I locked down every dime of the insurance money I could keep out of my ex’s hands. It’s still not enough to buy a reasonable condo in San Francisco, and I’m not about to pay the highway robbery rates that a mortgage would cost me, particularly with taxes and the way real estate prices flail around. So I held onto a down payment in cash, just in case an opportunity came up.”

Crystal snapped her gum and gave him an evaluating look. “You know, if I were your ex, I woulda dragged you back into court and got you to cough up extra child support money.”

“She did.” Dakota shrugged. “She found a female lawyer and a friendly female judge and was all ready with her girlfriend to take me to the cleaners. Then I showed up in court with a friend of one of my Marine lawyer buds from a few years ago. Got caught in an IED explosion and lost an arm, so he left the service and decided he… well, she liked it better on the other side of the gender fence. The courthouse railroad ran right off into the ditch at that point, particularly when he showed that my ex’s girlfriend had moved in with her for the last few years and no longer kept a separate address. Their combined income is at least one decimal point or two away from mine. That’s the only way I still have the money to buy a house on short notice, although it made getting visitation with my kids absolute hell.”

Crystal pursed her lips in a silent whistle. “So you bought a house.”

“Is there an echo in the plane? Yes, I bought a house. It was dirt cheap, compared to about anything in Frisco that isn’t on fire, and unless the authorities seal off Randolph totally and ship everybody to a hotel somewhere, which I’d do if there were a bunch of aliens there, the only people allowed in or out will be residents.”

“And we’re residents now,” said Crystal with a long, slow nod. “Makes sense.”

“I’m a resident,” clarified Dakota, although with immediate second thoughts about his fellow reporter, who had much more experience in the business than he did, and occupied a far higher link in the food chain. “You can be a paying guest for expense account purposes,” he added with more than a little reluctance, but a recognition that some mutual backscratching would assist his career.

“Paying?” Crystal gave him a pouting look with a curled-out lower lip.

It took very little effort for Dakota to pick up his mechanical pencil and return to his notebook. “This project is going to be expensive, and you’re not going to flirt your way out of paying the bills. Besides, you’ll get them reimbursed. You’re the lead reporter, so you’ll get the bylines too. Even if the aliens are only here until Monday, we’ll be writing stories on them for several weeks. Then it’s back to the Chronicle, I’ll sell the house in Randolph, and life returns to normal. My ex has been making noises about us getting back together. We’ve started dating again, and the kids are talking to me for a change. I’m not going to screw this one up.”

“Or screw this one?” added Crystal with a wink.

“Darned straight.” Dakota flipped over a page and started to draw a sketch from one of the pony pictures he had stored on his phone. “It’s the only way I’m going to get to see my kids for more than once a year.”

Crystal remained blissfully silent for a time while watching him draw, then settled back in her seat and returned to her book reader for the rest of the journey.

- - - - ⧖ - - - -
Time: 8:30 P.M. Central Standard Time, June 19, 2015
Kansas City International Airport
- - - - ⧖ - - - -

“So this is your idea of a rental car?” Crystal climbed into the passenger seat of the RV and remained relatively quiet while Dakota and the portly driver exchanged pleasantries, only resuming her carping once they had traveled down the road to drop off the driver at his home. “The paper will never reimburse this,” she grumbled. “It’s like a portable hotel room.”

“I bought an empty house,” said Kota once he had gotten the heavy vehicle back on the road and up to highway speed. “They don’t come furnished, and I wasn’t particularly looking forward to sleeping on the floor. The house is just to get me… I mean us access to the town. Think of it as a portable bed and breakfast. I’ll park the RV in the driveway and we can sleep in it. If it takes more than two weeks, I’ll get us a couple of air mattresses for the house and rent a car. I’ll bet there’s not a regular hotel within thirty minutes drive of Randolph, and I guarantee the traffic will stretch that out to hours.”

“Huh.” Crystal looked marginally impressed, and went back to explore the strange vehicle once they were on a fairly straight piece of road with no bumps. “There’s only one bed— Oh, wait. There’s one over the driver too. And there’s a toilet back here!”

“It’s a lot better than that trip to Uganda I got to go on last year,” said Kota. “There’s still a couple hours to Randolph. If you want, get my laptop and hotspot out of the bag. You can probably have a story filed by the time we get there. Bold, adventurous reporters off into the American West in search of alien pony encounters and all that.”

“K. Cool.”

That was all Dakota heard out of her for some time, other than the clicking of keys and the murmuring of her phone. He drove in silence with the occasional glance at his phone for Siri’s directions, picked up the ticket to get onto the turnpike, then paid to get off of it in Topeka an hour later.

“Hey!” objected Crystal during one of the sweeping turns the interstate had put in their way. “Are you lost?”

“Nope,” he called back. “I-70 doesn’t have a straight bypass here, according to Siri. We’re going to stop at Walmart for supplies, get coffee, and be back on the road in about a half-hour. Worst case if we have to camp outside of the town, we won’t starve.”

“Can we stop by Neiman Marcus?” asked Crystal. “I can get a couple of blouses to tide me over until my girlfriend gets my stuff shipped to me. Oh, poo,” she added, poking at her phone. “The nearest one is in Kansas City. Can we go back?”

It wound up taking more than the expected time to buy supplies at the local Walmart, but they still managed to get back out on the road with Crystal stocking the small refrigerator and complaining about the lack of organic vegetables in their purchases. She typed for a little more while he drove, then settled into the passenger seat to stare out the window as the lights of civilization became fewer and the darkness closed in.

“So why did you buy the carrots?” asked Dakota in order to fill the silence without random radio tuning.

“Well, duh!” Crystal flicked one wrist. “They’re ponies, right? I grabbed a little bit of everything in the grocery aisle, but ponies are supposed to really love carrots.”

“They’re aliens, not people,” said Dakota, who was really appreciating having a second person to talk to while driving, although he kept wanting to change her channel to something smarter. “Humans are wildly different from state to state, let alone on the other side of the world. You never would have made it during the Uganda trip. We were held up at gunpoint twice, and ate things that you just can’t find in California. These creatures may look like ponies and even act like them a little, but they’re not even people. We’re going to have to be careful not to anthropomorphize them too much.”

“They were eating pizza in one of the videos,” pointed out Crystal.

“Err… Point taken. I don’t know why anybody would feed horses pizza. Their digestive systems can’t take it.”

- - - - ⧖ - - - -
Time: 7:30 P.M. Central Standard Time, June 19, 2015
City Park in Randolph, Kansas
- - - - ⧖ - - - -

Normally, a group of displaced people who have gone through a disaster will be depressed, huddle together with their families, and worry.

To counter that, the people of Randolph got together and decided to have a party at the city park for their new guests, with a barbeque (corn on the cob and carrot dogs) and music. The crowds could have easily gotten out of hand, but the radio and TV stations were very careful to specify that the party was by the residents of the town, for the ponies, so piling into the car and trying to visit was only going to get people trapped in a miles-long traffic jam before being turned back. Besides, several local TV stations broadcast live feeds, giving the watchers a far better view of the festivities than sitting in a stalled car in the Kansas heat.

So the party started with the population of Randolph(163), a certain small fraction of Ponyville(243), various MPs and other soldiers from Ft. Riley, a dozen or so of the local media, and the Kristina Craig Band. They had arrived in Nebraska before Country Stampede to do a little catching up in their hometown, and since it was only a three-hour trip away, took the opportunity to do a gig for the new alien guests.

The humans really did not understand that ponies considered music to be a participatory sport.

By eight o’clock, the temporary stage had about as many ponies as people on it.

By eight thirty, the only human not dancing was on the drums, while the rest of the band positions had been supplemented by musical members of the audience.

By nine, the humans had experienced their first spontaneous musical number. It was viewed by most of them as a stunningly unique and special experience. There was one exception.

- - Ω - -

“So is that your father?” Widget blinked drowsily at the television set and flopped her head over to look at Claire, who was typing on her tablet. “He looks familiar.”

Claire looked up for a moment, then returned to pecking away on her wireless keyboard. “Oh, God. Yes, that’s my father. Mom’s the one dancing with him. If you can call that dancing. Can we change channels?”

“That’s nice.” Widget yawned and wiggled her wrapped-up hoof slightly. “Ouch.”

“I think we can cut down the morphine in her IV tomorrow morning. How about we turn off the TV in a few minutes and let you both get some sleep,” said the short chubby nurse who was watching over Granny Smith. The elderly pony had gotten up once to be walked back to the bathroom and for the doctor-unicorn to examine her hip, but had gone straight back to bed afterward and seemed to be content to just sleep with a quiet snore.

“D’wana,” muttered Widget, turning back to the television where several humans were dancing while pegasi flew above them in complicated patterns. “Wanna dance. Go see the world. Wanna see it all.” Her horn lit up in a flickering aura and the can of Sprite on the table wobbled, but Claire caught it before it could fall and held it up to Widget’s lips for a drink. “Wanna see the bathroom,” she said carefully after getting her drink.

After a few more keystrokes, Claire got up and began to move the blankets on Widget’s bed with a yawn. “Okay, but once you go pee, it’s back to bed and sleep.”

“K.” Several other nurses slipped into the room while they were undergoing the complicated maneuver of getting twice as many legs out of bed and onto the floor than Claire was used to, although Widget held her injured foreleg up on her own during the short walk to the bathroom. “Good friend. Claire’s good friend.”

Waiting until the unicorn had finished the awkward task of peeing in an alien toilet and underwent the long trip back to the bed, Claire finally mumbled, “I’m not that good a friend.”

“Iz too.” Widget leaned out as far as her IV would let her and brushed her cold nose against Claire’s neck. “Called that nice judge for me. Stopped the nice agent lady. Nice.”

Claire held her hand over the pony’s mouth, then carefully began to get her comfortable on the hospital bed. “Let’s not talk about that, please. Why don’t we talk about… Ponyville?”

“D’wanna.” Widget yawned, smelling a little horsey from the applesauce she had eaten today without brushing her teeth afterward. “My parents are from Ponyville, and their parents too. I’z an only foal, so I’ll be there too. Runnin’ the shop. Fixin’ stuff. Marry some stud, have foals, stuff like that. Never see the world.”

“I’ve seen our world,” said Claire. She held up her tablet and showed the screen it was on with a picture of mountains in the background. “Bicycled the Alps. Visited all my mother’s crazy relatives in Portugal. Spent six weeks in Japan with a youth conference. It has its awesome and sucky spots.”

“Heh.” Widget settled down on the pillow with her eyes closed. “Bet you never saw a Sonic Rainboom.”

“Bet you can’t finish describing it before you fall asleep,” countered Claire, turning the tablet camera in the direction of the sleepy unicorn. “I’ll video it for proof.”

- - - - ⧖ - - - -
Time: 11:30 P.M. Central Standard Time, June 19, 2015
K13 Bridge by Randolph, Kansas
- - - - ⧖ - - - -

“How do you know this is the right bridge?” Crystal peered out into the darkness as the Winnebago quietly hummed along. “It’s so dark out there.”

“You think it’s dark here, you should have seen Afghanistan.” Dakota Henderson peered out the windshield and pointed at the glow. “Looks like Randolph right up there. Street lights, running water, and everything.”

“You don’t think there are any… indians out there?” asked Crystal. “This far out in the plains, that is.”

“You’ve got one right here.” Dakota grinned. “What do you mean ‘we,’ white man?”

He paused for the expected indignant response, then caught a good look at Crystal’s stressed face reflected on the auto glass. “No, there’s no wild indians here,” he added with as much reassurance as he could force into his voice without laughing. “The ponies are probably all sleeping at whatever shelter the government set up for them, so we’ll just follow Siri to my house and sack out until tomorrow morning.”

They drove in silence for a short while until Crystal spoke up. “We have to get through the roadblock first,” she said once the side road to the town loomed up out of the darkness and the MP could be seen, holding out his hand. Dakota slowed the RV into a turn, bringing it to a halt beside the soldier and rolling down the window.

“Hello, Private… Fitzgerald, “ said Dakota with a short salute and a squinting look at the soldier’s ACUs in the light of the RV’s interior. “Looks like our alien visitors brought out the Army.”

“Yes, sir. Do you have business in the town?” said the MP, who sounded relieved to get some company.

“Just headed to our house, sir.” Dakota thumbed off Siri and unlocked his iPhone. “Let me get the bill of sale for you.”

“Oh, you’re a resident.” The MP waved them on. “Have a nice night, and watch out for our visitors. Most of them are down at the park, but there’s a few out and about.”

It took a moment for his words to soak into Dakota’s tired mind, but he tossed his phone onto the dashboard and thanked the MP before driving slowly forward, past the roadblock and onto the dark street. Crystal at least waited until the checkpoint was behind them before breaking out in a bad case of the giggles.

“You didn’t even have to buy a house,” she managed through her laughter. “They just let you in.”

“Indian luck,” he retorted, leaving the window open and sticking his elbow out into the cool breeze. Even though small towns tended to roll the streets up at night, he could hear the distant sound of loud music, so somebody at the park was active. Maybe the ponies were party animals. “We native Americans got screwed on everything else, but—”

A blur of orange flashed across the headlights, and Kota’s slowing reflexes barely were able to slam the Winnebago’s brake pedal to the floor before the blur resolved itself into…

The weirdest pony he had ever expected to see. And it was flying.

Most of the pictures he had seen showed three kinds of ponies in muted pastel colors, with occasional vibrant blues and pinks. This pegasus was different. Way different. The powerfully pink pegasus fairly glowed neon in the headlights, and almost literally to boot, overshadowed only by the vibrant orange of her mane and tail that practically ensured her complete and total safety during deer season, as well as anyone within a few dozen yards.

The human eye was not meant to see this kind of color explosion at close range and without time to brace. Every time Kota blinked, she seemed to strobe in the headlights, until she swooped up to his open window and spoke in the most beautiful plaintive voice.

“Um, excuse me, sir or madam. We’re trying to get the students back to their sleeping quarters, and we got turned around in town, so if you could direct us to the Bruener’s farm, we’d be deeply appreciative.”

Several more blinks on Kota’s part made him realize that the colorful mare was wearing armor of some dark blackish-blue material, thus making her one of the military members of the stranded ponies. He reflexively saluted as the concept of ‘Officer’ triggered neurons that had been properly trained by the Marines over several years of service.

“Yes, Ma’am,” he snapped, putting the stopped Winnebago into park. “Let me just pull up the map on my phone and we’ll get you and…”

Distracted by the pegasus’ vibrant colors, Kota had not noticed the smaller horde of ponies that followed her, most of which were gathered around the front fender of the motorhome and making noises like “Cool!” and “Neat!” In the darkness, they would be more invisible than deer, and if there were any other vehicles driving around, the first thing they’d notice would be the thump of the first interdimensional traffic fatality.

“Crystal, open the door,” he called back. “We can drive Miss…” He paused and looked at the pegasus with a bit of a squint.

“Specialist Thermal,” she said with a shy smile from where she was still hovering. “And my son, Standing Water.”

It took a second for Kota to spot the sleeping pegasus colt in the carrier to Thermal’s side. His light blue and dark blue coloring merged with the mottled shadows, plus his mother’s vibrant colors kept dragging Kota’s eyes away. The rest of the little ponies who came stampeding up into the RV were easier to pick out, although all he could do for a few moments was marvel at the diversity of pony accessories and color schemes.

Particularly when a glowering bat-winged demon pony followed them all inside.

Glowing golden eyes swept across the squabbling children, sucking away a lot of their youthful energy and making the little colts and fillies settle down on seats and the carpeted floor. It even stopped three little fillies from using the bed in back as a trampoline, although it took a second fierce glare to stop the last bounce.

“Better,” she rumbled, turning her dragon-like gaze on Dakota and obviously forcing what was supposed to be a friendly smile if not for the glint of razor-sharp teeth exposed to the interior lighting of the RV.

Crystal gave a muffled shriek. Dakota did his best to appear non-threatening, carefully retrieving his phone with no sudden moves and pulling up Google maps. After all, the creature had not eaten any of the little ponies, and it was wearing the same dark armor as the other military mare.

“All accounted for, Lamby?” Specialist Thermal popped her head in the side door and looked around at the quiet children-ponies while the demon nodded her head.

“Just missing Lucky. We should have headed back to put these troublemakers in bed an hour ago,” grumbled ‘Lamby’ with another quelling glance where several of the young ponies had discovered the refrigerator.

“But the party was so much fun!” declared one of the ponies with a bounce on the bed that made the ribbon tied in her mane flop like wings.

“There were all kinds of carrot dogs, and they just kept feeding us!” declared a little pegasus, who also started bouncing on the bed with the assistance of real wings.

“And new music!” declared a white unicorn filly, who nearly bounced out of the bed with an enthusiastic bounce from the other two.

“Echaw! Booya!” declared a small similarly bat-winged filly in a carrier that ‘Lamby’ had across her armor. Despite looking almost identical to its terrifying mother, the little filly was just heart-rending adorable with big golden eyes and a shock of brilliant blue that swept down her mane like a stroke of lightning.

There was a sharp rattling at the passenger side door and it popped open, allowing a scruffy green pony the opportunity to hop up into the open seat. Like the other mares, he had a foal carrier across his back, which he wriggled out of in order to get his rear seated in the cushioned chair, but unlike them, he was not wearing any kind of armor.

“Here we go,” he declared, pulling the door closed and getting the sleeping green foal in the carrier situated on his lap. “Hello, sir. Thanks for giving us a lift.”

“No prob… Lucky,” said Dakota, still holding the phone. Instead of opening up Google Maps as he originally intended, he thumbed open the camera app and swept the inside of the RV, getting several pictures of the smiling ponies, both large and small. “Bruener,” he murmured while changing applications and zooming into Google maps. “I think…”

“Down this road,” said Lucky, leaning over and pointing with one hoof at the map. “Then you will need to make a—” He tapped several times on the phone with the edge of his hoof before frowning sharply. “This is a lot easier with fingers.”

Dakota shifted the map on screen and Lucky nodded. “There we go. Turn right about there and park with the rest of the RVs. We’ll get the little ones sorted out to the correct sleeping quarters then, if they can stay awake for five minutes.”

“Fie!” declared one small voice from behind them. “Fie! Fie!”

“No flying until we get everypony settled, Stargazer,” chided Lucky without even looking back. “Then you and your mother can keep watch over everypony. Shall we be going, sir?”

“Oh. Yes.” Dakota passed the phone over to the green pony, who was fastening his seat belt, then shifted the Winnebago into low gear and began to roll down the back roads of Randolph again, this time a lot slower and keeping a much sharper eye out for any wandering ponies.

11. Saturday Morning Cartoons

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Farmer Bruener Has Some Ponies
Saturday Morning Cartoons

“The more wonderful the means of communication, the more trivial, tawdry, or depressing its contents seemed to be.”
― Arthur C. Clarke


- - - - ⧖ - - - -
Time: 5:04 A.M. Central Standard Time, Saturday June 20, 2015
Location: Kansas University Medical Center, Fourth Floor
- - - - ⧖ - - - -

Allison Short was proud of being the KC Star’s best staff photographer for good reason. She refused to think of her occupation as being a dying breed in an expiring industry, but had fought hard in her career to capture on film just as much of any story she covered as the reporters she was paired with. Her photos would not be the first pictures of the aliens, or even any of the first thousand of them on the internet, but hers would be first and foremost in the upcoming Star article on the injured aliens and their medical treatment.

And the first thing any reader would see in the article would be her photo.

Despite Allison’s early arrival, the reporter assigned to write the article would only be along a few hours later, depending on how his or her interview with the unicorn doctor went this morning. With him out of the way at Doctor Schwartz’s house where the pony had been staying as a guest, Allison was free to capture a time-critical scene in the most accurate and memorable way possible.

The natural tendency of a hospital when one of their patients was going to get photographed was to throw themselves into a beautification program just a degree away from the Miss America pageant. It probably had something to do with them being lawsuit-shy. One cancer patient had even been dragged through the indignity of a perm and makeover just so she would look good for the camera.

The official time the Star had worked out with the hospital for the interview with the alien patients was about eleven or so. Dawn was still a half-hour away, but the lack of strong light would not be a problem. Allison’s camera had some of the most sensitive night mode sensors Nikon had ever blessed on silicon. A few candid shots with the sleeping aliens in the dim light of the pre-dawn sun would be wonderful background, even perhaps framed as something that the national media would run to tug the heartstrings of people all across the world.

If I do this right, the residuals could send my grandkids to college.

It took a few moments to check in with the nurses on duty and show them the email between the hospital and the newspaper, which they took with a great deal of skepticism and close examination of her identification. It seemed the ‘alien watchers’ had been more than a little annoying, and the head nurse had promised that the next weirdo to try dressing as a doctor or nurse to sneak in was going to get ‘probed’ before being tossed back out into the parking lot.

From the fourth-floor window.

Once the nurses were comfortable with Allison’s identity and authorization, she took a few vanity shots of their dutiful alertness at their stations, which might or might not be used in the article but would wind up in the newspaper clip file just in case. Then all she needed to do was promise not to disturb their sleeping patients and she was free to slip on down the hallway. By luck, the Highway Patrol officer on duty at the doorway was just strolling down the hall in the direction of the coffee pot when Allison came around the other corner, so she gave him a few moments to get some distance, then slipped into the room unseen.

Thankfully the evening lighting cast a shadowless glow across the room, allowing a good look at the two ponies snoozing in their beds with the young girl draped across the couch in the background. Allison crouched, lifting the camera to frame the shot and—

—something silent and terrifying surged out of the darkness.

- - - - ⧖ - - - -
Time: 5:20 A.M. Central Standard Time, Saturday June 20, 2015
Location: Kansas University Medical Center, Fourth Floor
- - - - ⧖ - - - -

“Claire?” An insistent hoof prodded Claire Bruener where she had tried to make herself as comfortable as possible on the visitor’s couch. Thankfully, most of a day and part of an evening of conversation with the young batpony had given Claire enough experience not to give out a sharp screech at the sight of her glowing yellow eyes. After several blinks and yawns, Claire checked the time on her plugged-in phone on the nearby table.

“Goose? It’s not even five thirty,” whispered Claire with a quick look at the two patients, both of which seemed to be beeping and breathing according to their monitors. “Did you finish all the Batman movies I queued up on my tablet? I told you, Batman and Robin isn’t worth it.”

“Not… really. I wanted to ask you something. Is this a laser gun?” Goose’s massive wings flexed at her sides, giving a light breeze to the room, before she reached under them with one hoof and produced a fairly large chunk of electronic equipment.

“No, it’s a camera,” said Claire. She picked it up and examined it in the light coming from the window and the pre-dawn glow of the distant sun. “Darned expensive one, too. Where did you get it?”

Claire was getting a better handle on the ‘tells’ of the ponies, from the way Widget’s horn would spark when she was angry or upset to the way Goose’s wings got little twitches from nerves. There were a lot of twitches now, like a wave of chiggers crawling across the dark skin of her huge wings, and the batpony glided across the hospital tile with the ghostly soundless tread that Claire thought she would never get used to.

Following closely behind, Claire tried not to gasp when Goose opened the bathroom door of the hospital room to reveal a middle-aged woman with wide eyes, who was hog-tied and gagged in the middle of the floor. Expertly tied up, at that, considering that Goose accomplished the task using only hospital self-adhesive pink binding wrap and her own hooves.

“Um,” started out Claire, eventually following it with, “Ahhh, you do realize that The Dark Knight was just a movie, right? And that the number of criminals sneaking into hospital rooms with high-tech guns that look like fancy cameras is pretty much zero. Although we probably should ask her.” Claire produced a knife out of her pocket, bent over the lady, and cut the gag away from her mouth, which allowed the photographer to cough and get a full breath of air.

“Thanks,” she gasped, shaking some of her shoulder-length red hair out of her eyes. “Allison Short, photographer from the Kansas City Star. Thought I’d drop in early and get some candid shots.”

“Sorry,” said Goose with her bat-like wings creeping up to cover her head.

“Are you kidding?” blurted out the photographer before taking a quick glance at the other room and lowering her voice. “That was awesome! God, I’ve never had my heart beating like that before! I think I peed myself a little.”

“Is something wrong, ladies?” Attracted and puzzled by the conversation, the Highway Patrol officer outside the door leaned in, holding his coffee in one hand.

“Goose caught a wild photographer in her natural habitat,” explained Claire. “You want to come in here and help cut her free?”

- - - - ⧖ - - - -
Time: 5:37 A.M. Central Standard Time, Saturday June 20, 2015
Location: Outside the Bruener Farm, Randolph Kansas
- - - - ⧖ - - - -

Dakota Henderson was used to waking with the dawn or before. After all, the rising sun was something special that God had blessed upon the Earth, and it would be a crying shame if any Marine in service to the country could not appreciate it to the tune of a bugle blasting in one ear.

Thankfully, he was no longer in active service, but once a Marine, always a Marine it had been said. A true Marine would not complain about getting any sleep anywhere, even in the reclined RV driver’s chair, but he did not miss the bugle at all. After a pained yawn, he scowled at the tiny fleck of sun peeking over the horizon that put a line of illumination across the RV’s main room, then grabbed for his phone again once he saw what it illuminated.

Their short trip down the dirt road to the Bruener’s RV parking area last night had been taken at the slowest speed, in order not to run over any alien visitors. The resulting slow rocking sensation had affected the hyperactive little ponies like several shots of sedative, making it so that once Kota had eased his rented RV into a section of mowed grass next to the other parked vehicles, he had been the only conscious creature remaining inside. Well, other than the batwinged mare with her bright-eyed baby. She had merely looked at him, then at the sleeping tiny ponies, and slipped out the door like some sort of ghost.

This morning, the interior of the parked RV could have been mistaken for a room full of adorable plushies, with at least six or seven of the little fillies and colts curled up on the bed in back, and Crystal snoozing in the middle of them. Various other sleeping ponies were scattered around the cabin, and from the pair of tails dangling from above him, at least two were in the over-cab area. Once Kota had finished his impromptu photography session, he pulled up his email and sent the whole batch straight to the Chronicle newsroom with a note indicating that they had arrived in Randolph and were making friends with the natives. Then he very carefully extracted his professional camera from his bag and took several close shots in high resolution of Crystal and her sleeping pony companions. They probably would not fit with any story the Chronicle would run, but there was a lot of good-natured blackmail potential that he just could not turn down.

A faint tapping outside of his window made Dakota stop taking cute pictures and roll the window down so he could greet the scruffy green pony he had met yesterday night in Randolph. The blue-eyed stallion was awake and alert with a smile, smelling slightly of coffee and with his fedora sloped forward to shade his eyes. Only this time the similarly green unicorn foal in his carrier was all bright and curious instead of sleeping.

“Morning, Mister Henderson. Your friend is in the old house, making pancakes.” The pony pointed over his shoulder at a nearby square-ish two story house that had seen better days next to a sleek ranch-style home with a multitude of ponies scurrying around it. “If you can get the kids up and generally together, we’ll get you all fed. No sausage unless you want to go to the Brueners’ house, I’m afraid, although I think there may be a piece or two of bacon stashed aside for humans.”

“B’kon!” announced the little unicorn in the carrier, bouncing up and down with glee. “B’kon! B’kon!”

“You’ll have to beat Clover to it, though,” he admitted.

- - Ω - -

“Hey, Kota!” Nicholas Comena dropped into the seat next to Dakota and plunked a foam plate full of pancakes into the middle of the table, which had seen better days. All of the furniture in the old house was… well, old, so the ponies had made temporary tables out of boxes low enough to the ground for ponies young and old to eat without any chairs. Colorful towels kept the syrup and foam plates from making too much of a mess, and most of the plastic silverware had been eschewed in favor of just sticking pony noses down on plates and chewing.

Although all of the unicorns seemed reluctant to dine in that direct fashion.

The kitchen table where the humans were eating breakfast was the exception to the design scheme of ‘early storage container with bathware slipcovers’ because it had been the Bruener family table before the new house was built. All the kids had scattered to every corner of the room while Dakota had managed to get a seat at the old farmhouse’s kitchen table with a regular chair. He already had company for breakfast, because Lucky had his foal sitting on the middle of the table and suckling out of a bottle that he was holding with both forehooves. The kid was adorable beyond measure, but Lucky had put all four feet down about keeping her out of the photographs, so Kota had limited himself to the rest of the pint-sized herd until Nick was done volunteering behind the griddle.

“Hey, Nick. This is Lucky and his kid, Clover. How’s life in the tin cans?” Dakota stabbed one of the pancakes with his plastic fork and dropped it on his own plate, following it up with a drizzle of syrup.

“A lot better than you unemployed journalist types,” said Nick with a bright grin that showed a lot of white teeth in his dark face. “I can at least shoot back at my job, although I’ve been promoted to rugrat watcher for now. Went and kept one of the little ones from drowning, that one over there with the red hair, I think. Suddenly, I’m a big damn hero to the Army.”

Clover snorted and let go of the bottle’s nipple, giving a shake of her head to clear it of foam before looking right at Nick and repeating, “Dam hero. Big dam hero.”

“And bottle,” said Lucky, nudging her with the plastic nipple until the foal started nursing again with such force that the sides of the bottle bowed in. The adult father figure looked at the two military men and mouthed “No” while shaking his head so hard that his fedora bobbed.

“Right, Nick,” chastised Dakota. “You Army types are all profanity. Think you can keep your mouth clean long enough for Crystal over there to get a story out of your heroic actions?” He bobbed his head in the direction of the statuesque blonde, who was busily chatting with several female ponies and exchanging frequent giggles. “We work together in San Francisco at the Chronicle, flew down last night, and spent the night out in my rental RV, so I’ve got a little swing.”

“Dayum,” said Nick with a low whistle afterward. “You’re moving up in the world, hoss.”

“I’m just a spec photographer for the Chronicle, and besides, it’s only until the ponies go home… tomorrow, right Mister Lucky?”

“Best guess is somewhere around two to three in the afternoon local time on Monday,” said Lucky, still holding onto the rapidly emptying bottle with both forehooves. “Twilight sent an update this morning. There’s going to be a news announcement at around eleven today from the park in town. We’ve got most of the injured back from the surrounding hospitals, leaving about two to three in Manhattan to get back sometime today, so Twilight will probably have to make a second portal next month sometime to get Granny Smith and…”

Lucky trailed off, but Nick picked up the conversational thread. “Widget. Her parents were begging to go to KC to fuss over her, but the local military here think that’s a bad idea. Probably because they won’t let go when the return portal is up. Headstrong bunch.”

“Unicorns are stubborn like that.” Lucky held onto the bottle even harder as air began to suck from the bottom. “The two of you might—”

Clover, obviously upset that the bottle was empty, rammed her head into it. The plastic bottle fairly vanished in an upward direction, and a trail of plaster dust filtered down from above to indicate where it had gone. Lucky tumbled backward out of the chair and across the floor, and only the quick reflexes of Nick and Kota caught the unicorn foal before she could fall off the table too, although they both caught a brisk little wing into the face for their troubles.

“Sorry about that,” said Lucky as he picked himself up and looked around for his hat. “Mama’s little girl always has a little extra energy in the mornings.”

“I got it, Mithter Green Grath,” said Twist, bolting for the nearby staircase in a clatter of shod hooves and vanishing upstairs, leaving the two military men to help Lucky get his foal stuffed back into the shirt she had been wearing.

“Why are you hiding your daughter’s wings?” asked Kota. “They’re adorable.” The filly in question took that moment to give a short and accurate flap, making Kota spit out little bits of feathers. “Yuch. I think I see now.”

“She’s just an ordinary winged unicorn,” explained Lucky as he got the last bit of shirt over the little filly’s wings and picked her up for burping. “Nothing odd, other than she hasn’t been using her magic, which is probably good. Infant unicorns don’t know what is impossible, so they can do some really extraordinary things that even adults can’t match.”

“Hey, I thought you was a unicorn too,” said Nick. He bent down and scooped up Lucky’s unusually heavy fedora, depositing it back on the green pony’s round and hornless head with a thud. “And why did she call you Green Grass?”

“Ow.” Green Grass gently patted the back of his foal while looking vaguely guilty under his crunched hat. “Look, guys. Don’t make a big deal about this. We’re going home the day after tomorrow, so for just a day or two, I’d like to be just plain, simple Lucky with no—”

“Here you are, Mithter Green Grath,” said Twist, stampeding down the wooden stairs like an avalanche with the crumpled plastic bottle in her mouth. “Thee’s really chewing them up, ithen’t thee?”

“Thank you, Twist.” Lucky tried to shuffle the contented foal, his slumping hat, and still grab the bottle, only to have Nick pick the mangled piece of plastic up and set it on the table.

“Thanks, Twist,” he said with a smile. “What’s Miss Cheerilee have on the schedule for you kids today?”

“I’m not thure?” said the little pony with a nervous glance over her shoulder at where the rest of the smaller ponies were romping about out into the yard. “There’th all kind of carth out on the road, tho we’re thuck here, I think.”

“People are probably lined up for the announcement later this morning,” said Nick, tapping the mangled baby bottle against the table. “I walked up to the checkpoint first thing this morning and listened to some of the sob stories people are telling in order to get in. Traffic’s moving at a snail’s pace, and Four-One’s not going to get here until around noon. They’re helicoptering in the rest of my platoon to a LZ they’ve set up at a horse farm about a mile south of here.”

“Your platoon?” prompted Lucky, still gently patting the sleepy foal on the back.

“A horth farm?” asked Twist with her ears perked up in a way that alerted every one of Kota’s rusty parental warning indicators.

“Crew in shifts for four M1A2 Abrams tanks we’re going to deploy around the farmhouse,” said Nick, oblivious to Twist’s signals and obviously proud of his metal children. “I really thought it was overkill, but the MPs have been catching all kinds of weird people parking a mile or two away and trying to walk into the area.” He muffled a snort of laughter into his short-sleeved ‘Army Strong’ t-shirt. “I thought they might have better luck putting a mine plow on the Abrams and just plowing their way here, but the Division Commander has been treating it as a real-world example of what we’d have to go through in a war deployment with refugees on the roads.”

“We’ve got a few pegasi around with nothing to do,” said Lucky thoughtfully. “Maybe they could fly your tanks here?”

Nick and Kota both laughed, and so did the foal in a sleepy/happy/entertained sort of way, along with a quiet burp. “It’ll make more sense when you see my babies,” said Nick.

“There you are, Twist!” A mulberry-colored pony came bounding into the kitchen wearing a happy smile and nothing else, which Dakota was still trying to get comfortable with. Voices still made him think of clothing, and having a bunch of four-legged nudists galloping around was a considerable shock to somebody who had not even seen a talking pony until yesterday evening. This pony had bright eager green eyes that were almost level with Dakota’s line of sight, giving him the strange feeling of being categorized as ‘Teaching Supplement: Human, Male - Type 14, dark hair, medium brown skin. Smells slightly ripe from not showering in a day. Use as example in upcoming biology and hygiene class.’

“Good morning, Miss Cheerilee,” said Lucky. “This is Dakota, and you know Nick already. I was talking to Governor Brown this morning—” he glanced at a cheap flip-phone clipped onto his foal carrier and saddlebag “—and I think he found an activity to keep all your students busy and out from underhoof.”

“I know!” gushed the energetic teacher, bouncing up and down so hard that her pale mane was bouncing in counterpoint. “I talked to the principal at the school here and he said we could borrow his school busses and go to Manehattan and tour the Discovery Center and the KSU butterfly gardens and even out to the university research farms where they raise this world’s cattle! They’re all going to have so much fun! It’s just—” She paused for a moment and looked back over her shoulder out the door where a few seconds ago, a number of small ponies had been playing. “Where did they go?”

“You’d be mobbed,” said Dakota as fast as he could in order to cut off the dangerous idea before it set roots. “Even if you got into town before this evening, there’s enough people out there who want to look at a pony that they’d— It would not be pretty,” he added. “Even if none of your students was kidnapped.”

“Kidnapped?” Cheerilee’s dark green eyes were as big as saucers. “You can’t mean that.”

Both military men nodded, although Nick spoke first. “Human beings are fairly nice, but we’ve got a number of real hard a—” He stole a look at Clover. “Cases,” he finished.

“People have been violent to each other since there have been people,” said Kota bluntly. “They kill for sex or because somebody has stuff they want or just because. We’re just barely tolerant savages with a coat of civilization paint and cell phones. Most people around here who found one of your adorable little ones wandering around would do anything to bring them back to their kind, but there’s still a lot of vicious brutes out there.”

Kota wanted to get in a dig about Army tankers, but thought it would take away from the message, and nothing really came to mind anyway. Maybe later, when he could get Nick cornered and could find out just what it was like to be in the middle of the first few hours of a fuzzy alien invasion. Might even write a useful article out of it. Or better, Crystal could write it. Despite her focus being in the society pages, he envied her ability to cram so much emotion into her articles.

Thousands of sobbing single women across the country will thank me. And Nick will be buried in scented letters. Oh, Hell yeah. Big damn hero, indeed.

“There we go,” purred Lucky, gently cradling his snoozing foal. “Would one of you ‘savages’ mind helping me get Clover into her carrier so she can sleep? Then I can get a cup of coffee safely, and we can chase down the kids for a day of something that they’ll like.”

“Like the Discovery Center in Manehatten?” asked Cheerilee with a re-perking of her alert ears. “It’s inside, so they should be able to close it off to other humans, and if we bring the children in by way of the roof—”

“Whoa there,” said Nick, waving his hands while Kota was busy helping the little winged unicorn into her father’s foal carrier. “You’re not landing a helicopter on the roof of anything in Manhattan.”

“Yes and no,” said Lucky. “I’ve got a couple of ponies out checking on a possibility.”

- - Ω - -

“We can’t thank you enough, Mister Bruener. Our Widgie is all we have.” Widget’s mother, a milk-chocolate colored mare with grease stains in her pale white mane, brushed up against his leg on one side as they walked. “I can hardly wait to see her again. We were so frightened, but your wife has been a tower of support, and all the humans are so nice here.”

“What she said,” echoed Widget’s burly father, a stout earth pony named Heavy Roller who looked like he did not need a jack to lift up a car to change its tire. A strong and silent type, he had been only a few steps away from the house at all times until the present, as if he were determined to be available at a moment’s notice for whatever was needed.

Jon flipped on the light in his machine shop and stifled a yawn. He liked getting up early in the morning, but ponies believed in getting up before morning had even reached for the snooze button. At least breakfast had softened the blow of finding a half-dozen ponies in his kitchen and a line stretching out the door of the old house across the yard. Dad would have been proud of how the building was still providing shelter to those who needed it, even though Maria had floated the possibility about tearing it down once or twice over the years since he passed away. The distinction between the old house’s food and his house’s food today had been something that Jon had not really thought of before.

His house had bacon. And deer sausage. And a pony who had seemingly rooted himself permanently in front of the stove until he ran out of things to cook, or humans to cook for. Jon did not have the time to pay the unicorn much attention, even after being served a hamburger last night that had been simply amazing. Other human volunteers who had been unable or unwilling to return to their own homes after helping the ponies get settled down agreed with his carnivorous food evaluation, and the line reaching out of his kitchen door indicated they had told others also. And some of them brought meat-related supplies just in case Jon’s freezer ran dry before the ponies went home.

So, vegetarian ponies with pancakes and eggs across the yard, slightly less than pure vegetarian ponies and a unicorn keeping the oven constantly busy and feeding the humans a breakfast diet of sausage and other products in his own kitchen. It was distracting to see the way the ponies in his house had just moved in, with the earth pony bakers and their twins in the guest room, a number of teenaged ponies taking over the basement and the entertainment center for an all-night movie binge, and the bat-winged and golden-eyed family moving upstairs into Claire’s old room, under the bed of all things. It was probably less than twenty ponies living in the house, but they moved faster than guppies, which only made Jon think of the rest of the displaced residents scattered around Randolph and the vicinity.

And, of course, the parents of the little unicorn he had hit with his swather, who were looking around Jon’s farm shop like Howard Carter going into the tomb of King Tut.

“Such wonderful things,” breathed Heavy Roller. He moved almost immediately to examine the Volvo station wagon that Claire had pushed into the shop a month ago to get a blown cylinder gasket replaced. The project had never progressed beyond the first few steps, leaving parts scattered all over for him to marvel at and examine at close range.

“You have an inert gas welder!” squealed the mother, much as if she had just seen Elvis. She lit up her horn, which still startled Jon, and floated the TIG welder out into the main floor. “It’s almost like ours,” she added, pulling out the manual and paging through it. “There’s some changes, of course. It even welds aluminum,” she added with a gasp.

“The bicycle parts you were asking about are over here,” said Jon, waving a hand at the entranced ponies until they looked up. “Claire buys broken and scraped bikes after classes at K-State are over, and puts them together for garage sale season. I really don’t understand, though. What do you need a bunch of broken bicycles for?”

- - - - ⧖ - - - -
Time: 10:48 A.M. Central Standard Time, Saturday June 20, 2015
Location: Randolph, Kansas Main street entrance
- - - - ⧖ - - - -

The radio by Captain Samantha Rietz’s side gave out a short noise, followed by a precise, “Randolph Main Gate, this is Iceberg. Testing of First Flight is complete with zero failures. We will be landing at your location in two minutes.”

“Roger, Grace,” said Sam with a squeeze to the shoulder microphone. “We’ll clear a space for you.”

She looked up at the car full of sincere family members who seemed so much like the stereotypical ‘We want to see the ponies, Daddy’ cars they had been turning back all morning. This one had three young girls in the back seat, who all gave a subdued squeal when a smiling Corporal Rose floated three pieces of paper in through the open window while giving the same speech she had given an infinite number of times this morning.

“I’m sorry, sir. Access to Randolph is restricted to invited members of the press and residents until Tuesday. Please turn your car around here and follow the officer’s directions to get back onto K-77.”

The dark-pink unicorn in the dark armor sat down on her ‘booster box’ that brought her up to eye level with the drivers and added a little wave to the three girls in the back seat of the car, who were snapping cell phone pictures like crazy. Then the father turned the car around in the indicated space and went back in the direction of the highway, leaving Sam to gesture at the next car ahead.

“You’re just encouraging them,” said Sam to her equine partner. “Giving them a souvenir sheet and a picture is like spraying for ants using sugar water.”

“But they love it so much. After all, they’ve been in the car for over an hour,” said Rose, looking sideways at the taller police officer. The box gave her a much more comfortable position to talk to the drivers in line, and having a pony give the speech made the line travel so much faster that Sam was considering drafting a few members of the pony populi to carry out the task when the equine police officers took a break.

“They’re tired and cranky, and all they want is to get a look at us before we go home.” Rose looked at the proffered credentials of the next vehicle, a rental car with the back stuffed full of camera equipment, and waved it through to where the rest of the press were setting up around the stage. “Besides,” she added once the car had passed, “don’t you see how adorable those children are? I wish we could take one home—” The next car had pulled up, but Rose was looking past it, at a series of three vans several back in line.

“Trouble?” asked Sam.

“Nothing. Yes, move on,” she added to the driver, floating a paper flier to him as he began to pull away. “Just a moment, Samantha.”

The unicorn guard put a hoof to the side of her head and spoke a few quiet words in their musical language, then paused as whoever on the other side of their pony communication equipment talked back to her.

“Captain Rietz, do you have any habitual troublemakers who show up at media announcements,” asked the quiet police pony in a flatter tone of voice than Sam had heard from her so far. Even her cheery magenta coat seemed to have shifted down a step or two in color, making the middle-aged mare seem far more dangerous than she had been just a few moments ago.

“A few protesters at times,” said Sam. “When George W did his Landon Lecture, we got about a hundred of them, but they stayed mostly peaceful. Waved their banners and kept in the security area. Why?”

“Just nerves. Hello, sir. May I see your identification.” Rose glanced down at the driver’s license, then back up at the reddening face of the overheated chubby man. Before he could say anything, she waved a hoof to have the volunteer open the barricade and gave him a nod. “There’s ice water at the other end of the park, sir. Tell them Corporal Rose said to give you a cold bottle and let you sit down for a while in the shade. I’ll send one of the townsponies down to talk with you shortly.”

The car had barely rolled out of reach when Rose reached up to the shoulder pauldron of her armor and squeezed the terrestrial microphone she had on loan from the RCPD spares. “Any medical unit in Randolph, we’re needing medical assistance at the north end of the park. Possible heatstroke. Look for an overweight man driving a—” The unicorn officer gave Sam a sideways look.

“A periwinkle blue Buick Regal with Sedgwick county plates,” said Samantha into her microphone. She nodded and watched as Rose dealt with another car, then looked up as the newest pegasus carriage on Earth swept in to land in the open turnaround spot, dropping almost straight down and rolling less than a foot on the bicycle tires that made up the wheels.

The rest of the odd vehicle was similarly themed, from the expanded aluminum mesh making up the floor to the five lawn chairs welded to it, and the thin tubing that made a ‘fence’ around the outside edge. Both preening pegasi in the minimal traces were obviously enjoying the sudden attention from all of the news crews by the nearby park and the near-universal photography taking place from every single stopped car in the line.

Specialist Grace wobbled cautiously off the skeletal rig, looking much as if the dark green unicorn wanted to kiss the ground instead of walking over to their traffic station and giving a sketchy salute.

“Brought you some cold water,” managed Grace, looking greener than her regular colors. The case of dripping plastic bottles took flight off the pegasus cart in Rose’s magic while Grace simply stood in place with her legs spraddled for stability.

Rose shook her head and nuzzled up to her fellow unicorn, giving her a pat on the back and a kiss on the cheek. “Sorry about that, hun.”

“Don’t like to fly?” asked Sam while opening one of the new chilly bottles and suppressing an overwhelming urge to just fling herself into one of the chariot’s lawn chairs and see what flying was like.

“They did a loop,” said Grace. She reached out with an unsteady hoof and grabbed her own bottle of water. Instead of opening it, she sat down solidly on her rump and literally bit the cap off the bottle. After spitting the cap to one side and taking a good drink, she added, “In Canterlot, I’d have them on charges for violating restricted airspace norms and they’d spend a month peeling carrots.”

Out of her sight, the two pegasi exchanged glances and a high-hoof, although their happy faces abruptly settled into serious when Rose put a hoof to the side of her helmet and said some more horsey words over their private communication channel. Where the landing had been an exercise in delicacy and grace, the takeoff now was almost the exact opposite. One moment the two pegasi were standing there, and the next there were only a few swirls of dust, with the shiny aluminum craft exhibiting a perfect chandelle vertical climb and vanishing into the distance.

“They’re going to get Specialist Titan,” explained Rose while gesturing the next vehicle forward, one of the vans that Sam was starting to suspect. “If there’s any shooting, get behind me. The guard armor should be able to stop any of your projectile weapons.”

“Shooting?” One hand drifted to her waist where her duty issue Glock 22 was secured in a retention holster, but Sam forced herself to take a deep breath and act instead of reacting. She was not some trigger-happy rookie over her head. The Equestrians were armored soldiers, after all, and from the informal discussions she had with her hooved counterparts yesterday, the female ones had extensive experience in their civilian police force before becoming royal guardians, somewhat like the Secret Service, with spears. Well, one spear.

Of course, when the van stopped and the people inside flooded out, waving ‘God Hates Fags’ signs, Sam forced herself to move her hand away from her pistol. All three of the vans had been filled with members of the Felts family, young and old, who lined up and began to shout and scream their usual slogans while the television cameras that had been arrayed to cover the upcoming Equestrian announcement all turned in their direction. Both Rose and Grace looked puzzled at the commotion and the line of screaming that seemed to imply they were extraterrestrial gay lovers from the earlier kiss. Sam kept her back to the majority of the cameras as she bent down and tried to explain Topeka’s most irritating family to the extraterrestrial ponies.

It probably would have gone better if the Felts family had not been only a few feet away, arrayed around the security checkpost and screaming their lungs out. Sam made several attempts at an explanation while trying not to let the shouted vitriol get to her, but the sheer volume of the family’s chants made communication impossible.

At least until Grace’s horn glowed a light green and their voices cut off as if she had hit the ‘Mute’ button on an obnoxious television set.

“—bunch of assholes,” said Sam into Rose’s ear, although thankfully not loud enough to be caught by the legions of television cameras and cell phones pointed in their direction. “What happened?”

All of the family protesters were still screaming and shaking their placards, but in complete and total silence. The rest of the people in the more distant crowd were still perfectly audible, including one grateful person (not a police officer, thankfully) who shouted “Thank God” before being hushed by his nearby companions.

“Mute spell,” said Grace in her usual flat delivery with her horn still glowing a faint green. “It doesn’t actually affect the target, but the space immediately surrounding them, so it is not a violation of Article 14 of the Equestrian Civil Rights code. They can still hear us perfectly fine.” Grace looked at an overweight, middle-aged woman with reddening face as she tried to out-scream the spell to no avail. “You can stop at any time, Ma’am.”

“Actually, you are all blocking traffic,” announced Rose, who had stepped up onto the ‘booster box’ that brought her up to the window height of the cars she had been processing. “Please proceed back into your vehicles, and the Riley County Police Department will guide you to the designated protesting area set up behind the gas station a furlong to the north. If anybody needs a bottle of water for the heat, I’d be glad to provide them.”

The middle-aged mare lifted her bottle of water in her magic and took a sip, giving a pleasant smile to the woman who had worked herself into a such a screeching frenzy that Sam expected foam to start coming out of her mouth, or for her to start speaking in tongues. Very silent tongues.

The RCPD, much like all other police departments, had been well trained on what to do with protesters: remain in control of the situation, keep the protesters away from counter-protesters, and never escalate force inappropriately. In most cases, a protester was much like a peacock, spreading its tail and displaying for the cameras, with no real intent of physical violence. In special cases — fairly rare in Kansas outside of the occasional Aggieville celebration after a football game — individual protesters were violent, and needed to be picked out of a crowd and detained fairly rapidly before they triggered their companions to similar acts, like fire spreading in dry grass.

The Felts family were anything but ordinary protesters. In fact, they had turned protesting into a profitable business model. After all, they were lawyers. The only violence that would occur at a Felts demonstration would be against one of their own by some poor sucker who was so incensed by their signs and rhetoric that they would throw the first punch, and then be sued through the courts for the rest of their lives, as well as anybody else the Felts could include in the suit. Property owners, random passers-by, police, or anybody who dared ‘libel’ them in print, they all were fiscal grist for the mill. The Felts never threw the first or second punch.

Which was why Patrol Captain Samantha Rietz was caught flat-footed when the chubby Felts family member lifted her sign and clubbed the middle-aged unicorn mare like a baby seal.

The moment of stunned inaction did not last. When the stunned unicorn dropped off her platform with all the grace of a sack of potatoes and the middle-aged woman lifted the stick to strike again, this time stripped of its offensive message by the impact against Corporal Rose’s helmet, Sam launched herself forward in a tackle fully worthy of a Nebraska Cornhusker linebacker.

Cameras! Cameras! I’m on camera!

The two of them hit the pavement with Sam grabbing for one clawed hand that was trying to scratch her eyes out and heaving it up behind the woman’s back. She wanted to dislocate it, but not on national television or anywhere else where the action would come back to haunt her.

“You have the right to be silent,” she growled, reaching behind her back for the cuffs. Something behind her crunched like broken bones, but she focused on her task like no arrest she had ever done before. This one was going to stick, damnit. By the time Sam had finished with her Miranda warning and cuffed the thrashing woman, she looked up and saw…

Well, it took her a moment to get her mind wrapped around what was going on. She had to break what she saw into sections, and even then it did not make individual sense.

Every adult member of the Felts family was flat on their bellies, and the ones who were looking in any direction, were not looking at her.

The children, which Sam had never really understood the logic of the Felts dragging along to their profanity-laced protests, had jumped forward and were huddled around the dazed pink unicorn, alternately crying and casting dagger-like looks at their adult family members.

Corporal Rose was lying sprawled out on the pavement and did not appear severely injured other than her helmet being knocked a little askew, but it was hard to see for all the worried little children huddled around her.

Specialist Grace was taking another sip of water, just watching as if this kind of thing happened every day.

And… there was a new pony crouched just a few feet away, with the splintered remains of a protest sign stick scattered around him and a look that made Sam want to flatten down on the ground too. Sam had confronted some violent individuals during her career, some of which had been so hopped up on drugs they had no idea of pain or danger, but this dark pegasus had red murder in his eyes, and from his sharp bared teeth with a few small wooden splinters still sticking out of his snarling mouth, was considering just who to vigorously disembowel first.

Oddly enough, Sam had never felt safer.

Things began to move a little faster after that, and it was not until many hours later when Sam looked up the video clip on YouTube that the whole story became clearer. The dragon-winged pegasus guard named Pumpernickel had just dropped into the growing fray, plucking a stick out of the hand of one of the Felts men who looked as if he were about to take a swing at Sam’s back. It was difficult to tell, although from the dozen or so video clips on YouTube, some of which were set to music, a jury would be looking at a full 3-D reconstruction of the events during the trial. Which would blow another few months out of Sam’s useful life.

When a grey body-builder body type unicorn named Specialist Titan arrived at the scene, he began using his magic to carry the three unoccupied vans across the highway and deposited them in the ‘Tow field’ for later removal, while the RCPD collected the prisoners. All of the Felts clan then was taken to Manhattan for processing, a task which Sam could not help but think about. After all, the trials would probably take up a huge fraction of her life for the next few months, with video.

She was just standing around with the pony officers, watching their replacements start the process of making the ‘Randolph visitors line’ start moving again, when the older pony officer came walking up to their positions. Both Rose and Pumpernickel tensed when they saw him approach, but Grace looked up at her with an apologetic expression.

“Allow me to apologize in advance, Patrol Captain Rietz. Sergeant Hardhooves tends to more… descriptive language when he’s angry.”

And the snow-white pony stomping his way in their direction did look angry. Furious, even. The tips of his ears were red, and Sam could swear she saw steam wafting out of them.

“Corporal Rose Thorn!” he bellowed once he was within firing range. “Am I to understand that a civilian struck you?”

“Yes, sir!” responded Rose, who was drawn up into a stiff salute.

“A human civilian?” he continued, coming to a halt just a few steps away. “One of these slow, ungainly, awkward, unbalanced, humans managed to hit one of Luna’s elite guard?”

“She had a stick,” volunteered Pumpernickel, who promptly seemed to melt into the ground like a scoop of chocolate ice-cream in the Kansas heat when Hardhooves turned a fierce glare in his direction.

“A stick,” he managed through his clenched teeth with great effort. “Was it a pointed stick, perchance?”

Pumpernickel returned to his rigid, eyes-forward pose. “Sir, no sir!”

Hardhooves slowly turned back to Rose, much like a cannon moving to a new field of fire. “Corporal Rose Thorn, you are officially relieved of duty pending the outcome of the investigation, and also reduced in rank one grade. You will report to the command post at Farmer Bruener’s house for a full debriefing, which will be sent to your Divine Sovereign, Princess Luna, for her close examination to see if you are worthy of remaining in her service. During this time, it is my job to see what can be done with your disobedient, incompetent, idiotic self! Grace!”

“Yes, sir?” Grace remained exactly as she had been, in a perfect ‘attention’ pose that Sam suspected she could have remained in for weeks, without showing a single hair out of place.

“Escort Specialist Rose to the human paramedics and have her injury examined. Dismissed.”

“One moment, sir.” Grace turned to Pumpernickel, who seemed ready to flee into the sky at the slightest provocation. “Stick out your tongue, Optio.”

Pumpernickel shook his head and kept his mouth closed.

Grace turned to look at Hardhooves. Hardhooves turned to look at Pumpernickel. The dark bat-winged pegasus opened his mouth and stuck out his oddly-orange tongue.

“I see,” said Grace after moving closer to examine the damp digit. “Splinters.” She turned back to Hardhooves and continued in her regular measured speech, as if she were lecturing at a classroom. “Optio Pumpernickel has been on duty since our arrival, an estimated two full days counting the Equestrian period pre-portal. Once he has been treated for wood ingestion, I would suggest that he be ordered to bed until this evening, when he can resume his duties.”

“There’s too much—” started the dark pegasus, only to cringe back at the looks he received.

“Agreed, Grace. Take both of our injured children over to the aid station so their wounds can be treated. I expect to see your report by this evening, just in time to upset my dinner plans.” Hardhooves waited until the three other ponies had moved away before nudging Samantha wordlessly in the direction of the roadside, where they had a moment of privacy.

“Sorry about that, Miss Rietz,” murmured Hardhooves without moving his lips. “I suspect Rose triggered that whole event just to milk a little sympathy for our presence here. I’ll make sure she’s properly punished. I hope we did not inconvenience you too much.”

“Not at all,” said Sam after bending down far enough to talk directly into his ear. “By the way, this conversation never happened.”

“I understand totally. Other than I apologized for the incompetence of my officers, and you accepted,” said Hardhooves with a tiny hint of a suppressed smile in the corner of his cheeks. “I suspect this will make it easier for your people to deal with those annoying twits.”

“Yeah, but it’s going to be a royal pain in the ass.”

Hardhooves nodded. “A Code Blueblood situation. I know it well. We’ll try to make it up to you. I’ve been talking to some of your military, and I suspect your office will find a little Equestrian present before we leave the day after tomorrow. After all, armor enchants are fairly easy.”

Samantha rolled her shoulders, feeling the weight of the ballistic vest in the Kansas sunshine. “If you can just make them self-cooling, I’ll… be appreciative. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got hours and hours worth of delightful paperwork to deal with.”

“Also here,” said Hardhooves. “At least those crazy people will be locked up and out of our manes until we’re gone.”

“Probably not, other than the one who attacked your officer,” admitted Sam. “The rest will be out on bail by this evening.”

Hardhooves gave her a baffled squint.

“Of course, your legal representative should probably file a restraining order against them,” added Sam. “Which should be trivial, given the video from today. They’re going to sue, of course, so a countersuit… well, you should talk with your lawyer.” She thought for a moment and added, “I can swing by the house tomorrow night and add a copy of our police report to yours, fill in any discrepancies, and by coincidence, bring along a fine bottle of twelve year old Glenlivet scotch. No lawyers involved, I promise.”

The old soldier’s mouth turned up in a smile despite his best efforts to remain somber. “Thank you, kind lady. We’ll take you up on that. Off the record, of course. I just hope the next place Princess Twilight throws us is somewhere without lawyers and criminals, but I repeat myself. Maybe on a deserted tropical beach, surrounded by palm trees and gentle breezes.”

“Where you’d get sunburn, hurricanes, and tropical diseases,” completed Sam. “At least here we have swimming pools and friendly neighbors.”

- - - - ⧖ - - - -
Time: 11:20 A.M. Central Standard Time, Saturday June 20, 2015
Location: Living Water Ranch, Olsburg Kansas
- - - - ⧖ - - - -

For humans, the definition of ‘A Fun Place’ varies by age. Old ladies may like to spend the entire day in the quilting store, while teens are perfectly happy in the mall all day, but when the sun is hot and the kids need a place to play, nothing beats a swimming pool.

Particularly a pool where the kids don’t need swimming suits.

“Cannonball!” declared Featherweight, launching himself off the diving board and making a leisurely double flip with a half twist before knifing into the water below. He surfaced in a spray with tiny wings beating against the water surface while calling out, “Brr! That’s cold!”

“I see Pulitzer,” mused Dakota Henderson, turing his camera to frame the next shot of three young ponies preparing to jump off the diving board all at once while a panicked Cheerilee bolted in their direction. He splashed his feet in the cool water and looked over at Nick, who likewise had taken off his shoes for the expedient of sitting at the edge of the pool and watching the ongoing Equestrian youthful chaos. “Crystal doesn’t know what she’s missing.”

“I ain’t going in,” said Nick. “Didn’t bring a pair of trunks, and the last thing your Frisco paper needs is a picture of a naked black man in the pool with the kids.”

Natives of San Francisco don’t call it Frisco. Besides, they’d probably say it was avant-garde,” said Kota, popping off another shot and looking around for another target.

The adult ponies who had accompanied them via the newly built pegasus carriage to the Christian retreat (which thankfully had a vacancy for today) were sprawled out on their own towels with their little ones, taking the opportunity to nap under the shade of pool umbrellas or out in the sun to bake. There was the dark, dragon-winged mare with her little foal draped over her back, who both looked washed-out in the shade, as well as the brilliant neon pegasus who fairly glowed while stretched out on a sunlit towel. They were all asleep and snoring, other than Miss Thermal’s energetic young colt who Nick was taking care of in the shallow end of the pool.

“I think Standing Water needs another swim diaper,” said Nick, holding up the bright blue pegasus and moving back along the swim deck toward a trash can.

“Got it,” declared Lucky, who was sitting right next to Kota so his little filly had a good view of the fascinating camera, all full of switches she was not supposed to flip and buttons she was not supposed to touch. “Here, hold Clover for me, please.”

Reaching behind him to put the camera out of reach into its bag, Kota scooped up the squirming little filly and looked deep into her sparkling violet eyes. “You think you can give me that look and play with my camera, don’t you, little girl? Well, no you don’t! No you don’t,” he added, rubbing his nose against hers regardless of the chance of catching interdimensional sniffles.

Clover giggled and smiled, which was worth all of the Pulitzer prizes and press accolades in the world. Kota held her lower so she could splash her tiny hooves in the water without actually swimming, an activity that seemingly terrified and fascinated both her and her father, but it gave Kota the opportunity to watch the odd sight of Lucky digging around in his diaper bag at the side of the pool.

At first glance, it did not look much odder than anybody else digging around in a bag, but when Lucky had dug down a distance and put his head into the bag too in order to guide his exploration, Kota could hear his grumbly voice drifting out.

“Swim diapers, where in the world did she file those? Diaper cream, diaper powder, dippy-doo picker-uppers for when you can’t find diapers and she does her business in the grass… Ah, here we go. Diapers, types thereof. Zero to one month, one to three months, diapers with cloth coverings on the outside for formal occasions, extra absorbent diapers for long trips…” By this time, all but the hindquarters of the green stallion had vanished in the bag. “What age is Standing Water, Mister Henderson?”

“I don’t know.” Dakota looked at where his army buddy was trying to de-diaper the uncooperative colt. “Nine months, I think. Old enough that he really should be potty trained.”

“Potty?” The blue colt quit fighting and squirmed around so all four hooves could be on the concrete pool deck. “Potty!” he declared with the staccato clatter of tiny steel shoes on concrete that was not getting him anywhere soon. “Potty! Potty!”

Nick, looking very uncomfortable at his parental role, led his winged ward in the direction of the Mens room while Kota split his attention between them and the sight of Lucky struggling to get back out of his saddlebag before it devoured him.

“A little help, here?”

Kota sat the infant unicorn/pegasus on the pool deck, a sufficient distance away from the water that he could still make a grab for her if she decided to dive in, and went to haul the heavy stallion out of his bag. Lucky emerged with a number of items in his teeth, which he spat out onto the concrete before rubbing his neck.

“I think I may have toppled one of the stacks,” he admitted. “It’s going to be a mess to clean— Clover!”

Kota whirled around, only to see his camera vanish back into the bag in front of the tiny infant pony. For just the smallest fraction of a second, he could have sworn the camera had been disassembled into all of its component parts, but when he scooped it up out of the bag and examined it, everything was still just perfect. The foal, on the other hand, looked as if she were about to burst out in tears, and Kota scooped her up in his other arm.

“Hey, don’t cry. And no, I’m not giving you my camera,” he added when the tears vanished and little green hooves promptly began to reach.

“That’ll last five minutes, tops,” said Lucky. He dropped a tube of sunscreen, a foal’s floppy sun hat, a small swim diaper, and several other things next to Kota before heading to the bathroom with the larger swim diaper. It took far more than five minutes, but when Lucky returned alongside the owner of the Living Water ranch carrying all the chips and drinks for a snack break, Kota was holding the camera up in front of both of them and letting the little unicorn/pegasus trip the shutter.

After all, it did get more smiles from his audience.

While the ranch staff distributed lemonade in red Solo cups to the thirsty horde, Lucky sat back down next to Kota and passed him a loaded platter, which he had been balancing on his back somehow.

“Iced tea for us, plenty of ice, and enough sugar at the bottom to form drifts.” The pony tilted his fedora forward to cover his eyes better and stretched out on his beach towel, taking a sip out of the glass and just relaxing in the sun. “You know, I’ve been needing a vacation.”

Clover gave out a little coo of agreement and took one of the extra camera filters in her mouth, climbing down Kota until she could curl up next to her father and examine her trophy in greater detail. Kota wanted to take their picture, but went along with Lucky’s desire for anonymity and returned to photographing the thirsty horde. Or herd. Or whatever you called a whole collection of cute young ponies. “So what’s taking Nick so long?” he asked after several more pictures, including the start of a water ball game of some sort masterminded by one green unicorn filly that he could have sworn had a mermaid tail while under the water.

Lucky slipped on a pair of sunglasses and flattened out a little more on his towel. “He’s attempting to potty and diaper Thermal’s young colt, a task that ancient heroes of both worlds would have despaired at. Give him about an hour, and we’ll go in with a bucket and a mop.”

In the end, Lucky was wrong. It took two buckets.

12. We Can Build It For You Retail

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Farmer Bruener Has Some Ponies
We Can Build It For You Retail

“The road to success is always under construction.”
–Arnold Palmer

- - - - ⧖ - - - -
Time: 3:45 P.M. Central Standard Time, Saturday June 20, 2015
Location: The Bruener Farm, Randolph Kansas
- - - - ⧖ - - - -

General Gregory Hackmore was supposed to be in command of the situation.

The problem was to define the situation, even while he was at the situation.

Technically, it was an alien invasion. If that was the extent of the issue, the solution would have been relatively easy. That is easy for Hollywood. Reality had rules that film could never duplicate, and a cast that did not break into dance numbers on cue. He had a division of soldiers with helicopters and armored vehicles about forty to fifty minutes away, on a good day. Hell, in extreme circumstances, one of the HIMARS units that had been prepositioned north of their usual areas could put artillery on anything he could see in less than two minutes.

Even the Chair Force wanted to get in on the action, and if they had their way, B-52s and Strike Eagles would be orbiting overhead 24/7, waiting for bombing missions. The only thing keeping the Navy’s thumb out of the pie was the fact they were in Kansas, and as such, a carrier strike force would have a slight issue getting near enough to do any striking.

Thankfully, the Joint Chiefs of Staff had decided to centralize decision making for the situation, focusing on the commanding officer at the site, which was a good euphemism for ‘Hackmore hasn’t screwed anything up with the aliens yet. Let him take the blame if anything explodes.’ Sink or swim, here’s your anchor, complete with chain. He supposed that was the Navy’s contribution to his oncoming ulcer.

‘Trust but verify oh God yes verify’ was General Hackmore’s watchword of this strange invasion.

The HIMARS units had been informed with extreme intensity that there would not be any accidental firings, and that unless he personally was on the phone with the artillery coordinator, the missile pods and transport units would remain cold, inert, and turned off under camouflage netting or heads would roll.

About twenty metric tons of paper were in the process of being filed, an Airborne unit at Fort Riley was being kept on ten minute alert status, and the armored maintenance division was working double-overtime to bring all vehicles up to snuff just in case of emergency.

And an emergency had been defined as ‘What General Hackmore says, not anybody lower on the food chain and particularly not any nitwit in the five-sided puzzle palace who thought it was perfectly fine to jump the chain of command for their particular critical important bit of trivia.’

It was an example of what kind of power General Hackmore had been granted. Even with all that supposed power, it had still taken eight hours to get four blithering tanks and associated command vehicles the relatively short distance from there to here, between the traffic tie-ups, accidents, one insanely frustrating truck running out of fuel due to a malfunctioning gauge, and rules defining just how long a driver could be behind the wheel before being swapped out by another soldier who needed to be delivered through the same disaster zone.

If the balloon had ever gone up in Germany, this kind of cluster-fuck would have been the norm across Europe. Thank God for Reagan.

He had relocated his informal command post to the Bruener family farm, not strictly because of Jonagold’s beautiful wife Maria, but because it provided a good view of the proposed security deployment. Besides, Maria had brought out iced tea to the three of them, and stayed behind to watch the slow progress of the tank transporter as they unloaded Four-Two at the top of the hill.

“Good thing they’re finally here, general,” said Jon with just the slightest snark in his voice. “We crunchies were always told the tread-heads would be there when we didn’t need them, and would be called away the moment we did. I was starting to think they wouldn’t show until the ponies go home on Monday.”

“My S-3 and S-4 are going to get raked through the coals until they’re done on both sides,” said General Hackmore. “The longer I wait to roast them, the more self-roasting they’re doing to themselves, so it can wait.” He took a sip of iced tea and nibbled on his bottom lip for a time until the question he was suppressing leaked out. “You don’t think I can get one of the Equestrians to drop by my house and say hello to my granddaughter, do you? She’s been bugging me something fierce.”

“Not a problem, General. I’ll talk to Hardhooves and see if Flash Sentry is available.” Jon unlocked his new iPhone and checked the contacts list. “The ones working with the police are using the cop radios, but one of your soldiers picked up a dozen pay-as-you-go phones from Verizon for the rest of them. The ponies can flip them open to answer and most of them can dial the address book with hooves.”

“It’s a lot easier than trying to tie into their communication network,” mused Hackmore. “There’s nothing in those communicators they use other than a few crystals. We can’t detect any electromagnetic flux from their operation at all, but they do have range issues.” He craned his neck and got out his own phone in order to enter the pony commander’s number while Jon waited for the ringing to finish. It only took a few minutes to set up the ‘public affairs visitation’ for Flash, which sounded like Hardhooves was grateful to get the pegasus out of his hair for a while.

“Any technology sufficiently advanced is indistinguishable from magic,” said Maria, who had been fairly quiet until then. As a practicing psychologist, she listened a lot more than she talked anyway, and still had the Portuguese instincts of her childhood around older men. “I wonder if the opposite is true. The ponies talk about their princess raising and lowering the sun and moon, after all. If those are just some sort of technological… or magicological—”

“Thaumaturgical,” said Hackmore. “It’s the latest buzzword on all of my teleconferences. The wonderful boffins of the Army think the secret to mastering Equestrian magic is to use as many large, indescribable words as they can. There’s more useless technobabble running around behind the scenes than you can shake a stick at.”

The conversation continued as the tank at the top of the hill was nudged into position and the tank transport moved away. They were just getting into interesting speculation as to how long it would have to remain in place when several ponies came around the corner of the house in their direction.

“Ah, General Hackmore. Mister Bruener,” said the smallest of the bunch, a brick-red earth pony who had to stand up on his hind legs in order to shake their hands. “My name is Big Brick, of the Big Brick Brothers And Partners, Reconstruction, Assembly, Transformations, Installations, and Niceization Guaranteed⁽*⁾ company.”
(*) BBB A+ RATING Contact Midknight Defender for franchise opportunities. Become a Big Brick affiliate today!

“You’re Big Brick?” Jon’s nose twitched, quite obviously from the effort of restraining a laugh at the mental image that immediately sprung to Hackmore’s mind. Ponies had a tendency to match their names in ways that baffled logic, and this short, chunky one was no exception with a few strands of grey hair in his mane and the image of a square brick on his rump.

“Yes, sir. And this is my son, Little Brick.” They each shook hooves with the far larger earth pony, who could have looked into Hackmore’s eyes easily, and did quite a bit to wipe away the mental image that his shorter father had conjured up. After the vigorous hoofshake, Hackmore’s eyes drifted to the other two ponies on the porch.

“So these must be your brothers, then?”

“Naaa,” said Big Brick with a disparaging flick of the wrist. “Ash Hole made it out of Ponyville during the evacuation. These are my accountant, Double Billing, and my work crew supervisor, Cost Overrun.”

Hackmore found himself shaking hands… well, hooves with a greasy-looking unicorn and a somewhat mottled pegasus who looked as if he had not taken a bath since ever. Thankfully, he did not have to think of what to say since it was Jon Bruener’s problem, and welcome to it.

“Good morning, gentlemen. Or ladies,” he added, since Jon was obviously suffering from the same work in progress in trying to guess gender on furry quadrupeds. “What can I do for you?”

“It’s what we can do for you,” said the small earth pony with a disturbingly happy smile that Hackmore had last seen on the repairman who had replaced his water heater. “You see, our company has quite a reputation around Ponyville as the place to go for all of your structural needs. We specialise in erecting structures all across the tri-county valley, and although we do some of the finest commercial erections in all of Equestria, we’re also the ponies that others come to whenever they find themselves in dire need of our other, more personal services.”

That mental image was getting very difficult for Hackmore to ignore, but Jon was made of stern stuff and nodded anyway. “So what servicing do you think I need?”

“For that, I’m going to refer you to my lovely wife,” said Big Brick.

“Right, right,” said Double Billing in a disturbingly sexy female voice, moving the toothpick she was chewing on to the other side of her mouth and floating a clipboard up in her magic. The sheet of copy paper it held was covered in squiggly Equestrian symbols including a line of numbers to one side which almost looked normal if squinted at and one were to ignore the comma placement. “Youse has a problem wit your road, sir. Seems one of our boys found a culvert at the bottom of that first hill thats got all kinds of rust eatin’ away at it since the cathodic protection washed out during the gravel getting undercut, an’ the first big load it has to take is gonna make it buckle like Overrun here facing a raincloud.”

“The road’s gonna break, dude,” said Overrun, continuing to stare in fascination at the tank transporter starting to move down the hill. “That’s one big chunk of metal. Gonna break it like a toothpick.”

“Yeah, you should probably go wave that truck off,” said Double Billing. “Else they’re going to rupture the existing culvert and dat’ll cost extra to fix.”

“Wait a second,” said Jon. “That’s a county road, not mine. And they put that culvert in just over ten years ago. It’s not old enough to fail yet. The county was very insistent about putting in a heavy culvert when I started my company, and I’m pretty sure my mil levy went up because of it back then.”

Both humans took a glance at the huge truck and the squat main battle tank it was carrying. Undoubtedly, there was a lot more weight involved than semi trucks carrying normal seed deliveries for Bruener’s storage facility. Still, caution was probably indicated.

“Maybe I should—” started General Hackmore just as the truck reached the bottom of the hill and the driver shifted into a lower gear to take advantage of engine braking.

The road took care of that first.

They were just far enough away that the sight of the rear dual wheels breaking through the gravel surface of the road was visible before the sickening crunch of collapsing steel echoed around the farmstead. The heavy transporter vehicle, which fortunately had been traveling at a very low velocity, lurched and appeared to break in half, with the truck cab sticking up in the air and the front wheels off the ground by a considerable margin. To the rear, the hefty main battle tank did not shift off its platform, but the weight drove the fifth-wheel coupling straight down into the resulting hole, and most certainly bent the hell out of the transporter’s whole structure.

“Yeah, dat’s gonna cost extra,” said Double Billing, making an entry on her clipboard even as the crunching sounds of the wreck were dying down. “We’s gonna have to rent some equipment in town, get a couple of you humans to drive it here, and work thru’ da night to get ever’thing done afore we’re gone Monday. We’s talking about serious overtime. Mebbie even have to get a crane to lift dat huge hunk of metal off the back.”

“That ‘huge hunk of metal’ can drive itself out,” said General Hackmore, who wanted to pinch the bridge of his nose but instead turned the gesture into a brief scratch before getting out his SMEPED to take a picture. “I’ll get a Hercules down from the Fort to pull our transporter out. Sorry to have busted your road, Mister Bruener.”

“It’s the county’s road,” said Jon. He took a picture with his phone and opened up Facebook. “I don’t think there’s any need for your services in this regard, Big Brick. I’ll bet the county is out here in a few hours, even if it is Saturday. Sorry about that.”

The smallish earth pony made a throwaway gesture with one hoof. “Pshaw, not a problem, sir. It’ll do the boys good to watch how the humans rebuild roads. It’s just…” Big Brick moved closer and raised his voice. “Hey! Overrun! Stop gawking and go help dat lady out of the truck! An’ the rest of youse, go see what they need done. We can call it a free estimate. Now git!”

Once the other three ponies were on their way, Big Brick cleared his throat and asked, “So, as I was saying. My boys, they get a little antsy without nuttin’ to do. I means around Ponyville, there’s always something blowin’ up or like that, and den when Princess Twilight’s crystal castle popped up witout even a single flush terlit or sink in it, I thoughts we were set for a couple years. Soo…” The short pony looked in both directions. “You got anything I could use to keep ‘em busy until Monday? I’ll get’cha a ten percent discount.”

“There’s some things I’ve been bugging my husband to do about the old house, and our house too,” said Maria unexpectedly while Jon was distracted by the way Cost Overrun was flying the transporter driver to the ground. “Since the Army has their mobile kitchen setup now, the ponies won’t need it for a lunch stop. Let me go get my list.”

Jon’s wife vanished inside the house, and Hackmore felt the same sensation whenever a military project needed ‘just a few changes’ in the contract.

“Just… try to keep it under control,” Jon urged.

Big Brick grinned. “Don’t worry. We’ve got this.”


- - - - ⧖ - - - -
Time: 4:20 P.M. Central Standard Time, Saturday June 20, 2015
Location: The Bruener Farm, Randolph Kansas
- - - - ⧖ - - - -

“You idiots broke my fucking tank!” Lieutenant Comena stalked around the broken transporter, trying not to grind his teeth. “I hope you plan on working for the Army for the next hundred years, because they’ll be taking this out of your check for centuries!”

“But the road—” started one of the support crunchies.

“Screw—!” Nick stopped, considered the Division Commander standing on the porch of the Bruener house a hundred meters away, and changed his words. The fact that a few ponies were standing around helped.

“You boys got my baby unchained, right?” he growled. “Because if Corporal Frey breaks something getting it off the transport, the general’s not going to be very happy.”

Nearly an hour of close inspection to verify the unchaining of said tank later, including laying out a series of movement flags and planning with his driver, Nick gestured all of the observers back—including the four-legged ones—while hoping that Rick was as good at driving the tank as his records indicated.

The big Abrams barely trembled when the turbine fired up on schedule and Rick began going through his checklist, allowing Nick a moment of thanks for at least one thing going right in this deployment. It seemed to be taking longer than normal for Rick to get the tank ready to move, which could have just been from all the ponies and humans who had started to gather behind the barbed-wire fence with him. Gathering a civilian audience was normal for any kind of tank movements, but the longer Nick stood and watched, the more ponies gathered with him. One thing Nick knew for certain was that if he was watching some Equestrian equipment maneuver, he would have appreciated some sort of explanation, so it was only fair for him to provide one now.

“We don’t normally drive the tank off the transporter at this angle,” Nick started, narrating as if he were standing in the War College instead of in front of a dozen curious ponies and several reporters. “The only other option would be to get a crane down here, and that could take a week.”

“Bet I could do it,” rumbled a deep voice to his left, which when Nick turned and looked, belonged to the hefty Equestrian Royal Guard who he had thought was mute. If there ever was a unicorn who could lift sixty plus tons of steel, this one was it, being about a pony and a half wide across the shoulders.

“Hang on, Titan,” said Nick. “Don’t want you straining yourself over something we can handle another way.” Out of the corner of his eye, Nick could see the rest of Four-One’s crew likewise by the barbed wire fence, although each of them had their phones out to record the tank extraction for later reference and most likely ribbing of Rick if he managed to flub it up.

“This is Four-One,” sounded the laconic voice of Corporal Frey from the radio. “We are ready to attempt extraction.”

Restraining the urge to call Rick on the carpet for implying he was a ‘we’ of sorts, or a dentist, Nick closed the contact on his own radio. “This is Four-One Actual, you are clear to move backward. Proceed slowly.”

The last line was extraneous, but since he could see a few news cameras among the gathering crowd, and the Abrams could probably go in reverse up the hill at over forty miles an hour, emphasizing caution was a wise precaution. Thankfully, Rick was not in the mood for stupid displays for the camera. The big main battle tank moved in reverse just as smoothly as if General Dynamics was doing a demonstration, crunching over the boards at the back of the transport and gliding to a halt on the road where Rick took the opportunity to move the turret so the main gun pointed up the road, away from the spectators.

“This is Four-One, are we clear to move to the destination?”

Nick looked back and forth down the road, checking for loose ponies or other wandering civilians who might be dumb enough to get in the way. Seeing none, he triggered the radio again.

“Four-One, this is Four-One Actual. You are clear to proceed.”

Once again, the bulk of the tank just seemed to glide down the road, heralded only by the sharp popping of gravel being turned into dust under its treads. It moved into the designated firing position, paused for a moment, then did a neutral 180 steer to swap ends while the turret remained fixed in place, leaving the entire tank pointed up the hill and situated for its short stint as mechanical sentry. It was a little bit of a show-off, but Nick could not really criticize his driver for it, because he had pulled it off so well. As the turbine whined down to a halt, Nick turned to the audience and announced, “Ladies and Gentlemen, that is how you park a tank.”

Through the scattered applause, the hefty Royal Guard Titan moved up to Nick’s side and saluted. “Sir. You need that other thing moved too?”

His first instinct was to discourage the unicorn, since they were going to send a Hercules transport vehicle out from the Fort to deal with the mess anyway. Something in the unicorn’s eyes convinced him otherwise, because he looked much like a weightlifter who had been told he could not lift somebody’s Toyota.

“Just a second, Specialist Titan.” Fumbling in the pocket of his ACU’s, Nick pulled out the short contact list and his iPhone, feeling odd to be making a phone call to an extraterrestrial military officer to ask permission to use one of his soldiers as a tow truck. A short conversation later, Nick hung up the phone and turned to the eagerly anticipating soldier. “He says to wait until he’s here.”

“Thank you, sir!” said Titan with a sharp salute that just barely ‘ticked’ against the steel of his helmet.

It took about twenty minutes for the pony sergeant to show up, along with a few dozen more ponies, a news camera or two, and for all Nick could tell in the growing mixed crowd of ponies and military, the whole of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Titan had spent his time checking the broken transporter and lighting his horn in places while he squinted or sniffed different areas of it.

“Specialist Titan,” called out the old pony commander. “Give the humans a good show, and try not to hurt anypony.”

“Sir, yes sir!” Titan turned back to the truck and lit his horn, making a beam of silvery light vanish under the crumpled steel where the cab and the trailer met. He gained a distant expression, much as someone poking around inside their mouth for a loose tooth, before the wreckage gave a loud noise that sounded like a disengaging coupler. “There we go,” said the unicorn under his breath as he braced his hooves and the silver of his magic surrounded the cab. “One piece at a time.”

There was a ripping noise as if the world's largest sheet of paper was being torn, then the massive front end of the transporter floated up in the air, much like a lead balloon, and Titan turned with it, causing it to glide through the air and land gently back on the road headed uphill. He then repeated the action on the twisted bed of the trailer, sending it flying through the air to land behind the cab where it remained, looking warped and misshapen like a child’s toy that had been stepped on.

This left a fairly large rust-ringed hole in the road along with a washed-out section below it, which Double Billing strolled right up to, made a note on her clipboard, and walked back to the house, most likely to increase her estimate.

Nick walked up to the panting unicorn and clapped him across the armored shoulders. “That was pretty darned incredible,” he admitted.

“The hard part was getting my field all the way around it.” Titan gave a heave and pulled one hoof out of the gravel where it had sunk up to his fetlock, then repeated the task until he was free. “I think I can bend it back more or less into shape, if that will help.”

And a little over an hour later, the tank transport looked only slightly off-center and wobbled a bit as it trundled up the hill, leaving the rest of the Army unit to their duty.

13. Saturday Night Fervor

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Farmer Bruener Has Some Ponies
Saturday Night Fervor

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

― The Wonderful Wizard of Oz

- - - - ⧖ - - - -
Time: 8:12 P.M. Central Standard Time, Saturday June 20, 2015
Location: The Bruener Farm, Randolph, Kansas
- - - - ⧖ - - - -

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

- - Ω - -

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Stand down.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And this certainly qualified.

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

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

- - - - ⧖ - - - -
Time: Saturday June 20, 2015
Location: Kansas University Medical Center, Fourth Floor
- - - - ⧖ - - - -

A hospital was a place where one stood a smaller chance of dying from a disease than from boredom. Claire was starting to think that she should pass the title of pony-sitter to some other human and sneak away before she expired from some of the most interesting boredom she had ever been through.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We?” asked the female agent.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh,” said Claire. “I’m sorry.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Okay, you win.”

14. A Day of Arrest

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Farmer Bruener Has Some Ponies
A Day of Arrest

"A friend should always underestimate your virtues and an enemy overestimate your faults."
Don Vito Corleone - The Godfather


- - - - ⧖ - - - -
Time: 8:30 A.M. Sunday June 21, 2015
Location: Kansas University Medical Center, Fourth Floor
- - - - ⧖ - - - -

Karla was in pain. More physical than mental, but pain nonetheless. It had been a long time since Karla Anacostia the college student wound up couch-surfing through the night at a friend’s home, and Agent Anacostia the FBI officer always had a hotel room to stay at during long deployments, so she had obviously gotten soft.

Shifting her weight and moving the thin hospital blanket to one side, her first thought was to check on the Glock 22 in her shoulder holster, which had made a nasty lump in her already uncomfortable sleeping surface. Then badge, phone, wallet, and keys, all where they were supposed to be, thankfully. Cracking her eyes open only showed one pony in the room, however.

Granny Smith looked right back at her, with a look that Karla’s own grandmother had used far too often when she had overslept at her home. “So, yer up finally.”

“Yes, Granny Smith,” managed Karla, swinging her legs down off the hospital couch and looking for her shoes. “I didn’t mean to drop off like that, but it’s been a long—”

“T’be honest, I fell asleep first,” admitted the old mare. “You young girls all chattering about stallions and such. It’s been a long time since I’ve been off with a bunch of young ‘uns.” Missus Smith paused and looked… oddly plaintive. “Actually, growing up on a farm didn’t rub me up against most mares. Between our fight with our neighbors and my pappy’s naturally cranky nature, weren’t no real friends to be had. Mah grandfoals done did so much better despite me.”

“As I recall,” started Karla, who was starting to feel a little better. “One of them is the Element of Honesty, one is that little filly you can’t quit talking about, and Big Mac, who sounds like one heck of a guy, and what is that?”

There was a strange, wind-like noise from out in the hallway, together with a young child shrieking in laughter. It was probably what had woke her up, although not anything that seemed dangerous, mostly from the way the Highway Patrol trooper in the doorway was looking while trying not to laugh.

One of the nurses, who Karla had not noticed before, stirred from a chair next to the older pony and said, “The girls got up early and decided to go entertain the kids in the next wing. The energy of youth, I guess. Those three make me tired just watching them.”

Granny Smith chuckled. “There’s three little ponies I know that’ll make them look like little old mares. Go out and see what they’re up to, Miss Anacostia. Just be glad there’s no tree sap around.”

Her feet hurt when she put weight on them, which was probably a sign that she had been spending too much time standing as of late, and there was a hammer chorus in her forehead from caffeine deficiency. At least there had been no drinking, so she was not hung over after their long girl-party last night. There had been stories about dating, games of Truth or Dare, video clips from YouTube, one pizza daringly snuck through hospital security, and last but not least, a movie at the end. The ponies most certainly did not like horror movies (thankfully), so Pacific Rim had been picked out of pay-per-view options, and by the end of the movie, Karla was positive that the mechanical-oriented unicorn was planning on building her own Jaeger.

And darned if Karla wasn’t starting to think she could.

The corridor was empty of any strange sights when she reached the doorway, although the Highway Patrol trooper was still snickering, and all of the nurses in the hallway were looking in one direction. She wanted to ask what was going on, but whatever it was seemed to be a recurring phenomena, so she used her time to run fingers through her hair and arrange her clothes to make it a little less obvious that she had slept in them.

In due time, the strange ripping noise sounded through the corridor again, soon followed by a sight at the far end that Karla never would forget. Riding on the back of the dark batpony like some fairy-tale princess in a nightgown was a little girl, who was squealing at the top of her lungs while Goose made a sharp turn, nearly touching the ceiling tiles and floor at the same time with her enormous wings. When she leveled out, both wings were brushing against the walls on either side of the corridor as she glided in Karla’s direction with the little girl on top, still whooping up a storm. That is until her Royal Steed finished losing altitude, retracted her legs, and skidded to a halt on her furry chest just a few feet away.

“Whee!” declared Goose, sounding just out of breath.

“Again!” declared the skinny little girl on her back.

“One ride to a customer.” The dark monster stood up and began folding her massive wings in a process that gave Karla a little flutter of fear in the back of her head. “There’s three more little human fillies waiting in line, and we don’t want to keep them waiting. Glad to see you’re awake, Karla,” called back Goose as she trotted off with the clatter of steel shoes on tile.

“Furthest she’s made it so far,” said the Highway Patrol officer once the pony and her energetic passenger had vanished around the corner. “The kids were a little skittish around her until they found out she could fly. Now they can’t get enough of her.”

“Weirdest alien invasion ever,” murmured Karla. A task of higher importance shook her out of the moment of stunned amazement, and FBI Agent Anacostia pulled out her cell phone.

“So what are you doing?” asked Granny Smith, who had moved near the doorway with the assistance of her personal nurse.

The pony’s face was still looking drawn and pale, although it was difficult to see through all the hair of her coat. The old mare had been fairly quiet last evening, contributing to the conversation only in small bursts and when Claire had used her phone to call Big Mac. Then she had lit up like a happy light bulb, and told a half-dozen stories in a row about Ponyville and her early life there as a little filly.

“Turning off airplane mode so I can send video of their next run to the field office director, Missus Smith,” said Karla. “Clyde’s gotta see this.”

The cell phone promptly rang before the next exhibition started, and since several of the nurses had their phones out too, and the caller id showed it was Clyde calling, Karla decided on employment over recreation.

“Good morning, Agent Anacostia,” said the director immediately. “This is Agent in Charge Smith. Before you say anything, Miss Bruener set her tablet up last night to livestream your little party on YouTube, and it’s still broadcasting.”

Karla looked over her shoulder at the innocuous tablet sitting in the corner of the room and said something which ought to have been self-censored before going out over the internet. A second thought about the eavesdropping devices all lined up on the window sill where Widget had placed her precious toys did make her change languages in order to add something special that Grandmother Tashi once taught her when she had hit her thumb with a hammer. A few minutes later once Karla had gone down the hallway to the soda machine and away from her career in mass media, she managed, “Thanks, Clyde. I should be where I can talk now.”

Clyde always had been a sensible boss and liked to be on a first-name basis with his employees, so the way he continued in clipped words with formal protocol on the call twigged Karla solidly to the suspicion that he was not the only person on the line. And from Karla’s interaction with ‘Quills’ Gates yesterday, she was hoping that older and more mature members of the Department of Justice had decided to give up on their hairbrained scheme of effectively kidnapping several of the peaceful (although cute/frightening) aliens off to the hive of scum and villainy that was Washington.

Unfortunately, only good ideas die in a bureaucracy. Bad ones grow.

“Good. Agent Anacostia, I have to say you’ve done a fine job of gaining the aliens’ trust and incidentally reducing the public’s natural fear of the unknown.”

Translation: Good work on snuggling up to the cuddly aliens on YouTube. Wait.

“How many people were watching that stream?” blurted out Karla. “I mean a few hundred viewers watching me and the girls—” leaving unsaid just when Karla had transitioned from viewing them as ‘scary aliens’ to ‘frightened teenagers’ in her mind “—talk about nail polish and dating can’t be that…” She took a breath and swallowed. “How many people were watching?”

“The actual number of viewers local and international is not important,” started the director, to Karla’s growing horror. “What is important is that we have the opportunity to introduce the Equestrian nation to the world at large, and we can’t do that where they are.”

Translation: Outside of the restricted hospital. To the United Nations. Or diplomatic embassies. In DC or New York, not podunk Kansas. Damn.

“So with that in mind,” continued the director, “we want you to see if your new friends can be enticed into taking a little trip for a few days. They’ll be treated like royalty, meet the cream of society, and still be back for whenever their home—” the hesitation was almost imperceptible “—dimension puts up a portal for Granny Smith’s return.”

“You do realize, sir, she’s over a century old and just had a hip replacement,” said Karla despite her best efforts to remain silent and not get into trouble.

Control your expression and nod. Several of her peers had informed Karla that was the appropriate response when talking to anybody more than four levels above your pay grade, and she was getting the sinking sensation that one individual on the line was the top of the pay scale. After all, he had two young daughters who would be tickled just as pink as Widget to meet an alien pony.

“You are quite correct. It has been determined that the elderly pony is too fragile to be moved.” The director took a breath into the handset of his cell phone, which was one habit he had been very insistent on telling every agent under his command not to do, because it was unprofessional and bugged the heck out of him. “Therefore, we believe the two younger ponies should jump at the opportunity to see our nation’s capitol, if encouraged. Arrangements have been made for Air Force Two to be placed at KCI so they can be picked up in style and flown to where we need them to go on Monday.”

Passive voice, using the Royal We. They must be practically holding Cyde at gunpoint.

“Monday, I’m supposed to be driving them back to Randolph, sir,” said Karla rather cautiously, particularly since Clyde absolutely hated to be called ‘sir’ in an informal discussion just between agents. “And we can’t legally remove them from KU Med because of the governor’s restraining order, since it’s in Kansas.”

By a few hundred feet.

“We don’t believe that will be a problem, Agent Anacostia,” said Clyde again, which only reinforced Karla’s suspicion that there were other listeners on the line. “Just find an excuse to bring them to the field office in Missouri on Monday, and we’ll take it from there.”

“I understand, sir.” Karla was deep in thought when she closed the call and considered the nearby hospital surveillance camera, which was most probably pointed at her. A day ago, she had almost shot the little ponies, and now she was being ordered to betray their trust. It warranted at least some profanity, perhaps kicking a nearby trash can, but she put her phone away and walked back to the room instead. The pains of aching joints from sleeping on the couch were almost gone now, overwhelmed by the thought of what the sweet and innocent Widget would think when her new human friend stabbed her in the back.

Even watching Goose carry laughing children in gliding paths through the hospital corridors did not cheer her up. In fact, it made the feeling worse, because the dark batpony—

Oh, no. If they try stuffing her into Air Force Two, she’s going to kill somebody.

- - - - ⧖ - - - -
Time: 9:44 A.M. Central Standard Time, Sunday June 21, 2015
Location: Olsburg Lutheran Church, Kansas
- - - - ⧖ - - - -

Of all the things in the universe, having aliens drop in on his farm was the second most unlikely thing Jonagold Bruener had ever thought would happen to him. Taking one of them to church was… way off the chart.

“Hi everyhuman.” Derpy waved at the congregation from where she was hovering behind the lectern. “Wow, that’s not very loud. Do I just talk into THIS?” she added, moving close enough to the microphone to brush it with her nose.

He had to wonder if his wife — who had taken the indescribable unicorn Grace to the Methodist church — had really thought this idea through. They were aliens, after all, even if they had hooves instead of pointed ears. Well, hooves and pointed ears, to be technically correct. The area churches had pitched in like crazy to help the dimensionally displaced ponies, and it was only right and proper to thank them for their generosity, but he could not help but think a polite Thank-You note with perhaps a signed picture would have been a better idea. Worse, or better perhaps, was the way the idea had caught fire with the community. Practically every church in a one-hour radius wound up with a pony visitor, a human volunteer escort, and a deputy or two in plainclothes lurking in the background just in case. Even the Kansas governor had gotten in on the event, and was sponsoring the Equestrian mayor at a Catholic church in Topeka, although they were flying there by pegasus cart instead of driving.

“I recognize some of you from when we crashed in Mister Broomer’s farm,” continued the cross-eyed pegasus. “Like you over there. And you with the white hair. And you drove the fire truck. Sorry about the windshield. And setting fire to the hose.”

Thankfully, the traffic had calmed down due to Randolph being effectively sealed off except for residents and ponies. A few thousand cars being turned around for two days discouraged the vast throng which would have certainly followed, making the traffic on the highway this morning fairly close to normal during the short drive to Olsburg. It gave Jon a few minutes to talk with the pony chosen to pass along their thanks, much as she passed along letters ballistically in her hometown. Since they were all leaving tomorrow, Jon figured she could not screw up too badly.

“I was supposed to read off of some note cards, but I lost them,” said Derpy, whose voice was muffled since she was rummaging around in her saddlebags with her nose and bumping letters out onto the church floor. “Oh, I found the instructions the mayor gave me.”

And to Jon’s surprise this morning, Derpy and her young daughter had listened to his cautions and a three-minute lesson on Martin Luther’s version of Christianity during the drive. They had both been very quiet and subdued, greeting the other congregants and the pastor with hoof-shakes, sitting in the pew during the service, and even singing. Thankfully, the singing did not turn into an event, like it had during the Friday concert. That was exceptionally good, given that Lutheran hymns tended to evoke feelings of severe depression and grief.

“Don’t muffin this one up,” read Derpy off the card. “Try not to break anything, or set anything on fire, or drop anything on any human, or step on anyhuman’s toes, or break anything… Hey, she said not to break anything twice. I wonder why.”

The hovering pegasus turned to look at Pastor May, brushing a candle on a stand in the process, which fell toward the altar in a chain reaction that had most of the candelabras tipped over, the communion cups scattered all over, and a flock of a half-dozen church congregants scrambling around to chase, wipe down, or extinguish what needed, respectively.

“Wow,” said Derpy. “When something bad happens, humans are right there to help. You’re really amazing.”

“Thank you, Ma’am,” said the aging pastor, moving forward to gently nudge Derpy’s trajectory back to the pew where Jon was sitting, thus saving the life of a fragile glass vase full of flowers nearby. The congregation rose to their feet to quietly applaud, there was a considerable amount of hoof-shaking for anybody who had not been shaken already, and the whole crowd moved in the direction of bible study.

It made Jon more than a little nervous to see Dinky go bounding off to the sunday school rooms with her chattering child peer group, but there was a plainclothes member of the RCPD in the congregation who was volunteering in their class also. The worst thing that could happen to the extradimensional foal there would be returning with a paper model of Noah’s Ark. Technically, Vacation Bible School started on Monday, but with all the hustle and scrambling that was going to happen… Then again, it would put all of the energetic little ponies in one spot instead of scattering them all over the town. It was something to bring up to the Methodists later, since they had the most space.

Sitting through the adult bible study class today with a pony at his side could not have gone much better. Derpy was more attentive than Claire or any of his sons had ever been, and asked one or two questions about Paul’s trips through the book of Acts that showed she really understood how dangerous travel like that could be. In fact, the bible study class turned out to be far more ordinary than he had expected, except for Derpy managing to dump his coffee into his lap.

Once church was over and it seemed that Derpy got to shake hooves with every member of the congregation again, Jon almost started to head home before he remembered that they had been invited to Pastor May’s house for lunch, an event that several dozen other ponies were probably experiencing all over this end of Kansas. Lunch was sponsored by the Lutheran Ladies Aid, which Jon could have guessed because the May’s house had a buffet with more food than a restaurant chain, containing only a few incidental meat dishes.

“I can’t tell you how honored we are,” said Pastor May once all the guests were inside, including several deacons of the church. “It must be terribly frightening to be so far away from home, in the middle of so many strange creatures.”

“Oh, it’s fine,” said Derpy with a remarkably human wrist flip. “I fly the mail up to Canterlot all the time.”

“Well…” said the pastor, who seemed taken slightly aback. “I also wanted to tell you that we took up a special offering at church, and we raised over four thousand dollars to help out with your town’s expenses.”

The surrounding church deacons and Jon politely applauded as the pastor passed over the envelope, although Derpy had turned her back on them to root through her saddlebag. A moment later, she emerged with a pencil and began writing on the front of the envelope, talking quietly to herself with the pencil held firmly in her teeth.

“Need to remember to have an Equestrian postal code assigned to the house, so we’ll just use the unassigned code for now, and the mayor’s name all swoopilly like she likes it, and there!” She put the pencil back into her half-full saddlebags, and removed a small fleck of sticky paper that stuck to her nose. “I guess you don’t have two Equestrian bits for the stamp, so I’ll have the mayor take it out of the donation.” Several strong hoof-stomps later, the sticky alien postage stamp was secured in place, and Derpy turned back to the pastor with a lopsided smile. “Did you want the stamp back after I deliver the letter, Mister Pastor May? Some of the human people really like to collect stamps, just like Dinky.”

“Yes, that would be wonderful,” said the pastor. “I—”

There was a gust of wind, a thump from the front door, and the room contained one less pegasus.

“Sorry,” said Dinky, the pale purple unicorn foal whom everybody tended to overlook when her more energetic and accident-prone mother was in the room. “She gets like that whenever she sees an envelope. When you were passing the collection plate around, I had to hold her back to keep from delivering all the little envelopes inside.”

“That’s perfectly fine.” Pastor May braced his hands on his knees so he could bend over and talk to the young unicorn, who was shorter than the young humans the tall pastor normally interacted with. “So, I understand you collect stamps also?”

“You bet!” Dinky’s face lit up nearly as much as the pastor while they looked through his stamp collecting books and special little treasures. Once they were well into mutual philately, Jon pulled the president of the congregation into the other room and asked him a very pertinent question.

“So when Derpy brings back the cancelled stamp, will it go to Pastor Mays or the church?”

“The pastor, I suppose. Although I…” Congregational President Thurgood looked at the Ebay page that Jon had pulled up on his phone and stared wide-eyed.

“A few of the ponies won’t be going back with Monday’s portal,” said Jon. “The nonprofit expense fund we set up to support them should be able to cover their outstanding medical and housing expenses, but it would be a nice gesture if the church were to auction their stamp off and donate the proceeds. Am I right?”

“I hadn’t really thought about it.” Thurgood wiped a trickle of sweat off his forehead. “I suppose since they are aliens, that makes whatever stamps they brought truly unique collectors items. Auctioning them to support the ponies would be a really good idea, Jon.”

“Wasn’t mine.” Jon poked a few more buttons on the Ebay page and showed him the auctions for authenticated Equestrian bits with signed certificates. “There’s a pony named Filthy Rich who thought of it, and personally, I’m glad he’s going home on Monday, or he’ll wind up owning half of the country by next year. Two of his ponies and my wife are busy running the site, certifying bits, organizing cancelled Equestrian stamps, and whatever else the ponies brought that will sell. I expect Chinese counterfeit merchandise will start coming out after they’ve gone home, but that’s out of our hands. We’re looking at well over a million dollars from just the auctions, then you add in personal appearance charges and interview fees and…”

Jon shook his head and put away his phone. “My lawyer had to hire five other local lawyers and an accounting firm from another state, and wound up splitting the first account into actual Equestrian expenses and their earnings, and a separate account for incoming human charitable donations, domestic and international. Mostly for tax purposes, although the Equestrian Foundation has been actually discouraging large donations for fear of turning it into some bloated whale with million-dollar directors and private jets. And you know the craziest part of it?”

After taking a quick peek into the other room where the pastor was explaining the various grades of his stamps and making a small pile for the cute little unicorn to take home for her own collection, Jon continued in a quiet voice. “Get this. After they leave, the charitable foundation will work on returning the money to other international charities for several years until it’s empty, but they want the leftover funds in the expense account to reimburse the county and state for their expenses, and pay for the Army units guarding them. It’s the first alien invasion ever that will pay for itself.” Jon hesitated. “In addition to being our first alien invasion too, I suppose.”

“That’s… amazing.” Thurgood had used the time while Jon was talking to take out a cigarette and tap it nervously against his knuckles. “Was it safe to send Miss Derpy out with a million dollars worth of stamps and envelopes, though?”

“I… um… hope so.” Jon took out his phone and started typing in a text message. “I’ll just warn my wife that she’s coming so they can keep an eye out for her. I don’t think anybody is going to be stupid enough to try kidnapping one of the Equestrians before they go home, but you never can tell.”

- - - - ⧖ - - - -
Time: 9:12 A.M. Sunday June 21, 2015
Location: Bruener Farm, Randolph Kansas
- - - - ⧖ - - - -

“Ooo, they’re just so cute and adorable I want to steal them all away and keep them forever!” Missus Felbaum ran her fingers through the purple mane of the little sleeping batpony, all curled up in the ‘Pet Bed, Cuddle Type’ that Stargazer had been put into a few hours ago. The sleeping foal gave a yawn, showing off her sharp teeth and long tongue, before curling up against Standing Water, a more conventional pegasus-type foal who had somehow wandered over into the occupied dog bed when everybody was looking the other way.

It didn’t matter to the foals that one was a dusky grey and the other a bright blue, only that they were each warm and snuggly against the duck cotton of the bed. It had made Nicholas Comena a little uncomfortable to see the half-dozen or so infants sleeping in dog beds, even if they liked it so much that the mothers said they were going to take them back home to Equestria. Those pony mothers of the kids were all out at various churches right now, spreading a four-legged thanks to the volunteers who had pitched in so vigorously during the Equestrian exodus. The armored Equestrian guards likewise had been scattered out to watch over their VIP charges, and it had only been sheer dumb luck that Nick had not been assigned a pony and church too. Leon from Four-Three had not been so lucky, and found himself escorting Laminia and Pumpernickel to the Second Missionary Baptist Church of Junction City while Nick had been voluntold to this task.

Babysitting.

Truth be told, Nick would never refer to breaking in new tank crews as babysitting again. He did not really like kids, and would have been more comfortable in church this morning, even if he probably would have nodded off. Several members of his division called the Baptist church in JC their home church, and their energetic services always made him feel like he was back in Georgia. Instead, he got to share the sun room of the Bruener home with six sleeping foals and two civilian volunteers, including Grandma Felbaum, who could not have been happier with her task if they had all been her own grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Nick had just worked up an excuse to let him go out and take a nap in the porch swing outside when one of the foals woke up all rested and ready to explore. And, of course, it was Princess Clover. Or just plain Clover if Nick could keep his big mouth shut for another day.

“Oooo, she’s awake!” cooed Missus Felbaum, who scurried over to the alert infant with the homing instinct of the maternally inclined. “Does ‘ums want a bottle, you cute little thing?”

“Shh,” cautioned Tiffany, a college student in pre-veterinary studies who had won the student lottery for today. “You’ll wake them all up.

“I’ll get her,” volunteered Nick, snagging a fresh diaper, a bottle of milk, and a box of wipes from the ‘Clover’ pile. The little green foal reared up just as Nick scooped one arm under her, and nuzzled up to his side as he headed for the door, just as coordinated as if she had a human babysitter since she was born. “I’ll be right outside on the porch swing,” he added. “Call me if you need me.”

“B’kon?” declared Clover once they had gotten outside.

“Diaper,” he countered, sitting her down in a patch of clean grass. “Then bottle, then play. Then maybe if you’re good, I’ll sneak into the house and get you a little piece of bacon.”

“B’kon!” Clover wriggled free of her wet diaper with one quick motion and held still while Nick fastened the clean one on. The Equestrians could probably pay for their entire visit and purchase an island of their own if they just patented their variety of diapers. They didn’t leak, absorbed an entire baby’s weight in pee, and kept the front and back connected until an adult wanted them disconnected. It was just unfair to humans, particularly with the way Nick’s baby cousins had seemingly been able to poop out of their diapers sideways.

The bottles were likewise examples of Equestrian technology that made human baby equipment look like rocks and sticks, Clover’s in particular. The ‘plastic’ bottles were always cool to the touch, the contents never spoiled, and when Nick shook a few drops on his arm to test, the milk was just right. He let Clover take the bottle, whereupon she immediately rolled over on her back and held onto it with all four limbs while nursing with specific intent.

“I have no idea why your mother prefers bottles,” said Nick in his least sarcastic tone of voice. “Other than you’d probably bite her tits off.”

The little winged unicorn stopped sucking on her bottle long enough to look at Nick, giggle, and say “Tits!” Then she went right back to nursing, leaving Nick to wonder how many of Earth’s ‘special’ words were going back to Equestria in that tiny, innocent creature. At least she was keeping out of trouble while her father was off in Topeka with the mayor and the Kansas governor.

Last night had been quite busy, what with the county workers dropping by at 2AM to replace the broken culvert, something which probably took an alien invasion to see happen. Several of the unicorns had even taken care of levitating or telekenissing or whatever the old, rusty culvert out and placing the new culvert into the resulting hole, then earth ponies with shovels had covered and packed until the tank transporter from Ft. Riley had arrived. This time there was no problem with it passing over the culvert in either direction, and only the most acute observer would be able to notice the difference between vehicles if they squinted at the numbers encoded on the new Four-One’s bow. The replaced M1A2 was on its way to a secure corner of Ft. Riley with most probably munitions and metallurgy experts taking microgram samples for extensive classified papers on the incident. Heck, there was a possibility Nick and his crew would get a medal on the grounds of ‘Here’s something to make you happy that you can never pin to your uniform and a few thousand bucks on the side to keep your mouth shut.’

First military engagement of the Equine War resulted in one combat-loss tank and the expenditure of the entire invading army’s munitions. Pentagon declares victory, invests in new spear-proof tank armor kit for five billion dollars.

The morning light spilling across the nearby gravel road to the highway revealed no signs of the drama of yesterday or the determined repair by Riley County in the pre-dawn murk. Just a clean road with level gravel and a lot of hoofprints where the earth ponies had tamped things down. And by this time Tuesday, it would be the most visible sign of their visit. Which was a pity, because Nick was really getting to like the fuzzy little surprises.

“Hey, Nick.” Sergeant Spasowski was leaning out of the hatch of the newly christened Four-One, holding onto an embarrassed little winged unicorn under one arm. “Aren’t you supposed to be watching this one? She just poked her nose in here like she owned the place.”

Nick’s eyes flashed to the flat section of grass where the little foal had left the empty bottle, then across the gravel road to where the tank was sitting. “She couldn’t have gotten over there that quick. I just took my eyes off her for—”

“A moment, yeah,” completed Spaz. “My daughter did that too at her age. Do you want to come get her before she disassembles the targeting computer?”

“Puter!” Clover’s legs started to churn in mid-air and she fluttered her wings. “Puter! Puter!”

“Oh, no you don’t.” Nick hustled across the gravel road and let Spaz hand her down to him. “I’m not calling the general about ponies breaking another one of his tanks. And what’s this, little lady?”

‘This’ was a small black knob that the little foal had tucked under one wing, which on closer examination had several other bits of military equipment as company. “Isn’t this one of the AIDATS knobs?” he asked. “And a radio knob, and your earbuds, I think.”

“Leon’s earbuds, I’m guessing,” said the frowning sergeant. “Just a sec.” He vanished into the tank’s interior and returned in a few minutes. “Dangit, we need to loan that kid to the Russians and have her steal one of their T-14 tanks. Lucky even said she hasn’t used her unicorn magic yet. Once she gets her horn and wings going, nothing’s going to be safe.”

“Sergeant!” Nick held the little winged unicorn close and put one thick-fingered hand over her ears. “Don’t encourage her into a life of crime at this young age. What do you think she is, a Ranger?”

“Hey!” objected a nearby bush. The Ranger behind it, all kitted out in a ghillie suit and dark camouflage paint leaned out and gave Nick a quick thumbs-up. Thankfully, General Hackmore had added the Ranger squad to the limited Above Top Secret list who knew of Clover’s special royal status, or they would not have been on guard duty, and the Equestrian guards would not have been free to help with Operation Church Visits. “Don’t look at us for moral guidance. You’re the one teaching her bad habits, sir.”

* * * *

The flat patch of grass over by the house seemed to be a fair location to keep Clover out of trouble, away from classified military technology, and away from kidnappers, although Nick was starting to think he was actually protecting anybody stupid enough to try stealing the foal. There was a red rubber ball sitting in the grass which seemed innocent enough, and that kept the little unicorn’s attention with the simple game of roll there and roll back.

Roll the ball there. Roll it back. Watch Clover giggle. The more he did it, the more he was tempted to steal the little creature away himself. Darned if the ponies didn’t grow on you. His phone chirped after some time, and Nick pulled it out one-handed so he could keep up the entertainment while checking his text message.

“Mom sent me your number. Thought you’d like to see your fillyfriend with the kids. Hm.” The smartphone was processing the attached video when more messages started rapidly popping up. “No stop delete. Go back. Don’t read that. Siri how do I delete a sent message thingie. No no no no. Widget I need a time spell. Don’t make me break it. What do you mean it was sent already. No I’m not going to talk to him. Neigh snort fladdlapp. Give me that. Siri scent. Send. Go. Why are all your words showing up on the little screen. I’m telling your mother.”

If it was spam, it was the weirdest spam text he had ever gotten. At least the wireless in the area had gotten better with the removal of a few hundred cars stacked up on 77 and the restoration of fairly normal traffic patterns, so downloading the video only took a few minutes.

Comprehending it took a little longer, and playing it twice.

The big-winged pegasus, Cadet Goose if he remembered right, was flying through a hospital corridor in the video, actually flying, although her batwings were brushing both walls, and the little boy on her back was clutching onto her mane and grinning so much the corners of his lips were threatening to touch his ears. They were next to the camera for just a moment, and then she was gone, and the phone pivoted to catch the near-vertical turn that took winged horse and young rider around the corner, although the joyous shrieks could still be heard.

Clover gave out a grumpy cry, and Nick found he had not rolled the ball back to her, due to his brain having been badly distracted. He gave the ball a push and considered just what trouble a teenage girl with a phone could get into with four-legged accomplices. It was Bruener’s kid Claire, if he remembered right. The batpony family had taken over her room at the farmhouse while she was in Kansas City, which explained why he had not seen Goose since that one memorable near-naked occasion.

Another aggravated noise from the little pony he was supposed to be watching made him remember to roll the ball back while he was thinking. It probably wouldn’t hurt to send the batpony family home with Army Strong t-shirts and a signed picture from The Big Red One or something. In fact, it would be an Army coup to set up the returning ponies with appropriate Army swag instead of any of the other branches of the armed forces. After all, the government budget spigot was open for a limited time, t-shirts were inexpensive, and most likely every pony going back was going to be loaded down like tourists leaving Disneyland. A little interdimensional loot exchange would be a good thing, moreso if he could mention it officially to the general once he returned from Topeka.

This time when Clover made her impatient noise, he accidentally rolled the ball back a little hard, which he did not realize until it returned at just under the speed of sound, ricocheted off his rib cage, and knocked him backward into the grass. Upon impact with the unyielding ground, all he could do was try to breathe for a few moments while watching the red ball bounce across the gravel road, roll toward the new Four-One, and take an awkward hop that made it vanish under the tank.

It was a fairly unimportant observation. Getting air back into his lungs had a higher priority.

“Ball?” asked Clover, who had galloped over to him and was looking down at his face with a terrified expression. “Ball?”

Across the road, the glowing bulk of Four-One just fucking lifted off the ground as if it were some sort of balloon, the red ball started rolling back in their direction, then the sixty-two ton tank dropped the three feet or so back to the dirt emplacement with a low thud that shook the ground. By the time the ball had rolled back to Clover, Nick had pulled himself into a sitting position and waved back both Sergeant Spasowski and the Ranger who had pulled himself out of his camouflaged position.

“Ball,” he managed after as deep a breath as he was able. “Throw ball gently,” he added, taking it from her, and then rolling it a few inches back to her. “Put tank down gently. Not scare the nice sergeant.”

“Scare?” Clover gave Nick the most heart-melting, big-eyed look of pure repentance.

“Scare,” said Nick firmly, which was made a little easier by the stinging sensation around his chest where the ball had impacted and the aching ribs under it. “Not drop tank. Now come on, and we’ll go apologize to the nice man and his crew for waking them up.” He hefted the baby winged unicorn up and carried her over to the somewhat misaligned tank where all four of the crew had scrambled out onto the hull, one of whom was mopping at a scratch on his forehead.

“See,” said Nick, pointing to his second-in-command. “Sergeant Spasowski was a little frightened when you dropped his tank. Weren’t you, Sergeant?”

“Scared the f— I mean, yes, sir.”

“And you knocked the tank out of alignment,” added Nick, looking at the deep treadmarks. “He’s going to have to tidy that up sometime before anybody notices, right?”

The tall Polish NCO opened his mouth to speak again, but before he could get a word out, the tank floated up a few inches, realigned itself with the previous tread marks, and settled back down just as lightly as a multi-ton feather. It didn’t even dislodge any of the crew members, who kept to their precarious perches like a bunch of mottled tan crows with wide open mouths.

“Very good, Clover. Say you’re sorry,” said Nick, trying to figure out just how this was going to get written up in the After Action Report, if at all.

AAR: Tank Four-One encountered two accidental telekinetic attacks from one of the immature alien life forms, resulting in negligible damage and one minor contusion on Private Liam, the loader. The attacks were repulsed and the alien sent to time-out. No request for a Purple Heart is anticipated.

“Sowwey.” Having that sorrowful expression directed away from Nick gave him the moral strength not to break down in tears and worship the tiny goddess-horse. The tank’s crew was less lucky, and Nick could swear he saw unprecedented tears in Spaz’s eyes when he turned to head back to the house.

“Now, we’re going to go back inside with the other kids, Clover. I want you to play nice with them and not hurt anybody. If you can do that, we’ll come back outside and play with the ball later.”

“Ball!” declared Clover, who promptly curled up around the red rubber ball like a cat around a rubber mouse. It gave Nick a warm feeling despite the recent events, a warm feeling that went away fairly quickly when he strolled back into the room with all the little foals.

Two of the human babysitters were hiding in the closet, all of the sleeping beds had been piled into a giant bed-fort of some kind, the walls had become decorated with crayon pictures, and the little barbarian ponies were all dancing and flapping around the room on their individual missions of pure destruction.

Nick was starting to think he had gotten the easiest little pony to watch out of the bunch.

15. Sunday Afternoon Baseball

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Farmer Bruener Has Some Ponies
Sunday Afternoon Baseball

"If a tie is like kissing your sister, losing is like kissing your grandmother with her teeth out."
George Brett

- - - - ⧖ - - - -
Time: 1:30 P.M. Sunday June 21, 2015
Location: Kansas University Medical Center, Fourth Floor
- - - - ⧖ - - - -

“So they have clubs—”

“Bats,” corrected Claire.

“—but they don’t use them to hit the other players,” said Widget with a sharp frown of concentration. “They throw balls to miss the human holding the bat, unless they throw at the batter, and if they hit him, he gets to go to base, but if they touch the runner with the ball, he has to go back with the bulls.”

“The bullpen,” said Claire Bruener. “Turn it up a little.”

The remote control had long ago been separated into a small collection of parts, but Widget’s horn glowed twice and the television’s volume rose slightly, followed by the puzzled unicorn working her way through an even more complicated problem than terrestrial electronics. “But they can’t throw it at the player running, or it’s a bad thing, unless they hit the runner by accident, which is acceptable.”

“Unless the player is standing on a base,” said Claire before standing up and jabbing a finger at the television. “Oh! That was a strike! The umpire is ripping the Royals off!”

The pile of cushions in the corner of the room gave off a low grumble, and Claire lowered her voice. “Sorry, Goose.”

“Looked like a strike to me,” said Granny Smith. “You humans is blind.”

“Just the umpires,” grumbled Claire. “I wish we could be at the game. It’s really a hoot, but it’s sold out.” She wanted to add that Kauffman stadium was just a virtual stone’s throw away in Missouri, but outside of the ponies’ restraining order, something that most likely should not be spoken about since her tablet was up in the corner of the room in order to livecast their baseball party.

Widget raised her plastic-wrapped foreleg and wriggled her hoof. “The brace feels better, and since we’re going home tomorrow, do you think we could at least go see the stadium? It’s huge, bigger than the one at the Crystal Empire, and we don’t have those big picture displays. I’m not going to get another chance.”

“I’ll check with the FBI agent who’s driving,” said Claire. “Hell of an alien invasion. Take us to your Jumbotron so we can play with the wiring.”

“Shh,” hissed Widget. “Something exciting’s going to happen.”

There was a brief pause, and an advertisement for pizza rolls began playing, gathering attention from both of the awake ponies and a perked-up ear from the cushion pile. Claire merely rolled her eyes and settled back into the uncomfortable chair with a quick glance at her tablet propped up in the corner. At least when the ponies went back home, she’d have a few dozen hours of video to remember them by, and a couple bucks in her account from the advertising if more than a dozen people watched her stream.

- - - - ⧖ - - - -
Time: 11:15 P.M. Sunday June 21, 2015
Location: Moscow, Russia
- - - - ⧖ - - - -

“Score?” gasped Colonel Vaslov as he stumbled back into the room with the other dozen or so Russian intelligence specialists.

“The Bostonian Crimson Stockings have scored another point,” said one of the lower ranking men. “The Kansas City Imperialists are getting stomped. Did you bring the dill chips?”

“Yes, and a box of Aptek waffles for each of you. How are the girls getting along?” Colonel Vaslov dropped into his seat and tried to ignore the spokesman on the corner of the monitor nattering on about the joy of some sort of pizza in a bun while all three ponies were riveted to their television thousands of miles away.

“The early reports of them being hedonistic capitalists seem to be playing out, Colonel. Gadget is wanting to get a tour of their sports stadium, and their handler is going to arrange it with their Federal Security Service. The elderly Party official has been most disrespectful of their sports judging officials, leading us to believe their eyesight is far sharper than human standards.”

“The psychic alien intrigues me the most,” said a second specialist. “The way she can control matter with her mind in such a casual fashion indicates a vast training network on her home planet, far larger if she really is only a member of the proletariat masses.”

“Save it for the final report.” The colonel opened a bag of chips and settled down in his chair to watch the split screen between the Kansas native’s livestream and the baseball game. “Hopefully the Royals can do better in the fifth inning. I’ve got a bet with the Chinese MSS on them making the World Series.”

- - - - ⧖ - - - -
Time: 2:15 P.M. Sunday June 21, 2015
Location: Kansas City, Kansas
- - - - ⧖ - - - -

Karla was not sleeping well. She blamed ponies. And Washington. Staying up most of the night and the morning had screwed her sleeping schedule into a granny knot, along with guilt over what she was going to be doing to the ponies tomorrow. Even a hot shower just degrees from scalding had not helped relax tense muscles, and some blithering idiot in the apartment complex had decided to play their stereo loud enough to rattle windows. True, breaking into their apartment and shooting the radio was an option that would get her out of pony escort duty tomorrow, but it would screw her career as thoroughly as her uneasy sleep.

She was just beginning to drop into slumber when her cell phone rang with Clyde’s ringtone. After three rings just to make sure it wasn’t a butt-dial, she scooped it off the recharger and managed a more-or-less polite, “Hello, sir. What’s up?”

“Just wanted to see if you’re good for driving the ponies tomorrow, Karla.”

It almost relaxed her to hear Clyde sounding more human, except she remembered the expression on the DAG’s face when she had demanded Karla’s cell phone and personally checked it for unauthorized calls. The chance this call was not being recorded by the NSA for review by dozens of native Washingtonians ranked right up there with the Royals winning the World Series.

After blowing once across the iPhone’s microphone, Karla put on her most official, Frankie FBI Agent voice and responded, “Yes, sir. I will carry out whatever orders you have, sir.”

“Very good, Karla. Oh, and I wanted to pass along a heads-up on your assignment tomorrow. The higher-ups think it would be good public relations if you were to take our two young guests on a short tour of Kauffman Stadium. They’ll take care of all the details, if you make sure to brag about the Washington Nationals’ stadium while walking them. It should make them more willing to travel to our nation’s capital, don’t you think?”

“Yes, sir.” A momentary flash of inspiration made her add, “And I think it would be a good idea to show them the firing range at the FBI field office, too. We saw a television show with some gunfire in it last night, and I think Widget would be fascinated.”

We just won’t mention letting her disassemble my unloaded service weapon and poke around the firing mechanisms during one of Claire’s streaming breaks. If ponies weren’t such a law-abiding race, she’d probably steal it before she goes home. As well as half the hospital equipment.

“Since you’re the agent on the ground, I’ll defer to your judgement,” said Clyde. “I’m not sure about the higher-ups. This whole operation is being run from Washington, and I’m little more than an observer. I’ve made my suggestions already.”

There was a faint noise from the phone sounding a little like a train chugging along the tracks, much like Clyde liked to make under his breath whenever they were on a conference call that was being run, controlled, and dominated by idiots, chugging down the tracks to a predetermined outcome regardless of any reasonable suggestions. Being able to spot the inevitable upcoming train wreck was a matter of agency experience, and God forbid anybody make a serious attempt to stop it. That might smudge the reputation of Those Upon High, revealing feet of clay.

“I’m sure they have things well in hoof,” said Karla with a wince at the unintended ponyism. “Now, if I can get a couple hours of sleep before our evening strategy meeting, sir?”

She hung up the phone and put it back on the recharger, unable to even say what was bothering her out loud just in case some paranoid bastard had bugged her bedroom. Instead, she curled up around a pillow, tried not to cry, and let the dark wings of fatigue drag her into slumber.

When she woke to the sound of her alarm several hours later, she felt refreshed and renewed, like she had been sleeping on a cloud. Even dreams of those terrible movie monsters or betraying the innocent ponies had not bothered her, although there was a faint memory of a conversation with a woman even darker than her grandmother, with flowing hair filled with stars and the most compassionate turquoise eyes.

It was probably nothing important.

- - - - ⧖ - - - -
Time: 2:10 PM Sunday June 21, 2015
Location: Wamego, Kansas
- - - - ⧖ - - - -

Toto’s Tacos was supposed to be closed. The thing was that tourists had been flooding down K-99 all day to visit the ponies, and then streaming back when they were turned away at the Randolph intersection because only residents were being allowed in, just like the announcements had indicated every time the ponies had been mentioned on TV or radio. The failed tourists were tired, they were frustrated, and… hungry. So Craig had opened the restaurant with one assistant, and the traffic kept them both busy since early this morning. It was a bit of a strain working on one of his few days off, but it was doing what he loved so it was not all that bad, even if it was a little monotonous.

Until the dragon walked in the restaurant door.

It took several blinks before the identity of the customer bounced around and fell into the tiny and unlikely slot in his brain labeled ‘pony.’ Then it took another hop with ‘and fussy baby.’

The dark grey pony did not look like any of the colorful pictures in the Topeka Capital-Journal this morning, but the chance of something not-one-of-those showing up here ranked right up there with the Tin Man from the Oz Museum next door coming over to ask how to get home. Membranous wings, glowering yellow eyes, a subdued snarl that showed glittering white teeth, it really was understandable how he first saw it as a dragon. That and the gleaming armor.

“I need to find somewhere to nurse that doesn’t have a bunch of swooning humans groveling over me,” growled the odd pony in a beautiful contrello that really should have been singing instead of snapping. “Where’s your bathroom?”

“They’re for customers only,” said Craig before he could stop himself, since the logical section of his brain was occupied, although he did maintain enough presence of mind to point.

“Fine, fine.” The pony nipped into her mane and tossed a plastic card in his direction while walking forward. “That’s supposed to be a hundred of your dollars. Some human gave us each one of them. Just… make me something. Anything. And a Sprite. Without much ice.”

The pony vanished into the bathroom, leaving a general sense of stunned amazement among the few customers and the staff. From what Craig could remember out of the newspaper article, the ponies were herbivores, so he started whipping together a black bean salad, a Sprite, and considered a shot of whiskey to top it off. For himself, of course. Instead, he put on extra guacamole.

“Do you want cheese on that salad?” he called out.

“Buck yes, I want cheese on that. Lots of cheese.” The pony’s head popped out from the bathroom door while her hindquarters were going through the feeding process from the sounds filtering out. Her nose twitched, and she added, “Hot sauce?”

“Sure.” Craig finished a generous sprinkle of cheese and added, “How hot?”

“Human hot sauce is like water,” she grumbled with one odd facial twitch from the ongoing feeding taking place out of sight. “Give it a big glob.”

Craig hesitated with one hand over the hot sauce collection. The typical Kansas native had no appreciation for the variety and intensity of the sauces he had brought from California. “So what brings you to town? Our bathroom isn’t that famous.”

“Husband is escorting some Very Important Griffon over to the Friendship House, and they’re all gooey over Gustave. It’s enough to make me sick, if the morning sickness wasn’t doing that already. Hey, what’s keeping that salad with the weak-ass hot sauce?”

The customer is always right. And this one needs a lesson in courtesy.

“Coming up,” said Craig, giving the black bean salad a good, solid layer of Chichen Itza’s Habanero and bringing it over to his customer while hoping that the Friendship House across the street was at least was getting a more polite variety of pony.

* * *

The remaining staff in the Friendship House were entranced. Not one, but two of the Equestrian visitors were striding through their kitchen area, sniffing and sampling the remaining portions of the day’s cooking, or at least whatever remained after the tourist onslaught of the day. Every movement, every scrutinized flake of pastry, every bite or sniff was a memorable experience for the human staff.

And even more striking, the guests were not ponies.

Leonine hindquarters, bird-like heads, and wings. Really, Marge had a hard enough time comprehending alien ponies, but to have a pair of griffons in her restaurant for the last hour was mind-blowing.

Finally, the griffons stopped what they were doing and whispered between each other in short chirps and squawks, then the larger male turned to Marge and announced, “Gustave le Grand hereby pronounces this acceptable.”

“Acceptable?” she echoed.

“Your kolaches will have to be evaluated out of the oven, because they are far too cold now. The cherry pie was exceptional, the peach extraordinary, the apple not quite so much, although the bierocks make up for it and then some. I look forward to tasting them fresh. Also, you have no éclairs. How can you run a restaurant without éclairs?” The griffon made a clucking noise somewhere deep in his syrinx that caused his neck to wobble slightly. “We shall have to rectify that in the short period we have remaining before we return to our homes. What time will you be arriving here tomorrow morning?”

“A little after five,” she managed despite her confusion.

“Then we shall see you here when you arrive. Come, ma chérie,” announced Gustave with a turn to the door with the silent female griffon right behind. “They have much to do in preparation for our arrival tomorrow.”

“Wait!” called out Marge. Her eyes darted to the doorway where the dark batpony escort crouched, much like a disheveled old dishrag with narrow golden eyes and the occasional sharp-toothed yawn. The guard did not seem upset, so she turned back to the griffon with a cautious, “Mister le Grande, if I may be so forward. Um…” She looked back at the male griffon and the question she had been suppressing for the last hour burst out.

“How did you grow a mustache on your beak?”

- - - - ⧖ - - - -
Time: 3:30 PM Sunday June 21, 2015
Location: Ft. Riley, Large Tactical Equipment Maintenance Facility, Kansas
- - - - ⧖ - - - -

You see a lot of things on the way to becoming a US Army General in charge of an armored division. Some were catastrophic like the young woman who managed to get a massive M88A2 Tank Recovery Vehicle stuck in a river until nothing but the crane was sticking out of the mud. Some were obscene, and could not be described in mixed company. Some were classified, such as new weapon developments that could only work in specific environments, with specific people running them (but if the Army ever found an enemy who could invade a testing ground with a few months warning, they would be able to wax them in ways that made the mind boggle). Until an hour ago, listening to the Royals game in the Fender Shed with three unicorns and a half-dozen equipment maintenance specialists ranked top on the list.

Then the ponies had gotten their supplies arranged, including cutting torches and the steel feed stock, and the process of spear point production had begun.

3D printers still baffled Gregory Hackmore. The idea that some metal replacement widget could just be produced out of dust and lasers was science-fiction. It took him hours with his woodworking tools and multiple hardware store visits to make some of the parts he had used to remodel his house. Magic put technology to shame, in this respect at least. The unicorns had merely lit a dozen oxy-acetylene torches, used their glowing horns to hold them in a dance of plasma jets and red, glowing steel, and produced socketed spear points just as fast as a man could chop a piece of celery.

“We only need ten at most,” announced Specialist Grace, who looked even more alien in a set of welding goggles. “If twenty is enough for your purposes, General, we can start the enchanting process, then get them sharpened.”

Hackmore looked at the gleaming pile of steel blades accumulating at the end of the short workbench (lowered to pony height) and nodded his head. “We wouldn’t want to strain you.”

“It’s no problem, General.” The last two blades floated across the workbench to arrange themself into neat lines with a faint click, and the three unicorns played their torches over the last fragment of steel which seemed too small for a spear. “We’ll put together a knife for you out of the scraps. You can use it as a letter opener so you at least have something personal on your desk to remember us after we go home.”

“To be honest,” said Hackmore, giving the Army technical team recording the process a sideways glance, “every single thing you give us is probably going to wind up in Washington being examined by scientists for the next decade.”

The female unicorn did not seem to like that, and frowned at the glowing sliver of steel she was playing the torch’s flame across. Silver runes began to chase across the surface, and she exchanged whispers with the other larger unicorn, Specialist Epsilon. Even more glowing silver runes began to spiral around the glowing steel until they seemed packed as tight as a book of Army regulations.

“Titan, get ready,” she cautioned. “General Hackmore, if you would come over here and press one of your digits against the hilt. No, the other end of it. Right there.”

“It’s still glowing red-hot,” he said as the warm air ruffled the hairs on his knuckles.

“It won’t hurt,” she said in a flat, very non-reassuring tone.

It did.

Jesus Christ on a fucking crutch!” he bellowed, holding his burned finger clenched into a fist and hopping around the concrete floor. “That’s fucking hot! I thought you said it wouldn't hurt!”

The unicorns did not respond at first, since Specialist Titan had contributed his magic to the glowing knife, but the glow and the silver runes flared, then both quickly faded until a simple if somewhat short knife floated above the workbench.

“Please finish it before we work on the spearheads,” said Grace, turning to the red-faced and irate general. “Allow me to see your injury, please,” she added.

“Are you going to chop it off so… Oh,” said Hackmore as a light green aura of magic formed around his finger and it abruptly stopped hurting. A small white bandage seemed to form out of thin air and wrapped around his index finger several times, ending in an ornate bow knot.

“I advise you to get that seen to by a physician in the next three days before the thaumic bindings fade back into their primal state,” she added while wrapping the finger in a second, nearly transparent bandage which had just as impossibly appeared out of thin air. “If we have a chance before our departure, Corporal Bug Light does a marvelous job of whittling, and can make you one of those wooden display stands for your desk, engraved with our names and the EUP logo. That, unfortunately, will not be bound by the True Ownership spell, and will not return to your presence if you pass more than a dozen Celests away from it. The same can be said when you pass it down to your offspring, and them to theirs. With luck, it will last your family two or three centuries before the enchantment fades.”

“That— True ownership?” General Hackmore was not completely without fiction reading experience, and had rather enjoyed several swords and sorcery types of books over the years. The end result of the unicorns’ work was not very Conan the Cimmerian worthy, more of a tiny sword made for rabbits, just barely long enough to rest the point on the end on his middle finger with the hilt on his wrist.

That same fiction reading experience still left him unprepared for being able to put his whole hand around the blade without even a papercut, while any of the other soldiers in the building who were wanting to try it out found it was not the kind of blade they wanted to test on your thumb unless they really enjoyed having nine fingers. It was, however, the kind of blade that glittered in the sun like it had been chrome-plated, and sharp enough to pare off spirals of steel from the edge of the workbench.

By contrast, the spear blades the unicorns enchanted over the next hour could not only carve chunks out of the workbench, but plunge all the way through the pitted steel surface like a lightsabre went through tinfoil. It made Gregory consider commemorating his eventual retirement by leaving the letter opener stuck in his desk top with a note tied around it.

Forsooth, whosoever draws forth this blade from this desk shall be the rightful General of the Big Red One.

Naa, somebody would wind up cutting off a finger and suing. Besides, his grandkids would have a fit.

“That should do it,” declared Grace, looking up at General Hackmore with her stoic expression unchanged. “One of your soldiers is off procuring shafts for the spears, something about buying out the farm and garden store, I believe. While we’re waiting, if you like I’ll show you how the enchantments on the blades work against armor.”

“Yes,” he managed. “Thank you. I had some body armor procured from supply. They should be here soon.”

“No need to trouble yourself, General.” Grace lit up her horn, and LTC DeJoya gave out an abrupt yelp. The MP commander was supervising the rest of the MPs and happened to have drifted closer to the interesting activity, which turned out to be a little more exciting than he anticipated. Like a pickpocket snagging four wallets at once, the SAPI plates in his armor parted company with him, floated up into the air surrounded by a pale green glow, and over to the unicorn. “Heavier than expected for non-metallic armor,” she mused, placing the SAPI plates on the workbench with dull clunks. “They work in conjunction with the rest of the soldier’s equipment, I suppose.”

In a display of relative brilliance and forethought, DeJoya promptly began to strip off the rest of his gear before the nearby curious unicorn similarly relieved him of it all the way down to the skin. Specialist Grace accepted each article of gear as it was passed over, giving them each a thoughtful frown before arranging them precisely on the table in a way that made it look a little at the end like she had vaporized one of the MPs without harming the outfit.

“You don’t mind if we damage the armor during testing,” said the unicorn almost over her shoulder, in what certainly was not phrased as a question.

“Provided we can get some samples in return,” said Hackmore. “Those plates are boron carbide, able to take a rifle round without penetration, so I don’t think—”

The unicorn was backlit by her green magic when she jammed the spearhead straight through the body armor and beyond, making her seem almost diabolic in the eerie glow reflected from the penetrated steel workbench. Particularly the way she smiled during the process.

“Unenchanted,” she murmured, removing the ruined armor plate out of the plate carrier and tossing it onto the workbench. “Might as well be out there naked. Give us a few minutes with the other plates and we’ll see what we can do.”

Even without orders, several of the surrounding MPs had begun to remove the SAPI plates from their body armor and make a stack at the other end of the workbench. It seemed that the fascination about getting magic armor was contagious.

“That’s… fine,” said Hackmore, who had picked up the hefty chunk of body armor and was looking at the hole drilled through it. The rest of the plate had not broken, but more or less had crumbled into a narrow roughly trapezoidal hole where the spearblade passed through. He picked up his letter opener off the table and gave the unbroken portion of the plate a precautionary poke, watching as one of the hardest substances known to man short of diamonds separated like warm cheese against the blade.

While the three unicorns gathered around the rest of the SAPI plates and began covering them with glowing silver runes, General Hackmore made a command decision to ignore the ‘advice’ of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The Equestrians were sharing their technology in a way that any US Army unit would never have considered if they had been in the same situation. It was only fair to let them get an unbiased look at how US Army soldiers used the full resources of Ft. Riley.

It took a little fumbling in his pocket to get out the SMEPED and call Sergeant Hardhooves, who had stayed in Randolph to oversee security. Something like this really needed to be coordinated between the heads of the two militaries, after all.

As long as there was no personnel exchange once the portal was up. He was a little old to go jaunting off into other dimensions no matter how interesting the experience would be.

- - Ω - -

“If I walk straight, it doesn’t hurt much.” Widget strode slowly down the carpeted hallway with Claire Bruener on one side and Doctor Stable supporting the other, although technically a number of nurses and orderlies were running interference along their projected route. Dr. Schwartz waited at the other end of the corridor and checked his patient with a thoughtful frown.

“You’re lucky to be walking at all, young lady,” he admonished. “If not for Doctor Stable, we would be looking to see what kind of prosthetic to fit onto your stump, and I don’t know what would have happened with Granny Smith.”

“Now, when you get back to Ponyville,” started Doctor Stable in what seemed to Claire to be a completely unfair doctoral ganging-up on the poor patient, “I expect you to be giving that leg regular exercise, walking a little more each day, and keep the brace on unless you’re sleeping. Then you need to have it wrapped and elevated. A moon or two should see you right as raindrops, about the time your coat grows back in.”

Claire unconsciously brushed Widget’s powder-blue mane over the bare patch on her neck where the IV had been inserted, leaving her dark skin exposed. There were a lot of bare patches scattered across the soft pink of her coat, making it look a little like the unicorn had been the target of some demented game of paintball. It made Claire wonder if perhaps little pink tufts of alien hair were being analyzed in laboratories all across the country, with suggestions to the nurses to shave her every chance they had until she looked like a naked mole rat.

“I wish I could go back with you, Wige. Since your side will be opening the portal for Granny Smith and the doc in a few weeks, I could take care of you until then. And, seeing Equestria would be ultimately cool,” she added.

The equine doctor chuckled and patted Claire on the thigh. “I don’t think Princess Celestia would approve.”

“And my mother is going to smother me anyway. She’s always so worried I’m going to go somewhere strange and get hurt,” said Widget. “And… then I went somewhere and got hurt, I suppose. Just don’t tell her I said that. Seriously, I don’t know how they managed to keep her from storming up here and taking over my hospital room unless they found something sparkly to keep her attention.”

* * *

“Try it now,” declared Silver Spanner, who had managed to wedge her entire body under the hood of Clarie’s Volvo except for her twitching tail. “Last time. Just give it one twist.”

Heavy Roller nodded and gave the key a quick turn, then returned it to center once the starter had made the short noise.

“Ah, HA! Found it! The fuel injector on number three cylinder isn’t making electrical contact, so it’s not injecting any fuel,” she declared, kicking and wriggling some more to get a better magical grip on it. “Let me get this out of here so Mr. Bruener can order a replacement, then we can go look at his combine reaper again and see why the transmission isn’t engaging third gear.” Silver Spanner gave out a little squeal of joy. “This place is just so fantastic!”

“You said it!” rumbled Heavy as he moved over to look down into the engine compartment. “Sweetie, you know all the words to my heart. Best second honeymoon ever.”

* * *

“I mean her and dad control every single part of my life,” complained Widget while both doctors peered at her bare ankle. “I’m an only foal. You’d think with as much as they like playing with wagon parts that they would have played with each other’s parts more.”

“Well, one of those parts needs what we call an MRI,” said Doctor Schwartz. “Since we’re going to send our favorite patient home, those legs are going to get more photographs than Betty Grable.”

“You better not take the MRI machine apart,” cautioned Claire as she gave the patient’s horn a gentle flick. “And I’m not sure how your built-in antenna is going to react to getting magnetically zapped once it starts up.”

“It’s not a lot of fun,” admitted Doctor Stable. “I went through it yesterday so they’d have a calibration target. Think of a sewer pipe that you have to lay in very quietly while somepony beats on the outside with sticks.”

Widget had been very quiet, so Claire cautiously touched her neck, then began to rub at the knots that were forming. “Don’t worry, Widge. They have an intercom in the room, and I’ll tell you about the time I got to tour a submarine, with all the valves and pipes to keep you calm. Would that be okay?”

“Well…” Widget brushed her neck up against Claire’s hip. “As long as you’re going to be there. Having an Emotional Support Human has been the best thing ever, even if you won’t let me buy you a collar or the vest.”

“You are never going to let me live down that commercial, are you?” asked Claire with a sigh.

- - Ω - -

The trip to Ft. Riley’s firing range had been educational for both armed forces. The humans found out that the range of a unicorn’s magic blasts was by far shorter than the 5.56mm rounds of the Army standard M-4 rifle, while the unicorns were ecstatic about the way their enchantments on the SAPI plates shrugged off the same bullets. Both sides wound up amused by the way that the .50 caliber rounds made the plates fly through the air, although admittedly a little discouraged by the resulting damage to the enchantments.

Although the pegasi had the most fun firing the machine gun, once proper ear protection had been procured.

By mutual agreement, they determined that it was probably best that both armed forces remained friendly to each other. Still, it was impossible for two groups of dissimilar soldiers to remain in the same location without asking the question of just how such an engagement would look like. And there was no better place to play out the possibilities than the Fort Riley Combined Arms Collective Training Facility, colloquially called Victory Village.

Wired for sight and sound, the simulated town had all of the normal structures one would expect, from a church, a gas station, businesses, houses, and all the rest. After a few building and room clearance exercises observed by the unicorns and pegasi, in all the full-automatic fire glory of a demonstration for the foreign dignitaries (with blanks, of course, and all gunfire recorded for later playback), it was time for the shoe to go onto the other hoof.

“General, technically, we’re short a couple of earth ponies for a nine-pony platoon,” said Corporal Bug Light, a yellowish-tinted unicorn who had not said a word until this point. “We can still carry out the mission, of course. I’m just telling you ahead of time that we may not be at our best.”

“Understood, Corporal.” Hackmore pointed to the building across the street. “For the purposes of this exercise, there are at least three armed suspects in there along with an unknown number of noncombatants. We don’t have MILES units for your armor, so we’re going to count a shot as an injury and two shots as a kill. You can go whenever you’re ready, just try not to rough up our guys in there too much, please. They’re expensive.”

Bug Light grinned, then turned to the two other unicorns and the three pegasi, at which point his expression turned dead serious. “You heard the general. This will be a two-part Sixteen Delta. Titan has the bowling task, I’m the ball, Grace blocks, and Flash will be first in through the roof door. Questions? Then go.”

All three pegasi shot up into the air, and by the time Hackmore lowered his eyes again, the unicorns were crossing the street under a haze of magic shielding. One rifle barrel stuck out of a window to take them under fire, which turned out to be less than a good idea as the rest of the rifle briskly followed, dragged out by Grace’s green magic and tossed out into the street. Not even breaking stride, she made a leap that jammed her horn into the window opening for just a fraction of a second, and a brilliant green flash of light burst out of every crack in the building, bright enough that even Hackmore had to blink away the afterimages despite standing across the street.

Titan’s horn lit up also, but not to attack. Instead, he grabbed onto his NCO and hurtled him through the front door in a spray of splinters at almost the exact second that Flash Sentry went through the roof access point in a crash dive, followed by the twin pegasi so close together they could have been one horse with four wings. An extremely short series of flashes and loud thuds followed while Grace moved to the front door and kept an eye on the outside, seeming unconcerned by the brief sounds of combat behind her.

“Jesus,” murmured Hackmore. “Time?”

The training coordinator checked the radio, then looked at his stopwatch. “Seven seconds from breach to clear, with no shots fired, sir. Five tango’s neutralized, all the civvies separated, and they’re checking for injuries now. I’m just glad these are the fucking royal guard on their planet, because if they were ordinary soldiers—”

“We’re on camera,” cautioned Hackmore.

“Fuck the cameras, sir,” said the coordinator. “Ponies rock.”

16. Call of Duty Too

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Farmer Bruener Has Some Ponies
Call of Duty Too

“A cavalryman's horse should be smarter than he is. But the horse must never be allowed to know this.”
Steven Pressfield, The Virtues of War: A Novel of Alexander the Great

- - - - ⧖ - - - -
Time: 7:00 P.M. Sunday June 21, 2015
Location: Kansas University Medical Center, First floor conference room
- - - - ⧖ - - - -

There were exactly twelve FBI officers of various ranks and positions in the room, just like the twelve Apostles, making Agent Karla Anacostia feel entirely too much like Judas for her liking. She recognized absolutely none of the other agents, and to make matters worse, did recognize the FBI District Director sitting silently at the other end of the room.

Pearlie Litz was a legend in the agency, mostly from people who had been stepped on in the process of his ascent to his present position. He was effective, determined, loyal to his superiors, and never allowed a grudge to die. It was said that to wind up on his list was a death-stroke to an agent’s career, because sooner or later, no matter what happened, even if an agent were to accomplish some glorious achievement, eventually that entry on the list would be checked off.

Clyde had told her once of an bureau-wide teleconference where one of the agents had unwisely asked one of the Questions That Shall Not Be Asked of the higher-ups on the call. Pearlie had moved to intercept, deflected the question, and said that he would be more than happy to consult with the agent who had asked the question later by saying, “Ah’m afraid I didn’t get your name.”

The agent, quite wisely, did not give it, and nobody on the call admitted to knowing him by his voice. So far today, Agent Anacostia had not done anything to get on Mister Litz’s list, as far as she knew, unless he had been watching Claire’s livestream and took issue with her growing friendship with the ponies.

“If there are no further questions, please pass your briefing packets back to the front so they can be collected.” Agent Hallman opened up his briefcase and began replacing the numbered folders inside, another indication of impending doom that Karla could not help but notice. In the event this all went to hell and back, there would be no paperwork on file she could point to, and blame flowed downhill.

“I actually have a question,” said one of the other agents. “Why isn’t Agent Anacostia driving the flying pony back to their base while one of us takes the unicorn straight to the airport? It seems to be a lot of trouble to take them both on a tour of the stadium before going to the FBI headquarters building to separate them. And isn’t the unicorn a little young to be representing her species in Washington?”

“Agent Anacostia has a friendly relationship with the aliens,” said Hallman. “Since the alien mayor refused our offer, headquarters believes the unicorn will be easier to deal with.”

You mean manipulate. And why separate them?

As if reading her mind, Hallman continued, “Headquarters analysis says the probability of a successful extraction is higher if the two aliens are brought to a secure, friendly setting where they can be peacefully separated in order for the unicorn to be persuaded to travel. Then the transition from the field office to the airport should be easier without any awkward interruptions. It was in the packet you received earlier.”

“Still, why involve a local agent in the transportation at all?” continued the agent as if Karla was not sitting right there, suddenly aware of the packet she had not received.

Hallman gave a quick glance back at Director Litz, who did not nod or otherwise make a single indication that most of this chicken dance was his idea. Although if everything went well, he undoubtedly would be the one up on the podium with the President accepting the citation. The unfairness of the situation had simmered for a long time, and Karla decided to let off some steam before something popped.

“For starters, their names are Widget and Goose,” she said abruptly, because if her career was going to go down in flames, there was no reason not to pour on some gasoline to make the trip memorable. “They are not just aliens; they are a teenage girl with a penchant for engineering and a dedicated military cadet, so you should be thinking that way. I am quite certain Goose would be tickled pink to visit the Navy Academy, and Widget would most certainly saw off a limb, pardon the phrase, to be let loose in one of our nuclear submarines with a wrench.”

Karla stopped there, because every word just brought her closer to calling the idiotic plan exactly what it was. Particularly, the stupid idea of separating them.

“I’ll pass that suggestion along,” said Hallman without changing his serious expression in the slightest. “Now, since the aliens have been broadcasting across the internet with Miss Bruener, you will be the sole point of contact inside the hospital so we don’t expose any of the other agent’s identities. With that in mind, you should be here with the agency car bright and early at oh nine hundred hours, for a departure time of nine thirty. With the side-trip to Kauffman Field, it should take you less than two hours to reach the FBI field office. At that point, we will convince the alien guard to accompany you back to their base, and the other agents will transport the unicorn alien to the airport, and then to Washington. Other than that, your involvement in the plan will be minimal, limited to transportation only. Do you have any questions, Agent Anacostia?”

Karla shook her head rather than say anything, because several rather pithy comebacks that would have gotten her reprimanded were fighting to be spoken. She collected her leather-bound portfolio and swept out of the door when dismissed, leaving the rest of the FBI agents to whatever follow-up briefing they were planning. What was worse, she had seen a number of cheery yellow plastic pistols stuffed into a cardboard box under a table along with extra Taser cartridges. When the FBI ‘invited’ Widget to take a trip to the nation’s capital without her friends and family, it did not look like the agents were going to take no for an answer.

And she couldn’t warn Goose or Widget.

Although later, when she was looking at the bag of movies she had picked out of her collection at home, she thought of something that just might work.

- - Ω - -

Foxhole Paintball. The two words did not go together, except near Fort Riley. There was something to be said about people who train for hours and hours how to shoot artillery, fire tank cannons, use machine guns, and qualify with rifles, and then go out to find something fun to do that involves shooting each other with plastic balls filled with paint and pain. It is said there is something for everyone, and in this case, a dozen ponies and people in mixed array were darting from one plastic obstacle to another, trying their best to paint each other in polka-dots.

To be honest, the pegasi started it by asking just the right question.

And the unicorns contributed by magicing up a leg-mounted rig with velcro straps for one of the more common paintball guns, and a way to practically mutate a standard plastic visor into fitting onto the pony guard helmets.

General Hackmore tried to pick up the tab from the paintball store who ran the field, but was rebuffed by the proprietor, who was tickled twelve shades of pink paintballs to have this kind of publicity. He even offered Gregory a loaner paintball gun and equipment in case the general would like to lead his troops from the front lines, which was promptly turned down. Thankfully, the soldiers and miscellaneous civilians enjoying the festivities saved him a spot behind the plexiglass shield for the observation area so his uniform did not get smeared by erratic shots, and after most of an hour watching his soldiers, men and women alike, get reliably paint plastered, found himself rather enjoying himself. Even if there was no way he wanted to be out there himself.

“Colonel,” he called out during a lull in the festivities. “A word, please.”

LTC DeJoya passed his paintball gun to a fellow MP and moved close enough to the general to have a conversation, despite the noisy crowd. “Yes, sir?”

“As much as I like seeing our out-of-town guests enjoying themselves, it seems that the — as they say — Honor of the Regiment is at stake.” He indicated the field of battle, where Left and Right had just popped up over an obstacle to provide synchronized crossfire for one of the unicorns, who was taking the entirely unsportsmanlike approach of using his paintball gun by floating it around the corner and pasting the distracted artilleryman with four rapid shots to the chest. “Do you think you might win one of the matches for a change?”

“We’re trying as best as we can, sir. The Quartermaster Corps had them down to a pair of pegasi once.”

“Hm…” General Hackmore got out his SMEPED and punched in a phone number. “I didn’t ask you to win fairly.”

A little over an hour later as the sun was just starting to go down, four black SUVs pulled into the parking lot and the Ranger platoon that had been at the farm strolled over. Most of the people had started to go home since it was getting dark, but the soldiers were fully kitted out in their night vision gear and apparently ready to take the fight through the night.

“Good evening, Lieutenant Forsythe,” said Specialist Grace, whose emerald-green coat had taken far more than her share of paintballs over the evening, making her look oddly beleaguered instead of stoic for a change. She sharply saluted the husky Ranger, then wiped a blob of purple paint off her hoof. “Were you wanting to get in on the festivities? We still have plenty of paintballs left.”

“Yes, Ma’am. If you’ll accommodate us for the next few hours.” The lanky soldier grinned, making his teeth gleam from behind the camouflage paint that he was still wearing. “We may not be Navy Seals, but we own the night.”

“We will give you our best. This should be interesting,” said Grace before trotting back over to the paint-splattered guards.

And for the next hour, it became increasingly so. The deepening twilight corresponded with the Rangers getting more accustomed to their new weapons and the tired ponies getting more inaccurate. When it became dark enough for the Rangers to put on their night vision gear, the tide turned dramatically. General Hackmore could not even see what was going on any more other than sharp commands out in the darkness and the splat of paintballs hitting their armored targets. After the last round where the ponies only managed to get one of the Rangers before being eliminated, the paint-splattered unicorn from before trotted over to the general and saluted.

“Sir, you seem to have placed our forces at a disadvantage.”

Hackmore smiled even though the decorated mare could not see him well in the gloom. “Our men train to fight at night. Every soldier, truck, tank, and plane can fight at any time of the day.”

Grace nodded very slowly. “Trust me, General. We understand completely. Optio Pumpernickel?”

“Yes, Ma’am.”

The voice came from right behind General Hackmore, in an area that he could have sworn on a stack of bibles that was completely empty of man or beast. It was absolutely unfair how a pony who did not even come up to the middle of his chest could make Hackmore’s heart slam into panic mode, much like having a silent grizzly bear appear at your elbow, complete with mouth froth and bloody claws. After all, the only time he had seen the hefty batpony was during the day, which upon a few moments of thought seemed quite appropriate. To make matters worse, Pumpernickel’s sharp-tongued wife was standing right beside him, with their energetic little foal in the back-carrier who seemed to be laughing at him just as much as Grace was keeping her humorless stoic appearance.

“If we may take a few minutes, General. I’d like to brief the Optio on the scope of the exercise tonight and get him fitted for a paintball gun.”

“Very well.” The general saw them off with a distracted salute and waved over the Ranger commander when they were far enough not to be heard.

“Lieutenant Forsythe, do you think you can take him?”

“Him?” Forsythe looked at the lone batpony, who was awkwardly being equipped with one of the pony-adapted paintball guns. “One on nine, and us with night vision? Fish in a barrel, sir.”

After about five quick games with the rest of the pony guards standing on the sidelines beside Hackmore, he had to admit the Ranger was right. Pumpernickel made a good show of it in the dark, and managed to nail one or two soldiers every round, but the result was fairly predictable.

Until it wasn’t.

“Gentlemen,” announced Grace in a loud voice once the game was over. “Before we go back to the farm this evening, I would like to make a minor change in the last game tonight. Over here, please. Laminia, follow me.”

The Rangers all lined up in the observation area, chatting casually as victorious soldiers tended to do, while Grace strolled out into the dark combat arena, lit only by the glow of her horn. Lamina twisted around in the impossibly flexible way that ponies were able and hefted her little foal out of the backpack carrier, giving Stargazer a little nuzzle, then plunking her firmly down on General Hackmore’s lap.

“If you would please watch Stargazer for us, General.” Laminia gave him a sharp-toothed smile. “We’re going to incentivize my husband. Oh, and hold this.” She passed over the sheathed blade that Pumpernickel had been wearing every time Hackmore had seen him over the last few days, much like it had been part of his body. “It’s the Honor Blade of Clan Starlight. Try to keep her away from it. She’s got a few years before it becomes hers. And if you lose it, my husband will kill you.”

The two objects were awkward to juggle, so he settled for tucking the sheathed blade under one arm while holding the little foal much like a human baby, only heavier. Both of the dark ponies were out of sight by the time he looked back up, and in a few moments, Grace came trotting out of the darkness as well and stopped in front of the cautiously jubilant Rangers. Something was obviously up, because each and every member of the pony guards had stopped whispering among themselves and were watching the paintball arena with considerable trepidation, much as if they were dreading something terrible about to happen.

“For the sake of this exercise,” announced Grace, “both sides will be treating this as a non-lethal combat exercise. No force will be permitted more than simple blows or touch-strikes. We Royal Guards refer to this as Wolf, Sheep, and Hounds. Your goal, gentlesapients, is simple. Shoot the sheep at the other end of the arena.”

On cue, somewhere out in the darkness Laminia’s melodic voice called out, “Baaa.”

The little foal on Hackmore’s lap stopped wriggling and called out, “Mama.”

“You, are of course, the wolves,” Grace continued. “Optio Pumpernickel has been given strict instructions not to shoot any of you in the face or the balls. You, however, may try to shoot him wherever you want. Your side will be victorious if you score a torso hit on the defender and the sheep, and our side will likewise if all of the defenders are disabled without the sheep being tagged. Begin.”

With that, the paint-splattered unicorn walked over to General Hackmore and sat down a short distance away. “You can sit next to me if you want,” he offered, because there was the possibility of getting ponysitting assists if Stargazer continued her wriggling ways.

“I’m leaving space for the first of your soldiers. Own the night indeed,” she responded with a faint sniff. “I expect it won’t take Pumpernickel too long.”

“Dada,” exclaimed the little foal, clicking her forehooves together in horsey applause. “Dada.”

- - - -

Corporal Menendez loved being a Ranger, and this evening had been the crowning glory of his career to the present. Paintball with aliens, what a concept. Even better, paintball that they were winning. Sure, the ponies had some pretty unhuman tricks, like literally firing around corners, but they were newbies to the sport, and fresh meat, particularly when the sun went down. Even the spooky batpony with all the pale stripes in his coat was nothing but a fast target that needed to be led more than usual.

Admittedly, adding another one of them to this last game was going to be tricky, but scuttlebut had it that the only reason the batmare mom wore armor was because of a scare she had a year ago, and that she really did not have any military training other than how to keep it polished. So shoot the fast one, shoot the fat one, and enjoy a break until tomorrow when everybody would meet up at the farm to see the ponies go home. Easy, peasy.

All of the platoon lined up behind one of the plastic obstacles and began to work their way forward, crouched down while keeping all the fields of fire covered. Which was when Menendez noticed something missing.

“Hey, where’s Fitzgerald? He was right behind me.”

“Fitz?” Lieutenant Forsythe gathered up the platoon and counted noses, only to find one missing. “Anybody see where Fitz went?”

“Maybe Batman got him,” said one of the Ranger with a chuckle.

“I didn’t hear a paintball,” said the lieutenant. “Okay, pair up and watch each other’s backs. Treat it like a horror movie where you don’t leave anybody by themself. This alien has some tricks we may not have seen yet.”

“You got it, Ripley,” called out one of the Rangers to a general wave of chuckling by the rest of the soldiers.

“Dude,” said another Ranger, who was crouched down by an obstacle and looking back over his shoulder. “If anybody say ‘Game over, man!’ I’ll shoot ‘em mysel— YOW! SONOFABITCH!” The Ranger jumped up in the air and grabbed at the gap between his helmet and the back of his neck, which oozed paint. “The bastard shot me! He was right here!”

“Suppressive fire,” hissed Forsythe. “Hose down that area.”

The air was filled with the hissing thump of paintballs vanishing into the green-lit darkness of their night vision equipment right about at the same time that Menendez realized he was at the back of the group. Unfortunately, his realization was triggered by the feeling of a powerful furry limb sweeping around his neck at the same time two legs grabbed him in a crushing grip around the waist. Then there was a brisk and muffled whoosh of air, and he could see the glare of headlights along the road from between his feet, although a few hundred feet down. Or so it seemed.

“Hold onto your weapon so we don’t drop it on anypony,” hissed a gravely tenor voice in one ear, which was boosted by the muzzle of a paintball gun pressing into the underside of his jaw. “Try to shoot me and I let go.”

“Yessir,” squeaked Menendez. In a matter of seconds, he was dumped next to Fitzgerald, under the watchful eye of the division commander.

“And that’s two, Stargazer,” said General Hackmore, holding onto the bright-eyed foal while pointing at him. “One, two.”

“Twoo,” burbled the happy little pony.

By the time the exercise was over and the last Ranger accounted for, she had gotten up to five.

* * * *

- - - - ⧖ - - - -
Time: 5:45 P.M. Central Standard Time, Sunday June 21, 2015
Location: The Bruener Farm, Randolph Kansas
- - - - ⧖ - - - -

“Summer spruce-up, summer spruce-up,” hummed Dakota as he took pictures of the busy ponies scurrying around the farmyard. He could not have been happier. In San Francisco, he had the odd privilege of living in the basement of his ex-wife’s sister’s house, and occupied his evenings and weekends doing household maintenance and painting for Cynthia and Karl when he was not down at a club working security. It kept him busy and made for a tidy little sum under the table at the cost of living in a space that officially was a one-car garage, although it was the cleanest garage in the whole state, and a damned sight larger than his bunk on the Saipan back when he was in the Marines.

Sunday afternoon here bore a striking resemblance to his usual weekend household tasks in San Francisco. Some of the ponies had decided to travel in order to send their thanks to the various churches and philanthropic organizations this morning, so while Mister Bruener and his wife were being kept busy in Topeka doing various meet-and-greet social things with the pony mayor and her bodyguard, the ponies were engaging in one of the their social activities here.

Rebuilding.

The farmstead had a lot of outbuildings but only two houses, one old roughly cubical one that the elder Bruener had lived in, and the new, larger mostly flat house that Jon Bruener had built so his physically infirm father could move in with them, not have to deal with stairs, and have the rest of the family to support him. Unfortunately, the old man had passed away a few months after the new home was built, leaving the newer Bruener house for the remaining family and the older house used as box storage for most of a decade. Big Brick’s construction company was in the middle of painting and minor alterations on the newer house, so the ponies had decided to fix up the old house as a way of saying thanks.

Seeing how much a single pony could work was a shock to Dakota. Having over a hundred of them digging in to shingle, paint, rework windows, pour concrete, plant flowers, trim bushes…

He shot enough pictures of the process that Dakota was getting a blister on his shutter finger. The SF Times had become the place to get pictures of ponies in action over the last few days. And if they followed the rules on his employment contract, Mister Dakota Henderson was going to wind up with enough money to buy the Winnebago he was renting and still have the cash for a down payment on a condo in San Francisco.

As the afternoon sun turned to dusk, Dakota found himself helping to set up a video projector outside of the Bruener seed warehouse. It was a variant of the quonset hut that he had seen on many military bases, only with a concrete back wall that was being painted white so the outdoors projector would have something to work on, and speakers being arranged in an arc around the concrete slab at the base.

“Now basketball is a game I bet we can beat you at,” said Dakota when he spotted a familiar shade of green in the ponies milling around the basketball goal. They had the obvious objective of getting it removed intact so it would not cast a shadow across the movie ‘screen’ behind it, but were having some issues. “You need some help, Lucky? Up for a game of one-on-one?”

He was taking photos while asking the question, so the effort of keeping the green stallion out of frame was distracting. Not so distracting that he did not notice it when Lucky’s adorable little filly glommed onto his leg and looked up with those huge violet eyes.

“C’ama!” she declared.

“Oh, you little rascal.” Dakota scooped up the little foal and held her in the crook of his left arm while still holding his camera with the opposite hand. “Guess I’m not going to be helping you take down that basketball goal now.”

“Actually, I was just looking for somepony to keep Clover busy while we worked,” responded Lucky. “Everypony… and lift.”

The steel pipe lifted straight up in the air, supported by a unicorn’s magic and two pegasi on the far end and a half-dozen ordinary ponies on the other. In a matter of minutes, it was placed up against the side of the quonset hut building with some other awkward chunks of machinery that needed to be put out of the way, and Lucky trotted back to him with a happy smile.

“By the way, Mister Henderson,” he started, “I talked to the Chronicle editors by phone this afternoon. They’ve been very happy about your photography, and they made a generous donation to the town’s relief fund out of the proceeds. And Clover has one of your lenses.”

“What?” The camera bag was on the opposite side of the little filly, so how she wound up holding his macro lens and peering through it was beyond him. She was holding it very carefully, though. And the way she wrinkled up her nose while peering into it was cuter than heck. Dakota eased the camera out, let it focus, and took an adorable close-up of the introspective little foal.

“Can I use that one?” asked Dakota, showing the camera’s preview to her father. “I know you didn’t want any pictures of her getting out, but that’s just cuter than words, and only shows her face.”

“Well… I suppose. Since you asked.” The stallion snagged a pair of water bottles from a passing pony, took a look at how Dakota’s arms were overloaded, and gestured him to the nearby picnic table. “You know, Jon’s going to be tickled pink when he gets back and sees this,” he added, waving a water bottle at the farmyard in general. “Nopony told him.”

It was an impressive sight indeed, from where Kota was sitting. The chicken coop was gleaming under a fresh coat of red paint inside and out, all the grass had been trimmed within an inch of its life, every flower bed bloomed with abandon (minus a few snacks here and there). There was just a tiny bit of painting cleanup remaining on the old house, supervised by an unusually young pair of ponies.

Even the equipment had been taken out and exercised by a combination of eager ponies and local farmer volunteers who showed their guests just how the unfamiliar tractor and big round baler worked. The swather had been cautiously cleaned while all the younger ponies were lectured on how dangerous it was while running, then each of the smaller ponies was chased out of the tall grass so there would not be any other accidents.

After everything was prepared, they went to work. It was a little like a parade, or some farming movie where every tractor and truck moved in perfect harmony, and made for some very pertinent photos. Once the incomplete hay field Mr. Bruener had been working on was all swathed, dried, baled, and the big round bales placed in neat rows at the end of the field, there was a small celebration along with a few samples of the end product, which the ponies agreed did not taste quite the same as home. Then the tractor and equipment had been brought back into the yard to be polished until they gleamed like the tin outbuildings.

The riding lawnmower had been an exceedingly popular attraction, and the line to drive it around the already trim yard was constantly refreshed by ponies who would finish their time in the seat, then run around to get back in line with the rest for another run. Personally, Dakota thought the hardware attention was mostly from the farming ponies who had never seen an International Harvester or John Deere before, and they were certainly making the best of their time by seeing the most interesting sights (in their opinion) before returning home.

It was a little distracting to see a half-dozen multicolored tails hanging down from the inside of the threshing chamber of the combine, but the engine had been disassembled across several nearby tables so there was little chance of it starting up randomly. The oddest part was the one mullberry-colored pony standing in the combine’s cab, doing nothing but looking around.

After taking a picture, Dakota had to ask Lucky just what was going on.

“That’s Miss Cheerilee,” he said. “She’s a teacher. Can you say teacher, Clover?”

“Tch!” said the foal, squinting at the distant pony through the lens she was still holding.

“She’s watching for the Cutie Mark Crusaders,” continued Lucky. “I figured that a combine with so many ponies poking around the insides would be an irresistible target for them. Since they found their cutie marks, life has gotten quieter, but there are still times…”

Dakota snickered as he shot several zoomed in photos of the combine with all the twitching tails hanging out of it. “Remember, I helped put out the fire in the kitchen that Sweetie Belle started, and kept Apple Bloom from kicking that poor peach tree in the back yard to pieces. I still don’t know why you call them crusaders. I mean how important is one of your cutie marks anyway?”

“Shh!” The steel shoe of Lucky’s forehoof felt cool against Dakota’s lips, and for a little green horse who bore more than a passing resemblance to Kermit the Frog, he seemed to be far more serious than anybody had a right to be over a tattoo.

“Cutie marks are extremely important to young ponies,” said Lucky in a dead serious tone of voice. “The longer a pony goes without one when growing up, the more stress they are under, but paradoxically, the more powerful the cutie mark can turn out to be. There’s even a mental disorder, Late Onset Symbol Trauma that can be caused if a pony doesn’t get their cutie mark until they’re an adult. I know one who didn’t get his cutie mark until after he had been in the Royal Guard for nearly a year, although it turned out well in the end. Bloody, but about as good as it could have gone.”

“So, a kid who doesn’t know what they’re going to do with their life until they join the Marines.” Dakota raised his hand. “Guilty as charged. Got the cutie mark to prove it.” He rolled up his sleeve to show his bare shoulder, and the globe/anchor tattoo. “Didn’t want to go as far as the rest of my unit since I thought I might want to work for The Company when I got out.”

“Um… yeah.” Lucky nodded while keeping Clover between his forehooves. Despite the infant pony just peering through her new toy at everything around, it was fairly obvious how quickly she could change directions and escape. “Anyway, I sent them down to the machine shed, because there’s a mother cat there who just had kittens. That should distract them. Those three darling little scamps just got their marks a week or two ago and they’re still trying to find out just what they mean.”

“Like that unicorn horn mark on your butt means you… Um…” Dakota scratched his head. “I got nothing.”

“It’s a young unicorn’s horn,” clarified Lucky, turning a little sideways to show his mark off. “With sparks to show their early spellcasting. It relates to my talent of teaching young unicorns how to use their first magic.”

“One of the crusaders is a unicorn,” said Dakota, who had moved to scratch Clover’s ears like she seemed to want. “I remember her cutie mark was a musical note, but her talent seems to be setting kitchens on fire.”

“Sweetie Belle’s special talent seems to be related to music,” said Lucky. “If you’re lucky enough to hear her sing, you’d understand. It’s far, far more powerful than setting things on fire. The remarkably interesting thing about the crusaders’ new cutie marks is they are all the same in some regards, which is exceedingly rare, like they have a linked talent. Up until a few weeks ago, there were ponies who could have sworn they all had linked invisible cutie marks in destruction. When I started tutoring Sweetie—” the green pony let out an amused chuckle and wrinkled his nose up at his daughter “—they acted like I was galloping through the streets of town with a barrel of fuel oil and a torch.”

“They can’t have been that dangerous,” countered Dakota. “They’re just kids.”

“The town has a special insurance bracket for those three,” started Lucky. “They’ve wrecked at least five buildings, damaged a dozen more, disrupted nearly every event for the last few years except for Nightmare Moon’s release, and that was before they really got together so it doesn’t count. They did, however, manage to set loose our world’s source of elemental chaos from being imprisoned in a statue, so that makes up for it.”

Dakota really felt he should stand up for the cute little rascals. After all, if he could kidnap them all back to San Francisco, his girls would award him the Best Dad of the Century award, and even his ex-wife might be impressed enough to grant visitation again. Well, before he was thrown in jail for a thousand years by the cops. “Yes, but while they’ve been here—”

“In three days, they’ve managed to accidentally start a fire truck’s pump and made a hose run wild in a crowd, taken a police car out of gear and let it coast until it hit the back of another police car, dropped a policeman’s talkie device into the bathtub, made the Catholic priest in Topeka say the f-word in the middle of the service, twice, and somehow managed to flood the underground parking area at the Kansas statehouse. And that,” Lucky concluded with unbreakable certainty, “is why Miss Cheerilee is standing guard over the combine’s cab even with the engine taken apart and the key in my saddlebag.”

The green pony reached one leg into his bag, felt around for a while, then emerged with a small zippered bag, which he opened.

It was, of course, filled with keys except for one empty space and a note.

“Taking the big scooter down to the cool dirt pile area, signed Scootaloo,” read Dakota with his head turned sideways. “What big scooter?”

There was a snarl of gasoline-powered fury from the equipment shed, screams of tiny pony terror, and the farmer’s four-wheeler went bolting in the direction of the road, with all three of the Cutie Mark Crusaders hanging onto various parts of it for dear life.

“Can you watch Clover? Thanks!” And the chunky green stallion was off like a shot, headed after the vanishing four-wheeler and followed by the teacher who had been watching the combine, along with several other townsponies. It was educational to see certain other members of the community who promptly turned and started walking in the opposite direction, leaving Dakota to presume they had directly experienced one of the crusaders’ previous ‘events’ and did not want to wind up in any more of them.

Dakota promptly rescued the rest of the keys from Clover before she too decided to drive something, and stuffed them into his knapsack. “I don’t think your father wants to chase you down too, little lady. Tell you what. Why don’t we walk around the festivities and take a few more pictures. Do you think you can ride on my shoulders?”

She could. And it made everybody who looked in their direction smile, so Dakota could not complain one bit.

17. Sunday Night Movies

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Farmer Bruener Has Some Ponies
Sunday Night Movies

"He, who every morning plans the transactions of the day, and follows that plan, carries a thread that will guide him through a labyrinth of the most busy life."
Victor Hugo

- - - - ⧖ - - - -
Time: 11:30 P.M. Central Standard Time, Sunday June 21, 2015
Location: The Bruener Farm, Randolph Kansas
- - - - ⧖ - - - -

The last night of the alien invasion, and Nick had just gotten off work. In theory, the Army’s tanks were supposed to be firing away at tentacled monsters from the time they emerged from their saucer until they fled back into the stars, but that never seemed to go well for the soldiers, and Nick preferred this kind of invasion.

“Thank you, lovely lady.” Nick took the can of soda that Lyra floated over to him and returned her smile without even breaking stride. He had gotten used to pony magic faster than he ever had expected, from the way the earth ponies had ‘landscaped’ Four-One into the surrounding greenery with such ease to the small cloud ‘sunshade’ the pegasi had left over the tank, which cut down the Kansas heat by an appreciable margin. The rest of his crew had headed back to the fort for the night so they would be fresh during tomorrow’s pony sendoff, but his pickup was still parked with the rest of the RVs, so he could always sack out in the tent there or snag a cot in the Army’s temporary quarters for the night.

For now, he wanted to see what had been going on all evening.

Movie night for the ponies had started before it got dark when the pegasi had shaped a cloud-sunshade over the shiny tin building they were using as an outdoor projection screen. Nick had watched the activity from the tank, but still had problems getting his mind wrapped around the ability of the flying ponies to just grab a cloud and shape it like a clown making a balloon animal. Still, it made an impressive outdoor movie theatre, which was ‘remodeled’ after the sun went down so the pegasi had their own bleacher section.

The criteria for selecting the movies had been backwards from what Nick expected, mostly because of removing movies that the human hosts did not think quite appropriate. After all, they were aliens, but actually showing Alien to the peaceful ponies…

The same could be said of the entire horror genre, most war movies, anything that used over a hundred rounds of ammunition at once, and… dirty movies.

The Mating Habits of the Common Hollywood Starlet normally start with a pizza delivery, for which she cannot pay…

The result had been eclectic, to say the least. Disney mostly, with Mary Poppins in the lead, and Frozen right behind, followed by Man of Steel for some strange reason. Then Secretariat if any of the early-rising ponies were still awake, although all Nick knew about the movie was that it involved a race horse.

He had intended on just walking around the outskirts of the outdoor trot-in theatre and community gathering space to take a look before heading to bed. After all, he had been on-duty at Four-One when Mary Poppins had played, and that had been about as close as he wanted to get to a song-and-dance number. A fortuitous glance into the darkness spotted the faint green glow of a military chemlight, and a little bit of navigation brought him to an empty lawn chair next to his ex-military buddy.

“Hey, Kota. You make a darling father figure.” Nick snickered a little while settling down into the empty chair, then held his open soda can over for the immobilized Marine to get a drink. The little infant princess had obviously fallen asleep on Dakota’s chest while nursing a bottle and was sprawled out like some boneless pony, all of her legs dangling down his sides while making a little drool puddle on his neck. Kota sucked down most of the soda and passed the can back with a finger held to his lips and a quiet whisper that barely rose over the sound of the ongoing destruction of Krypton on screen.

“Just got her to sleep a few minutes ago. We were dancing around during the end of Frozen, and I think it finally tired her out. Did you get a chance to let Crystal interview you for the Chronicle like you promised?”

“What, is she here?” Nick peered around the screen-lit audience for Crystal’s telltale blonde hair. For a moment he thought he spotted the bimbo, but it was just one of the pegasi who had curled up nearby with a sleeping unicorn foal at her side. “Whew. Don’t spook me like that, man.”

“She’s harmless.” Dakota gave a brief shrug, careful not to disturb his sleeping guest. “Unless she thinks some big handsome Army tanker would be good in the sack. Just watch out if invites you back to my RV for your interview.”

“Like I haven’t got enough troubles with weird women. Bruener’s daughter is trying to set me up with Goose. That big-winged batpony who’s up in KU Med with the crippled kid,” he added at Dakota’s puzzled look. “Bumped into her when I was playing—” Nick paused, obviously self-censoring “—big hero rescuing Twist. She’s been texting me, and I swear she’s going to send dirty horse pictures next. That Bruener kid is in hog heaven with those two ponies, but I can’t blame her. Ava and Zora would be too.”

Nick shook his head, then drained the can. “Your girls would sure get a kick out of being here, that’s for sure. They’re what now, six?”

“Nine and seven.” Kota patted the infant pony on the back. “I get to see them about twice a year, more now that their mother is starting to get interested in me again.”

After a quick glance around at the rest of the ponies scattered across the farmyard’s grass, who were trying to make sense of the opening scenes of The Man of Steel, Nick lowered his voice. “Man, ditch the bitch already. She cut you cold during the divorce. Timing it when you’re overseas and she’s pregnant with your second so you get screwed in the courts? You ain’t gonna find no woman worse.”

Clover stirred, nuzzled down into Kota’s chest again, and murmured, “Bitch.”

“I swear it’s a universal constant across the multiverse,” whispered Kota. “You can’t get a baby to say what you want, but they’ll repeat a profanity in an instant.”

“Excuse me. Pardon me. Whoops, didn’t see you sitting there.” A familiar scroungy green pony picked his way through the movie audience, then settled down in front of the two humans in with a thump as his rump hit the chemlight-lit blanket spread over the grass. “Good thing you had that light. Mister Henderson. Lieutenant Comena. I see you got Clover to sleep.”

“And I see you’re watching Superman,” said Nick, giving the screen an absent wave of his empty can. “I know they wanted a movie that related to Kansas somehow, but do they know how violent it is?”

“Blood and guts violence or just a lot of punching and gunfire?” asked Lucky almost immediately.

“Well… Punching and explosions,” admitted Nick. “The messiest part was the birth at the beginning. I don’t remember any other blood, and they didn’t use any of the tanks the way they should have,” he added with a grumble.

“Ah, that should be fine,” said Lucky, straightening up on the blanket in the grass and making an obscure gesture that brought the unicorn soft-drink pony around again, with her floating a soda over for each of them. “Ponyville is used to explosions. Or at least since my wife came to town.”

There was a mutual respectful silence between the three males as Krypton met its fate on screen, then Kota raised his can in an off-hand toast. “To your wonderful wife, and her little mistake that gave our world a brief peek at your unique people, without which we would be far poorer. And to the safe return of her daughter and husband, who have been well-guarded during their visit by both of our armed forces.”

“To the safe return of all of us,” said Lucky before a long drink. “And to a thick sheaf of photographs that I can show to Clover when she’s older.”

“I emailed them to Walmart for pickup tomorrow before your departure, Your Highness.” Kota took another sip.

“Was wondering how long it’d take you,” said Nick. “Being an unobservant Marine and all.”

“What? I was the one who found them hitchhiking back to the farm my first night here,” said Kota. “I should have known then. That masculine physique. His noble brow. That square chin. And that was just me looking in the rear-view mirror.” He patted the little pony sleeping on his chest. “Honestly, I caught on because there hasn’t been a minute without one of your Equestrian Royal Guard within eyesight, including that plainclothes… or plain naked pair. The green unicorn and the tan earth pony with the strange voice,” he clarified. “I swear they’re in about half of my photos whenever you’re around.”

“Technically, they’re in some secret agency I’ve never heard of, not the Royal Guard,” said Lucky. He leaned back and rested his head on the diaper bag. “I’m looking forward to going back home and seeing the wife also. I’ve been so busy here that I haven’t had time to relax and enjoy it. Then just when I’m getting two seconds to myself, I start to feel guilty that Twilight isn’t here.”

“Had that feeling in Paris once,” admitted Kota. “Walking around the tourist area all by myself after covering a story. Made me so homesick I called my ex-wife. International rates.” He stopped talking and petted the tiny alicorn’s mane for a while. Nick wanted to say something sympathetic, but he had never been married before despite a few close shaves, unlike Dakota who managed to get completely fleeced and sheared.

“My oldest daughter picked up the phone,” Dakota eventually admitted in a very low voice. “She must have been seven at the time, and barely recognized my voice. I told her about Paris, and the lights, and how I could see the Eiffel Tower from where I was calling. Then her mother took the phone away from her.”

Kota sniffled at that, and briefly wiped his nose on his shoulder. “She told me the check was late and hung up.”

“Cold, man,” said Nick.

“It was.” Kota petted the sleeping alicorn some more. “Things got better. Ava got her own phone last year. I’m not supposed to call her, but we text whenever her mother’s not around. She’s getting to be so tall, and such a good big sister to Zora.” It took a little work to get his phone out without dislodging the sleeping Clover, but eventually he extracted his phone and flipped it to a picture of two adorable little girls posing for a selfie.

“They’re sure cuties,” admitted Lucky, leaning forward to get a good look in the reflected light of the movie screen. “The wife and I spent so much time and effort getting our little Clover that I don’t know what I’d do if I were kept away from her.”

“Your wife must be going crazy with you trapped a dimension away and with your daughter to boot,” said Nick.

“I have Spike to write back and forth, and I promised to bring her a stack of books when I get home.” Lucky nosed around in his saddlebag and came out with a flat object, roughly tablet-sized. “Got this from one of our visitors. I suppose I’ll have to find somewhere to plug the Kindle in at the castle. Speaking of gifts, Mister Henderson, may I borrow your phone for a moment?”

The green pony was lit by the reflections from the projected movie, holding his hoof out until Kota passed the phone over. “It needs charging,” admitted Dakota.

“It has enough battery for this.” Lucky had pulled a stylus out of his vest and was poking and swiping away on the phone like a teenage human, only with the short stick in his teeth. “There,” he declared, holding the phone in the crook of his leg and out in front of himself. “Hello Ava and Zora. My name is Lucky, and I’m a friend of your father. This is Lieutenant Comena,” he added, panning the cell phone’s camera over. “He’s another friend I made here. And this is your father, who you already know. That little cutie on his chest is my daughter, Clover. She’s very special to me just like you are to your father, and she trusts your father so much that she fell asleep on him this evening.”

Clover took that moment to give out a tiny yawn, stretched her wings, and nuzzled down into Kota’s shirt, looking just absolutely adorable from the end of her stubby horn to the tip of her tail.

Keeping the camera on Dakota, who smiled and waved back, Lucky continued. “Our arrival on Earth has caused a big disturbance and gotten a lot of people far too excited, so only residents of this town have been permitted to stay around us for the last few days. Thankfully, your father owns a house here, and he has been helping all of the ponies from our town stay out of trouble.”

There was a crash somewhere in the background, the movie was replaced by a bright white light, and three familiar voices chorused, “We didn’t do it!”

“Sometimes, that’s a lot more work than other times,” admitted Lucky. “Anyway, all of the people of the town have been very nice to us, particularly your father. That is why I’m making this recording, so you two fillies will have something to remember us by after we have gone back to our home. Then when you get older, you can follow in your father’s hoofprints and make friends wherever you go, all over the world. Thank you for sharing him with us, and I hope our brief time here helps your world make more friends also. Good night.”

Lucky nipped the stylus out of his vest again and poked the phone. “There, and sent,” he said while hoofing it back over to Kota. “It’s not much, but—”

“It’s wonderful,” said Kota. It was difficult to understand him because of the tears trickling down his cheeks and his suppressed snuffling. He almost made a move to get up, only to stop when Clover gave out a brief snort in her sleep. Turning his head to Nick, he jerked his head in the direction of Lucky and said, “Hug him for me, would’ja bro?”

Hugging a pony was not a part of the informal Bro Code, but Nick lowered himself to the task with little reluctance. Lucky’s coat was both softer than he expected, and thicker with more rigid hairs, giving the hugged pony a resilient attribute much like some sort of living plush animal, so it was not that bad.

Until he spotted Kota taking their picture.

“That’ll make Stars and Stripes,” said Dakota, tucking his phone away. “If you don’t give Crystal that interview you promised.”

- - Ω - -

Tomorrow was going to be a busy day, so Dakota should have headed off to the RV for at least some sleep. Even though the ponies were supposed to be departing in the early afternoon, the morning would be filled with organizational tasks, both pony and people. He found himself staying behind to talk with Lucky when Crystal took Nick away for his delayed interview.

There were several exceedingly good reasons to stay up late after all, first of which was Clover’s enthusiastic embrace of a people mattress for comfortable sleeping, complete with a tiny teakettle snore. Lucky shared a quiet fatherly fist-bump with Kota when she started up, and told him about Twilight’s similar nighttime noises, which blended into a mother-daughter duet during some nights where he would just lay there for upwards of an hour or more, just to listen. Oh, and Spike snored too, so sometimes the nighttime chorus would be a trio.

It was remarkable how an alien could be just so plain friendly, and Dakota found himself exchanging stories and laughing about their past until after the end of the midnight movie while everypony else headed off to their own beds. Kota could easily see how the modest pony taught their young how to cope with the undoubtedly stressful times of youth, because he was just so comfortable to be around without all the power games or word-twisting of adults. The pony children trusted him with their own world-ending disasters such as being disliked by other ponies, or having lost something that a bigger pony would be upset about, because he would soothe their concerns and suggest a solution without any of the condescending or posing that adults tended to use far too often on children. He was a piece that fit perfectly into the four-legged puzzle of the strange alien townsfolk, just the same as Lyra and Bon Bon seemed never to be more than a step away from each other, or the mayor moved instinctively to any other representative of authority, or even Spike acted as the perfect assistant to whoever needed his services.

He was carrying the sleeping Clover in the crook of his elbow as they walked back to the Bruener house for her last bottle of formula before bedtime when an idea came to mind, and he had to ask.

“Have you and your wife thought about having any more children?”

There was no immediate answer forthcoming, so Kota continued, “I mean since the two of you are apart so often. In our world, military deployments scrap more marriages than anything. And your wife goes all over your world, doing friendship things.”

Lucky stopped walking and stood in the house’s pool of yellow porchlight for a time, just nodding his head. “We’ve thought about it,” he admitted. “She’s just so busy with the rest of the girls, saving all of Equestria every week or two. Sometimes I feel like a single parent, but she’s needed by so many, and when they call, she answers. I wouldn’t have her any other way.” He looked up at Clover, who had stirred with a faint smacking of tiny lips. “Of course we still have time together. That’s pretty obvious. I may be a teacher, but she’s taught me to appreciate every minute of every day, with or without her, and that’s a lesson I really needed when we met. So if we have more wonderful foals like this one—” he shrugged with a smile “—I think we can handle it. Ponyville’s insurance rates may rise, but that’s fine. And speaking of insurance.”

There were several gold-clad pony guards strolling down the road in the direction of the farmhouse, laughing and talking among themselves but keeping their voices low. A few of the Army Rangers were among them, but after spotting the house, they waved and headed back to their vehicles, presumably return to Ft. Riley. Dakota had been getting used to the varied colors of the ponies, but it was blatantly obvious this bunch had been playing paintball, and on the receiving end to boot. The yellowest of them under the paint splotches, a unicorn named Bug Light if Dakota remembered correctly, drew up in front of Lucky and saluted with a grin.

“Sir, we have met the enemy, and plastered him.”

“You mean painted, right Corporal?” Lucky turned slightly to one side and regarded the enigmatic Specialist Grace, whose dark green coat and darker armor was nearly obscured by colorful splotches. “So how did your scouting of the human military go, Specialist Grace?”

Grace looked at Dakota, then back at Lucky, who nodded. “We have nothing to hide from our hosts, Grace.”

“Very well.” The colorful unicorn set her lips in a thin line that only reinforced her unspoken opinion that Dakota was not to be trusted with the intelligence summary she was about to deliver. “As you ordered, I spent the entire day with our human military hosts in an attempt to make friends. Which I… did.”

She paused at that point, and did not continue until each of the gold-armored guards had stepped forward and passed Lucky some coins. To a polka-dotted pony, they seemed quite happy with losing their wager, and even the dark bat-winged mare had lost most of her normal Resting Bitch Face while passing over her coins. Once Lucky had secured his winnings, he gave a nod, and Grace continued.

“The human soldiers are not quite as aggressive and conquest-oriented as I originally expected. Should they be ordered to lethally engage Equestrian forces without due cause on our part, there is a substantial possibility they will refuse the order, or otherwise interfere on our behalf. On the other hoof, if we were to provide a threat, they would respond…” The unicorn paused, as if she were looking for a word in her vast collection.

“No greater friend,” said Dakota impulsively, “no worse enemy. When we went into Iraq to help them rebuild and fight the terrorists that wanted to run the place, our general said that we were to be polite, be professional, but have a plan to kill everyone we met if we had to. We were there to help.” He hefted Clover a little higher on his shoulder and patted her on the back, since she had started to wriggle. “We really tried,” he added after a moment.

“In conclusion, I cannot begrudge humans their positive qualities, despite their propensity to violence,” admitted Grace. “I’ll have a full report for you and Their Highnesses once we return.”

“A couple of them kept apologizing to Grace whenever they shot her,” said one of the pegasus twins.

“That didn’t keep them from shooting her,” admitted the other. “The game is quite educational. We’re going to take back a dozen paintball guns and a barrel of the little plastic balls.”

“Not just for shooting Iceberg,” said the first pegasus guard again, who shot the paint-splotched unicorn a sideways glance then shut up.

“Anyway,” continued Grace, seemingly unperturbed. “Lieutenant Colonel DeJoya took up a collection among his soldiers, and is going to buy out Walmart of something called nerfs as a present for Their Highnesses.”

Lucky spent a moment resting his hoof on his forehead before taking a deep breath, but Grace beat him to the words.

“Little foam darts with suction cups on them,” she explained. “Less messy than paintballs. Human children play with them. I suspect their introduction to the Royal Sisters will cause the staff to curse our names frequently over the next few weeks.”

“We suggested it,” chorused the pegasus twins. Both armored pegasi nodded briskly, with matching grins.

“Oy.” Turning back to Grace, Lucky dug his Kindle out of his saddlebag and passed it over to the painted mare. “Very well. Once you get cleaned up, could you please load books onto this for me? Just whatever you find that looks interesting. Mister Bruener says it’s tied into their computer in the house. But first, I want your whole squad—” the tired stallion waved one hoof at the Royal Guards “—to get shot again.”

“Pardon?” Grace regarded the otherwise plain stallion with one raised eyebrow.

“Ladies and gentlecolts, you have participated in the first interdimensional armed forces competition in the history of the Royal Guard, and from those smiling faces — excepting Optio Pumpernickel’s frown over there — you have all upheld the honor of our princesses. And that needs a photograph to take back to Our Dread Sovereigns as a symbol of your victory.”

“Oh,” said Dakota, who had become entranced by the interplay between the ordinary pony he had been chatting so casually with and the relaxed deadliness of the armored guards, who most reminded him of a group of SEALS he had once met in a bar. “Let me get my camera, and you can all line up by the porch so I can get the light on you.”

“I’ll hold Clover,” sounded a voice around Dakota’s right elbow. The elusive dark pegasus that he had been trying to get photographed for his entire visit just lurked there, radiating that frustrating You Are Only Alive Because I Have Decided Not To Kill You aura that seemed so natural.

All of you,” said Lucky. “I can hold my own daughter. Plus, it will keep her out of Kota’s camera bag.”

While all of the grinning paint-speckled guards lined up for their shots, with the nocturnal pegasi in front, Dakota considered his role as staff photographer for alien royal guards. It was nothing like caging desk duty from his fellow Marines, filling out after action reports and documenting battles with his camera. Somehow he could not see these experienced ponies hunched over typewriters or standing around in front of doors for hours in dress uniforms, despite their claims. And what they had been through in the last few years baffled him to no end. ‘Celestia’s Speed Bumps’ constantly went through his mind whenever they told about their experiences, because they had never actually stopped any of the threats they had been set against, just slowed them down.

For the second round of photographs, even the other guards got into the picture, including the neon-colored pegasus, the ever-grouchy Hardhooves, and the middle-aged unicorn mare who looked more like she should be wearing an apron than dark armor. Despite what certain generals in the Pentagon surely must be thinking, this was most certainly not any kind of invasion force, but if they were hiring, Dakota certainly would have considered putting in an application. That is if he could still have bacon a few times a week, instead of living on grass.

Once the guards were dismissed to get cleaned up, Dakota took one last moment to shake hooves with the scruffy green stallion. “It will probably be busy tomorrow morning, so if I don’t see you again, it was a joy having you and your friends here for as long as we had.”

“It hasn’t been too bad from this end either,” admitted Lucky. “Other than Cloud Kicker sneaking off with some of your humans to do a little extradimensional hanky-panky, Lyra collecting all those little plastic dolls, having to leave Big Mac to watch Granny Smith in the hospital for a few weeks, and somebody getting my little darling hooked on—” He paused, then mouthed the word ‘bacon’ with great care.

Kota chuckled and checked his phone, which had just chirped. “I’m going to head off and upload these photos— Or not,” he added. “Crystal’s interview with Nick is going to run long, it seems. Until morning in the RV, if I’m reading this right.”

“Come on up to Claire’s room,” said Lucky, turning for the farmhouse. “You can use the house’s computer network and sleep in her bed. This time I’ll sleep on the floor in the doggie bed Mister Bruener bought so Clover doesn’t go wandering around the house in the middle of the night.”

“Sounds like a plan.” Kota stifled a yawn while following the scruffy pony. It felt more than a little odd to be taking advantage of an alien prince’s hospitality, but the other option involved a long walk to Randolph in the dark so he could find his unfurnished house, which he had not even seen yet.

A bed was far better.

18. Be Prepared

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Farmer Bruener Has Some Ponies
Be Prepared

"By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail."
Benjamin Franklin

Time: 6:00 A.M. Monday June 22, 2015
Location: Bruener farm, Randolph Kansas

The night had been far too short, and the morning swift in its arrival. But at least there were no bugles. Former Lance Corporal Dakota Henderson nosed his way out from under the comfortable sheets and blearily regarded the two additional ponies in Claire’s repurposed bedroom, who had made enough noise entering that his Marine instincts had dragged him up out of a perfectly good sleep.

One of the ponies was obviously Grace, looking rumpled but at least clean in her dark armor without the paint splotches of last night. She was prodding the immobile green lump that was Lucky, who was still curled up in the doggie bed on the floor. His little daughter was nowhere to be seen, but she could be felt, because there was a warm lump who had settled down in the blanket covering the crook of his knees, and the tiny sound of snoring.

He would have moved around to see about picking up the tiny foal from her comfortable nest, except there was a second unicorn in the room, who had to be Sizzler from his blood-red coat and bone-white mane. Kota had only seen him from a distance, because the rest of the military people had practically mobbed his grill three deep when he was cooking, and the military ponies preferred not to talk about him at all. The steak cutie mark on his red flanks probably explained a lot of both, and was amplified by the way his magical aura was a nearly colorless field with wobbling bits of red that made the plate he was carrying look slightly as if it were bleeding.

Well, not so slightly.

“He’s up,” hissed Sizzler, nudging Grace with one hoof and rattling on in a rapid avalanche of short words. “Can I give him breakfast now? The sausages are starting to cool and I’m not too sure about the eggs. I’ve never really done eggs before and I know Mister Bruener said that the yolks should be soft and runny but not too much so I tried but the bacon was all done and getting—”

“B’kon?” asked Clover, coming abruptly awake with perked-up ears and an eager expression. Dakota managed to get an arm around her before she galloped off the bed in search of her favorite snack, then scooped up the plate with his other hand so it would look less like it was bleeding all over the sheets.

“Good morning, Mister Sizzler,” managed Dakota. He put the plate on the bedside table and broke off a tiny bit of bacon for the eager foal he had trapped under his arm. “Are you excited about going home today?”

“I… um…” The suddenly nervous unicorn gave Grace a quick look, and at her nod, turned back to Dakota. “Yes, I am.” There were obviously other words bottled up behind his lips, because Kota had never seen that kind of energy in a unicorn before. His watery eyes were streaming slightly into the dark patches of fur beneath his eyes, he shifted his weight from one hoof to another almost constantly, and his head practically vibrated up and down.

While Clover gummed and drooled over her tiny bacon bit, Dakota regarded the rest of the breakfast plate, which was far more meat-heavy than his expectation. There were two sausage patties, fried to a golden brown and dripping just the tiniest bit of fat at the crispy edges, with two full strips of bacon done just to that delicate stage before crispy and above floppy where the flavor really shone.

And then there were two eggs, oozing yellow yolk and just a little crinkly around the edges. By comparison, they were so plain that he had to go look at the perfect bacon again.

“It’s… art,” murmured Dakota.

Sizzler nearly wriggled his butt with happiness like some stub-tailed terrier who had just been patted on the head and offered a treat.

“Yes, it’s an art form,” said Grace with the flat tone and odd posturing that made Dakota think she was holding her breath as much as she could in order not to breathe in the delicious scent of sausage and bacon, done to a perfect…

Oh. Herbivores.

“Let me take this downstairs,” said Dakota fairly quickly, managing the ballet of getting his shirt and pants on while keeping the rest of the plate away from Clover, then heading barefoot down the stairs of the main house with Clover under one arm. He was not quite sure just why he picked up the infant pony, or why in the world the pony prince upstairs trusted some California photographer with the adorable alien princess, but the job came with bacon, so what the heck.

“Good morning, Jon. Missus Bruener.” Despite his casual attire, Dakota slipped into the only empty spot at the kitchen table, sharing his breakfast with at least two governors and the Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs, a fairly long title for ‘Secretary Kerry is stuck somewhere else in the world and somebody has to say goodbye to the ponies.’

“You brought the little cutie!” Maria Bruener fairly squealed with delight and held her arms out. “Come to Auntie Maria. Oh, I’m going to miss you so much tomorrow.” Clover seemed to agree with her appraisal, and leaped to trade human carriers for the reward of another tiny piece of bacon and some feminine snuggling. “So how did you sleep last night, Mister Henderson? Oh, nevermind. I’ll go get a bottle while you eat.”

Dakota was relishing a bite of the first sausage patty, and could not have replied even if he wanted. The entire rest of breakfast was like that, until he was seriously debating licking the plate right in front of the various informal VIPs in the kitchen while Sizzler made himself busy at the stove, just in case he wanted seconds. Or thirds.

“Didn’t sleep too bad,” he managed after snagging a piece of toast and using it as a plate sponge. “Nothing can ever beat the comfort and peace of a Navy bunk at sea, but it was close. How’s today’s schedule looking for the departure?”

Spike looked up from his notes with a piece of bacon still stuck to the corner of his cheek. “As far as I can translate Twilight’s last letter, and given that time passes at different rates between our worlds, my best guess is just after noon, probably close to one. There’s still a lot to do today. We sent Big Mac off before dawn with the K-State Vet Med students. The school will be shuttling a van back and forth as long as Granny Smith is in physical therapy. Oh, and we sent Miss Koni and Missus Killough also. Granny asked for them specifically. Well, not exactly asked,” he corrected. “And Koni’s dog is in the back yard with Zipporwhill.”

“How about the pony I hit with the swather?” asked Jon. “Widget, I believe?”

Spike checked his clipboard. “Grace and the twins are headed to Kay You Med later to pick her up. She’ll be back here before noon. They should be here well before the portal opens, but will miss all the morning speeches. I went over things with the CNN crew by the movie area and put together a tentative speaking schedule for the morning for the mayor’s approval, once she gets done with breakfast over at the other house.” He passed over a sheet of paper to the nearest governor and continued.

“This television thing of yours is really useful. There must be a dozen politicians lined up to make speeches in person or on the screen all morning from now until Twilight gets the portal open this afternoon. Or at least hopefully opened,” added Spike. “Only a few hours have passed on that side of the portal by now. I’m thinking she may not be able to reverse her spell this soon.”

“Something certainly to consider,” said Governor Brown. “We’ll try to keep expectations under control. The last thing we need is to get the press all riled up. They’re self-riling.”

Dakota wiped his face with a paper towel and reluctantly moved away from the stove and its tempting contents. “Speaking for the press, just throw a few of Sizzler’s delicious hamburgers at us and we’ll be fine. I’d be more worried that one of them might kidnap your excellent cook.”

It was physically impossible for the blood-red unicorn to look even more red when he blushed, but somehow he managed. Sizzler bent over the frying pan with the spatula gripped in his disturbing magical field and murmured something in return, squirming more uncomfortably when Governor Brown suggested, “You could stay here in Kansas a week or two until Granny Smith goes home, you know. We’d be proud to put you up at the mansion in Topeka.”

“Or in Missouri,” suggested a different governor. “You could tour Branson, maybe even get some fishing in. You like fishing?”

“Oh, no,” said Sizzler almost instantly with his ears flopping down against his skull and a look of extreme woe sweeping across his placid features as the pace of his stammering words accelerated, much like a verbal machine gun. “I don’t cook fish any more since… Well, they blame me, even though I wasn’t… Nopony or griffon died, but the entire diplomatic contingent… I poisoned an entire banquet hall. By accident. I knew something was wrong but I didn’t have the experience to detect the henbane with my magic and they almost died!” he finished with a miserable sob. “And it made Chef—” The blood-red unicorn broke into a series of fierce chirps and squawks, ending with a sharp snapping noise as if he had just closed a very sharp beak, which seemed to be all Sizzler could say before breaking out into a torrent of tears and practically thrusting his face against Dakota’s side. How Kota had become the Designated Despondent Unicorn Support Human was unknown, but after a few comforting pats on the head and a gentle ear scratch, the rather odd pony recovered enough to murmur, “I want to go home.”

“I understand,” said Dakota while the rest of the room looked uncomfortable. “You’re a long way from home, you miss all your friends—”

“I don’t have friends. None of the other chefs like me,” said Sizzler in a rather muffled fashion with his nose still buried in Dakota’s shirt, which must have still reeked of sweat something fierce because he had not gotten a chance to shower or change yet. “I think I’ve talked to more creatures in the last few days than ever. This is the first time I’ve been away from Canterlot, ever. I didn’t think I could do it, but Princess Celestia insisted. Really hard, although it may have been because I tried to get her to try—” Sizzler broke into the strange chirping and squawking language again for a few words. “It’s supposed to be served rare,” he added almost apologetically. “Although I may have needed to sear it for a few extra seconds to keep it from bleeding on the plate, I suppose. I haven’t seen her so upset since I let all the griffons in the diplomatic banquet get poisoned. There are so few ponies who appreciate meat. That’s my special talent, you know,” he said, looking up with his big pinkish eyes. “It’s very rare. I never thought I’d get a job, and then I was offered the Meat Station in the castle kitchens, preparing food for the guests. They must be having so much trouble now.”

There was a hesitation in his flood of words, which Dakota tried to fill before one of the other people in the room said something to set him off on another crying jag. “Because you’re the only pony talented enough to cook for meat-eaters, in a world of herbivores?”

“No, because I locked the kitchen’s Meat Station when I left,” said Sizzler, looking much like he critically needed to use the bathroom and speeding up his words accordingly. “It was only for a few hours. Nopony ever goes there, but since I poisoned all of the griffons in the banquet, I’ve been very careful to keep it safe against anypony who would poison the hydra heads I have soaking back in cold storage, or the — you call it Polska kielbasa wedzona — that I’m preparing, although I didn’t have enough time for it to cure properly before I left so it’s hanging all over the Meat Station and I made some here out of the meat Mister Bruener’s icebox since he said this place obeys the Treaty of Menagerie and it’s safe although I put paprika on some of it because I think it’s better with paprika even if that’s not the traditional way of preparing it in—” he gave three quick chirps and a squawk “—except in the south and it’s out in Mister Bruener’s smoker right now so somepony will have to take it out when we leave or it will get all dried out like all the sausage I have hanging all over the Meat Station. Oh, it’s all going to be ruined,” he moaned. “I thought I’d be right back.”

“So…” Dakota considered the emotionally fragile pony and caught the eye of Lucky, who had just come downstairs, and was looking like an Explosive Ordnance Technician trying to come up with a good reason to grab the lit stick of dynamite that everybody else was treating like a pretty candle. “You look tired. When was the last time you slept?”

“When did we get here?” The unicorn blinked several times, and Dakota could not help but notice how small his pupils were. “I remember we were falling… I’ve been cooking ever since.”

“Why don’t you lie down until the return portal is open,” said Dakota, giving the odd pony a nudge in the direction of Lucky as it seemed both ponies wanted. “Just remember to take your key with you when you go home so you can unlock that door. And save the sausage,” he added out of reflex.

Sizzler shook his head with a yawn, making his greasy bone-white mane sway. “Oh, I don’t have the key. I keep it hanging on a hook by the door to the Meat Station. I don’t want it to get lost.”

“Bed. With a shower first,” said Lucky, nudging his fellow pony down the hallway, away from the human audience, who were all looking at each other and their plates. Dakota could understand why, due to Sizzler’s confession about poisoning the diplomatic dinner, but it had sounded more like an accident than intentional. And besides, breakfast had been so good, it was well worth the risk.

Silence reigned until the two ponies were out of earshot, then Jon Bruener gave out a low whistle. “You know, when the first pony found out I had a freezer full of meat, I thought there was going to be a riot. They all looked at me like I was a serial killer. I had to spend about an hour repeating that Earth didn’t have any intelligent species other than people, and that cows and deer here were dumb as bricks. Then that baker griffon brought Sizzler over, and the tables flipped from fear to fascination. I was wondering where all my sausage makings had gone, and why the smoker in the backyard was fired up.”

Spike had dealt with the last of his eggs by licking the plate clean during the conversation, and looked as if he was seriously thinking about eating the plate too. “Princess Celestia says that everypony in Equestria has a purpose. Some of them just are a little more difficult to place than others.” He waved the empty plate in the direction of the empty hallway. “Like them.”

Governor Brown cleared his throat and said, “You handled Sizzler’s anxiety attack very well, Mister Henderson.”

“We had worse in the Marines,” said Dakota. “Take a whole stack of young kids who have never seen the ocean, put them out on a ship for weeks on end, and the squirrels come out.”

“I could tell you so many stories,” said Spike, who had stood up on his toes to put his plate into the sink. “I used to think Ponyville attracted all the nuts because we lived in an oak tree. Then we started traveling Equestria and I found out we’re fairly normal.”

Dakota withheld his opinion. After all, normal was relative. And the Equestrians were like the odd side of the family relatives, with all of the weird uncles and odd cousins.

“To be totally honest,” continued Spike, “the townsponies have been fairly quiet here. Kansas has been like a vacation, only without the ability to get out to the countryside and be tourists. There’s so much to see.”

The governors shared a mutual chuckle, leaving Jon to speak up. “I’ve been to a lot of places over the world, and I’ve never heard Kansas described that way before. I mean Equestria has dragons and griffons and all kinds of ponies, from what you’ve said.”

“But you don’t have monsters in the exciting places around here, so it’s safe to go looking,” countered the little dragon, who pulled a number of glossy fliers out of his shoulder bag. “There’s this place, and this one…”

“Second largest hand-dug well in Kansas,” said Dakota, passing the fliers along to Jon. “The Davis memorial, K-State’s insect zoo. I don’t know. There’s probably a waiting list.”

“If Twilight can’t get the portal open today, we’ll have time. She’ll be upset, but that’s fine,” said Spike with a short glance in the direction Sizzler had taken on his path to bed. “Our friends will have to calm her down, she’ll mope for a day or two, then she’ll think of something brilliant. She always does.”

“If you don’t think the rest of the ponies will mind, and provided Sizzler feels better, a delay might let the President attend your going-away event,” said Secretary Franz between bites of his own meat-heavy breakfast. “Since the Secret Service determined that it was not safe enough to fly Air Force One into the area with unidentified portals opening up today.”

That is a zoo today,” said Governor Brown, pointing at the window with his empty fork. “Toss the President into the mix and we’d have cars backed up to the Nebraska border, and a potential riot. We’ve already got CNN’s video feed to the K-State stadium and any other place that can handle a crowd. Besides, I don’t think Mister Bruener has any more guest rooms.”

“There’s a three governor limit in the basement,” said Jon, who had remained fairly quiet. “I hope the kids didn’t keep you fine gentlemen up all night with their video marathon. There must have been thirty teenagers stuffed into the TV room down there.”

“It could be our last chance to see human movies,” admitted Spike with a muffled yawn. “I liked Godzilla the best. Game of Thrones is too violent, and the dragons are just little squeaky things.”

All of the men in the kitchen chuckled, leaving Maria looking a little puzzled from where she had come back into the room with Clover tucked comfortably in one arm and shaking a bottle of milk with her other hand. She shook the confusion off and passed the baby pony (with bottle) to her husband, who took up the feeding task with the experienced motions of a parent. “Spike,” she stated firmly, “I noticed everybody else from your town has bags for taking souvenirs back. How about I get you one of our old suitcases so you can pack your things also.”

“I don’t want to take too much stuff,” protested Spike. “That’s a really bad idea. Dragons grow according to how many valuables they hoard, and… Well, I wouldn’t fit through the portal for starters, and I don’t want to be stomping around the farm while the tanks shoot at me like that movie we watched last night.”

Maria frowned. “Superman?”

“Godzilla!” declared Spike. “We found all kinds of movies on Dee Vedee. Scary movies, mostly. Black Beauty and the Star movies, and some movie with a crazy nightmare monster.”

“You are going to want to bring souvenirs back for your friends, so I’ll get you a small bag,” said Maria, who checked the back end of the little foal’s diaper with a wrinkled up nose. “You’ve certainly been helpful enough with tasks around the house to deserve it.”

“Like changing Clover?” he asked, taking the foal as Jon handed her over. It only took a second for the little cutie to commence a licking attack on the dragon’s face that claimed the last bit of bacon that had been stuck to his cheek. “Yuch. I’ll get right on it, Missus B. Anything else for the schedule?”

“Nothing I can think of. It looks like everything is all set for your return home.”

* * *

Time: Zero five hundred hours Monday June 22, 2015
Location: Classified, Washington D.C.

“Gentlemen, I don’t believe we can afford to let an opportunity like this slip through our fingers. It could seriously affect the balance of power on this whole planet.” The various generals had been repeating similar phrases for most of an hour while Colonel Wright stood quietly next to a simple cardboard box. Pentagon coffee and donuts were terrible at best, but the subdued stress of trying to run an Army-only meeting made that stolen cruller just lie in the bottom of his stomach like a concrete puddle.

The ongoing discussion had see-sawed all over the map with suggestions on how to retain the Equestrians for a few weeks or years. It would only be until US manufacturers could do whatever the unicorns had done with the Small Arms Protective Insert samples that lay scattered across the table, sporting pits and craters from enthusiastic gunfire at the Fort Riley gunnery range. Personally, Wright thought the best example was the one with the ragged crater in the middle, sporting a label to show it had been subjected to a 25mm Bushmaster cannon round.

Since normally a 25mm explosive round would go straight through a piece of boron carbide and spread out the soldier behind it like strawberry jam, having body armor that could make that survivable would be a plus, even if it was created by a horse with a horn.

A week ago, the idea of being yanked out of his secure Pentagon office to jump on board a C-37A for a rapid trip across the country, then a rapid trip back with a cardboard box full of magic armor… Pulling Excalibur out of his bathtub would have been more likely.

Still, Wright had listened to the radio during the aliens’ first interview, examined the photos on the internet for signs of digital manipulation, and had been practically glued to the TV for every interview that had been aired afterward. He would have gladly cut off his left arm for an hour with that green unicorn he had spotted in one of the news broadcasts, because if she was not an intelligence officer from the Equestrian world, he would eat his socks. While being grabbed at random to be flown to Fort Riley had been exhilarating, being passed a cardboard MRE box of ceramic plates on the flight line and not permitted to deplane while the aircraft was being refueled was a little like driving a kid past Disneyland’s front gates and back to the orphanage.

Thankfully, General Hackmore had included a thick sheaf of reports for him to read on the trip back, and provided the company of one of the Army Rangers who had been responsible for guarding the alien ponies. After most of an hour talking to Fitzgerald, he had seriously thought about ordering the pilot to return to Kansas. At least it would have kept him out of this ongoing meeting that had more general’s stars than a galaxy.

“If what they’ve been saying for the last few days is true,” started a stout general, “they’re planning on leaving and never returning. I don’t see why we can’t just hold onto the unicorns for a few months until they tell us how they did—” he tapped one of the pitted SAPI plates “—this.”

Wright could not hold back a response, despite his surroundings. “General, with all due respect, that’s a terrible idea. The unicorn officers gave General Hackmore templates for the… enchantments, and a set of basic magic instructions, although they said it might take us a century or two to work them out.” He opened up a manila folder and put a short sheaf of paper on the desk for the first general to page through. “They said other races of Equestria could use their magic without unicorn horns, so we might be able to understand it too. With patience and time.”

“It’s garbage,” said the general who was regarding the enchantment instructions with a sharp frown. “How are we supposed to make heads or tails out of this?”

“That’s what the unicorns said.” Colonel Wright checked his notes. “Each of the Equestrian races have their own magic. Some of it is fairly personal and minor, like the regular ponies can grow things, from what I understand, and pegasi can fly. Griffons even have a rune magic, minotaurs have something involving mechanisms, and changelings can alter their appearance to look like other ponies. None of them can learn the other’s magics except for alicorns, who have the magic of the three major pony races. Humans can’t do their magic. You’re looking for a shortcut that isn’t there. By detaining the unicorns, all we would be doing is pissing them off. And that could lead to a disaster far worse than you can imagine.”

Producing another sheet of paper, he skimmed it across the table to General Wallace. “I don’t know if that should be classified to a new level or published on the front page of the New York Times. At one time on their planet, groups of unicorns used to move their sun. It took a bunch of them, and had a risk of exhausting their magic, but apparently their world doesn’t have the same stellar mechanics as ours. The leaders of their world are two alicorns, one who moves the sun now and the other moves the moon and before you call this a foolish myth,” he added while raising his voice to be heard over the murmuring of the other generals, “think good and hard about how they got here, how they can speak the language, and how comfortable they seem to be here. The number of parallels between our world and theirs is far too high to be coincidence.”

“So you’re saying the Equestrians have been here before?” asked one of the generals. “That’s poppycock.”

“Explain our legends of unicorns, then,” countered Colonel Wright. “In the notes I received, one of their military unicorns suggested that it was possible for spontaneous portals to open up between worlds at random times. Small ones, sufficient for seeds or animals to pass through perhaps, or larger ones on rare occasions. Our worlds have to be what you might consider to be next-door neighbors for the malfunctioning evacuation spell to have forced open a connection.”

Seeing the general looks of disbelief on the generals, Wright changed his approach. “Think of it as electron potential energy. Each electron in an atom orbital can be considered to be unaware of the electrons in other orbitals, until they are nudged into changing their state. The larger the orbital shift, the larger the energy required to change states. Since only one Equestrian triggered the spell to send all of the ponies here, it only stands to reason that they could not have been sent very far. The problem, when put into their terms, is the large number of nearby dimensions around us. According to the notes, their evacuation spell used multiple tiny portals all tied into one larger guidance spell, or they would have scattered the evacuees all across the neighboring multiverses.”

“Tiny portals?” asked one of the generals.

“Inverse cube law,” said Wright. “The bigger the portal, the far greater amount of energy it takes to create and maintain it as a cube of the… Well, it’s described in the notes, and more. That sheet of paper has the spell they claim they used to raise the sun on their world. If we ever do develop magical technology, what you are holding is the equivalent of every atomic bomb equation, from the ones developed during World War II all the way to the present and including fusion reactors, wrapped up and delivered straight to us with a pretty bow on top.”

“I find that hard to believe.” General Wallace picked up the sheet of paper and squinted at the squiggles and marks. “If we encountered this alien race on their own territory, we would never give up our own military secrets like this.”

Wright shrugged. “They’re not us. They’re also not like any alien race we’ve envisioned. My preliminary analysis, or best guess, is that the concept of atomic weapons scares the heck out of them, and the idea that a warlike planet full of omnivorous monkeys has thousands of them and hasn’t managed to kill themselves off… confuses them. Heck, at times it confuses me. If a few centuries from now we accidentally stumble across whatever rules of magic we can control, if we can use it, of course, there would be a good chance we would destroy our entire civilization. This—” he tapped the stack of paper he was still holding “—is a life vest in an oncoming flood. It’s also a very good sign. If the Equestrians decide to keep a channel of communication open between our worlds, I don’t see any reason why we can’t have a peaceful relationship.”

“Captain Cook said much the same thing to my people,” said one of the generals who obviously had some Hawaiian in his ancestry. “If they’re as peaceful and trusting as I’ve seen on videos so far, they’d be a lot better off to run screaming back to their homes and slam the door on us, not give us the key.”

There was an uncomfortable silence around the room before General Wallace began putting his papers in order. “On that sobering note, we’ll adjourn. I have to say that our response to this alien invasion has gone far better than any movie I’ve ever seen.”

There was a low round of laughter that went around the table, but Wallace was not done yet. “Mostly because of what we did not do. Now, since the vast majority of the Equestrians will be going home this afternoon, we should at least be prepared for a sequel, or possibly a spin-off in the event they change their minds and decide to keep a channel of communication open. I expect you all to be busy planning for the next few days. Colonel Wright, you will come with me so we can brief the heads of the other armed forces branches. The flyboys, at least—” Wallace tossed one of the damaged SAPI plates into the cardboard MRE box “—are going to want a whole herd of stealth unicorns of their own, and the Navy will want to teach them how to swim. I think a little collective discouragement of their plans is in order before we brief the President later this morning. I’ll want summaries of your ideas focusing on three possibilities: peace, degrees of conflict, and outright war, with special emphasis on the peaceful ones. I’ve seen the damnedest things on video since they showed up, and it wouldn’t surprise me in the least if they could throw the Earth into the sun if they got sufficiently frightened. If they’re gone this afternoon as planned, we’ll at least have a process to go on for the next bunch of aliens that drops in unannounced, and if they miss their cosmic bus and have to stay a while, I’d like them just as happy to be here as possible, not herded around like scared animals.”

“And if the next batch of aliens is hostile?” asked one of the generals.

Wallace grinned. “Hopefully by then, our grandchildren will take them to the cleaners in ways we can’t imagine.”

19. Removing Day

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Farmer Bruener Has Some Ponies
Removing Day

"You don't know how to lie. If you can't lie, you'll never go anywhere."
Richard Nixon

- - - - ⧖ - - - -
Time: 7:00 A.M. Monday June 22, 2015
Location: Kansas University Medical Center, Fourth floor
- - - - ⧖ - - - -

Agent Anacostia woke to the muffled chirp of her phone, and the painful realization that she had just spent another night in the hospital, although this evening had been spent on the floor with the stack of cushions that Goose had collected.

And, to her embarrassment, with Goose as a pillow.

“Did I do something wrong with your phone?” whispered the dark pegasus through the stylus in her teeth. “I was just looking up zoos when it started making noise, so I pushed stop. I didn’t look up any naked people pictures like you warned me about but there’s a lot of them.”

Karla was just starting to relax into her warm nest of cushions again when Goose added, “And some of them were with ponies.”

All thoughts of going back to sleep for a while with the furry pegasus as a pillow vanished. “Give me that!” she hissed, grabbing her government phone and unplugging it from the power cable. It took a few moments to find the browser cache and wipe it, although nothing was gone forever on a phone, and she seriously thought about just ‘accidentally’ wiping the memory. It would only take a few touches, and she could blame the pony having done it by accident instead of her own instincts to keep pony-porn off her government-issued iPhone. Then again…

“I’m sure it’s fine,” she added in as reassuring tone as Karla could manage. “There are some strange people on our planet, and— Wait. People with earth ponies or Equestrian ponies? No, no, no. I don’t want to know. Somebody with a computer probably put together pornography of you an hour or two after you arrived. I mean Equestrians, not you personally,” she added at Goose Down’s obviously flabbergasted expression. “Oh, God. This is too much to explain before breakfast.”

“I wish we could go to the cafeteria,” said Widget with a yawn from the nearby bed. Both of the beds had been cranked down to their lowest height out of deference to the pony patients, which had impressed Granny Smith with the practicality, and made it more difficult for Widget to tunnel underneath the mattress to figure out how the mechanism worked. And most probably to take it apart.

“It’s a fairly long walk,” said Karla now that she was feeling more human. “And you would probably get mobbed with reporters. The hospital staff is keeping them off this floor, but down in the lobby it looks like a congressional hearing.”

“Oh.” Widget’s ears drooped, but quickly perked back up again. “Oh! We’re going to the ballbase stadium today, aren’t we? And you were going to show me your car!”

“Baseball, yes, and can I get some coffee first?”

- - Ω - -

It turned out a shower was on her list also, by unanimous vote of the room. Since her own apartment was too far across town, Karla was thankful that the hospital room had one, along with shampoo and conditioner, although she was missing her clothes once she stepped out of the tub.

“Oh, pardon me, Miss.” The rear end of the pony surgeon was within touching distance when Karla cracked open the door of the bathroom, and her clothes were hovering in front of him. With one last glow of blue magic, the blouse and associated clothes floated over to the door while Doctor Stable pretended to be interested in something on the other side of the room. “Just a minor cleaning spell, and I left your weapon alone, since I understand that’s a sensitive spot with you humans. Have to keep them covered, like your delicate bits. Seems a little odd for us, but I suppose that’s because we really can’t cover our horns without affecting our spellcasting.”

“I understand. I think,” added Karla as she slipped into her underthings. “Where are the girls?”

“Next bathroom over, in the empty room.” The unicorn poked a hoof in the general direction of the doorway. “Widget has a half-dozen nurses watching after her, and Granny Smith is critiquing. Think she rather enjoys it, as a matter of fact.”

“She reminds me of my grandmother,” admitted Karla.

“Mine too,” said the doctor, who she had actually begun to think of as a doctor over the last day. The unicorn remained outside the bathroom door until she was dressed, but stopped her before she could leave. “Could we talk privately for a moment, Miss Anacostia? Widget took all of her little devices with her and your phone. If you’re worried about other eavesdroppers, I’ve always got—” Doctor Stable’s horn lit up and a faint shimmer lit up the area just outside of her arm’s reach, making a full sphere that muted the sounds of the hospital corridor outside to faint thunks and clicks.

“That’s… impressive,” admitted Karla. “Are you in the spy business too?”

“Medical privacy,” he responded, looking slightly embarrassed. “Although you can’t be a physician to Equestria’s greatest unsung heroes and their families without writing a few reports that start, ‘Dear Princess Celestia…’”

“True.” Karla nodded and adjusted her blouse in the bathroom mirror. “So what did you want to talk to me about?”

“Where are you planning on taking my patients this morning? Because you twitch just under one eye whenever you talk about it.”

“I…” Taking a breath and checking the shimmering magic around her, Karla decided to skip several minutes of denial and obfuscation in order to cut straight to the point. “I’m taking them to the FBI Field Office in Missouri, which is outside of the restraining order. Some of the higher-ups think they can convince our guests to fly to Washington and be… paraded around as VIPs I think. They don’t mean any harm by it; they’re just convinced they are right and nobody is going to talk sense into them.”

“I see.” The doctor had a very compassionate look, even with the wildly different features that Karla had been getting used to over the last few days. “And I thought we had difficult nobility in Equestria. Do you agree with them? Well, of course not. Otherwise you wouldn't be so tense, I suppose. And taking my patients straight back to Raindolph would probably get you fired, right?”

“It would be a pretty thick black mark on my record,” she admitted. “Almost as bad as…” It took a much deeper breath for Karla to continue. “Did you know I almost shot Widget when I first met her? I was hungover, short of sleep, and in a very bad mood when my boss dragged me out of bed on my day off and sent me up here.”

“Then you saw this alien creature all covered in bandages and beeping machines,” said the doctor in a very compassionate tone of voice. “I hate to admit it, but I was hiding from the humans for a time when we first arrived. The first human I saw was covered in pony blood, bent over Widget’s body and shouting into a little box. I… panicked. I reacted by diving into a bush and hiding instead of thinking. It was not the act of an intelligent creature, or a physician.”

“A human being is intelligent,” said Karla. “People are dumb, panicky animals. It’s from a movie, but that doesn’t make it any less true.”

The doctor nodded, but with a thoughtful frown. “If Widget and Goose are delivered to your police office, listen to your superiors, and still want to return to Raindolph, would they be prevented from doing so?”

“I… don’t believe anybody in our agency would be so foolish as to detain them against their will,” hedged Karla. “Hopefully.”

“I don’t think detaining them is a possibility.” Doctor Stable brushed Karla’s short hair back with a brief touch of magic while he straightened up and actually smiled. “As long as you are willing to transport them back to Raindolph, that is.”

“Oh, of course.” Karla winced. “I really don’t think I can go against my orders, though. And I’m certainly not going to fight my fellow FBI agents.”

“You won’t have to.” The doctor turned to open the bathroom door, then paused and looked back over his shoulder. “You do know what Goose is, correct?”

“A cute little fuzzball with huge wings?”

As Karla tried to puzzle out just what seemed to be so serious, the doctor continued, “She’s the little sister of a dozen or more older brothers, uncles, and cousins, all of whom are in the Royal Guard. She’s wanted to be a guard since she could walk, and she’s wheedled and begged her big brothers for training every day and night since. She’s a remarkable young talent, and if it wasn’t for her ouranophobia and a certain reluctance among the guards regarding mares in that position, she would have breezed through the Academy and taken a position at Luna’s side. For star’s sake, both Luna and Pumpernickel trained her.”

“So she can fight?” asked Karla.

Doctor Stable shook his head and dismissed the odd magical sound shield around them. “Take care of my patients, Miss Anacostia, and see that they get back to Raindolph. I’ll stay here with Granny Smith for the second portal when she has recovered sufficiently. And do try to be safe.”

- - - - ⧖ - - - -
Time: 8:30 A.M. Monday June 22, 2015
Location: Bruener Farm, Randolph KS
- - - - ⧖ - - - -

It was a little weird to feel like the party for the ponies going home was the end of a roller-coaster ride, but Dakota Henderson was feeling oddly let down by this morning. Sure, he could go out into the crowd and take photos of the various VIPs mingling with the ponies, but there were already a half-dozen professional photographers all operating under the authority of the KC Star with some sort of pony pool arrangement, much like the SF Chronicle had its pool of one lone indian for the last few days.

There was a sense of completion to his musing. All of his photos had been uploaded to the Chronicle’s server, the goodbye gift of paper 3x5 glossies from Walmart had arrived, and he had gotten them tucked away into Lucky’s bottomless saddlebags. That left Dakota casually walking around the crowd, getting both wide shots and close-ups of individual ponies next to their various stacks and bags of human souvenirs.

With practice, he could pick out the individual ponies in various spots around the yard and vicinity getting ready for their departure. Sparkler and some of the other teenage ponies were trying to figure out how to pack one of the smaller large-screen televisions for shipment, along with a stack of freshly purchased/donated/begged DVDs to their side that was almost as tall as they were, although he could not see a DVD player anywhere in the collection. Lyra was sorting through her own loot pile of plastic dolls, trying to bring it down to a size she could carry on her back, while Trixie was arguing with Lucky, most likely having something to do with the Winnebago next to them, and how difficult it would be to fit through any return portal. And quite possibly, if she owned the vehicle in question.

He was just getting focused in on the Cutie Mark Crusaders, who in turn were being photographed by the cute redhead from the Kansas City Star, which would have made a good ironic picture of a picture bit, when his phone rang. He let it go long enough to finish the shot, then hooked the phone under his chin.

“Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom, Fowler here.”

There was a pause, a faint giggle, then an older woman’s musical voice said, “Oh, I’m sorry, sir. I was calling Mister Henderson, the photographer who has been—”

“That’s me, ma’am. Sorry about that.” The voice was obviously a pony, since people were incapable of sounding constantly like they were about to break into song at the slightest whim. “What can I do for you, young lady?”

“Could you direct me to a photographer able to videotape an event for us? They would need a camera that did… why do you call it videotape when there’s no tape?”

Caught off-guard, Kota said, “It used to involve magnetic tape, but we’re all digital now. My camera can even shoot video. I can probably explain better in person. What did you want me to film? I mean video.”

“It might be a little dangerous,” continued the voice. “I mean I hope it isn’t, and I don’t think you will be hurt, but I’d feel a lot better if I had an unimpeachable witness on this trip. And Grace gets so sick when we travel.” There was a short huff of air over the phone. “She said you used to be a soldier.”

“There is no such thing as an ex-Marine, ma’am. But if you’re doing something dangerous, don’t you want one of the regular soldiers to guard you?”

“I really don’t want this to be official.” There was another short huff of breath. “We’re going to Kansas City to pick up Widget and Cadet Goose from some people who may not want to let them go. If they do, no problem. If they don’t—”

“You want proof that you didn’t start it,” said Dakota while he was putting his camera back into the bag. “No harm, no foul. Yeah, I can do that, as long as there’s no gunfire. Do you need me to jog up to the highway to meet you?”

“No, just get ready. We’ll pick you up.”

It took just a few minutes to get all of his gear stowed, his knapsack on, and the camera bag slung while he was walking down the gravel driveway to the road. Despite RCPD’s best efforts, Highway 77 was a sluggish mess of cars again. People were idiots. They were willing to drive and sit in their cars for hours just to catch a glimpse of the ponies going home when they could have turned on the television to see as many as they could imagine, in HD. A trip to Kansas City was going to take forever, unless the Army was going to let them use a helicopter. He turned at Nick’s tank to look up the gravel stretch to where the roadblock was, then back at his squat black friend, who was leaning out of the turret hatch and waving with a gleeful grin.

“Ho! Tonto go into town to find bad guys?”

“No, Tonto no go into town,” quipped Kota back. “Bad guys always beat up Tonto. You want to find out what bad guys are up to, Kemo Sabe, you go into town and get beat up.”

Nick gave a loose salute through his chuckling. “Yeah, I’m one hell of a Lone Ranger. You out here looking for Blondie?”

“She’s back watching the speeches by the barn,” said Kota, jerking his thumb in that direction. “I’m waiting for a pony to pick me up for a trip to KC.” His phone promptly rang, and Kota scooped it up in one hand. “And that’s her. Good morning, ma’am. Where did you want me to go to be picked up?”

“Right there is good. Do you have everything you need to make videotapes of our visit?”

“Yep.” He patted the knapsack on his back. “Along with a few tricks that have come in handy in the pas—”

There were feathers involved, although he did not really comprehend them until later. All he could see for a split second was white, the impact of an aluminum rail right around his thighs, then he hit the lawn chair. The whole chain of events took only a fraction of a second before leaves and twigs from the passing trees went scattering in all directions, and the pony chariot rocketed into the open sky.

“Grace calculated that it will take a little over an hour to reach the hospital,” said the otherwise ordinary pony sitting in the lawn chair to his side, seemingly completely unfazed by the lack of solid ground below the perforated aluminum mesh of their conveyance. “Of course, that’s assuming we can find it from the air. That will be cutting things a little fine, but we didn’t want to take off early and raise too many questions. Breath mint?”

The unicorn in the golden armor to his side seemed to be Specialist Rose, if Kota remembered correctly, and if the staccato pounding of his heart was not affecting his memory. That would make the two pegasi flapping away in front of him Left and Right, the empty lawn chairs to their sides for Widget and Goose’s return to Randolph, and the slightly damp spot he was sitting in a natural response of being scared out of his wits.

“So I take it we’re not driving?” he managed weakly.

- - - - ⧖ - - - -
Time: 9:00 A.M. Monday June 22, 2015
Location: Kansas University Medical Center, Fourth floor
- - - - ⧖ - - - -

“The reporters are monitoring FBI frequencies,” said Agent Karla Anacostia in the hospital room where she was huddling with the two young mares and trying to fight back a bad case of the butterflies from their actions so far this morning. “They just about have to be. Or…” She held out the GoDark bag to Widget again and gave it a shake. “Any other souvenirs you’re holding out on us?”

Widget closed her eyes and concentrated, making the pale blue light of her horn highlight her face. “Nothing in the immediate vicinity. And the bag is suppressing the devices inside to the point where I can’t hear them either. Can I… um… have that bag when I go home?”

“Let’s not try making another run at it again right away. I almost got trampled by photographers the last time we tried to make it to the car,” said Claire. “There must be a hundred pictures of me with my hands up, trying to stop the stampede from flattening Widget when the elevator doors opened.”

“The higher-ups don’t want us to clear the press out of the hospital,” huffed Karla. “Bad publicity. The other agents can’t make a path to the driveway because the reporters are swarming everything with sunglasses and an earpiece.” She tapped the microphone clipped to her blazer in thought. “Agent Hallman is going to give the order to try again shortly. We can’t even have a car idling outside to pick us up because it gets just as swarmed. Maybe if we had a sheepdog to herd them somewhere.”

Granny Smith chuckled from the next bed over, and shook her head. She had become a lot more active over the last day, and Karla was going to miss the old mare. There was no way the FBI would assign a local agent to this task again when there were so many worthwhile agents in the national office who deserved to have ‘On the alien’s protective detail’ somewhere in their personnel folder. Even if Widget and Goose were overjoyed about being hustled off to D.C. and Karla could return to her routine, her life would never be the same again.

“You girls sound just like Twilight and her bunch when they’re planning something,” said Granny Smith once she was finished chuckling to herself. “What you need is my youngest granddaughter. She’s a sneaky one. Them other fillies she runs around with get into more trouble than a pack of timberwolves. If’n I saw them three all hunched over talking among themselves, I’d know there’d be something blowin’ up or catchin’ on fire pretty soon.”

“I don’t think the Agency would like it if we set a fire as a distraction,” said Karla.

“We don’t want anypony to get hurt,” said Widget.

“Or any flying,” said Goose.

“Wait a minute.” Karla bit her bottom lip and concentrated. “Maybe we’re going about this the wrong way. The reporters know the FBI is taking Widget out of the hospital, so they’re watching us, and they know Goose is her guard, so they’re watching her. Have you ever heard of the Kansas City Shuffle?”

- - Ω - -

“This is insane,” murmured Goose, who was huddled next to Karla’s leg in a mass of dark trembling as the elevator doors began to close. “I can’t fly around the lobby. I’ll get frightened and freeze up.”

“It’s a huge open area, but not as bad as you think,” said Kara in as much of a reassuring tone as she was able. “The skylights are thick enough to bounce hailstones, and the roof has three inches of concrete and steel to separate you from your phobia. There’s no way you could get blown away by an errant gust like you did when you got your cutie mark. There is literally no way for you to wind up in the sky. You might as well have an anvil tied around your legs.”

The trembling slowed, but the solid pressure of a heavy batpony pressed against her thighs did not abate while Karla continued. “I saw you flying for those little kids. All you have to do is make a few long, slow circles around the lobby while all the reporters and photographers snap away. Then when Claire texts me, I’ll make a break for the front door. That will be your cue to follow, land at the doors, and we’ll run outside and jump in the car where she’ll be waiting with Widget in the back seat. No flying outdoors needed, and you’ll have all kinds of pictures for your Princess Loony—”

“Luna,” grumbled Goose. “They’ll photograph my… naughty bits,” she added with a bit of a slump. “The other guards will stick my pictures on the bulletin board!”

“Just keep your tail down,” said Karla while the lights moved down the elevator indicators. “Besides, you’ll be home before any of the papers with the pictures come out.”

“What if I can’t land?” asked Goose with almost a plaintive whine. “My talent is gliding. I could be making circles up there for hours.”

There really didn’t seem to be a counter for that particular point, or at least one that did not seem totally off the wall and insane. Still, it had to be asked. “How much weight can you carry while gliding?”

- - Ω - -

A reporter’s instincts had to be listened to in order for them to be any good, and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch had tuned Liam’s instincts to acute precision. There were only so many ways for a patient to get out of the hospital, and he had volunteered to cover the walkway going out to the parking garage, so there was no need to complain.

He still snuck a look at the group texting window on his phone every minute, just to ensure he was not missing another attempt by the FBI to smuggle out their pet alien without some serious questions being asked. And pictures taken. An alien, an actual real, live alien, and they were just going to let it get away!

The elevator bell dinged at the same time his phone chimed, making Liam try to look at both. There was almost nothing to see of the nurse pushing the wheelchair out of the elevator, since she had a gauze mask and blue mob cap over her short hair, but the kid in the Pediatrics chair was even more difficult to make out with all the bags of medical equipment in her lap. A baby blue blanket surrounded the poor thing, tucked in on all sides and with only a few balloons tied onto a plush pink unicorn tucked against her head as a pillow to cheer the most probably cancer treated child on her way home. The nurse murmured a few words of encouragement as she pushed the wheelchair along, giving Liam a brief nod as she moved toward the second-floor walkway headed to the parking garage.

“Big announcement in the lobby,” read Liam as he finally managed to get his phone out. “Can see a pony and FBI. Lucky schmucks,” he muttered, resuming his position. Once the FBI decided to move the wounded alien again, he needed to be ready to notify the rest of the reporters.

He never even noticed the departing ‘child’ peer over the back of the wheelchair at him with the stuffed pink plushie tied to her horn.

- - Ω - -

“He didn’t notice,” whispered Widget once they got on the other side of the steel breezeway door. “How could he not notice? I’m a unicorn with a unicorn on my head!”

“People see what they expect to see,” whispered Claire back. “He saw the unicorn plush, and whatever shapes he saw under the blanket that didn’t fit into his head as some kid from pediatrics he classified as the plushie. My mom taught me about it once, had some video with a bunch of kids throwing a ball around in a room. You don’t even notice the guy in the bear costume walking through the room in the middle of it all, because the human brain can only see what it expects, and filters out the rest. Now hush while I find her car.”

Several pokes of the unlocking key fob later while darting around the parking garage later, Claire hustled the wheelchair over to a perfectly ordinary Ford Taurus and yanked open the back door.

“It’s a car!” said Widget entirely too loudly for their present sneaking. “Can I see the engine?”

“You can see the back seat!” hissed Claire. “Get in, and stash your crap!”

There were six bags of hospital medicine, self-adhesive binding wrap, an extra ankle brace, several plushies signed by every nurse and doctor on the pediatrics floor, various circuit boards from unsuspecting equipment, and the GoDark bag with all of Widget’s bugs to get stuffed in after the clumsy unicorn. It only took an extra second to yank the blue blanket out of the chair and toss it over her, although she popped right out from under it before Claire could push the empty wheelchair to one side for eventual pickup by the nurses.

“Can we bring the wheelchair?” she whispered while tucking the pink unicorn plushie (with balloons) into the trunk. Widget had at least paid attention to that part of the plan, and had the one side of the back seat folded down for access to her loot storage chamber before she had even gotten settled. Each bag of loot followed the plushie in rapid array, surrounded by Widget’s pale blue magical aura.

“It won’t fit, you crazy fuzzball!” Claire flung herself into the driver’s seat and jammed the key into the ignition. “I don’t even know if there’s space in the trunk for Goose now. We have to get down to the driveway before Karla gets eaten by reporters. Seat belts!”

“Got it!” called out Widget to the clicking sound. “Are we going to have a car chase?”

Claire did not respond at first, since she was tearing off the gauze mask and scrubs. Thankfully, one of the nurses had laundered her clothes during her visit, but there was no pocket in her shirt, so she was reduced to holding her debit card in her teeth as she eased the bulk of the heavy Taurus out into the concrete maze of the parking garage.

“I hope not,” she called back. “I gotta pay to get us through the exit first, and… We’ll wing it from there.”

And contrary to Claire’s worst expectations, getting through the pay booth at the exit went as smooth as silk. She stopped the borrowed government vehicle just outside of the booth’s wooden arm, got out her phone, and pressed send on her text message.

The reporters were about to go nuts.

20. The Best Laid Plans

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Farmer Bruener Has Some Ponies
The Best Laid Plans

“I'm not good at future planning. I don't plan at all. I don't know what I'm doing tomorrow. I don't have a day planner and I don't have a diary. I completely live in the now, not in the past, not in the future.”
Heath Ledger


- - - - ⧖ - - - -
Time: 7:02 A.M. Central Standard Time, Monday June 22, 2015
Location: Outside the Bruener Farm, Randolph Kansas
- - - - ⧖ - - - -

It was certainly The Star Spangled Banner.

The notes were in the right place, and played with all the energy the performers could muster, so the song could scarcely be anything else. It also had probably been played on electric guitar before, but not this way since Woodstock, by what many would consider to be hairy aliens also.

It was also so beautiful that Nick could not keep the tears out of his eyes, despite being at attention. Thankfully, he managed to wipe a hand across his face after the last howling notes of the anthem died out across the Bruener farm and scattered applause began. The stage where the day’s activities were about to start had been rigged up with lights and speakers overnight, and two earth ponies were unplugging their electric guitars in front of the projection screen.

Since this was the last day all of humanity would have with their alien visitors (except Granny Smith, who was expected to be out of the hospital in a week or two, and be quietly portaled home then), the natural tendency of Federal and State authorities was to have the kind of send-off that would send the aliens fleeing back to their home dimension, never to come back. The US State Department was taking itself entirely too seriously, and had scheduled going-away speeches and presentations from just about every UN nation, which Nick figured would rapidly go to heck if somebody did not have their thumb on the cut-off switch when the bloviating bureaucrats inevitably went over their time slots.

Due to the festivities, the press pool had been dramatically upscaled, and Nick could pick out the veterans in the group by their salutes during the flag raising. Apparently, Equestrian flag code was similar to the United States, because the royal guards were also drawn up into formation at attention, but not saluting the raising of a foreign flag. Protocol always gave Nick a headache, but due to extensive Army training he knew when to do what, where. If the Equestrians ran their flag up the pole, he would be standing at attention while they saluted.

“Thank you, Fender and Gibson,” said Spike from the center of the stage, in front of where the two earth ponies were putting away their instruments. “That was… interesting. Now, we’ve got a tight schedule this morning, so we’ll get started with the Assistant Secretary of State who will say a few words, and then the rest of our scheduled speakers. Is everything working correctly for the television cameras?”

Off to one side, a pair of cameramen gave thumbs’ up to the dragon on stage.

“Looks like they’re ready. Here you go, Mister Franz.”

In the audience, General Hackmore gave Nick a brief nudge, and spoke up once they had walked far enough away from the ongoing gathering of humans and ponies to speak privately. The general was in full dress blues with every unit citation, crest, and ribbon in precise alignment, leaving Nick feeling more than a little undressed in his simple ACUs and his helmet still sitting on top of Four-One somewhere. He was wearing his patrol cap, however, not just because he had to, but the hot Kansas sun was fierce against his dark bald head.

“Lt. Comena, did you happen to find time to watch the YouTube video of our Equestrian guests in the hospital over the last few days?”

“No, sir. I’ve been a little busy, what with our surprise deployment.” Then, since a General bestowing a question directly upon a lowly Lieutenant was more than a little odd, he added, “I suppose Mister Bruener’s daughter sent me a video of Goose taking some of the children for a horsey-back ride. Was there something else I should know, sir?”

“Probably,” hedged the general. “They livestreamed most of their evenings. The… batpony in the group seems to have admitted to your… relative state of undress during your rescue of the… Well, the whole bunch in KU Med was gossiping like teenagers most of the night, and Miss Bruener and Widget were egging Cadet Goose about it. A few million people have watched the video, and—”

“Million?” asked Nick with his eyes growing wider.

“Including the President,” continued General Hackmore. “The Joint Chiefs of Staff. The Secretary of Defense. Most of the National Security Council. I think it’s safe to assume everybody you see in the next few days has a… rather inappropriate view of your relationship with our Equestrian guests. I know better, of course, or I would have yanked you out of your position by now, which only would make the rumors worse.” The general made a face. “Thankfully, the activities of Cloudkicker and a few of our less than discreet military members have not become public, and we intend on keeping it that way. With that in mind, when Widget and Goose return from KU Med, we’re setting up a short meet-and-greet on camera to show the two of you acting in a totally professional manner before the Equestrians go home. I’m afraid if we just locked you in Four-One, the rumor mill would grind out no end of nasty little stories for the next few decades, so this is the best we can do.”

“Understood, sir.” Frankly, Nick did not totally understand, because his mind was still struggling with the concept that millions of people had the impression that he was in a… relationship with an alien horse.

“Very well.” General Hackmore checked his SMPED. “I for one will be glad to see the last of their tails vanish into their return portal this afternoon. For a nickel, I’d retire tomorrow and let my replacement deal with ten years of paperwork that are sure to be sitting on my desk, but I’m fairly sure they’d stop up the retirement forms until the day I die. So, what is the rest of your morning schedule like, Lieutenant?”

“I’m actually off-duty until noon,” said Nick almost automatically. “Spaz is… I mean Sergeant Spasowski is taking care of the platoon while I help Kansas Search and Rescue Dogs with a little demonstration to keep the kids busy for the morning. They’re going to practice finding lost ponies,” he added. “It sounded like something the kids would like, and keeps their teacher from dragging the whole bunch to some educational landmark in the middle of this traffic nightmare, then having them miss the first portal home.”

“Excellent.” The general began poking buttons on his SMPED to bring up the first of what Nick assumed was an infinite series of emails. “Carry on, Lieutenant.”

- - - - ⧖ - - - -
Time: bright sun up grass cool rabbit chasing time after horrible noise
Location: other home in yard with pony-dog and bird-pony
- - - - ⧖ - - - -

poppy was good dog. when warm-bitch-canopener-koni took poppy to play, she always say poppy-good-dog or poppy-bad-dog depending on how she feel. taking to play in big field with other good-dogs was always fun, only this time had many good-ponies who ran around and shouted and played back. it was a very good time, and poppy-good-dog met wonderful bird-pony who said poppy-really-good-dog and made his tail thump thump thump. bird-pony was happy, and tell poppy-good-dog what a good boy he was.

cool breeze bright sun up in sky time even better when poppy meet dog-pony who played just like real dog, only smell like pony bitch and sniff back when sniffed. new dog-pony called good-screwy by bird-pony and made friends with all other dog-dogs with sniffing, even though bird-pony look at her funny.

then came best time of big field play time when people take smelly plastic things that smell a little like people and hide them for good-poppy to find. it made tail thump and run around barking with other good-dogs chase squirrels and bark more time.

only bad thing was bird-pony not happy. she bring good-screwy over to good-dog-poppy. have all small pony run around and hide. talk to good-dog-poppy and good-screwy. say very important. not run. not bark. not chase squirrels. not fun. small ponies in danger and only good-dog-poppy and good-screwy can find.

good-dog-poppy try to tell bird-pony fun. run around. bark like always do. make warm-bitch-canopener-koni chase. shout in people barking. walkies for people so they not pant hard when walking. bird-pony say…

no

make good-poppy sit. stay. take good-screwy as bird-pony look for small ponies. bird-pony dumb. not want to play. good-screwy dumber. not sniff ground right. walk right past small pony hiding, then come back and find. small pony pet good-screwy. get treat made out of liver!

bird-pony comes over and calls for good-poppy. says good-screwy not able to find other small ponies. need good-poppy. small ponies need good-poppy. not run. not bark. not chase squirrels.

find first small pony easy. good-poppy show good-screwy how to sniff. good-screwy show how to spot broken branches where small ponies hide. good-screwy smart even if can not sniff well. find all small ponies. get more liver treats! can hardly wait to show warm-bitch-canopener-koni how to play finding game right.

- - - - ⧖ - - - -
Time: 9:15 A.M. Central Standard Time, Monday June 22, 2015
Location: Outside the Bruener Farm, Randolph Kansas
- - - - ⧖ - - - -

As director of Kansas Search and Rescue Dogs, Sheila had seen a lot of exercises with search teams, some of which had Koni and Poppy. This was the first time she had ever seen Poppy actually find one of the subjects, let alone the final exercise where he and the other… dog had worked together like the best trained searchers she had ever seen in over two decades at the job. No hiding pony was safe, even when the Terrible Trio demanded that Zipporwhill let the two… dogs find them over and over again.

Actually, watching a talking young pegasus have Poppy of all dogs actually find subjects was the second most strange thing of the morning. ‘Screwloose’ was most certainly at the very top of the list, as a pony who seemed to think of herself as a dog, right up to the point of running alongside Poppy, and ‘barking’ at the subjects once they had been found. Shelia almost was convinced that the pony really thought of herself as a dog, except for the surreptitious way she would take the liver-flavored treat from Zipporwhill, and then pass it over to Poppy whenever she thought nobody was watching.

“I’ve got to talk to Koni when she’s done in Kansas City with her ponysitting job,” she murmured. “The first time that dumb dog has the short-circuit in his head close, and she’s missing all the excitement.”

- - - - ⧖ - - - -
Time: 9:41 A.M. Monday June 22, 2015
Location: Kansas University Medical Center, Third floor… Second floor… Atrium…
- - - - ⧖ - - - -

Karla Anacostia had only thought she was afraid when she walked in on their alien visitors… was it only three days ago? It seemed to have been months, and yet her heart was beating faster than when she had inadvertently drawn her gun on an injured teenaged girl who happened to have hooves and a spiral horn on her head.

And now she was alone in an elevator with a monster that could have stepped right out of a horror movie, although it was difficult to determine which of them was the more frightened.

“You’re nuts,” muttered Goose Down as her expansive wings twitched at her sides, driving sharp gusts through the tight confines of the elevator. “And trust me, I know nuts. I’ve met Pinkie Pie. I’ve survived working with Princess Twilight Sparkle.”

“There’s a thin line between genius and insanity,” said Karla just as quick as she could before the idea escaped. “Like rappelling down a mountain, sometimes you just need to step forward and embrace it so you can find out which one it is.”

She keyed the microphone and spoke as clearly as she could. “Agent Anacostia with our guest stepping out of the elevator on the atrium now.” Then the chime binged, the elevator doors opened, and Karla had the distinct pleasure of seeing the backsides of a few dozen journalists all leaning over the rail of the atrium, focusing their cameras on the lobby downstairs where they expected the FBI to be escorting a bright pink unicorn out of the building. For one brief moment, she wanted so much to walk right up to them with Goose at her side, but the shock would probably knock one or more of them over the rail into the seething mass of the Fourth Estate downstairs, and that… No, not a good idea. Satisfying, but not good.

She settled for a firm, “Gentlemen and ladies,” as they stepped out of the elevator. “Could you please move to one side or the other? We have an announcement that I’d like to make to the press downstairs.”

Thankfully, none of the reporters fell, although they did crowd in too close as Karla stepped forward, and only a few sharp pokes with the edge of Goose’s wings gave her enough space to stand at the rail without feeling as if she were going to be pushed off the edge too.

“Ladies and Gentlemen of the press,” she called out over the roar of reporters and flashing of cameras on the floor below her. Well, not so much over as under. Quite possibly, even the reporters sharing the atrium floor with her would not have heard her either due to the background noise. It gave Karla a moment to look out across the open area, taking note of the signs hanging from the roof that could be problems in the upcoming exhibition. Two or three more attempts at getting attention left her just as unheard, so she put two fingers in her mouth and just blew as hard as she could, making a whistle that could have peeled paint.

“You could have warned me,” said Goose into the sepulchral silence that followed, leading to a wave of giggles and laughter among the press gathered below. The batpony’s reflective visor was up to show her big golden eyes with razor-thin pupils, and both of her dark ears had been flattened against her skull, but at least the nervous pony was not twitching any more, and Karla turned to the press arranged below before the noise could start up again.

“As I was saying,” she shouted, “due to some crowd control issues, we will not be bringing Widget out this morning, but—”

It took two whistles this time to get the press to be quiet, the second with Goose having walked up beside her, putting both forehooves on the rail, and looking down at them. The flashbulb barrage started immediately, and Goose dropped the tinted eyepieces down on her helmet in response. There had been an argument about if she should wear her sombrero to the announcement, and after several encouragements by the nurses and supportive doctors, the huge dark hat had been rolled up and put into Widget’s luggage. It did leave the dark pony guard looking suitably official-impressive instead of odd, so it seemed to have been a good idea so far.

“Anyway, since you won’t be seeing Widget leave,” she shouted, “we thought it would be a good idea for Goose to give you a sample of Equestrian life to take to your readers. So if you will get your cameras ready, please, and give us a little space. Cadet Goose Down, if you please?”

It was impossible to see Goose’s expression with the dark visor down and her jaw set in a sincere ‘Royal Guard’ pose, but the assembled press below gave out an astonished gasp when the batpony extended her gigantic wings and paused there on the railing.

Karla could not help herself. She lowered her voice to a gravely register and called, “I’m Batman!”

The reporters all thought it was funny, at least. From the sharp voice in Karla’s ear, Agent Hallman was not amused.

“Agent Anacostia, what in God’s name do you think you’re doing! Where is the patient! You were supposed to bring her to the elevator so—”

A simple twist of the fingers made the volume knob of her radio give off a brief click. Karla gave a short glance downstairs where FBI agents were packed in around the elevator doors, smiled to herself, and swung one leg over the pony’s flanks just as Goose stepped forward…

And glided.

For one brief moment, Karla was afraid she had peed herself. Spelunking, rappelling, flying in an airplane, they were all pressing forward into the unknown, but she had never looked down from a horse’s back nearly this far before. Both hands curled up in Goose’s short mane by instinct, sliding under the thin armor plates that protected her neck and giving a little pressure to one side so Goose would start on a long circle around the open area. Her feet managed to find purchase on small nubs of metal near the back of the batpony’s armor, although she did not want to clutch onto Goose’s barrel nearly as hard as she was afraid she was going to, because there just was not all that much there to squeeze. Goose was unmistakably a child-size ride, although her sedate glide around the atrium was almost walking-speed even with Karla’s weight added to her own. What was even more exciting was that their glide path rose ever so slightly while Karla guided her aerial mount in a long, wide circle, slaloming around the edge of the enormous space, then a figure-eight for variety.

As much as she wanted to wave at the reporters below, it most certainly would not make the FBI look very good to have one of their agents fall to their death while pulling this kind of stunt, so Karla kept her focus on guiding. Using gentle pressure as if she were in control of some strange airplane-equine hybrid, they swooped down across the crowd of reporters, swept up into a wide turn, then repeated the pass going the other way. It seemed like only seconds had gone by, but it had to have been a few minutes while Karla’s phone buzzed with incoming phone calls from anirate Agent Hallman, then gave out a familiar two-toned chirp of Clair’s text.

“And that’s our cue, Goose. One last pass toward the doors… A little lower… Apply some flaps or whatever you do to slow down. Extend landing gear.” One hoof nearly clipped a tall reporter as they descended in the direction of the big glass exit doors, which seemed to be growing larger too rapidly for Karla’s nerves, and not helped by the possibility of a crash and having several pounds of glass picked out of her skin.

“Brake!” she commanded just an instant before Goose’s hooves hit the hospital tile floors with a clatter and she began to retract her wings. Karla had to hop a few times on the dismount, which would probably cost her points from the Russian judge, but managed to catch up with Goose right when she reached the double doors and put one hand on her neck while running. “There’s the car! Run!”

“Trying!” gasped Goose, who was managing fairly well at the awkward task of getting all that wing surface put away during her dash. Still, her wings remained bent slightly at awkward angles when she bolted into the open back door of the Taurus, followed almost immediately by Karla.

“Go!” she gasped quite redundantly as Clair let off the brake and moved smoothly forward, leaving the three passengers in the back seat to untangle themselves while their escape from the hospital press proceeded without further incident.

Well, until they reached the Cheesecake Factory.

- - Ω - -

“What do you mean you had your eyes closed the entire time!”

The stop had been the obvious solution for multiple problems. Karla had to contact Hallman to inform him about the status of their trip to Kauffman Stadium (en route, arrival soon), get the mess of Goose’s wings and Widget’s scattered souvenirs all straightened out (mostly shoved into the trunk with a Goose-sized cavity for the trembling batpony), and to switch drivers (Federal Management Regulation 102-34 strictly forbids non-governmental employees from driving GSA vehicles). Plus, Karla had to pee. Badly.

The objective had been a quick stop in the parking lot. Both ponies had been out the doors before the car had stopped completely, and were ordering at the counter by the time Karla and Claire had swapped keys, so the brief stop had turned into a pony refueling visit in the amount of time it took Karla to make a bathroom stop.

Form 502 notes: Unicorns seem to run on vanilla and strawberry, while batponies appear to function on a diet of pure chocolate.

“I didn’t want to close my eyes, but I was so afraid. I thought it would be easier since you were on my back, and I could tell when we were getting next to a wall by the way you tensed up.” Goose dropped nose-first into her chocolate-chip cheesecake and did not stop until she was licking the plate with her abnormally long tongue.

“I wish I could have seen it.” Widget’s eyes were wide open and sparkling with mischief. “We could have gotten a moving picture of it to send to your coltfriend.”

“Widge!” Goose Down hunched her shoulders and gave her fellow pony a weak glare, but Karla could see the tension fade out of her trembling wings, and she finally got those huge membranes tucked up on her back and stationary. “Just for that, give me your plastic card.”

“What?” Widget held onto the Visa debit card and floated it up above the reach of Goose’s snapping teeth. “Miss Anacostia gave us each one.”

“And you can buy the next piece of cheesecake with yours,” said Goose, taking another snap at the floating card.

“Order it to go,” said Karla as firmly as she could. There were not very many other fascinated customers at this time of the morning, and the Cheesecake Factory employees had taken two talking pony customers with remarkable aplomb, but there was a schedule to think of. “I told the other agents that we would be at Kauffman Stadium shortly, and if we’re late, they’re going to worry.”

- - - - ⧖ - - - -
Time: 11:16 A.M. Monday June 22, 2015
Location: Kauffman Stadium, Kansas City Missouri
- - - - ⧖ - - - -

Leon was late to work, and he didn’t care. It was a chump job anyway, and only paid minimum wage, even if he got into Royals home games for free. Besides, this was an optional day. Some foreign VIP was getting a special visit with all of the team there to greet them and some of the fans up in the stands to cheer. Not even an exhibition game, so barely worth collecting his ‘showing up’ money.

The city bus had dropped him off in front of the stadium like a normal day, only everybody had already gone inside, and he could hear the organ honking away. He was walking through the VIP parking area when something interesting and lucrative caught his eyes.

Late model Taurus, windows rolled down, GSA plates so there’s no optional equipment like alarm systems. This cow is getting rustled.

His eyes flickered up to the security cameras, and in particular the broken one covering this area. Then back down to the car. Easing his cell phone out, Leon took a look around while dialing. It only took a few minutes to get Edgar notified and a meeting spot agreed upon, behind the closed IGA store where the cops would not notice for the short time it would take to strip the Taurus bare. And a ten percent cut of the stripping would pay one heck of a lot more than the fifty bucks or so he would have earned for showing up and playing parking monkey for the Royals.

One casual stroll later, Leon peeked in through the open windows of the big car and noted the absence of any large police dogs, and likewise no obvious cop equipment like radios or guns. Cop equipment would have been pure gravy, although a dog would have been an instant deal-breaker, much as if Leon could not hot-wire the car.

Thankfully, it was an American car.

“And come to Uncle Leon,” he whispered as he slid into the cloth driver’s seat and closed the door after himself. Leather seats would have been so much better, and raised the amount of cash this was going to earn him, but meh. Leon already had his knife in hand to slide under the dashboard and begin a little electronic surgery, when the ‘ding-ding’ noise soaked in through his head.

“Dang,” he murmured. He thumbed the gravity blade open anyway and poked the keys dangling from the ignition. “Who the fuck leaves their car with the keys in it any more.”

“My friend,” said a low and entirely too sexy voice right next to Leon’s ear, complete with a short burst of warm breath down his cheek.

Leon turned his head ever so slowly and met the golden gaze of the most terrifying monster he had ever seen. What was worse, the creature was smiling, with a line of sharp, white teeth.

“That’s a very nice knife,” she breathed. “May I see it?”

21. Pony-People Interactions

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Farmer Bruener Has Some Ponies
Pony-People Interactions

“Common sense is the most widely shared commodity in the world, for every man is convinced that he is well supplied with it.”
Rene Descartes

- - - - ⧖ - - - -
Time: 10:40 A.M. Monday June 22, 2015
Location: KAKE News at the UPS Sorting Facility, Kansas City, Missouri
- - - - ⧖ - - - -

“As you can see behind me, people from all over the world have been sending our alien visitors gifts and presents for their return home. United Parcel Services here in Kansas City has been so kind as to donate one of their shipping hubs for the task of separating out a smaller selection of the gifts, since we don’t think the portal they’ve been talking about for the last few days is going to fit a dozen semi-trucks.”

Travis Pratt took a long wave around the yard with stacks of boxes in all directions, and one large UPS semi in the last stages of loading. Several men in dark suits and ties were supervising one last set of boxes, and a UPS driver in his traditional brown uniform was right behind them, checking things on a clipboard.

“We here at KAKE News would like to remind our viewers that there just isn’t space for everything you’ve been sending to the ponies. Since they’re going home today, many of the gifts are going to be wasted or wind up donated to the Salvation Army. Even they may be overloaded with the worldwide tide of generosity, so their divisional headquarters in Kansas City has put out a call for volunteers in order to sort and divert the flood to other charities.

“If you would still like to donate to the ponies, the charitable fund they’ve set up will be in operation for several more months, and the list of suggested charities we have on our website includes various horse rescue organizations and of course the American Red Cross will welcome any financial contributions.”

“Excuse me!” A grey pegasus with flyaway mane came fluttering down to hover at about Travis’s eye level, to his shock. Her identity as Derpy was obvious, because just about everybody had seen one or another of her crashes on YouTube or television. “Have you seen a box of hot sauce from—” she held up a piece of paper and squinted at it, or at least one eye squinted “El Fuego’s Hot Sauce Emporium from some place called Amazon? Miss Laminia said I should make sure it gets to her before the portal opens or—” the pegasus swallowed “—it wasn’t very nice.”

“I’m on the air,” hissed Travis, splitting his attention between the hovering pegasus and the television camera without the advantage of Derpy’s independently pointing eyes.

“I thought you were standing on the ground?” she asked, turning her head and entire body sideways and looking down, while somehow remaining airborne. “I’m in the air, and you’re not flapping or anything.”

“Just a minute, folks.” Travis gave the camera a weak smile. “I suppose there’s nothing like live television.”

It took several minutes of walking around with the volunteers before the errant box of hot sauce was found and Derpy hefted it up on her back. “Wow, that’s heavy. I hope it doesn’t fall off before—”

The UPS driver gave a huff of effort when he caught the sliding box with a jingle of the internal contents. “It’s probably full of glass bottles, Ma’am. Let’s get it loaded into the truck instead.” He hefted the large box up and added it to the rest of the cargo, then rolled the back door closed. “You can ride back in the cab with me if you want. They didn’t know if we were going to get to Randolph before the portal closed.”

“Oh, Twilight wouldn’t leave me behind.” Derpy hopped up into the semi-truck’s cab, and after several tries, managed to scramble over into the passenger seat with little property damage other than a coffee cup flying out and shattering on the pavement. “She says reading her mail is the high point of her day, because she gets to go visit so many of her friends in Ponyville to track it all down, and nobody delivers mail to friends like I do.”

- - - - ⧖ - - - -
Time: 11:45 A.M. Monday June 22, 2015
Location: Kauffman Stadium parking lot A, Kansas City Missouri
- - - - ⧖ - - - -

The low whine of the electric golf carts cut off abruptly and both side doors of the Taurus popped open with Widget’s pink magic aura, followed promptly by the unicorn crawling into the back seat. She poked her nose into the darkness behind the other folded-down seat, talking just as fast as she had been doing for nearly the last hour.

“...had a hot dog or at least just a nibble off one end and Claire finished it for me and you should have seen the football players because one of them just shrieked when Doctor Stable went up to shake his hoof but he got over it and I talked to Mr. Berry and he’s just the nicest guy even though he’s so huge but not as big as Warpaint and you should have met her and Susie because all of the baseball and football and all the other ball teams came out to see us and I just barely got time to see the whole television studio and scoreboard before Miss Anacostia said we had to go and they autographed a bunch of their balls and…”

Claire considered the bouncing tail end of the unicorn, which had not quite gotten all the way into the Taurus, and turned to the two mismatched doctors on the other KC Royals golf cart, which had followed them up to the car.

“Doctor Stable, are all of the teenaged unicorns from Ponyville this excitable?” she asked.

“You should see Pinkie Pie.” The unicorn physician snorted and rolled his eyes under the shadow of his Royals ball cap. “Actually, she might be at the portal opening in a few hours, so brace yourself. Sorry I’m going to miss it, but I’ve got hospital rounds, and I’m sure she’ll tell me all about it when we bring Granny back. Doctor Schwartz really wants to meet Ponyville’s party legend.” Doctor Stable lowered his voice and added, “He wants to introduce his granddaughter to her. If we coordinate it right, the return portal for Granny Smith might just open on her birthday.”

“Sneaky.” Claire hefted the two tote bags full of autographed baseballs, footballs, several jerseys, both a baseball and football helmet, and more loose autographed baseball cards than she had ever seen. Going around to the other side of the car, she pushed them in through the open window and tried to find a space for them in the back seat that would still let Widget be comfortable. “I noticed you two were already at the stadium when we arrived, Doctor Stable,” she added, giving the football helmet an extra push to pack the unicorn loot down tighter. “Did the FBI sneak you out of the hospital last night under the cover of darkness?”

“No, I just walked down the back employee staircase and had Doctor Schwartz pick me up at the food service loading dock. You have to know the door code, though.” The unicorn doctor took another long drink out of his souvenir glass. “We’ve been doing that to get in and out of the building ever since Friday. Why, did you have trouble getting Widget out of the hospital?”

Claire stopped trying to stuff souvenirs, considered her words, and shook her head. “Goose and Karla distracted the press, and I snuck Widget into the parking garage. I’ll get the whole story out of those two on the way back to Randolph and call you tonight after they’ve gone home. Oh, and who’s this? Hey, where’s Karla?”

The incoming FBI agent walking across the parking lot could have easily been a football linebacker in his previous career not too many years ago. He did not sport the same Royals ball cap that the rest of the tourist group had received, although he still had the same bulldog-with-a-burr-up-his-ass expression that they must have taught agents on their first day of class.

“Change of plans.” The husky agent nodded at Claire. “I’m Agent Hallman. You’re going to have to find another way home, Miss Bruener. I’ll be driving our alien visitors on the next leg of their journey. This is official business, so I’m afraid I can’t allow any passengers.”

“What?” As Hallman slid into the driver’s seat, Widget stuck her head out of the car door, emerging out into the sunlight with her KC Royals baseball cap tilted slightly off to one side despite the anchoring effect of the hole in the brim where her horn emerged. “Of course Clarie is coming with us. And where’s Karla?”

“She’s been reassigned.” Agent Hallman started up the car and flipped on the air conditioner. “Ma’am, if you could move the rest of the way back into the car, we can get started.”

“No.”

Widget finished backing out of the car considerably more cautiously than she had entered and sat down on the hot asphalt. Well, briefly.

“Yikes! That’s hot. Anyway, I’m not leaving without my friends, Mister Hall Man.” With that, and a brief glow of Widget’s horn, the engine of the Taurus turned off, the windows all rolled back down, and the car horn honked several times. In the distance where a number of the FBI agents had gathered together in a dark clump much like a flock of crows, Claire saw a familiar face look up, shake her head, and begin striding in their direction, looking down at the asphalt parking lot surface every step of the way.

“Widget.” Agent Anacostia took a deep breath and gave Claire a sideways look, like she had somehow instigated the equine rebellion. “Agent Hallman is a perfectly good driver. Besides, I’ll meet you over at the office anyway. I left my truck there.”

“Then you can drive us there,” insisted Widget. She limped over to the reluctant agent and rubbed her short mane against Karla’s side, which exposed the bare patches of skin on her neck where various nurses had trimmed away her mane, shaved down to her dark hide, and left a number of puncture wounds during her ordeal. “You’re my friend,” she said in a trembling voice. “You and Claire were there for me when I was scared out of my wits, and I’m not going to get to spend much time with you today before I have to go home. I want to make the most of it.”

“And get more cheesecake,” drifted Goose Down’s trembling voice from inside the car. “I-I’m still recovering from that flight. The cheesecake helped.”

Karla gave a tense chuckle and opened the front door to the Taurus. “Come on, Hallman. Widget can turn the car off faster than you can work the key, so we can sit out here on the hot pavement and argue all day or we can head off to the air-conditioned office for a quick tour with our guests. Your choice.”

“Well.” Hallman gave a furtive glance at the distant cluster of FBI agents and reluctantly climbed out of the driver’s seat. “I suppose if I ride along—”

“Shotgun!” declared Claire, dropping into the passenger compartment on the other side as Widget scrambled up into the crowded back seat. Karla Anacostia slid behind the wheel and slammed the door, leaving Hallman standing alone in the parking lot as four mismatched female friends sped off to the next stop on their trip.

Form 502 notes: After discussing the standoff with Agent Hallman, we came to the conclusion that interspecies relations would be enhanced if the subjects had a driver who was familiar with their physical needs. With that in mind, and taking Claire Bruener as an impartial witness, I conveyed the subjects to the Kansas City FBI Field Office where the incident under investigation occurred.

- - - - ⧖ - - - -
Time: 12:05 P.M. Monday June 22, 2015
Location: Riley County Police Department Prisoner Pod B, Manhattan Kansas
- - - - ⧖ - - - -

“Lunch!” announced the perpetually cheerful voice that Samantha appreciated so much, but that Marge Felts must have begun to loathe with the heat of a thousand suns. “We’ve got a delicious rice dish with—” there was a brief hesitation “—chicken fried in it, beans, cornbread, the sweet vitamin beverage with two ice cubes so it’s nice and chilled, and guess what’s the best part of all?”

Samantha remained around the corner of the cell, trying her best not to snicker out loud. The entire Felts family except for Marge had made bail, with the one exception being held “out of respect for the foreign government representative she assaulted while diplomatic relations were being established, in case extradition was requested.” Some massive judicial wheels had been turning behind the scenes in rapid sequence, because while Sergeant Samantha Rice had just barely gotten comfortable speaking directly to the Governor of Kansas, getting a call from the former Governor of Texas on Saturday night had set her back a pace. Then when the private jet carrying a contingent of legal assistants from the law firm of Kirkland and Ellis landed at the Manhattan airport Sunday morning, she had the feeling a box turtle must experience whenever a semi-truck safely passed over it on the highway.

She had no idea who the legal firm had been hired by, only that their orders seemed to be ‘Make our guests happy.’ And she was happy not to be the target. That was no fun for the turtle.

One of the parts of the whole glorious process was that Jailbird, one of the Equestrian ponies with the strangest of cutie marks, had been available to be a Trustee for the limited human prisoner population of the Manhattan RCPD detention center. Seriously, last Friday she was just getting used to ponies having marks on their rumps that defined what their special talent was when she found one who had locked himself into the back seat of her cruiser and refused to come out until he was transported to ‘an appropriate prison facility as per Equestrian law regarding inadvertent interdimensional incarceration, Section 407 Stroke B Subsection 12.’

After considerable inspection, he had determined that the RCPD detention facility would suffice on a short-term basis and moved right in like he belonged there, leaving Sam to seriously wonder about Equestrian criminal code.

“You’re getting cake!” announced Jailbird with all the joy one would expect from someone receiving a lottery check. “Angel Food cake with whipped frosting and sprinkles! And if you dig in and clean your tray, I’ll see about getting a cookie from the kitchen.” Samantha could hear the scrawny stallion’s chest swell with pride as he added, “I suggested we add them to the menu for our model prisoners.”

It probably was only going to be a minute or two before Marge flung her tray at the cheerful Equestrian, so Samantha decided to take the opportunity to step forward and call out, “Prisoner Jailbird, are you prepared for transport?”

There had not been any orange shirts small enough for his skinny chest, and frankly Sam thought even if they did have a shirt his size, it would drape like a tarp over his bony frame. She had no idea where he had gotten the matching orange cloth cap, but Jailbird stiffened to attention and locked his eyes straight forward.

“Yes, Ma’am.”

“Then follow me, and we’ll get going.”

“Yes, Ma’am.” They made a brief detour to the pony’s cell to pick up his belongings, which had swollen with the RCPD ‘donations’ of the multitude of logo things that the department had put out over the years, including key chains, coffee mugs, and pens. Although Jailbird had wanted to carry everything in a pillowcase — tradition, she supposed — the officers had convinced him to take a pair of RCPD branded duffel bags and tie the handles together so they fit over his back like saddlebags.

From the way they were stuffed, most of the RCPD members had slipped ‘a little something extra’ into his bags before he left. Sam certainly would have struggled to carry them both, although Jailbird did not miss a step under the heavy load. They checked out at the front desk, shook hands/hooves with all of the on and off duty officers, and headed out to Sam’s patrol car.

“You know,” mused Sam while they walked, “you’ve been such a good prisoner, what with cleaning your cell, taking up your trustee duties, and even calming down that one juvenile detainee we had last night, that I may just send a letter back with you, asking for them to shorten your sentence.”

“Don’t you dare!” gasped Jailbird, which made Sam chuckle while she was loading his heavy bags, although there was a suspicious clank when she put them down in the back seat.

“What in the heck?” She let Jailbird hop on into the back seat, then opened up one of the bags to see what made it so heavy.

“Ah,” said Jailbird with a happy smile. “Post-incarceration inspection of personal effects. It’s so nice that you follow the rules.”

“A crowbar?” Sam removed the heavy steel bar with a frown and examined the tag. “From Doctor Freeman, very funny. And a file. A hacksaw. No, several hacksaws. Sledgehammer and chisels.”

Jailbird was ecstatic. “Oh, good. I’ve been meaning to get the Ponyville Jail signs properly inscribed.”

“And a pneumatic angle grinder?” She hefted the tool out of the bag and gave Jailbird a skeptical look. “Really?”

“The emergency shelter toolbox in Ponyville doesn’t have one,” he explained while digging through the other bag. “Oh, they found the oxy-acetylene torch I asked for, but no tanks. I’m not sure ours will thread the same way yours do, but I can always get Quick Fix to re-tap the threads. Is the handle for this hydraulic jack in that bag? I can’t find it.”

Samantha wordlessly handed over the steel bar and began repacking the bag for their trip up to Randolph.

- - - - ⧖ - - - -
Time: 12:04 P.M. Monday June 22, 2015
Location: Subway Restaurant, Topeka Kansas
- - - - ⧖ - - - -

“So, Mister Henderson. Just about every restaurant here has meat in their salads?” Specialist Rose produced a Visa debit card for the awestruck clerk, floated it into her hand, and watched as she put it into the credit card machine. “And you can use money on plastic cards anywhere?”

“Just about anywhere,” said Dakota. “Soda machines are hit or miss, and most personal transactions want cash. You know, I can pay for my own lunch.”

“And just where do you think I’m going to be using this card back in Equestria?” Rose accepted the card back from the clerk, engaged in some friendly banter that involved an autograph/hoof stamp, and resumed their conversation once they had moved to one of the restaurant tables. “Besides, you’re doing us a favor by videotaping our meeting in Kansas City.”

“Which I’m going to upload to the Chronicle site and collect residuals on,” he pointed out while claiming one of the macadamia nut cookies. “Showing the respectful way that the FBI and our guests are interacting is a good thing for both of us.” He eyed the two sweaty pegasi who were sitting at the next table, demolishing a pair of tuna wraps each. “They don’t seem to have problems with any kind of food. Tuna, at least.”

“You say that now, but in about an hour, you’re going to regret being downwind of them.” A lock of Rose’s short pink mane fell over her eyes when she took a bite of her salad and chewed. “For now, let the boys have their fun.”

“If you just let them have their fun, they’d still be dive-bombing random police cars on I-70 like they tried on their way here.” Kota got a good bite of his own teriyaki chicken sub and considered just how oddly-normal it was to be sharing a Subway sandwich and joshing with fellow military members again, no matter how many limbs they had.

“Rose is a lot more fun. Grace never lets us get away with stuff,” said Left through his mouthful of sandwich.

“Always by the numbers and by the book,” said Right. “Boo-ring.”

“She’s been like that ever since she joined the police force. I helped her through that trying time.” Specialist Rose used her magic and a napkin to clean a bit of lettuce that was sticking to her lip. “It’s part of having a cutie mark for photographic memory. Every bad thing she experiences, every paper cut or heartbreak, she gets to carry for the rest of her life just like it happened a few minutes ago. She likes you two lunkheads, and if one of you got seriously hurt, she’d never forgive herself.”

Both pegasi slowed down their rapid chewing and seemed to think, which was one reason why Kota suspected that Rose had been promoted before her fellow female guards. It warranted a change of conversational direction, and Kota cleared his throat.

“Rose, are your helmet communication devices able to reach Goose Down yet?”

“Just barely, or I wouldn’t have stopped for lunch.” Rose tapped the side of her helmet with a sharp click. “They had cheesecake, visited the ballbase stadium, and now they’re headed for the FBI office and a tour there. Oh, and Cadet Goose met one of the locals who sold her a knife. Apparently, she just gave him the card in exchange instead of using one of those machines. Kids don’t know how to manage their money, I suppose.”

They shared a few comments about their respective children, Rose with her adopted trio and Kota with his absentee pair of girls, before heading back out to the bicycle-chariot and taking to the air again. Kota was really looking forward to things going well at the FBI office, because he never had toured one of them before, and thought it would make a nice bookend to the upcoming video.

Later, he would look back and wonder how he could have been so optimistic.

- - - - ⧖ - - - -
Time: 12:37 P.M. Monday June 22, 2015
Location: Kansas City FBI Field Office, Kansas City Missouri
- - - - ⧖ - - - -

“Are you certain you have all the listening devices in the bag, Widget?” Agent Karla Anacostia shook the bag in question, which was also bulging with all of their cell phones, just in the odd case that some hacker was going to remotely turn them on and listen in. It could be called paranoid by somebody who had not gone through so many of the classes that the FBI had put her through.

“Everything,” said Widget, who was looking over the backs of the seats with her horn faintly glowing. “Even that cute little magnetic one that was stuck under the dashboard.” She gave a little squeal of joy. “Oh, I can’t wait to show them to Mom and Dad when I get back.”

Karla glanced in the rear-view mirror and made the last turn on the way to the FBI office, trying to keep calm. “Look—”

“You told us before. Your fellow agents are going to try to push Goose and Widget around,” said Claire. “The bigwigs in DC want a pony in the worst possible way. Chillax. All they can do is try to pressure cute little Widget, and she’s a stubborn kid.” Claire Bruener ruffled Widget’s short mane, which she put back with a brief glow of her horn. “Besides,” added Claire, “worst case, they order you to sort penguins in Antarctica and try to split up the Trouble Twins back there. They’d have to be flipping nuts to use force on the first alien visitors on Earth, friendly aliens to boot. So even if they order you away and toss my butt out of the office, all our two friends have to do is walk out to where I’m sitting on the curb, I’ll call an Uber to pick us up, and we’ll get back to Randolph on our own. Worst case, it takes us so long that they miss their portal and have to hang around a week or two for the next one.”

“And that would be so sad.” Widget gave her best ‘sad face’ complete with pouting lip and big eyes. “I mean we’d have to go to the Cosmosphere or the Boeing airplane factory or something to cheer me up.”

“I still haven’t gotten to see a human mall yet,” said Goose from her nest in the trunk. “And we’d need an FBI agent to keep an eye on the dangerous aliens, right?”

Karla let out an aggravated huff of breath. “After this is over, I’m going to be lucky to be counting penguins. It’s going to take a week for me to write up a reasonable Form 502 on the last few days, Hallman’s going to want my ass—”

“Really?” Both of Widget’s ears perked straight up and brushed against the top of the car. “I thought he was wearing a ring, and you said those were off-limits.”

Not in that way.” Karla swiped her card to open the office gates and let the big Taurus roll forward, trying not to look at the trail of other vehicles behind her. “Look, maybe they’ll back off after you tour the facility, get some pictures with the leadership—” except there was no sign of them at the stadium “—and play with some of their toys. Heck, maybe Goose can toss Hallman around on the mat a few times to loosen him up.”

“Really!?” The batpony popped her head out of her trunk-cave, just as alert as if Widget had passed a Radio Shack. “You think he’d let me? I mean I’ve practiced with minotaurs before, but they always want to use weapons.”

“Let’s just… play it by ear,” admitted Karla. “Smile, wave, enjoy yourselves, and keep an eye on the time so we can get you back to Randolph at least somewhere near your departure time.”

“As long as we visit the gun range,” said Widget while they were parking.

“And I get to work out in the gym,” added Goose with a stretch of her neck and the popping of vertebrae.

* * * *

To be really honest, Claire had not known exactly what to expect out of an FBI office. Something out of Army boot camp maybe, with broad-chested men wearing cut-off shorts running laps followed by shouting drill sergeants. She really didn’t expect it to look like some insurance agency office, although with several small conference rooms for what she assumed were interrogations… or more likely several bored FBI agents taking notes while some disreputable white-collar criminal detailed their accounting scam. The firing range was far smaller than the one she used in Ogden, with only two lanes and barely enough space for two shooters and two observers.

Although that kept the lurking FBI agents outside of the room.

“Not bad. Not bad at all.” Agent Anacostia held up the QUI-99 paper target and counted holes. “One magazine, fifteen yards, fifteen hits. Too bad you didn’t bring your gun.”

Claire patted her Sneaky Pete holster. “If I had, where would I keep my vaping gear? Besides, I’ve never needed it around Manhattan, and I wouldn't want Krystol to get her hands on it when I’m sleeping over at her place. It’s bad enough when she gets into my vaper and tries to mix up cannabis fluid to get high. Last one she broke, sold to a pawn shop, then I didn’t find out it was broken until I bought it back.”

“Sounds like a wonderful friend.” The FBI agent got out another loaded magazine, then looked over at the pony observers, both of whom looked considerably discouraged by the noise despite their earmuffs. “Widget, do you want to try a shot? I’ll load one round, and as long as you keep it pointed downrange, you can’t really hurt anything.”

“I-I think so.”

The pink unicorn moved cautiously up to the firing line, clunking a little due to the plastic brace she had around her leg. The tour of the facility had not taken very long, but Widget seemed to have run out of most of her boundless energy after her tour of the ‘ballbase’ stadium, and Claire was starting to think she might have to be carried out to the car if this went on very much longer. The blue aura surrounding the pistol did not flicker with fatigue as Claire expected, and after a brief amount of squinting and trying to find a comfortable position to look downrange, the glow intensified, and the gun fired.

“Wow,” breathed Widget, who was in the process of turning toward Karla when the FBI agent retrieved her gun, which likewise had been turning. “Oops. I wasn’t thinking. But it’s empty, right?”

“No,” said Karla and Claire at the same time. The FBI agent removed the empty shell casing which had not fully ejected and handed it over to the unicorn, who tucked it away as if it were her most precious souvenir so far.

“Four major rules of gun safety,” said Karla. “Well, maybe three for unicorns. First, consider all guns to be loaded, even if you’re sure they’re empty. Never point them at something you don’t want to shoot, because even if you’re positive the gun is empty—” She pointed the gun downrange, paused, and pulled the trigger with a click.

“I thought it was going to go off,” said Widget with her eyes wide open.

“That’s why I won’t buy a Glock,” said Claire. “Part of the cleaning process involves pulling the trigger on an empty chamber. As much as you try to follow the process correctly, all it takes is one mistake.”

“Third rule is never to put your finger on the trigger unless you’re ready to fire,” continued Karla, looking only slightly irritated at the slight on her Government-Issued weapon. “Unicorns… may have to adapt to that one. And the fourth rule is always be sure of your target, what it is, what is behind it, what may get between you and it during a shot. Just because we’re at a gun range doesn’t mean somebody isn’t doing something stupid like walking downrange to pick up a target or untangle one of the wires.”

“My dad always said the vast majority of gun safety is learning how not to shoot,” said Claire. “When you’re scattered out to go pheasant hunting, there’s always at least one idiot who shoots at a low bird and sprinkles some shot in your direction.” She touched the holster at her waist and took a short breath. “Then again, being able to shoot is something you have to train for. I was a witness at a liquor store robbery once in Chicago.”

When Claire could not say any more words, Karla gave a short glance over her shoulder at the watchers in the hallway behind the glass wall and patted her on the arm. “Not here,” she said in a low voice. “Maybe you can tell us about it on the way back.” Standing back up straight again, Karla picked up the second magazine from her pocket and put it on the shooting bench. “Tell you what. I don’t see any holes in Widget’s target down there. Do you want to give it a try before we visit the gym?”

“I… suppose.” Claire hefted the empty Glock and peered down the sights. “I’ll try not to limp-wrist it like you did, Widget. If you don’t keep a firm grip, the action doesn’t cycle right, and the slide fails to eject the empty round.”

“Oh.” Widget peered at her empty brass treasure. “It’s bent. That could have gotten jammed in the mechanism.”

“Yep.” Claire hefted the gun and looked at the paper target. “RSO, range seems clear.”

“Range is clear. Load,” said Karla, passing over the magazine.

The Glock was a little different than her range gun, so it took a moment to seat the magazine and work the slide. She pointed it downrange and called out, “Ready.”

“Commence firing.”

Taking her time and reminding herself that she was not showing off, Claire fired until the slide locked back, then ejected the empty magazine and double-checked the chamber. “Clear.”

“Cease fire,” called out Karla, taking the gun back. “Let’s see how you did.”

Widget was impatient, and did not wait for the paper target to get all the way back to them before she plucked it off the clips and floated it over for closer examination. There were holes in it at least, and not quite as neat as the FBI agent’s target, but nothing that Claire felt particularly bad about. After all, there were holes in the center of mass.

“Better than I expected.” Karla checked the chamber of the gun, put the empty magazine back in, and closed the chamber before holstering it. “And I’m out of ammunition, so we might as well keep going with the tour. Widget, do you want to keep that?”

The unicorn’s magic was already folding up the perforated paper for storage as she headed for the door. “Yeah,” she said with obvious fatigue in her voice. “We better catch up with Goose. She headed for the exercise room after your last shot.”

* * * *

The mat-covered gym was the largest room in the FBI office so far, probably a little small for a game of volleyball but big enough that a dozen agents could toss each other around, if they were careful. It was lit as brightly as outside and included several skylights, so Goose had slipped the shaded visor back down over her eyes as she stretched.

It was a sight that Claire was never going to get used to. If ponies ever got into the adult film industry, the batponies were going to clean up royally because ‘double-jointed’ only began to describe her flexibility. Thankfully, there was nobody else in the room other than Widget, because FBI agents just did not need to be exposed to this degree of feminine contortionism without a bottle of lotion and some tissues.

“Just getting warmed up,” said Goose, who was resting her chin on the base of her tail with one wingtip extended so she would not tip over. “I probably should tape up my hooves so I don’t scrape you, Karla. Do you have any pads?”

“Uh… no?” The FBI agent walked across the floor to where they had stacked all of Widget's souvenirs against the wall and began to shed her jacket and shoulder holster. “Normally, I’d just take my shoes off, but that’s not an option for you, I guess. Catch.” She tossed a roll of blue self-adhesive elastic bandage over to Widget and kicked off her own shoes with the rest of the stuff. “You know we can’t spar for very long.”

“Even a couple of falls will help.” Goose shook one hoof and held it up for Widget to start wrapping it. “I’ve gotten so fat and lazy over the last few days. Plus, I’m going to have to tell my brother Shadow all about it. He trained me when I was getting ready to go into the guard, and he’s going to have words about your first visit to the hospital room.”

Claire stole a look at Widget, who appeared angelically innocent as she finished wrapping Goose’s hooves, although the light on her horn did not go out when she was done and stepped over to the side with her human friend.

Ever so slowly, Karla nodded, looking a little silly in her bare feet and white shirt but still quite focused. “Here, we have what we call a Tueller Drill, or the twenty foot rule. It’s based on the average reaction time for somebody to draw and fire on somebody closing on you with a knife. Closer than twenty feet and you most likely can’t get a shot off in time. Further and you might. Want to give it a shot?”

“Sure.” The batpony arranged herself a distance away from Karla, who made a ‘finger-gun’ and acted like she was tucking it into her waistband. “Claire, you say when we go.”

“Okgo!” she called out.

Being quadrupedal was a distinct advantage, considered Claire, both in the ability to lunge into a sprint and stability, although she remembered a story from history class about Jesse Owens running a 100 yard dash against a horse and winning. The thing was that particular horse did not have wings to give her an instantaneous burst of speed at the beginning, and the same wing swept forward as Goose shot past her target, catching the FBI agent at the ankles and sending her tumbling.

The same thing happened when Karla tried it with more distance between them, only since Goose could not pass her target without plowing into a cinder block wall, she came to an abrupt halt just inches away.

The problem was the enormous blast of air that accompanied the instant braking maneuver, knocking Karla backwards into the wall and stripping every single piece of paper from the nearby bulletin board into a huge vortex of government documents scattered around the room.

Once Karla had gotten to her feet and Widget finished snagging all the floating paper, they decided on a more close-in sparring method which had less chance of demolishing the building by accident.

“So you want me to hit you as hard as I can?” asked Karla a little hesitantly. “Even where you don’t have armor?”

“The armor should absorb whatever you can dish out,” reassured Goose, who moved in front of Karla and turned sideways. “Unicorn enchantments let it protect exposed areas just about as well as everything else. Go ahead and give me a thump.”

“Well…” The agent ‘thumped’ Goose Down like a watermelon, which only made everybody in the room giggle. Then she balled up a fist and gave her target several blows, increasing in strength. “It’s like a punching bag. Does the armor effect get stronger, the harder I hit?”

“Yeah. But it stings a little. That’s on purpose. It tells us how close the blow is to overwhelming the spell.” Goose twisted out of the way of the next blow, then ducked a quick grab. A rapid exchange followed, with the batpony hopping up into the air to avoid a leg sweep, then staying there to feint a rear hoof blow at Karla’s face.

“Hey, unfair!” Karla tumbled backwards on the mat, coming to a halt in a breathless squat with one hand held up. “People can’t hover.”

“Not my fault.” Goose touched back down on the mat, looking as happy as Claire had ever seen her.

“Time!” called out the agent, who vanished into the bathroom for a moment, emerging with a short length of rope. “Ok, different approach. You’ve shown what you can do with wings, so let’s see how you can function without.”

Goose snorted. “Shadow made me train with one wing in a sling, both wrapped up or tied together, and blindfolded. Tie ‘em up.”

“No, just keep them together for now,” said Karla, settling down into a crouch and making a complicated knot in the rope. “This time, I’ll attack and you try to defend. Provided I still remember how to do this from my college rodeo days.”

“Oh,” said Claire as realization struck. “Oh, that’s cruel. Oh, my.”

The dark FBI agent took the loop of rope in her teeth, looking much as if she were grinning while Goose gave a quick, troubled look back at Claire, who also could not help but grin. Ponies had a jump on humans in a lot of situations, but this was something they probably had never experienced before. “On your mark,” called out Claire as she got out her phone and tapped record. “Set. Go!”

Karla darted forward, left hand held low and feinted a blow at the batpony’s face, which Goose reared back in order to block. Then the FBI agent kept going past her target, reaching out with her right hand to grab the pony just in front of her opposite side hind leg while her left hand grabbed onto Goose’s ear. Planting her feet and heaving just as hard as she could, Karla managed to flip the startled pony onto her back, then darted down with the rope. In seconds, Goose was hog-tied and flopping around on the mat.

“Time!” called out Claire and touched the stop button on the recording. “Nine seconds. I believe that’s the current record for Equestrian pony roping. Hold up a second so I can get a good photograph.”

Goose was not much of a good sport about it, but she did hold relatively still while Claire got a picture, complete with the out-of-breath FBI agent leaning casually on her captive.

“Hey, what’s this?” asked Karla as she began to get up. She scooped a metal object off the mat and examined it while Goose rolled forward to a relatively upright position, then lifted off to hover with slow, steady beats of her enormous wings.

“It’s the knife I bought off the human who visited the car while you were in the ballbase stadium. I think it’s broken,” said Goose.

She brought her nose down to the loops of rope and began nipping them loose while Karla turned the knife over in her hands, giving it a flick to extend the blade, then retracting it. Claire had to come over and look too, and returned the questioning look by the FBI agent with a shrug of her shoulders. Widget, however, seemed entranced.

“Mister Auto Kershaw must have put a spring inside it,” she said, lifting the black blade out of Karla’s hands for closer inspection of the mechanism and brand name. “The button makes it flick out, and you have to push the button back in to fold it. You probably can’t get the button pushed without a thumb, unless I add a fetlock bump there. I’ll get the welder from our shop and fix it up for you when we get home, Goose.”

“So you bought it,” said Karla, taking it back out of Widget’s magic aura. “From some guy in the parking lot with your Visa card. Did he come up to the window and offer to sell it to you?”

“No, he got into the driver’s seat and looked like he wanted to start the car.” Goose managed to get her last hoof unwrapped and started to coil up the slightly tattered rope. “He must have been hot and wanted to run the air conditioner. I may… have startled him a little.”

“Explains why the seat felt damp,” muttered Karla. She turned the knife back over to the batpony and watched as it was tucked away into what little of her short purple mane that could be seen peeking out from under the dark armor. “And oh crap,” she added when the doors at the other end of the gym opened and a line of FBI agents began to filter in.

“Don’t worry, Miss Anacostia,” said Widget, who swallowed and continued to look even more worried. “I’ll just tell them I want to go home and they’ll let me.”

“We hope,” murmured Claire as the agents spread around the outside edge of the small gym, and the bulky Agent Hallman emerged into the room.

22. Newton's Law

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Farmer Bruener Has Some Ponies
Newton’s Law

“Plato is my friend, Aristotle is my friend, but my greatest friend is truth.”
Isaac Newton

- - - - ⧖ - - - -
Time: 2:15 P.M. Monday June 22, 2015
Location: Above the FBI Field Office, Kansas City, Missouri
- - - - ⧖ - - - -

“So did you have anything you wanted to say before I turn this on, Rose?”

Kota arranged the ‘Press’ badge clip on his shirt and checked the battery indicator again. It was a nice bit of craftwork with ‘Dakota Henderson’ written in thin silver script right over the word ‘PRESS’ and a discreet ‘San Francisco Chronicle’ logo below, but the important part of the body camera was the wide-angle lens that blended right into the black plastic. Admittedly, it was fixed-focus and did not record in the dark very well, but it had provided more than one photo for the paper when unwary officials had made him put away his real camera. The air chariot was still relatively high in the air, but had just made a minor course change and started to descend, and the three Equestrians had begun talking to each other on their helmet communication systems, so Kota was taking this opportunity to get prepared. However, he was not prepared for what came next.

“I love you, I always have. Those lips, that smile, the way you always call me Rose instead of Specialist Petal. I don’t think I can resist your masculine attraction any more.” The unicorn stood up on her hind legs and put both forehooves on his chest, pressing Kota back into the chariot’s chair. “Kiss me, you fool.”

“Uhamanuawha?” Kota almost dropped his Nikon, which brought him back to reality with a snap. Seeing two thousand dollars worth of camera vanish over the side of the aluminum air chariot would have really made his day. He really did not catch what was going on until the giggling unicorn sat back down and brushed one lock of her pink hair back under her helmet.

“Oh, Mister Henderson. You make me feel like a young mare again. I just wanted to be absolutely certain you weren’t recording already.” Her face straightened back up again and she looked directly into his eyes. “Just to be clear, I’m happily married.”

Kota nodded, because he was not quite sure he was ready to say anything yet. At least the brisk breeze of the chariot’s progress allowed his cheeks to cool off.

“Good.” Rose nodded back. “I need your opinion, as a military human. Do you think your FBI will respond better to a female Equestrian officer ordering them to release Widget or a male officer?”

“Male,” said Kota almost instantly. “But if things go pear-shaped in a hurry, they’re far less likely to attack you. Men have this ‘thing’ about not hitting girls. Particularly on camera.”

“How about if it were a princess doing the asking?” There was a flare of green light, and a different Equestrian mare was standing on the chariot, much larger and darker. Rose’s mane flowed back over her shoulder in an ebon river with little glints of light in it, and a pair of wings now spread out over her back. It obviously was not a surprise to the twin pegasi pulling the chariot, because they glanced back to see what the light was all about, then returned to their regular flying without a single comment. The changed alicorn standing in front of Kota stretched her neck, gave a brief flap in the cool slipstream of the chariot’s passage, and cocked a curious eyebrow. “So, praytell, wouldst thy world’s guards give due courtesy to Luna, our Princess of the Night?”

There was another flare of green light, and when he could see again, there was a different alicorn standing in the wind. This one was a snowy-white with a flowing mane made of pastel colors, and tall enough she could look Kota right in the eyes when she spoke.

“Or do you think I would need to pull out the big boss lady,” said Rose in a rolling alto cadence where each word seemed to be a statement. “Princess Celestia has more of a direct influence on anypony she meets, although I’ve never tried to use her visage before in a serious discussion. I’m not sure I could pull it off, and there’s no way I’m going to use Princess Cadence.”

“I… um… think they’d know you weren’t in the original number of visiting ponies,” managed Kota after a few quick breaths. That one entry on the Equestrian census that read ‘changeling’ suddenly fell right into place, as well as the reason why the other guards had been so reluctant to talk much about their buggy Ponyvillian, although his mind was working fast enough to add, “But you could tell them you just came through the opened portal.”

“No, I don’t think so. Complicated lies never work well,” she admitted, and green light surrounded the pony again, only to have Rose standing there on the chariot decking when Kota blinked away the spots. “I’ve never been able to do either of their voices very well,” admitted Rose, “but ever since I told my husband—” Considering that the magenta unicorn was really a disguised pony-sized bug, she had an amazing blush right up to the tips of her ears and shut her mouth with a snap. “Nevermind,” she managed. “We’ll just have to manage on our own.”

The fenced yard around the building ahead of them was getting fairly close, but Kota hesitated before turning on his cameras. “Miss Petal, if the portal doesn’t get opened today like they’ve said it might not…” He paused, then blurted right ahead, “Can I get you to pose for me later? Decent poses, of course.”

With a giggle that made the middle-aged mare seen half her age, Rose held a hoof to her lips to hide the resulting smile. “If you want indecent poses, I’m sure Specialist Thermal can provide. I’ll even watch her foal for you. But right now, I’d appreciate it if you could keep your mind on the job.”

* * *

Agent Darius Newton was about as conflicted as the rest of the FBI team, but he was not about to admit it out loud. Getting pulled out of Chicago on a moment’s notice and flung into Agent Hallman’s team did not foster much of a sense of camaraderie among his teammates, although the task was simple. That is the task was supposed to be simple. The Equestrians were supposed to be loaded into separate cars at the hospital, and the bat-winged freak shuttled back to Randolph while Pinkie the Unicorn was given the tour. Then the whole team bungled the evacuation, fouled up the extraction at the stadium, and now Hallman was probably going three for three with the current scheme inside the office. Whatever reward Pearlie had promised Hallman to run this cluster of fail, he had better have gotten it in writing.

So in theory, the weird pony and the civilian were going to be escorted out of the multipurpose room in a few minutes, where Anacostia would then drive them to Randolph. Then once the pink unicorn was calmed down, she would be loaded up into the windowless panel van and Newton would drive them out to MCI to the waiting aircraft. Celtic and Capri had originally been scheduled to meet their alien visitor for the trip back to Andrews on Air Force Two, but there had been a great deal of behind-the-scenes shuffling due to supposed ‘security’ concerns, resulting in a half-dozen aides and a few over-energized White House volunteers being the only official escorts for the trip. For one, Newton was just glad Capri was not going to be on the flight because he’d probably wind up petting (or pinching) their alien visitor and starting some sort of intergalactic war. Plus the Secret Service would probably pull rank on their guest escort mission, and he would find himself sitting on the tarmac in the heat while the big jet headed to Washington. And Newton had always wanted to see the inside of Air Force Two.

The sound of wheels on pavement behind him made Newton turn abruptly from his introspective inspection of the building door. Some sort of amalgamation of metal mesh and bicycle wheels had touched down in the FBI parking lot, pulled by two of the Equestrian pegasus ponies, and with a unicorn and a dark-skinned human photographer in the back.

“Hey,” he managed, taking several steps forward and waving one hand out of habit. “This is a restricted area. There’s no unauthorized parking.”

“Oh, really. I didn’t see any signs when we were landing.” The magenta-colored unicorn in the passenger compartment stepped out with one quick hop and began walking up to Newton while the human photographer exited the contraption with much more care. The unicorn drew Newton’s full attention with the way she seemed to sway her hips with every step, making the dark armor look more like a naughty costume than a uniform. “Boys, take ten while I talk with your macho counterpart here.”

Newton barely noticed the pegasi leave the aluminum carriage behind as they vanished into the sky with a rush of air. He was busy trying to think while protesting, “No, you can’t come in here, ma’am.” The normal process for stopping somebody from walking forward was to put a left hand on their chest, but to do that Newton would probably have to kneel.

“I’m going into that building, sir.” The armored magenta unicorn continued to walk forward while talking. “I’m going to pick up two of our citizens, and we’re going to Randolph for our return portal home. Unless you’re going to stop me.”

The cool plastic of the taser felt unnatural to Newton’s right hand, but he remembered far too many stories of panicked police officers drawing their service weapon instead of the non-lethal plastic device. “I’m going to have to ask you to leave, Ma’am. You’re not permitted—”

“Mister Henderson,” said the unicorn, who had stopped abruptly when the taser was pointed at her. “Is that a weapon?”

“Yes, Ma’am,” said the photographer. “It’s called a Taser. It shoots two darts that conduct electricity.” The photographer moved a little sideways so he was not directly behind the armored unicorn. “It’s not supposed to be lethal,” he added.

“Very well.” The unicorn turned back to Newton and smiled, in a technical way that involved the corners of her lips lifting, but no actual amusement. “Please note that an Equestrian Royal Guard on an official government mission has just been threatened with a weapon, one that is supposed to be safe, but the user has no idea how it will react to our physiology.”

“I’m warning you—” Something grabbed the end of Newton’s taser, yanked it down to his thigh, and the trigger depressed itself under his finger. The sensation of the darts penetrating his trousers was dwarfed by the excruciating pain that swept over him, like a thousand electric bees had decided to repeatedly sting and sting and sting…

“It does seem to be effective,” said the unicorn, who remained where she was and watched Newton writhe around on the ground. “You say it’s supposed to be non-lethal, correct?”

“Um… Yes.” The photographer moved a little closer, from what Newton could see through his teary eyes. “Um, Rose? You’re supposed to let up on the trigger after he falls down.”

“Oh! Sorry about that, Agent…” Still twitching on the pavement, Newton was unable to resist when something ghostly ruffled through his suit and pulled out his badge. “Agent Darius Newton,” she continued. “Pleased to meet you. My name is Specialist Rose Petal of the Equestrian Night Guard, and just to keep you from shooting me in the rear…”

Newton’s taser went skittering under the van, followed by his service pistol. The handcuffs that had been clipped to the back of his belt found a second use with one arm cuffed securely to his opposite ankle, and the unicorn bent down to whisper in his ear.

“I really am sorry about this, Darius. If Twilight doesn’t get the portal open this afternoon, come by the town sometime and I’ll make it up to you. I’ve got a young colt at home just like you.” It was a disconcerting change of tone from the alien, made worse by the way she winked at him.

“Anyway,” said the unicorn loudly after she stood up and began walking forward to the building’s door. “Let’s see if our little lost lambs are ready to go home yet, or if they’re still playing.”

* * *

Hallman was a family man. As much as the FBI liked to say it considered the agents under its command to be a big family of sorts, at times he considered it to be a lot like the Mansons.

“Agent Anacostia,” he said as the rest of his team moved around the periphery of the FBI field office’s multipurpose room, “please take Cadet Goose Down and Miss Bruener to your vehicle. I’d like a few words with Miss Widget.”

And they would be private words, since the FBI office did not have any cameras in this section of the building, and certain not-threats had been made to the rest of his team with regard to recording any portion of their alien-human interactions.

“With all due respect, sir. Widget’s had a very hard time, and I don’t think—”

“That’s an order, Agent Anacostia,” said Hallman.

“I’m not leaving—” started the Bruener girl, who Hallman cut off before she could get started.

“Miss Bruener, your invitation to visit this facility is hereby rescinded. You can leave on your own power, or you can be tased and tossed out in handcuffs. Anacostia, take them outside.”

The bat-winged military pony shifted forward and held a precautionary wing in front of Bruener girl. “I’m really sorry, sir,” she said in that squeaky voice that was half-ragdoll and half-porn star. “I’d rather Claire stay with us.”

“You really don’t have a choice in the matter,” said Hallman bluntly. The agency psychologists had included a few pages of advice about dealing with the creatures in the bulky packet he had managed to read overnight. It had not helped much, and he suspected most of it had been cribbed from terrestrial animal husbandry, but they had been fairly confident that the aliens exhibited herding behavior. That meant being larger and acting obviously in charge should make the aliens more likely to follow orders, which seemed to bear out as the dark pony reversed her wing and gave Miss Bruener a little nudge from behind.

“Go on, Claire,” she said. “I’ll stay here with Widget.”

That’s the hard half. Now once Anacostia gets Miss Bruener outside, we can work on separating the two ponies. Hopefully, we don’t have to tase either of them. That’d put me on Pearlie’s list for sure.

“Leave the bags of medical gear for later,” he added as Anacostia took the lighter-skinned but similarly built young lady toward the exit door. “I’ll have one of the agents load it when we’re ready to go.”

“Isn’t that sexist?” asked Miss Bruener, who stopped walking in order to turn around, except for Anacostia’s hand on her arm pushing her in the direction of the door. “All right, I’m going.”

Hallman was just turning around to face the two ponies again when there was a sharp knock at the door behind him.

“That’s our ride,” said Cadet Goose, scooting her fellow pony forward with one broad wing. “It’s been an honor to be at your facility, Mister Hallman, but it’s time for us to go.”

“Not yet,” said Hallman, moving in front of Widget with his Taser pointed at the floor. The fuzzy grey bat-pony looked like a plushie and sounded like a teenaged pop star, but he distrusted whatever hocus-pocus the unicorns could do with their horns even more. “I need to have a discussion with Miss Widget here.”

“Go ahead,” said the dark bat-winged pony, who moved her wing in front of Widget’s chest now.

“A private discussion,” said Hallman as forcefully as he could.

“The discretion of the Royal Guard is inviolate,” stated Goose as if she were reciting out of a manual. “We are to ensure privacy to any and all parties to any conversation in our vicinity while on active duty. Failure to abide by this restriction will result in loss of commission and further prosecution as in Section 7, Subsection 5, Penalties and Restrictions of the Royal Guard Manual.”

The further hammering on the steel fire door made Hallman call over his shoulder, “Somebody get that Goddamn door! And Cadet Goose, please step outside. My superiors were very specific that I should discuss this with Miss Widget in private.”

Preferably on Air Force Two at twenty thousand feet, headed east.

“Good afternoon,” caroled a pleasant middle-aged voice that rather reminded Hallman of his eccentric aunt. “What a fine group of humans we have here. My name is Specialist Rose Petal of the Equestrian Night Guard. Cadet Goose, are you and your charge ready to return home?”

There was another unicorn in armor who had just come through the steel fire door, looking much like a dowdy horned housewife who wore her armor on weekends. She looked up at Hallman with a happy twinkle in her eyes and a pleasant smile to add, “Unless there are any objections.”

“Yes, we have objections,” snapped Hallman with an aggravated wave of his taser. “Go back outside and wait. Goose, go with them. And Anacostia, take his camera. There’s no photography allowed in here.”

“Careful.” There was an enormous flash from the skylights, followed immediately by the tremendous sound of thunder that shook the building and knocked some dust down from the exposed metal struts holding up the roof. It left Hallman to stare wide-eyed at the smiling maroon unicorn, who still had one hoof up to the side of her helmet. She nodded at his taser. “You may want to put that away. Mine are bigger.”

In the resulting silence, the unicorn moved over next to the wall beside the door. “Don’t worry. I understand your situation completely,” said the maroon unicorn politely. “Mister Henderson, if you would hand your camera over to Miss Anacostia and stand over there, please. And if you could stand here, I’ll get the door closed so we don’t let all the cool air out. Wonderful invention, your air conditioning. Now, as you were saying?”

“I was saying you need to leave,” said Hallman, still feeling a little alone from the recent crash of thunder directly above his head, despite his fellow FBI agents around him.

“And if we leave,” continued the unicorn, “you plan on attempting to separate my young cadet from her charge, with force if needed, correct?”

After a quick glance at Agent Anacostia to make certain she had retrieved the photographer’s camera and had at least seemed to turn it off, he nodded. “I have my orders,” he explained. “We do not intend any harm.”

“So many big, strong men with intents,” mused the middle-aged unicorn, looking around the room at the suddenly uncomfortable FBI agents who looked a little like children being taken to task on the playground. “I’m sorry, I can’t trust your intents with regards to my cadet, or her charge. And,” she added before Hallman could respond, “it is not my place to interfere. The assigned guard is responsible for the safety and freedom of movement of her charge.”

“Me?” squeaked Goose Down like some sort of plush toy.

“Certainly.” The unicorn gave another nod to both of them. “Cadet, you may consider this an exercise. You have reached a point of irreconcilable differences with our host nation. Your opposition force is eleven US federal agents armed with nonlethal weapons, and with the ability to use lethal weapons if disarmed.”

“Excuse me,” said Anacostia, standing rather stiffly and tapping the unicorn on her shoulder armor with the tic-tic-tic of a fingernail. “I don’t have a taser, or any ammunition for my service weapon since we left the firing range. Besides, I’m not going to fight Goose.”

“Very well, dear.” The unicorn turned back to Hallman and smiled. “Ten federal agents, then. Cadet Goose Down will be graded on her final results, with points taken off for any injuries that require medical attention, or broken limbs. Are you ready, sir?”

“No!” snapped Hallman. “What—”

“Good,” said the unicorn. Her horn lit up briefly, the light switches next to her all swept down, and the room was plunged into pitch darkness with only her voice to be heard.

“You have twenty seconds. Begin.”

23. Things Left Unsaid

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“Sometimes stupid is right," Megan said, then paused. "Hell. I hope nobody ever quotes me on that one.”
Brandon Sanderson, Calamity

- - - - ⧖ - - - -
Time: 1:30 P.M. Monday June 22, 2015
Location: Hunting Hill Farm, Randolph KS
- - - - ⧖ - - - -

Ethan Alexander was not a happy bureaucrat. His co-workers at the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service could have told anybody that particular fact about their stocky red-headed field inspector without even looking. Grabbing a flight on short notice on Friday and winding up in a small town in Kansas on the edge of an alien invasion had not improved his less than cheerful demeanor one bit. These creatures did not obey any kind of disease protocol at all! If they carried some sort of deadly disease, a parasite, or one of a dozen cross-species viruses, or a thousand other things, the entire planet could be wiped out, something that APHIS had been created to stop, not just check for fruit on international flights. Um… APHIS and the Center for Disease Control, which Ethan kept forgetting about, since they dealt with people and he for the most part did not⁽*⁾.
(*) The other people appreciated that.

Through strenuous effort and possibly some threats, he had managed to get one of the blood bags from the Manhattan hospital packed and shipped back to the CDC for proper international distribution and testing, but there were hundreds of the creatures less than a mile away, and in an hour or two, they’d be gone forever. All he wanted was to get his isolation garb on, go over to the alien landing site, and collect a blood, urine, and tissue sample from each of the aliens. Was that so bad? He had talked for hours… well, raved if he was going to be totally honest with himself, to the mayor of the displaced town, and the best concession he had managed was first dibs on pumping out the septic tanks of all the recreational vehicles once the evacuation was over. For samples, human and alien fecal matter mixed together was better than nothing, but not by much. Every gram of it was going to be distributed to various health agencies worldwide, although not under Biosafety Level 4 protocol as he would have wished. To be honest, if there was something contagious between alien and human, it probably was far too late to prevent, but he would be darned if he was the one—

A burst of happy laughter from the hay barn brought Ethan’s attention up from the report he was writing, but only momentarily. The rest of his team’s children had been treating this serious occasion as some sort of farm-based vacation, although the three other members of his team had buckled down to work with all the professionalism he expected. Just why they had brought their spouses and children along baffled Ethan, and how they managed to talk his wife into bringing their own two offspring also was… something he was not brave enough to take up with Eve. Still, they had all managed to follow Ethan’s strict rules about not walking most of a mile down the path to the Bruener farm so there would be at least some sort of biological separation between their children and the alien subjects.

Although some of the happy voices from the barn where the children had been set up for their extended Kansas sleepover did not sound quite right.

“What’s going on here?” Ethan stopped at the door to the hay barn, totally flabbergasted at the way a half-dozen children and about the same number of alien ponies had managed to make the tidy collection of camping sleeping bags, fans, coolers, and snacks into a chaotic playground.

“There aren’t supposed to be any ponies here!” he spluttered, waving one hand in the direction of the paddock. “This whole farm is under quarantine to prevent any contamination of Champion by—”

“Hi, I’m Apple Bloom,” said one of the smaller aliens, who looked larger due to the enormous bow she had tied in her mane. “This is Sweetie Belle, and Scootaloo, and Sparkler over there, and Miss Thermal up there trying to get her colt unstuck out of the rafters, and…”

To be honest, the little pony chattering away at full speed named a number of other small ponies dashing around the barn, jumping off stacks of hay bales, and playing with unabashed energy, but Ethan’s mind temporarily locked up with the sight of a hovering pegasus directly overhead. It was not the presence of the unearthly mare, but the brain-shocking shade of pink coat that fairly lit up the area of ceiling she was in, with a short cascade of hunter’s orange tail waving underneath, and a sizable pair of pert equine teats indicating that the mare had not completely dried up yet after weaning her foal.

“Eve needs to see— No, wait.” Ethan shook his head and tried to get horse tits larger than his wife’s out of his mind. “I’m using Champion as a test subject,” he managed after a few quick breasts… breaths. “He’s Miss Hunter’s show horse, and the Hunters have been so kind as to permit us to monitor him for any changes due to… your presence.”

“He means if Champion gets sick,” said the small white unicorn who had been introduced as Sweetie Belle. “Only he shouldn’t since Starswirl’s spell uses a… it’s a filter of some sort like Rarity’s vacuum cleaner, so as long as nopony was really sick coming through the portal, they shouldn’t be carrying anything.” The eager expression of the little pony changed almost immediately to a mournful look that could have melted stone. “Can we go play with Champion today, mister? The other children said he was off-limit because you didn’t want him to get sick, but we promise to be careful, and none of us are even sniffly. It’s going to be our last chance because they said Twilight’s going to get the portal open real soon now, and we’ll have to leave.”

What Ethan wanted to do was dash back to his equipment, put on his biohazard suit, separate the aliens and the children, and proceed to have one giant decontamination shower for them all. The Kansas heat only made the idea more tempting. The problem with that was his role as a father, and the sight of his two boys actually engaging in interpersonal… that is interspecies interactions instead of being glued to their pocket video games gave him a little twinge in the chest. Paul was almost nose to nose with one of the unicorn aliens, watching her move a piece of hay with her magic horn, while Phillip was holding onto a very small winged foal and bottle feeding it with an expression of pure concentration and joy.

He had managed the bio-isolation of the nearby terrestrial chestnut gelding for nearly two days without exposing it to direct alien contact, but close exposure to those begging green eyes made the importance of that sample set seem less important. And—

“I really can’t let you have contact with Champion and our children,” started Ethan as the plan began to form in the back of his mind, “until after I check to make sure you are all healthy.”

“Yea!” cheered the little ponies, along with their human playmates.

* * *

- - - - ⧖ - - - -
Time: 2:30 P.M. Monday June 22, 2015 (plus twenty seconds)
Location: FBI Field Office, Kansas City, Missouri
- - - - ⧖ - - - -

For the night is dark and full of fuzzy terrors.

From the screaming in the darkness around her, the loud thud of bodies hitting the mat, and the occasional crackle of a taser going off, the FBI were getting a full Game of Thrones introduction to the adorable little lump of a dragon-pony that Claire had gotten to know over the last few days. One of the agents even had the presence of mind to turn on his phone to use as a light, which lasted just long enough for him to realize how much of a target that made him. As the darkness returned to the sound of a phone smashing against the wall, it was strange how Claire had never felt safer.

To one side, the armored unicorn was holding a leg across Claire at about thigh level, while on the other side, the photographer was holding one hand out across her chest, although not to cop a feel as she had thought when she first felt the pressure. It was actually a markedly short time before the room got quiet again and she could hear Goose call out, “Clear!”

The lights went on with a sweep of Specialist Rose Petal’s magic across the light switches, and Claire had to blink a few times to make sense of the resulting carnage. Thankfully, there was no blood, but there were a few low groans, and at least three of the agents were tossed together into a loose pile against one wall, while the rest were scattered around the mats, with Goose standing alert and with wings partially-spread in the center of the room.

Without saying a word, Agent Anacostia passed the camera back to the photographer, who resumed his job of documenting the event.

“Twenty-two seconds,” said the middle-aged unicorn with a certain flatness to her delivery. She stepped forward to the nearest prone agent and bent down to look at his face, which Claire noticed had a horseshoe-shaped red mark on the center of his forehead. The unicorn peeled back the agent’s eyelid to look into his eye, then nodded. “No permanent injury. Good.”

She repeated that action with the rest of the agents, some of whom had begun to stir but apparently made the decision to stay down rather than get knocked down again. The most uncomfortable of them was the poor agent who had apparently used his taser to shoot his fellow agent in the back, which left trails of silver wire across the floor when Rose tossed the expended plastic device to one side in her magic. “You would lose quite a few points for this, if it were up to me,” the unicorn said in an apparent aside to the groggy agent. She pulled out his gun and tossed it gently over next to the discharged taser, then checked his badge. “Agent Dane, your superior will receive a letter. And…” The unicorn looked around, apparently counting. “We’re missing one, Cadet Goose.”

Goose looked up.

Everybody else looked up too.

Agent Hallman looked down from his precarious perch, lodged between two of the open metal support beams that was holding up the roof and next to one of the dark skylights that seemed to be packed solid with clouds outside. From the reddish rash of a horseshoe imprint on his forehead, he also had been ‘Goosed’ during the fight, and looked in no condition to get down by himself, even if it were not a dangerous drop to the floor.

Specialist Rose nodded with a notable smile. “Extra credit for that one, Cadet. Miss Widget, if you would assist, please.”

Between two unicorns providing magical support, Hallman’s trip down to the floor was sedate and without incident, allowing him to slump in place and pant for breath while Rose relieved him of his badge. “Agent Hallman, I see. Thank you for providing a credible training session for my cadet. It’s so hard to find a good threat in Equestria that the Elements of Harmony have not dealt with already. Now, I presume you have no objection to Widget and Goose leaving.”

“No,” he managed, still sitting down on the cool plastic mat.

“Very well. Come, children.” Rose turned for the door. “Let us be off.”

- - - - ⧖ - - - -
Time: 4:00 P.M. Central Standard Time, Monday June 22, 2015
Location: Outside the Bruener Farm, Randolph Kansas
- - - - ⧖ - - - -

Secretary Doug Franz was in heaven. He had been to many places in the world, talked to an enormous variety of people in high places, avoided being killed by some of them, managed offices full of hundreds of Washington personalities (which was a challenge all by itself), and put out four books during his life so far.

Talking history with an alien pony was the high point of his life. The only difficulties they had was taking turns. He would talk about Istanbul and nuclear weapons, Lucky would talk about Tirek and Nightmare Moon, and they each scribbled notes while the other lectured. The perspective of an alien herbivorous pony on magical villains from a thousand years ago contrasted so much with his own stories of jihadist fanatics killing each other in the hopes of getting a few pounds of fissile material. They both had world-ending potential, but somehow Doug had problems picturing a crack squad of pony SEALS dropping in by helicopter to raid an ancient monument designed to bring back banished radioactive evils.

Maybe as a movie.

The other diplomats at the event drifted in their direction after each of their turns making speeches in front of the podium were over, and contributed to their historical discussion, but more in a passing fashion as other important ponies caught their attention and they moved away. Maybe it was because Doug was starting to feel more than a little possessive about his new friend, and had considered just how he could smuggle the pony back to Washington in his luggage. The conversation had become so engrossing that Doug was momentarily at a loss for words when a mulberry-colored pony strode right up to them and passed over a scroll to Lucky.

“Hello, Secretary Franz. Mister Grass. I mean Lucky. Twilight just sent this for you.” Doug had gotten a fair handle on the names and occupations of a lot of the ponies by now. Cheerilee was easily the most recognizable to him, due to her cheerful demeanor and some burning desire to turn every occasion into a lesson for any small pony child who wandered into her vicinity.

“Pardon me, Doug.” Lucky unrolled the scroll, read for a minute, then let it roll back up. “So, two hours?” he asked the schoolmare.

Cheerilee shrugged. “Plus or minus some. Epsilon says the time difference between dimensions hasn’t been completely stable. I just hope we don’t wind up returning after school has started. I wanted my class to write a report about their experiences here.” She craned her head and looked around. “Speaking of which, have you seen any of the children?”

There was a small portion of his own heart that remembered the days of carefree galloping… err… running around out of the reach of older and more responsible humans. If the kids were enjoying themselves and staying out of traffic, Doug really did not want to corral them up for some sort of summertime school for their last fleeting hours in a new world.

“Sparkler and one of the guards are watching them,” said Lucky. “They’ve got my daughter too. I just hope Miss Thermal’s little scamp doesn’t give her any bad ideas. Just a few months old and I’m already trying to keep the colts away from her,” he added under his breath.

“But where?” said Cheerilee, still looking around. “I’ve been searching the farmgrounds and the town for a few hours now.

“Is there any place where you told them not to go?” asked Doug.

“Well, just the horse farm over there next to where the Army has been landing their helicopters,” said Lucky with a wave of one hoof, “but one of your government agencies is trying to keep that area under quarantine, so I strictly instructed them to stay away from it this morning.”

Experienced parent as he was, Doug checked his watch. “It’s afternoon.”

- - - - ⧖ - - - -
Time: 2:35 P.M. Monday June 22, 2015
Location: FBI Field Office, Kansas City, Missouri
- - - - ⧖ - - - -

The brilliant Kansas sun hit Claire’s face like a warm slap when they emerged from the FBI office. Several years of farm labor had toughened her to the experience, so she hefted the bags of Widget’s hospital souvenirs a little higher and headed in the direction of the aluminum mesh chariot out in the parking lot without complaining.

“Whoops,” said Specialist Rose, slipping ahead of her and carefully moving a hefty bald black man in a suit out of the way. He obviously must have been one of the FBI agents, although the handcuffs holding his arm to his ankle told of a story that Claire was itching to hear.

“Sorry again, Darius.” The armored unicorn’s voice was very low, and only chance allowed Claire to hear it, but the resulting glance down at the two of them caught the sight of a handcuff key being passed over to the agent’s hand by a low pink glow.

“I’m so glad that’s over,” said Claire. She walked across the hot asphalt parking lot with Widget clattering irregularly right behind, and only jumped a little when two identical white pegasi dropped out of the sky and began shrugging into the harness on the front of the chariot. There was space in the back of the mesh box of the chariot to hold all of Widget’s junk, which Claire secured by tying the tops of the bags together so nothing would blow out during the trip. Then she turned to help Widget up into her seat, only to realize that it was not over at all.

Goose was frozen in the office doorway, her eyes focused down on the sunlit pavement and her wings still tented out behind her like a dragging parachute.

“Oh, crap.” Claire’s thoughts were echoed by Karla just a few seconds later when the FBI agent looked back also.

“We’ll take my car back to Randolph,” said Karla while digging out her keys. “Claire, go start it up and get the AC running or we’ll melt.”

Claire was going to ask what she had planned when Karla brought out her cell phone and jabbed a speed dial. “Hey, Clyde. I’ve got a friend who isn’t feeling well, and I was wanting to take leave for the rest of the day to drive her home.” There was a pause. “No, Agent Hallman doesn’t need me anymore. Thanks, Clyde. I’ll get my 302s done this evening and have them in your mailbox by morning.”

“I’m going with her,” said Widget in a small voice once Karla hung up the phone. Several of the bags in the back of the chariot lit up with her pink magic before the photographer moved to intercept, getting about half of them on one arm while Claire collected the other half.

“Don’t hurt yourself, fuzzball,” chided Claire as she moved toward the parking lot and the collection of vehicles arranged in neat rows. “Let’s get you home, then you can do dangerous things without driving me nuts.” She lifted the key fob and pushed the unlock button, watching for the flash of taillights, then gave out a low whistle while walking.

“That’s a love boat,” said the photographer walking on the other side of Widget. “You need a couple feet of water and a gay captain to put that thing out to sea.”

“It’s beautiful,” breathed Widget.

“It’s pink!” Claire gave the unlocking fob another push just in case a better car were to flash its taillights. “It’s this huge pink… Expedition,” she added with a look at the tail. “How do you drive this thing through traffic and still hold your head up?” She popped the tailgate, tossed in the bags, then scooted over to the side door before Widget could try the leap to get into the back.

“I could have made it,” pouted the unicorn, although she was favoring her injured leg.

“You could have wound up going back to the hospital,” chided Claire. “Come on, Mister…”

The photographer turned off his camera and tucked it back into his bag. “Dakota Henderson. San Francisco Chronicle. You’ve probably seen some of my photos of the ponies from out at your farm, Miss Bruener.”

“Actually, I haven’t had a chance to get online,” admitted Claire. “Were you watching our livestream from the hospital?”

“Actually, me neither,” admitted the photographer with a shrug. He bent and lifted, showing more muscle than Claire had expected. Once the injured unicorn was situated in the back seat, he turned to look in the direction of Karla and Goose, who were both shuffling across the parking lot. “Do you girls mind if I tag along to Randolph? I think I’ve had quite enough of flying for one day.”

“Fine with me.” Claire climbed into the driver’s seat and started the engine. “You’ll have to check with Karla, and sit in the back.”

“I’ve got the back,” hissed Karla. She barely managed to climb in through the open rear hatch, followed by Goose who gave her a boost and managed to pull the door closed behind them, although it took two tries before she could keep the tip of her tail out of the gap.

“What’s wrong?” Claire turned the air conditioning on full while trying to peer over the seat backs.

“She won’t tell me,” said Goose, sounding just a little irate, even though her eyes were still wide and white from her un-hatted passage through the Kansas sunshine and the wide-open sky.

“I threw my back out throwing your fat ass onto the mat back there!” Shoving the tote bags of hospital stuff to either side, the FBI agent flopped face-down against the short carpet and groaned. “Motrin! Motrin! My kingdom for a Motrin!”

Widget floated a pill bottle out of her collection of bags and checked the label just before the armored unicorn guard tapped at the SUV’s back door. “Don’t want you children getting dehydrated on your way home,” said Rose once the door was open. She floated several bottles of water up to the photographer who redistributed them, then took the wad of bills she passed up with a curious look.

“The FBI’s contribution to your safe trip back to Randolph, since it looks like you don’t want to ride herd over the twins,” she not-explained. “I’m going to have them drop me off at the hospital, then they’re headed back to Randolph too. Cadet Goose,” she added, turning slightly to look at the fidgeting batpony in the back of the SUV. “Your score is adequate, considering your lack of experience with humans. Do not neglect your training.” Then she closed the door with a wink and trotted off to the pony air chariot, whisking her tail behind her.

“I swear, she’s just like my grandmother,” mused Claire. “And this truck is like my grandmother’s grain wagon,” she added once the big SUV was urged out of its parking space and in the direction of the FBI parking lot’s exit gate, which obediently opened when they approached. “Thankfully, I worked harvest a few summers. How about you, Mister Henderson?”

“The Marines wouldn’t let me. I joined straight out of high school.” He leaned back and fastened his seat belt, then looked into the back of the SUV at where Goose was gently prodding on Karla’s back with the sway of the moving vehicle. “Couple of the guys I served with blew their backs out in Afghanistan. Young kids who don’t know better with a heavy pack go jumping onto a truck, and a couple of discs blow up sideways. It’s no picnic.”

“Doctor Stable showed me the spell he used on my leg,” Widget put forward hesitatingly. “I could—”

“Do it,” moaned Agent Anacostia.

Claire withheld any further comments about Widget’s licence to commit Equestrian veterinary medicine until they were actually on I-70, because Kansas City traffic — even in the afternoon — required a certain intensity to her maneuvers with an unfamiliar vehicle. The sight of Goose in the back of the vehicle, apparently walking on Karla’s back with her wings spread out to the sides of the Explorer for stability, did not help her concentration.

“So, Mister Henderson,” she asked in order to keep her mind off of the interdimensional massage parlor behind her, “you’re a newspaper photographer?”

“A little of everything, to be honest. I write articles when I can, bouncer for clubs in the evening, go overseas when the Chronicle needs somebody.” The photographer plugged his laptop into the power port in the back seat and messed with some cables. “So your neck of the woods is pretty tame. This is the first time I’ve really been on my toes since I had a knife pulled on me in the club back in San Francisco about two weeks ago.”

“Ooo, I have a knife, Mister Henderson!” Goose lunged over the seat back, locking eyes with Mister Henderson at a range close enough that he probably was getting the tip of his nose wet. “Corporal Rose said I was supposed to practice with some humans.”

Claire was not quite sure just how the batpony was able to retrieve the gravity knife from where it was clipped under her neck armor with just her wingtips, particularly in the tight quarters of the SUV’s luggage space, but Mister Henderson fairly jumped out of his own seat when the closed knife was presented to him, hilt first.

“Err… ahh… later?” he said, gently pushing it away. “And please call me Dakota, or Kota if you’re feeling like it. Ahh…. Where did you get that?”

“owowowoo,” moaned Karla.

“Oh! Sorry,” said Goose before she began hoof-kneeding the FBI agent’s back again. “It’s just that we buy weapons at stores in Equestria. I really wasn’t ready to have somebody sell it to me while I was waiting in the car over at the ballbase stadium.”

“Baseball,” murmured Karla from somewhere behind the back seat.

Claire suppressed a grin and tried to keep her concentration on the road. “You know, we’ve got time,” she called back over her shoulder. “If you want to see a store where they sell knives, we could stop at Cabelas on the way home.”

“No!” protested Karla weakly.

“Yes!” declared Goose.

Widget retrieved Goose’s hat from one of the bags and stuck it on the batpony’s head, then took a drink from her bottle of water. “I’ll stay in the car this time, Goose.”

“This is a bad idea,” managed Karla in a muffled tone, mixed with short grunting noises as her masseuse found sore spots on her back. “Help, help. I’m being kidnapped.”

“I should stretch my legs anyway, and find a bathroom,” said Dakota. “I’ll vote for a short stop. I need to let the laptop finish uploading the last video I shot anyway.”

Claire hit the turn signal and took the exit. “Don’t sweat it, Karla. I think they’ve got a cafe in there too, so I’ll bring you a sandwich. And if they’re closed, we’ll swing by Hooters.”

“I am so fired,” moaned Karla. “Leading our extraterrestrial visitors on a tour of violence and sexual immorality. Ow! Yeah, right there, Goose.”

She did not say anything while maneuvering the heavy SUV, but Claire was fairly sure a short stop at the Russel Stover chocolate shop on their way out of the shopping center would go far to reduce any complaints by their kidnapping victim. Besides, turnabout was fair play.

And Cabelas had an awesome aquarium.

24. The Best Plans

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Farmer Bruener Has Some Ponies
The Best Plans

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

- - - - ⧖ - - - -
Time: 4:15 P.M. Monday June 22, 2015
Location: Hunting Hill Farm, Randolph KS
- - - - ⧖ - - - -

Assistant Secretary of State Doug Franz was beginning to think ‘alien race’ was a literal phrase. If he knew he was going to be running this much while doing his ‘diplomat thing’ in Kansas, he would have brought his tennis shoes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Doug understood totally.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

- - - - ⧖ - - - -
Time: 2:45 P.M. Monday June 22, 2015
Location: FBI Field Office, Kansas City, Missouri
- - - - ⧖ - - - -

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

- - - - ⧖ - - - -
Time: 3:15 P.M. Monday June 22, 2015
Location: Cabelas by Legends, Kansas City, Kansas
- - - - ⧖ - - - -

“I had no idea you were going to break into song when you came into the store,” said Claire. “And that we were going to sing along.”

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

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

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

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

- - - - ⧖ - - - -
Time: 4:15 P.M. Monday June 22, 2015
Location: Hunting Hill Farm, Randolph KS
- - - - ⧖ - - - -

“Whoops, correction,” said Lucky, prodding his phone with the stylus. “Claire texted her mother and the telephone group she created for her. On their way back, they took a quick stop at some place called Cabelas, then grabbed a bite to eat.”

- - - - ⧖ - - - -
Time: 3:47 P.M. Monday June 22, 2015
Location: Hooters at Legends, Kansas City, Kansas
- - - - ⧖ - - - -

“I can’t believe this,” muttered Agent Karla Anacostia.

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

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

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

- - - - ⧖ - - - -
Time: 3:50 P.M. Monday June 22, 2015
Location: The Bruener farm, Randolph, Kansas
- - - - ⧖ - - - -

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

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

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

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

- - - - ⧖ - - - -
Time: 4:15 P.M. Monday June 22, 2015
Location: Cavender’s Outfitters at Legends, Kansas City, Kansas
- - - - ⧖ - - - -

“I have to admit,” admitted Kota through the viewfinder of his camera, “that really works for you.”

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

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

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

- - - - ⧖ - - - -
Time: 4:45 P.M. Monday June 22, 2015
Location: Dave and Busters at Legends, Kansas City, Kansas
- - - - ⧖ - - - -

“But there’s a sale sign on the machine,” wailed Widget. “It has turtles and ninjas in it! We can get it into the back of the Expedition if we fold the seats down and move the rest of my stuff around!”

- - - - ⧖ - - - -
Time: 5:15 P.M. Monday June 22, 2015
Location: Sweet Frogs at Legends, Kansas City, Kansas
- - - - ⧖ - - - -

“Just one bowl of ice cream,” insisted Goose, who was wearing the black cowboy hat over her helmet as a replacement for the floppy sombrero. “Each. To go. I still have some money on Widget’s card.”

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

- - - - ⧖ - - - -
Time: 6:45 P.M. Monday June 22, 2015
Location: Tee Pee Junction, Lawrence, Kansas
- - - - ⧖ - - - -

“Can we stop?” chorused both ponies from the back.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m sorry,” said Dakota.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Krystol is your druggie girlfriend, right?”

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

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

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

- - - - ⧖ - - - -
Time: 6:28 P.M. Monday June 22, 2015
Location: Hunting Hill Farm, Randolph, Kansas
- - - - ⧖ - - - -

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

- - - - ⧖ - - - -
Time: 6:20 P.M. Monday June 22, 2015
Location: Bruener Farm, Randolph, Kansas
- - - - ⧖ - - - -

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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