• Published 2nd May 2013
  • 71,660 Views, 7,291 Comments

Stardust - Arad

Can Twilight earn the trust and friendship of people who are by nature suspicious and hostile to anything that isn't 'human'?

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“Helfen sie…”

The words rasped through the radio like those of a mournful ghost, and while he couldn’t speak for the rest of Strike One, Matt thought it was creepy as hell.

“Command, Strike One. We’ve got chatter on the channels, please advise,” Captain Donnely quickly reported as he took cover near an overturned van and signaled for the rest of the team to do so. “My German’s a little rusty but I think someone is saying, ‘help me.’”

“Copy that, Strike One. Infiltration of GSG communications networks puts the source of the transmissions inside a nearby warehouse, about twenty meters north of your current position,” Commander Bradford’s voice replied after a long moment. “If whoever is on the other end of that transmission survived the helicopter crash then they may have valuable intel.”

Matt could see Donnely’s helmet nod, “Strike One copies. We’re splitting into fire teams. Five and up, patrol the perimeter of the block and look for survivors or hostiles. Everyone else is on me. We’re heading for the warehouse.” A chorus of acknowledgements rang through the Strike One squad channel and the eight soldiers split into two groups of four. Matt didn’t spare any attention to the second fireteam as he formed up behind the Captain and the others to leapfrog towards the warehouse at the end of the street.

“Helfen sie…”

“Whoever that is, they’re definitely asking for help. They might be injured,” Rommel translated, and he subconsciously patted one of his belt pouches for his first aid gear.

Donnely nodded again and motioned towards the door. “Command, Strike One. We are breaching the warehouse now.” With that, Hale slowly opened the door and stalked into the room with her shotgun levelled. Rommel and Donnely followed with their rifles up and Matt brought up the rear.

In contrast to the destruction and bodies outside, the warehouse was completely untouched, with boxes and palettes of products stacked in neat, orderly rows. The only thing out of order was the shoddy lighting conditions indoors, where every other overhead light seemed to be flickering or entirely dark. It was a good approximation of hell for just about any soldier, with multiple lines of sight from deep within the darkened warehouse and little cover nearby the door that Strike One hustled through.

Despite Murphy’s Law, the soldiers were able to make it to the first row of palettes near the loading dock and take cover without incident. A long moment passed before Donnely motioned for the team to move ahead, only for everyone to freeze as they heard those words again.

“Helfen sie…”

The words were heard in stereo, through the radio in Matt’s ear as well as hearing the speaker himself. A shuffled footstep echoed in the warehouse, followed by what sounded like metal scraping on the concrete. All eyes turned in the direction of the sound.

“Contact, center aisle,” Hale reported crisply, and the shape of a human in tactical gear could be seen staggering towards them in the flickering light of the aisle. He leaned heavily on the row of palettes beside him with each step and his head drooped, and Matt could make out the distinctive shape of a pump action shotgun dangling from one hand with its muzzle dragging on the ground while the other held a grenade.

“Rommel, get him into cover. We’ll cover you,” Donnely ordered.

“Grenzschutzgruppe freundschaftsspiele!” Rommel called out in German before slowly rising from cover with both hands raised. He let his rifle dangle from is strap as he slowly produced his first aid kit with the universal red cross symbol clearly emblazoned on it. “Legen Sie Waffen auf dem Boden, und wir konnen ihnen helfen, wenn Sie verletzt sind.”

“Helfen sie…” The GSG soldier moaned, and he stopped his advance but didn’t drop his weapons. Rommel stepped out from behind the palette while keeping the first aid kid clearly displayed as he approached.

“There’s no obvious injuries, though his slurred speech and lack of balance might be due to concussion,” Rommel summarised quickly as the distance closed before turning back to the GSG soldier. “Mach dir Keine Sorgen, hier sind Verstarkungen. Warum gehst du nicht senken Sie Ihre Waffen und wir konnen Sie fixiert up? Ja?”

The GSG soldier slowly raised his head to look squarely at Rommel, and for a second the light above him stayed on before flickering out again. The GSG soldier’s eyes were rolled up into the back of his head, and the blood vessels around his head were swollen to the point of being visible from Matt’s current position. Also visible in that brief moment was a thin tendril of violet energy from the back of his head further down the aisle to a gray humanoid the size of a small child with big black eyes and no discernible mouth.

“Tote mich!” The GSG soldier screamed as his shotgun jerked upward and fired into Rommel’s chest, and everything happened at once.

“DROP IT! DROP YOUR WEAPON!” Hale screamed as she rose from cover and levelled her shotgun at the GSG soldier.

“Command, Strike One!” Donnely yelled in the comms, “GSG survivor is hostile! Rommel’s down!”

“Xray spotted end of the aisle!” Matt shouted as he rose from cover and drew a bead on it with his rifle.

“Gott verzeih mir…” The GSG soldier wailed and both the shotgun and grenade clattered onto the concrete. The lever from the grenade clattered to the ground beside it a second later. The grenade detonated and the GSG soldier was reduced to meat. Rommel fared no better as the blast caught him as well.

Before any of the surviving soldiers could respond, bolts of green energy began to light up the warehouse. Lines of fire crisscrossed the length of the warehouse, as well as from the aisles on either side, pinning Strike One’s survivors perfectly.

“Harris! Flank the X-rays now or we're dead! Go now, we’ll cover you!” Donnely suited action to words and began to spray lead down the aisle in the direction of their attackers, and Matt didn’t waste the opportunity. He was up and sprinting towards one of the wall-side aisles, and he felt a thrill of horror as an alien began to round the corner he was heading for.

Unfortunately for the alien, Matt’s reaction time was quicker. A running kick directly to the alien’s featureless face sent it sprawling to the floor where it was quickly dispatched with a quick rifle burst. He rounded the corner and caught sight of another alien caught out of cover. A quick double tap brought that down, and Matt continued his flanking maneuver.

“Command, Strike One. Hale is down! We need reinforcements n—“ Donnely’s report terminated abruptly with a burst of static, and Matt suddenly found himself very alone.

He caught sight of another alien as he rounded the corner and raised his rifle to fire a burst, and that movement saved his life. A burst of green energy came in from an unexpected angle directly at his upper chest, and his rifle took the blast and melted into uselessness in his hands. The blast caused Matt to stumble as he halted his trajectory and fell back into cover. His pistol came out reflexively and put three shots into the head of the alien that nearly killed him.

The brief moment of reprieve didn’t last as Matt heard movement and found himself looking at the blank face of another alien that had crawled on top of the cover he now hid behind. One thin limb pointed towards him, and a device on its arm began to glow green with energy. That was as far as it got as Matt put a round in its left eye. Like a puppet with its strings cut, the alien tumbled from its perch and smacked wetly in front of the surviving soldier. A second shot was fired, then a third, fourth, and fifth and a dozen more times into the dead alien. The only sound that rivaled the volume of those shots was Matt’s screaming as he tried to scramble away while keeping his sidearm on target.

The gun clicked dry and Matt thumbed the magazine release, and his shaky hands fumbled with a new magazine. He heard the shouts of the remaining members of Strike One storming into the building. “Jesus… Command, Strike One Five. Captain Donnely, Sergeant Rommel and Corporal Hale are KIA. Fan out and look for Harris. Harris, you in here?”

“I’m here…” Matt tried to say, but his voice was dry and weak. “I’m here…”


08:05, 04/19/2015, MEDICAL

“I’m here,” Matt mumbled as he tried to rise, but he found his entire body too weak to comply. He attempted to sit up but a stabbing pain in his chest and side stopped him and he fell back into bed. Wait, bed?

Slowly Matt cracked his eyes open and was rewarded by a splitting headache from the white walls he now recognized as the patient's rest area of XCOM’s medical wing. After several slow blinks the pain in the back of his head reduced to something he could ignore before opening his eyes again and looking around.

The bed Matt now occupied was at the far end of the room, and a small knot of soldiers gathered around one of the beds near the entrance. He recognized Anderson, Potter and Henderson sitting around the bed, and an unhealthy-looking Dryzimski lay in the bed with an oxygen mask covering his mouth and nose. As the others’ backs were turned towards him, it was Dryzimski who first noticed Matt stirring and raised one shaky hand to point in his direction.

“Well well, rise and shine, buttercup!” Henderson shouted from across the room and rose. Anderson and Potter stood up to follow Henderson over to Matt, the latter falling behind on a pair of crutches. Henderson stopped at the foot of Matt’s bed and crossed his arms in an attempt to mimic Bradford. “Playing the hero will get you killed, and XCOM doesn’t need heroes.”

Matt chuckled at the imitation, and immediately regretted it as his chest immediately flared up again. He did manage a smile at Henderson and the other two soldiers, though he arched an eyebrow as he caught sight of Potter’s leg cast. “What happened to you?” Matt asked as he raked his memories for when the sniper might have been hurt.

“Drop kicked a Chryssalid,” Potter said with a shrug, as though that explained everything.

“Bullshit. You tripped and fell down the last flight of steps on the fire escape,” Henderson corrected, “I had to drag you and your broken leg back to the Skyranger.” Potter’s response was a crude hand gesture and a grin.

“You doing all right over there, D?” Matt asked as loud as he could, and the heavy weapons specialist gave a weak thumbs-up and a nod. Don’t want Dryzimski to feel left out…come to think of it, why the hell did they put me all the way over here? “I’m assuming since we’re back, the mission was successful?”

All three soldiers nodded, and Henderson spoke again, “That’s correct. Delivered the civvie and the crap he was carrying to Bradford the moment we landed.” He opened his mouth to continue but quickly aborted the sentence with an uneasy expression.

“Is that it?” Anderson said as he made his way over to the desk beside Matt. Sitting on the desk was a small glass jar, with a warped piece of metal sitting in it. “Scuttlebutt says they actually pulled this out of your back armor plates. It cut your chest armor and you like butter. A centimeter higher or lower and it might have ricocheted around your ribcage and torn you up pretty bad. Damn lucky. If you hadn’t done it, I’d be dead. Jenkins, Dryzimski and the civilian, too.”

Matt nodded wordlessly to accept his thanks before addressing the subject they had all been avoiding. “Fowler and Lee?”

“They’ve been added to the wall,” Potter said solemnly, “The other teams had some minor wounds, but no casualties.”

Again morbid silence fell over the group, and Matt noticed one rather noteworthy person was missing. “Where’s Lana? I imagine she’d be either here with you guys or wounded and here anyways.”

Henderson’s face became pained, and the two other soldiers shared his expression. “I haven’t seen her since the end of the operation,” He said slowly as he fixed Matt with a serious look. “Bradford had her report to the briefing room the moment we landed. I’m afraid I have to ask, what the hell did you two do? Bradford’s always met us at the landing pads but this time he was powered with the wrath of an angry god.”


“Seriously,” Potter added nervously. “You know Bradford’s famous for his glares, but this one felt like it could melt rock. Then the doctors and scientists started asking us questions over the past few days about you two. Really weird shit. Speaking of weird, how’d you and Lana pull that Houdini act in the Skyranger before we embarked?”

All eyes turned to Matt, and he squeezed his eyes shut as he tried to recall the events preceding the mission. The Skyranger? Before that we were in the armory and everyone ignored us, then there was the run through the corridors from the Stardust lab, then the teleport from the Skyranger hangar. He rubbed his eyes as he tried to concentrate. I know I’m forgetting something. I know it. Oh. Oh crap.

Before any other questions could be raised, the door to Medical slid open to reveal Bradford in all his terrible glory, followed by a significantly less intimidating Vahlen. Henderson, Anderson and Potter stood at attention and stepped aside, although Potter wobbled in place slightly as he tried to keep his crutches out of the way. Bradford and Vahlen walked past all three without as much as a glance. “I need to speak with Corporal Harris privately,” was all he said as he turned his baleful glare upon the bedridden soldier. The remaining members of Strike One beat a hasty retreat and a worried look over their shoulders before Vahlen pulled a privacy curtain around his bed.

“Corporal. Explain to me exactly what happened before the operation in Hong Kong,” Bradford ordered as he maintained his glare.

Matt closed his eyes and collected enough of his thoughts before answering, “Prior to the start of the operation, Private Jenkins and I assisted with escorting our guest to the location in question,” He started, and deliberately kept the details vague. Dryzimski’s on the other side of the room but he’s still got ears. “After the alert was raised, we… made our way back to the guest quarters. Before we could leave for the armory, the guest… ah…”

For the briefest of moments, Bradford’s glare left Matt to glance at Vahlen. The scientist nodded after looking at the tablet in her hands, and suddenly the glare was back on him.

“Just so we’re clear. After leaving guest quarters with potentially detrimental effects on yourself and Private Jenkins, you proceeded to the armory and took part in the operation? Without knowing if those effects would risk your life or the lives of your teammates, or the security of the operation?” Bradford’s voice was quiet and even, and was all the more terrifying for it.

“Yes sir,” Matt replied with the only acceptable answer.

“Explain yourself. Now.”

“Private Jenkins and I entered the armory, and I made the call to take part in the operation. Jenkins followed my orders. I felt that the greater risk was sending Strike One short-handed,” The words came easily, and Matt had a sinking feeling that every word was another nail in the coffin of his career.

“And during the operation in question, you two eluded the notice of the aliens in combat several times, accounted for a quarter of the confirmed kills, two live captures and ensured the completion of the mission and the survival of your teammates by putting yourself in direct and immediate danger.” Bradford further added, and Matt did well to hide his confusion.

The commander turned away from both Vahlen and Matt and crossed his arms in front of him before nodding and turning back. “For your actions before the operation, you are suspended from combat operations. You will assist doctor Vahlen with the documentation of the effect that was placed upon yourself and Lana, and any testing she deems fit to run. Once this is documented to Vahlen’s satisfaction, you may return for active combat operations.”

Just as the punishment began to sink in, Bradford continued, “For your quick thinking and risking your life to ensure the success of the operation and the survival of your fellow soldiers without hesitation, I am promoting you to sergeant, effective upon your return to active duty.” And just as that news registered in Matt’s mind, the commander finished, “If you threaten the integrity of an operation in this manner again, you’ll spend the rest of this war in a cell.” Without another word Bradford turned and walked out with Vahlen fast on his heels, leaving a thoroughly bewildered soldier behind.


09:10, 04/19/2015, STARDUST LABS

Twilight Sparkle was worried. It had been three days since Matt and Lana left for whatever their jobs entailed, and she hadn’t seen them since. Charles had stopped by several hours after the two had left to inform her that they were alright and the spell was no longer needed, and she hadn’t seen him since, either. Kim and Joel were conspicuously absent, also. She hadn’t seen another human for almost two days, and that contributed greatly to her worries.

Twilight stepped over to her desk, where a fresh collection of food awaited her. Each morning the basket was refilled while she slept, since it was always full in the morning. I’m going to stay up tonight and ask just what’s going on, she resolved as she eyed the other items on her desk. On one side there was the tablet she was using to learn the English language, while on the other was the book that Charles had given her.

After waffling for a few moments, Twilight settled on the book. The book’s condition wasn’t the best, its paperback nature making it more susceptible to the wear and tear it no doubt suffered through hard use. With a gentle application of telekinesis she pulled the ragged cover open and arched an eyebrow as a block of text was on the open cover that appeared to be hand written. The text itself was the mostly recognizable lettering she was becoming familiar with, in large block letters that made them easily readable.

“Dear Ellie,” Twilight muttered to herself as she started reading, “When you’re old enough I hope you’ll learn to love reading as much as I do. Written words when strung together have magic to them that can create worlds and heroes the likes of which we have never seen. Virtually anything can happen with every turn of the page. Hold on to that wonder and you’ll go far. Grandpa Ray.”

She reread the text again before shrugging. Ray… I’ll ask Charles who Ellie is the next time I see him. The next page flipped over but before she could continue, the door chimed and opened. Shen and Joel appeared through the doorway and offered Twilight a smile and a wave that seemed just a little bit forced.

“Good morning, Twilight. I’m sorry to have taken so long to get back to you,” Charles apologized as he took a seat at the table. Joel took the seat beside him and looked equally apologetic as Twilight left the book back at her desk and headed towards her seat at the table. “Things have been rather hectic lately. How have you been since we last spoke?”

“Well,” Twilight started but hesitation prevented her from immediately gushing about what was on her mind, “Matt and Lana haven’t stopped by... No one has stopped by at all. What’s going on?”

“Ah, I actually have some news regarding that. Matt and Lana are both safe, but the mission did not go as planned. Lana’s helping answer the questions that the mission brought up, and Matt is currently recovering in Medical-“

“What! Matt got hurt? Did the spell not work?” Twilight interrupted. “I-I was certain I got it right! The power feed was constant and uninterrupted, the spell activation didn’t seem to have any of the adverse effects that are normally seen when a spell fails. What happened? Please, what happened!?”

Charles looked over to Joel for a long moment before replying, “Matt’s fine, he just got hurt helping one of his friends during the mission. He’s recovering well now, and should be along to visit within the next few days. We were actually hoping to ask you about the spell you cast. Can you talk about it?”

“Certainly,” Twilight agreed after breathing a sigh of relief, “It’s a spell I created myself after witnessing an artifact that produced a similar result. Pinkie Pie thought I should name it the ‘Background Pony’ spell, but I personally like ‘Wallflower’ myself. It’s designed to make something appear unimportant. Anypony who views something that’s under the effects of the spell will not see it as anything important, and they will not remember seeing it either if they recall the time that they saw it. …What? Was it something I said?”

As Twilight continued her explanation Charles gave Joel a pointed look, who was busy writing down everything he could. When her explanation ended, Twilight could see Charles swallow before speaking. “That’s rather interesting, Twilight. You mentioned there was something where you’re from that produces this effect naturally?”

“Yep! It was…it…“ Twilight brought a hoof to her face, “I think the artifact might have affected my memory of it. I remember it was blue, but for my life I can’t remember anything else about it. Oh, that’s going to bug me. Anyway! The artifact’s owner called it a ‘perception filter’, and it was designed to make it unnoticeable. It actually sounded like the exact opposite of another spell I have and I thought it would be an interesting challenge to make a spell that mimics the effects of the perception filter.”

“Oh? There’s a spell that does the opposite?”

“Yes! It’s called the ‘Want-It, Need-It’ spell.” Twilight’s explanation started out eager but wilted as the name of the spell came up. Oh Celestia, why did I bring that up? Please don’t ask about it, please don’t ask about it, please don’t-

“And what does that one do?”

Twilight had to suppress and embarrassed groan, “It makes its target more noticeable and desirable to anypony who views it. C-can we not talk about it, please?” Charles and Joel shared another look at that, before looking back to Twilight silently, “Okay, fine! I may have used it once when I was desperate to solve a problem to write about for Princess Celestia! I mentioned that I write to her once a week explaining what I had learned and the problems that I solved? I couldn’t find a problem before the deadline so I decided to make a problem. It was stupid of me, and I haven’t used the spell since. Now can we please talk about something else?”

Joel was still scribbling away as he took his notes, so Charles took the hint. “You mentioned an artifact? Are those very common in your home? Artifacts, I mean.”

“Well, yes and no,” Twilight started, and she couldn’t help, but smile as the subject turned to something she was not only comfortable discussing but was well-versed in. “I’ve studied quite a few magical items, and I’ve come across several as well. The Elements of Harmony are the ones I’m most familiar with…”


09:15, 04/19/2015, STARDUST LABS

“…And now they’re talking about magical items from where Twilight’s from,” Lana translated before looking to the others in Observation. Kim was by far the least intimidating presence as she sat at one of the monitoring stations to record not only Twilight’s conversation but Lana’s translation as well. Vahlen was beside her and taking her own notes as she observed. The most oppressive presence in the room was Bradford, who was glaring through the one-way mirror with enough intensity that Lana half expected a hole to start melting in the glass itself.

A long moment of silence passed between the occupants of Observation before Bradford spoke up. “I expect a report within a week. Moira, I’m assigning you Jenkins full time to assist with testing. Harris will join you as soon as Medical clears him. I want to know every last strength and shortcoming of this ability by the end of the month, as well as the details you can manage to gain from this other ability that it mentioned.”

“It will be done, commander.”

“One last thing,” Bradford turned to face Vahlen directly, and Lana couldn’t help but look away from the look he was giving her. Vahlen weathered it far better; she withered only slightly under that glare. “This subject has responded to positive reinforcement and social engagement over professional distance and orders.”

Lana could see Vahlen’s eyebrow twitch, and the grip on her tablet tightened to the point where her knuckles were white. “What are you proposing?” She asked through gritted teeth.

“I am proposing that you treat the subject with a modicum of respect,” Bradford answered levelly. While the two were speaking in a cordial if somewhat forced manner, Lana couldn’t help but imagine a clash of two giant titans as the two monumental willpowers tried to overpower the other. “Be polite, and if it refuses to perform a task you ask of it, do not press the issue.”

“Your suggestions are appreciated, but…”

“These are not suggestions,” Bradford interrupted, and his tone of voice became tight and clipped.

“The practices and testing procedures of the science team are wholly at my discretion--” Vahlen replied tersely but withered even further as Bradford’s glare took on a whole new level of wrath.

“Unless those practices directly threaten the safety of this facility or the XCOM project, which is my purview,” Bradford’s voice hadn’t raised a decibel but to Lana’s ears he might as well have been screaming. “I’ve reviewed the footage from your testing procedures, and your behavior with the last round of testing was wholly unacceptable. I am starting to doubt your professional detachment, doctor.”

“Detachment!? You question me when Shen—“

“Shen’s presence during testing is likely the only reason you are alive. He has been a calming influence on the subject since its capture, and he was also the first to realize the potential threat it poses if it feels endangered. Tell me, doctor, what do you feel would have happened during your last test if Shen had not been there? Are you confident in the countermeasures you have developed thus far to contain the subject if it feels threatened enough to act violently? Are you confident in our current capacity to defend ourselves from it if such violence were to occur?”

Vahlen’s jaw clenched, and the hand not clutching her tablet balled into a fist and began to shake slightly as Bradford continued to scowl at her. “I understand, commander,” She ground out as she broke eye contact to look away.

Bradford’s glare held for just a moment longer before nodding, “I want that report in one week, and a comprehensive report on all your findings by the end of the month. And I do not want to hear about any more problems from this project. Am I clear?”

For a brief moment, that glare fell upon Lana and she had to resist the impulse to suck in a breath through her teeth. And then the moment was gone as Bradford turned and walked out of observation without another word. Vahlen continued to tremble with restrained anger before stalking out of Observation as well. The moment the door slid shut; Lana heard a gasp, and turned to see that Kim was as white as a sheet.

“Dear God, that was painful just to be around. I imagine Doctor Vahlen is going to be rather terse for the next few days,” Kim predicted, and Lana could only nod her head in agreement. “Perhaps I’ll lay low in one of the other labs until things cool off. Say hello to Twilight for me!” And with that, Kim beat a hasty retreat from the lab as well, leaving Lana alone. With nowhere else to go, she left Observation and rounded the corner to Twilight’s habitat.

“Lana!” Twilight greeted with a wide grin and a waved hoof, “I was so worried after you left! I haven’t heard from Matt or Charles or you or anyone! How did it go? Charles said Matt got hurt but he’s alright now, is that true? Where have you been?”

“Hey, Twily, a thousand apologies for my absence!” Lana smiled and shrugged sheepishly. No sense in making her feel guilty about my stay in the brig until Bradford sorted out this whole spell nonsense… “But I’m back. Matt got a little banged up, but he’ll be by as soon as he can.”

Lana pulled up a seat at the table and wrung her hands before continuing. “We’re both really glad that you’re willing to help us, Twilight. I want to be clear on that. But I also have to be clear that it can’t happen again. It worked out this time, but we can’t have you using your abilities on us in potentially dangerous situations, especially without warning before hand.”

“What? Why?” Twilight looked crestfallen at the refusal of her help.

“Twilight, do you remember the first time I brought Kim to visit?” Joel asked quietly, and Twilight turned to nod.

Twilight opened her mouth to agree but caught herself, then looked down. “I’m sorry,“ was all she could manage.

“Now now, Lana’s right. We’re all glad you’re so willing to help, but the rules must be followed for everyone’s safety,” Shen said gently. He paused for just a minute before continuing, “Would you be up for testing this spell of yours tonight or tomorrow? I imagine since it’s so new you might like to test its boundaries in a controlled environment.”

“I’d like that a lot!” Twilight agreed immediately.

Lana smiled as the touchy situation resolved itself and fished in one of her pockets for the item she was looking for. “Well now, who’s up for a game of cards?”


08:30, 04/21/2015, BARRACKS

I do not belong here, Shaojie Zhang thought to himself as he walked the barracks corridors towards the mess hall. Other soldiers nodded to him in greeting but their suspicion was palpable. They do not trust me or my motives. I do not blame them. The soldiers he had met were respectful but terse every time that he had spoken with them, and he understood that his actions on the battlefield were the only reason they were even speaking to him at all.

Gossip was the only thing in the universe that travelled faster than the speed of light, and it had made the rounds that the last mission had resulted in two of their friends getting killed. It had also spread just as quickly that the mission objective was offered by a member of a known criminal organization to XCOM, and his price was safe haven from his former colleagues.

They think I am a thief, a traitor, and a criminal. That I bought my safety with the lives of their friends. He grimaced as he retrieved a bottle of water from the dispensary and headed towards one of the isolated tables on the edge of the mess hall. I will earn their trust, through blood and sweat if I must. Zhang mused as he considered the other rumor that was making the rounds. Shaojie Zhang had carried one of his saviors across his back and to safety, and that had earned him enough respect to offer his services to his new hosts.

And so the former criminal found himself wearing the uniform of his hosts and eating in their common areas rather than by himself in a comfortable if somewhat restrictive cell that he imagined other civilian collaborators found themselves in after they had been ‘procured’ by XCOM. He had sworn off all ties to his former life and gone through a significant amount of medical and skills testing before they had accepted his offer, and now the hardest part was upon him.

“Oi, loner!” A female voice interrupted Zhang’s musings, and he turned to see one of the few soldiers who had accepted his presence more easily than any of the others, “You shouldn’t go sit by yourself. It’s damn depressing.”

“Good morning, Miss Jenkins. I think it’s wise that I introduce myself slowly due to the unusual method of my recruitment,” Zhang smiled pleasantly as Lana Jenkins slid into the seat in front of him. A second soldier followed behind her, this one in a wheelchair. “Ah, is this another of your friends?”

“Friend might be stretching it,” The newcomer said flatly and was rewarded with a wadded-up napkin to the face. He snatched the napkin before it tumbled out of his reach but held off on his retaliation until he could introduce himself, “Matt Harris. You might not recognize me, but we actually met during your… ‘recruitment.’ I must say I tip my hat to you for what you did.” The hand not holding the napkin reached forward in an offered handshake.

Zhang introduced himself in return and gave Matt’s hand a quick shake before replying. “I was merely doing what I could at the time,” He accepted Matt’s compliments humbly. “And I must admit that I do not recall seeing you specifically during the fighting. Those full-face helmets cover your facial features but I’ve always been a good judge of height and body type even through armor. Were you one of the snipers?”

“No, the reason you don’t remember him is because he ‘wasn’t there,’” Lana interrupted, and she waved her hand ominously through the air. Naturally, the moment her attention was diverted the napkin came hurdling towards her head, which she unsuccessfully dodged.

“Don’t listen to her, man,” Matt said with a sympathetic smile on his face, “She’s full of crap and if you spend too much time with her she might rub off on you.”

“I may have come to that conclusion already,” Zhang agreed with a ghost of a smile, and suddenly it was his turn to avoid the napkin projectile. “Please forgive me if I’m prying, but how were you injured? I recall one of the snipers with a broken leg, and your heavy weapons expert was unfortunate enough to get caught in some of the alien poison. I don’t recall seeing you get injured.”

“Oh, ah, I did something stupid with an alien grenade. Piece of shrapnel pierced my armor and messed up one of my lungs. Doctors called it ‘pneumothorax’, I think,” Matt summarized after a long moment, and when Zhang’s eyes fell to the wheelchair he elaborated. “Ah, yeah. The chair. The doctors pronounced me on the road to recovery but they don’t want me walking around and straining myself just yet. And if I black out it’s a bit harder to get hurt while in one of these than walking around.”

“It seems a wise precaution,” Zhang agreed with a nod.

“I hope I can get out of this silly chair soon, though. Makes me feel like an invalid.”

“That’s ‘cause you are one,” Lana supplied helpfully.

“Oh bite me, Jenkins.”

Whatever retort she may have supplied was interrupted by their watches beeping. Both looked down at their watches and sighed. The synchronous movements and reactions caused Zhang to raise an eyebrow, but he quickly schooled his features into careful neutrality as both looked up at him.

“Sorry, but I’m afraid we’ve got to bail. Prior obligations and all that. Helping the scientists run some tests.” Jenkins said with an apologetic smile. “We won’t be around for the rest of the day. Good luck!”

With that, the unlikely pair walked and wheeled out of the mess hall and leaving Zhang to his own thoughts. Acting on impulse, he flagged down a soldier walking by, another that he recognized from the mission he had taken part in.

“Excuse me, do you know anything about what they are taking part in?” Zhang asked the soldier, Anderson if memory served him well, as he indicated to Jenkins and Harris as they left.

“Hm? Oh those two. They volunteered for some special assignment about two weeks ago. Just about all their free time they spend working on whatever it is they’re volunteering for.”

“Is that so?” Zhang asked rhetorically as he again considered what would be necessary to earn the respect of his peers at XCOM.