• Published 2nd May 2013
  • 59,471 Views, 7,196 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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Monsters

ALIEN ABDUCTION NOT RULED OUT AS BRAZILIAN POLICE FORCES DISCOVER THE HOMES OF SEVERAL GOVT OFFICIALS ABANDONED WITH SIGNS OF STRUGGLE PRESENT. LACK OF OFFICIAL STATEMENT FROM GOVT BLAMED FOR INCREASE IN TENSION AMONG CITIZENS.

IN RARE PUBLIC APPEARANCE, JAPANESE EMPEROR ASKS FOR ORDER AND PEACE AMID TENSIONS BORN FROM RECENTLY RESOLVED US/CHINA DIPLOMATIC INCIDENT. PUBLIC POLLING STILL SHOWS GREAT AMOUNTS OF CONCERN WITH RECENT ATTACKS IN CHINA AND AROUND THE WORLD.

------

09:30, 04/29/2015, STARDUST LABS

“Just what exactly do you have in mind for ‘larger scale testing’?” Shen asked with an arched eyebrow as he regarded the others in the testing area of the Stardust lab, “Nothing dangerous, I hope?” A somewhat frigid-looking Vahlen sat at her desk scrolling through mountains of test data taken previously, while a grinning Jenkins shrugged. Twilight was the last one in the room and was content to graze on a salad bowl while the new testing plan was laid out.

“Well, we’ve done just about all the testing we can here in the lab, right? Just about every combination possible was tested on the rodents, and even with Matt and me,” Lana explained as she looked to each of the others in the room, “I’m merely suggesting we up the scale a bit.”

Vahlen’s attention was finally diverted from her tablet as Jenkins finished her thought. “That is true. We have yet to run any sort of stress test on this ‘Wallflower’ ability to determine if its effectiveness is hindered in any way based on the number of potential observers or if it has any detrimental effects on the ability’s source…” As she finished her thought she gave Twilight a pensive look.

Shen translated for Vahlen, and Twilight was already nodding. “I’m happy to help! What exactly are the conditions for testing today?” Even as she explained this, a small square of plastic wrap levitated from the desk Twilight was eating from and snugly wrapped itself around the bowl before the bowl itself flew over to the cooler in the corner. The cooler snapped open and shut like a monster gobbling up the bowl. All this occurred without Twilight so much as looking over her shoulder.

“I will never get tired of seeing you do that, Twily. I thought you had to see the stuff you were using your magic on?” Lana asked with a grin.

Twilight smiled in response and scratched one ear with a hoof before replying, “If I’m familiar with what’s around me I can move the objects around by memory. I can reorganize and reshelf the library back home in about half a minute without having to look at most of the books but I also am pretty familiar with the layout of the library.”

“Moving stuff by memory; that’s impressive! How many books do you have in your library?” Lana asked, and she pointedly ignored the now hawk-like intensity Vahlen was now paying to this conversation.

“Oh, about five hundred or so. So what’s the experiment today going to be?” Twilight asked, and her enthusiasm became mixed with trepidation as she caught the look both Shen and Jenkins were giving her, as well as Vahlen’s eyes jumping between all three. “…What? Was it something I said?”

“Oh, nothing! Nothing!” Lana quickly waved off her suspicion and started talking again before Vahlen could raise a huff about what was just said. “So, like I said, I have a plan for our tests today. You hit me with the Wallflower and I go take a walk around the base. Shen can do his voodoo on the computers so Vahlen can keep track of where I go and if anyone notices my movements. Shen can also keep you company, and if you have any problems maintaining the spell he’ll be there to record it. Matt should be by soon to help also.” As she finished her explanation she gave Twilight a wink, and was rewarded with a blush from the unicorn. I am so going to hell for this, Lana mused, but she’s just so cute when she’s like that.

“I forsee only one problem with this proposed test,” Vahlen spoke up, and all eyes turned to her, “It would be suitable for stress-testing the ability but I’m afraid you alone would not be able to test the effectiveness in this environment.” She leaned back and placed one finger on her chin as she continued, “Specifically, Lana wandering the base isn’t an uncommon enough occurrence for others she may come across to warrant their attention regardless of this ability being cast on her.”

“That’s very true. Which is why I’m afraid I’m going to need to borrow Shen’s tie and a lab coat,” Lana elaborated with her grin. As with her interaction with Twilight, she got the reactions she was expecting from both Shen and Vahlen. The former arched an eyebrow while the latter fixed her with a flat stare. “Trust me guys, I have a plan.”

After five minutes of creatively arranging the labcoat and tie and turning on her radio headset, Lana turned to her audience and asked, “So, how do I look?”

Vahlen’s response was a disbelieving shake of her head. Shen’s was a barely contained smirk. Twilight simply replied, “You look ridiculous,” before breaking down into giggles.

“Great! That’s just what I was going for! Got all the tech voodoo ready to go?” Shen responded with a nod and a thumbs up. “All right, Twily! Hit me with the good stuff!”

“All right, here goes!” Twilight declared and her horn flashed. “It’s cast. Good luck!

With that, Lana gave the thumbs up before turning and heading towards the door. She had almost reached it when the door slid open and she was forced to quickstep aside to avoid running into Matt. The other soldier entered the lab with a wave and didn’t so much as react when he passed by Lana. Sensing the opportunity, Lana hopped through the open door to begin the test.

The two guards outside the lab didn’t so much as blink an eye or glance in her direction as she walked down the hallway. Lana turned and waved, then jumped up and down and received a similar lack of reaction. Now it’s time to see just how much I can get away with.

------

09:45, 04/29/2015, MISSION CONTROL

David Bradford took a brief moment to enjoy the relative calm sight of the holographic globe hovering in the center of Mission Control. No contacts were currently detected, no operations were underway and no emergencies immediately demanded his attention. The highest priority task on Bradford’s list at this point was reviewing and approving the report to be sent to the Council in less than forty-eight hours.

After action reports and operations summaries were par for the course as well as the monthly casualty list and new recruitment reports. Of the latter list, the most noteworthy edition was one Shaojie Zhang. As with many ‘assets’ acquired during XCOM’s operations, Zhang was ‘offered’ residence and protection for the foreseeable future. Zhang’s counter proposal was surprising. Not content to simply sit in a cell, he had offered his expertise as a soldier to XCOM.

Some proficiency with firearms was to be expected, but his degree of skill is…surprising, Bradford mused as he reviewed the Chinese man’s test results. His past affiliations are still cause for concern, but if he’s sincere then he’ll become a very valuable field operative. Small arms proficiency is top notch as well as his physical conditioning. What I wasn’t expecting was his familiarity with both long rifles and explosives.

Once the scope of his skills was known, Zhang was offered a spot in XCOM officially with a marksman designation with specialty training in demolitions. From what David had heard from his unit leaders his reception among the other soldiers was somewhat frigid, but the men and women from Strike One had quickly adopted him. Zhang had also gone out of his way to volunteer for just about everything he could, including the other noteworthy part of Bradford’s end-of-month report: Stardust.

Since Bradford’s visit to the labs, no further problems had presented themselves. As promised, Doctor Vahlen had forwarded her reports and updated others where necessary to account for all the new testing that had occurred, and was acting less hostile towards the subject of her studies. ‘Cold and prickly’ was the most commonly used phrase to describe her now as opposed to ‘acidic and venomous’. Not exactly the best development but still an improvement.

The less confrontational approach had made XCOM’s guest more pliable and willing to demonstrate her abilities within the parameters set by Vahlen. The first tests had confirmed ‘wallflower’ was unable to affect digital recordings, and to Bradford’s immense but unspoken relief there was no indication that the ability had been abused to escape its habitat. Testing the inverse ability was never completed, and from the reports Bradford could only agree with that decision. If the account described by the subject could be trusted, the only time the ‘want-it need-it’ ability was used it resulted in a riot over a ragdoll.

Despite being unable to fully test the latter ability, David considered it a net gain overall. Since the incident with Stardust, he had made a point of reviewing not only the official reports but the personal notes of the associated scientists in the project. Having a somewhat less sanitized version of the official reports had proved enlightening, as the scientists tended to only submit what they could prove or observe. The testing to locate ‘Arcanite’ as a first step for artificially recreating observed abilities would no doubt make the Council extremely interested.

On the other hand, Bradford had also taken note of the descriptions of the creature that had dropped Twilight on Earth. The capabilities attributed to ‘Discord’ were disturbing, but the one that bothered Bradford was its ability to send living beings instantly to Earth. If the limitations of teleportation were accurate then Discord must have staggering amounts of power combined with current knowledge of Earth. The first was a concern for another day, but the second was more immediate. Knowledge that the Earth was under observation from one alien power was alarming once revealed, but the possibility of another only made it worse.

Speaking of making things worse… Bradford thought as he repressed a sigh and the impulse to pinch the bridge of his nose. The vast majority of abilities that Twilight herself could perform at will and upon request were no doubt going to become the focus of the Council the moment they got their hands on the reports. Equally disconcerting was her nature. After months of dealing with monstrosities like floaters and chryssalids, having an alien that acted more like a cheery intern or college student that looked like something from a kid's picture book seemed simply preposterous.

This is getting me nowhere. This time Bradford couldn’t suppress the urge to rub his forehead before he moved the Stardust research files into his to-do bin and moved on to something that made more sense.

Vahlen’s report on the artifact retrieved per the Council’s request was as thorough as he had come to expect. Her initial conclusions speculated it as some sort of beacon or communications device, one that was thankfully deactivated at the moment. Attached to her findings was Zhang’s own account of how his former employer discovered it and how he had come to possess it.

The Council’s information stated that the artifact had been the subject of a black market auction, but Zhang’s report had put a much different light on events. No auction had taken place; a buyer had contacted the criminals directly and offered them an enormous amount of money to retrieve it. Zhang had been the one given this task, and either out of loyalty to his world or out of self preservation he had contacted members of the PLA-SOF who then in turn contacted XCOM.

It was good that he had, we likely would have come in heavy to retrieve it… Bradford thought, his mind drifting to the plans XCOM had in place of the event that they would have to fight other humans.

He blinked and frowned after allowing himself to be distracted, and his gaze drifted towards the exit leading to the barracks. Something’s coming, his gut told him. The more he ignored the feeling the more important it seemed. Something’s coming.

Bradford locked his tablet and placed it on his desk before heading to the exit. A few of the command personnel looked up as he passed, but he ignored them. Whatever is coming is on the other side of that door… He crossed his arms as he approached the door and simply stared at it, as though the door would yield its secrets if he glared long enough. And, just like magic, the door opened to reveal… nothing. No, not nothing. Something’s here.

“What do you think you’re doing?” Bradford asked levelly, and was rewarded with a yelp from that ‘something.’ Jenkins stood just on the other side of the door to Mission Control after seemingly appearing from thin air. She wore a science team labcoat across her back with the sleeves tied around her neck like an impromptu cape, while a tie was wrapped around her forehead like a bandana. The extra slack of the tie was centered on her forehead and was looped and tucked back into the tie itself which draped itself down the middle of her face. Lastly, and probably the most normal addition to this bizarre outfit was a radio earpiece perched in one ear. A long moment passed as Bradford’s stare turned into a glare while Lana became white as a sheet.

The staredown was broken with a message from Bradford’s own headset. “Commander Bradford, Doctor Moira Vahlen would like to speak with you.”

“Put her through.”

“Commander, Private Jenkins is assisting us with testing in the Stardust Labs. We’ve been following her progress through the base with the security systems and have been taking notes on the effectiveness of recent discoveries. Her current… attire is part of that test,” Moira explained quickly, and Bradford arched an eyebrow. Before he could speak, Moira continued, “Thus far you are the only one who’s reacted to Jenkins’ passing in any way. What gave her presence away?”

“Nothing did, I was just acting on a hunch,” Bradford replied.

“Ah, I see,” Came the response, though its tone suggested the opposite, “Could you please send Private Jenkins back to the Stardust Labs? We have collected enough data for this particular test.”

“Will do,” Bradford maintained his glare on Jenkins for a moment longer before addressing her directly, “Doctor Vahlen wants you back at the lab.”

“Yes sir!” Jenkins said, and retreated with almost indecent haste.

------

10:00, 04/29/2015, STARDUST LABS

“Welcome back!” Twilight smiled at Lana as she reentered the lab, though her smile faded as she saw the look on Lana’s face. “Are you all right?”

The female soldier blinked and tried to smile back, “Oh no, don’t worry about me. I just about had a heart attack when I saw Bradford on the other side of the door waiting for me. I swear he can see around corners without having to look.”

“I have to admit, I enjoyed the sight of you sweating under that glare,” Matt said with a smirk, “Serves you right after all the crap I have to put up with around you.”

“It sounds almost like you’re afraid of him,” Twilight asked quietly, and was awarded with waved hands from both Matt and Lana to disregard her concerns but the expressions on their faces told another story. “Is he really that scary?”

“Well, it’s not so much that he is scary, it’s just those eyes of his,” Matt explained slowly as he chose every word. “Hell, I don’t know how to explain it. If he’s in the right mood and you’ve earned his attention then it feels like those eyes of his could crush you on the spot. Plus he has an uncanny way of knowing when things are going on. Jenkins, remember what happened last time we were out and about?”

Out and about? Twilight thought to herself and was just about to ask but she stopped herself. There’s that look. They talk about things and give that look and then they never explain what they were talking about…

“Oh I remember. Scuttlebutt says he did something similar with Strike Three and Six during their last operation, too,” Lana grumbled before untying the coat sleeves from around her neck and returning the tie to Shen. “It’s getting to the point where folks think he’s some kind of fortune teller. I wouldn’t go that far myself but that man has a knack for spotting trouble that is downright useful.”

Of all the questions this conversation was raising, what Twilight finally asked seemed trivial. “Who’s ‘Scuttlebutt?’”

“Oh, it’s slang for gossip. Rumors. You know what I mean,” Lana answered with a grin, “You know the only thing faster than light is a juicy rumor. Not literally, mind you, but we humans have a tendency to spread rumors and gossip as a pastime. You might even call it requisite behavior for us ladies.”

“How would you know what’s requisite behavior for ladies?” Matt asked with a poorly repressed smirk, “Did someone give you a list for you not to follow?” Lana’s response was a glare and a gesture that Twilight had been seeing with increasing regularity between the two. Before the banter could continue further, the door to the Lab opened. Charles and Vahlen rounded the corner of the privacy wall with large boxes in their arms.

“Do either of you need any help?” Twilight asked, and was rewarded with a somewhat strained look from Charles and a wordless shake of the head. Another few steps and both boxes were deposited on the table in the center of the lab. “What’s in the boxes?”

“Testing materials,” Charles answered as he retrieved several smaller boxes and arranged them on the table. “I had to make some withdrawals from Engineering to get some of these metals, while others had to be scavenged from the surface. I’m also afraid I can’t stay to assist as I’m needed down in Engineering. I’ve numbered the individual samples along with the checklist. I’ll also admit that some of the samples are of…dubious quality so I’ll see about getting some better samples in the next few days.” Charles gave his familiar smile and passed the clipboard to Vahlen before turning to leave.

“Let’s see, first up is plain and simple iron,” Matt picked up the first box in front of him and opened it before dumping it out on the table. A small metal bar clanged on the table and rolled towards the edge before being raised into the air with Twilight’s telekinesis, “So, anything? How can you tell if it’s close to this ‘Arcanite’?”

“To be honest I don’t quite know,” Twilight said as she floated the bar closer for her to inspect. It was completely straight down its length and lacked any of the toolmarks, though a number was inscribed on one end. “It’s been…well, millennia at least since Arcanite was used. The books I’ve read tended to have very conflicting descriptions as to just what Arcanite looked like, but all of them agreed that it produces an immediate and noticeable reaction when it comes into contact with spells. Contact with the ambient energy of the magical field is not enough, it apparently requires the structured and directed intent of spellcraft to produce the reaction.”

“Do we have any idea just what the reaction is that we’re expecting?” Lana asked with just a hint of concern. The woman gently plucked the iron bar out of the air and dropped it into its box as Matt unboxed the next sample. “It would be rather inconvenient if the reaction was something like an explosion.”

“I don’t think that would happen, or it’d be too dangerous to use,” Twilight shook her head as she grabbed the next item being offered. “While not exactly concrete evidence, Clover the Clever describes in his journal a stronghold he had built into the cave complex of a nearby mountain with crystals and stones that glowed when he cast an illumination spell to investigate it. Shortly after that entry was the first mention of his Clover Leaves which are confirmed Arcanite artifacts. So that leads me to believe it will glow if we get a match!”

The second sample proved equally mundane and Twilight passed it off to Lana to be boxed again. The third sample appeared to be metal also, though it was a twisted ball of scrap instead of a rod or block like the other two were. “Ah, Shen got this one from outside, it looks like,” Matt guessed as he offered it to Twilight.

A quick telekinetic grab brought it directly in front of Twilight to inspect. She was just about to pass it along to Lana when she saw a flicker of movement inside the twisted ball. Her curiosity won out and she brought it right up to her face to peer inside just in time for claw tipped and gore stained limbs to reach out toward her with frightening speed.

------

Matt was in the process of unboxing the next sample when two things happened in rapid succession. The first was the whistle of something moving very fast through the air close enough for Matt to feel its passing; followed by a BANG. The second was Twilight screaming.

“STAY AWAY!”

Twilight was backpedaling as quickly as she could before her flank collided with the wall behind her, and a look of unrestrained horror and fear on her face. Matt’s gaze quickly shifted to the floor where he spotted what was quite possibly the biggest spider he had ever seen. Suddenly bereft of hiding spots in a very bright room, the spider began to scuttle towards the closest shelter: Twilight.

The look on Twilight’s face morphed from horror into desperation as the bug zipped across the floor towards her. Her horn glowed with a dangerous amount of magic before she disappeared in a flash. Lana was already on the move as she slammed the open end of the box down on the would-be intruder.

“Little bastard is quick, and it’d sure as hell scare the shit out of me if it jumped right into my eye like that,” Lana grumbled before looking at Matt. “You alright?”

“Sure, why wouldn’t I be?” Matt asked with an arched eyebrow. Lana pointed to the wall behind him and he turned to see the last sample embedded a good two inches into the wall. He looked back to where Twilight had previously been and put two and two together. Jesus Christ she almost took my head off with that.

“Perhaps one of you should check on Twilight?” Vahlen unexpectedly suggested as she strode over to the new wall decoration and prodded it with the stylus from her datapad. “She seems… unstable.”

“Perhaps you should go, Matt? I’ve got to get this trespasser transported to secure holding,” Lana suggested, and Matt narrowed his eyes at that. I know that tone, she’s planning something.

Any further suspicion was derailed as he caught sight of the spider crawling up the desk beside Lana despite the fact that she hadn’t moved the box since she had first contained it. “Jenkins, you suck at guard duty.” He pointed behind her and was rewarded with another string of profanity as the female soldier turned to find the spider six inches from her face. Rather than stay and enjoy the sight of Lana repeatedly slamming the box on the wall while the spider desperately evaded, Matt decided to bite the bullet and headed towards Twilight’s habitat.

The lighting in the habitat was on its lowest setting, but Matt could easily make out Twilight’s form huddled on the bed, wrapped in blankets and shaking slightly. The gentle sounds of sobbing could be heard, and Matt hesitated. The last time she was like this was after Vahlen’s initial testing and only Shen could get through to her. But he’s not here and I am, so… “Twilight? Are you okay?”

Matt half expected no response at all or commands to leave her alone as before, but when the response came it surprised him. “No. No I’m not.”

A long moment of silence passed before Matt made his way over to the bed and sat at its foot while Twilight scooted to the head of the bed while wrapping herself up in the blankets and giving her the appearance of a caterpillar. “Do you want to talk about it?” He asked gently.

“It…it was just like before,” Twilight answered hesitantly, “Those legs, and it coming toward me…I-I--”

Ah, I get it now, Matt thought as the pieces came together. Damned spider gave her flashbacks with the Chryssalid. “I understand, Twilight. You’ve been through some really scary things, and it takes time for those memories to fade. I don’t have any special trick for making those memories go away besides time. My best recommendation would be to take a nap and maybe we can talk about it later tonight if you’re up for it?”

Twilight’s head emerged from the covers and turned to face Matt and he had to resist the impulse to look away. Her eyes were wide and filled with tears and guilt, and she nearly screamed, “That won’t make it better! When I first found myself on Earth, I panicked and I…I…” The next word seemed to catch in her throat but as soon as it was free the flood opened, “I killed someone, and I almost did it again to that little spider! Princess Celestia has never had to kill anyone, ever, but I have! I’m a murderer, a monster, and time won’t make that go away!” With those last words Twilight fell silent but she continued to stare at Matt as though she was expecting him to condemn her.

Matt couldn’t hold her gaze any longer and he looked away. Twilight began to sob silently as the moment stretched on for several minutes.

“Twilight, I don’t think I ever told you this but I was a soldier in my country’s army before I came to work here. I signed up because of family tradition and all that. Dad was in the army, his dad was and so on,” Matt paused to check on Twilight. The occasional shake of her shoulders passed through her but her eyes were once again on him. “Signed up right out of high school and went through boot like it was nothing. Was high on all the puffedup talk the recruiters gave me. Serve your country. Dad’s approval didn’t hurt either; he was pleased as punch when I made the decision.”

“The moment we got out of boot, we got shipped out to the desert to help one of our allies there get their crap in order. There was some sort of regime change where the old guard didn’t take kindly to being replaced and was doing its best to make everyone’s life hell because of it. They even got some religious leader to declare the new government as not approved by their god and instigated a revolt. Army got sent in to try and capture the troublemakers so that peace could be restored.”

Matt leaned forward and dropped his elbows onto his knees and clasped his hands before his face as he dredged up more of the story. “So me and my buddies get thrown into this mess in the desert, each and every one of us is expecting to be big damn heroes and save the day for this little corner of the world. We get a message that one of the ringleaders of the rebellion is holed up in this little town in the heart of the rebel lines. So we head into the town quietly to try and get this guy before he can raise the alarm and escape. No muss, no fuss.”

“I was in the tail position covering our rear so no one could sneak up on us, when I see someone come out of one of the buildings behind us with a weapon,” Matt paused to take a deep breath and tried to swallow the lump that had made its way into the back of his throat. “It was a kid, maybe twelve or thirteen years old. No older than my sister back home; really skinny and underfed, too, but carrying a gun that could have killed me or any of my friends. I stayed in cover and prayed that he would just turn and go back into the house and live another day.”

“But that stupid kid saw us and raised his gun, and I shot him. Triple tap, center mass and he was dead before he hit the ground,” A gasp from Twilight gave Matt a moment of pause and he closed his eyes. “I never wanted to kill that kid. Never. But he had been told the devil was coming to town and it was his duty to defend it. Once he saw us, someone was going to die. It could have been me, it could have been my friends. Or I could choose for it to be him. There isn’t a day that goes by where I don’t remember that scared look in that kid's eyes, or how close he came to shooting us. I regret that he had to be shot; no kid should die that young, but…”

Matt took another long breath and looked to Twilight and tried to force a comforting smile, “Had I not shot him, I would be dead. My friends would be dead. And that’s the only reason I shot him. I did it to defend myself and others. When we first found you, Twilight, you were defending yourself from imminent death and that thing you killed would have killed more people afterward. I know it will be hard, but every time you feel guilty about what you’ve done I want you to try and remember all the lives you saved because of it. Starting with your life.”

Matt’s brotherly instincts took over and one hand reached over to pat Twilight on the shoulders, and Twilight’s reaction was unexpected. She half-launched, half stumbled out of her blankets and latched on to the soldier in a hug and began sobbing again while mumbling apologies over and over again into his chest.

WhatdoIdo? WhatdoIdo? Matt’s mind screamed at him as he suppressed a manly yelp as well as the urge to flail at the unexpected contact. Stardust policy regarding physical contact with Twilight had been strict: None unless invited by Twilight and even then only if you were comfortable with it. He tried to scoot out of her grasp but she clung all the tighter to him. I can’t just push her away or she'll have another breakdown... rargh, whatdoIdo? With escape no longer an option, he hesitantly patted her on the shoulders.

And just then, the door to the habitat opened.

“I finally got that little son of a--,” Lana started, and she waved a small glass jar with the spider in it. The female soldier froze though as she fully comprehended the scene before her. A grin slowly appeared and extended from ear to ear before she finally spoke, “Pardon the interruption. Please continue.” With that, she turned and walked out of the habitat.

------

10:30, 04/29/2015, B3F CORRIDOR

“You know it’s so sweet how you two ended up together. You tased her, kept her prisoner with a secret military organization, then got to know each other better. It’s the classic love story,” Lana said whimsically as she followed Matt down the corridor.

Matt had to resist the urge to facepalm.

------

11:07, 04/29/2015, MESS HALL

“You should really see this as a positive endorsement of your character, Matt,” Lana continued despite the mashed potatoes ' desperate attempts to keep coherent speech from leaving her mouth. “All the guys out there say they care about a woman’s mind but how often do they mean it? It’s all about the body in the end but not for you, eh?”

Matt ignored her as best he could and finished his meal.

------

12:45, 04/29/2015, REC ROOM

“…or maybe you aren’t such a good guy after all? Perhaps you no longer consider us mundane women a challenge to woo anymore?” Lana’s grin became impish, “You see a girl who’s one of a kind and you just have to sweep her off her… feet. Am I right?”

Matt snapped the book he had been reading shut and left the room with Lana hot on his heels.

------

13:30, 04/29/2015, FIRING RANGE

“You know, I bet we could arrange for some private time for the two of you. Vahlen might disapprove because she isn’t getting any but I’m sure the others wouldn’t mind as long as you tell them it’s for science! Besides, a girl’s got needs she needs satisfied.” Lana’s grin had grown to Cheshire cat levels as she loaded bullets into her pistol clip. “Say, how do you think she likes it? I bet—“

Any further words she might have said were drowned out as Matt raised his pistol with almost indecent haste and fired.

BAM

BAM

“—likes it when you---“

BAM

BAM

“—with your hands down—“

BAM

BAM

BAM

BAM

“—though you might need to tape something on the door. There’s no doorknob so socks are out.”

------

13:50, 04/29/2015, PT LOCKERS

Matt stopped in front of the men’s locker room and turned to glare at Lana, who was still following him with her Cheshire cat grin. “I’ve got physical therapy and a checkup with the doctors to make sure that I’m one hundred percent. If you follow me in there I swear to god I will drop you.”

Lana let out a theatrical exaggerated sigh before shrugging. “Fiiiiiine. Enjoy your brief respite!” With those parting words she headed back down the hallway.

The moment the door closed behind him Matt let out a sigh of relief. The silence of the locker room was immediately having a positive effect on his sanity as he headed towards his locker. One hand pulled the door open while the other began to strip off his shirt but he stopped as he caught sight of what was pinned to the inside door of the locker.

A three-sheet picture of Twilight laying on her bed and looking back at the picture taker was hanging on the door in pin-up style, complete with suggestive-looking eyes captured no doubt with a high-speed camera mid-blink. Written down at the bottom in black ink were the words, “For my strapping stallion! – Twilight Sparkle.”

“JENKINS!” Matt screamed as he slammed the locker shut and stormed out of the locker room.

------

13:52, 04/29/2015, REC ROOM

“Oh hey, that was quick!” Lana grinned at Matt as she saw him enter the Rec Room. “Did they not give you the green light?” Lana gasped dramatically before adding, “Don’t tell me that your wound has made you impotent! Why, that would be a crushing—“

“Jenkins, what the hell do you think you’re doing!?” Matt ground out as quietly as he could. Despite his best efforts to keep the conversation private, the other off-duty soldiers in the room were paying more than a little attention to the pair especially after Lana spoke. “Follow me, now.”

Lana’s further jokes were cut off as she followed Matt out into the relatively empty corridor. “Jesus, man, what’s the deal? Did they seriously say you were impo—“

“You know what the deal is. Now I can stomach your little pranks and harassment, but putting pictures of highly classified material in the locker room as part of your pranks is too much. What if others had been in the room when I had opened the door?” Lana opened her mouth to say something but quickly shut it to restrain whatever response she was generating. “And do you know why Twilight reacted the way she did? Did you even care to consider it?”

“…Because spiders are creepy as hell, especially when one jumps in your face?”

“That spider gave her a flashback of the Chryssalid that nearly killed her during her first five minutes on Earth, and she was breaking down because she nearly killed the spider because of it,” Matt hissed quickly. “Think about it, you lackwit! Everything where she’s from talks and has family, and when she killed the Chryssalid she thought that she was murdering someone’s father or brother or son. It’s ridiculous to you and me but she believes she did something completely unforgivable. Do you remember that feeling? Your first kill? Or are you actually a sociopath? Honestly your behavior makes me wonder.”

Lana’s expression sobered as Matt continued his quiet rant, and she looked away and replied quietly, “I’d rather not talk about it.”

“Oh, hell no, you don’t get to pull that crap.”

“…It was with a shotgun and I was twelve. He was trying to kill my mom.”

Oh…hell. Lana’s equally quiet reply doused the anger Matt was feeling instantly. I know I’m going to regret asking, but… “Where was your dad?”

Lana smiled again but there was none of the joy or mischief usually found in it as she replied, “Who do you think I was shooting at?”

A long moment passed between the two as the conversation atrophied and died, but Lana rallied first. “Okay, you win, I’ll stop bugging you about this for now. Deal?”

“Deal,” Matt agreed and turned back towards the locker rooms. He had almost rounded the corner before Jenkins got the last shot in.

“Our truce doesn’t mean I can’t tease her about it, though!”

------

20:32, 04/29/2015, STARDUST LABS

Twilight had taken Matt’s advice and slept for a while after he had left. Admitting to what she had done combined with Matt’s own admissions had left her drained and sleep claimed her quickly. Despite the content of their conversation, Twilight was able to sleep soundly and without the nightmares that had plagued her.

And just as Matt had predicted, she woke up feeling much better. The lingering guilt she had been feeling about the event was still present but she forced herself to go over the events again in her head and address just what had happened. That thing killed three humans, one of which was a child. Then it tried to kill me! I was defending myself…but I killed it! Eye for an eye punishment went out at the end of Solaria’s reign, because it killed doesn’t mean it deserved to be killed. But…it would have kept killing unless it was stopped. People’s lives were saved…

NO! Twilight shook her head vigorously as she clamped down on that line of thought. Coming up with good reasons to kill opens up opportunities for bad reasons to kill. Death can never be justified. I just hope it can be forgiven. Thoughts of Celestia’s or even Fluttershy’s reactions came to mind, and she immediately cringed at that.

Wordlessly she rose and walked over to the desk and brought a sheet of paper and pen to bear. Even if I can never send it I need to write a letter explaining everything that happened. Maybe, somehow Celestia will receive it and forgive me.

Before the pen could come in contact with the paper, the door to her habitat opened to reveal Charles and Joel. “Good evening, Twilight, I hope we haven’t interrupted you.”

“Oh no, no interruption! What’s up? It’s a bit late for your usual visits I think.” Twilight asked as she turned to face the two men after setting the pen down on the paper.

“It is a bit late, but there’s an experiment that we would like your help with,” Joel explained, “It’s actually for a line of research that we had no luck with in the past, but with your help I’m confident we can make a breakthrough on this. So, are you up for it?”

“I’ll do my best!” Twilight nodded and hopped off her chair to follow the two men out. “So, what will I be helping with?” She asked after a slight moment of hesitation when both men exited the lab and motioned for her to follow. To her surprise both Matt and Lana were waiting outside also except they now wore what appeared to be heavy vests and hats combined with a belt filled with little gadgets. Matt strode forward to the head of their little group while Lana stayed back in the tail position in a similar manner as their visit to the cavern several days earlier.

“It’s something only you can help us with, Twilight. I’m afraid I can’t elaborate any further until we get to our destination. I’m sorry.” Joel apologized, “I can tell you that the ability we’ll need your help with is one you’ve used several times in the past, and if this pans out then it might save lives in the long run.”

The possibility of saving lives caught Twilight’s attention immediately, and she latched onto it. “Oh, okay! If it helps then I’m happy to do anything I can.” I just wish he could tell me what I’ll be doing…

Any further speculation was interrupted by Charles leaning down and whispering, “Twilight, I’ve also been meaning to apologize about what happened to you in the lab. The engineers were a little lax when they were checking what they picked up. Trust me, it won’t happen again.”

“Thank you, Charles, but you don’t need to apologize. I just… overreacted a bit.” The unicorn grinned sheepishly and looked up to the engineer, “I would greatly appreciate no further surprises like that, though. I don’t think my heart can take it.”

“Speaking of which, I also wanted to apologize for not being there to help after that incident. I understand Matt did a good job in helping smooth things over?”

“He did. We talked about some things that have been bothering me and then—“ I hugged him “Nothing happened! Nope! Nothing at all!” Just as Twilight started to feel relaxed and recovered from the day’s events, she realized just what she had done. To Matt. The human who thought she was cute.

“What’s that, Twily? I didn’t quite catch that last part. Care to repeat it?” Lana heckled from behind, and Twilight whipped around with a glare and a glowing horn. Anything else the female soldier might have said could no longer be heard. Her mouth moved but no sound came forth, a fact that she noticed very quickly. Lana began to stomp her feet and clap her hands and no further sound could be heard.

“Did you just mute Lana?” Matt asked from the head of the formation as he looked over his shoulder.

“Well, I suppose I did. It’s a sound dampening spell, no sound that originates from within the vicinity of the spell can be heard outside of it.” Twilight explained quickly.

“And can she hear us?”

“She should…”

“You hear that, Lana? I’ve finally found a way to shut you up!” Lana’s response, naturally, was the gesture that Twilight was becoming all too familiar with. “You’re amazing, Twilight. Has anyone told you that recently?”

“Um…not recently,” Twilight admitted as she looked to the side and tried to force her face to not get so red. The realization that she was failing badly caused her to divert attention by changing the subject, “What does that gesture mean? The one that Lana keeps using?”

This time it was Matt’s turn to look sheepish. “It, ah, it means ‘I am extremely displeased with you or your behavior’.” He shrugged after signaling the group to cross the next intersection. “It’s something that’s subject to interpretation.”

Twilight was just about to ask just what kind of interpretations when they approached another door. This looks familiar… but all these doors and hallways look familiar.

The group stopped by the door and Charles turned to Twilight with a comforting smile. “The experiment will be in the next room. We’ll all be in there with you, but if you feel uneasy or want to quit just let one of us know and we can go back to your room.”

“Okay…” Twilight agreed, and her anxiety increased just a bit as Joel turned and pressed a button on the door to open it. The room beyond had several rows of desk, but the centerpiece of the room was a giant illuminated section on the far side of the room, with a curved glass divider keeping it separated from the rest. Like a prison cell… Twilight sucked in a breath as she remembered the room, that room where this whole series of events started.

Charles was right beside Twilight as he noticed her reaction, “You won’t be going back in the cell, Twilight, I guarantee it. There’s something we need your help with inside the room though, and we’ll be with you the whole way. Are you still up for it?”

Twilight gulped and seriously considered going back, but the expectant looks from both Charles and Joel stopped her. She once again looked into the room and took note of Kim and Vahlen as well. Kim waved at the group as they loitered at the door, while Vahlen’s expression was rather neutral. “I’m alright. I can do this.”

“I’m very glad to hear that. Let's head on in, then,” Charles nodded as he rose to lead the group in. The door closed behind them and Twilight once again looked at the illuminated cell she had woke up in, and she gasped. She had missed him the first time around, but now that she was closer she could see a human male standing in the center of the cell. He was tall, or at least he looked tall from this distance, and was extremely thin. He was clothed in a blue business suit and a red tie, and wore gold-framed circular-lens sunglasses that hid his eyes.

As the group approached closer, Twilight couldn’t help but revise her opinion. If the humans she had seen were average then the person in the cell was far too thin to be healthy or anatomically possible, plus his limbs seemed to have incorrect proportions as well. Lastly, creeping up along the neckline of the suit’s shirt was what appeared to be scales.

“What’s he doing in there?” Twilight asked timidly.

“Twilight, this is one of the invaders that threatens our world. It was created specifically to blend in with other humans and spread fear wherever it goes,” Joel started to explain, but caught himself as he heard Twilight speak.

“Changeling,” The unicorn gasped and she took a step back, “It’s a changeling?”

“Not quite, at least not in the manner you’ve described. This one was created specifically to look like us and it cannot assume any other form. What makes this one unique is that it appears to have the capacity for vocal communication, whereas the other invaders appear to communicate using telepathy or other methods.” Joel explained before drawing in a breath and posing the question, “Twilight, can you cast your translation spell on this creature so that we can try to speak with it?”

Twilight couldn’t help but gulp in apprehension as she eyed the fake human standing in the cell before her. So far it hadn’t even moved from its ramrod straight posture or so much as glanced in any direction other than straight forward. Is this what the humans are fighting against? She asked herself, if I can help them speak to it then maybe all this fighting can end!

“Yes, I can do this!” Twilight said, more certain than ever that it was the right thing to do. The humans around her stepped aside and she cast her translation magic upon the fake human in the cell.

A few moments passed before Joel stepped directly in front of the cell and asked loudly, “Can you hear me? Do you understand me now?”

The fake human slowly reached up and plucked the glasses from its face to reveal vertical pupils and yellow reptilian eyes. Those eyes didn’t spare a moment’s attention on Joel, or Charles or any others. Those eyes focused entirely on Twilight. Again Joel asked a question and again it was ignored. Joel’s repeated attempts at communication were ignored, so Twilight asked, “Um…hello?”

"DIE!"

The moment the first syllable left her mouth, the fake human screamed and shot forward and punched the glass. Its face curled into a snarl and it screamed again, “DIE!” It continued to punch the glass and the bones in its hand snapped with a sickening crunch.

The injuries didn't stop it from screaming further threats and mutilating its fists against the glass before Charles shouted, “Close the shutters, now!” Joel hastily complied and segmented sheets of metal fell into place around the glass cage to hide the fake human from view. The last thing Twilight saw were those reptilian eyes glaring furiously at her before they too disappeared.

“Wh-why would he say that? Why would he do that?” Twilight looked to Charles, then Joel, then the others. “Why? Why would anyone say that to anyone else?” Why? How could anypony wish for such harm to come to others? Twilight asked herself as no answers came from the others. The thought that a being could wish so much harm on others simply for seeing them was too much for her to fathom.

“I don’t know, Twilight. I wish I did, but I don’t know.”

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