• Published 2nd May 2013
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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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Containment

ATTACK ON CAPITOL THWARTED, ALIEN PRESENCE CONFIRMED BY MULTIPLE WITNESSES DESPITE DENIALS BY POLS.

EYEWITNESS ACCOUNTS DESCRIBE UNIDENTIFIED ARMED FORCES BATTLING ALIENS IN WASHINGTON DC; RETRIEVING BODIES OF ALIENS. GOVT SPOKESMAN DENIES REPORTS AS CONSPIRACY THEORIES.

------

18:02, 04/02/15, XCOM HQ, Underground Hangar

Commander Bradford met the Skyrangers the moment they landed, a tablet in his hand with the mission data readily available. As soon as the ramps hit the deck, the underground hangar exploded into motion as maintenance crews boiled out of the pits to tend to the transports. The medical team met the squad as it disembarked from the Skyrangers, and the commander was pleased to see that they were mostly intact.

Corporal Harris, Sergeant Dryzimski and Lieutenant Fowler all were untouched, and Private Jenkins’ armor was scorched by no less than four near misses. Jenkins' helmet was in her hands, warped from a fifth near miss that almost decapitated her. Judging by her silly grin, she was unharmed. Privates Lee and Anderson suffered the most; both had taken bad hits from the invaders and weren’t able to make it out of the Skyranger under their own power. After a cursory check on the first four, the medical team stormed up the ramp to check on the remainder.

Bradford stood with his hands behind his back and his tablet held behind him, his gaze locked onto Harris until the corporal noticed the attention and made his way over. Harris snapped a quick salute, which Bradford returned with equal crispness. “At ease, and great work out there corporal. Doctor Vahlen conveys her thanks as well for the live capture.”

“Thank you, sir,” Harris afforded himself a tired smile as he turned to regard the second Skyranger’s ramp descend and the recovery team began unloading what it had collected from the capitol. The ‘unicorn’ was sealed inside a metal container and was slowly being lifted from the cargo bay for transport to containment for interrogation. “I am regretting the name choice, though.”

Bradford smiled at that and chuckled, “No time for regrets, corporal. It’s part of the official record now.” The naming convention adopted by the XCOM organization was rather simple: He who spots it, names it. ‘Floaters’ and ‘thin men’ were labeled for obvious reasons, the former for being flight capable and the latter for being thin as a rail. ‘Sectoids’ and ‘Chryssalids’ came from horror movies with similar monsters. ‘Unicorn’ seemed a little too warm and fuzzy considering what they were up against. Of course, looks can be deceiving, Bradford thought as he presented the tablet to the corporal.

“I’ve been reviewing the footage from your armor cam, but I’d like to hear exactly what happened from you…”

-------

Transcript of security footage, Alien Containment, XCOM HQ

WARNING: Access to this file is RESTRICTED to personnel with TOP SECRET clearance or above. Attempts to access this file without authorization will be reviewed and be grounds for TERMINATION AND/OR PROSECUTION. Distribution of this file may only be done with authorization from Cmdr. David Bradford, failure to provide authorization will result in TERMINATION AND/OR PROSECUTION.

Person(s) identified within footage:
Dr. Moira Vahlen (V)– Lead Researcher
Dr. Joel Mills (M) – Assistant Researcher, Xenobiology
Dr. Kim Ngo (N) – Assistant Researcher, Behavioral Sciences
Subject 05 ‘Unicorn’ (U)

TIMESTAMP: 18:20, 04/02/15

(V) -- “This subject is an interesting break from the previous conventions seen with other alien troops, despite their lack of consistency.”
--“Specimens encountered thus far have had very specific roles in mind, infiltration, rapid movement, even indiscriminate terror weapons. All are uniformly violent, obviously bred for combat and closest Earth analogs are reptilian or insect-based organisms.”
--“This subject differs from those conventions at least physically, as we are unable to determine behavioral patters until the subject wakes. Its physical appearance is quite colorful, with the majority of its body covered in lavender hair—“

(M) – “Coat, Doctor.”

(V) – “…the creature’s coat appears to be lavender, while the creature appears to sport both a tail and…”

(M) – “Mane, Doctor.”

(V) – “…mane of a darker hue. Three noteworthy features include what appears to be a complex pattern appearing on both sides of the subject’s posterior…”

(M) – “Flank, Doctor.”

(V) – “Doctor Mills, may I ask why we are using revised terminology for discussing this subject?”

(M) – “Given the specimen’s similarity to equine analogs, I felt that terms for those particular animals would be more accurate than previous verbiage.”

(V) – “…Very astute, doctor. I understand you grew up around such animals? Perhaps you would like to continue the physical assessment, given your familiarity with the terminology and biology.”

(M) – “My pleasure.”

**Dr. Vahlen steps back to allow Dr. Mills to study Subject 05 through the glass**

(M) – “Continuing Doctor Vahlen’s summation, the subject has a very distinct and complex pattern on each flank. As far as the naked eye can tell, they’re identical and aren’t the result of branding or tattoos. Again, with the naked eye it appears the pattern is part of its coat, though chemical analysis can tell if it is natural or dye. Doctor Ngo, speculation on its meaning?”

**Dr. Ngo steps forward to survey the mark on Subject 05, and compares it with pictures on her tablet**

(N) – “Rank or proficiency of a given skill set, first guess. Perhaps the number of ‘stars’ indicates its place in the alien hierarchy… I doubt that since this mark appears to be unique to this specimen. Second guess would be identification of sorts.”

(M) – “Thank you for your input. On the subject of colors, the subject’s tail and mane both have streaks of different shades of purple that are uniform from the root all the way to the tip, almost like what you see the kids have these days. Without chemical analysis we can only speculate on its origins.
-- “The other major physiological trait is a six inch horn protruding from the specimen’s forehead, conical with a slight spiral. This likely led to the strike team designating this as a…unicorn.”

**All three doctors share a grin**

** Subject 05 shows signs of regaining consciousness **

(V) – “Ah, it seems our guest is finally recovering from the Arc Thrower bolt in the field. I am surprised it hasn’t recovered sooner, even Sectoids revived quickly and had to be…further subdued.”

** Subject 05 awakens fully and stands unsteadily. It turns in a circle to survey its holding cell before turning to face the assembled doctors **

(N) – “Your previous assessment is proving correct regarding aggressive tendencies, Moira. Everything else we’ve put in the cell would be bouncing off the walls by now. Large, expressive eyes…almost human-like affect. Rather curious indeed.”

** Subject 05 taps the glass enclosure with one limb **

(U) – [unintelligible]

(N) – “Fascinating…I wonder if it can understand us.”

(M) – “I’m just glad it isn’t screaming bloody murder like the floaters.”

(V) – “We aren’t here to stare at it or let it do the same to us. Now that the subject is awake we can begin the interrogation.”

** Doctor Vahlen activates the controls to Subject 05’s cell. Interrogation assemblies emerge from their housings in the walls. Subject 05 notices the assemblies as they unfold and reach towards it. Subject 05 becomes extremely agitated and begins to strike the glass **

(U) – [unintelligible]

(N) – “I…don’t think I need to be here for this.”

** Dr Ngo turns to leave, Drs Vahlen and Mills remain. Dr Mills shifts from foot to foot and looks away from the cell. Subject 05’s attacks against the glass become frantic as the assembly armatures power up and come within reach. **

(M) – “Can we turn the audio off?”

(V) – “…as you wish, Doctor. Wait, what’s it—“

** Subject 05’s horn glows white and vanishes from within the cell. Security cameras reacquire Subject 05 within the lab itself, behind Drs Vahlen and Mills. **

Public Address System – “Security breach, Alien Containment lab. Initiating lock-down procedures, security detail has been notified.”

(U) – [unintelligible]

(M) – “Oh shit, it’s loose!”

(V) – “Get out, now!”
------

Twilight woke with the most thorough body ache she had ever experienced in addition to a horn-splitting headache. She slowly opened her eyes and immediately wished she hadn’t. Wherever she was, it was painfully white, which didn’t help her headache at all. For a brief moment the unicorn wondered if she was in Cloudsdale, but the impossibly hard floor ruled that out.

Slowly but surely Twilight got her hooves beneath her and slowly opened her eyes. The stark white walls greeted her as things began to focus around her. She turned in place and found one wall was made entirely of glass, and three bipeds were looking at her with clinical detachment.

“Hello? Can you hear me?” Twilight asked as she tapped a hoof on the glass. She saw the mouth of one move, and the other replied. The third maintained an icy-cold stare at Twilight and interrupted the others. With one digit (akin to a dragon’s claw but far more lengthy and slender) the third prodded something on the desk on the other side of the glass.

A series of loud metal clanks sounded behind Twilight, and she turned to see two metal limbs unfold and point towards her and extend two hoof-like objects. Both began to glow and crackle with energy as they moved forward, and Twilight knew that they would hurt her badly if they came too close.

“Please let me out!” Twilight yelled as she pounded on the glass frantically. She met the eyes of one of the bipeds, who turned and walked away. “Please let me out! PLEASE!” The unicorn screamed, not daring to look behind her. Another of the bipeds turned away, while the third maintained that icy stare. She could feel those two hooves almost upon her flank, and the fight or flight instinct kicked in. Despite her headache, she pulled all the magic she could to her to lash out against the arms reaching towards her and the magic came down, crushing the bug flat against the stone and spraying yellow blood everywhere. Twilight reeled from the memory and found she was unable to attack. With so much magic gathered and waiting to be spent, the second instinct took over: flight.

Teleporting was an order of magnitude more strenuous than the telekinetics Twilight had in mind, and she felt as though her horn was on fire as she recovered from it even though it was only out of the cell and into the next room and on top of one of the desks. The strain of the teleport combined with the stress of the day so far plus an unfortunately placed stack of papers caused Twilight to trip and upend the desk, scattering its contents everywhere. “Owowowow!”

Unfortunately for the beleaguered unicorn, a disembodied voice and sirens began to shout from all directions, and the bipeds sprinted for the only exit to the room. The first ducked to avoid the rapidly closing door which reminded Twilight uncomfortably of closing jaws while the last had to dive through. The moment the door closed, the blaring sirens and lights winked out and Twilight found herself in complete darkness, which did little to help her state of mind.

One stumble later and crash of office supplies later convinced the haggard unicorn to stop and take a deep breath. “Okay, Twilight, let’s take this nice and slow. One hoof at a time,” she muttered to herself, and the first step caused something fragile to crunch under her hoof. “Great.”

Several long moments passed in the dark while Twilight simply breathed in and out. As her heart rate returned to normal the throbbing pain in her horn gradually subsided. Once it had gone down to a more ignorable level, the unicorn cast a simple light spell to chase away the darkness. The room once again became visible, the white walls dyed violet by Twilight’s magic, and she was quick to notice she was in the epicenter of various trinkets and baubles she couldn’t recognize and a blizzard of papers scattered about. One desk was on its side while the other was knocked out of alignment with the rest in the row.

In spite of all the unanswered questions she had and the horrors her sheltered mind had experienced so recently, the sight of such a mess around her suddenly seemed much more important. It. Needed. To. Be. Organized.

A simple act of brute force telekinesis righted the upended desk and moved the other back into alignment, while more finesse scooped up all the debris on the floor. Twilight did not know what any of the objects did but she organized them by size and shape on one of the now empty desk anyway. The language printed on the paper wasn’t anything the unicorn knew so she was unable to organize that in any meaningful way, so she elected to stack it on the table as well. So obsessively perfect was the stack that a casual observer might mistake it for a solid block. Somewhere along the way Twilight began to hum the tune to Winter Wrap-up, and she found she didn’t want to stop as she continued.

With the list of things to organize rapidly diminishing, Twilight’s gaze fell upon the object she had accidentally crushed. It was a small thing, made of a light-weight material she had never seen before that was unfortunately smashed to shards. In the epicenter of the shards was a hollow tube filled with a black liquid…ink! The moment the familiar smell reached her snout she gave a delighted squeal and scooped up all the remains of the crushed object and whisked it over to the desk.

Further analysis of the plastic tube showed that it ended in a metal tip with a ball embedded in it, and drawing the ball-tip across a surface pulled the ink out in an even amount. “That’s…genius! Why didn’t I think of this earlier? It’s a quill and an ink well in one!” Investigation of the shards matched one of the many objects now neatly organized on the desk, which she plucked from its place with her telekinetics.

She scrutinized every detail and started to disassemble it, but was interrupted as the lights came back on and the door began to open. Twilight was gone from the desk in the blink of an eye, peeking out from under another desk to spy upon whatever nightmare was coming for her.

------

The XCOM facility was staffed with the best and brightest minds on Earth, and its soldiers were poached from the best armed forces from around the globe. The training of every person in the organization was determined by their specialty but every person, from the commanding officer down to the cooks, received a course on what to do in the event of invasion by hostile forces…or containment failure of a live capture.

Commander Bradford was silently pleased at the rapid deployment of the base’s soldiers. Every intersection and all access points he had come across thus far were covered by a rifleman in a bulletproof vest, though the clothes under the armor varied wildly. Most were on-rotation and in their casual uniforms while a few others were in exercise sweats and sleepwear. A couple of unlucky souls were soaked to the bone and in wet clothes, having obviously been interrupted while in the shower. If it inconvenienced them in any way, they hid it well as Bradford passed. None of the soldiers saluted him or did more than give him a nod as he passed, which was also a good sign. If an X-Ray was loose, no one wanted to be anything less than one hundred percent ready.

Bradford rounded the corner and entered the corridor heading towards Containment and again was impressed by the level of quick-thinking his soldiers possessed. The four uninjured soldiers from the mission earlier in the day were covering the door from various angles and all were still in their full combat armor. Jenkins covered the door to Containment from the open doorway of the engineering workshop next door with her shotgun while Harris knelt in the opposite doorway which led to the base’s powerplant. Dryzimski lay prone in the hallway with his LMG on its bipod while Fowler knelt beside him. Fowler was the first to notice Bradford’s approach, and after giving the Dryzimski a tap on the shoulder she rose to speak with the commander.

“We got here within 30 seconds of the alert; there’s been no activity since. The doctors are in the workshop, and Shen is patching surveillance feeds there as well.” With the situation summarized, the lieutenant resumed her previous position beside the machine gunner and trainer her rifle on the door and Bradford headed into the workshop. The three researchers were huddled together, and Shen tapped away at a computer terminal.

“Doctors, what happened?” Bradford asked sternly once it became apparent that none were injured enough for his interrogation to wait. “Alert was for containment breach but there is no way for the cell to be opened from the inside. Did it break out?”

Doctor Ngo shrugged and stepped to the side, uncomfortable under the baleful gaze of the commander. Doctor Vahlen however, rose to the occasion despite looking pale as a ghost. “The subject revived and we were beginning the interrogation procedure. The subject began to resist, much like the others we have ‘hosted’ before it. There was a flash of light from within the cell, and then it was outside the cell. The cell wasn’t broken as far as I could surmise but I will admit my concern at that point was to escape the lab and avoid being imprisoned with the creature.”

Bradford looked to Doctor Mills, who had just opened his mouth to add his own account when Shen interrupted, “Security footage has been routed to this terminal. Footage of the event is playing…now.” All those in attendance huddled around the monitor, and events played out just as Vahlen described. A flash of light too brilliant for the cameras to record engulfed the ‘unicorn’, and a corresponding flash of light appeared in the lab itself. The creature floundered on top of a desk and scattered its contents as well as knocking it over before diving for cover behind another desk.

A long moment of silence passed between the doctors and the commander before he remembered the tablet in his hand with the combat data from the mission the unicorn was retrieved from. He flew through the reports and casualty lists and settled on several still images from the armor camera of Corporal Harris.

“Harris, Bradford. Any activity?”

“No, sir. No activity from the door since we got here,” came the quick reply. “Problems?”

“Still determining that. Meet me in the workshop, ASAP.”

Only a few moments passed before the corporal tabbed his way over to the huddled group with his helmet in one hand, looking a bit unsure of himself. “Sir?”

Bradford motioned for the corporal to view the footage of the escape, then the still photo on the tablet, which depicted the unicorn backpedaling furiously with the same light present ahead of it. “Corporal, what happened in this picture? Did it do the same thing that we saw in the lab?”

Harris looked even less sure of himself and cleared his throat. “When I ran into the x-ray in the parking lot it was backing away from one of the Chryssalids, and the bug looked hell bent on tearing it to pieces.”

Doctor Ngo scoffed and cut in. “Chryssalids might attack indiscriminately but they completely ignore the other invaders and only target humans. Are you sure about what you saw, Corporal?” The doctor’s doubt was quickly quieted by Bradford's baleful glare for interrupting and the soldiers flat ‘are you serious?’ look.

“The x-ray started screaming and there was this flash,” The corporal tapped the tablet where the light dominated the frame, “…and the bug was down. I hit the x-ray with the arc thrower and that was end-op.”

“If the Chryssalid was attacking the subject, and the subject attacked it…the implications are interesting indeed.” Doctor Vahlen crossed her arms and rubbed a hand across her chin as she studied the footage. “Corporal, when you say, ‘the bug was down,’ I assume it was killed. Were you able to determine how? I can only speculate based on this picture alone but it looks like a burst of directed energy but no weapons or fragments were found near the capture.”

“Well, it was more crushed than burned,” Was all Harris could say before Shen came to the rescue with a tablet of his own.

“Rather thoroughly crushed, indeed.” Shen said, uploading a new picture to the tablet of the recovery team cleaning up the mess in the shallow crater that once was the parking lot. “From what I understand, they had to use shovels, vacuum pumps and several liquid-proof bags to retrieve all of it. Also, if anyone’s curious, I have current surveillance footage available.”

Without another word, the video on the computer console jumped to the darkened lab. Another button press and the darkened room took on the greenish tint of night-vision. The escaped specimen stood in the center of the room, its eyes closed and looking serene. After a long moment, it leaned its head back and the monitor image turned bright white. The night-vision filter clicked off and revealed an orb of light hovering over the unicorn, who was now surveying its surroundings with undisguised curiosity.

Its gaze fell upon the mess it had created during the escape, and everyone observing the video could see its left eye and ear twitch. A moment later and the pale purple light appeared around the unicorn’s horn and the toppled desk flipped over and scooted back into place. All the scattered writing utensils, papers and other office supplies became swept up into a tornado around the unicorn before settling into orderly lines and stacks on desk.

“That’s…telekinesis! On that scale and with that degree of control, that’s inc—“ Vahlen gasped, but was interrupted with a word from Shen as he upped the volume as high as the console could go. It was faint but humming could be heard, the same strings of notes repeating over and over again while the unicorn’s head bobbed slightly to the beat. Apart from the sounds of the console the workshop was silent as a tomb; the observers were completely mesmerized by the sight.

“Unbelievable.” Doctor Ngo was the first to break the silence. “That sounds like a song. Songs imply creativity, culture even! This is nothing like any of the others we’ve encountered.” Before she could continue, the melody terminated with a squeak as the unicorn bent down to examine a crushed ball-point pen on the floor.

“Command Actual, Strike One,” Came Lieutenant Fowler’s voice in Bradford’s ear, “Strike Three and Five are in position, as soon as Harris rejoins us we can assault the lab.”

“Copy that, Strike One.” Bradford replied, and then turned to the observers around him. “Strike teams are in position, just waiting on you, Harris. Rejoin your squad and wait for my order.”

As the corporal nodded and turned to leave, Shen intervened, “Commander, there is an alternative I would like to suggest. I think we should try and talk to it.”

Vahlen’s strangled protest was cut off by Bradford’s clipped response, “Why?”

“As much as I hate using the term since it seems to be used every day here, this” Shen indicated to the console, “is unprecedented in the history of this project. We’ve seen too many inconsistencies with this subject to simply assume its hostility or allegiance with the invaders. Perhaps it was a prisoner or even an abductee from another world the invaders have attacked. Perhaps its arrival is a complete coincidence. These are questions an ‘interrogation’ cannot answer, and I’d at least like to ask before resorting to those methods.”

A long moment of silence fell upon the workshop as Bradford turned away and cupped his chin in his hand. The commander wordlessly turned back to the group and drew his sidearm, then presented it grip-first to the chief engineer. “You can make the attempt, Doctor. If you feel threatened in any way or if I call for a breach, you get down and stay down. One of the soldiers outside will provide you with comms gear to keep in touch.”

Shen nodded wordlessly and gingerly took the pistol. He checked the safety and the clip before pocketing it inside his jacket and heading towards the hallway.

“Strike teams, Command. Hold positions, a volunteer will be entering the lab to attempt contact with the subject. Strike One, the volunteer will need comms gear so make sure some are ready.”

“Sir, with all due respect that sounds like suicide,” Fowler’s voice sounded incredulous.

“The situation is still developing, Lieutenant. Make sure all teams are prepared to breach.”

------

With every step Dr. Charles Shen took, he had to resist the urge to turn back and let the strike teams attack. Shen wasn’t a soldier, he wasn’t even a young man anymore. And he had just volunteered to go into what was for all intents and purposes a vault with a potentially hostile alien life form. He hadn’t joined the project to risk his life like this.

And the moment that thought hit him, he felt ashamed for even considering it. Men less than half my age were risking their lives... They would risk their lives without hesitation, and being significantly younger than me, they would likely fare better in a fight if it came to that. So why did I volunteer? Another step and another moment of introspection passed, and Shen found the answer wasn’t as easy as he had thought.

The aging engineer blinked as he found himself standing in front of the door to Containment, and over a dozen heavily armed soldiers with too-young faces watched him eagerly. He looked down to the headset in his hands and chastised himself for allowing his inner thoughts to cloud his perception so much.

As Shen brought the headset to his ear, the soldier with battered armor and a shotgun leaned forward and gave a conspiratorial grin, “So, when are they going to be standard issue?” When the engineer gave the soldier a questioning look, she continued, “Those brass balls you’ve got. When will they be standard issue?”

“Stow it, Jenkins, or I’ll stow it for you!” Came a hissed order from another soldier farther down the stack, even as a ripple of amusement passed through all those in earshot.

“Now, now, kid. Standard procedure applies,” Shen said as he input the command override to release the door from lockdown. “Prototypes must be properly field tested before mass production may begin.” An even bigger ripple of tension-diffusing chuckles passed through the soldiers, and the shotgun-wielding kid grew a smile that nearly took in her ears. The engineer returned the smile with one of his own and tapped his headset. “Door is unlocking in five seconds…”

------

Twilight didn’t dare move from her hiding spot under the desk as she heard the door close again. The odd tempo of bipedal steps could be heard approaching the row of desks, slow and deliberate. The steps stopped a short distance away, and then a few more odd sounds that she couldn’t quite recognize hit her ears. Something metal hitting the desk, and a squeak that sounded suspiciously like one of Twilight’s chairs down in her library basement.

The unicorn had almost plucked up the courage to peek around the corner of the desk when whatever-it-was spoke. To the common pony it might have sounded like nonsense or gibberish but Twilight was able to differentiate the syllables as well as an upward inflection at the end. She didn’t understand a word of it but it sounded like a question.

Again the string of syllables hit her ears and Twilight became almost certain it was a question. If whatever was in the lab was asking questions and not acting nearly as scary as everything else had been, then she’d consider it a hoof in the right direction. Slowly, she scooted towards the edge of the desk and peeked around the corner and laid her eyes upon the other creature in the room.

It was a biped much like the others she had seen, though this was the first time she could take the time to study their appearance without being in mortal danger. It was clothed quite thoroughly, the only exposed portions being its claws and its nearly hairless head. What hair was present was stark white, and Twilight could see glasses perched on its narrow nose. The nose itself protruded from its relatively flat but wrinkled face.

The clothes were mostly earthen colors, an olive green jacket over a white shirt and red tie, and brown pants and boots. A tag with a miniature picture of the creature hung from its jacket collar and was littered with more of the writing that Twilight couldn’t understand.

Twilight was able to take all this in with just a moment’s observation, and unfortunately the creature was alert enough to spot the unicorn. It turned to face her and its eyes widened. The eyes themselves were quite small by her standards but they were far more intelligent than the glowing orbs from that bug thing that crunched beneath her magic and sprayed blood everywhere. The unicorn winced and ducked back behind the desk. Oh Celestia, she thought as she began to panic, I killed that thing…Fluttershy would never forgive me. Maybe that’s why they put me in that room, maybe that’s where they keep murderers.

Before Twilight’s guilty thoughts could spiral further, more sounds came from the creature; another question and moving something. Another peek revealed it was sitting in a chair, and a second chair was pulled out from a desk and stood empty before it. When it spotted her attempt at surveillance, it smiled and waved one of its claws toward the chair. The intent was obvious now, an invitation.

The unicorn drew a ragged breath, then crawled out from under the desk and stood. Her eyes darted to the creature again, then around the room quickly. Recent events hadn’t inspired trust in Twilight, but she was at her heart a herd creature and the company of somepony was better than being all alone in such a strange place. She slowly strode toward the chair and hopped into it before turning back towards the creature.

It spoke again, another question then waited for a response.

“I…I don’t understand you. Can you understand me?” Twilight tried, and the creature did a good job of mimicking her confused expression. “Wait…I might have a spell that can help.” Twilight leaned her head forward to point her horn at the creature and dredged up the translation spell she had learned years ago. Being the personal student of Celestia had exposed the unicorn to many cultures and complex languages, and the translation spell was the staple of modern Equestrian diplomacy.

As the spell cast, Twilight opened her eyes and started to ask a question when she noticed the creature's posture had changed. It was now leaning awkwardly back in its chair and had a metal tool in its claws and pointed in her direction. “Can you understand me now?” She tried timidly, hoping against hope that her spell had worked.

The metal tool wavered slightly and the creature’s expression morphed to curiousity. With one claw it waved over its shoulder to the seemingly empty air while the tool remained in the other. “I can understand you now—“

The moment Twilight heard those words, the flood gates opened. “Can you please help me? I don’t know where I am and everythingissoscaryhereandIdidn’tmeantohurtthebugthingIswear! I’m so sorry!” Twilight fixed the creature with a pleading look, begging for any kind of assurance or forgiveness or anything to give her stability in the ocean of uncertainty she now found herself in.

The creature’s voice was calm and the comforting smile returned to its face. “Calm down, take a deep breath, and take things slowly. My name is Charles Shen, do you have a name? Where are you from?” The creature, ‘Charles’, appeared to relax as he waited for Twilight’s answer.

She took Charles’ advice and took in a deep breath, then let it out again before replying, “My name is Twilight Sparkle, and I was born in Canterlot, the capitol of Equestria.” A moment of silence reigned between the two but just before Twilight was about to pose a question of her own, Charles seized the initiative.

“’Twilight Sparkle’, that’s an interesting name. Did you get the name because of those marks?” Charles indicated towards her cutie mark, and the unicorn shook her head.

“My parents gave me the name. My cutie mark comes from my special talent, which is magic!” That crushed the bug with a sickening crunch and spray of blood. Twilight tried to maintain a smile but wasn’t very successful.

If Charles noticed her discomfort, he (the voice sounds male, Twilight thought absently) didn’t mention it. “The mark is for your special skill, and that skill is magic…” He looked over his shoulder at the empty room before turning back to Twilight. “Was that how you got out of there?” He indicated toward the glass-enclosed room that the unicorn woke up in, and she nodded in response.

“I’m so sorry if I scared your friends who were here earlier…but the things in that room were scary and I panicked. I didn’t want to hurt them so I teleported out.” Twilight bit her lip before pleading, “Please don’t make me go back in there! Please!”

Charles leaned back and swallowed audibly, “You were scared and you teleported out because of it…I can understand that it’s scary to wake up someplace that you don’t recognize. You used magic to ‘teleport’?”

“Yes! It’s a rather complex spell so most unicorns choose to learn things that help with their special talents.” Twilight dredged up her encyclopedic knowledge of spells and special talents she knew of, but clamped down on it. It’s not polite to talk just about myself and my interests, Twilight chastised herself. “What’s your special talent?”

The question seemed to surprise Charles, if the expressions of his kind were anything like hers. His eyes widened at the question as he scratched his jaw with one digit and looked to the side. “Well, my special talent would be engineering and construction. I design and build things for a living.”

The unicorn clopped her hooves together and smiled brightly at the declaration. “You invent things? That’s amazing! Did you invent this?” A quick pull of telekinesis lofted the crushed writing instrument as well as an undamaged one into the air between the two. “My assistant and I both write quite often but it was always so inconvenient using inkwells. These quills with ink inside are simply genius!”

“Ah, I’m afraid I didn’t invent the ballpoint pen. It’s been around for…well, longer than I can remember.” Charles replied with a slight chuckle and a smile, though his eyes never left the floating objects in front of him. “You mentioned that you had an assistant? Where is he? Or she?”

“My assistant is back in P—“ And just as the word was about to leave her mouth, the reality of Twilight’s situation came rushing back to her. “Spike is back home with my friends. I do hope they’re alright. I hope I can see them again.” All of Twilight’s cheer vanished as she bowed her head and levitated the writing utensils back to their proper positions on the table beside her.

A long moment of silence passed between the two before Charles asked, “I can’t imagine what it would be like to find myself in your situation right now. I take it that you did not find yourself here willingly? Do you know how you arrived here?”

“Discord.” Twilight growled, and her depression heated into anger.

“Discord?” He asked, and again he glanced over his shoulder.

“Discord, avatar of chaos and nemesis to…,” Twilight stopped mid-explanation as she gave Charles a wary look, “Why are you repeating everything I say? And why are you looking over your shoulder?”

Charles blinked, then closed his eyes and sighed. He looked back up to Twilight and tapped the device that was nestled in his right ear that reached towards his mouth. “Twilight, I have several very curious friends who are outside the room who want to know what we’re discussing. Whatever trick you did to allow us to communicate isn’t affecting them. They can hear what I say through this device, and I can hear them through it as well.”

Dozens of questions popped up about the thing in Charles’ ear, but the more pressing concern nagged at Twilight. “I-I wouldn’t mind meeting your friends. I’ll do my best to answer any question they have. Will they be joining us?”

“I’m afraid not, Twilight,” Charles said with a gentle shake of his head, “You’ve come at an unfortunate time for my people. Right now we’re very…suspicious of ‘newcomers’. You’re the first one we’ve encountered that hasn’t been actively violent and there’s some debate as to how to handle this situation.”

He switched the metal tool from one claw to the other, and then placed it on the table beside him. Charles was about to continue but a rather embarrassing rumble from Twilight’s stomach interrupted him. “I…don’t suppose you have anything to eat? I don’t know how long it’s been since I last ate.” Twilight admitted, looking to the side in embarrassment. Think of something simple that any culture would have to eat! Think think think…ah! “Do you have… toast?”

“Toast? I think I can manage that,” Charles rose from his seat and pocketed the metal tool from the table beside him. Twilight started to get up from her seat but stopped when he turned to face her again. “I’m afraid I’ll need you to wait here, Twilight. As I said, I have several very curious friends outside, but they are also very scared. They want to know all about you but they aren’t ready to see you face to face quite yet. So please, just wait right here and I’ll be back with something to eat.”

“Oh…okay.” The unicorn replied as she sank back into the chair. Her eyes never left Charles as he made his way to the door and whispered into the thing attached to his ear. The door opened and her only friend in this strange place stepped through. As the door sealed shut, Twilight caught sight of several hulking shapes in the corridor beyond. I’m not so certain I want to know what he meant by ‘curious’ and ‘suspicious’.

------

Complete silence reigned as Bradford and the assembled scientists watched the camera feed as Shen walked through the now deserted containment lab. The scientists were wide-eyed and probably imagining a scenario akin to a horror movie involving the untimely demise of the elderly engineer, but Bradford was too seasoned a campaigner to give in to his imagination in that fashion.

Shen’s eyes fell upon the meticulously organized desk before walking to the next desk in line. One hand placed the borrowed pistol on the desk while the other pulled out the chair for him to sit on. “Can you hear me?” Shen asked to the apparently empty room. When no reaction made itself apparent, the engineer asked the question again.

“There,” Bradford declared as his keen eyes spotted the movement at the far end of the row of desks. “Shen, Bradford. One o’clock relative your position, last desk of the row.” The moment Shen turned in the indicated direction the shape ducked back down out of view.

“Please, come out,” Shen asked politely as he pulled another chair from a neighboring desk to sit in front of him. “I just want to ask you some questions. Can you come out, please?”

“This is ridiculous,” Dr. Vahlen whispered, her tone acidic, “Shen shouldn’t be in there, we should just seal Containment and cut the air supplies…” Any further recommendations were lost as the specimen again peeked over the desk towards the engineer, then slowly emerged from its hiding place to sit in the offered chair.

“Can you understand me?” Shen asked slowly, and the specimen tilted its head to the side and spoke in reply. The alien language seemed to snap Dr. Ngo out of the hypnotism the scene elicited, and she scrambled for a pen and paper.

Just as she started scribbling notes on the closest piece of paper, the specimen leaned forward and a flare of light struck Shen. The doctors recoiled instinctively from the flash, while Bradford swore and switched to the tactical frequency. “Strike One, b—“

“Wait, wait!” Dr. Ngo objected, and pointed furiously at the video. Shen appeared unharmed and waving at the camera positioned behind him.

“I can understand you now—“ Shen started, and was quickly cut off by the specimen. A torrent of incomprehensible gibberish came from the creature sitting in front of the engineer. Dr Ngo manipulated the settings on the monitor and the display zoomed in on the specimen’s face as it talked. Fear was plainly apparent in the specimen’s expression. Fear and desperation.

“Mother of God…” Dr Ngo whispered as she began to take notes as quickly as she could. “Is this recording? I’ll need every second of footage—“ The scientist cut herself short when the specimen’s unbroken chain of speech stopped and Shen asked a question, and received a more calm and controlled response.

“They’re communicating! But…how?” Dr Ngo gasped.

“Nevermind the how! Start asking questions!” Dr Mills scrambled for the radio on the desk before firing off a series of questions to Shen’s earpiece. Dr Ngo soon joined in.

“What do the marks mean? How did you escape the cell? Magic…is it serious? What does the horn do? Is it male or female…or neither? Is that telekinesis? Can it write? What’s the language look like? What is ‘Discord?’ Is it a force, a being, related to ‘magic?’”

Dr Vahlen and Commander Bradford both remained behind the two excited scientists fired questions through the radio and Shen tried his best to ask them as part of the conversation while repeating the answers back to his audience. “Don’t have any questions, Moira?”

Dr Vahlen, who had been staring at the close-up video of the subject while it talked, jerked in surprise and looked to the commander. “I…there are no words.” Her eyes lingered for just a moment on Bradford, who kept his blank gaze on the monitor.

The subject stopped mid-sentence and its tone changed. It leaned back and its large eyes narrowed slightly as it asked a question, and Shen did his best to gently explain the surveillance of the room and the dozen armed men waiting outside the door. The subject’s posture went from suspicious to nervous as it asked another question, to which Shen replied, then headed towards the security door. The subject remained in its chair and craned its neck to look out the door as Shen left Containment.

“Toast? It's hungry and it wants…toast.” Both scientists by the display looked to each other and a quick debate began as to the implications. Vahlen and Bradford ignored them in favor of giving Shen the once-over as he walked into engineering with a smile on his face.

“That went about as well as I could have hoped,” Shen let out a long-held breath as he walked over to his desk and pulled open a drawer and began to retrieve a loaf of bread, a bottle of honey and a plate. He started to head out of engineering towards the civilian break area but stopped when he noticed the doubtful looks both Vahlen and Bradford were giving him. “She said she was hungry and she wanted toast. I’m going to make some for her.”

“You can’t be serious!” Vahlen growled, “Your curiousity has been entertained but the security of the project is at risk as long as its allowed to roam free inside Containment. Commander, you should order the breach and subdue the subject.”

Before Bradford could reply, Shen spoke again. “I am serious, and I am more certain than ever that the ‘subject’ has nothing to do with the invaders.” The engineers voice hardened as he retrieved a tablet computer from his desk and motioned for Vahlen and Bradford to follow him. “We can discuss this on the way.”

The trio left the workshop and made its way towards the civilian break area. The corridors were deserted save for the soldiers at the intersections, and the break room was completely empty. Shen loaded the toaster then turned back to the other two in the room.

“Perhaps you would like to explain the reasoning for your conclusion, Charles?” Bradford asked evenly.

“I don’t know how much you could hear from the surveillance, but the subject, ‘Twilight’ is nothing but a scared little girl who has no idea where she is.” Shen sighed and leaned against the counter beside the toaster. “She was eager to answer any questions I had, and if her body language or facial expressions are anything like humans, then I have no doubts that she isn’t a threat so long as she feels safe.”

“The specimen is not human,” Vahlen said acidly, “And every second we waste entertaining this fantasy is another second that gives the specimen an opportunity to decipher the information still in Containment or escape into the facility proper.”

“The greatest mystery Twilight found in Containment was the ball-point pen,” Shen shot back, his tone equally sharp, “Wherever she’s from still uses quills and inkwells as the primary method of writing. Does that sound like the average level of technological sophistication we’ve seen from the invaders? And I am certain Twilight will stay exactly where she is until I return because I asked her to, but if she feels threatened then Containment will not be able to hold her.”

Bradford raised an eyebrow as Vahlen choked on her hasty reply. Shen tapped his tablet and handed it to Vahlen before continuing. “When I saw the pictures of the Chryssalid that Twilight killed, I started running some numbers to try and theorize the amount of force needed to do the damage done to the surrounding area.”

Vahlen grew pale and passed the tablet to Bradford, who gave the equations and Newton measurements an appraising eye. “I see a rather large number, Charles, but I’m afraid I’m not certain how that translates into physical force.”

“That’s higher than the impact tolerance for the cell in Containment…” Vahlen whispered, obviously shaken at the danger she had unwittingly found herself in less than an hour earlier.

“That’s higher than the impact tolerance for the door leading to Containment,” Shen added with a nervous smile. “With that amount of force combined with the telekinetic control we witnessed earlier, I have serious doubts on the effectiveness of projectile weapons against Twilight. Quite simply, if she wanted to harm us then I’ve seen very little evidence that we could stop her with conventional methods.”

The frank assessment seemed to shake Vahlen further, but Bradford’s military mind appreciated the blunt statement. “I sense you’ve got some sort of plan to keep that from happening?”

“That’s rather simple, we give her what she wants.”

“And what would that be?” Vahlen asked after recovering enough to muster some sarcasm.

“Toast.” Shen answered, and right on cue the toaster popped up.

------

Again the door opened to containment and Shen stepped through, though his hands were filled the odds-and-ends for the impromptu meal: A plate with two slices of still warm toast and a small bottle of honey balanced on it in one hand, while the other held a bottle of water and a plastic cup.

Twilight was right where the engineer had left her, sitting in the office chair and eyeing what appeared to be a dismantled ballpoint pen. The various components clattered onto the mostly clear desk top as her concentration was interrupted and the alien made a mad scramble with her forelegs to try and keep any of the parts from tumbling to the floor. Once she appeared satisfied that none of the parts were going to escape her cordon, she turned to Shen and gave a sheepish smile. The smile turned into near-naked hunger as her eyes locked on to the plate and its contents.

“I can certainly appreciate toast as a snack,” Shen said as he emptied his hands onto the desk by his chair and then sat. “I like to put honey on mine, so I felt it would be polite to offer it to you.” Twilight’s eyes widened even further with…gratitude? Worship? This kind of attention makes me feel like I’m bringing Christmas presents for the grandkids… Shen hid his discomfort at the attention and dropped a bit of honey on both slices of toast before sliding the plate over toward the unicorn.

In the blink of an eye one slice of toast flew off the plate and into Twilight’s mouth, and a moment later the second slice followed the first. The engineer had barely finished pouring water into the cup before that was telekinetically yanked from his hands. The water was gulped down with almost alarming speed before the cup was returned to the table. “Thank you, Charles.” The alien said after a long moment, a grateful smile on her face again.

“Glad I could help,” The engineer replied, then tapped his earpiece to adjust the volume to a more tolerable level as the scientists next door began to pepper him with more questions to ask. “My friends were very curious about how we can understand each other now. Can you explain what you did? Was it ‘magic?’”

“Exactly!” The alien replied eagerly with a quick nod, “The Translation spell was one of the many innovations pioneered by Star Swirl the Bearded during his career, and allowed for the first time easy communications between Equestria and its neighboring nations like the Griffon clans and the Zebra herds, as well as some of the more exotic travelers like dragons. Diplomatic relations became much more sophisticated as complex treaties could be negotiated without a translator’s assistance. Some theorized that Starswirl the Bearded learned of the spell by analyzing the assimilation patterns of the changelings but…” Twilight stopped, then brought her face to her hoof and sighed, “That wasn’t what you asked.”

“The underlying theory of Translation spells have been lost to antiquity, but it’s commonly believed that it translates concepts a person attempts to illustrate by spoken words into the words that the other party can understand. The word you may use for an object or concept like ‘table’…” Twilight indicated to the desk beside her, “…will differ from my word for the object, but we are both discussing the same thing. The spell simply bridges the gap.”

“That’s quite extraordinary, Twilight.” Shen said after waiting a moment to see if the long-winded unicorn had anything else to add. “My friends outside were worried that you had done something that allowed you to view my mind or what I was thinking.”

The alien’s expression became doubtful. “Looking into the minds of others is dangerous in the extreme. Everything I’ve studied has indicated that the mind of another intelligent being is so fundamentally different from our own minds that the psyche of both risk damage if they come into contact. The only pony I know of who could do something like that would be Princess Luna, but she only deals with dreams of those that sleep and not their minds directly. Well, Discord does something similar, too, but he’s crazy.”

The engineer smiled as he took in the explanations Twilight had given him. Spells? Griffons? Dragons? The scientists will pronounce me crazy or their heads will explode once I get this conversation down on paper. “That’s very relieving to hear.”

“What did it say?” “Nevermind that, ask it if it knows anything about the invaders!” “It’s clear that they’re unrelated, their physiologies are too divergent to be manufactured by the same creator. How does it achieve telekinesis? Mental willpower, invisible appendages?” “What about the mane and tail! Those colors can’t be natural. Do they have significant meaning?” Shen’s earpiece was filled with a flood of questions from the scientists and he had to suppress the urge to turn it off to cut out the noise.

“Forgive me if this assumption is incorrect, but are you a teacher? You seem…well-versed on certain topics.” Shen asked carefully, and had to tolerate Dr Mills’ squawk in protest and Dr Ngo’s gleeful cheer at the question’s nature.

“I’m not; I’m actually Princess Celestia’s personal student as well as a librarian. I study all the time to keep my grades at their absolute best for the princess. She says I should take it easy sometimes but I think that’s her way of testing my resolve!”

“Librarian and student, and you are the pupil of Princess ‘Celestia’?” Shen asked out loud, and the alien nodded in a too-human manner. “You also mentioned a Princess Luna. Are they both daughters of the current ruler? Or is ‘princess’ an elected or appointed position?”

Twilight’s head leaned to the side in apparent confusion. “Princess Celestia and Princess Luna rule together. They have their appointed nobles to help manage the country but they are the rulers of Equestria. Celestia ruled by herself for a thousand years before Luna returned and was redeemed. I was so glad for both of them when that happened, sisters shouldn’t fight like they did.”

“They’re over a thousand years old? Is that normal? How old are you?” Shen blurted out in disbelief, and the two scientists in his earpiece suddenly found their positions reversed.

“I’m only twenty, but I’m also not an alicorn. The lifespan of a single alicorn can last for…well, millennia.” Twilight closed her eyes and Shen could see them moving beneath her eyelids for a long moment. “Recorded history tends to get fuzzy prior to about five thousand years ago, when a ‘Lady Solaria’ was mentioned as the ruling alicorn of her age.”

“Alicorns…a winged unicorn?” Shen asked as he raked his mind for everything he knew about the term.

Again Twilight nodded and smiled. “Yes! While they are most notably recognized for both wings and horn, they are also blessed with extremely powerful magic and long lives. I’m above average for a unicorn in terms of magical power, but the princesses are far beyond what I could ever hope to accomplish. Celestia and Luna raise the sun and moon as easily as I can lift this.” And with that, the disassembled pen components lifted from the table and began to reassemble. With the parts once again combined into a whole, the pen aligned itself vertically and the plunger at the top of the pen clicked dully. Twilight’s expression became frustrated as the plunger rose and fell several times with only dull clicks to accompany it. “Why? Why won’t you click like the others?”

“Ah, may I?” Shen asked gently and held out a hand towards the pen. The writing utensil obediently levitated toward him and dropped into his palm. I half expected it to be warm or something, Shen thought absently as he unscrewed the pen at the midsection and extracted the various parts from inside. “Twilight, I have been meaning to ask…where do you think you are?”

The specimen, who had been watching his hands like a hawk, looked up and met his gaze for just a moment before glancing away. “I don’t know. I’ve been trying to figure that out, but I’m afraid I just don’t know. If I could see a map, I think I could pin down just how far away Discord sent me.”

Shen didn’t immediately reply. His hands kept busy with the pen components as he corrected the problem and reassembled it. He stood and offered it to Twilight, then walked past her towards one of the diagnostic screens mounted on the wall. In less than a minute the monitor flicked on and a slowly spinning model of the planet Earth appeared.

“Oh, that’s amazing! How does that work? Illusion spell? Or-or…” Twilight started but fell silent as her eyes scanned the globe once, twice, and three times. “It’s not there. Equestria isn’t there. Where am I? I don’t know… I don’t know.” Her eyes remained locked on the spinning globe but she began to tremble as her voice died away.

“Now now, we can answer that question later. All that matters is that you’re safe, for now.” Shen said quietly as he once more resumed his seat. The engineer kept himself from cursing out loud as Twilight looked down and squeezed her eyes shut and tried to blink away tears.

“A lot has happened to you, so it might be best to call it a night for now. How does that sound?” Shen sugguested gently, and had to restrain his fatherly instincts to give the alien a comforting pat on the back. “I’m going to go outside now to have a word with my friends. If you want to talk to me, just say something or wave to that corner.” With that, Shen slowly turned to leave. He had almost made it to the door when a single word stopped him.

“Paper,” Twilight said quietly, “I-I need paper. I have to write a letter.”

Author's Note:

Supplemental Information:

XCOM: Abbreviation for Extraterrestrial Combat Unit, a multinational paramilitary group created and operated outside of public oversight or control tasked with the safety of the planet Earth.

Alien Interrogation: An invasive surgical process involving probes inserted into the captured alien's brain and translating electrical impulses into images and other useful data. After the captured alien expires, its body is autopsied for to elicit any further breakthroughs.

Home Base: The primary operation center for the XCOM organization is in a classified location, primarily underground to maintain operational security. It consists of multiple underground levels to both house the personnel in the organization as well as their work areas with a minimum number of surface facilities.

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