• 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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Breakthrough

((AUTHOR'S WARNING: This chapter contains extremely strong and offensive language.))

ISRAELI DOCTORS PLAGUED WITH ACCUSATIONS OF USING SAMPLES TAKEN FROM INVADERS IN THEIR GROUNDBREAKING TREATMENT TO CURE ALZHEIMERS DISEASE. “THE TREATMENT CAN ERADICATE THIS DISEASE, WHAT DOES IT MATTER HOW WE CAME BY THE CURE?”

INTERNATIONAL COMMUNITY IN AN UPROAR AS POPULAR NEWS OUTLETS DISCOVER PATTERN TO DISAPPEARANCES IN SOUTH AMERICA NOT UNIQUE TO THAT AREA. DOZENS OF SPECIALISTS IN THE FIELDS OF ENGINEERING, CONSTRUCTION AND SCIENCES DISAPPEARED IN SIMILAR CASES IN NORTH AMERICA, EUROPE AND ASIA.

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08:20, 05/02/2015, STARDUST LABS

“…sincerely, Pinkie Pie.” Twilight finished the last letter, before tilting her head to the side as she looked at the unfamiliar word that composed the body. “Eh-leer-ee-um… Ah-lar-ay-um? Huh, why would Pinkie Pie write some nonsense word in her letter? I was expecting regarding the Cake twins or…” She trailed off when she noticed the bald-faced shock on Kim’s face. “What?”

“Elerium? That’s what it says? Elerium?” Kim started, but before anyone could answer the door to the habitat shot open to reveal a rather more harried than usual Vahlen.

“You cannot be serious,” She stated, as though her simply stating it would make it true. “Kim, did you mention Elerium before now at all?” Her somewhat manic glare fell upon Kim, who couldn’t help but cringe slightly.

“No, I haven’t. The translation software is working on the phonetic characters of the letter and they seem to spell out the syllables for Elerium.” Kim replied quickly and she turned her tablet around for Moira to see. “I don’t know how this ‘Pinkie Pie’ did it, but there it is.”

Vahlen’s face soured as she glanced over the tablet. “How is not the only concern. What does it mean?”

“Uh… what’s Elerium?” Twilight’s hesitant question wasn’t even acknowledged.

“W-well, I heard from Doctor Shaw that testing is beginning today for the Elerium samples retrieved from the last mission. Perhaps it’s referencing that?” The seated scientist tried hopefully as she shrank back into her chair to escape the other scientist’s glare.

“How could she possibly know about Elerium testing that we haven’t even begun testing yet? Or that we possess Elerium at all? Twilight isn’t familiar with it so I find it extremely unlikely that this ‘Pinkie Pie’ would know anything more.” Vahlen looked away and ran a hand across her face. “How?”

“How did she know the number of snacks to send to us?” Kim added with a longing look to a pumpkin cupcake with white frosting. “Or what our preferences are? I’m not sure how that’s possible.”

The look on Moira’s face was more than enough to tell Twilight just where the conversation was heading, so Twilight did her best to prevent it. “Pinkie Pie does a lot of unbelievable things. I nearly went insane trying to disprove her abilities, but I learned in the end it’s best to just accept them.” Kim shrugged but didn’t take her eyes off the cupcake in question. Moira’s expression calmed somewhat but it was clear the questions still ate at her. “So, what’s Elerium?”

Moira and Kim shared a look but before either could explain, the door to the habitat slid open to reveal Joel. Like Kim and Moira, fatigue was clearly apparent on his face though he seemed to be recovering due to the half-eaten donut in his left hand. “This is the best donut I have ever had,” He said through the mouthful he was savoring.

“I gave you explicit instructions not to eat these until proper testing could be completed!” Moira fumed, though her anger petered out when Joel handed her a tablet.

“So far as the machines can tell it’s all natural ingredients, with no toxins, chemicals or other potentially harmful ingredients,” he sprayed crumbs in Moira’s general direction as he explained, which earned him another disapproving glare. “Plus I’m running on fumes. None of us has had breakfast yet, and since Cee Oh Eff Eff Ee Ee is banned from the labs then I’ll have to make due with a sugar pick-me-up. The crash is going to be murder, but right now I feel amazing.”

“Uh…you know I can spell in English now, right? Why is coffee banned?” Twilight asked with an arched eyebrow, and Joel nearly choked on his donut. “Nevermind, we’re getting off topic. What is Elerium again?”

Joel’s coughing worsened at that question but was ignored as Moira cleared her throat. “Elerium is a crystalline metal that generates specific phenomena when bombarded with certain particles. It is not native to our world.” Twilight’s eyes widened as the gravity of the revelation became apparent. “Studying the invaders' equipment and craft shows that they use Elerium in almost every instance of their technology.”

“I suppose with that context, Pinkie’s letter does seem rather ominous,” Twilight muttered, and she looked back down at the offending paperwork. “But it still leaves the question of why she would write it in the first place.”

“Perhaps it wasn’t the Elerium testing she was referring to, but the ‘arcanite’ testing with Twilight?”
Kim said off-handedly, “Really, it’s about the only thing we haven’t tested yet that isn’t hazardous.”

Moira turned and gave a quick nod at the suggestion, then headed for the habitat door. “I’ll be heading to storage to retrieve a sample suitable for testing. Kim, prepare all the recording and observation equipment in the main testing area. If this test is going to yield results, I want it properly documented since we don’t have enough Elerium to waste on do-overs.” She took one step out of the door before hesitating and turning back to the table. In one quick move she scooped up a jelly donut and gave both scientists a withering glare that screamed ‘Not one word from either of you,’ before she finally exited the habitat.

------

Transcript of video footage, Stardust Labs, 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. Kim Ngo (N) – Assistant Researcher, Behavioral Sciences
Subject ‘Twilight Sparkle’ (TS)

TIMESTAMP: 08:45, 05/02/2015

*Footage starts with testing area of Stardust Labs, with (V) standing to the left of the 2 sq ft. elevated platform in the center of the room. (TS) stands opposite of the platform, (N) stands to the side against the wall. A small chunk of orange material rests in the center of the table*

(V) – “Today’s test was instigated by the extraordinary circumstances revealed earlier this morning, and deviates somewhat from standard procedure due to those circumstances. Prior materials testing involved simple manipulation via the telekinesis ability to determine the likelihood of a material being the previously described ‘Arcanite’ that was discussed with Twilight Sparkle.”
-- “’Arcanite’ is described as an element that reacts to the specific skills that Twilight’s species possess, and we hope that if a terrestrial equivalent can be discovered, we may be able to gain a better understanding of how her powers operate.”
--“Previous testing had covered over ninety percent of terrestrial elements that were not of harmful nature, which has thus far produced no results.”
--“The element being tested today is Elerium, E-115. This element is not native to Earth, but is used extensively in alien technology for propulsion and energy generation, as well as some of the implants found in the recovered bodies of the invaders.”
--“Miss Sparkle, would you please explain what is expected from this testing?”

(TS) – “Anecdotal accounts of Arcanite describe the reaction as emitting visible light when in the presence of spellcraft; that is, magical energy that has been collected and shaped into defined purpose rather than ambient energy that can be found everywhere.”
--“However, Arcanite has not been available for testing in thousands of years, so the written accounts of Clover the Clever are the only evidence available.”

(V) – “Very good. Light generation is the expected reaction, but several sets of measuring and recording equipment has been set up to document any possible emission that could be generated. Miss Sparkle, I will initiate a count-down, then please begin your testing.”

**(TS) nods and closes her eyes to concentrate.

(V) – “In five, four, three, two, one—“

------

08:40, 05/02/2015, MESS HALL

Shaojie Zhang took his bagel to one of the farthest tables in the mess hall and took his seat with a little more urgency than he usually displayed. Any hope that he would have a peaceful breakfast was lost when Lana and Matt sat down next to him a few moments later.

“Hey, Zhang… haven’t seen you in a while. I also hear you haven’t been back to the Stardust labs since your last visit,” Lana said with a rather forced smile. “If I didn’t know better, I’d think you were avoiding us.”

“What Lana means to say is that we’re concerned,” Matt added after a moment, and his look of concern was much more sincere. His voice dropped in volume as he continued. “How are you doing since your last visit? I know it’s a lot to take in…”

“I am fine,” Zhang replied curtly as he tore off the first bite of his bagel.

A moment of silence fell over the table before Matt’s expression hardened. “Yes, I’m quite certain that you are. But you have questions and concerns. I think a blind man could see that in you now. So, talk. No judgment here.”

Zhang worked his way past a second bite before answering quietly. “I find myself struggling with the concept of a ‘guest’ like that being kept alive in this place. Is it not our stated mission to defend the Earth against such… things? And I can barely comprehend how you and the science personnel can be so comfortable around it.”

“Very valid concerns, and I will admit it’s a bit of a shock,” Matt agreed. “It is one hundred percent accurate that she isn’t like us. But I can guarantee that she isn’t with our enemies, either. As far as we can tell, she’s a completely unaffiliated third party that got dumped into this mess on accident. She is actually quite friendly once you get to know her.”

“You speak as though she were a person—“

“That’s because she is a person.” Matt interrupted, and his eyes narrowed at the cool look Zhang returned to him. “You might not believe it now, but she’s just as much a person as you or I. She reads books, she enjoys music and she likes to play cards. And I need not remind you that we humans have a disconcerting habit of applying the term ‘people’ unevenly. I’m also sure I don’t need to bring up the war America had a hundred and fifty years ago because of that.”

“I do not appreciate having my stance equated to those of slavers,” Zhang replied evenly, though he looked away as he said it. “It is still disconcerting that your primary purpose in this organization is to kill the inhuman, when you spend your free time socializing with one.”

“There’s a misconception there, we aren’t killing the invaders because they aren’t human. We’re killing them because they’re trying to kill us first. If our short friend’s people had contacted us first, then I honestly doubt that XCOM would exist in this form.” Lana added, and both men fell silent at the insightful comment.

When Shaojie didn’t immediately respond, Matt said, “So, what are your plans now? You can join us with our visit today…or not. I said it before and I meant it, if you don’t think you’re up for this then there’s no hard feelings.”

Before Zhang could reply, all three soldiers nearly jumped out of their chairs when Doctor Mills dropped a metal case on the table with a loud BANG. “Morning, kids. I brought gifts!” He announced cheerily and in blatant disregard for the heavy mood around the table. His hands worked on opening the locks on the rather ominous metal carrying case that had, among other things, biohazard and ‘top secret’ markings plastered all over it. All three soldiers recoiled slightly as Joel opened the side panel of the case to reveal… food. The doctor pulled out three small dishes and left them on the edge of the table.

“Gifts from Stardust. From what I hear you all should know what goes where,” Joel said as he pulled up a chair. “Mine was a frosted donut.”

“Oh dear god I think I just got diabetes from looking at that,” Lana’s gaze locked onto what appeared to be a solid block of chocolate on the center plate before she pulled it over to her seat.

Matt’s reaction was somewhat less enthusiastic but nonetheless pleased. “Ah, this brings me back. I haven’t had one of these since I was eight years old,” He said with no small amount of nostalgia as he reached for what appeared to be a pair of chocolate chip cookies with what appeared to be vanilla frosting sandwiched between them.

Zhang could only give a skeptical look to the final plate which had a simple bagel on it. “It seems you know our tastes well, Doctor Mills. May I ask what the occasion is?” He asked as he pulled a bite out of this new bagel and dropped it into his mouth. His eyes immediately widened as he processed both the texture and flavor of the bite, and he allowed himself just a moment of weakness to savor it before swallowing.

“And judging by that expression, it seems the cook has a one hundred percent success rate. I wonder how she managed that.” Joel said as he cupped one chin in his hand as he observed all three soldiers as they devoured their gifts. “To answer your question, mister Zhang, there was no special occasion as far as I’m aware beyond the fact that your diminutive colleague received some communication from home.”

It took several moments for the soldiers to process just what Joel said before they realized the implications. Surprisingly, Lana was the first to respond, “Comms? Seriously? How’d that happen?”

“I’m not certain this would be the best place to describe the events in detail. Why don’t you all head down to the labs once you’re finished and we can explain there?” The scientist smiled and closed up his carrying case before rising from his chair to leave.

“Well, that was rather nice of him,” Lana said with a shrug. “Though what he said about the cook makes me wo—“

BANG

The chair that Joel had vacated moments earlier flew up and into the ceiling where it exploded into pieces, and a half second later alarms began to blare. Both Lana and Zhang jumped backward with enough force to send their chairs tumbling behind them. Matt attempted the same but his chair had refused to be so cooperative and he ended up toppling backwards over the stubborn chair.

“Sonofabitch, what the hell was that!?” He yelled as he scrambled to his feet to see just what had happened. The rest of the mess hall was also on its feet and crowding towards the scene. For all the noise and violence of the chair’s eruption, the only sign that anything was amiss was what appeared to be a ragged hole in the floor under where the chair had been as well as a corresponding one in the ceiling above them.

The shock of the moment quickly faded and everyone in the mess hall began to boil out of the room to their alert stations. Only one person hesitated, and Matt’s eyes immediately locked on to him.

Joel stood near the exit like a puppet without a puppeteer with a blank expression, and he appeared to be mumbling the same words over and over again.

Oh crap.

------

09:00, 05/02/2015, STARDUST LABS

“I-I-I think I may have not understood the events of Clover the Clever’s written d-discovery of Arcanite,” Twilight stuttered in English. A glass of water clattered between her hooves as she tried to take a drink. Kim sat close to the shaking unicorn and kept one hand ready to catch the glass if it fell.

And from behind the one-way mirror, Commander Bradford stood with his arms crossed as he watched Twilight come down from her panic attack. Vahlen and Joel stood beside him as they silently watched the scene unfold.

“Clover’s notes say that Arcanite glowed w-when he cast his illumination spell. Rather than simply glowing in the presence of spellcraft, I t-think this test shows the Arcanite was reacting sympathetically to the spell that was cast to amplify the light of the spell,” Twilight took another gulp before continuing, “When I used telekinesis to lift the Elerium, it sympathized with the spell and amplified the effects exponentially. I am so sorry I didn’t think of that possibility. What can I—“

Bradford tapped a button to mute the audio from the habitat as he turned to face Vahlen. “Is that accurate?” His trademark glare fell upon the doctor as he asked the question.

“Correct,” Moira replied crisply, and for a moment he wondered if his glare was losing his effect until he realized the look in her eyes. She’s made a breakthrough.

Doctor Vahlen stepped up to the computer beside Bradford brought up several files before turning back to the Commander, “Approximately seven hours ago, Twilight received written correspondence from her people using an unknown means of delivery. While the method of delivery is an issue all its own, one particular letter indicated that Elerium was the material Twilight identified as ‘Arcanite.’ I authorized testing on an Elerium sample and these…unforeseen consequences occurred. The results are inconvenient, but they are also quite promising.”

“Quite promising, doctor?” Bradford scowled, and his eyebrow twitched. “Your little test just lobbed a fist sized chunk of Elerium through several stories of reinforced concrete and steel with enough momentum left over to achieve escape velocity. I just got a report from mission control stating that one of the North American satellites registered a micro-meteorite impact but the trajectory of the projectile came from our location.”

Vahlen blanched at the full report of the damage and Bradford turned back to the little unicorn. He covered his face with one hand and rubbed his eyes. “It’s lucky that no one got hurt. Maybe if our luck holds, that chunk of Elerium will punch a hole in an invader hiding in the void.”

Once again Bradford turned to Vahlen. “Until Shen and the engineers complete the repairs, I recommend postponing further testing. I also want reports for any practical applications this testing yields.”

“It will be done, Commander,” Vahlen replied as Bradford walked past her and out the door.

------

09:05, 05/02/2015, STARDUST LABS

“Damn, what kind of muzzle velocity do you think’s needed to get this kind of armor penetration?” Lana asked as she looked at the new ventilation in the lab. “That’s like… bunker buster material right there.”

“I don’t think it's muzzle velocity so much as power. Plus with her magic I’m not certain that our standards of firepower apply.” Matt crossed his arms and surveyed the damage beside her. Zhang silently hung back near the door though he was no doubt as shocked as the other soldiers.

“I bet Twilight’s a gibbering mess after this. You were there when she had the freakout with the spider.” Matt muttered as he looked toward the door to the habitat.

“Oh I was, and you were there too. Perhaps you should go in and comfort her?” Lana asked innocently, and was rewarded with a glare that was decidedly acidic. “Seriously, we should probably check on her, she could probably use a friendly face or three about now.”

“I heard there was an alert—oh my,” Shen said as he entered the lab and caught sight of the hole in the ceiling. The moment passed, however and the job took over. He pulled a small camera from his jumper and started snapping pictures of the damage. “Well, we seem to be lucky this morning. I’m not seeing any electrical or piping damage on this floor, though I’ll have to check the other floors to determine if that’s the case for all the damage. Perhaps you kids should go see Twilight.”

“I…think I’ll stay and assist Doctor Shen,” Zhang spoke up, and both Lana and Matt shared a look before heading into the Habitat.

Kim and Twilight sat on the bed and were talking quietly, but both looked up and smiled at the new arrivals. “I’m glad you both could make it on such short notice,” Kim stood and said quickly. “As you’ve no doubt heard, testing did not go quite as planned. Please tell me you brought your cards.”

Lana grinned and produced her deck of cards out of one of her pockets. “Never leave home without them. So, how ‘bout it, Twily? I’m up for a nice relaxing game of Liar’s cards. You in, Kim?”

“Sure, sounds like fun.” The scientist said with a nod as she took a seat at the habitat’s guest table.

Lana slipped into a seat beside her and gave Twilight and Matt an enigmatic grin. Twilight’s response was a glare back at Lana as she took her seat, which left the last seat for Matt to occupy. I wonder what that look’s about… he thought as Lana began to deal the cards.

“All right, so what’s the topic now?” Lana asked as she looked over the table. “I’ve been choosing the topics lately so I figure you folks might like a chance to decide.”

“We’ve talked about our families a bit but I don’t think I heard about any of your parents. I’d like to hear about that if that’s alright,” Twilight asked with a smile. Both Matt and Kim nodded immediately, and Lana followed after just a second’s hesitation.

“All right, Twily chose the topic so she starts first.”

“Well, my mom and dad were very hard workers, though I didn’t get to see them as often as I’d like. My dad’s job was keeping street lamps going during the nights in Canterlot, so he usually slept during the day. Mom’s an author, which meant I would see a lot or a little of her depending on her deadlines. Also, one ace.”

“Oh, so that’s where you get it,” Lana said with a knowing smile. “Mom writes books, kid becomes bookish. Also, one two.” Her smile became a grin as Twilight scowled at her assessment.

“My parents were very… conservative,” Kim said as she rearranged her cards. “They owned a supermarket, of all things, and I’m certain they wanted me to inherit the family business once they retired. They were most displeased by my career choice, but they certainly didn’t turn down my offer to buy them a country home in Montana to live out their retirement. Oh, ah, two threes.”

“Dad was in the Army, but retired to help take care of me and my sister. He served for ten years before he resigned. Mom was a catering manager for a local restaurant and dining hall, I ended up working part time at the restaurant until I graduated and enlisted,” Matt explained, then picked a six and threw it onto the stack, “One four.”

“Liar!” Lana called immediately, and Matt’s reply was a burst of sotto voce profanity.

“It sounds like all of your parents worked really hard…but, I don’t think you mentioned yours, Lana?” Twilight placed a pair of cards on the table before turning to the female soldier.

“Well…” Lana started with a somewhat pained expression as she dropped a card on the table. She gave Matt a pleading look.

Fortunately, he was saved from having to change the subject as the light flicked on in Twilight’s head. “Oh…uh, you mentioned you just had your mom. I’m sorry; I didn’t mean to bring up something that would make you uncomfortable.”

“You have nothing to feel sorry for, Twily. My dad was there for a while, but I don’t remember what he did. Then it was just mom and me holding the family together. She did lots of jobs to make ends meet until I was old enough to enlist. All the money I make goes straight home to help mom and my brothers out.”

“That’s very dedicated of you, Lana,” Kim said sincerely as she put down a card of her own. “I certainly hope your current position allows you to make enough to help.”

Lana’s gaze fell upon Kim as though she were searching for some sign of pity or condescension, but was unable to find any so she simply smiled. “Thanks.”

“Come to think of it, some of your brothers are likely getting old enough to graduate, right?” Matt picked two cards and dropped them on the table while mirroring Kim’s sympathetic look. “My sister’s approaching the end of high school, and she’s being an insufferable lump about it. She has no idea what she wants to do.”

“She still hasn’t found out her talent? Tell her not to give up! I know three little fillies that can certainly sympathise.” Twilight smiled and put two cards down before she reached with her hooves to try and take another sip of water by holding her cup in her hooves.

“…why don’t you use your magic for that? Using hooves seems rather inconvenient. You’re using your magic on the cards after all,” Lana asked as she gave the attempt a doubtful look.

“Well… I know it sounds silly, but every time I think I should, I get this horrible feeling that the glass is going to punch a hole in the wall or hurt someone,” Twilight took a sip before continuing, “And I don’t think it’s possible to hurt people with playing cards.”

“I suppose that’s true… unless you’re Gambit.” The female soldier scratched her chin with her free hand before yelping and almost doubling over before turning to give Matt a withering glare.

“Better be more careful where you swing your legs, Lana, you’re liable to bang them against the table legs,” Matt said to explain away her reaction to his shin kick. We don’t need Twilight afraid that she can kill people with any little thing. She’d turn into a basket case, Matt thought and he prayed his return glare conveyed the message.

“Hey Matt, why don’t you be a pal and refill Twilight’s water? She’s almost out,” Lana suggested through clenched teeth as she glanced toward the unicorn.

Twilight looked from Lana to Matt, then back again so quickly that he briefly worried she’d strain her neck. “Oh, uh, that’s not necessary, really! Well…thank you.” She finally surrendered the cup while looking away. The behavior caused him to arch an eyebrow before he took the cup and headed towards the sink.

Lana’s teasing must really be getting to Twilight, Matt thought as the glass slowly filled with cold water. I know it must be embarrassing to get such harassment every time we’re together. I’ll have to convince her to stop being such a pest. Matt turned back to the table and set the glass down beside Twilight. Their eyes met for a fraction of a second before she looked away again and started fidgeting.

Oh.

Oh no.

Lana’s pained grin morphed into a smile befitting a Cheshire cat.

“…Lana, can I talk to you for a moment? Outside? Now?” Matt stated as much as asked, and he followed the female soldier out of the habitat and into the main testing area. Zhang was gone, but Charles was still surveying the damage to the ceiling.

“Lana, what’s going on with Twilight?” He asked bluntly, which caused Shen to glance their way.

“Oh, she’s going through the pains of youth,” Lana replied with a dreamy tone, but she dropped it when she saw the look on Matt’s face. “…you didn’t know? Are you serious? Man I knew you were dense but I can’t believe you’re just picking up on it now.”

“Oh God,” Matt muttered as he turned away and covered his face with his palm, “Oh dear God how do I handle this?”

This time Shen definitely took note of the conversation, and he moved to join the two soldiers. “What’s going on? You look rather troubled, Matt.”

Matt turned to try and explain, but no words came to him.

“Matt’s just a little shocked because he realized Twily has a liiiiiittle crush on him,” Lana explained, and she laughed while looking away.

“What?” Shen said flatly, “Are you serious? Oh my, this has the potential to turn out badly… How exactly did this happen? Do either of you know?”

“Oh, well, you know, a girl meets a boy and then something magical hap—“

“Bullshit!” Matt interrupted, “You did something, didn’t you? You told her something or pulled some kind of prank, or you’re working some kind of goddamn plan of yours. I know that look, Lana. What did you do? What. Did. You. Do.”

“Is that true, Jenkins?” Shen said, and his normally jovial expression and tone vanished. The anger wasn’t as easily identified as Matt’s; there was no indication beyond his clenched jaw and the narrowing of his eyes. “Are you using Twilight like that?”

The remains of Lana’s good mood withered and died as she looked away. “You remember how Twilight was after her first round of testing with Vahlen? How scared she was? She was an inch from doing something rash that would have gotten someone hurt. An inch. All I did was give her something to hope for.”

At this point Shen’s expression darkened further and Matt threw his hands up and turned away.

“She had no hope! None! When I gave her something to hope for she started to turn around, you all noticed it!” Lana quickly explained, and were Matt not so angry he might have noticed the note of desperation in her tone. “I thought I’d give her that little bit of hope until she found something else to hold on to. Then Matt starts acting like he knows what’s going on and it adds fuel to the fire. I honestly thought you knew and you were okay with it.”

“WHY IN GOD’S NAME WOULD I BE OKAY WITH THIS?” Matt whipped around and screamed. “Jesus Christ, Lana! Do you know how badly this could end up?” Any further ranting dissolved into incoherent growling as he turned away and took a swipe at the empty air before turning back.

“I am very disappointed in you, Lana,” Shen said evenly. “This is far beyond tolerable for a prank. Giving someone in Twilight’s situation such false hopes will only end badly.”

“…a false hope is better than no hope,” Lana said quietly as she looked down and clenched her jaw.

That was the last straw for Matt, “I seriously cannot believe you are still trying to justify this! Seriously, are you so fucked up in the head that you think what you did was right?”

“Yes, I am,” Lana growled from behind her gritted teeth. “I have been there. I know you think I don’t give a shit about anything, and to be honest, I don’t care anymore. I have been there. The place everyone ends up when they’ve lost all hope. I know what it’s like to have my happy little life destroyed by a monster that has absolute power over me. I know what it’s like to realize that I’m inches away from a death that I can’t do a goddamn thing about. So, if you please, keep your high and mighty preaching to yourself. Especially when I didn’t see you complaining when I was dragging your sorry ass out of the dumps, Harris.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Remember Strike One? The original Strike One?” Lana’s grin became vindictive when Matt recoiled as though he had been physically struck. “Yeah, now you’re starting to realize it. You, the lone survivor when the rest of your squad got wiped out. Who kept you from dwelling on that fact? Who? Yeah, that’s right. Before you complete your holy inquisition to burn me at the stake, I want you to realize that I’m not doing this shit purely for my own amusement. Now you go do what you have to and what happens afterward is your own damn fault.”

Matt spared a look to Shen, and when he looked back Jenkins was gone and the Stardust Labs door was starting to slide shut.

------

10:30, 05/02/2015, FITNESS CENTER

Lana had wandered for nearly an hour before she finally strode into the soldiers' fitness center and gym. To the vast majority of XCOM personnel she appeared to be her perfectly cheerful self. No one thought to question her as she strode to the locker room and came out with her workout sweats and combat gloves on as she made her way to the punching bags.

She did pause, however, when she caught sight of a clump of soldiers gathered near the mats, she detoured to see what the fuss was about.

The fuss was over six and a half feet of Russian muscle and pride, and it was asserting both on the rather less impressive private from Strike Two. Lacking a good six inches and at least fifty pounds, the unfortunate private limped out of the ring with a pained expression.

“BAH! Come on, do not tell me that none of you elite soldiers can take me down? At least little Holiday had the guts to try!” The Russian monster yelled, and the crowd groaned and started to disperse…so Lana stepped up.

“Oh, you look like fun. I’d like to give it a shot,” Lana shouted as she wormed her way towards the mats.

“What’s this? Little girl wants a challenge?” The Russian monster laughed, though it quickly died down once he realized that the onlookers had gone completely quiet. “Well then, I’ll go easy on you. It would be terrible if I broke you too badly to go on missions, yes?” The monster grinned as he noticed bets were being made in the crowd, though his grin faltered once he overheard the majority of the bets were concerning how long he would last.

Lana grinned all the wider and added a bit of sweetness to it. “Oh my, that’s very generous of you. Please go easy on me, okay?” With her sickeningly sweet grin still on her face she walked over to the gear rack and retrieved a set of headgear before assuming her place opposite of the monster.

“Jenkins, Jenkins…” A voice came from the crowd, and the newly promoted Lieutenant Paul Dryzimski padded over to the female soldier. “Jenkins, what’s wrong? I know that look.”

“Why, whatever do you mean?” Lana asked in reply, and Paul blanched as the grin came to face him completely.

Rather than press the issue, Paul backed off then turned to the monster. “Do svidaniya,” he said simply as he patted the monster on the shoulder and then stepped out of the ring.

“All right, kids, you know the drill. No broken bones, no injuries that puts anyone out of the lineup for missions. That clear?” The referee, Lieutenant Fujikawa, said as she looked from the monster to Lana.

“Yeppers!” Lana said and she began to bounce up and down on her feet. With nearly a foot less height and combined with that silly grin, she looked like a little kid when compared to her opponent. That’s the look I’m going for…

Fujikawa gave the female soldier a flat look before blowing a short blast with her whistle. Two seconds later the Russian monster was out of the ring and struggling to breathe, and Lana was still bouncing and grinning.

The bouncing, of course, was a feint. The monster expected a high blow to the head or shoulders, but Lana had timed her landing with her legs bent when the whistle blew, and she sprang straight forward. Right closed fist executed a perfect diaphragm strike, left palm heel strike to the sternum caused him to stumble backward. Left foot hooked behind monster’s right leg, exacerbating stumble. Monster recovers footing but is now outside fighting area on mats.

Point to Lana.

“Fucking dyke,” The monster wheezed as he stepped back into the ring.

The grin disappeared.

A hand nearly as big as Lana’s entire head swooped down and slapped her with enough force to cause her to fall to the ground.

“FUCKING DYKE! HOW COULD YOU DO THIS TO ME?” The monster screamed at her. She tried to straighten but the monster backhanded her with a closed fist. Pain exploded around her eye and Lana fell to the ground.

“D-dad, I was just joking. It was a joke!” a young voice tried to explain.

Stay quiet, Bill, it’s not your fault. Let big sis Lana deal with this. She pleaded silently, and she cringed as she heard flesh connect and the boy cry out.

“Don’t you lie to me, boy!” The monster growled, “I bet you get that from your mother. She’s corrupting you. You come home with stories about this thing chasing other girls and then you try to cover it up? The fucking dyke is too far gone, she’s not going to shame this family anymore.”

A boot sped into her chest and Lana felt something break inside of her. The pain was too great…all she could do was curl up into a ball and wait for the pain to stop.

“Danny, stop, you’ll kill her!” Her mother cried, and she too was silenced by the monster.

“DID I SAY YOU COULD SPEAK?” The monster roared at her before an unsettling calm fell over the scene. “I bet you two were in on it together, right? What better way to ruin my life than to have little Lana be a carpet muncher, right? I won’t tolerate any dykes in my house.” The monster’s voice drew close to Lana, and she cringed preemptively against the blow she knew was coming.

“DANNY, STOP.”

The sound of flesh striking, followed by a crash and glass breaking, and silent sobs.

“This is my house, bitch! I’ve had enough of you two questioning my authority and corrupting my sons.” Heavy footsteps moved away, followed by keys jingling and a lock opening. A squeaky door wailed as it was thrown open. Only one door in the house makes that noise. The gun cabinet.

“Bitches and dykes,” The monster muttered over the sound of two shotgun shells getting loaded into the breach. “It’s about time I use you two to set a positive example for the boys. Deviants will not be tolerated. Back talk will not be tolerated.” The click of the breach closing fills the room.

“Danny, don’t!”

“Daddy, stop!”

A struggle started, and Lana does her best to rise and make her move. She had only one chance.

“GODDAMN IT, BOY. You get out of my way or God help me I will shoot you too.” Lana’s eye had swollen to the point that she could no longer see what was going on to her side, but she still winced in sympathy as she heard the dull thud of a rifle stock striking someone repeatedly.

“Danny…Danny, you don’t have to do this,” Her mother pleaded, “Just put the gun down and we can talk ab—“

“Talk? TALK? That’s all you ever do is talk!” The monster yelled, “Talk talk talk, all day and night. I’m sure you talked Lana into the life of sin she’s now in, and you’re going to try and talk me into forgiving her. Well haven’t you heard the good news sweetheart? GOD FORGIVES BUT I SURE AS HELL DON’T.”

BANG.

The monster’s back, once was powerful and muscled, disappeared in a cloud of blood and pulverized meat. He toppled forward wordlessly; dead before he landed on the floor.

Lana looked down the barrel of the shotgun she had retrieved from the locker. She couldn’t hold it steady and it dropped to the floor.

“Point to Jenkins, that’s the end of the match!”

Lana found herself being pulled back and her vision snapped back into focus. The monster…the Russian monster lay on the mat before her with his arms up to try and defend his already bloody face. Several welts were already clearly visible along his arms, chest and abdomen, but the most noticeable features were on his face.

His lip was cut and bleeding and a massive welt was developing along the left side of his face…but the most striking change was the fear in his eyes. Not the fear of pain or injury. Fear of her.

“Jesus, Jenkins. You looked like you were going to murder him with your bare hands,” Paul whispered once Lana had gotten back up to her feet. “Seriously, what’s wrong with you?”

“Him.”

A new challenger had entered the ring, who was just securing his own combat gloves and headgear while giving Lana his own level stare.

“I should have known you’d be here,” Matt said grimly.

Lana stepped away from the Lieutenant and reentered the ring with a grin that was less warm and sweet than cold and shark-like. “And I’m glad you found me. To be perfectly honest I’ve wanted this to happen for a long time.”

“And I’ve wanted to smack you just about every time you open your mouth these days..” Matt replied, and he didn’t even attempt to smile back.

Lana began to bounce on her feet as she answered back. “Well then, someone is going to be rather disappointed by the end of this match.”

“Yeah, the one who’ll be disappointed is back at the Stardust Lab.”

The grin disappeared again. “I’m not wrong. Nothing you say or do will change what I know is right.” Lana stopped her bouncing and widened her stance, and her eyes began to narrow. Matt mirrored her movements, and the entire room held its breath—

“STRIKE ONE, ASSEMBLE FOR DEPLOYMENT. STRIKE TWO, ASSEMBLE FOR DEPLOYMENT. STRIKE THREE—“

The public announcement system drowned out the collective groan of the onlookers but they didn’t let their disappointment slow them down as they flooded towards the ready room.

Paul gave both Matt and Lana something not quite severe enough to be a glare. “Ready room you two. Now. Whatever this is, it can wait.”

Neither soldier acknowledged the order but both stepped back and turned to follow.

------

10:35, 05/02/2015, ENGINEERING

The engineers and workers toiling away in the workshop had been with Charles Shen long enough to know that if he wasn’t smiling then it would be best to stay out of his way. Such was the case when Charles stormed into the workshop that his normally friendly coworkers and subordinates hunched down or otherwise lowered their profiles to avoid attracting his wrath.

“Crowley, Hamill! Testing in one of the science labs resulted in damage to the facility that we need to repair now. Drop what you’re doing and follow me.” Shen barked without even looking at the two men he called. The two luckless engineers literally dropped what they were doing and ran to catch up with Shen’s long strides. “Where’s Zhang?”

“Here, sir.” Zhang reported from somewhere behind Shen as though he had materialized out of thin air.

“Good.” Shen stated as they headed towards the storage rooms. “The testing misfire didn’t damage any complex components such as electrical or networking, it’s mainly structural damage that will need to be repaired. I expect these repairs to be completed within—“

Shen stopped in his tracks as his head whipped around to the storage room dedicated to holding alien materials. A soft glow could be seen emanating from the door’s viewport. The engineer took a turn right for the door and swiped his access badge across the lock reader before pushing the door open.

Dozens of crates filled with various curios which included weapon fragments retrieved in the field to complete computer systems torn from crashed UFOs lined the shelves, but sitting on the center table was a small box-like device covered in alien lettering that glowed with enough light to illuminate it’s section of the room. Shen scowled at the device as he approached, before turning back to the door and yelling, “WHICH ONE OF YOU MEATHEADS LEFT AN ALIEN DEVICE ACTIVATED IN STORAGE!?”

“…that’s the beacon I delivered to you in Hong Kong…” Zhang muttered under his breath.

“Uh…sir?” Hamill said tentatively, which brought the wrath of the usually cheerful engineer upon him. “T-The power switch we found is set to the ‘off’ position.”

Shen turned back to the device and just like the engineer had said, the power switch that had been identified was set in the off position. There was no cabling to power the device…the Elerium battery had been removed as well, and yet it was now active.

“New plan. You two prep the beacon for transport. I need to talk to Bradford n--.”

“Shen, Bradford.” The comms headset around Shen’s neck buzzed, and he brought it up to his ear with a perplexed look.

“Ah… This is Shen…”

------

10:45, 05/02/2015, BRIEFING ROOM

Six full strike teams complete with full kit packed themselves into the briefing room as Bradford entered. Immediately the chatter died and the briefing began without preamble.

“Approximately fifteen minutes ago, satellite detection discovered alien craft entering our atmosphere. Four scout-class saucers and a fifth ship that’s bigger than anything previously encountered. Current heading is this base’s current position.” Bradford said as a flurry of images appeared on the screen behind him. As he finished his first statement, the room collectively sucked in its breath.

“Doctor Shen reports that salvage thought to be a beacon spontaneously activated at approximately the same time. The leading theory is that this beacon is drawing the enemies to us, so the operation has two objectives. The first objective will be carried out by Strike One. This mission will be to deliver the now-active alien beacon to a cargo train waiting in a yard near this urban center, then engage the train’s locomotive to draw the battleship’s formation away from both this base and population centers. Sergeant Harris, Private Jenkins, you two will be in charge of carrying and deploying the beacon. I am authorizing the use of Wallflower equipment for this operation, so please retrieve it. The beacon will be waiting for you.”

Matt and Lana wordlessly separated from the mob of soldiers and headed towards the exit.

“The second part of the operation will be detailed in the Skyrangers while the first part is underway. Dismissed.”

------

10:55, 05/02/2015, STARDUST LABS

Twilight’s game of solitaire was going horribly. After Lana and Matt left the game prematurely, Kim had taught Twilight a game she could play all by herself. With solitaire, she could kill time when there was nothing to do between testing or visits, Kim said. It’s a fun way to pass the time, Kim said.

This game… Twilight stared at the predicament she now found herself in, and she had to resist the urge to flip the table over in frustration. For the third time, she found herself with no options to reveal more cards or add to existing stacks. Which meant the game was lost.

Breathe in…breathe out.

Twilight was just about to reshuffle the cards when the door to her habitat opened and in came a rather stressed-looking Matt and Lana. Both were now wearing bulky segmented vests and a plethora of tools and gadgets around their belts, including a silvery pronged hammer that made her distinctly uncomfortable. There also appeared to be full-face helmets in their hands. Matt in particular appeared to have a large backpack slung over his shoulders.

Both of her friends also had several bits of English language written on their clothes, on the front of each was spelled H-A-R-R-I-S and J-E-N-K-I-N-S. Something about those words…

“Twily, I hate to just drop in and make demands…” Lana said quickly, “…but we need a really big favor. Can you cast Wallflower on us?”

“What? Why? I-I thought I wasn’t supposed to use that anymore. I don’t want to get either of you in trouble…” Twilight started, but the impatient looks the two gave each other caused her to pause. “There’s something terrible going on, isn’t there?”

“I’m…afraid so, Twilight. We need to go out and stop it from happening, but in order to do that we need Wallflower,” Matt explained quickly. “We need it now, time is of the essence.”

“Okay…” Twilight murmured, and she cast the spell on them. “It’s done. Good luck!”

“Thanks!” Lana chirped.

“Thanks, Twilight,” Matt agreed, and they both turned to leave the habitat as they slipped their helmets on. “Harris here. Jenkins and I are en route to the hangar. ETA is five minutes.”

Twilight might have waved goodbye but she was too distracted as the pieces fell into place in her mind.

Twilight moved to follow but hesitated when she saw they were no longer alone. Two more humans were in the corridor. They wore thick segmented vests and rather scary full-face helmets, and wrapped around their waists and legs were an impressive amount of pockets and pouches. One carried a large metal tool in its claws that looked like a metal box with two pipes sprouting from the end. The other carried two smaller tools, one that looked almost exactly like the one that Charles had when they first met, while the other looked like a silvery hammer with prongs protruding from the head. The second tool looked familiar but Twilight couldn’t put her hoof on just why that was, so rather than dither any longer she stepped outside to stand beside Charles.

“Are these your friends too?” She asked hesitantly, and Charles gave a nod in response.

“I suppose they are. This is Corporal Harris…” The human indicated to the twin-tool user, who nodded slightly but otherwise didn’t respond, “…and this is Private Jenkins. They’ll be joining us on our short walk to the quarters we’ve arranged for you.”

Matt looked to Twilight sympathetically and said, “When we first found you, Twilight, you were defending yourself from imminent death and that thing you killed would have killed more people afterward.”

Buildings burned around her.

Three humans dead across the clearing.

The bug crushed in front of her.

The shadow falling over her.

She looks over her shoulder and sees another human in armor and pointing the silver tool at her.

A flash of pain, then darkness.

She awakes in a giant glass jar surrounded by humans with unfriendly faces.

The walls of the jar open up and the limbs reach towards her…

Twilight swallowed and tried to breathe in and out as she grappled with the realization that Matt, her friend, had been the one who had brought her here in the first place.

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