• 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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The Deal

BREAKING NEWS: NATIONAL GUARD AND POLICE FORCES REPORTED PATROLLING CITIES IN NORTH DAKOTA WHILE SETTING ROAD BLOCKS TO PREVENT TRAVEL OUT OF URBAN CENTERS. ATTEMPTS TO QUESTION SOLDIERS REGARDING THE NATURE OF THEIR ORDERS RESULTS IN IMMEDIATE ARREST AND DETAINMENT BY ALL WHO APPROACH.

BREAKING NEWS: OBSERVERS OUTSIDE AIR PORTS REPORT DRASTICALLY REDUCED NUMBERS OF AIR GUARD AIRCRAFT RETURNING TO BASE. AIRCRAFT SPOTTED ARE REPORTED TO SHOW SIGNS OF DAMAGE AND RECENT CONFLICT. FEDERAL AND STATE AUTHORITIES FOR THE GUARD UNITS IN QUESTION REFUSED COMMENT.

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13:10, 05/02/2015, STARDUST LABS

Twilight sat on her bed with her eyes closed as she maintained her concentration on the Wallflower spell. Since her first attempt at using the spell she had become much more familiar with the amount of energy needed to maintain the effect, and she was able to further refine it after the testing that was done on it. All these improvements meant less concentration was needed to maintain the affect, which meant that she could let her mind wander if she wanted it to or not.

Why would Matt lie like that? Why would he say… Twilight caught herself as she realized Matt had never actually said anything about his part in her capture. It wasn’t so much a direct lie as a lie of omission. Why wouldn’t he say anything about that day? Is he hiding it because he feels guilty? Or some other reason?

For the third time since the revelation became known to her, Twilight reviewed everything that had happened since she had arrived. There had been questions, so many questions about herself, her people, her world, and her abilities; and now that she had time to consider she realized that her own questions in response were steered toward personal anecdotes or non-answers that didn’t really tell her what she wanted to know.

Charles said that I was a guest and that I could help answer questions, but the more I think about it the more it seems like I’m doing all the talking. Why are some things blocked on the ‘internet’ they let me use? And why won’t they let me leave more often? Why… Twilight’s mind continued to ask question after question to try and make sense of the situation she now found herself in. Did Matt not tell the truth because he thought that would ruin his chances…with me?

That last thought started to snowball in Twilight’s mind even as she considered it. Wait wait wait, Lana said Matt felt that way, but what if he felt that way the first time he saw me. Then he took me here to…to…

Ponyville’s library held a variety of books in both fiction and nonfiction, and Twilight was always proud of the fact that she had read almost every single one from cover to cover. Not only could she locate almost every book by memory but she could also give a synopsis and recommendation for them as well. The few exceptions to her comprehensive knowledge were a series of books that her mother had donated when Twilight had been installed as the librarian there. Twilight hadn’t understood the note that was included with the books (“I know you go to books for help, dear, so I hope these will help you find someone nice to bring home every once and a while. Just remember it’s much more fun with a partner!”) Until she had started reading them.

To say that some of the situations that the mares and stallions found themselves in over the course of the books weren’t suitable for polite conversation, or general consumption at a public library, was an understatement. Twilight’s embarrassment about the content of the books had morphed into horror when she realized the penname of the author was the same one her mother wrote with. She promptly boxed up every last one and hid them away where nopony would ever find them while she did her best to scrub the contents of the one book she did read from her mind.

Unfortunately for Twilight, the contents of the book were coming back to her now. A dungeon, a prisoner and a sympathetic guard? Is this how human relationships normally work!? Oh no no no no— The door to her living quarters opened and Twilight recoiled in horror at the sound instinctually.

Rather than something from her horror-fuelled imagination what the door revealed was Doctor Vahlen. She looked marginally more refreshed since the last time Twilight saw her as well as wearing her usual suit and lab coat, and her tablet was tucked under one arm. “Good afternoon, Twilight. I have some good news from… Twilight? What’s wrong?”

“Nothing! Nothing’s wrong. What’s the good news?” Twilight said quickly while she plastered a hasty smile on her face. Don’t think about it, don’t think about it, don’t think about it.

If Vahlen noticed Twilight’s anxiety she didn’t address it as she answered, “Matt and Lana’s operation is complete, so you can cease the ability you have cast upon them. And I was hoping you might be able to assist me with reviewing some material from another project. Our recent tests have made me review previous information and I was hoping your expertise on certain subjects might provide new insight.”

“Sure, I’d be happy to help!” Twilight answered immediately as she hopped off the bed. Her next question came after a few moments hesitation, “Are Matt and Lana alright? And mister Zhang, too?”

Vahlen’s gaze fell down and to the side. “I’m afraid I do not know. I’m sure the moment they get back they’ll come to visit and let you know themselves.” She stepped into the room and took a seat at the table before placing her tablet on the table. “If you would please have a seat, we can get started. These pictures are magnified to a significant degree, and they show what appears to be circuitry made out of Elerium. Traditional circuitry uses electricity that flows down certain paths to create specific results, but we have thus far been unable to find the purpose behind this circuitry since Elerium cannot conduct Electricity as well as other more common elements.”

Twilight hopped up into the chair and looked down at the picture displayed on the tablet. It was grainy and in black and white, but she was able to make out the lines of ‘circuitry’. The picture began to scroll to reveal more, and Twilight gasped. “This is amazing! It looks like the spell matrix needed to gather energy from the Field! Most unicorns do this instinctually, but Starswirl the Bearded was able to codify virtually every spell during his time and document spell matrices like this one.”

“So, this circuitry is used to artificially reproduce the effects of your spells?” Vahlen quickly asked, and Twilight might have been a little concerned about the hunger in the scientist’s eyes if she wasn’t so surprised by the picture in front of her.

“Well, I don’t know. Most basic magic can be done instinctively with enough practice, and more difficult spells often require an aria or incantation for a unicorn to use. Only the highest level magic practitioners use the actual matrix of a spell to get the desired effects. Spell matrices allow for much greater fine control and precision than an aria, but it’s often too complex for the average unicorn to use. This right here is the first step in the spell casting process, where the energy is gathered to be used.” Twilight looked down at the picture again before looking back to Vahlen. “Where did you find this? It’s simply amazing that someone was able to make something like this!”

Vahlen’s eagerness halted as she looked away. Twilight could see her swallow before clearing her throat. “This sample of circuitry was retrieved from an implant found inside the bodies of the invaders that attacked us several months ago,” Vahlen said slowly and she tapped the tablet. The picture shifted to what appeared to be an X-Ray image of the head of a creature Twilight had never seen before, and three white dots in close proximity were highlighted and labeled. Before she could dwell on that particular bit of knowledge, Vahlen tapped one of the dots on the image and another image appeared. “Can you tell me what this one does?”

“Well… this one looks like a receiver of some sort. It doesn’t specify the place of origin for whatever it’s receiving, but it seems like it would be getting something. Possibly a signal or a message or even the effects of another spell? Sorry, but this one is entirely unfamiliar to me.”

“Ah, I see,” Vahlen’s enthusiasm dropped just a shade but it didn’t stop her from switching to the next picture with almost indecent haste, “And this one?”

“This is…” Twilight started to say, but her eyes widened with horror as the image scrolled to show the complete circuit. “This is an abomination. This matrix is specifically designed for attacking the mind of a target by supplanting its free will. This is… this is an abuse of magic that would warrant banishment and exile were it even attempted back home.” Her horror morphed into disgust and outrage. “This abuse of power should not be tolerated!”

“Ah, I see,” Vahlen said. She paused to collect her thoughts before addressing Twilight again. “I know this must come as a shock to you, Twilight. To see something that you clearly hold dear to you misused in such a way. The abilities that these implants give our enemies have always been something that we have been unable to combat since we did not understand even the basic rules that governed them. That is, until you arrived. Twilight, can you help us find a way to fight these monsters?”

The last comment snapped Twilight out of her moral outrage. They need my help. If what Matt and Lana and Zhang go out to fight every day has these… things implanted in them, then they need my help to fight it. They have no knowledge of magic or the matrices so they have no way to defend against it or utilize it for themselves. But is it right for me to help them make things that will hurt other living creatures? The memory of the alien screaming death threats against her came to mind, as did Vahlen’s admission of losing family she clearly cherished. With those memories so fresh, Twilight made her decision.

“I’ll do it. If it’s to help you and your people survive, then you have a deal. What do you need?”

“Nothing too drastic at the moment, Twilight,” Vahlen said with a genuine smile, “Since these ‘spell matrices’ are a new thing for us, I’d like to create something simple that can be used as a proof of concept that these Elerium circuits can be created to do what we want.”

Twilight nodded, “I think I have just the thing in mind.”

------

15:00, 05/02/2015, BRIEFING ROOM

“… and thirty-three fatalities reported across all branches of operation, as well as twelve wounded across all branches. Of the twelve wounded, ten are expected to recover enough to be used in future operations.” Paul Dryzimski finished his summary before looking up at Bradford.

“Thank you, Lieutenant, you may be seated,” Bradford said, and he gave each of the squad leaders a look while not sparing a glance to the two empty seats in the debriefing room. “We lost a lot of good men and women today, but we gave the aliens a bloody nose that they’ll not forget for a long time. We showed them that not only can we destroy the ships they send to Earth, but we can steal them right out from under them. And we also saved a major urban center from being attacked as well as maintaining the secrecy of this base.”

“I know it doesn’t feel like it, but this was a victory. Inform your squads they’ve earned a bit of rest and I’ll make arrangements for the mess hall to prepare something extra for them,” Bradford added. “Are there any questions? No? Dismissed.” With that, Bradford turned to leave.

“Sir? Permission to speak freely?” Bradford recognized Uther, the Strike Two team leader, speak up. The commander turned to see all four commanders were standing but none had moved from their seats.

A united front? They must all want to have Uther’s concerns addressed. “Granted.”

“Thank you, sir. I…I lost half my squad today taking over the engine room of the battleship. Privates Enderton and Johnson, and Sergeant Beecham all died bravely, and Corporal Holiday will never walk again after the hit he took. Strike Three died to a man defending the central section of the ship and accounted for dozens of kills before they were overwhelmed.” Uther swallowed and took a deep breath.

“They all served valiantly, and their sacrifices won’t be forgotten, Lieutenant. And requests for reinforcements have been filed that will bring both Strike One and Two up to full strength. Assistant Squad Leaders from Strike Seven and Ten have been chosen to lead the reconstituted Strike Three and Four as soon as the reinforcements arrive as well.” Bradford said solemnly, but he stopped when he saw Uther’s knuckles go white around the tablet he held at his side.

“But they wouldn’t need to be replaced if they had been given the proper tools.” Uther started, and Bradford could see the monumental effort he was making to not yell. “Three of my boys were dead when Strike One came to reinforce us in the engine room, and Harris and Jenkins just walk right up to the entrenched position and shot the aliens in the back without a single shot fired against them.”

“Begging your pardon, sir, but I think Uther’s right,” Dryzimski added. “During the first part of the operation, Sergeant Harris and Private Jenkins didn’t have a single shot fired at them despite being in close proximity to the enemy infantry on several occasions. The only reason I can think that they were so completely ignored is the ‘Wallflower’ equipment they were given prior to the mission, and it’s because of that that we succeeded in our objectives.”

“Exactly. With all due respect, we could have suffered significantly fewer casualties in this mission had this ‘Wallflower’ equipment been more widely dispersed among the troops. I understand that the testing process for new equipment must be completed before mass production and dispersal may begin, but if it is working well enough to be used in the field by two soldiers then why isn’t it being used by more?”

“Because it isn’t working well enough,” Bradford replied sternly. “The equipment used by Private Jenkins failed at a critical moment which resulted in her injury in the field, and Harris’s equipment failed shortly after. The technology itself is extremely temperamental and I only authorized its deployment with those two soldiers because they are extremely familiar with its use due to their volunteer work. Until it is completely developed I cannot authorize mass deployment.”

Lying to protect my subordinates, Bradford thought distastefully, but he kept the emotion from appearing on his face. If they knew the source of the ‘equipment’ I doubt they’d be so keen to have it on them when they go out on the field. Then again, if they knew the source was still alive and in the base, they’d start to have doubts. After this mission our morale can’t take that kind of hit. “As soon as it becomes available, Strike teams will get the new equipment.”

“Understood, sir,” Uther replied as he and the others turned to leave, except for Dryzimski.

“Any further questions, Lieutenant?” Bradford asked, and an eyebrow rose an increment when he noticed just how pale Paul had become.

“Ah, no sir. Just thinking that I should go see the rest of my squad,” The lieutenant answered, and beat a hasty retreat in the wake of his colleagues.

Bradford didn’t say a word as the last man left the room, nor did he voice the nagging suspicion that he wasn’t the only person in the room who had been telling lies.

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16:46, 05/02/2015, STARDUST LABS

Twilight stretched before pushing herself away from her desk to head towards her sink. I didn’t think Vahlen would have been so enthusiastic about creating a simple device to detect magic. I originally suggested it as a safe option rather than something flashy, but I didn’t think she’d want exactly that. Twilight thought as she somewhat clumsily filled the glass up by the sink.

Her attempt to fill the glass wasn’t helped when the door to her quarters came open unexpectedly. Twilight whipped around expecting to see Matt or Lana, but instead she saw Joel enter along with another person she had never seen before that gave her pause. This newcomer was a giant, standing nearly a head taller than Joel, as well as being far broader at the shoulder and waist as well. A significant amount of hair sprouted from his face as well, running down the sides of his face and along his jaw line as well as framing what was probably his only welcoming feature: A warm smile.

“Good afternoon, Twilight,” Joel said, and he nodded to the man beside him. “This is Frank McKendrick. He’s a doctor here at the base that would like to have a word with you.”

“Hello, Twilight. May I call you Twilight, or do you prefer something else since we have just been introduced?” Frank asked politely and with an accent that Twilight had never heard before. The accent, combined with the polite speech and disarming smile, caused her to adjust her opinion of the man. He’s like one of Fluttershy’s bears. Big and scary unless you’re a friend.

“Twilight’s fine, I suppose. Do you prefer Frank?” Twilight asked as she walked towards her table and hopped up onto her seat. When Frank nodded, she continued, “What kind of doctor are you?”

“I help anyone who has problems that can’t be fixed with a bandage, medicine or time,” Frank replied cryptically as he took the seat opposite of Twilight. “Ah, you’ll have to forgive my little quirks. I know everyone on base so I don’t get to give my mysterious explanation that often. I help maintain the mental health of all the base personnel.”

“Mental health? Is that such a common problem with humans that you need doctors specifically for that?” Twilight asked, and no sooner had the last word left her mouth did she realize what she was implying. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean that! I don’t think you’re all crazy I swear!”

Frank’s response was a rumbling chuckle. “My professors would always jokingly say ‘there’s no such thing as sanity, only degrees of disorder.’ I think that’s a verbose way of describing job security, but that’s another of my little quirks. It was actually because of my work that I was hoping to talk to you for a little bit today.”

Twilight head-tilted in response. “Why me?”

“Professional curiosity, officially. Unofficially you’re just about the only thing the research team talks about, plus Mr. Harris and Ms. Jenkins too.”

What? They’re talking about me? What are they saying!? Twilight wanted to scream, but she restrained herself. “Professional curiosity? I’m not certain how I fit in with that.”

“Human personalities develop mostly from the accumulation of their experiences over the course of their lives. On our world we are the only sapient race so my field is strictly restricted to other humans… normally. When I heard about your existence, I must admit I wanted to talk to you as soon as I could to see just how similar we are mentally.” Frank clasped his hands in front of him and leaned forward. “Do you mind if we talk for a bit?”

“Sure, I suppose I don’t mind. I did need a break from Vahlen’s project, so this works out.” Twilight explained, “So what did you want to talk about?”

“Well, I was speaking with Joel here, and I was very interested in the schools that you mentioned. Before becoming Celestia’s personal student, did you attend a public school with others your age?” Frank asked as he pulled out a small pad of paper and a pen to write.

“Technically, no. I did a lot of self-study on magic after seeing Celestia raise the sun, and my parents enrolled me in Celestia’s School for Gifted Unicorns,” Twilight explained with a smile of her own as she remembered that moment. “I wasn’t really a part of the normal student body since I was taken as Celestia’s personal student immediately after the entrance exams.”

“That’s rather impressive! You must have performed quite well during the exams to gain the notice of the headmistress of the school.” Frank smiled widely as he scribbled a bit in the notepad.

“I probably did a little too well, if that’s possible. The test was to hatch a dragon egg using magic. I managed to hatch the dragon… and make it grow fifty feet tall… and levitated the judges… and turned my parents into potted plants.” Twilight’s explanation started out strong but the longer she continued the weaker her voice became.

“That’s… impressive.” Frank said after a long moment of silence and scribbling in his notes. Before he could elaborate further, Twilight interrupted.

“It wasn’t! During the initial test I couldn’t do anything. I was so scared of the judges and letting my parents down that I couldn’t even form a proper spell to attempt!” Twilight rattled off quickly. “I had given up but got startled during the test and started pulling too much power. Levitating the judges and turning my parents into plants was a result of the excess power escaping my control! If Princess Celestia hadn’t been there to stop me, I could have died.”

“Aha, I see. Can you tell me about Celestia?”

Twilight cleared her throat and explained, “She’s Princess of Equestria, who is responsible for raising the sun in the sky each day.”

“Mhm, I’m sure that’s what it says in all the books back home,” The doctor replied with a nod. Twilight gave him a suspicious look so he continued, “I’m certain you could tell me all about her history and what she’s capable of doing and what her duties currently are. But you’ve known her personally for years, yes? What’s she like as a person? Or pony, if you prefer.”

The question actually gave Twilight pause. “She’s kind… but she’s also just a bit distant. She’s lived for over a thousand years so I suspect she’s aware of the fact that I’ll come and go in the blink of her eyes. Despite that, she still cares about me, and about everyone. Though the letter she sent has me worried that she’s blaming herself for me ending up here. She really shouldn’t, it was my own mistake that got me here.”

“That mistake being the bet you made with…Discord, was it?” The doctor looked to Joel, who nodded. “Why was it your mistake?”

“Because Celestia told us that Fluttershy would be the best one to reform Discord. And Discord must have known it, too, otherwise he wouldn’t have offered the bet. And now that I’m gone the Elements can’t be used against him! Luna said he was imprisoned but nothing can hold him for long except for petrification, and that can’t be done without the Elements...” Twilight began to worry over her tail before looking to Frank. His smile was still in place.

“It’s not your mistake to want to do everything you can for your teacher, especially since it’s quite apparent that you greatly value her respect. It’s Discord’s fault for taking advantage of your willingness to please.” Frank explained gently, “And… I hate to impose, but I’m really a fan of all the art you’ve produced so far, but I don’t think I’ve seen a picture of Discord yet. Do you have something drawn already for him? Or might I ask you to draw him now?”

“Well, I don’t see why not,” Twilight stopped worrying over her tail and levitated a set of pencils and a blank sheet of paper over to the desk. Immediately the pencils went to work on the paper to outline Discord’s serpentine form, the mismatched limbs and crazed expression. The entire process took less than thirty seconds before she presented it to the two humans in the room.

“Well, I think I can safely say that’s no product of natural evolution,” Joel said after a long moment.

“Discord is apparently a being of magical origins. His exact creation is something of a myth, but the leading theory is that he is the manifestation of negative emotions on the magical field. Discord hasn’t made a point of correcting or confirming the theory, and neither has Celestia so it’ll stay just that for now.” Twilight said with a shrug.

“Interesting… do you mind if I ask what he’s like? I would understand if it is an uncomfortable sub—“

“He’s crazy,” Twilight replied flatly. Both Frank and Joel chuckled at the immediate response, so Twilight elaborated. “He has power, loads of power as well as the capacity to use it at any time. Anyone else who uses magic needs specific spells, aria and matrices to create the effects they desire but Discord doesn’t need them. He can simply manifest his will upon the world by directly manipulating the field. It’s his erratic nature that makes him such a threat; it’s also his weakness. Were he to participate in an orthodox duel he could likely overpower everyone that he goes up against, but he doesn’t because he prefers to toy with anypony nearby.”

“I… also may have heard that he was petrified for a thousand years? If he was conscious during that time but without the ability to move or use his senses then I think that would have a corrosive effect on his sanity,” Frank said after a long moment. “It’s just a theory. Most humans can’t stand sensory deprivation for long without negative side effects.”

“I never thought of it that way,” Twilight trailed off as she considered that bit of information. What if Discord hadn’t always been that way? What if his thousand years of stone made him what he is now? If that’s the case, then what was he like before? “Even if that were the case, I don’t think I could forgive him very easily for what he did to my friends.”

“Ah, I do believe I heard about this as well. It sounds like you value your friends back home very highly.”

“I do,” Twilight nodded. “They’re the best friends I’ve ever had, and they are always able to help me when I come to them with a problem. I just wish they’d come to me now.” The unicorn finished her thought with what she hoped was a sincere sounding laugh.

“I’m sure they will find you soon. And…may I ask about your friends that you’ve made here? What can you tell me about them?” The doctor ended his question with a flip of his notepad to start a fresh sheet of paper.

“Well, I suppose things got off to a rough start…” The twitching corpse of the giant insect she murdered; the harrowing escape from her cell; the testing of her abilities… “But once I got to know everyone, things started to get better.” Matt regretting the blood on his hands; Charles losing his family; Vahlen’s shocking admission to Twilight. The memories of the past month came back to the unicorn as she continued to explain. Her most recent revelations prompted her next question.

“Where are Lana and Matt? They left in a hurry and no one seems to have an answer as to when they’ll be back.” Twilight asked as calmly as she could. The last time they left like this, Matt got hurt really badly and no one told me anything until he came to visit. I need to ask Matt if it really was him that brought me here… and why. And why he hid it from me.

Twilight wasn’t so far lost in her own thoughts that she missed the look that Frank and Joel exchanged before the doctor answered, “They’re still on their way back to us. If I see them I’ll send them to you as quickly as I can.”

“Thank you.”

Frank nodded before changing subjects. “Apologies for going off on a tangent like that. I did have a couple of other questions though. You mentioned your former caretaker is now married to your brother? I imagine that must have been a very happy day for you.”

“Well, to be honest, I was pretty mad when I first heard…”

------

17:30, 05/02/2015, MESS HALL

Matt grabbed a biscuit from the food lines and headed towards the usual tables that Strike One sat at. His eyes absently swept across what now appeared to be a barren and abandoned mess hall. So many empty chairs. Yesterday this place was packed. The tables usually taken by Strike Three and Four were all empty, and he could remember the groups of soldiers huddled over their dishes and wolfing it down like it was their last meal.

Their last meal.

Matt reached his usual spot and pulled the chair out before sitting down. His gaze travelled down the table to the seats that the rest of the team usually sat at. The rest of the team. They’re dead. Again. And I’m not. Again. They should be here. I shouldn’t. The moment the thoughts sprung up in his head, he growled and tore a bite out of the plain biscuit. Don’t think about it, don’t think about it…

“It’s times like these that we should seek the company of our comrades,” Matt heard Zhang speak behind him. The Chinese soldier had abandoned his isolated spot in favor of joining the other soldier at Strike One’s table. “After suffering such losses, our greatest enemy is often our own mind.”

“You talk like you’ve had this happen before,” Matt spoke evenly.

“I have on occasion, and while you say little I can see that you have before at least once.” Zhang replied, and Matt stopped mid bite to give the other man something not quite harsh enough to be considered a glare. “I do not pass judgment nor do I accuse. They say that opportunity knocks politely while fate uses a battering ram. For whatever reason we have survived up until now to achieve something, and our past colleagues played their parts in getting us here. It would be a disservice to their sacrifices to not acknowledge this.”

“No disrespect intended, but I don’t think I’d enjoy dying so another person could fulfill their fate. It would make me feel cheated.”

“Would you not?” Zhang retorted with an arch look. “I was under the impression that American soldiers valued their camaraderie quite highly. Your services are rife with soldiers who throw themselves on grenades to save their fellows, or carry the wounded across hellish battlefields without a thought of just running away. Is that information not accurate, then?”

Had the table not been between them, Matt would have broken Zhang’s face for that. But the impeding furniture was blocking his assault, and it gave him just enough time to realize the meaning behind the words.

“Some of the most valuable lessons are the harshest. You and I bear the burdens of the survivor. We have to continue knowing that others died while in battle beside us. Not because of us. We did not kill them, the enemy did. Unless you were negligent in your duties, and I am certain you were not, then trying to blame yourself is incorrect.” Zhang finished and took a bite of his own meal, which appeared to be some form of mystery meat patty with watery gravy on top.

“…I keep expecting Lana to just show up and make some stupid comment that I can be annoyed about,” Matt admitted after a long silence.

Zhang nodded as he set his fork down. He steepled his fingers in front of his face before he spoke, “I witnessed Ms. Jenkins’ final shot to distract the disk that was attacking us. Such marksmanship in spite of her injuries and the likelihood of death was… unanticipated from her. I have never been more proud to admit I was wrong about the character and discipline of another person.”

“Yeah…” Matt agreed quietly as he remembered the final moments of the fight on the battleship. Lana’s pistol shot was fired just as Strike Five had boiled into the other side of the hangar. The disk turned just in time to catch a rocket from the new arrivals dead center on its broad side which destroyed it. If Lana hadn’t survived as long as she had then ended up in that exact spot to make the shot…more people would have died. Matt’s face soured as he considered his next thought. Fate my ass; that was goddamn pure stubbornness and skill, two things Lana has in spades.

Had.

A third food tray coming down on the table interrupted Matt’s train of thought as Lieutenant Dryzimski pulled up a seat at the table.

“Gentlemen, there’s something we need to discuss,” He said seriously as he began to pick at his own mystery meat patty, “And by discuss I mean I will just talk to myself and you two will listen. If anything I say is wrong feel free to say I’m full of shit. If I’m right, then don’t say anything at all. That way everyone has plausible deniability. Deal?”

Before Matt or Zhang could respond, Dryzimski started up again. “The other squad leaders and I had a discussion regarding the Wallflower gear that was used during the last mission as to what it might be and why we might not have wider access to it. It seems mighty useful considering it allowed you and Lana to bag six of those Mutons without so much as a scratch, and one of them being a live capture! When we brought the subject up with Bradford he mentioned that they weren’t seeing widespread deployment yet due to the technical issues that resulted in Lana getting clipped by the disk. He also mentioned you two were chosen to use it today because you were most familiar with it due to your volunteer work. As things stand right now, the only thing both of you volunteered for was the Stardust project, which started just under a month ago.”

Matt wasn’t one for premonitions but he had a sinking feeling as to where this conversation was heading.

“And speaking of things that happened a month ago, I recall Matt captured a new alien during a terror mission that took place in D.C. All records of this capture have been scrubbed or redacted from all the official records including our AARs of the event. Lana was also extremely defensive when asked about this alien, and I also recall you two tensing up the moment Anderson brought the subject up. I’ll note that Zhang has also been introduced to the Stardust project.

“So, that makes me wonder that perhaps the alien that was captured last month is producing the Wallflower equipment in some way for the Stardust project? It’s alive, isn’t it?”

“You’re right,” Zhang said, and both of the other soldiers turned to look at him with surprise in their eyes before he continued, “You are full of it.” His hands were relaxed and his expression was cool as a cucumber.

“Uh huh,” Dryzimski agreed after a long moment, but the suspicion in his eyes remained.

Before any further discussion could present itself, others began to enter the mess hall. Strike Five and Six were easily recognizable, followed by the thoroughly mauled Strike Two. Surprisingly, the Skyranger crews could be seen in the mix as well as the interceptor pilots, whos unofficial policy was separation from the ‘gropos’ as much as possible.

When they all began to pile into the tables without regard for units or divisions, the Strike Two team leader waved to the trio. “There are no units tonight, get over here.” He said with a tired smile, and after a few shared looks the survivors of Strike One rose to join the packed tables.

As the last of the mixed group finally sat, the newly promoted Captain Fujikawa stood and motioned for silence. “I have no grand speeches to give save for stating the obvious. Yesterday we were individual teams, crews, and squadrons. Tomorrow we will be individual teams, crews and squadrons. Tonight, though we all share two things: We’ve all lost friends and teammates, and we all gave the aliens one hell of a fight. So, before the FNGs get here lets enjoy one night where we don’t have to babysit. To the old guard and those that came before.”

She raised her glass of water and everyone at the tables did so as well.

Matt downed his water, but his thoughts were still on the one person who wasn’t in attendance that would have loved it.

------

17:30, 05/02/2015, MEDICAL

“This is Doctor Benson. Pronounced time of death is 5:30:49 PM for Lana T. Jenkins.” A voice said, dull disappointment in its voice.

Well, crap.

“Cause of death is shock brought on by blood loss from violent amputation of the left arm below the shoulder.” The voice maintained its monotone tenor.

No shit, really? I hadn’t noticed. Did you go to school for seven years to learn how to state the obvious?

”Let’s move on to the next one.” Resignation this time.

Fucking quitter. I swear to God I’m going to haunt your ass.

Silence.

The beeps and wails of medical machines stopped, and the footfalls of doctors and nurses were gone as well.

…I hope the suits weren’t full of shit when they were describing death benefits. I’m so sorry Mom, I hope they pay up. I hope…

“Hope,” A new voice said, and its tone was that of someone who knew the punchline to the universe’s greatest joke and just couldn’t wait to tell it. “Hope is food and water to a hungry and thirsty soul as much as food and water sates a needy body. But you’re well aware of this, Lana Jenkins.”

Oh goody, I’ve got a talker. Let me guess, he talks to the corpses before he does… other things to the corpses.

“Why, I would never take advantage of someone like that without their permission. I guess I’ll just have to disarm you with my witty repertoire first. “

Oh, and he thinks he’s clever, too. The moment I get up we’re going to see how you like a good disarming.

“But you can’t get up right now. I’d offer you a hand but I think we’re a bit past that now.

I get it now. This is hell. Hell is a half-assed necrophilic standup comedian. Sure didn’t see that one coming.

“Oh bah, this isn’t hell you silly goose, but you’re about one second from finding out if it exists.”

You make it sound as if I were, y’know, not gonna die. Which is kinda improbable at this point.

“Improbable, yes, but not impossible. And even if it was impossible, I’d still make it happen. I have this insufferable nag who follows me around and tells me what I can’t do, so I just have this irresistible urge to just do whatever she says I shouldn’t—

Oh boy, here we go. Would you be telling this story to someone who could just walk away?

“…touché.”

So then, if this isn’t hell then what are you? Crossroads demon or perhaps the devil himself? What’s the deal? Sell my soul for my life? Maybe sweeten the pot by offering my arm back? Keep in mind if you give me a severed arm back I’ll beat you with the soggy end.

“Your soul? Why would I take that from you?” The voice seemed to recoil in horror at the mere notion of it. “The soul of a living creature is the purest spark of creativity and change in the universe. It is change, it is hope, it is the drive that every little living thing needs to motivate themselves to get up in the morning and take on the world, or at least their horrible commute and coworkers. Why would I take that from anyone?”

Because you’re the devil and that’s your thing?

“Well, I am a handsome devil, but I don’t think that’s what you mean. But that’s beside the point. I’ve been watching you, Lana Jenkins, and you’ve managed to impress me. That is not something that happens very often.”

Oh? Why’s that?

“Let’s just say that I feel sympathetic for anyone who chooses to stand with their principles in the face of opposition from all sides.”

Now I know I’m dead. Or hallucinating. Hey, if I’m hallucinating, what’s it going to take to make you get me a beer? Cause it’s been ages since I’ve had a nice cold--

“Oh Lana, you should stop resisting you know. I can read your heart like an open book. Granted, not your real heart that’s dead as a door nail, but the heart of your soul. You gave a bit of hope to someone in their darkest hour. I am here to return the favor.”

…Bullshit. So this is poetic justice? Tempt me with a second chance because I told a lie to give someone hope? If that’s the case you can take your deal and shove it up--

“Shhh, hush now. We’ve spoken long enough and my jailers might start to suspect my prison isn’t as thorough as they thought if they were to check in on me and see that I’m no longer there. As I said, you have impressed me, Lana dear, and you have shown that you are willing to put the needs of others ahead of your own even if it could get you killed. I will return your life to you but on one condition.”

“Stay Twilight’s friend.”

*SNAP*

Beep.

“And remember, I will be watching.” The voice was but a whisper in her ear, nearly drowned out by the sounds of the emergency room suddenly coming back in a rush.

Beep beep.

“Doctor? DOCTOR! She’s showing a heart beat!”

“What? You’re kidding… son of a bitch. What are you doing, MOVE!”

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