• 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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Avoidance

NEW ZEALAND DECLARES MARTIAL LAW AFTER RIOTS BREAK OUT DURING EVACUATION OF AUCKLAND. CAUSE OF THE RIOTS DETERMINED TO BE SEVERAL FALSE REPORTS OF ALIENS HIDING WITHIN THE REFUGEES, WHICH RESULTED IN SEVERAL DEATHS BEFORE MILITARY AND POLICE INTERVENTION

TABLOIDS REPORT DISAPPEARANCE OF ELDERLY RETIREE AS EVIDENCE OF GOVERNMENT CONSPIRACY. SOURCES CITE RETIREE'S SELF-DESCRIBED BACKGROUND WITH GOVT AGENCIES AS WELL AS NUMEROUS MENTIONS OF 'OUTSIDERS' AND 'ETHEREALS,' BUT CLAIMS ARE DISMISSED BY MAJOR NEWS OUTLETS AS RAMBLINGS OF A SENILE OLD MAN.

------

09:02, 05/06/2015, BARRACKS

“They're late,” Matt heard Lieutenant Dryzimski mutter under his breath, as he and the rest of the more experienced soldiers waited for the expected arrival of new recruits.

“They might be poached from the best military outfits in the world, but they're all going to be new here,” Matt offered solemnly, and he did his best to match the lieutenant's stare. “Plus, they're going to be from several different outfits and countries, so I suspect there's going to be a bit of confusion until everyone's on the same level.”

Paul's look eventually melted into something far more tired than Matt had ever seen on the other man's face. “You're right, of course. I should thank you, by the way. After the others... passed, both you and Zhang have really gone above and beyond. You're going to be second in command in the squad, so I'll need to rely on you to help herd the cats that are being sent our way, both on and off the battlefield.”

“I'm doing my duty, sir,” Matt said with a nod as he accepted the praise and responsibility gracefully, though his expression became pained. “I just wish that...”

“Say no more,” Paul interrupted with a pat on the shoulder and his tired look. “I know exactly what you mean. I spoke with the doctors this morning, they say Lana might be up for visitors later today. You up for seeing her as soon as the FNGs are all sorted out?”

“I'm not certain I would trust the group without one of us to supervise their adjustment to base life, sir.” Matt replied with an arched eyebrow.

Paul's response wasn't what Matt anticipated, “That's why I asked if you were up for visiting her. I'm sure with Zhang around we can manage the kids while you check in on Lana. I... won't ask about what happened between you two before the operation but you really should resolve that with her if you can. In this line of work you leave something important for later, and you might find that there isn't a 'later' to address it.”

“...understood, sir.”

He's right, Matt had to agree, especially after the news of Lana's condition reached the survivors of Strike One. She's survived against all odds, but she's out of Strike One with her injury. We don't know what will happen to her as soon as she's healthy enough to move... but in all likelihood she'll be moved to a place where she can recover. Someplace other than here.

“Glad to hear it,” Paul said, before something resembling a smirk crawled onto his face. “And from what the doctors told me, the first thing she said when she regained consciousness was to ask if she got promoted. Imagine her dismay when her posthumous two rank promotion was knocked down to just one rank when she failed to stay dead.”

Matt couldn't help but chuckle. “I might think we were terrible people for joking about such a thing, but something tells me that she'd approve. Hell, she probably told you to mention it, right?”

“I can neither confirm nor deny that assertion.”

“Ah, well, at least she finally managed to escape the rank of private. If it weren't for her damned pranks she'd be a sergeant at least by now. I suppose the betting pool will need to be awarded now. I'm sure the others...” They're dead. “...well, the others would be happy for her.”

Sympathy briefly crossed Paul's face before it was chased away by a more troubled expression. “For all the trouble she gave us, she will be missed. There is... also something else I wanted to ask you about before the new folks get here. The other squad leaders and I received new orders from Commander Bradford that I'd like your opinion on.”

“Sure thing. What exactly were the orders?” Matt asked, and a small degree of trepidation crept up on him as he noticed Paul take a moment to collect his thoughts.

“The orders detailed a change in SOP for aliens outside the already identified profiles,” Paul explained in a quiet enough tone that was almost drowned-out by the din of the barracks, “Reading between the lines, it seems to imply that there are aliens that are not allied with the invaders... and that they might not be hostile to us.”

Damn your curiousity, Paul, Matt thought furiously as he struggled to keep something resembling a poker face in place. Damn it.

“When I spoke with you and Zhang after the operation, I was just talking out loud about some things but now I'm really starting to wonder,” Paul crossed his arms and leaned back against the wall while pointedly not looking directly at his subordinate. “That... thing in Stardust. It isn't with the invaders, is it? It's neutral, or cooperating. And it has friends that might be coming, right?”

“I can neither confirm nor deny...”

Sooksin,” Paul swore as he brought a hand up to pinch the bridge of his nose. “That makes things complicated, doesn't it? Bad luck, too. Wanders into a shooting war between us and the terrors from the void, that's damn brilliant. I suppose the only good luck was that you used the ARC thrower instead of the rifle, yes?”

With every word that the lieutenant spoke, Matt found it harder and harder to maintain his poker face. Damn it man, just drop it!

“Just...tell me one thing if nothing else, okay?” Paul said after a long moment. “Is it for real? Is it honestly something not related to the invaders? I wouldn't push so hard for this without a reason, and whatever you say stays with me, Matt. The reason I'm pushing this is that after the last mission the other squad leaders have voiced some concerns about the risks that these orders will bring to the teams. We're all here to do our duty or die trying, but you were there when Vahlen came up with her mad scientist plan to use glorified tasers to capture the aliens alive. You remember how folks reacted.”

“I was there. I volunteered, as you may recall.”

“You did, and you've got serious brass for doing so. But you saw how the others reacted when the orders came down. None of the team leaders liked forcing anyone into taking that kind of risk,” The lieutenant let out a sigh as he again pinched the bridge of his nose. “I'm not asking you to divulge the secrets of the lab. I just need to know that these orders won't be putting Strike One in harm's way without good reason.”

Matt found himself mirroring Paul's posture as he considered his words. The fact that he's talking this much is proof that this is bothering him a lot. What did dad say about sergeants? Lieutenants might drive the car, but sergeants carry the map. Without guidance and support the whole squad is lost.

“I cannot divulge the nature of any captives that may or may not be in XCOM's possession at this time,” Matt said slowly while he emphasized each word, “Nor can I speculate upon the possibility of third parties that are unaffiliated to the current conflict attempting to retrieve said captive of dubious provenance. Lastly, cooperative captives are the purview of Doctor Moira Vahlen and all requests should be forwarded to her for review.”

Paul looked over to Matt for the first time since the conversation started and simply stared before resuming his previous pose. “Thanks,” he said simply as he mulled over the answers.

Matt merely nodded but any further conversation was interrupted as the massive double doors on the other side of the room opened and a rather varied group of soldiers trundled through and into the barracks common area.

“All right, listen up!” Fujikawa boomed as she hopped up onto a bench to gather the attention of all the soldiers assembled in the room.

For all her skill at command, she's still five foot two with combat boots on, Matt thought as he looked over the crop of new recruits. Average height of the new folks is over five ten... she needs all the help she can get.

“I'm sure you all are eager to get into the swing of things here, but before that happens you'll be assigned to the Strike teams. Lieutenant Paul Dryzimski leads Strike One. If you hear your name, you're with Strike One.” Paul stepped forward to make himself obvious as the captain produced a clipboard and began to rattle off a series of names in quick succession. “Bapela, Neema! Blake, Holly! Burns, Clara! Carlock, Patrick! Finch, Jack! Sachs, Robert! Suzuki, Kaori! Yamazaki, Kaito! That's it for Strike One, next is...”

Matt tuned out the the captain's voice as he surveyed the pack of recruits that now approached. Three pairs appeared to sort themselves in the newcomers, while the last two remained separated from the rest. Probably national loyalties or armed services branches. Hell, they might have made friends while on the plane ride here.

“All right, ladies and gentlemen, if you'll follow me,” Paul motioned over his shoulder and turned toward one of the exits leading out of the Barracks central area. It was only after the last of the new recruits passed that Matt turned to follow. The collection of soldiers followed the lieutenant as he made a few turns before they came to a stop in the bunk room normally used by Strike One and Two.

“Have a seat,” Paul instructed, and the group situated themselves on bunks, benches and the occasional chair around the room. Matt, however, leaned against the bunk and remained standing.

“Now, I'm all quite certain you were given the speech about saving the world from the horrors from beyond the stars, so I'll spare you from having to listen to it again,” Paul said as he turned around to address the group. “You all are the best of your respective branches of service, and you distinguished yourselves in various ways that attracted this organization's attention. A significant amount of trust has been placed in each of you and I expect you all to perform like the professionals I know you are. That means your best performance on the field, and your best behavior when not on duty. Understood?”

“Yes sir!” Came the somewhat uneven reply, and Matt could see Paul was sorely tempted to make them repeat it.

“Now then, some introductions are in order. Give your name, former branch of service and why you're here, if you please. In case you may have forgotten, I'm Lieutenant Dryzimski and I lead Strike One. Former Spetsnaz, and I was part of the team that led an assault on a landed alien craft detected inside the Chernobyl ruins. Captured it, too, before both the craft and I were swept up into the organization.” Paul stopped before pointing at one of the rookies, a man in his early thirties with tanned skin with brown hair and eyes. “You're next.”

“Patrick Carlock, sir. Retired United States Army engineer. Worked as a pipeline engineer in the 697th before resigning my commission. I got recruited after I found a series of sabotage attempts on domestic water supplies in the continental United States. I was going to be taken in for questioning on just what I found when the invaders decided they didn't want me answering those questions, I guess,” The man gave a self-deprecating chuckle before continuing. “I didn't want to be dead weight, so I volunteered for this.”

Paul's smile was genuine. “You might not remember, but I was part of the team that retrieved you. You'll be a worthy addition to the team.” The lieutenant's gaze fell upon the next person in line, a woman with dark skin and a shaved head. “You're next.”

The introductions went on for the rest of the rookies. The dark skinned woman named Neema Bapela was a survivor of a terror mission launched against the military base she was stationed at in her country. Both Kaito Yamazaki and Kaori Suzuki gained XCOM's attention after they both racked up a respectable number of kills during an attempted abduction mission in rural Japan. Jack Finch and Clara Burns were poached from Britain's Special Air Service after they defused an alien bomb set to incinerate most of Cardiff. Holly Blake was picked up after being reported MIA during an attack that obliterated an American base in Iraq, only for her to make her presence known to the relief forces after running out of ammo sniping the invaders.

“And you, sir, are the last.” Paul said as he turned to face the last new addition. He looked old for a soldier, with skin that looked like tanned leather and a garish set of scars across his jaw and neck that would give Zhang something to compare with.

“Robert Sachs, formerly with the Australian Tactical Assault Group,” The man introduced with a gravelly voice that was produced either from a lifetime of cigarettes or the injury that left the scars on his neck and jawline. “And I think I was recruited because I took down one of those creepy bugs like any good Australian would.” A moment of silence passed before he elaborated, “With a knife.”

“I call bullshit, why would you draw a knife on one of those things?” Kaito blurted out, and his disbelief was mirrored on just about everyone's faces.

Robert replied without missing a beat, “I was out of ammo and I bloody well wasn't going to use my teeth.”

“Is that something you Australians do regularly? Take a knife to the demonic spiders that rain down from the sky? I bet that's where you got your scars, right?” Carlock asked with the beginnings of a smirk spreading across his face.

Again, Robert's reply came without hesitation, “You been to Australia lately? Damned demonic spiders are par for the course. As for the scars, you should see the other guy.” A long moment of silence passed between the assembled soldiers before a slow smile began to creep onto the Australian's face as he began to laugh.

“I was reloading when the bloody bug jumped me. Nearly took my jaw off with one claw. I had just enough time to draw my knife and stick it in the soft parts before it could finish me off. I think it was trying to turn me into one of them at the time so it let its guard down. Didn't turn down the lucky break so I stuck him and twisted until he stopped moving.”

Paul shared a smile with the scarred man, “Well, just so long as you're willing to use guns while with us instead of knifing every alien to death, I think I can live with that explanation.” The lieutenant's gaze turned to Matt, and he realized it was now his turn to introduce himself.

“I'm Sergeant Matt Harris, formerly--”

“'The Butcher,'” Jack Finch interrupted, “Oh, I knew I recognized you. You were part of that botched US Army hit squad that was sent to track down Al'Massani in Iraq. Shot some kid and set off the civil war there. From what I hear they're still burning you in effigy in that part of the world.”

Matt's eyes narrowed slowly as he fixed the Brit with a stare, “The kid had a weapon and the intent to use it. I had to defend myself and my squad.”

“Mhm, yep, I heard you use that excuse on the news. What's funny is that your squad got themselves mostly killed without yo--”

“Mister Finch,” Paul hissed as he entered the conversation with all the subtlety of a battering ram, “Sergeant Harris is my second in command and I trust his judgments and decisions as though they were my own. If he says his actions were justified then they were. Moreover, I am more willing to accept the account of someone who was there over the opinion of some rear echelon desk jockey or television celebrity. I would also think that as a fellow soldier you would do the same.”

Jack's moral superiority and confidence faltered as the logic of Paul's words hit him, but Matt was too far lost in his own memories to notice.

“Now, this goes for all of you,” Paul said as he fixed each and every one of the soldiers with a stare to emphasize the seriousness of his words. “Each and every one of you thinks you're a badass, and you were before you got here. But you are nothing by yourselves. The aliens are coordinated and cunning to a degree that we cannot match without creating cohesive groups of our own. Our strength and survival depends upon our ability to become a cohesive group. From this moment on, I will not tolerate anything that undermines that goal. Am I clear?”

“Yes sir.” Came the ragged response.

Paul's eyebrow twitched. “What was that?”

“Yes sir!”

“Very good. Now that we've finished with that little bit of unpleasantness, there is one more introduction to make.” Paul looked just past Matt's shoulder and gave a nod.

Matt turned to see that Zhang had seemingly materialized out of thin air behind and to his right, and the sergeant had to resist the urge to jump at the realization.

“My name is Shaojie Zhang. My background is with the PLASOF, but it was my civilian work that attracted the attention of this organization. I was recruited shortly thereafter.”

“What civilian work, exactly?” One of the recruits asked, a note of eagerness to put the previous subject out of mind clear in his voice.

“Acquisitions,” Zhang explained with a cool smirk. “During a job I found myself in possession of something the aliens left behind, so I delivered it to XCOM instead of my employer at the time. As I was no longer employed afterward I offered my services then, and here I am now.

“Thanks, Zhang,” Paul said with a nod before he turned back to the recruits. “You were all told this during your recruitment, but I feel it bears repeating. While this conflict continues we are under a communications black-out, which means no signals in or out of the base. Operational security is paramount but it also puts all of us currently here rather firmly in the dark as to what's going on outside. So, before we get completely settled in I'd like to know just how things are going in the world.”

An uncomfortable silence fell over the room before Sachs spoke up. “It's a goddamn mess out there. While I was in recovery I heard that New Zealand's gone silent, and Australia's getting flooded with refugees that escaped the island. From what they say the entire country has lost its mind. News is trying to spin it but once the dust settles heads are going to roll.”

“I'm... afraid I have to agree,” Carlock added. “There isn't panic in the streets yet, but there's been at least a dozen sabotage attempts on major installations all across the US. The waterworks sabotage that I was able to stop with XCOM's help would have destroyed a significant portion of our water treatment capacity east of the Mississippi. With the 'suspicious' bridge collapses that happened back in February, it isn't a stretch of the imagination to see a systematic attack on infrastructure that we are barely holding back.”

Kaito and Kaori shared a look before the former added his own information. “I am afraid to admit it, but Japan is likely one disaster from anarchy. Everyone is polite and acts as though nothing is wrong but you can see it in their eyes. They are scared.”

“My family is on extended vacation in Okinawa since they were worried about another attack on the capital,” Kaori gave a worried look as she explained. “From what I hear, just about everyone who can afford to is leaving the cities for the countryside. If people don't feel safe in the cities then things are going to grind to a halt.”

“Sounds like a properly British thing to do,” Finch spoke, having regained his voice after Paul's lecture. “Alien invasion? Keep calm and drink some tea until it goes away.” He gave a self-deprecating chuckle before looking back on the group. “People are afraid to leave their homes. The royal family shows up every once and a while to ask for calm and composure, but everyone knows Parliament and the prime minister are squirreled away in a bunker somewhere while they leave the rest of the country to burn.”

“Goddamn politicians,” Sachs growled as he perfectly summarized Finch's explanation.

With each report, Matt's expression fell bit by bit and he couldn't help but notice the news having the same effect on Paul. It's worse than I thought. I hope my family is alright...

“Ah, well, thanks for answering my question even though it wasn't quite the answer I was hoping for.” The lieutenant said after a long moment. “You're all in the right place to make a difference against the invaders. You may have taken part in defensive operations where you were, but here you'll have a chance to strike back against the aliens. While you all get your bunks sorted, I'll regale you all on the tale of how we boarded and captured an alien ship mid-flight.”

The last comment spawned several doubtful responses and laughs as the group began to disperse. Paul caught Matt's eye and then looked pointedly to the door.

I guess its time to bite the bullet.

------

10:30, 05/06/2015, MEDICAL

After checking in with the doctors, Matt stepped into the recovery wing as quietly as he could. Aside from the chorus of beeps and other noises from the medical machines, the room was completely silent. A half-dozen occupants filled beds that lined the walls, while doctors occasionally checked in before heading back out of the room.

Matt walked past the rows of beds before finally stopping at the last one in the row and dragging his eyes up to get a good look at its occupant. Lana slept soundly, and the strain of the last week's ordeal was plain on even her sleeping face. Her skin was almost devoid of any color, and her hair was spread messily around the pillow behind her like a ragged black cloud. The most dramatic feature, though, was the blank space where her left arm should have been, and the bandaged stump just below her shoulder.

As much as Matt tried he couldn't tear his eyes away from the sight, and he subconsciously clenched and unclenched his left hand as though to reassure himself it was still there. For nearly a minute Matt stood there watching Lana's sleeping form before he quietly turned to leave. He didn't get more than five steps before a weak voice halted him in his place.

“Oh hey, about time you showed up.”

Realizing his quiet escape was no longer possible, Matt turned back to Lana's bed and took a seat in one of the chairs beside it. “Paul mentioned you were well enough to take some visitors today. I heard you were recovering well enough considering... your injury.”

“It hurts like a bitch, even though it's not there. The doctors tell me that's normal, though,” Lana explained with a wince. “They are pretty good though. They tell me I might be up and about within another couple of days with physical therapy. I don't know what the recovery time for this kind of thing would be in a normal hospital but it sounds rather fast, don't you think?”

“I'm... inclined to agree with you. Have they told you about where you'll be going once you've recovered?” Matt asked, leaning forward with a sympathetic look. His elbows fell to his knees as he clasped his hands and rested his chin on his thumbs.

Lana managed a weak smile and an abbreviated shrug followed by another wince. “Well, nothing concrete yet. I asked if I could stay on to help with Stardust and anything else I could help with and they said they would get back to me. It's a better answer than telling me no right off the bat.”

“I... suppose so. Both Paul and I missed having you around to get the new folks adjusted to life here. If they find a way to keep you around the base then I hope you don't mind getting in touch with Paul to see how you can lend a--” and just then, Matt realized exactly what he was going to say. Judging from Lana's smirk, she did too. “--hand.”

“If you need any help with the hand jobs with the newbies, I'll do everything I can to pitch in.”

Matt closed his eyes and brought his hands up to cover his face, but that couldn't save him from what was coming.

“Heck, I've even got some good hand-me-down kit some of the kids could use, assuming they don't mind gear that's secondhand.”

Matt had to resist the impulse to groan.

“You tell Paul to just say the word and I'm his right-hand woman. You gotta have a firm hand when dealing with the new folks or they'll learn they can just walk right over you.”

“I was going to apologize for my comment but then I remembered you're a horrible person.” Matt muttered, and he could hear a grin enter Lana's voice.

“You come in here with all your backhanded comments and you accuse me of being a horrible person? Need I remind you that I already owe you an ass-kicking, and I can do it with one arm tied behind my back. And besides...I've...oh bah I've got nothing else.”

“You spent the last few days thinking of all those terrible jokes, didn't you?”

Lana's response was a ghost of her usual grin. “Oh no, just the last few hours.”

“Glad to hear you haven't changed,” Matt finally admitted with a chuckle that they both shared. The good mood of the moment didn't last though.

Lana's voice dropped somewhat as she asked, “Have you seen her yet? Since the mission, I mean?”

“No. I haven't,” Matt said as he again assumed his hands-clasped pose with his elbows on his knees. “Paul's tapped me for second in command of Strike One. With that responsibility combined with preparations for the fresh recruits, I simply haven't had any time to--”

“You're avoiding her.”

“...yeah, that's right,” The guilty admission came after a long moment of silence, and Matt had to let out a frustrated sigh before he continued. “I have no earthly idea on how I'm supposed to handle this situation. I think I'd sooner take on a Chryssalid with a knife than try to disarm the cluster that's just waiting to blow up at the lab. One of the rookies claims he did that, by the way. Took on a Chryssalid with a knife I mean.”

“You're shitting me,” The animated response was tempered by another wince. “Next thing you're going to tell me is that he did it while wearing nothing above the belt except a mustache and a cowboy hat...wait, don't change the subject!”

“I was serious earlier, I have no idea what I'm supposed to do to fix this,” Matt started to shout, but quickly stopped as soon as he saw the dirty looks the doctors were leveling at him. “How exactly am I supposed to dissuade her from her assumptions about me in such a way that doesn't have her destroying the base in the process as part of a tantrum?”

“And why are you asking me this?” Lana asked doubtfully, and it was her turn to sigh as she caught the glare Matt fixed her with. “Well, I see three options that you could attempt. The first would be the best, the second would be risky in the long term, and the third would be risky in the short term.”

“And what are those options exactly?”

“Well, the first option is that you just play along until she goes back home or we're all dead,” Lana explained glibly, but her good cheer withered as Matt's glare rematerialized. “The second option would to find some excuse to never go back to Stardust and hope that she doesn't tear the base apart to find out just why she hasn't seen you. The third option would be to come clean and risk whatever reaction she has to the news.”

“I wasn't kidding earlier... I think the knife and the Chryssalid scenario is much more desirable than this mess.”

“What's the worst she could do? Besides the whole 'reduce you to a fine red mist' thing if she's upset?”

Matt's first response was a groan, “You're not helping. And I don't even know how to approach the subject.” He turned back to Lana and gave her an evil smile. “I should just wheel your ass into Stardust and have you explain it to her. I'm pretty sure she'll be less likely to react violently if the person explaining is already wounded. And if she does, well, justice is served.”

“My my, what an underhanded scheme you've concocted.”

“Don't start with that again,” Matt ordered quickly before dropping his chin into his hands. “I just haven't had much experience with this particular issue. I tend to be on the receiving end of the break-ups and they rarely seem to work out well.”

“The term 'break-up' implies that you are already a couple,” Lana observed slyly, but she quickly backpedaled when Matt stood and grabbed the handrails at the foot of her bed. “Okay okay okay, fine. Honesty is your best policy, or even a creative white lie if you keep it simple.”

“Jenkins, a 'creative white lie' was what got us into this mess in the first place.”

“Technically no, what I did was not tell the whole truth but that's just splitting hairs at this point. Just... I don't know. Tell her that the job comes first, or something. Or that you have an arranged marriage and it would never work out. Hey, don't give me that look, I'm trying to help, here.” Lana again tried to shrug and winced for the effort. “I really don't know what to do.”

“I just don't want to hurt her. I still remember my sister's letters when she got rejected by the first boy she liked. She was devastated for months afterward, plus I had to track down the little bastard and give him a 'harsh talking-to' about his behavior.”

“And now you're worried about her brother doing the same to you? Not to mention the fact that she's family to royalty, you know. Personal student to her god and what have you.”

Matt's groan was muffled as he dropped his face into his hands again. “You're really not helping.”

“I get what you mean, I really do. She's got that little spark that tells her that everything can go right in the world with enough hard work and determination and she's certain that everything will turn out right in the end. She's terribly naïve, but you don't want to be the one to take that little bit of hope she has from her.” After Matt's silent nod, Lana closed her eyes and let out a sigh. “Alright. If you don't think you can do it, then I will as soon as I can. Just try not to freak out too much when you go see her, alright? And I mean when you see her, not if. I want you to go stop by to say hello right after you leave here.”

“Alright, alright. What should I tell her about you?” Matt asked, and a genuine note of concern entered his voice.

“Tell her the truth,” Lana replied quickly. “I got banged up during the mission. But don't say a word about how, though. Better she thinks that I did something dumb than it was a mistake of hers. She strikes me as the kind of person who lets any kind of failure haunt her.”

Matt again cast a wary eye over the extent of Lana's injuries. “And when she finds out that you're a little more than just 'banged up?'”

“I'll burn that bridge when I get to it. Now go, she's been waiting long enough.” With that, Lana waved her remaining hand towards the door to shoo Matt away.

As he exited Medical, Matt caught sight of a familiar but unwelcome sight. Jack Finch leaned against the corridor wall opposite of the entrance to Medical, with his arms crossed and his head down in thought. Before he could simply turn and leave the newcomer to whatever he was doing, the Englishman brought his head up and raised one hand in greeting.

“Ah, Sergeant Harris, I hoped I could get a word in,” Jack said as he fell into step behind Matt.

“I'm a busy man, mister Finch. I heard there's an innocent little girl down on the third floor and she isn't going to shoot herself in the heart, now is she?” Matt said flatly as he marched down the corridor towards the main elevator.

“Ah, yes, about that. I'm afraid I have a tendency to run off at the mouth if I'm not careful. Just ask Clara. I just talk, and...” Jack started to ramble before Matt interrupted.

“You've gone over your one word limit, mister Finch,” Matt stated in the same flat tone as they reached the elevator and started to descend. He could see the Englishman sigh quietly while running a hand through his hair in a motion that seemed habitual rather than a conscious action.

“Sorry, alright? Didn't mean to put you on the spot. It was rather thick of me to bring it up without knowing all the facts. How can I make it up to you?” Jack finished his apology sincerely while looking to Matt for some reply.

An uncomfortably long moment of silence passed through the elevator car as it descended. As the doors opened, Matt turned to Jack and quickly spoke, “I'll accept your apology provisionally, but you must agree to my terms. At some point in the future I will ask you to do something. It might not make sense at the time and it might even be something you would do by yourself, but when I tell you to do it you cannot refuse. Understood? Good.”

“But what--” Jack started to say but he was cut off as Matt stepped back and the elevator doors separated the two.

I don't know if I'll ever call him on that request but it might be good to let him live in fear for a bit, Matt thought to himself before turning away from the elevator to head to the Stardust labs.

------

11:27, 05/06/2015, STARDUST LAB

The door to Twilight's habitat hissed open to reveal the unicorn and doctor Vahlen scouring what appeared to be a series of magnified schematics and circuits. Both were in a very animated conversation while pointing at various pictures until they caught sight of the soldier's entrance.

When did that happen? Matt wondered as his eyes jumped from Twilight to Vahlen. Last I heard Vahlen wasn't nearly this enthusiastic...

“Ah, Sergeant, Twilight was just asking about you,” Vahlen said as she looked up, and Matt couldn't help but notice Twilight's ensuing glare that the good doctor was oblivious to. “We were just about to take a break.”

“Good timing on my part, I suppose,” Matt answered as he tried to muster up a smile.

“Indeed,” Vahlen agreed before turning back to Twilight. “I'll be sending our findings down to Shen for review and we'll see if we can get a working prototype going in the next few days, yes? We may need you to assist once construction is complete.”

“I'll be ready to help when it's done,” Twilight replied with a smile and a nod, which Vahlen returned.

Vahlen's behavior took several moments to fully process in Matt's mind and he had to resist the unconscious impulse to jaw drop as she turned to leave. When did this happen? Before Matt could recover, Vahlen had already passed him and exited the habitat.

Which left him alone with Twilight.

“So, Twilight...” Matt started, but he stopped mid-sentence when he saw the annoyed glare she was levelling at him.

“Where were you? Both you and Lana appear and then disappear after asking for Wallflower then I don't see either of you for days? And everyone's avoiding the subject when I ask about where you two were. I was worried sick!” Twilight fumed. “Everyone always got this weird expression when I asked, too. I know they're hiding something from me. Why didn't you come see me the moment you got back?”

Matt had to resist temptation to take a step back from the force of the rant, “Things were busy and I couldn't find the time to--”

“Couldn't find the time? You couldn't find five minutes to stop by and say, 'Hello, Twilight, I'm fine'? And where's Lana? I haven't seen her either!” Twilight's rant hadn't quite escalated into shouting but it was almost there.

“Lana got...hurt, Twilight. She's been in Medical since we got back. She's... she got hurt in a real bad way,” Matt said quietly as he walked over to the one of the chairs at Twilight's table. “A lot of people got hurt. I'm sorry for not coming by sooner, but with so many... injured, any healthy bodies were needed to help with what they couldn't.”

Twilight's righteous indignation deflated into concern and guilt as she listened to Matt's explanation. “I'm sorry, I shouldn't have jumped to conclusions... It's just...” Her remorseful tone switched to near panic in the span of a single word. “Lana got hurt? How? Wallflower should have kept anything from seeing her! Did the spell fail?” The last question did not need to be asked, 'Is this my fault?'

“I don't know the details, I'm afraid,” Matt lied as he looked to the side, but quickly recovered. “I did just come from Medical and Lana said that it was her fault she got hurt. Wallflower worked as well as we expected while we were out. As soon as you see her you can ask her yourself.”

Twilight opened and closed her mouth before simply settling on a wordless nod.

A long and increasingly awkward silence began to stretch out between the two before Matt broke the silence, “What were you and doctor Vahlen working on?”

“Teleporters, I think,” Twilight said before motioning towards the piles of pictures with one hoof. “The pictures here are of the inner workings of a device that works like a teleporter from what she described. The Elerium circuitry isn't complete, though, as there are a few variables missing like the location and distance, but Vahlen got really excited and said something about 'computers providing target information'... or something.”

“Aha, I see,” Matt nodded. She's probably found some way to weaponize it. She did say that she was sending something down to Shen. “So she's been a little nicer lately? When did that happen?”

“Well, we had a talk and we came to an understanding a while ago,” Twilight said cryptically before continuing, “But we've got our differences worked out now. I think she's much more enthusiastic because of the Elerium testing, and I'm just happy I can do more to help.”

“What exactly are you doing with Elerium?” Matt asked with an arched eyebrow.

“Well, apparently we can use it to reproduce certain spell effects,” Twilight said, and she took a deep breath that Matt was becoming increasingly familiar with. “Elerium has the capacity to draw, channel or store energy from the Field much like I can with my horn, and if it is manipulated in very specific ways it can create replicas of some of the spells I can do. I've already helped Moira build a little box that lets her detect my magic, and I've also helped make blueprints so that we can try to artificially reproduce the Wallflower spell with a similar device.”

“And how did that go?” Matt asked while he controlled his growing interest in the subject. Artificially reproducing Wallflower? If they can do that and find some way to--

“They lost the prototype.”

“They lost--” Matt's train of thought was interrupted as he comprehended Twilight's statement, and he turned an aghast look towards the unicorn to find a barely-suppressed smirk. Matt couldn't help but chuckle and Twilight ceased to hide her own humor. “Oh,that's pretty funny. Lana's rubbing off on you, I think. Don't tell Lana about your little development though. She's a terrible prankster and I'd hate to give her the ability to perpetrate her pranks while being virtually invisible.”

As the subject of Lana entered the conversation the awkward silence returned.

Damn it man, it's now or never! You charge into gunfire and abominations from beyond the sky for a living. An uncomfortable conversation is nothing compared to that! Matt shouted at himself to rally his willpower.

Except if you handle it wrong she'll turn you into hamburger, a dark voice muttered in the back of his mind, and he took a split second to imagine the owner of that voice getting strangled.

“Twilight, I've been meaning to talk to you about something. The last few times Lana's been here she's been teasing you about something, and I think we need to talk abo--” Matt started tentatively but was cut off mid-sentence.

“It's too soon!” Twilight yelped.

“What's--”

“I'm so sorry but it's just too soon for me! I know I'm a bit of a late bloomer and I'll be the first to admit I mostly avoid things like relationships, after all it wasn't too long ago that I didn't even have real friends! Plus mom keeps sending me these books and Cadance keeps asking me if I have found my special somepony but I've always had so much work to do and stuff like that can always wait until later! I think you're an amazing human Matt but I'm just not ready for a relationship right now with all this stress that's going on and I really value our friendship so I hope we can just stay friends for now? That might change in the future but I just need time to think about...” Twilight blurted out the flood of words but eventually ran out of breath and had to stop to take in a large gasp of air and look fearfully at Matt.

“Well... that's exactly what I was thinking about, Twilight,” Matt said slowly. “We all need time to consider the future, and with what's going on right now in the world it might be best to put such pursuits off for now, right?”

“I'm so glad you agree,” Twilight finally let out her held breath with relief, “...can we stay friends, though? At least for now?”

“That's perfectly fine, Twilight,” The soldier agreed as he stood to leave. “I'm afraid I have to go now, Twilight. I wasn't exaggerating when I said there was a lot of work to do with so many people gone.”

“I understand. And...thanks for understanding.”

------

Matt stepped out of the habitat to find Shen and Mills loitering under the recently patched roof in the center of the Stardust testing area while Vahlen was nowhere to be seen.

“Well... how'd it go?” Shen asked gently.

Matt finally let out the breath he had been holding as he finally answered, “I think I've been friend zoned.”

All three men briefly chuckled and turned to leave the lab, and Matt tried not to think about why those words bothered him so much.

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