• 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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Gifts (Pt. 1)

AMATEUR ASTRONOMERS IN NORTHERN UNITED STATES REPORT SPECTACULAR AURORA BOREALIS IN THE NIGHT’S SKY WHICH BAFFLES PROFESSIONAL ASTRONOMERS. VIDEO PROOF PROVIDED CONFIRMED AS AUTHENTIC ONLY ADDS TO MYSTERY AS PHENOMENON NORMALLY ASSOCIATED WITH FAR NORTH CAN BE SEEN OVER DAKOTAS.

DEA AND FBI LAUNCH FULL SCALE INVESTIGATION INTO THE MASSACRE OF FIELD OPERATIONS TEAM THAT RAIDED DRUG DEN IN SOUTHERN ARIZONA. SOURCES CLOSE TO INVESTIGATION HAD LITTLE INFORMATION TO GIVE BUT ALL WERE ABLE TO CONFIRM THAT THE AGENTS BODIES SHOWED NO SIGNS OF BULLET WOUNDS BUT HIGH HEAT BURNS.

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01:01, 05/13/2015, STARDUST LABS

“All right, do we all know our roles?” Charles Shen asked as the door to the Stardust labs closed behind him. The engineer’s gaze first went to Matt, who was beginning to look a tad ragged but was otherwise alert and ready. When Matt gave Shen a nod, his gaze shifted to Zhang who did the same. Both of the soldiers were in their base security vests and were standing at attention more out of habit than deliberate choice.

The last person in the room was Frank McKendrick, who was looking far too chipper for the late hour. “We’ll be walking to one of the new Foundry projects, yes? I also understand you’re going to take the opportunity to talk with Twilight, and I assume you want me here to observe as we travel?”

“Correct. Twilight’s presence is required for the first-time activation of the Ea project, and I felt it would be a good excuse to get her away from her work and just talk,” Shen said before rubbing the back of his neck sheepishly. “She puts in longer hours than me or my men, and I think she could use a nice walk to hopefully relax away from her work.”

“That’s understandable. I expect when she finds sufficient motivation she wouldn’t let a little thing like fatigue or breaks interrupt her work. Moira told me about Twilight’s work binge last month.” Frank caught Shen’s wince and gave a shrug and a smile while scratching his beard. “From what I understand she’s exercising a little bit of moderation now, but your point still stands. She could probably use a bit of exercise anyway rather than being stuck in that lab all day every day. I’m planning to put a bug in Bradford’s ear about taking Twilight up to one of the surface buildings somewhat regularly for exercise.”

Shen scratched his own chin and was just about to voice his own support when Matt beat him to it, “That sounds like a great idea, though we’ll have to keep her indoors during the day, at least. Doesn’t one of the cargo elevators link directly to one of the hangars on the surface? That might give her enough room to stretch her legs while keeping her away from prying eyes.”

A smile spread on Shen’s face and he nodded, “I was actually thinking of something similar. Once the Ea project is running we’ll be able to test a lot of the toys that Twilight has inspired. She would likely enjoy seeing the fruits of her labor in action as well as spending some time away from her habitat.”

“Would any of those ‘toys’ cause Twilight to regret her cooperation?” Frank said leadingly as he fixed Shen with a flat stare. “You and Matt know just how strongly she holds her convictions. It’s those convictions that motivated her to even share these secrets with us. I don’t want to find out how she’d react if she found out just how creative we can be with our inventions.”

“Nothing objectionable will be shown, I can assure you,” Shen said with as much confidence he could fake. Lies of omission are still lies, he reprimanded himself before continuing, “From the materials we’ve seen so far she’s put a great deal of work into several defensive systems so I figured that would interest her the most.”

“Sorry, Charles. I didn’t mean to imply that you would do anything unwise,” Frank smiled and shrugged to dispel the heavy mood that was encroaching on the conversation. “After Vahlen’s little stunt, I feel it necessary to make certain that caution is exercised.” A glance to Zhang brought all attention to the quiet soldier, who merely shrugged.

“I did what was necessary,” he said simply.

Matt’s unhappy look became quite sharp, but Shen stepped in before he could snap at the other soldier, “I’m certain you did what you were asked, and we’re all glad the end result has produced such positive results. But the past is in the past, so let’s move on.”

“Speaking of asking for it, where’s Vahlen? I would think she’d want to be here for this,” Matt commented as he looked to the door to the lab.

Shen’s placating look took on a note of worry. “She’s in Medical observing Lana’s surgery. We’re hoping she’ll be out of surgery by the morning and we’ll be able to see if Twilight’s invention will work.”

“I would recommend not mentioning Lana’s procedure until after we know it works,” Frank said and he again scratched his beard. “It will be much easier in the long run to come to her with a successful end result once rather than several failures and then a success.”

“I agree. So, any other concerns before we wake Twilight?” Shen again looked to the three men in the room before heading to Twilight’s habitat and pressing a small button above the door’s access panel. A muted chime could be heard on the opposite side of the door, and the group waited for nearly a minute before Matt stepped into Observation.

“She’s out like a light, but she made it into bed this time. Should we really wake her?” Matt asked; a note of concern plain in his voice as he stepped back out.

“I’m afraid it’s necessary. Wait here, I’ll wake her.” Shen tapped the door controls and made his way into the darkened room. The room wasn’t pitch black, as the overhead light was still on but dimmed enough for comfortable sleeping. The engineer had spent enough time in Twilight’s habitat to not bump into anything, but he still squinted and took small steps as he made his way to the bed.

Twilight was half-covered in her comforter and had her forelegs wrapped around her pillow like an impromptu stuffed animal. Shen began to reach toward Twilight to tap her on the shoulder but her entire body shuttered before he could. She clutched the pillow closer to her body and whispered, “I’m sorry.”

Shen’s outstretched hand balled into a fist as he straightened. It’s us who should be sorry, Twilight, the engineer thought bitterly. There’s a special place in hell just for what we’ve done to you… for what we’re doing to you. Some of us are more culpable than others, but I'm just as guilty for not doing more to stop it. I hope you’ll forgive me once this war is over. I hope that one day you’ll understand that it needed to be done.

“Twilight? Twilight, its Charles,” Shen said gently, and the unicorn began to stir from her slumber. “I hate to wake you up this early, but I’ve got something I need your help with.”

“Buh… wha? Charles? What’s going on?” Twilight asked before turning a bleary-eyed look at Shen. “What do you need help with this late at night?”

“It’s the final touch on one of the ideas that you’ve shared with us. We need your help to get it running. Do you think you can help us out with that?” Shen asked, again with his gentle tone and was rewarded with the sight of Twilight’s posture and ears perking up.

“I’d love to! Just give me a minute to wake up,” Twilight readily agreed, and as Shen stood and turned to the door he could see the unicorn stretch in a catlike manner before yawning widely. “What are we working on today?”

“It's actually something your work has inspired, Twilight,” Shen began to explain, and was rewarded with an eager smile. “You might have deduced this by now so forgive me if I'm rehashing what you already know, but most of our technology runs off of electricity. Do you know what that is?”

Twilight's nod was eager, “There are some electrical devices in Equestria, though they don't get much development beyond the occasional earth pony pursuing inventions for the sake of inventions. Magic has made it a bit less of a priority in terms of research or practical applications.”

“Aha, I see. And do you know how electricity is made?”

“There's a dam near my home that makes some electricity by harnessing the power of the river. I'm afraid I don't know the specifics; I just skimmed the information on how it works. Since I came here I tried to do some research on it with the internet but it’s been a bit frustrating. I found out about Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla as well as several other interesting people, but any search on how electricity is currently made resulted in a blocked search.” Twilight's eagerness became clouded a bit with frustration as she finished her explanation.

“The mechanics of its creation are a bit complicated, but the one thing they all have in common is that they gather energy from somewhere. In the case of your dam they are using the energy of the river as it flows. Other methods involve capturing the power of the wind or even the warmth of the sun to create electricity.” Shen smiled as he elaborated, and he could almost see the gears turning in Twilight's head as they exited the habitat and entered the lab's testing area. “Other methods involve burning combustible materials like coal and then using the heat produced to create the electricity.”

Twilight spoke a quick greeting to the three men waiting for them in the lab before turning back to Shen. “That's pretty interesting! Though I don't know why I-- wait, you're going to use an Elerium Circuit to draw the power necessary to create electricity, aren't you?” Shen couldn't help but grin as he saw the light of the recent discovery in Twilight's expression.

“Correct, but it's more than that. We're also going to try and create batteries that might store the energy from the Elerium Circuits so that smaller devices might use them. Some of your ideas won't work without an adequate power source, but with the batteries we hope to get around that.”

Matt led the group out of the lab with a cautious glance, and then took his position at the head of the group about thirty feet down the corridor. Shen and Frank walked beside Twilight as they exited the lab, and Zhang fell in behind the group some distance back. Twilight looked at the formation before turning back to Shen.

“I've been meaning to ask for a little while, why is it that when we go anywhere we move like this?” She asked warily as her gaze fell upon Matt, who was currently holding at the next intersection and looking both ways.

“The reason is the same as why we often move at night. Most of the staff is done for the day and sleeping, which means there's less likelihood of running into someone who isn't familiar with you. Matt is making sure that the corridors are clear ahead of us while Zhang is making sure that no one is coming up behind us,” Shen explained. Upon seeing Twilight's questioning look, he further elaborated, “I'm afraid most humans aren't quite ready to meet you, Twilight, and until they're ready they'd likely just be scared.”

Twilight's expression fell a bit at that, and silence quickly overpowered the conversation as they made their way to a staircase that took them to a lower level.

Like the previous floor, the corridors were completely empty. Shen found himself lowering his voice subconsciously as he heard his voice echo down the silent hallway. “Twilight, I've also been meaning to talk to you about the message you sent to me last week.”

The unicorn looked down before blurting out a torrent of words. “I didn't know things were so bad! I thought that maybe-- it doesn't matter what I thought. I was sitting up in my comfortable room reading books and thinking of how to find my way home when all of you are putting yourselves at risk. I can't do much but I want you to know I'll do everything I can.”

Frank’s answer was so softly spoken that Shen almost missed it. “It’s not your fault. It sounds like you’re blaming yourself, but you really shouldn’t.”

“If I don’t, then who will?”

Frank caught Shen’s eye, and the engineer spoke next. “Once we’re done here we can all get a good night’s sleep. In the morning, Matt and I are going to run some tests using the first generation of inventions that you inspired. If you’re up for it, we’d love for you to come by and see how things turned out. You are the inspiration for it all, so I’d love to get feedback from you before things go into production.”

Twilight’s expression rose and her ears perked up as she looked to Shen. “That sounds like fun.”

Matt stopped at the door to the Ea reactor and Shen opened the door with a swipe of his badge and the group filed into the next room. Rather than being a proper room like one of the engineering workshops or the science labs, the other side of the door opened into another hallway running parallel to the main corridor. A small staircase and a door were at the end of the hallway to the left, where Shen led the group. This last door opened up into a control room with dozens of computer monitors as well as a window looking out over another chamber.

The center of the chamber was dominated by a massive cylinder, and around the perimeter was a series of smaller cylinders that were laced from end to end with Elerium circuits in mind-boggling patterns. Masses of cables could be seen sprouting from both ends of the central cylinder which disappeared under the grated floor and ceiling.

“That’s… that’s really clever, Charles!” Twilight said as her eyes fell upon the collection of cylinders around the central section. “I’m assuming the smaller arrays work in tandem to create more power than one larger array? Or was there some sort of safety concern that was addressed by using this arrangement? Or perhaps the redundancy allows for backups in the event of failure? Or…” The unicorn began to trail off with more and more theories before Shen stopped her.

“Our first testing indicated the arrays generated heat when powered, so a rotation system was developed to allow for continuous power generation while allowing a minimum of half the circuits to stay deactivated to cool,” Shen explained with a smile. “I suppose you could say it’s a combination of safety concerns alongside the anticipated lifespan of the generator itself.”

“That makes sense. So when do we get to turn it on?” Twilight asked with a note of eagerness that made the engineer’s smile morph into a grin.

“Oh, we’ll be turning it on in just a moment. We’ll actually need you to exercise your gifts to start it, but before we get to that I’ll need to warn you. There will be other humans in the room on the other side of this glass. They won’t be able to see us but they’ll be able to hear us, so I’ll need you to be very quiet once the testing starts, okay?” When Twilight nodded, Shen continued, “When I give the startup command I want you to channel your magic into the cylinder closest to us, okay?”

“I understand, I think. Can I ask why?” The unicorn asked as she threw a curious look at the generator.

“You certainly can. I dare say you should never stop asking why,” Shen replied with a chuckle, and when Twilight turned that curious look back at him he shrugged. “Sorry, I’ll explain that a little bit later. As to why we need you, the generator can’t start on its own. Once we get it started, it should be self-sustaining.”

Twilight nodded, and Shen brought his radio headset up to his ears and turned it on. “All right, gentlemen. Report to the Ea reactor and let’s get started.”

Several moments of silence passed before a handful of bleary-eyed engineers shuffled into the generator’s main chamber. Most assumed positions at computer consoles situated around the room but one turned toward Shen in the control booth and gave a thumbs-up. “We’re all set, more or less. Ready when you are.”

“Right then. Our initial startup target is twenty percent of maximum theoretical power. If we can reach that we’ll go from there. Begin startup sequence… now!” Shen said, and turned to Twilight who obligingly looked to the cylinder nearest the window before closing her eyes. The patterns of Elerium lit up along the surface of the cylinder and a bass hum filled the chamber. “Startup appears to be successful and the system is registering a power flow. Congratulations, folks, we’ve just made history.”

Twilight cut off her channeling to look at the generator and her eyes widened as the Elerium from the second and then third cylinders began to light up. “How much electricity is it making?”

The engineer held up one finger to his mouth to signal for silence before turning on the intercom from the control booth to the generator’s main room. “How is the electrical output when compared to our conventional generators?” Shen asked.

“Still climbing. Generator’s just passed one hundred percent output for the regular generators. One hundred twenty percent. Two hundred fifty percent. Five hundred and thirty percent. Is it supposed to be doing this?” One of the engineers finished with a small note of alarm.

A beeping signal came from one of the consoles which prompted another engineer to run over to it. “Temperature for the modules is increasing dramatically. At this rate they’ll burn out before their cooling cycles start!”

“Fuck the generator, the temperature in the chamber is increasing!” Another engineer reported quickly as he looked over his shoulder at the cylinders around the generator was gradually beginning to glow red. The bass rumbling from the generator had also begun to rattle the window to the control booth.

“Charles?” Twilight asked, and he could see the unicorn give him a worried look out of the corner of his eye.

“Reduce the power to ten percent!” Shen shouted as his hands flew over the controls available to him. A chorus of acknowledgements answered him, followed by a series of increasingly alarmed updates. “Reduce the power to one percent and prepare for emergency cooling!”

One of Shen’s hands threw back the glass shield over a large red button and his hand hovered over it as he looked through the window at the generator. The window’s vibration gradually lowered and then ceased, and the casings around the generator appeared to cool as well. Shen let out a very brief sigh of relief before sinking back into his chair.

“Heat is returning back to acceptable levels, and the power is leveling out at just over eight hundred percent of standard generator output,” an engineer said as he ran from one monitor to another. “I think we’re stable.”

“Good work, gentlemen. I’ll hang around the control booth to make sure these levels are maintained, you kids go get some rest. I expect one of you to relieve me in the morning,” Shen said, which elicited a chuckle from the engineers as they gathered to exit the chamber. When the last engineer disappeared behind the door, Shen turned to Twilight and the others. “I’ll be staying here to supervise for the rest of the night. You should get Twilight back to her room and then get some rest yourselves. We’ve got a busy day tomorrow.”

“Okay! I’ll see you in the morning!” Twilight said, her good cheer fast returning now that the unexpected excitement of the generator startup was finished. She followed Matt and Zhang out of the room while Frank stayed behind.

When the door closed behind the trio, Shen let out a ragged breath he didn’t know he had been holding as he slid the glass shield back over the red button. His hands noticeably shook despite his best efforts to prevent it.

“Charles, what exactly is involved with ‘emergency cooling?’” Frank asked as he set his eyes upon the engineer.

“The chamber would be flooded with liquid nitrogen to prevent the generator from melting down until it could be ejected or the base evacuated.” The fates of those inside the chamber didn’t require elaboration.

“You’re serious? What about other failsafes? Surely there’s a cut-off or something that could deactivate the reactor safely!” Frank’s wide-eyed stare was fixed upon Shen before he stole a glance into the now calm reactor.

“The reactor, once started, is self-sustaining. It cannot be deactivated now barring physical damage to the Elerium Circuitry, the Elerium itself wearing down to nothing, or catastrophic melt-down. As to what the melt-down would entail, we don’t quite know. The reactor might just overheat and melt. Or it might crack the planet in half,” Shen explained before reaching under his desk to produce a bottle of liquor and a glass. “I had hoped this might be a good way to toast our success, but the mood doesn’t seem quite right.”

The engineer unscrewed the cap and poured himself a measure of the alcohol in the glass to offer to Frank when the doctor stepped forward and snatched the bottle from him. “May God have mercy on our souls,” he said as he took a long swig straight from the bottle before slamming it down on the table.

May God have mercy, indeed, Shen agreed as he watched the doctor exit the control booth.

------

08:33, 05/13/2015, MEDICAL

Lana woke with what was quite possibly the most epic headache she had ever had in her short life.

Mother of God, I need an ice pack or aspirin. Or both,she thought as she tried to open her eyes. She regretted the decision almost immediately as the blindingly white walls of Medical greeted her. After several repeated attempts to open her eyes she was finally successful. Two figures approached her on either side of the bed. One was easily recognizable as Vahlen, while the other was a male doctor that she couldn’t quite place.

“Good morning, Lana. How are you feeling?” Vahlen asked, and Lana’s headache prevented her from taking note of the scientist’s enforced good cheer.

“Like shit, actually. It didn’t work, did it?” Lana stated as much as asked as she rubbed her eyes with her right hand as she tried to sit up. Hands from both Vahlen and the doctor slipped behind her back to help her get upright.

“Why don’t you see for yourself?” Vahlen offered as she waved to the body-length mirror that was set beside the bed.

Lana’s stare became wide-eyed as she caught sight of the image in the mirror. The marred stump she had expected to see just beneath her left shoulder was gone. In its place was something out of a comic book or Hollywood movie. The arm appeared to be metal and lacked any of the exposed wiring or machinery she was expecting but was sleek and smooth. The soldier willed her left arm to move, and it complied. The metal hand rose in front of her face before turning around before her eyes. The palm was made up of several segmented plates and was covered in what appeared to be textured rubber or heavy duty cloth. The last two segments of each finger and the last segment of the thumb were similarly covered. She rubbed her right hand over the artificial palm and found that the material gave just a bit under pressure while providing a no-skid surface as well.

“That’s…” Lana started to say as each of the digits folded and extended without so much as a click, hiss or squeak. The fingers clenched into a fist and then released before she continued, “That’s impressive.” Dozens of questions popped up in her head but they were all derailed when she looked back in the mirror. “I thought you were going to shave me bald for the implant thingies?”

“Yes, well…” Vahlen started before floundering until the doctor came to her rescue.

“The installation procedure turned out to be not nearly as invasive as we initially thought. Apart from the installation of the hardware onto your arm, there should be no significant scarring, or shaving your head.” The doctor reported quickly and with a smile.

“I think we’re past the point where I’m worried about scars, doc,” Lana quibbled as her humor returned, though her trademark smile hadn’t quite made it all the way to her face. I know that guy from somewhere…ugh, where have I heard that voice? “I don’t suppose you have any aspirin or an icepack? I’ve got a killer headache.”

Vahlen and the mysterious doctor shared another look before he spoke again, “You have a headache? What about your arm? Er, your left arm, I mean?” When Lana looked down and shrugged, he continued, “Well, it’s possible the painkillers are wearing off. Here’s another dose.” The doctor produced a small packet of pills which he handed to the soldier alongside a glass of water. “These should keep you covered during the day. Once you’re able to stand you should be good to leave Medical, but you’ll be restricted to off-duty tasks. No heavy lifting and no strenuous labor until we’re certain that the prosthetic works with optimum efficiency. Now, do you have any other questions, miss Jenkins?”

Upon hearing the doctor speak her name, the pieces came together. “I remember you now!” Lana exclaimed with a mischievous grin, “You pronounced me dead!”

“Yes, well, I’m glad that didn’t turn out to be the case,” The freshly identified Doctor Benson said sheepishly.

“Now, I’m not someone who tells other people to do their jobs but I think you might have jumped the gun with that pronouncement. Never know when someone will just pop up and prove you wrong.” Another memory stirred in Lana’s mind but was promptly crushed by another spike of pain entering her head.

When the doctor didn’t immediately reply, Lana continued, “The moment you said, ‘let’s move on to the next one,’ I swore I was going to haunt you to the grave but it seems like you lucked out of that, doctor.” Had Lana’s headache not been so severe she might have noticed the look of blank-faced confusion on the doctor’s face or the forced non-expression on Vahlen’s.

She slowly rose to her feet before taking an experimental step or two. Now confident in her balance, she turned back to the others. “Do you mind if I borrow a coat until I get back to the barracks? I’d rather not walk around the base looking like the Terminator.”

The doctor nodded dully as he retrieved a coat and presented it to the soldier.

Lana nodded her thanks as she slipped the coat on and slipped her hands into the pockets before shuffling out of medical. As with the dozens of other little things she missed, her headache prevented her from noticing the lit operating room next door and its dozens of unused instruments, or the pair of penny-sized objects covered in Elerium on a tray next to them.

------

11:00, 05/13/2015, WAREHOUSE S2

Matt’s combat boots sounded as loud as rifle reports as he walked to the equipment display. A long table with several gadgets and firearms was set along the far wall, and down the length of the hangar was a series of concrete barriers and target dummies. The only other feature in the barren warehouse interior was the elevator entrance that he had just left.

Shen appeared from behind one of the tables with a tablet in his hands and a haggard look on his face, though he smiled when he noted the soldier’s approach. “Wearing the new Chameleon armor, then?” He stated as much as asked. “Opinions?”

“Regarding its exotic functionality, I think we’ll have to wait to test that,” Matt answered, and Shen nodded before gesturing for Matt to continue, “I don’t know if I’m a fan of plated armor like this. I’m used to Kevlar vests and ballistic fibres which have a bit of flexibility to them. I’m assuming the material choices were made for heat resistance?”

“Correct,” Shen as he tapped the tablet several times. “As the vast majority of aliens use plasma weaponry, it is our hope that the armor plating will better absorb and dissipate heat and improve survivability. Grazes and near misses should be significantly less deadly, and the armor should hold up against a direct hit. I wouldn’t recommend more than one, though.”

“Every little bit helps. So, what do we have on display?” Matt asked as he eyed the gadgets on the table, and the two rifle-like objects specifically.

“A little bit of everything, but I figure we should start with the big things first,” Shen explained as he moved to the rifles. “The first is the standard laser assault rifle that was slated for mass production before other breakthroughs came to light. The second is a rifle created from the information that Twilight has given us. Placeholder name for the moment is ‘GB rifle.’ The armor penetration is... substantial.”

“You said the laser rifle was meant for mass production, as in past tense. Why?”

Shen’s expression became less certain as he answered the question. “The first test of the GB rifle was far more successful than we ever thought, even to the point where the laser rifles might not be needed. I’ve had both brought up for testing today so you might give your impressions. After all, it’s you and your friends that will end up using these so I’d value your opinion on the matter.”

Matt arched an eyebrow at the explanation before he looked at the pair of rifles. Both were lying on their sides with their magazines sitting beside them. The laser was a boxy thing with collapsed stock and what appeared to be cooling surfaces both above and below the barrel. A black hand-grip was mounted just in front of where the magazine attached to the rifle. The magazine itself looked like a miniature car battery with its rectangular shape and coloring.

With practiced hands Matt scooped up the rifle and slid the battery into place. The rifle hummed as soon as the battery slid into it's slot, and a small readout lit up just above the collapsible stock. While inspecting the readout he could see an integrated laser sight tracing along the ground, which he quickly discovered was part of the iron sights along the weapon’s barrel. With a shrug he stepped over to the firing range and extended the rifle’s stock before assuming the classic rifleman stance and slipping his trigger finger inside the guard.

An angry beam of red light flashed out from the barrel instantly to the distant target, leaving a blackened pock-mark on it. Three more trigger pulls sent three lines of coherent light down range with similar results. Matt thumbed the fire selector to full auto and then pulled the trigger and was rewarded with a stuttering line of laser fire almost entirely on target. After a two second burst he released the trigger and hit the safety on the gun before checking the readout on the back of the rifle.

“The readout should give an indication of weapon heat as well as remaining shots in the battery,” Shen provided helpfully while giving Matt an expectant look.

“Aha,” Matt said as he detached the battery and headed back to the table. “That’s an interesting rifle, I’ll give it that. No kick means accuracy can be maintained with sustained firing, though the positioning of the forward grip makes things a bit awkward. It also felt like two thirds of the weight of the rifle went into the battery. Considering the battery size and weight it might be a bit uncomfortable to carry around for long periods of time. The readout is also a bit vague regarding how much charge is left. I’d estimate about forty or fifty shots total per battery?”

“Forty,” Shen confirmed as he continued to take notes on his tablet.

“I also understand the barrel can’t have attachments due to cooling, but it might benefit from having a rail on the top. As it stands now there’s no place for a scope or anything else beyond what it comes with.” Matt set the rifle on the table and crossed his arms before continuing, “Other than those issues I don’t have any complaints. Good rate of fire, decent magazine size. The only question now is ‘how does it fare against the enemy?’”

“Perfectly valid points,” Shen agreed as he finished his notes before indicating the other rifle. “Care to give the GB rifle a try?”

Matt nodded and turned his attention to the second firearm on the table. The first impression the rifle gave him was of the French FAMAS, but without the upper hand guard or exposed barrel and muzzle brake. A vertical hand grip was mounted on a rail a couple of inches behind the business end, while the port for the magazine was located in the butt stock. A rail mount ran along the top of the rifle where a large scope sat, and a small wire could be seen linking to the forward grip where a series of small buttons resided. The magazine was modest in size and appearance, with dimensions no larger than an average paperback novel.

“I’m assuming the bullpup design was chosen because of the nature of the weapon?” Matt asked as he loaded the magazine and resumed his place on the firing line.

“Correct. With no shell casings or trigger assembles to worry about, it was felt that this design might make the GB rifle practical as an urban fighting weapon. With most of your fighting taking place in cities it seemed a wise choice,” Shen explained, and Matt had to raise an eyebrow when the engineer offered him ear protection. “Trust me, you’ll need them.”

“What do the forward controls do? They look like they link to the scope. Zoom, maybe?” Matt gave the blank buttons a speculative look as he brought the ear protection up to his head but not quite around his ears.

The engineer’s expression turned into a grin. “X-ray. Center button activates the view mode, front button zooms in, back button zooms out.”

X-ray, huh? Matt thought to himself before bringing the rifle up to his shoulder and sighting down the scope. A button press turned the crystal-clear image of the far target into something better associated with bad television reception. The entire scope was filled with white noise, while the outline of his target was silhouetted like a shadow in the center. Pressing the forward button caused that silhouette to disappear, only for another to appear in roughly the same place and smaller in size. Before he could fiddle with the controls any longer there was an audible click and the scope flipped back to its standard view.

“Ah, that’s unfortunate,” Shen said with a frown as he added more notes to his tablet. “We were hoping the battery for X-Ray would last longer. What was that, fifteen seconds?”

“Ten.”

“Ah, well. Unfortunate, but we’ll make adjustments to hopefully extend that time for future models. Go ahead and take your shots.” Shen said with a shrug before finally slipping his own ear protection over his ears.

Matt did the same as he thumbed the safety off and lined up the shot.

CRACK

The sound of a bull whip reached Matt’s ears through his protection, which wasn’t surprising. What was surprising was the sudden feeling of the wind on his back the moment the trigger was pulled and the bright purple beam that leapt from the rifle. He was just about to ask Shen about it before he caught the results of his shot through the scope. A hole was cleanly punched through the target he fired at, and he had to suppress the urge to whistle. Without any further hesitation he flipped the rifle to full auto and pressed the trigger.

After less than half a second of rapid whip-cracks and wind, the gun was dry.

“What was that, ten shots?” Matt asked as he brought the rifle back to the desk. “It seems a bit light especially if you plan on using the full auto option. Still, just look at that penetration.”

“We were also hoping for a bit more power out of the batteries we had developed for this tech,” Shen answered with a sour look as he tapped at his tablet. “Do you have any other feedback on the rifle?”

“It’s a solid design, though the shallow ammunition limit takes it out of the running as an assault rifle. Perhaps a designated marksman rifle or an anti-armor option that isn’t a rocket launcher? It certainly would be nice to have at least one rifleman in the squad with one of these to take out some of the heavy stuff we’ve been running into. I am curious though. What does ‘GB’ stand for? And where’s all that wind coming from with each shot?”

“GB is actually a reference to the project name that spawned the weapon in the first place. I admit it isn’t a slick acronym like SHIV. I’ll see if the boys down in engineering can come up with something better. As to the wind, that’s—”

Before Shen could explain further, the elevator to the warehouse let out a chipper ding before the doors opened. Zhang, Twilight and Lana stepped out into the spacious area, and the latter waved to Matt and Shen with her left hand. The female soldier wore a hooded sweatshirt and gloves that obscured the prosthetic, and if Matt had to remind himself that it wasn’t her flesh and blood arm.

Matt placed the rifle behind him before turning back to face the new arrivals. “Good morning. Have we recovered from our late night activities?”

“Some more than others, I think,” Lana answered cryptically as she rubbed her eyes with her right hand. “Had a headache since I woke up after the operation, and the pills they give me aren’t worth a damn.” When she removed her hand to see the looks of concern from Twilight, Shen and Matt, she waved their concerns away. “Oh don’t mind me I’m certain it will pass. So, what has the mad scientist labs come up with for us to see?”

“I resent the implication, Lana! I’m an engineer, not a scientist!” Shen’s grin was contagious as he waved the group over to the table. “You’ve already seen two of our breakthroughs today, Twilight. The first was the generator you helped with, and the second is… well, Lana’s arm. I’m happy to report the former is stable and operational.”

“The arm’s great as far as I can tell, so far. Full range of motion with no annoying machinery noises I was expecting. Makes me feel just a little heavy to the left, though I think that’s because I was getting used to having a bit less weight there.” Lana explained as she brought her left hand up. It quickly clenched and unclenched before performing a rapid series of hand signs that Matt quickly recognized as squad signals. “I’m hoping they’ll give me the green light to rejoin Strike One once everyone’s satisfied I won’t be a liability.”

“I’m glad it’s working out so well, but wouldn’t you prefer to stay here where it’s safer?” Twilight asked with a look that would have made most puppies green with envy.

“To be perfectly honest, I would,” Lana answered after an uncomfortable delay. “I’m not too keen on having something like this happen again, but if I don’t go out there then someone else will have to go instead. And then if they get hurt, then I don’t think I could live with myself.”

“Which is where our inventions come in and will hopefully save lives,” Shen harpooned the somber mood and attempted to drag it to a more upbeat place by changing the subject. “Matt, Lana? Perhaps you would like to test the Rho Aias system?”

The two soldiers turned to follow Shen to the end of the table where a few apparently random devices sat. One such device was a glove with what appeared to be metal links running along the fingers to the tips as well as a bundle of wires that led to another device mounted on two straps. “The Rho Aias system was adapted from Twilight’s ‘Shield’ spell. It’s--”

“Question!” Lana interrupted Shen’s explanation. “What is ‘Rho Aias?’ Sounds like a goofy mythology reference.”

“You would be correct. ‘Rho Aias’ is a reference to the shield used by Ajax, and was the only shield capable of deflecting a spear thrown by the Trojan hero Hector. Now, the shield spell was originally designed as a spherical barrier around the caster that carried seven layers of protection, but we—”.

“What are the seven layers?” Lana interrupted again as she picked up what appeared to be a perfectly ordinary and mundane baseball.

Rather than show any annoyance at the interruptions, Shen turned towards the only magical expert in the room. “Twilight, perhaps you would like to answer that question?”

“The seven layers are designed to counter the seven most typical forms of magical assault,” Twilight recited as though from a book. “Physical attack, mental attack, heat, cold, telekinetics, transformation and teleportation.” Twilight hesitated before adding sheepishly, “Clover the Clever also developed an ‘absolute defense’ that prevented the caster from taking any harm, but the energy requirements for it are beyond even me.”

“What you’ve done is quite thorough! I have to ask, why does it block teleportation?” Shen asked with an arched eyebrow.

Twilight’s expression fell just a bit but before she could answer Lana jumped into the conversation again. “I imagine it’s just like any other spell. The target doesn’t necessarily have to be willing, so you make a defense to block it, right? Now, let me guess. You want me to hurl this baseball at Matt once he gets the shield going to see if it blocks it, right?”

“Correct. Matt, there should be some instructions along the palm of the glove for activating and deactivating the shield.”

Matt removed the gloves he had been wearing before slipping on the glove attached to the device. Once his hand was snugly inside he began to strap the device to his forearm. As the engineer had said, instructions were printed on the palm of the glove. Pinkie to trigger finger were numbered one through four while the thumb was number five. Matt curled each digit in sequence before finally bringing his thumb into his clenched fist.

A chime or whistle came from the device and a transparent oval of purple energy sprouted from his arm much like a medieval shield. “Well, that’s interesting,” he commented as he ran his right hand along the inside of the energy shield. “There’s no texture or resistance to it, but my hand definitely can’t push through it. It feels like polished glass, almost.” His gaze focused away from the shield before him to Lana as she tossed the ball up into the air and caught it again. The moment she saw she had Matt’s attention she smiled, and she threw the ball up again… and caught it with her left hand. “Lana, what are you doing?”

“Oh, I’m just thinking we could do more than just test the shield, I think. My arm needs a bit of ‘stress testing’ or so they tell me. What better way to test the robot arm than with a wee bit of fast ball pitching?” Lana explained innocently before cocking the arm back and hurling the ball with all her might.

The moment the ball left Lana’s hand time seemed to slow for Matt. Jesus Christ she put her arm into the throw. I suppose I should be thankful I’m wearing armor and she didn’t aim for my face, he thought before mentally reprimanding himself as he realized the ball had crossed half the distance in the time it took him to process that idle thought. Armor tactics! Sloped armor deflects kinetic force of projectiles away from the target…

Matt had just enough time to lean back and extend his shield arm before the ball reached him. The upper portion of the shield leaned back with him, and the baseball was deflected with a sound not unlike a gong being struck. The sound that followed was the ball impacting on the far wall of the warehouse several hundred feet away.

“It worked!” Twilight cheered, and all eyes fell on her.

“Was there any doubt?” Matt asked evenly as he divided his attention between glaring at Lana and smiling at Twilight.

“Technically, no,” Twilight waffled before elaborating, “I have these spells memorized and can perform almost every one flawlessly, but this process of artificially reproducing the effects is something entirely new. Enchantments back home operate under completely different principles, so I’m afraid a lot of this is best guess until we iron out the exact mechanics. I’m glad it worked so well though!”

“I am, too. We’ll need to do some more strenuous testing to see how much damage the shield can take before collapsing. We can leave that for later, though.” Shen explained as he set the tablet down on the table behind him. “For now, we thought you might like to spend some time outside your room and maybe stretch your legs.”

“That doesn’t sound like a bad idea,” Twilight agreed as she finally took in the amount of empty space in the warehouse she was now in. “This will give me enough space for some proper magical exercise too!” The moment she finished her statement she vanished in a flash of lavender light before reappearing some distance away in the warehouse. Another flash and she was all the way at the opposite end. Three more flashes and she had reached the other corners of the warehouse before one final flash teleported her back to the group.

“Ugh, I knew I should have been practicing more,” she said as she rubbed her head with one hoof. “Took way too much energy and too much time per teleport. Plus the Field here is giving me a headache.”

“Oh I know that feeling, Twily,” Lana said sympathetically. Twilight gave the soldier an appreciative smile before it finally fell. The unicorn started to speak but the soldier cut her off. “No no no, save your pity, Twilight. Save your guilt, too. You gave me a chance to be whole again, or at least as whole as someone can get after an injury like I had. And there was nothing you could have done to prevent this from happening, apart from predicting the future.”

Matt was only half paying attention to the conversation behind him as he helped Shen box up some of the things from the table, and he would have continued to help had his divided attention not caught Twilight’s reply.

“Thank you for that, Lana. And you’re right. I can’t just sit around on my flank anymore. Maybe this is why Discord sent me here? Lana? Lana, what’s wrong?”

Matt glanced over his shoulder to see the female soldier staring blankly at the far wall with a wide-eyed and pale expression. “Oi, Lana! Did they take out too much of your brain when they were installing the arm?” He heckled before waiting for the usual response.

Lana looked dully over to Matt before blinking and rubbing her eyes with her forehead. “Right, something like that. I’m sorry but I think I’m going to head back down. See if I can twist the arms of those doctors for some aspirin.” With that, she turned and headed back towards the elevator. Her right hand remained over her eyes while her left fumbled for the elevator call switch. The elevator doors opened to admit her before hiding her from sight as they closed again.

“Matt, is Lana going to be alright?” Twilight asked as she fixed him with those wide purple eyes.

“I’m sure she is. She’s probably just tired,” Matt said as smoothly as he could. He kept his gaze firmly on the elevator to avoid having to lie directly to Twilight’s face.

------

14:25, 05/13/2015, OFFICE OF CMDR BRADFORD

For the first time in a very long while, David Bradford allowed himself to smile. It was a worn smile, barely more than a quirk at the corners of his mouth, but it was there.

At last we have something to level the playing field just a bit, Bradford thought to himself and the smile grew just a fraction more. Lasers, improved armor, new Interceptor and Skyranger weaponry, plus those new armor piercing rifles Shen produced. We’ll have to be careful not to get overconfident.

A knock on the door interrupted Bradford’s increasingly optimistic reading which left him with a brief scowl. He closed the report and turned to the door. “Enter.”

A brief moment passed before the door opened and a rather stressed-looking Lana Jenkins stepped into the office and saluted. Bradford returned the salute before motioning toward the chairs in front of his desk. “Good afternoon, corporal. I haven’t quite made it to the reports on your operation this morning, but seeing as how you’re up and about and seemingly whole I take it that it was a success?”

“Yes, sir, it was,” Lana reported stiffly, and she kept her gaze locked on Bradford’s nameplate on his desk. “I’ve got full range of motion and I’m hoping that a few days worth of good tests will allow me to return to Strike One.”

Oh, now it makes sense.

“I certainly appreciate your eagerness to return to the field operations, corporal, but the final decision will be up to the doctors if you pass the wellness tests,” Bradford explained gently and with his best comforting expression. “Even if you don’t get approved for active duty, you’re going to be the key to giving a lot of wounded veterans more fulfilling lives once this war is over.”

When Lana’s expression didn’t change after that explanation, Bradford arched an eyebrow. Perhaps I misunderstood her concern. “Of course, if you aren’t cleared for field operations then I’m certain we can find a place for you here for the duration of this conflict. You have a background with the Seabees, after all. I’m confident Engineering would find a use for you.”

“Thank you for your consideration, sir, but I have another concern I wanted to bring up,” Lana said evenly as she finally worked up the courage to drag her eyes up to meet Bradford’s. “On the battleship where I got hurt, you called out a warning.”

“I recall that, yes. It’s unfortunate that you had to suffer such an injury but it could have been far worse.”

Lana gritted her teeth and began to rub her eyes with her right hand, and Bradford arched an eyebrow at the unexpected response. Anger or pain?

“Sir, do you recall when you called out your warning?” Lana asked through her clenched teeth.

Bradford arched an eyebrow before choosing his answer carefully, “I saw the cyberdisk emerge from the doorway and sent my warning immediately.”

“No, sir. No you didn’t.”

“I beg your pardon?” Bradford’s expression was incredulous at Lana’s statement, but before he could speak any further she continued.

“I remember what happened just before I was hurt, but I’m perfectly willing to admit the possibility that I am not remembering things correctly. Almost died, you know?” Lana laughed before letting her right hand fall from her face to slap on the armrest. The expression on her face was pain as well as something few subordinates rarely directed at Bradford: anger. “So I went down to the archives and pulled up the armor camera logs as well as the transmission logs. I correlated the time stamps with my own armor cam as well as three others. You sent your warning before the cyberdisk came through the door.”

“What are you implying, corporal?” Bradford asked evenly.

“I have no idea!” Lana said quickly, “I have a pile of evidence and personal experience that seems to tell me that you somehow predicted the Cyberdisk was going to come through that door before it happened, yet my common sense is telling me such a thing is impossible and my gut is telling me you wouldn’t hold something back if you saw these things coming. But…”

“What are you implying, corporal?” Bradford repeated.

“How did you know I was outside your door?”

Bradford’s mounting impatience melted into confusion. “I heard you knock.”

“But I didn’t. I was about to knock when you invited me in!”

Bradford slowly leaned forward and painted a sympathetic expression on his face as he clasped his hands in front of him. “Corporal Jenkins, you suffered a terrible injury and nearly died as a result. Many who survive such an event find they need someone or something to blame afterward…”

“YOU THINK I’M MAKING THIS UP!?” Lana snapped, and the wood armrest under her left arm began to groan dangerously.

“Control your volume and your tone with me, corporal,” Gone was the mask of sympathy and in its place was the glare that had made Bradford infamous. The one sentence he spoke filled the room more than Lana’s shouts even though it wasn’t a decibel louder than his usual speaking voice. He was just about to speak again when his earpiece clicked.

“Commander Bradford, an alien craft has been spotted entering our atmosphere.”

“Command, Bradford. Raise the alert status of the base and scramble Strike Five and Six. Skyrangers Crimson and Harbinger are to carry them. Skull Squadron will intercept.” Bradford ordered quickly as he rose from his desk. He tuned out the confused reply from Command as he glared down at Lana. “Corporal Jenkins, this discussion is over. Report to Medical, immediately.”

Lana rose and saluted crisply before stalking out of the office. The moment the door closed behind her, Bradford slipped his headset off his ears to rub his temples before replacing it and heading to the door himself. This job won’t let me go a single day without a headache.

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