• 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. 2)

MEDAL OF HONOR AWARDED POSTHUMUSLY TO OFF-DUTY MARINES THAT GAVE THEIR LIVES TO SAVE CIVILIANS DURING ALIEN ATTACK ON DC IN APRIL. SENATOR GOLEMAN OFFERED CONDOLENCES TO SURVIVING FAMILY MEMBERS DURING PRESS CONFERENCE AFTER EVENT.

ECONOMISTS ARE BAFFLED AT THE COLLAPSE OF PMC ORGANIZATIONS IN THE WAKE OF ALIEN ATTACKS. ALL SIGNS POINTED TO BOOM IN PRIVATE MILITARY COMPANY CONTRACTS AFTER ALIEN ATTACKS BECAME WIDESPREAD BUT BIG NAME COMPANIES ARE TIGHTENING THEIR BELTS, CITING ‘UNEXPECTED SHORTAGE OF EXPERIENCED OPERATORS’.

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14:29, 05/13/2015, BARRACKS

Matt stepped into the barracks lobby and gave it a quick scan before walking towards a small knot of soldiers playing pool at one of the tables. He stopped and waited for one of the players to take his shot before he stepped forward and got their attention. “Gentlemen, have any of you seen Jenkins come through here?”

Blank stares and shrugs were the initial response Matt got and he had to resist the urge to facepalm as he realized the reason why. They’re all new, of course they don’t know Jenkins yet. “Woman, black hair, blue eyes, wearing a hooded sweater and gloves? Probably looked tired or stressed out?”

“Aha, yeah! I saw her. Headed for Bradford’s office last I saw,” one of the rookies said while nodding to the staircase heading to the upper level of the barracks. “She looked rather stressed.” A sideways glance at the other player at the table was followed by a grin. “She was also wearing Strike casual clothes but I don’t recall seeing her during the introductions. I’m not the only one who would remember a looker like her if we met before…”

“You’re not her type. Thank you for your help, gentlemen,” Matt explained briskly before heading towards the staircase. He had made it halfway up the stairs before the intercom buzzed a message for Strike teams to assemble. As he turned to descend the stairs to head to the ready room, the door to Bradford’s office slid open to reveal Lana.

Lana’s expression went from disgruntled to nuclear the moment her eyes fell upon Matt. “Oh that’s just fucking perfect,” she laughed bitterly. “Let me guess, you’re here to escort the crazy person back to Medical? He’d naturally send you to do it.”

“What are you talking about?” Matt asked as Lana stomped down the stairs towards him. “I came looking for you after you flaked out during testing. We were a bit concerned about your headache. Why were you talking with Bradford?”

Lana’s stomping stopped and she began to rub her eyes with her right hand. “Ah, sorry Matt. I didn’t mean to unload on you like that. Things have been a little stressful today; I guess I’m letting it get to me.” Matt turned to follow Lana as she descended the stairs. She stopped and turned to Matt before they reached the bottom of the stairs. “You’ll have to forgive me if this is a ridiculous question, Matt. Have… have you done anything unusual lately?”

“Define unusual,” Matt said with a smirk as he gave her an opening to lighten the mood.

A slight smile graced Lana’s face as she continued, “Unusual. Like spoon bending or fortune telling.” The slight smile grew into the mischievous smirk that was her iconic look. “Or, you know, riding the pony if you know what I mean.”

“No, no and hell no,” Matt snapped, though his smile undermined any sort of displeasure it might have conveyed. The pair reached the bottom of the stairs where a steady flow of soldiers headed from the various barracks facility to the armory. “We’re on alert. If you’re feeling better once we stand down, can you tell me what went on with Bradford?”

“I’ll see what I can manage, Sergeant. Good luck,” Lana gave an abbreviated wave before Matt lost sight of her in the crowd.

------

14:40, 05/13/2015, SITUATION ROOM

Commander Bradford strode into the Situation Room and immediately looked to the holographic globe hovering in the center of the room. His eyes immediately centered on a red dot that hovered lazily over northern Canada as well as a quartet of green dots speeding steadily towards it.

“Command, Skull Actual. Estimated five minutes to engagement range,” The radio in Bradford’s ear reported, and several screens activate around the projected globe showing the nose cameras of the interceptors. “Three, arm your frag launcher and attempt lock on enemy craft. Two and Four, arm your lances and prepare for engagement.” A chorus of acknowledgements followed the orders and a small square appeared in the center of all four screens.

“What’s the status on Crimson and Harbinger?” Bradford asked as he turned to one technicians manning the nearest station and was quick enough to catch the wary gazes of every person he could see before they all simultaneously looked away.

Before Bradford could ponder the significance of the unusual attention, one of the techs spoke up. “Skyrangers are ten minutes behind Skull.”

“And the Strike teams?”

“Outfitted with Carapace armor and a mix of projectile, laser and LANC rifles that Shen had sent up from the Foundry,” The technician reported.

“Excellent,” Bradford said with a nod before manipulating the controls before him to enlarge the footage coming from the fighters. He ignored the scattered numbers and symbols and focused on the third screen which showed a second box that slowly began to fill the first one on the screen. Just as the first square was nearly filled it jumped to the side and the second square struggled to keep up.

Wanker!” Skull Three swore over the radio and the two squares began to chase themselves around the screen. “Skull One, frag launcher isn’t likely at this point. He’s onto me and he isn’t cooperating.”

“Copy, Three. Four, get his attention.”

The fourth screen tilted as Skull Four banked out of formation and dove to gain speed before nosing up to approach the alien craft. A tiny black speck appeared in the center of the screen as the alien craft finally entered visual range before jerking to the side as bolts of plasma began to streak towards the Interceptor.

“Whenever you’re ready, One.”

The first and second screens, which had shown nothing but the open sky for a few minutes as they ascended turned back to earth and began to accelerate. The targeting square appeared over the alien craft as it made nearly ninety degree turns to evade the Interceptors. Bright purple lines of energy leapt towards the alien ship and connected with seemingly no effect until a second and third bolt impacted and the alien craft began to wobble and lose altitude. A fourth shot impacted with the aft section and any semblance of controlled flight was lost as the alien craft dropped like a rock.

“Command Actual, Skull One. Confirmed kill on alien craft, uploading crash location now. Advise Strike teams that civilians may be in the area. I’m seeing movement from the crash site, survivors are confirmed.”

Bradford couldn’t hide his smirk at the performance of both his pilots and their new weapons and had just opened up his mouth to congratulate them when Skull Four interrupted him.

“Whenever you’re ready, One.”

What? Bradford thought as he blinked and rubbed his eyes before focusing on the screens again. Both the first and second screens showed the Skull One and Two beginning their dives on the target, as well as the four strikes that knocked the invader ship out of the sky. He found himself whispering the squadron leader’s own words as he reported the kill and the crash location.

A long moment passed before Bradford finally spoke. “Copy, Skull One. Remain on station and observe the crash site. Strike Five, Strike Six, an alien patrol ship was successfully intercepted in rural Canada. You have two objectives to complete. The first is the live capture of the ‘Outsider’ alien controlling the craft. Doctor Vahlen feels that the ARC throwers and ARC grenades will destabilize their bodies enough for them to revert back to their crystalline form. The second objective is the elimination of all alien forces that survived the crash. Interceptors report civilians in the area so check your targets. Good luck.”

To anyone else in the room the commander’s briefing was no different from any of the others he had given to the Strike teams. David Bradford was a pillar of confidence and solidarity in the face of horrendous losses and monstrous enemies. To show anything but that same steely resolve would undermine his every effort thus far, and so it took every ounce of his discipline to not show the growing worry that had taken root in his mind.

What was that? I did not imagine that, he asked himself for the fifth time in as many minutes. While in the process of his sixth repetition of the thought the conversation with Jenkins came back to him. No. No, that’s not possible. That is not possible. Any further contemplation on the subject was interrupted by reports from the Skyrangers.

“Command, Crimson, Strike Five has been delivered. Assuming overwatch.”

“Command, Harbinger, Strike Six is deployed. Assuming overwatch. Strike Teams, thermal scans can’t penetrate the crashed ship’s hull but they do show several thermal signatures in the nearby structure. System can’t confirm civilian or alien at this time.”

If all other explanations are ruled out, then any remaining explanations must be true. The idle thought pushed all others out of Bradford’s mind as he now scanned the myriad of armor cameras as well as the overhead views being provided by the Skyrangers. He slowly pulled in a long breath through his nose before concentrating on the screens.

“Understood. Strike Five will secure the crash site.”

“Strike Six will sweep the house for survivors.”

Strike Six leapfrogged from cover to cover as they made their way to the farmhouse. A ditch led to a parked tractor and trailer, which then led to a fence followed by a rusted out pair of cars. Fujikawa led the team to the exterior garage next to the house, and her armor camera fixed on a dark stain on the dusty driveway along with a discarded object in the center.

“Command, Six Actual. Looks like a blood stain and a discarded shotgun. Drag pattern is heading into the house.” A laser rifle entered the frame and pointed towards the door. “Jackson! You take team two around the back. I’ll take team one through the front.”

“Copy that.” Half the armor cameras for Strike Six began to bob as they sprinted for the house, though they all uniformly froze as they approached. “Captain, I hear screaming. There are civilians inside!”

“Double time it, soldier!” All of Strike Six burst into action as the first half stacked up by the front door while the second half piled up on the back door. Just as two of the cameras faced their respective doors two things happened.

Jackson’s camera swept to a shattered window beside the back door, then to the ground beside him and the tear-drop shaped object that now sat by his feet. “GRENA-” was all he could manage before four of the armor cameras burst into static.

Fujikawa arched one foot to kick in the front door when the door itself flew off its hinges at her and blasted her off her feet. The three other cameras of her fire team all snapped to the massive red monster that charged out of the doorway, but none of them fired as it turned to face them with an impromptu shield in its left hand: The limp body of a child in blood-soaked clothes.

That moment of hesitation was all that the red monster needed to close the distance to attack. A vicious backhand sent one soldier flying into the side of the house with a sickening crunch. Foot-long claws emerged from its forearm armor that gutted the second soldier like a fish. The last soldier snapped out of his paralysis and tried to run only to be knocked off his feet as a second monster blasted through the wall beside him. Any further attempts at escape were cut short as a red boot came down on the soldier’s skull.

“Command, I need fire support danger close on my position now! NOW GODDAMN IT NOW!” Fujikawa screamed as the first monster stomped toward her as she extricated herself from the door that had pinned her. The monster was massive, even bigger that the Mutons that had been encountered in the Gangplank mission and completely covered from head to toe in heavy red armor. It dropped the lifeless little body it carried in its left hand and reached forward to pull the one surviving member of Strike Six up. The massive claws surged forward and Fujikawa’s vital signs fluctuated before flat-lining.

The Skyrangers would not let the deaths of Strike Six go unanswered.

“Crimson on station. Crowley, light those fuckers up!”

“Harbinger, tally ho!”

The nose-mounted heavy lasers stitched across the two red-armored mutons. The first second of sustained fire saw their armor melt as they tried to seek cover. The next second of fire caused them to explode as the liquids in their bodies vaporized. The third second of fire reduced them both to little more than melted pools of slag.

“Command, Crimson. Strike Six is KIA. There are heat signatures still inside- Strike Five, confirmed plasma fire on your position originating from the house!”

Streaks of green plasma leapt from the shattered windows and ruined doorway at Strike Five who hastily repositioned themselves to engage the survivors from the house ambush. The staccato reports of rifle fire were punctuated with the zip zip of the laser rifles and the crack of the one lance rifle in the squad’s possession as they began to advance on the house.

None of the Strike Five soldiers had their eyes on the crashed ship in the field near the house so they missed the arrival of their mission’s primary objective. Two Outsiders emerged from the ship and immediately opened fire on the Strike teams with their near perfect flanking position. Unlike the other aliens encountered thus far, the Outsiders were almost human in their proportions and vague appearance though their forms flickered with each step like an image from a projector near death.

Two soldiers died almost immediately as the rapid fire plasma shots hammered them from behind and Strike Five’s discipline began to falter. The orderly advance on the house broke down as the soldiers scrambled for any cover they could-

“Understood. Strike Five will secure the crash site.”

Bradford barely heard the words as his legs nearly gave out from under him. A white hot spike of pain unlike anything he had ever experienced in his life exploded within his skull and sought to rob him of his consciousness. His hands slapped onto the console before him as he leaned forward heavily and he let out the breath he didn’t know he had been holding. He dragged his gaze up to the armor cameras again.

“Strike Six will sweep the house for survivors.”

His vision was awash with blurs and blind spots but Bradford could see Strike Six approaching the house exactly as he had already seen. Fujikawa’s camera caught sight of the blood patch and the discarded shotgun and the laser rifle rose into frame.

“Jackson! You take team two around the back. I’ll-”

“Negative, Strike Six, do not approach the house. Take up positions to cover the front entrance and prepare to fire on hostiles as they emerge,” Bradford kept his tone as neutral as always but he felt every set of eyes in the situation room upon him. Almost every face was wide-eyed and pale but none spoke a word. “Crimson, Harbinger, fire on the house.”

“Uh… copy that. Firing position in five seconds.” Hesitation was obvious in the reply from one of the Skyrangers.

Fujikawa’s response was frantic, “Sir, I hear screaming from the house! We have to-”

“They’ll be dead before you reach the door. Fire now!”

The Skyrangers reached their firing positions and just as their heavy lasers began to incinerate the house the front door flew off its hinges. The red-armored muton burst through with its human shield leading the way while the second burst through the wall beside the door. Both charged towards Strike Six’s position.

“Big red thing, five rounds rapid!” Fujikawa barked and the collection of lasers, lances and conventional firearms opened up on the two targets. One fell from sustained fire though it continued to crawl forward before finally expiring. The other led with its human shield, and anyone observing the video could tell the poor soul held in its massive hand was dead but Strike Six’s hesitation was all the opportunity that was needed.

One soldier was blasted off his feet with a backhand while another was bowled over and trampled in the rush. The muton turned and hurled its meat shield at two others before turning--and catching a lance beam squarely in its helmeted face. It collapsing like a puppet with its strings cut.

“Command, Crimson, I have Mutons exiting the back of the house, moving to engage now.”

Bradford didn’t bother to acknowledge the report before shifting his focus. “Strike Five, hostiles are present inside the ship. Two Outsiders are on their way to you.”

“Copy that Command. Eyes on target. Kasim, use the ARC grenade!”

The two Outsiders charged out of the crashed ship and into the well-prepared sights of Strike Five. The two aliens dove into cover while the XCOM soldiers moved to get into better position. When one of the Outsiders rose to fire on the soldiers as they moved, Kasim rose and hurled the appropriately named ‘stun grenade.’

The softball-sized projectile flew with the speed and surety of a fastball thrown by a major league pitcher, and its intended target was the head of the now exposed Outsider. The Outsider’s reaction speed was remarkable as it leaned out of the projectile’s path and it sailed past. Unfortunately for the Outsider the near miss was still close enough for the device to activate. The stun grenade made a ninety degree turn mid-air, smacked the Outsider on the face, and let loose an electric discharge. A screeching scream cut across the field and the alien’s body flickered and disappeared into an orange crystal which dropped onto the ground.

The second outsider didn’t so much as spare a glance towards its fallen comrade as it continued to fire. Several sections of its body dissolved from bullet and laser hits only to reform themselves. When the volume of fire increased it ducked down and shuffled to a new firing position--only to find an XCOM soldier with an ARC thrower waiting for him. Its screams echoed across the field as its body dissolved in an orange flash while leaving a crystal behind.

“Command, confirm capture of two HVTs.”

“Command, Harbinger. Thermal scans show no other hostiles in the area.”

“Excellent work,” Bradford congratulated over the radio as he finally straightened enough to resemble his usual calm self. “Begin recovery operations and return to base. Stand down from alert status.”

With his final orders given, Bradford turned and left the room without a word to any of the pale-faced and wide-eyed personnel in the situation room.

------

14:40, 05/13/2015, ARMORY

Strike One and Two were on standby while Five and Six deployed to deal with whatever situation had cropped up. In theory this allowed for rapid deployment of more forces to existing situations or to new developments that happened simultaneously. In practice it led to groups of soldiers being locked up in a little room for potentially hours on end.

Paul, Matt, and Shaojie were pillars of calm, while the rest of Strike One was all nervous energy and jitters. The notable exception was Robert Sachs, who appeared to have propped himself up in a corner of the armory with his chin down on his chest in apparent sleep. Matt couldn’t help chuckle at that before looking over to Strike Two and note their similar state. Wherever Five and Six are, I wish them luck. We need a win after what happened with the battleship.

Matt’s thoughts inevitably drifted to Lana’s questions before the alert as he tuned out the buzz of conversation. What did she mean, ‘unusual’? Spoon bending and fortune telling? That sounds like magic. He scoffed at the thought but the questions still nagged at him. Why would she ask something like that? We both know that Twilight is the only one who can do magic.

His eyes widened as he considered the implications. Spoon bending, wasn’t there a rumor about Strike Six having someone that could do that? I thought it was bullshit parlor tricks to scam folks out of money at the local bar or the usual crap that soldiers tell each other. What if Lana’s somehow managed to do magic? The intent of her question finally struck home and Matt’s eyes widened. If she’s capable of doing that, then does that mean she thinks I can? Another thought struck Matt that drained a bit of color from his face. What if I’ve been doing it already?

I can’t think of anything abnormal, except… Matt clasped his hands before his face as he struggled to remember the exact series of events that led up to Shaojie’s recruitment. A floater had thrown a grenade that had bounced just right for Matt to kick away from Lana and the others. The alien grenades were notorious for their unpredictable trajectories after bouncing due to their unusual shape. That might be attributed to luck, but…

The moments leading up to that bounce seemed to stretch for ages. There was also the moment when those Chryssalids came within spitting distance of us. Matt sucked in a breath as he connected the dots. There was also the first time we met in the lab as well as when I used the ARC thrower in the field. Then there was that shield test with Lana just a few hours ago.

Matt absently pulled a pencil from one of his hip pockets and set it on the bench in front of him before setting his gaze on it. Was that magic, or… or something not natural in all those moments? I certainly remember times in the past where time felt like it slowed down but those moments certainly felt pronounced. If that’s true, shouldn’t I be able to do something like Twilight? Telekinesis or something?

For several long moments Matt simply stared at the pencil as it sat on the bench in front of him. He threw his willpower against it in every way he could imagine and was rewarded with absolutely no movement or reactions in any way. He did nearly jump out of his skin when Shaojie tapped his shoulder.

“Sergeant, the alert has been lifted and we’re no longer on stand-by,” The Chinese man stated, and the glance from the pencil back to him asked the unspoken question.

“Ah, thanks Zhang,” Matt said before turning to glare at the pencil where it sat. Fuck it, he thought as he threw up his hands in frustration and turned to start storing his armor and gear. He had finally turned to face the lockers to catch the slack-jawed look of astonishment from Paul as he looked up to the ceiling. Matt followed the leading gaze to the ceiling and the pencil that was now embedded in it.

------

15:02, 05/13/2015, OFFICE OF DR FRANK MCKENDRICK

Bradford didn’t consider himself a rude person unless out of necessity, but there were some times where politeness and courtesy took a back seat to the needs of the moment. It was with those needs in mind that he pushed his way past the secretary and into Frank’s office without so much as a knock.

Frank was currently hunched over his desk with a pot of coffee beside him while rubbing his temples. He gave one of his trademark smiles to the commander even though it turned into a wince as Bradford turned to close the door behind him rather forcefully. “David, it’s always a pleasure when you come to visit. I understand the mission went well?” His smile faltered somewhat as Bradford stalked over to the chair in front of his desk and sank heavily into it. “You don’t seem well. Is everything alright?”

A long moment of silence passed before Bradford finally sat up and rubbed his temples. “Frank, I’m going to be blunt here. Something is going on and I don’t have a rational way of explaining it. I don’t think I can explain it so it might be best to just show you.” Several more moments of silence passed between the two before Frank opened his mouth to speak but Bradford cut him off. “Doctor, I’m sorry to interrupt, but Doctor Vahlen is here to see the commander. She says it’s urgent.”

Frank’s expression became perplexed until the phone on his desk buzzed and the secretary’s voice came from it. “Doctor, I’m sorry to interrupt, but Doctor Vahlen is here to see the commander. She says it’s urgent.”

“Send her in,” Frank said through the phone while keeping his now thoroughly confused gaze on Bradford.

The door opened and Moira stepped in before closing the door behind her. She gave a passing nod to Frank before turning back to Bradford. “Commander, I’ve made-”

“Commander, I’ve made a startling discovery regarding Corporal Jenkins,” Bradford spoke over Moira, which caused the latter to stop and stare blankly. “While making the initial brain scans before the proposed operation to install her new prosthetic I discovered unusual synaptic activity.”

The scientist opened and closed her mouth several times before giving a confused glance at Frank, who simply returned it. She slowly reached for the tablet under her arm and was just about to speak when Bradford again preempted her.

“Such synaptic activity has been encountered twice before. The first was from live sectoid specimens recovered in the field. The second was from Twilight Sparkle. Given the abnormal phenomenon that is generated by both of the previous examples, we may be seeing the first human being capable of reproducing their abilities.” Bradford motioned to the tablet and Moira brought a series of pictures up depicting several brain scans.

“When these brain scans confirmed the activity was present in Corporal Jenkins’ brain, I decided to run a scan with the TED device that was created to detect the unique energy created by Twilight. The TED was able to confirm that Miss Jenkins was now channeling energy in a way very similar to Twilight, as well as projecting a ‘ghost limb’ of energy where her left arm should have been.” Moira wordlessly scrolled the pictures to the TED readings while giving the commander an incredulous look. “When this was discovered I recommended the installation of the prosthetic limb be done first. My theory was proven correct; Jenkins is able to control the prosthetic device without the power or control implants.”

Silence reigned as both the scientist and the doctor looked to each other, then Bradford. Frank started to speak but the commander maintained his uncanny predictions. “I don’t know, and I can’t stop it either. There has never been anything as vivid. I’ve always had hunches and feelings about what may happen in a given situation, but they were nothing more than that. This… this foresight didn’t start until just before the operation.” He looked up at Moira before she could ask her question. “Frank? I’m sorry for interrupting, but I think I’m losing my mind.”

Before either the scientist could answer, the door to the office flew open and Matt Harris stumbled in. He started to speak the doctor’s name but, upon seeing both Vahlen and Bradford in the room, couldn’t get past the first letter.

“I don’t know this is happening, but I know someone who might.” Bradford said as he rose from his seat.

------

17:34, 05/13/2015, STARDUST LAB

Twilight breathed a sigh of relief as the door closed behind Charles and her and the familiar sights of the lab testing area greeted her. What was initially planned as a trip for exercise and some testing for a couple of hours ended up taking the entire afternoon after some form of emergency presented itself.

Zhang disappeared down the elevator, but was replaced by Joel and Kim who helped her with precision magic control. The two scientists brought with them what looked like a small cart that moved on segmented tracks rather than wheels and sported a turret mount with something they referred to as a ‘baseball pitching machine’ on it. A series of boards with bulls-eye targets were set up and Twilight planted herself amongst them.

After asking Twilight repeatedly if she was ready, the scientists activated the pitching machine and balls began to fly at the targets. The unicorn could have easily plucked the balls out of the air with telekinesis, but that wasn’t the point of this exercise. A small circular shield appeared before each baseball and stopped them dead. Twilight and the scientists repeated the exercises over the course of the afternoon before she started to get creative with ways to block the baseballs. They finally stopped when a well-intentioned test involving portals resulted in Kim and Joel diving for cover as a hail of baseballs was flung back at them.

Twilight had apologized profusely to both scientists while she helped them clean up the mess she had made before Charles returned. The engineer had then escorted Twilight back to the lab where they had both pointedly avoided the subject that was on both of their minds.

“Thanks for taking me to the practice area today, Charles. I really needed to exercise especially if I’m going to help more.” Twilight said with a contented sigh, though her happy mood wilted when she saw the look on the engineer’s face.

“Twilight-”

“No! I can’t just sit around anymore! If my friends are out there risking their lives,” Twilight’s glare was filled with something bordering on legitimate anger that surprised even her as she continued to rant. “I-if they’re risking their lives then I can make sure they come back! I don’t know if I could-” Broken insect-like limbs twitched in the pile of ichor and shattered chitin, “-hurt anything but I can keep any of my friends from getting hurt.”

Charles tried to smile and speak but Twilight cut him off with a slammed hoof. “NO! These things are using magic or something like it against all of you, and there is nopony better equipped to counter them. No living Equestrian knows more about the arcane arts other than the princesses, and I am the Element of Magic. I am not boasting when I say I will not let this happen again if I go with them.”

“Twilight,” Charles said quietly as he knelt to look her in the eye. “Twilight, I can see you feel very strongly about this. Some of the tools you helped us build have already saved lives, and I have great expectations for what we’ll be able to make together. I speak for everyone when I say your place isn’t in the field but here.”

“That’s it? You don’t want to risk losing me because I might stop inventing things? Is that all I am here!? I’m a convenient source of inventions?” Twilight snapped, though her brain quickly caught up with her mouth and she looked away regretfully. “I’m sorry, Charles. I shouldn’t have said that.”

Had she not looked away she might have seen the guilty look that crossed Charles face before he spoke. “I won’t deny that what we’ve been able to make has been incredible, but I can guarantee that’s not the only reason I’m recommending this to you.” He remained silent until Twilight looked up at him. “Twilight, you mentioned your brother was a guard. He no doubt went through months of training before he was ever deployed, right?”

When Twilight nodded, Charles continued, “If guard training is anything like the training from our soldiers then it’s as much about honing instinct as well as honing the body. A physically fit soldier is going to last longer in a fight than a physically fit civilian simply because their training gives them the control not to do something rash that could get themselves or others hurt.”

She opened her mouth to protest but stopped when the logic hit her. He’s right. I have more magical capacity and capability than any other unicorn, but I can still lose control. The memory of the thing she killed when she first arrived on earth rose to haunt her like a ghost. Shining Armor doesn’t have the hundreds of spells I do but he wouldn’t have panicked. He wouldn’t have killed his attacker.

“I’ve no doubts that you’re extremely talented, Twilight. But I think your talents would be best utilized here. Moira is extremely skilled at interpreting the information we get from the invaders, and you know I’m quite skilled at building things. Matt, Lana and Shaojie are all excellent soldiers. We all have our parts to play.”

The late-night conversation with Moira came to mind, and Twilight bowed her head as she saw the logic in it. “I can’t carry a gun or fly a plane but I can tear their bodies to pieces to know how they think and live,” Vahlen had screamed, “It’s what I do. It’s all I can do!” “I guess you have a point,” she said as she backed down on the issue.

Relief was clear on Charles’ face as he stood and motioned towards the habitat door. “Your willingness to volunteer does you credit. I’m confident we’ll find some way for you to help without you going into the field.”

Twilight followed the human into her habitat though she nearly bumped into Charles when he stopped unexpectedly. “What’s wrong, why did you stop?” She asked before peeking around him. Another human was in the room looking at the pictures arranged along the wall beside her desk, and Twilight recognized him instantly.

Confidence without arrogance, command without tyranny, certainty of one’s decisions.

“Charles, I need to have a word with Miss Sparkle,” the newcomer said as he turned from the pictures on the wall to face Twilight and again she felt as though she was being measured and found insufficient.

Twilight looked to the engineer and found him looking back at her with an apologetic expression. “Don’t worry, Twilight. I’ll be close by, and I’ll visit once you’re done.” And with that, Twilight found herself alone with the human with dragon’s eyes.

“Do you know who I am?” He asked evenly, and Twilight had to muster her willpower not to sink low to the ground as she shook her head in response. “I’m the commander of this organization, and I oversee all combat operations as well as provide direction for research and development. I have some very specific questions I need to ask you, and I expect concise answers. Lives may depend upon the answers you give me.”

Twilight could only nod in response.

“Good. You had spoken earlier about the ‘Field’ that you draw energy from to utilize your powers, and you also stated that the ‘Field’ was in a rigid state from disuse, correct?” A nod. “You also stated that because the ‘Field’ wasn’t frozen then it indicated the presence of others who could use the field, correct?” Another nod. “With that information, would it be a reasonable assumption that some humans are capable of similar powers as yours prior to your arrival?”

What are these questions for? Twilight dearly wanted to ask, but she couldn’t find her voice so she simply nodded.

The human nodded as well before continuing. “You have also stated that increased ‘Field’ activity makes it less rigid and easier to access, correct?” Another nod. “Would it be possible for human beings who previously had no abilities suddenly generate them after the ‘Field’ is made more accessible?”

Twilight started to nod even as she considered the implications. “Your theory is sound, but Charles said—”

“Yes or no,” the human commanded and Twilight found herself nodding rapidly even as her explanation died in her throat. “You’ve also reported that prolonged or repeated use of powers will produce headaches, but with continuous use and practice they are lessened, correct?” Another nod. “One last question. Using the techniques and technology you have worked on with Charles, can you create a device or implement that can block a person from using these powers?”

Twilight opened her mouth to start what would be a long-winded explanation but stopped when she caught the human’s stare. “I’ll talk with Charles and see what we can do.”

“Excellent. I’ll expect a prototype by the end of the week,” the human said with a nod of his own before turning and walking out of the habitat.

------

19:00, 05/13/2015, BRIEFING ROOM

Bradford stood at attention at the head of the room while the Strike team leaders and their subordinates filtered into the room. Matt Harris and Lana Jenkins sat behind and to the side of the commander and looked rather uncomfortable. On the commander’s other side sat Frank McKendrick and Moira Vahlen who appeared equally uncomfortable.

Ten Strike team leaders and their subordinates all filled the seats facing Bradford except for Paul Dryzimski. As his second in command was behind the commander, the Strike One leader sat alone Bradford took a moment to glare at the Strike One team leader while he was too distracted to notice. You’ll be my troublemaker. Damn your curiosity.

“Thank you all for coming on such short notice,” Bradford said, and all the quiet chatter died down to complete and total silence. “I will keep this meeting brief. First, I would like to thank Captain Fujikawa and Lieutenant Weiss for their teams' stellar performance during today’s mission. The live captures are being handled even now by the science team and we’re expecting a breakthrough soon.”

A brief round of congratulations came from the other team leaders, but both Fujikawa and Weiss were tight-lipped as they watched the commander.

“The purpose of this meeting is to inform you all of the recently discovered potential that our soldiers might begin to show. These signs may be subtle, or they might not. Things to look out for might be rumors of abilities that are far beyond what a normal human would be capable of. Faster than normal reaction speeds, strength beyond normal or even things as obviously abnormal as telekinesis should be reported to me, Frank McKendrick or Moira Vahlen immediately.”

“What about seeing the future?” Fujikawa asked humorlessly, and neither she nor Weiss took their eyes off Bradford.

“You are correct, captain. That is another potential ability to watch out for,” Bradford said even though he knew it wouldn’t change the point she was trying to make.

“You’re one of them, aren’t you? Someone with ‘potential’?”

“Yes, I am,” Bradford confirmed and the room collectively sucked in its breath. “I have the capacity to predict future events with a high degree of accuracy.” Bradford glared at Fujikawa before speaking again, “No, the predictions aren’t foolproof.” The glare shifted to Strike Two’s team leader. “No, I’m not reading your minds.” The glare shifted to Dryzimski. “Yes, others are already showing signs of similar abilities. Sergeant?”

Matt answered the summons and moved forward to stand beside the commander. With one hand he reached out and opened his closed fist palm up. The object in his hand, a simple coin, began to rise slowly into the air. His face twisted from the effort and the coin began to sag and drop. Matt's now shaking hands fumbled for the coin and it slipped from his grasp... only to be caught by Bradford who didn't so much as look to the side during the whole display.

“Thank you, Sergeant, you may take your seat,” he stated before taking a slow breath. Other than the sound of the air entering and leaving his lungs the room was silent as a tomb. “Our experts believe that these 'gifts' might be honed through practice and study to give our soldiers a greater edge against the invaders. Anything that your teams are capable of that is beyond the normal should be reported immediately for evaluation. Another sign to watch out for is chronic and persistent headaches. Are there any questions?” Bradford ended his briefing with a question but his tone sounded more like a statement than anything, and his glare fell upon Dryzimski before he had risen from his seat.

“Sir, if you are capable of predicting future events as you say, then you'll know what I'm going to ask,” Paul said as he weathered Bradford's glare. “You also probably know what will happen if you don't answer my questions.”

“Sit down, Lieutenant.”

“With all due respect--”

“Sit down, Lieutenant,” Bradford repeated the command sharply, and Dryzimski replied with a tight-lipped expression. “Everything you will see and hear beyond this point is to be considered classified, and sharing this information will be considered an act of treason and will be treated as such. To answer Lieutenant Dryzimski's first question, the exact factors that contribute to the development of these abilities is still unknown but all known cases thus far have been exposed to another person who possesses these abilities. To answer your second question, the original 'source' of these abilities is currently in our possession and is assisting XCOM in the defense of this world. To answer your third question, no. This source is not human.

“An alien was captured during the terror mission that Strike One averted in Washington DC in early April. Since its capture it has cooperated with our requests as well as providing substantial amounts of information about its world and species. It is not allied with the invaders that we are currently fighting, and has gone to great lengths to assist us once it became aware of the threats we face.”

Bradford's glare finally released Dryzimski before raking across the room to settle on Uther, the Strike Two leader. “Yes, this creature is the 'source' of the abilities that we are just beginning to manifest, and it is a master of dozens of them. All of the humans we know of that are displaying signs of these gifts have been exposed to this creature and its powers, and the extension of this theory is that when these 'gifted' humans use their abilities then other gifted humans may become apparent.”

Then it was Weiss's turn to wither under the glare. “The headaches are an early sign of the gift and aren't a symptom of neurological problems. The source states that the mental capacity for these gifts is like a muscle in that repeated exercise improves flexibility and control. The headaches will eventually fade.” Bradford's hand twitched as he had to resist the impulse to rub his temples.

A murmur rippled through the room, but quickly silenced when Bradford held up a hand while turning his gaze back to Fujikawa. “The alien is unlike anything we have ever encountered.” The hand he raised held a remote which he activated. The large wall-sized monitor flickered on behind him to reveal what was clearly security footage of living quarters. Twilight sat at her desk and was singing along to a song about the periodic table while sketching a diagram of some sort with telekinesis. Another button press froze the video.

“Now, are there any other questions?”

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