• 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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Ashes and Temples

BREAKING NEWS: NATION HOLDS ITS BREATH AS NATIONAL EMERGENCY DECLARED AND ALL AIR TRAFFIC IS HALTED OVER NORTHERN UNITED STATES AND SOUTHERN CANADA. OBSERVERS AT MAJOR AIR BASES REPORT MASSIVE MOBILIZATION OF NATIONAL GUARD FORCES. NO COMMENT FROM GOVERNMENT LEADS MANY TO ASSUME THE WORST.

BREAKING NEWS: NORTH DAKOTA BRACES FOR REPEAT OF ALIEN ATTACK EARLIER IN THE MONTH AS MULTIPLE UFOS ARE SPOTTED ENTERING THE ATMOSPHERE. EARLY PREDICTIONS ON UFO HEADING SHOWS NO POPULATION CENTERS AS THEIR DESTINATION, PROMPTING A DECLARATION OF EMERGENCY IN CANADA.

------

19:10, 05/22/2015, STARDUST LABS

The door to the Stardust lab shot open and Security personnel rushed in like a blue-armored flood. Assault rifles swept the lab’s testing area before locking on to Matt, Lana and the subdued intruder. A pair of the soldiers produced zip ties and a head bag to secure the prisoner while another checked on the two guard corpses that the intruder had produced.

“Lieutenant Harris, Corporal Jenkins? Sergeant Kimbley,” One of the security officers introduced himself as he marched to face the two soldiers. If he noticed Matt’s wince at the mention of his new rank he didn’t bring it up. “Commander Bradford wants you at the armory now; we’ll drop you off while we escort the prisoner to holding… unless there were any injuries? And where are the doctors? We were informed that Moira Vahlen was also present during the incident.” The security sergeant gave Lana a sideways glance as she held an ice pack to the severe bruise on the side of her face.

Lana waved her ice pack at the closed door to the habitat. “Vahlen and her team are… securing some sensitive materials. And don’t worry about me, you should see the other guy,” she forced a grin as Kimbley glanced back at the state of the intruder. “We know our way to the armory so—”

“No, ma’am,” Kimbley turned back to the pair. “The security network has been sabotaged and we’re under orders to detain anyone who’s in the corridors without an escort until we can confirm the internal security of the base.” When the sergeant spotted the now thoroughly trussed prisoner being hauled up into a carrying position, he tapped his headset. “Command, Stardust Labs are secure. Harris and Jenkins are unharmed and the prisoner is in custody. ETA is two minutes.” The hand fell from the headset as Kimbley turned to head towards the exit. “Enfield, Erwin, Medvedev! You three will escort Harris and Jenkins to the Armory, and then deposit the prisoner before returning here. Command wants this lab guarded for the duration of the attack.”

One of the security members mentioned hoisted the prisoner onto his shoulders in a fireman carry while the other two motioned for Harris and Jenkins to follow. “Good luck!” Kimbley shouted as the security personnel began to take defensive positions in the hallway around the Stardust Lab entrance.

------

The briefing room was packed with both Strike and Security squad leaders as Bradford emerged at the head of the room. “Gentlemen, I need not emphasize the seriousness of the situation,” He stated, and a truer statement couldn’t be found. Bradford was clad in combat armor and had a LANC rifle slung over his shoulder with a degree of familiarity that was firmly at odds with the fact that no one in XCOM had ever seen him in action. They were familiar with Officer Bradford, and what they saw before them was something entirely new.

The monitor behind Bradford lit up to display the apparent geography of the surface around the XCOM base, which was then flooded with red arrows and dots followed by several images of the alien craft. “The alien task force is a dozen ships total. Two battleship class ships, four small scout class ships, four large scout class ships, plus two new ships of unidentified class. The first is speculated to be a troop ship. The second appears to be a different class of the scout ships we’ve previously encountered. Estimated time of engagement is ten minutes. Skull Squadron has launched and is waiting to engage. Ghost Squadron is six minutes from launch. Diamond Squadron’s estimated launch time is twelve minutes. National Guard air forces are mustering and should be able to reach our location within thirty minutes. National Guard ground forces will be longer than that.”

Bradford hated the looks that were now on every soldier’s face. Gone were the jitters of an impending operation. Gone were the fear and the uncertainty. In its place was… fatalism. Calm settled over every soldier in the room as they came to the same realization: They were all going to die. The only question now was how long it would take.

The display behind Bradford changed to a schematic of the XCOM base where several areas became highlighted. “Several potential entrance points have been highlighted. The first and most critical point is the Skyranger hangar. The first exit from the hangar leads to the situation room. I want Strike Five, Three and Two entrenched to prevent a breakout there. Strike Four, Seven and Eight will assume positions at the other exit from the hangar to secure the access stairwells and the elevators there.”

The display view changed to a second set of elevator shafts connected to the surface buildings. “The aliens will likely destroy any surface structures they see once the assault begins but some structures do have cargo elevators that lead down into the base. Strike Nine, Strike Ten; it’s your job to ensure they stay secure. If the shafts cannot be held then you are authorized to destroy them. If it’s apparent the shafts are destroyed in the assault, you will be redeployed to assist the other points of contact.” Bradford caught sight of Harris as he squeezed into the room. “As both Strike One and Six are under strength and Fujikawa is still in recovery, they will form an ad hoc squad under Lieutenant Harris and will support Nine and Ten. Base security will join the defense as soon as possible but they are currently going room by room to confirm the security of on base personnel.”

“Why are they doing that, sir?” Lieutenant Weiss of Strike Five asked.

“Internal security systems have been compromised, a bomb was placed in one of the briefing rooms and an infiltrator killed two security officers before being subdued by force. A human infiltrator,” Bradford answered bluntly and the mood of the room switched from stone-faced fatalism to jaws-clenched anger.

“Define ‘subdued’,” Captain Jarvis spoke next.

“Corporal Jenkins assisted with the capture,” Harris answered before Bradford could. “Assisted with extreme prejudice.”

“Focus, people!” Bradford barked to bring attention back to the front of the room. “We now have eight minutes before contact is made. Get to your assigned posts and prepare for defense. SHIV support will meet you at the specified locations. Move out!”

The squad leaders vacated the briefing room and Bradford slipped in behind Weiss as he gathered up Strike Five. The situation room had been transformed from the bustling nerve center of the XCOM operation into a well-prepared kill zone with overlapping fields of fire and metal barricades for easy cover for the two-dozen soldiers. A quartet of heavily armored SHIVs were also spaced about the room with their heavy lasers trained on the doors.

Bradford found his place at one of the center barricades and made a point of ignoring the looks the soldiers were giving him. “Ghost Actual, Command. Launch status?” He asked as he brought his LANC rifle up and slid a power pack in place.

“Command, Ghost Actual. Ghost Squadron is airborne and en route to the rally point. Diamond’s crews were ahead of schedule, anticipated launch for them is approximately three minutes.”

Bradford checked his watch. Three minutes… that gets them in the air just under the gun. He checked the timer before scratching his chin and looking about the room. Soldiers checked and rechecked their weapons and gear to resist the urge to watch their own timers, and more than a few had laid out their spare ammunition or other pieces of miscellaneous equipment for easy access.

“Command, Engineering,” Shen’s voice spoke through Bradford’s headset. “SHIV deployment is complete, and all deployed SHIVs have been upgraded with heavy-duty Rho Aias shields. They should be able to withstand significantly greater degrees of punishment than the Mark One SHIV.”

“Very good, Engineering. What’s the word on the security systems?”

“Unknown at this point, Commander,” The engineer’s tone turned apologetic, “It might be safe to assume that the invaders will make contact before internal security is restored.”

“Command, Diamond Actual. We are airborne and en route to the rally point.”

“Understood, Diamond. You are free to engage with Ghost and Skull as soon as you link up. Target priorities are the troop carrier and the battleships. If they cannot be destroyed then delay them at all costs until reinforcements arrive. Good luck Diamond, Command out.” Bradford gave another glance at the timer on his wrist.

Thirty seconds, in theory… it’s now or never, he thought as his hand hesitated over the suppressor around his wrist. That hesitation lasted for a handful of seconds before he turned it off. Instantly his mind was flooded with images of gunfire, blood and death and his ears were filled with panicked reports from the defenders. Bradford mustered every scrap of his not inconsiderable willpower and attempted to make sense of the chaos for as long as he could before he turned the suppressor back on.

“Command to all combat personnel teams, contact is imminent. Expect Mutons, Berzerkers, Chryssalids and Sectoids, and at least one enemy type with shielding. Shielded enemies are priority targets and are heavily armed. Gold-armored Mutons will be fielding heavy weapons and alien rocket launchers. Security personnel are to regroup and defend their designated points. The ventilation systems will be compromised shortly and stealth troops will attempt to infiltrate behind our lines. Call out any new enemy types the moment they're encountered.” The rapid-fire instructions were met with a full second of dead air before the other team leaders acknowledged them.

“Roland, Harms, Summers! I want rocket launchers ready to fire on the doors the moment they go down,” Bradford barked to the three soldiers in questions as he pointed to the primary, secondary and upper level doors that lead into the hangar. “LANC and laser weapons are to prioritize shielded targets first. Good luck, gentlemen,” Bradford finished as shimmering energy shields appeared in front of the deployed SHIVs. “Contact in three, two, one…”

------

“Is this shit for real?” Jack Finch asked as Bradford laid out just what they would be fighting. “How does he know this? How does he know any of it? How the fuck—”

“Finch, zip it and listen to the man!” Lana snapped at Finch before Matt could.

“Copy that, Command,” Matt said reflexively as Bradford finished his briefing. “Finch, get your rocket ready for the elevator doors if they open or come down. Jenkins, Zhang, you’re both on high value targets, including whatever ‘shielded targets’ may make themselves apparent.” With little else to do at that point, Matt loaded and checked his own LANC rifle before taking cover behind one of the metal barricades.

Strike One had been given the duty of protecting one of the secondary cargo elevators, the exact same elevator that Twilight had used to go to the surface with the rest of the Stardust personnel earlier in the month. It wasn’t hard for Matt to remember Twilight’s expression when she first entered the warehouse on the surface for the first time…

Any further memories were interrupted when the energy shields on the two SHIVs assigned to Strike One snapped online. Matt leveled his rifle at the elevator doors and did his best to not let his imagination get the best of him as to what was going to come storming through the door.

“Harris, Zhang. They’re on the other side of the door. There’s something with them that I can’t see though.” Finch’s helmeted head was mostly hidden behind his shouldered rocket launcher, but Matt could clearly see the top of it turn to look at Zhang before going back to the door.

The center of the elevator doors began to glow with heat. It started as a dull red before quickly becoming white hot. It had just started to melt when Zhang let loose a single shot with his LANC into the door. A second passed before the door exploded violently.

“Weapons free!”

Finch’s reaction time was sharp as a tack. His rocket entered the now gaping hole in the wall and exploded. It was quickly followed by a barrage of laser, LANC and ballistic weapons fire. The SHIVs opened up with their heavy lasers and Matt could feel the sudden increase in air temperature through his clothes and armor.

So when a shape could be seen charging out of the elevator shaft and through the dozens of shots fired, Matt could scarcely wrap his mind around it. Time stopped just long enough for him to get a glimpse at what could only have marched out of a science fiction novel. It was a massive metal monstrosity, and it would have topped twelve feet in height if it were to extend its reverse-jointed legs to the fullest. Its arms appeared as little more than stubby armatures carrying two of the largest plasma cannons that Matt had ever seen. And its entire body was wrapped in a shimmering blue shield. Laser shots ricocheted off the shield at odd angles, while the purple LANC beams simply disappeared into it and Matt could swear he saw the mashed remains of bullets accumulating in its general vicinity.

And just as quickly as the moment had frozen in time, it was gone, and the alien walker charged into the room with its cannons blazing. Matt had to resist the urge to swear as a massive plasma bolt struck the metal barricade he was using for cover. That one shot had turned the majority of the barricade white hot, another would cause it to melt entirely.

The others fared little better. Bapela was reduced to burning ashes from a shot to the chest, while Carver from Strike Six disappeared in a volley of green fire as his cover disintegrated. Yuki, another stray from Strike Six, learned too late of the walker’s charge as it vaulted over her barricade and sent her flying across the room with a backhanded swipe of one of its plasma cannons. The walker continued its charge with Matt directly in its path. The last shot of his LANC rifle was absorbed into the shield, which left Matt only one desperate choice.

“STOP!” Matt shouted as he thrust one hand forward, and the walker did indeed stop for just a moment. A faint gold aura appeared before clashing with the walker’s shields, and it appeared to hesitate before pushing through the aura. One of the plasma cannons rose to swat Matt aside just as easily as it had Yuki, but the blow never came.

Both SHIV turrets had tracked the walker as it charged, but one rotated on its tracks and sped up to ram it. What the impromptu attack lacked in elegance it more than made up for in effectiveness, as the SHIV’s heavy chassis connected with the walker’s legs and knocked it off its feet. The walker slammed into the wall as it fell, and before it could rise the SHIV had pinned it in place. The heavy laser turret panned down and unloaded at point blank range. The walker struggled against the dead weight pinning it against the wall, but the shield fell, and the lasers began to strike home.

“Command, Strike One. Shielded enemy contacts are mechanized… Sectoids. Mechtoids,” Matt reported as the SHIV backed away from the now thoroughly mangled mechanical body and no less mangled Sectoid pilot. Once confident the Mechtoid was well and truly dead he turned to the elevator shaft and his jaw dropped.

While the Mechtoid had survived the barrage due to whatever technology had powered its shield, but the others in the shaft hadn’t fared as well. At least two gold-armored Mutons were in bloody heaps, while the rest of the shaft was littered with the scorched remains of at least a half-dozen Chryssalids.

“One of the gold ones was preparing a rocket, I think,” Zhang provided as he reloaded his LANC rifle. “I shot the launcher through the door.”

Before any other discussion could be had, Bradford cut in through the radio. “Strike One, Command! Disable or destroy the elevator shaft and proceed to B3F east corridor immediately. The enemy’s primary objective is located there and we cannot let them acquire it.” The sounds of gunfire and explosions in the background weren’t nearly as alarming as the orders that were given.

“What about—”

“Strike Nine is KIA, Strike Ten has detonated their elevator shaft and retreated back to the Barracks. You need to get to B3F now, Lieutenant! The aliens want what’s there and if they get it there’s nothing that will stop them from shelling the base. Get there NOW.”

“Carlock, Blake, Finch, Burns! Do what you can to disable the shaft then head to B3F east. Jenkins, Zhang, Romalov, on me!” Matt ordered quickly before turning and running to one of the access staircases at full tilt.

------

The night had been going so well.

Most of Twilight’s human friends had gotten together to watch a movie, and her disappointment at having Charles leave so early due to his work was quickly overwhelmed as she realized just what the movie was about.

Twilight had reacted uncomfortably when the Dursleys had shown their neglect of Harry, but Lana gave her a chipper smile and said that not all human families were like what was shown in the movie. She had also had trouble watching the Dursleys breakdown from the torrent of mail that had been sent to Harry, but also because she saw just a little bit of her own irrationality in some of their behavior.

The depiction of the Hogwarts train in the book was nothing compared to seeing it in motion. She had been expecting something akin to the trains she was familiar with from Equestria. While both were steam engines, the colors and styles of both the engine and the train cars were dark and earthy colors which gave it, and by extension the trip to the school, far greater presence in Twilight’s mind than the brightly colored train that ran between Ponyville and Canterlot.

Hogwarts itself looked dark and ominous enough to give Twilight uncomfortable memories of her face to face confrontation with Nightmare Moon, but that was quickly dispelled once the inside was shown. It was simply amazing.

Amazing, that was the only word she could use to describe the movie as it unfolded. Sure, Twilight had problems with the fact that some parts were removed and certain dialog was truncated, but those problems were insignificant in comparison to the wonder the movie gave her. She had asked at least a dozen times how something was done without magic before Joel had paused the movie to attempt to explain how it was done with computers

That wonder had been replaced with a small degree of horror when she laid eyes upon the scene with the slain unicorn, and it only grew when He Who Must Not Be Named made his appearance and met his subsequent demise. In the context of the book she understood that both he and the man that had been carrying him were both irredeemably evil and would likely never reform themselves, but death…

Twilight had pushed those concerns aside to finish watching the movie, when the door had opened and everything had happened at once and no matter how much she tried she couldn’t sort out exactly what had happened.

A human she had never seen had entered the lab behind Moira. His smile was warm and welcoming even as he pointed something directly at Twilight. A bang loud enough to hurt Twilight’s ears filled the room shortly before Lana upended the table and hurled it at the door. The table was wider than the door frame and collided with it but it provided less than a moment’s hindrance as Lana had practically flown through the table at the man.

When the man had struck Lana and she fell, Twilight had started to rise to do something to help but she froze when she saw Lana’s face. Twilight had been so used to her smiles and teasing and the Pinkie Pie quality of her eyes. What she saw on Lana’s face as she struggled to get back up was an emotion Twilight could not comprehend or describe.

In less than ten seconds, Lana had turned and pummeled the man who had struck her. The crack of breaking bones only added to the horror of the scene as Twilight saw the man’s arm, collar bone and shin broken so viciously and thoroughly. As Lana pinned the man to the ground beneath her, Twilight caught sight of two other humans lying in the lab. Both wore the uniforms that she had seen both Matt and Lana wearing on other occasions, and both were clearly dead.

“Matt?” Twilight asked as she tried to process just what she was seeing. Matt can explain this. He has to know what’s going on… right? She tore her eyes from the bodies to give a pleading look to her friend, but her apprehension grew when she saw the same emotion on his face as Lana’s. It was for just a moment, but it was there.

The injured human had screamed something at her, but whatever he had said was lost to Twilight as she again tried to make the pieces fit in the scene she now found herself. The dull thunk of the man’s head hitting the floor jarred Twilight, and that look on Lana’s face further added to the disconnect that the unicorn was feeling.

How… how did things turn out like this? Where’s Lana’s smile? Where’s Matt’s confident smirk? And what is Moira doing? Twilight asked herself as Moira kicked the prone human in the face before being dragged back into the habitat by Matt. “Matt. He’s… he’s hurt really bad.” Twilight started to say but she was cut off when he turned to face her.

“Twilight, that man was going to kill us all,” Matt snapped as he released Vahlen. “I know you don’t like seeing people hurt, but it was either him or us, and both Lana and I would do it again if it meant protecting our friends. Please… just stay there with the doctors and we’ll handle this. I promise I’ll be back.” And with that he turned and walked out of the habitat, but not before clearing the debris of the destroyed table from the doorway.

Who are these people and what did they do with my friends? Twilight asked herself. For several moments she did nothing but sit and try to put the pieces together. Matt and Lana had been good friends, though Lana’s teasing made things difficult and Matt’s intentions towards her brought a whole heap of stress she never knew she had to deal with. But both of them were good people, good friends. They were nice. Nice people weren’t capable of hurting others so badly, right? But Matt and Lana had, and Moira had attacked him while he was restrained. None of her friends back home had done anything like that, and even with all her time in Canterlot she had never seen that… look on any guard’s face.

“Twilight?”

The question nearly caused her to jump with surprise. Kim was now sitting on the bed beside Twilight with a sincerely concerned look on her face, and it took every ounce of the unicorn’s willpower to resist the urge to break down on the spot.

“How could they do that? They always seemed so nice and friendly but they hurt that man without hesitating for a second!” Twilight blurted after several long moments. “They just attacked him! I-I know he attacked first but it all happened so suddenly…”

Kim sat and listened as Twilight unloaded all of the problems and questions she had onto the doctor before finally replying. “I’m afraid I don’t know the psychology of it, Frank would be better able to give you an answer on that, but I think I know the answer. Soldiers like Matt and Lana have to make split-second decisions for their jobs. Any hesitation might cost someone their life. As to how they act around you normally, I can guarantee you that’s how they really are. What you saw just now was a…ah, a disconnect of sorts. When they do what they have to do for their jobs, they have to separate themselves from it. If they didn’t, well, I imagine it would get to them over time. It gets to everyone eventually.”

The image of Shining Armor came to Twilight as Kim explained. Could Shining have been hiding something like that inside him? He’s always been my BBBFF! But I didn’t see him for nearly two years after I moved to Ponyville and he never said what he did with the guard while we were apart. Twilight absently hopped off her bed and made her way over to the desk. She plucked the picture of her brother off the wall and stared at it. Were you hiding that look from me, Shining? Did you not want to scare me? Did you ever have to kill anyone?

“Well, I don’t know about any of you but I’m thirsty. I know there’s some water in the other room, who wants some?” Joel asked with forced joviality as he headed to the habitat’s entrance.

“Doctor Mills,” Moira spoke her first words since Matt had left her in his chair. “My tablet is at my workstation in the lab, could you please retrieve it for me when you return?” As she asked the question, Moira rose from her chair to stand beside Twilight. After a moment’s hesitation she crouched down to meet Twilight eye to eye and she smiled. The expression was so out of place with the serious and cool demeanor that Twilight had grown accustomed to, especially after what had just happened. “Twilight, I may have some good news for you.” She started, but anything else she might have said was lost when Joel pushed the button to open the door.

The moment the door opened a roar filled the room and Twilight froze. Joel’s horrified expression turned to the open door and he stumbled backwards. He tried to raise his arms to defend himself but the action proved futile under the weight of the monster’s charge. An aborted scream was all he could offer as Twilight’s nightmare tore him to pieces.

A shimmering patch of air stepped through the doorway and past the monster still mutilating Joel before coming into focus. It was shaped like the humans in that it was bipedal and had hands, but that was where any resemblance ended. It was massive and clad in midnight black armor, and its face was hidden behind a helmet and a faceplate of black glass. In its hands was something like the tools that the Matt and the other soldiers, and it leveled the tool at Kim.

“Nononono!” Kim screamed as she tried to push herself away from the door, but a bolt of green fire shot from the giant’s weapon. It connected with her chest and everything above her waist was reduced to ash.

Nein!” Moira screamed as she rose, and she scooped up the chair beside her to swing it like a club. Her attack was interrupted when the black-armored giant stepped forward and swept her aside with a backhand. Moira was lifted off her feet by the blow and she crashed head-first into the mirror that adorned one wall of Twilight’s habitat. A spider web of cracks blossomed from the impact, and the doctor slumped limply to the ground. The giant spared her no further attention as he turned and reached for Twilight.

------

“Shift it!” Matt shouted as he dashed down the staircase and entered one of the side B3F corridors. Throwing caution to the wind he sprinted down the side corridor and rounded the corner to catch sight of the main B3F corridor. The entrance to the Stardust lab was a charnel pit. Even from a distance Matt could tell there weren’t any survivors, and with the lab’s door ripped out of its frame and lying amongst the bodies there was no doubt as to where the aliens were.

Before Matt could get any further, a massive spike of pain drove down into his skull and caused him to trip and fall, and the clatter of armor and weapons behind told that the soldiers behind him had suffered similar fates. A scream echoed down the corridor and for a brief moment Matt thought it was his own. He ripped the helmet off of his head and brought his left hand up to his temple before staggering back to his feet. The scream hadn’t been his, but he could feel the pain, despair, frustration in it; and rage.

Matt staggered back to his feet and raised his rifle towards the direction of Stardust as he approached the doorway. He caught Lana, Zhang and Romalov out of the corner of his eye before he rounded the corner and entered the lab and stormed into the habitat.

“Mother of God,” Lana stated breathily as they caught sight of what remained of Kim and Joel, and Vahlen’s battered body beneath the mirror.

“Command, Strike One. Hostiles have breached the Stardust lab. Kim Ngo, Joel Mills and Moira Vahlen are all KIA. Primary objective is gone,” Matt reported harshly as he walked towards the farthest corner of the room.

A long moment of silence passed before Bradford responded. “Copy, Strike One. Begin sweeping the level and reacquire the objective. We cannot let it fall into enemy hands.”

“Negative, sir. The aliens do not have the objective,” Matt said as he turned away from the far corner of the habitat and the hoofmarks that appeared to be melted into the floor. Instead his gaze turned to eye the Muton and Chryssalid that still occupied the room after being turned into stone. “The objective is loose, and God have mercy on anyone that gets in her way.” He was just about to turn and exit the lab when a hand grasped his ankle.

“Fucking shit!” Matt spat as he leapt back and brought his LANC to cover Vahlen’s body, only to see her bloody face looking up at him. “Command, Moira Vahlen survived the attack but appears to be in critical condition. We need medical here immediately!”

Just as Matt crouched down to try and help Vahlen, a report from another squad leapt into his ear.

“Command, Sec Two! New enemy type; Unicorn! Ballistic weapons are not effective! I say again—”

------

When asked what had happened later, Twilight could honestly say she had no memory beyond a few brief words her friends had said to her, and a single thought.

It was either him or us.

It could have been me, it could have been my friends. Or I could choose for it to be him.

Any hesitation might cost someone their life.

Twilight had hesitated. She had let her fear prevent her from acting, and because of that her friends had died. They had died because of her. She may not have directly caused their deaths, but she had the power to save them. But she hadn’t.

It would not happen again. She was going to stop them all.

It was not a promise, because promises could be broken. It was not a prediction, because predictions could be wrong. It was a statement of intent, and Twilight would make that intent manifest upon the world. Gone was the socially awkward magical scholar. Gone was the nervous and lost little girl. In her place was a nexus of magical power that now had only one reason for existing.

She had failed her friends, and she wasn’t going to fail any others. She was going to stop them all.

------

The crack of displaced air was the only warning that Security Two had that they had been flanked.

Lieutenant Joe Martinez was the first to lay eyes upon the new threat. Unlike all the previous aliens that XCOM had encountered, with their plasma weapons and heavy armor, this enemy appeared nothing more than a quadrupedal shadow with a horn sprouting from its forehead wrapped in lavender flames, and it was advancing calmly on Sec Two’s position.

“We’re flanked! Unicorn!” Joe shouted as he brought his assault rifle around to fire but in a flash and CRACK, it vanished, only to reappear in the midst of the pack of Sectoids that the security team had been previously engaging. A wave of purple energy pulsed from the unicorn and the Sectoids were petrified where they stood.

“Command, Sec Two!” Martinez shouted into the comms as he opened fire on the unicorn, and the rest of the team joined him. Chips and pock marks appeared on the Sectoid statues, and a few bullets were on target but simply evaporated the moment they reached the lavender flames around the unicorn. “New enemy type; Unicorn! Ballistic weapons are not effective! I say again—”

It registered the attack and turned its glowing eyes on the security team before sweeping downward and the unicorn vanishing in a flash of light.

Recovered security footage revealed the unicorn’s destination as one level lower and on the other side of the base. A pack of Chryssalids were in the process of trying to force open a ventilation shaft when they caught sight of the newcomer. They barely had a moment to start charging before they too were turned to stone.

Security Team Three and the walking wounded from Medical spotted the unicorn next. The soldiers had just ducked for cover as a golden-armored Muton fired the equivalent of a rocket towards their position. The glowing green projectile zipped down the corridor and detonated directly above the defenders, but the explosion was quickly surrounded and snuffed out by flickering purple flames. The telltale crack of teleportation could be heard as the unicorn appeared beside the Muton and reduced him to statuary.

Captain Fujikawa is recorded as repeatedly giving the order to security personnel not engage the unicorn before it teleported away.

The tail elements of Strike One encountered the unicorn next as they attempted to link up with their lead elements before being pinned down by invaders. Three Mutons were instantly petrified, but the shielded Mechtoid appeared to be unaffected. It let loose a barrage of plasma at the unicorn as it charged.

The unicorn turned its head like a turret acquiring a target, and the vault door to Containment flew at it as though the reinforced concrete and steel walls it had rested in were little more than wet cardboard. Both the door and the Mechtoid flew through four interior walls before colliding with the bedrock around the base’s outer wall.

Similar reports from a dozen other locations from around the base were reported before the unicorn encountered leading elements of Strike One in the Skyranger hangar.

------

“Twilight!” The word reached her ears, and it sounded familiar. The voice sounded familiar too, and brought up comforting and… happy memories.

“Twilight!” Again the word was heard… no, not a word, a name. Her name. Her name was Twilight. And his name was…

“Matt,” Twilight said, and the power she had been channeling faded. Her horn ached, her brain ached and her entire body felt as though it had been through a marathon. She caught sight of Matt, and for just a moment she forgot how she had gotten to her current location. “Matt!” Twilight sobbed as a sudden wave of despair hit her, and she didn’t know why. What was she forgetting?

Bloody claws.

Ashes on a bed.

Blood dripping down a cracked mirror.

“Matt…” Tears flowed freely down Twilight’s face as she remembered. “They killed everyone!” The power she had channeled came back to the surface and she was once again engulfed in lavender flames. The tears instantly evaporated from her now glowing eyes, and she turned to look up at the open doors above her. “I will not let them hurt anyone else. I will NOT.”

Twilight teleported directly upwards and into the sky as she surveyed the chaos around her. Human flying machines tried valiantly to assault the formation of alien ships, but were driven off again and again by waves of green fire. Another group of human flying machines was attempting a massed attack from the opposite direction and was suffering greatly for their efforts.

One of the alien ships had landed, and swarms of aliens were marching out and towards the burning surface buildings and the gaping doorway that Twilight had just teleported through. Among the aliens were a trio of squat metal machines that were taking shots at the human flying machines with beams of crimson energy or volleys of what looked like fireworks. Twilight’s glowing eyes scanned every inch of the machines, and when she found no life within them, she struck.

The first had no way of defending itself as Twilight teleported inside of it. The resulting displacement split the machine in half, and Twilight walked out of the rubble and set her eyes on the other two. Telekinesis grabbed hold of every single part of the second machine, from the largest armor plate to the smallest rivet, and pulled. The machine flew apart at the seams and each part dropped shortly afterward.

The third machine turned to face Twilight before vanishing in a flash of lavender light. The unicorn didn’t pay any mind to the mighty crash that sounded behind several moments later as the machine came crashing down to earth.

The ground troops all turned to fire on Twilight, and she responded in kind with a rolling wave of magical energy that left an army of statues in its wake. She was nearly ready to search for new targets when one of the alien ships fired on her. The ship-class plasma blast struck Twilight dead on and was dispersed by her lavender flames, but the heat had managed to partially penetrate the defense and catch her attention.

“Go away.” Lavender energy enveloped the entire UFO and sent it flying out of formation to collide dead center with the first of the massive ships hovering in the sky. It passed cleanly through and clipped the forward section of the next ship in formation before disappearing over the horizon.

With her attention now upwards, Twilight’s eyes caught sight of another alien ship. She wasn’t trained enough to differentiate between class or type but her eyes still caught the massive amount of magical energy emanating from one of the ship’s crew. The magic was both flowing to the crew member in question from some distant location as well as filtering downward to all the aliens Twilight had not yet petrified.

Twilight blinked and teleported herself into the ship to deal with whatever was on the ship, but she wasn’t fast enough when she laid eyes on her target.

It was tall and extremely thin, with the entirety of its body hidden beneath a crimson robe. Any facial features it might have had were hidden behind a silver helmet that turned to face Twilight the moment she appeared. Twilight was a moment away from petrifying the robed figure just like all the others, but then it spoke.

The defense that Twilight had been channeling was absolute. Any attack levied against her would be met with an equal amount of energy to negate it. Only an attack of sufficient power to completely overwhelm Twilight’s energy capacity could even hope pierce the absolute defense.

Her target spoke with the weight of a million minds behind it.

The Apex…

Twilight screamed as she felt her mind being overwhelmed by those two simple words. Her defenses flickered and died, and she had to struggle to stay on her hooves. Her struggles were in vain and she collapsed.

The Gift in this one surpasses all others. Yes, it will succeed where we failed.

Twilight tried desperately to stand, or to retreat, or use her magic or even kick at the robed thing before her as it approached. She felt it in her mind, observing every moment of her life and dissecting each one in painfully slow sequence. Four arms emerged from beneath its robe and began to reach for her.

Ascendance will soo— The voices in Twilight’s head cut off instantly as a beam of purple light shot through the ship's floor and landed dead center in the alien’s helmet before passing out the back side and into the ship's ceiling.

With the voices and pressure now out of her mind, Twilight was able to muster enough energy to teleport one last time.

It wasn’t her best teleport, and she ended up falling a dozen feet through the air to the ground. She struggled to her hooves as she saw Matt and several others rushing towards her. Twilight tried to call out his name but her voice was gone so she settled on running to meet him. Her body and horn ached from the strain of everything that had happened and simply begged to lie down and rest but she continued her run.

BANG

A look of horror appeared on Matt’s face before he raised his weapon to point at something off to Twilight’s left. “DROP IT! DROP YOUR FUCKING WEAPON OR YOU’RE DEAD!” He screamed, and the others behind Matt raised their weapons and pointed them in the same direction.

Twilight turned to see another human standing behind her and to her left. His uniform was different from anything she had seen yet, with an olive-green body suit and a harness around his torso that was covered with straps and pouches and a curious patch that had the title, “132D Fighter Wing.” In his hands was a weapon similar to what she had seen nearly used on her back in the Stardust lab, and a trail of smoke was coming from the barrel. What was most striking was the look of fear on his face. Not of Matt or any of the others. Fear of her.

Twilight opened her mouth to speak but a burning pain in her side stopped her. Am I…oh. Twilight thought her perspective suddenly turned sideways and she collapsed to the ground. Her vision swam as she saw Zhang and Lana disarm the new human, who still seemed in a state of shock at what he had done. And despite what he had done, Twilight couldn’t blame him. She still remembered what Charles told her.

When we are afraid, we lash out at the cause.

OPERATION ASHES AND TEMPLES: COMPLETE

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