• 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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Kaleidoscope

08:00, 05/24/2015, BRIEFING ROOM, XCOM BETA SITE

The atmosphere that permeated the briefing room was grave as Bradford entered and walked towards the head of the table. Only a handful of other figures were present, and he gave them each a look as he reached his destination.

Charles Shen looked about ready to collapse from exhaustion, if the bags under his eyes and his drooping expression were anything to go on. He took a long drink from his coffee cup as Bradford met his gaze, and he did his best to look attentive. The second was the recently promoted Major Yumiko Fujikawa who was now in command of the Strike teams. Last was Captain Brett Weaver, Skull Squadron’s leader and most senior of the surviving Interceptor pilots.

All that’s missing now is Vahlen, Bradford mused before he caught himself and suppressed a wince. She’s better off in Medical.

“Gentlemen, we’re all busy so we’ll have to be brief,” He said without preamble. “Charles, your report.”

“All potential resources from the alpha site have been moved and installed at our current facility. Ea is now up and running successfully and producing more than enough power for the base,” Charles produced a tablet computer and tapped several icons on it to send the information to Bradford’s tablet. “In addition, the crews have stripped all of the crashed and destroyed ships for anything useful. Ten minutes past midnight, demolitions charges were activated to destroy the alpha site and anything that could not be recovered from the alien ships.”

“Good. Brett?”

“We’re down to just over fifty percent strength for all our Interceptor squadrons. I’m going to recommend folding Ghost into Diamond until we can get replacement craft and pilots. It could have been much worse, though. Had they kept their formation throughout the whole fight it would have been a much closer thing, even with the National Guard’s intervention,” the pilot summarized with an almost vacant expression.

“Yumiko?”

“Sixty percent casualties amongst the Strike teams, and closer to seventy five with the security teams,” She reported, and her voice was hollow as she scrolled through the list of deaths. “We’ve got perhaps three effective Strike teams at the moment, and they will likely need to be promoted and dispersed amongst the new recruits when they arrive. It will be a few weeks at the minimum before the new Strike teams will be in any condition I’m comfortable with to deploy.”

Before any further could be discussed, the door to the briefing room swung open violently to reveal Moira Vahlen, a stressed medical orderly and an apologetic-looking security officer.

“I don’t need your help, nursemaid!” Vahlen spat at the medical orderly, who trailed behind the scientist with a wheelchair. Vahlen herself hobbled towards the table with a cane in her right hand and a tablet in her left. The seriousness of her expression was only enhanced by the black and blue bruises that still covered the places of her face that weren’t bandaged, and a neck brace was wrapped around her neck. A long moment of silence passed as Moira stopped at the table and simply waited. Annoyance grew on her face before she turned back to the medical orderly and screamed, “Get out!”

Bradford dismissed the orderly with a nod before fixing Moira with a serious expression. “You should be in recovery. If it’s something important then have one of your subordinates—”

“Twilight Sparkle is dying,” Vahlen interrupted as she hobbled over to the video monitor at the far end of the table. The screen flickered to life and with a few pressed keys several medical diagrams of the unicorn appeared. “The bullet was extracted safely, but the shot pierced one of her lungs. She has also lost a significant amount of blood. While the threat of internal bleeding is no longer present we lack any way of providing a transfusion. She is also not responding to any of the treatments we have tried to—”

“Wait, what? You’re trying to save one of them? For God’s sake, why?” Brett asked with no small degree of skepticism, and was rewarded with Vahlen’s imperious glare.

“Thank you for your opinion, blunt instrument. If I require you to speak then I shall ask you to,” She said coolly before turning back to the monitor and pointing at one of the pictures with her cane.

“Now just wait one minute—”

Vahlen whipped around to face the pilot and brought her cane down on the hardwood table with a BANG. “She saved my life! Now shut up or get out if you don’t have anything productive to add.”

Any further arguing died instantly when Bradford cleared his throat. “Continue, doctor.” His tone was the same as always but his expression made it clear that he was a moment away from ordering Vahlen back to medical.

“The treatments we use on a regular basis to accelerate healing is having no effect on Twilight, and with the blood loss her body is struggling to even function. She hasn’t woken from her coma since her recovery in the field and I fear she never will,” Vahlen paused before continuing. “The most likely causes of this condition are tied to… recent events. The strain of the abilities she displayed may have permanently damaged her ability to access what she called the ‘Field.’ I scanned her with the TED and found barely a tenth of the power she was drawing passively during the first recording earlier this month.

“The second possible cause is our change in location. Early transcripts with Twilight’s conversations with Charles described the Field as hard to access due to disuse but over her time with Stardust it became easier to access.” Vahlen’s voice cracked, but she rallied quickly. “If her physiology is tied to her access of the Field, then the alpha site is likely the only place on Earth where she could recover from her weakened state.”

“And that’s no longer an option,” Shen added as he closed his eyes.

“How much time does she have?” Bradford asked as he looked over the medical images on the monitor.

“A week? Maybe more, maybe less. Barring a miracle there’s simply no way she’ll survive in our care.” Vahlen stated bluntly before tapping several times on her tablet. “Charles, our current stockpile of Elerium is now well stocked, correct?”

“At the moment, yes,” The engineer blinked before rubbing his eyes. “I don’t have the exact numbers but the recovery teams were able to retrieve a significant amount from storage at the alien base as well as from the downed alien craft at the alpha site. Why?”

Vahlen’s initial response was to smirk and tap her tablet. Both Bradford and Shen’s tablets pinged twice to report new messages. She didn’t wait for them to even finish opening the messages before continuing. “I received a very interesting message from one of my colleagues shortly before the attack, and I feel that it may prove useful when combined with one of the projects created with Twilight’s help. Charles, do you have enough resources to proceed with Kaleidoscope?”

A long moment passed as the engineer’s sleep-deprived mind connected the dots to what Vahlen was suggesting, and then his eyes lit up. “The boys would need…twenty-four hours minimum to finish construction, and that’s if they drop everything they’re doing and devote one hundred percent of their time to it. If Kaleidoscope’s charging cycle is similar to Fragarach, it would need…” Charles closed his eyes for a handful of seconds before opening them again, “Forty-eight hours before it could successfully activate. I should head down and get things started now. I'll also need to create some type of portable device for the return trip...”

“Wait,” Bradford said which resulted in a tight-lipped glare from Vahlen and a kicked-puppy look from Shen. “I’m looking at the design schematics and the email from Marazuki and I think I know what you’re planning, but what are the risks with Kaleidoscope?”

“The only risk would be to the volunteers, and I fully intend to test with a SHIV before anything else,” Shen explained before looking to Vahlen.

The scientist attempted to stand straighter and fix Bradford with her most severe glare, but the effect of the glare was lessened when she swayed slightly before leaning heavily on her cane. “The risks are far greater if we do nothing. The moment she dies, her people will know about it. I do not want to be the one to explain why one of our weapons was the cause.”

For nearly a minute the room was silent as Bradford crossed his arms and looked away. “Do it,” he ordered as he turned back to face the others. “I want to be notified the moment it’s finished and before the first test is attempted.”

“Will do,” Shen said as he turned to leave, but he hesitated when Vahlen’s limping became pronounced before she sank into the wheelchair with a wince. “Moira, do you want to go back to Medical?”

“Yes, please,” she answered before adding quietly, “Thank you.”

Bradford watched as Shen pushed Vahlen’s wheelchair out the room before he continued. “What’s the status of the saboteurs that were captured during the defense? And Vide?”

Fujikawa’s expression became tight-lipped. “About that…”

------

09:27, 05/27/2015, MEDICAL, BETA SITE

“‘Your aunt and uncle will be proud, though, won’t they?’ said Hermione as they got off the train and joined the crowd thronging toward the enchanted barrier. ‘When they hear what you did this year?’” Matt read from the faded paperback in his hands. “‘Proud?’ said Harry. ‘Are you crazy? All those times I could’ve died, and I didn’t manage it? They’ll be furious…’ And together they walked back through the gateway to the Muggle world.”

The book closed in Matt’s hands and he forced himself to look to his side. Twilight lay in the bed on her side, and the only sign of life were her shallow breaths and the soft beeping of the machines around her. Her mane was an unkempt mess and her lavender coat was stained with dried sweat. A swath of bandages wrapped her barrel, which rose and fell with each breath. Her eyes were squeezed shut which gave her a pained expression even while asleep. For a long moment Matt simply stared at her before he closed his eyes and replayed the events of the bloody base defense in his mind.

“Harris, this is Finch! Bloody unicorn just disappeared after squashing a Mechtoid like a bug—“ Matt heard the report but it was no longer his main concern as Twilight appeared in the heart of the hangar. The lavender flames that engulfed the unicorn lashed out at the nearest aliens and turned them to solid stone.

A pair of Mechtoids that had been laying down suppressing fire against the humans turned and charged Twilight. Their volleys of plasma fire disappeared into the lavender flames and Twilight didn’t respond to the attack until one got close enough to swing one of the plasma cannons at her. The blue shields around the first Mechtoid flared as it met the lavender flames before they flickered out entirely. A moment later the entire robotic alien was nothing more than a statue.

The second Mechtoid stopped just short of making the same mistake its predecessor did by stopping a dozen feet from Twilight, and leveling its plasma cannons to fire. The shots went wild when the petrified Mechtoid was highlighted in with Twilight’s energy and slammed into the second robotic alien. Twilight turned to face the new threat and the statue slammed into the still active Mechtoid again and again until its shields dispersed and it too was petrified.

A few more moments of frantic fighting ensued as the humans flooded into the suddenly enemy free hangar. A significant number of the soldiers were leveling their weapons at Twilight, but no shots rang out as Bradford’s shouts to hold fire were obeyed. Matt waved down the nearest soldiers and stepped forward. He kept his weapon pointed towards the ground as he shouted, “Twilight! Twilight!”

Twilight’s head turned and the lavender flames disappeared. Her legs threatened to buckle beneath her as she sobbed Matt’s name. “They killed everyone!” She screamed before he could approach, and she vanished in a flash.

“Get to the surface!” Bradford ordered, and Matt did a double-take when he saw that the commander had fallen to his knees and held his head in his hands. “The black ship! Shoot the black ship…”

The urgency in his voice was obvious so Matt turned towards the surface access tunnel with Zhang and the rest of Strike One following close behind.

The surface was complete and total chaos, with the burning wreckage of a handful of several ships and over a dozen human fighter craft providing a small degree of illumination in the evening hours. The petrified aliens were everywhere, but Twilight wasn’t anywhere to be seen.

“Black ship… Twilight’s on board,” Zhang reported, and Matt turned to see the sniper assume a shooter’s stance and aim into the roaring dogfight with his LANC. A thumb press disabled the weapon’s range and power safeties and he pulled the trigger. A single shot flew from the rifle and struck the underside of the ship.

The effect was immediate as the formation of alien ships lost cohesion and began to fall apart. The careful screen of scout ships that prevented the Interceptors and National Guard craft from approaching with their attack runs began to branch off in pursuit of individual targets and were promptly annihilated by Interceptors. With their defensive screen disappearing, the battleships attempted to ascend. The ship with a gaping hole in its midsection suffered a series of internal explosions and dropped like a stone, but the other continued to ascend to disappear into the night with a half dozen smaller ships in its wake.

Matt’s attention was elsewhere when Twilight appeared some distance away. Her teleport dumped her to the ground, where she struggled to stand. Matt poured on the speed to link up with her, and she stumbled forward to do her best to meet him halfway.

BANG

One of the doctors in another section of the medical wing dropped what sounded like a metal tray, which shook Matt from his attempts to find out just what he could have done better. He looked over to Twilight only to see that he had reached over to place one hand on Twilight’s head with his index finger rubbing one of her ears while he had been thinking. He yanked the hand away the moment he realized what he was doing and stood. God damn it, man. She isn’t some dog you hit with your car. Matt turned on his heel to leave but the one thing that could stop him happened.

“Matt…”

The word was quiet and weak, but it froze Matt in place where he stood. He looked back to see one of Twilight’s eyes were opened just a bit and it was locked on him.

“Hey, Twily. I’m sorry if I woke you,” Matt said quickly as he pulled up his chair and resumed his seat. “You’ve had us scared for a little while. How are you feeling?”

“Tired and hurt,” Twilight replied with a great deal of effort. “Sorry… I didn’t want to scare anyone.” Tears began to leak from her eyes and into the pillow her head rested on. “They killed everyone. Kim, Joel and Moira are dead because I did nothing.”

“Moira’s alive, and it’s all thanks to you, Twily. We all saw what you did, and you saved a lot of people,” Matt explained quickly, and he tried to force a smile. “Noone blames you for what you did. I’m pretty sure there are quite a few people who would thank you if they could.”

“What I did?”

The question was so unexpected that Matt nearly stumbled over the answer. “You… you saved everyone, Twilight. You showed up and drove the aliens back.”

A moment of silence passed between the two before Twilight spoke again. “Matt?” The inquiry was softly spoken but he was quick to acknowledge it with a nod. “Could you…scratch my ears, please?”

Matt raised the same hand he had previously placed on Twilight’s head but this time it hovered indecisively over her before gently settling where it once was. He had to resist the urge to pull away as he felt her push into his palm once the contact was made. The pressure stopped soon after as she drifted back to sleep. Matt wasn’t certain how long they held that position before the silence was broken.

The door to Twilight’s room opened to reveal Lana. She silently stepped in to the room and closed the door behind her before standing beside the bed. “Commander Bradford wants to see you. Did you finish the book?” Her gaze drifted from the book on the table beside them to Matt’s hand and Twilight’s closed eyes. She stayed silent but raised one eyebrow at the arrangement.

“She was awake earlier, but I think it took a lot out of her. And yes, I finished the book,” Matt answered quietly as he rose. “Did he say what he wanted?”

“No, sorry. Just that you needed to see him immediately. Go, I’ll take over,” Lana said as she produced a book of her own and began to read. “Harry Potter was a highly unusual boy in many ways…” She started before the door closed behind Matt.

He gave a brief nod to both the security guards that flanked the door before turning and making his way out of the medical wing. Unfamiliar corridors greeted him but the directions to Bradford’s office were clear and less than five minutes later he found himself standing at attention in front of the commander’s desk.

“Glad you could make it on such short notice, Lieutenant,” Bradford said with a degree of sympathy as he looked up from his tablet. “It is last minute, but there’s a mission I need Strike One to undertake. Due to the unique nature of this mission, I cannot order you to do it. I can only ask you to volunteer, and I suspect you will.” Bradford offered the tablet to Matt.

“Sir, with all due respect I don’t think that’s such a good idea right now,” Matt started to say, but he stopped when Bradford merely pointed at the tablet and waited. He took the hint and began to scroll through the mission description and details. “Are you serious?” Matt blurted out before he could stop himself.

“Completely,” Bradford answered. “I’ve reserved one of the briefing rooms for you this afternoon. And while it’s against standard operating procedure, I imagine Major Fujikawa and Private Romalov would like to attend the briefing as well. I expect to have a list of volunteers for the operation by tomorrow morning. The operation will commence the day after.”

“Yes, sir,” Matt said as he turned and exited the office. Bradford’s right, I’d volunteer for this in a heartbeat.

------

18:00, 05/27/2015, BRIEFING ROOM, BETA SITE

“So why are we here again?” Lana asked to the room in general, and was rewarded with several blank stares in her direction. The surviving members of Strike One were all present, the recently recovered Robert Sachs sat beside Zhang at the end of the row, and both appeared to be sleeping. To Lana’s left, Jack Finch, Patrick Carlock, Holly Blake and Clara Burns gave each other doubtful looks. In the next row Captain Fujikawa and Yuri Romalov sat with equally confused expressions.

“You don’t know? You are the most senior member of Strike One in the room,” Finch asked before turning behind him, “Do you know anything about this, sir?”

“I’m afraid not,” Fujikawa answered with a shrug. “All I know is that this meeting was arranged by the Commander, so it must be important.”

The door to the briefing room opened and Commander Bradford stepped in with Matt following behind. The room’s occupants rose and saluted, Zhang and Sachs included, and all resumed their seats as the salutes were returned. “At ease. You all have been gathered for a very important operation that will commence shortly. Participation is strictly voluntary, but what you learn in this room is considered classified at the highest levels and any leak will result in…” Bradford drifted off and a look of consternation appeared on his face. “Lieutenant, you will have to continue the briefing.”

Surprise was obvious on Matt’s face as he took Bradford’s place at the front of the room. Just as he started to speak, the intercom buzzed. “Commander to the situation room.” Before the request had finished, he had already exited the briefing room.

Matt cleared his throat to regain the initiative. “I won’t repeat the commander’s warning. We all know the disclosure penalties by now. Everyone in this room took part in the defense of the old base five days ago, and I’m certain everyone here either saw or heard of the ‘Unicorn’ that was encountered as well.” Matt produced a remote control and the wall monitor behind him flickered to life, and several pictures of the base defense appeared as well as several pictures taken from Matt’s own armor camera back in April. “During the final moments of the operation she was wounded, and is now in critical condition which could fail at any moment.”

What’s going on, Matt? Lana asked silently, and both she and Zhang shared a glance.

“Our mission will be to return this creature to its home world,” Matt answered Lana’s unspoken question, and he paused to let the statement sink in.

“Why?” Finch blurted out.

“I’m more interested in the how,” Sachs answered with an arched eyebrow. “Unless that thing came from the moon, I have to wonder how we’ll get there.”

“To answer the first question,” Matt spoke as he raised his hands to motion for silence. “She isn’t affiliated with the invaders in any way, and she did not originate from whatever world or worlds they come from. She’s also highly placed within the ruling power structure of her world with both personal and professional ties to at least two of her species that have exponentially greater capabilities. These beings are also aware of her presence if not her current location, and they would know the moment she dies. I should also point out that the cause of her current condition is from being shot by one of our weapons.” Matt didn’t continue but the implication was clear.

“Where is the lackwit who shot her? I remember security taking him off our hands and haven’t heard anything since.” Lana stated.

“I don’t know, and it’s not relevant at this juncture,” Matt shrugged. “To answer the second question, Charles Shen in engineering has created a teleportation device that is capable of sending anyone who uses it to a different location.” The monitor pictures switched to a massive chamber with an elevated circular platform and a corresponding circular pad above it. “Initial test involved sending a SHIV to the alien world, where it would begin recording its surroundings before activating its homer beacon to return here. The SHIV returned successfully and with video evidence to confirm the location was correct.”

“Can we see the video the SHIV took?” Fujikawa asked.

“It’s… still undergoing review. Sorry.” The reaction was well-hidden but Lana knew Matt well enough to recognize that he deliberately dodged the question. “I am now asking for volunteers to assist me with this operation. A minimum of three is preferred for a half squad, or seven for a full squad in addition to me.”

Lana was already rising from her chair before Matt had finished his explanation, and she was pleasantly surprised to see Zhang follow shortly afterward. A glance behind her revealed that Romalov was standing as well, though Fujikawa looked conflicted.

“I can’t volunteer,” the major said with sincere regret. “I’m currently the highest ranking Strike team officer, and I can’t be away until things settle down. I can wish you luck though.”

A moment passed before Sachs slowly rose to his feet and a grin crept onto his face. Burns, Blake and Carlock followed shortly afterward. Finch was the last to stand, but the hesitation that was once on his face was gone.

------

08:50, 05/29/2015, KALEIDOSCOPE CHAMBER

“Twily, we’ve got a surprise for you,” Matt heard Lana said as she walked alongside the stretcher that the unicorn now rested in. “Just hang on for a little bit longer, okay?” Zhang led the column and held the front portion of the stretcher while Romalov carried the rear portion, and Lana and Matt walked along each side of the stretcher as they ascended the ramp to the massive plateau in the center of the room.

The rest of the volunteers had already assembled on the plateau and were in full armor and with a variety of rifle weaponry. Over half were carrying projectile weapons with several clips wrapped in blue or red tape, while Finch, Blake and Jenkins carried laser rifles. Several flash bang and smoke grenades were also seen on every one of the soldiers. Matt himself carried a flare gun in place of his usual sidearm.

Burns was in the process of double-checking both her and Finchs gear as Finch checked their weapons. Blake and Carlock huddled together over a tablet to review the mission information one last time. Sachs stood as still as a statue awaiting orders. All of them paused to look as Twilight was carried onto the teleporter.

“Five minutes, gentlemen,” Shen called from the control booth.

“All right, listen up!” Matt said as he let his rifle dangle from its shoulder strap as he pulled up his own tablet. “I know we went over all of this earlier, but it bears repeating. The first teleportation test sent the SHIV to a field just outside of a rural population center. This is not intended to be a first contact scenario with these people. We’ll approach the outskirts of the town and deploy flares to gather their attention. Once we’re confident she’s been noticed, we’ll fall back to the teleport homer and be on our way back home,” Matt summarized while pointing over his shoulder at the cylindrical device mounted on a tripod in the center of the platform.

“You’re all professionals so I know its overkill for saying so, but you are not to engage the locals in any way. If they approach, then you fall back. If they are hostile then warning shots or rubber bullets,” He continued as he tapped the blue-taped magazine on his rifle.

“What about hostile wildlife, sir?” Sachs queried as he held up his own tablet that showed one of Twilight’s drawings. “Some of those things from the briefing seem rather… exotic.”

“Warning shots, then live ammo as needed. Any other questions?”

“How do we know the locals will take care of her when they see her?” Finch asked while stealing glances towards Twilight.

“She’s a national hero to them. Someone will know her on sight. Anything else?”

“One minute!” Shen’s voice boomed from the intercom. The lights in the chamber dimmed slightly and an intricate pattern of circuitry began to glow on the platform beneath them as well as above them.

“Places, people!” Matt shouted, and the soldiers all scattered to various positions around the perimeter of the platform. Matt, Lana and Zhang formed an inner ring, with Twilight taking the last point. A digital clock on the far wall began to count the seconds until the teleporter activated. Thirty. Twenty. Ten. Five. When the count reached two, Matt sucked in a breath and closed his eyes…

CRACK

…and immediately doubled over as he fought the urge to vomit his breakfast onto the floor. He ripped his helmet off his head and took several deep breaths before things settled down enough for him to rise and look over the rest of Strike One.

They had fared no better than Matt as a good portion of them were now doubled over and showing varying degrees of illness. “Sound off! Everyone all right?” He asked as he turned his gaze to his surroundings. “Ah, crap.”

What he expected to see were the pastoral fields surrounding the sleepy little town that the SHIV had recorded, but instead they found themselves inside some sort of ruin. What was likely a regal red carpet was now a decayed and faded rag beneath their feet which led up a small flight of stairs where two thrones sat. Tapestries hung from the wall behind each throne with a clear sun and moon theme in both symbolism and coloration but like the carpet they suffered the ravages of time. At the opposite end of the carpeted walkway were double doors, one of which had fallen from its frame to expose a small glimpse of the scenery beyond the bleak stone walls. Shattered mirrors and stained glass windows lined those walls as well. Matt’s gaze drifted upwards to the vaulted ceiling and took note of several holes in the ceiling that revealed the night’s sky.

Once the soldiers had recovered enough to stand, Matt spoke up. “Insertion is off target, I can say for certain this is not our intended destination.” A burst of sotto-voce profanity rippled through the soldiers. “We need to get the lay of the land to see if we’re near any other population centers. Zhang, Blake, Burns; see if you can find an upper level vantage point and report any landmarks. Romalov, Sachs, Finch, I want you two to stay here and guard the teleport homer and her,” Matt pointed to the stretcher and the device set up beside her. “Lana, Carlock, Romalov, you’re with me. We’re going to take a look outside. Short range comms are still active so shout if you see anything.”

The group broke up and Matt slipped his helmet back on before stepping outside. Well, that was quick. “Okay, ladies and gentlemen, we have our identifying landmark,” he said as he caught sight of a massive mountain that sat all by its lonesome with nothing but plains as far as the eye could see. A castle was perched precariously along the side of the mountain, and dozens of sparkling lights could be seen surrounding its base. Any other details were obscured as cloud cover blotted out the moon as it sank on the western horizon, while the eastern horizon had just begun to brighten. It’s twilight... no, it's the dawn.

“Well, hot damn, look at that castle,” Lana said, and Matt could hear the grin in her voice. “I’m so taking the armor camera footage to Charles when we get back. I’ll bet twenty bucks that his response involves the word, ‘Impossible.’”

“Focus!” Matt hissed before addressing the squad. “We’re heading back to pick up the package. There should be a village on the other side of the woods where we can get her help. Romalov! You and me are on stretcher duty. Zhang, Blake, Burns, Sachs; stay here and hold down the fort. Everyone else is moving out.”

Matt and Romalov lifted the stretcher with ease and the group set off. After crossing a shaky rope bridge and passing through the thick of the forest, the group finally broke through to a clearing. Some time had passed as the night sky was already brightening with the approaching dawn. They put a good fifty feet between themselves and the forest before Matt called for them to halt.

“All right, watch for any movement. If you see any locals, call them out as you see them,” Matt said as he lowered the stretcher to the ground before shrugging the pack from his shoulders and placing it beside the unconscious unicorn. “Twily, I don’t know if you can hear me or not. You’re going to be home and with your friends really soon. I even brought your stuff from the lab.” When Twilight didn’t respond, he reached forward to rub her head but hesitated. The hand retracted and fell on the flare gun at his hip, which he drew and loaded.

Matt had raised the flare gun to fire it when he felt the warmth of the sun upon him as it broke the horizon. It was such a natural phenomena that it took him a moment to realize that he was feeling it through his armor.

“Goddamn, who turned on the spotlight?” Lana cursed as she raised a hand to supplement the already significant shielding built into her helmet.

“Sir, I have movement. Something just launched from the castle.” Carlock had a pair of binoculars pointed in the direction indicated, and it took a moment’s worth of squinting for Matt to identify just what he had spotted. “Confirmed the white princess is incoming, and she looks pissed.”

“Uh... sir? I think now would be a good time to leg it,” Finch suggested as he edged his way back towards the tree line.

Sweat was starting to form on Matt’s forehead as he made his decision. “Move it, people! Double time it back to the ruins!” He ordered as he turned and ran full tilt into the woods. He had almost entered the tree line when he looked over his shoulder to see the princess’s descent. Her landing was followed by a wave of heat and a flash of golden light, and Matt looked back to the path he was now cutting in between the trees. A shout and a battle cry could be heard behind him and the sound of many hooves as well.

“Carlock, Jenkins! Flashbangs!” Matt shouted, and the two soldiers in the lead of the retreat both turned and hurled their grenades behind them.

“Don’t stop running, and don’t look back!” Lana yelled as she suited action to words. The two grenades detonated on the path behind them, and the sounds of what was likely profanity and metal clattering could be heard in the distance.

“Zhang, Harris! Get the teleport homer prepped, we’re coming in hot. Are the ruins secured?”

“For the moment,” Zhang replied with a degree of calm that was at odds with the current situation. “I don’t mean to alarm anyone, but I believe Luna is circling the forest with a flock of pegasi guards. The rope bridge and the clearing in front of the ruins may present a challenge.”

Goddamn it, more complications. What else could possibly go wrong? Matt fumed silently before continuing. “Zhang, keep an eye on their air support. If we activate the Chameleon armor just as we break the tree line, we might be able to lose them. What’s the time on the teleport homer?”

“Ten minutes.”

We’ll be there in thirty seconds, and our pursuit in little more than that unless we can lose them. Damn it. “Get it started, we'll be there momentarily,” Matt shouted as he caught sight of the rope bridge. “Do not engage and stay out of sight. Chameleon armor now!”

Matt immediately lost sight of the other soldiers running through the forest, but their electronic ICC tags still popped up on his helmet visor. Jenkins and Carlock were the first to run full tilt over the bridge and both dropped on the other side while drawing their knives. Romalov and Finch crossed next and Matt was the last to reach the other side. The moment his feet touched solid ground, both Carlock and Jenkins severed the ropes and let the bridge fall into the chasm below.

Matt had made it nearly three quarters of the way between the gorge and was starting to feel just a little bit better about his odds when a shout louder than the voice of god hit him with something bordering on concussive force. He stumbled but quickly recovered as he bolted through the door and the others headed towards the beacon in the center of the call. Matt caught sight of the others as they crouched in cover, and the damnable counter on the teleport homer reading 9:34. He had just enough time to turn back to the door when several things happened simultaneously.

The remaining door flew off its hinges and shot towards the retreating humans and the teleport beacon, and Luna stood on the other side in all her terrible glory while surrounded by at least a dozen armored Equestrians that dwarfed Twilight in both size and bulk. The moment the door flew off its hinges the guards began to charge. A trio of Pegasi wearing blue and gold descended from one of the holes in the ceiling like birds of prey. Finch tripped and fell but twisted onto his back to fire his laser rifle at the stampede that was bearing down on him, while Blake fired hers at one of the descending Pegasi.

In the moment it took Matt to wonder why he was able to pick up so much occurring at one time, he found his answer. Time had frozen and the scene was locked on that single moment. Several seconds passed in Matt's mind as the time freeze stretched far longer than anything he had ever experienced before, until something happened.

A whistle filled the now-silent scene, and the sounds of uneven steps followed it. A creature unlike anything Matt had ever seen stepped into view and made its way to the door suspended halfway between the retreating humans and their attackers. It was tall, or long, and its serpentine body twisted and coiled in random directions as it surveyed the scene around it. Every part of its body was mismatched, with a cloven hoof, a talon, a lion's paw and a reptilian claw, plus a bat and bird wing composed its limbs and two wildly different horns sat atop its head. It extended its lion paw and touched the door, and in a flash of light the door was replaced with... bananas.

The mish-mash creature casually peeled and ate each one before tossing them over his shoulder at random, though when he finished the last one he stopped and pushed it a half inch to the right with his cloven hoof.

He then strode over to Finch and pinched the laser bolt that had just emerged from the barrel and snapped it off like a twig before grabbing the soldier's foot and hefting his frozen form up and onto his shoulder like a club. The creature began to pick at his teeth with the lasbolt and it slowly turned a sickly green color as he walked out of Matt's line of sight before appearing from the other side of his vision beside Blake and with out Finch. His now free hand grasped the laser bolt that was a few feet from connecting with one of the pegasi and bent it as easily as a paper clip while turning just as green as the first. He then turned to the lead Pegasi and placed one claw on its leading hoof and shoved. The pegasi began to spin in place like a top as Discord turned back towards the humans.

The unknown creature picked up each of the humans as though there were lawn ornaments and deposited them all around the teleport homer before he extended one finger to the homer itself. The number dropped from nine and a half minutes to three seconds.

Matt watched as the creature surveyed his work before giving his teeth one final rake with his captured laser bolt. He turned back to the humans and giggled before tossing the laser bolt over his shoulder and snapping his fingers.

The scene dissolved into chaos.

The charging Equestrians hit the carpet of banana peels and fell with a clatter of armor and shouted profanity but not before launching no less than three peels directly into Luna's face. The princess herself let out what was likely a very unladylike curse of her own as she stumbled backward from the unexpected projectiles. The leading Pegasus stopped its spinning and collided mid-air with the second one in the formation. The third changed direction at the last moment to avoid the bent laser beam before dodging again as the beam reflected off a broken mirror shard and back into the room. The beam that Discord had tossed over his shoulder leapt into action and narrowly missed the now desperately evading Pegasus before reflecting back into the room like the first had. Dozens of reflections filled the room with green laser fire before one ill-timed dodge caused the last pegasus to crash into the apparently very dizzy flight leader. Both laser bolts made one final reflection before striking the stain glass windows on opposite sides of the room and exiting the ruins entirely.

Any further mayhem was cut off as the teleport homer activated and sent the humans back to Earth.

------

The room was dark and almost devoid of furniture, save for an almost featureless desk and chair. The room might have been mistaken for a long-forgotten office or storage room were it not for the lack of dust combined with the well dressed man who stepped into the room. Out of long-ingrained habit he sat in the seat after straightening his tie. His posture was ramrod straight as he pressed a seemingly random spot on the desk before tapping in front of him as though he had a keyboard.
The wall across from the desk flickered as power fed into a monitor hidden in the darkness. Text began to scrawl as the system powered up.

>>SYSTEM ACTIVATION
>>LOGIN/PASSWORD REQUIRED
>>”0”
>>”********************”
>>USER AUTHENTICATED
>>ESTABLISHING SECURE CONNECTION
>>SECURE CONNECTION ESTABLISHED
>>0 IS NOW IN ATTENDANCE
>>CURRENT ATTENDANCE INCLUDES 0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16
>>ALL MEMBERS IN ATTENDANCE

0: “Good evening, gentlemen. The reports of this month's extraordinary events have been forwarded to all relevant parties, which will now be discussed. Once each topic is discussed satisfactorily we will move on to the next. There will not be a repeat of last month's meeting.”

A long moment of silence passed before Zero continued.

0: “The first and most pressing topic on the agenda involves the human collaborators that were found in the alien base that was captured and the likelihood of their involvement in the subsequent infiltration and sabotage of the North American 'alpha site.'”

1: “The preliminary reports from Doctor Vahlen are mostly complete, and I'm willing to forgive the state of those reports after what she endured. The reports detail wide-spread genetic modification and enhancement among the human corpses that were recovered at the alien base. The vast majority of the corpses has been positively linked to abductees from around the globe just as Vahlen suspected, and I agree with her assumption that the aliens were using the abductees as lab rats to perfect their modifications and implants before applying them to the collaborators.”

5: “Some of the things Vahlen and the Strike teams have reported seems beyond what could be achieved without total replacement of organs or tissues. How could they create such things from the ground up? Vahlen mentions 'Meld', but--”

1: “Vahlen's report on the Meld substance that was recovered from the base was incomplete but the Meld itself is apparently composed of billions of nano-machines that I speculate could do the work that we saw on the traitors.”

2: “It's intriguing to consider what we could do with our own troops once such a substance could be mastered, but...”

4: “I'm much more interested in Charles Shen's suggestion of using the Meld substance as a means of fabricating microscopic circuitry and machinery. With the other breakthroughs that were found this month, he feels he can create a mechanized device that can mimic the human body to a degree that we've only seen in science fiction or video games. The arm that was created for one of the Strike team operators is the proof of concept.”

13: “Speaking of breakthroughs, we need to talk about the Stardust proj--”

>>13 has been muted by 0.

0: “That subject will be discussed at a later time as will the Meld substance. The current topic now is the nature of the human collaborators and the humans captured at the alpha site.”

>>13 has been unmuted by 0.

13: “Well, with that in mind, the surviving prisoners that were captured and secured all show signs of damage we associate with mind control. This brings up an unsettling possibility, that the aliens are able to project their mental powers from a much greater distance than we thought possible.”

16: “Wasn't Vahlen in the process of interrogating one of their commanders when the base came under attack? Is it possible there was a security breach that allowed it to escape and take control of the base personnel?”

13: “No. Vahlen's report is incomplete regarding the 'Sectoid Commander', but the 'Rule Breaker' device prevented it from using any of its abilities once it had been secured, and the captive was purged as per standard policy the moment the base came under attack.”

1: “And what of 'Vide'? Do we have any news on his current location? His body wasn't found among the dead after the battle, and the nature of the containment cell he was escorted to seems to indicate he either had help to escape or whatever freakish implants the alien gave him allowed him to heal several broken bones in the span of minutes.”

>>1 now displaying VideCell.jpg

1: “As you can see, all three security guards are dead. One from a broken neck, the other from a crushed throat and the third appears to have died by violent manual tracheostomy.”

11: “What do you mean by 'manual tracheostomy'?”

1: “His throat was ripped out by hand. Vide or his compatriots left a message in blood on the wall as well. 'We will be watching.' I can only assume this is meant as a threat towards XCOM to undermine their efforts.”

0: “As much as I would like to believe it is a coincidence, we are all too careful to make such an assumption. Those were my exact words at the end of my discussion with Commander Bradford at the end of April. This message is directed at the Council as much as XCOM. Given the likelihood of communications being compromised, I ordered and implemented new security procedures to combat future leaks.”

1: “I'm also in the process of trying to find just where Vide came from. The electronic trail that authorized his entrance into the base as well as the email that Bradford found that morning both lead virtually nowhere. Whoever is responsible for this is very cautious.”

0: “Very good. Continue your investigation to locate the origins of this infiltrator and forward them immediately to Commander Bradford. XCOM's primary objective of protecting all human life is now rescinded, and any action up to and including lethal force is now authorized against Vide and any who aid him. The next subject is the Meld substance that was recovered, and the potential it provides to us.”

2: “As much as I would love to see our soldiers go toe to toe with these traitors using Meld to enchance their bodies, I'm afraid I would have to withdraw my recommendation of using it in this manner. With biological changes we just don't know how it will effect our soldiers without the aliens expertise in this field, and we can't risk the soldiers we currently have experimenting.”

4: “I recommend going forward with Shen's suggestion. The risks to personnel both in the short and long term seem significantly less than experimenting on our own soldiers.”

>>0 has called for a vote: PROCEED WITH DR. CHARLES SHEN'S SUGGESTED USE OF MELD
>>Yes votes: 17 total, No votes: 0 total, 0 Abstain
>>Proposal Accepted.

0: “Excellent. The next order of business involves the creation and use of the Kaleidoscope chamber to return the subject of the Stardust project to its place of origin.”

11: “If I may, there is something I wanted to discuss in relation to this topic: Twilight Sparkle's participation in the defense of the alpha site.”

0: “Very well, proceed.”

11: “I won't go through the report word for word, but I think the events of the base defense quite clearly show the consequences we might have brought on ourselves had certain decisions been made at the start of the month. Aside from the 'Mechtoids' and their shields, I was not able to find one instance of an enemy being able to mount a modicum of defense against her powers, and even the Mechtoids didn't last long once she set her eyes upon them.”

13: “So, what you're saying is, 'I told you so'?”

11: “You said it, not me.”

0: “Personal comments are not to be brought up in this meeting.”

11: “My point is, Twilight Sparkle described herself as in the top one percent of her species. Assuming she isn't astronomically ahead of the rest of her race in a manner similar to how she describes the princesses, we might have found an untapped resource for the war.”

13: “I feel inclined to remind you at this point that she was shot and nearly killed by a human before she was returned to her home world, and the after action reports clearly indicate hostile intent upon her return. Part of me is surprised we aren't getting flooded with reports of these 'Equestrians' appearing across the globe demanding blood.”

2: “On a related note, where is our wayward guardsman? From what I understand he was swept up by the Strike teams and thrown into a cell.”

1: “Captain Vic Spiegel is currently enjoying our hospitality while we evaluate his usefulness to the XCOM project. He is officially listed as missing in action, presumed dead when his F-16 was shot down during the fight. I've made quite certain that he is informed of the foolishness of his actions.”

16: “So what did we learn from the mission to 'Equestria'? Surely the armor camera footage has been gone over with a fine toothed comb and every particle of dirt from their boot treads has been examined.”

1: “To use Vahlen's exact words, 'remarkably earth-like.' Not to cut you off but what I am more concerned with is the state of the SHIV that came back after the first test. A Mark One SHIV spent exactly ten minutes on that world and came back with... well, the official report says, “one cone-shaped party hat affixed atop the main camera by rubber band, six party blowers stuffed in the gatling gun's barrels, approximately two pounds of shredded paper confetti and a... cupcake on top of one of the treads.”

13: “Wait, what? I glossed over the initial test reports. Is the SHIV's recording of its trip attached to the report?”

1: “Yeah, it is. I have no idea what happened. One minute the camera is panning across the night-time terrain, then the next the camera is covered by the party hat. A few seconds later the teleport homer finished charging and it was back in the Kaleidoscope chamber. I keep trying to come up with a logical explanation and I fail.”

15: “I viewed the video footage also and I'm stumped, but one thing that did not show up in the video that we need to discuss: Discord.”

5: “Discord? The meddler that sent Twilight here in the first place? He never shows up in either the SHIV or armor camera footage.”

15: “You're right, he didn't, but in the base psychologist's notes there was specific mention of an event in which an entity matching Discord's description appeared and made several changes to the area just before the teleport homer's activation. If you go to the indicated timestamp in Lieutenant Harris's armor camera, there's the charging Equestrians and a door flying at the camera. The next? Bananas and green laser beams everywhere.”

2: “Never in my life did I think I'd hear that phrase in this meeting.”

15: “I'll admit to thinking the same thing, but we aren't addressing the bigger question: Why would Discord do that? Why would he help the Strike team escape? The argument could be made that he did it simply to thwart the efforts of the established government in an embarrassing way, but there's no such thing as coincidences this big. He sent Twilight to us. He also helped the Strike teams flee. Why? What could he possibly have to gain from those two actions? Previous reports would have led me to believe he would have actively hindered Twilight's return to her home.”

1: “Such speculation I'm afraid isn't going to do much good at this point without more information, though the surviving Stardust team members might have insight into that question. I would also suggest that a review be made of all video footage that has been taken since early April. If there's any inconsistencies it might be another case of his interference.”

7: “What if he's been interfering for longer than that? How do we know he hasn't been interfering for ages?”

13: “Since no one asked, I feel I should especially since we're getting a bit off topic. Did Commander Bradford make the right decision in expending resources to create the Kaleidoscope chamber on such short notice, then use it to give away our one and only unicorn specimen? Such a fate would be unfortunate, but just imagine what we could have learned from her after her passing.”

1: “I do admit we could have learned much, but the risks would have been great, perhaps fatally so. They were able to send communication to Twilight through unknown means, and one specific communication mentioned an awareness of her current conditions.”

13: “I am... inclined to agree, but I felt the question had to be asked.”

1: “So, are we in agreement that Commander Bradford's decision was the correct one? Any who disagree may now present their case.”

0: “It is my opinion that Commander Bradford's quick decision was in the best interests of the XCOM project, and while it may not have yielded any immediate benefit it did prevent potential conflict from a third party. As the subject of the Stardust project is no longer available for study, I recommend its immediate closure. A new project will take its place to cultivate and expand the abilities of any XCOM personnel who show signs of the Gift. Are there any questions?”

0: “This Council is now adjourned.”

One by one the Councilmen disconnected, and Zero followed suit. The moment the disconnect message appeared on the screen, he tapped another place on his desk before clasping his hands before him.

“Good evening, Commander.”

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