• 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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The Lab

AMATEUR FOOTAGE OF ALIENS CAPTURED BY MILITARY FORCES DEBUNKED BY GOVT EXPERT; CITES LIKELIHOOD OF TAMPERING WITH VIDEO FOOTAGE. “SINCE WHEN DO THE ALIENS USE UNICORNS?”

SENATOR GOLEMAN DEMANDS OFFICIAL INVESTIGATION OF UNIDENTIFIED ARMED FORCES FIGHTING ALIEN INVADERS. “NO UNIT MARKINGS MEANS NO ACCOUNTABILITY, I WON’T ALLOW SUCH ACTIONS IN MY COUNTRY!”

------

06:33, 04/03/2015, CONTAINMENT

The two hatches inside Twilight's cell opened with a clank-hiss, and limbs wreathed with crackling energy reached toward her. She tried to back away but found her back pressed against the wall of her cell. Again the fight or flight instinct took hold and she pushed as hard as she could...

...and nearly fell out of her chair as she jerked awake. After blinking several times in rapid succession, Twilight's surroundings resolved themselves. If only this all was a bad dream and I woke up at home, she thought regretfully before setting her eyes on the cell she had last woken up in. It could be worse, though.

Twilight's attention was quickly snatched by the hiss-clank of the door to the room sliding shut and Charles making his way towards her. His clothes were the same as the last time she saw him, or at least were too similar for Twilight to tell the difference, and his expression and posture was a bit more relaxed as well.

“Good morning, Twilight.” Charles said with a gentle smile. “I can’t imagine you slept very well at the desk like that. Goodness knows I never can.” Twilight blinked and followed where his gaze indicated, the large metal desk with a sheet of paper and scrawling writing upon it right where her head had apparently been resting.

“ARGH!” Twilight screamed and furiously began rubbing the sides of her face. “I fell asleep while I was writing! The letter is probably all smudged by now and I’ll have to rewrite it! And I have ink all over my face!”

“Twilight.”

“That takes days of scrubbing to get out of my coat! Plus I don’t want to look like some silly filly that had her face drawn on because she fell asleep on top of wet ink. Never again, I swore!”

“Twilight.”

“Plus I’m sure Princess Celestia would want me to make a good impression with you and your friends since I’m the first pony you’ve ever met, and how can I do that with GRAFFITI ON MY FACE!?”

“Twilight!” Charles hadn’t raised his voice but it did have a touch of steel in it, and he had stepped within easy reach of her during her panic attack. It wasn’t until then that Twilight realized just how tall Charles was, and she felt a moment of fear before seeing the smile on his face as he looked from her to the sheet of paper. “Twilight, look at the letter. Do you see any smears or smudges?”

Twilight took a deep breath and let it out, and she felt her panic subside enough for reason to take hold. She looked at her letter to Celestia and could find no trace of the imagined blemishes her mind had conjured. She blinked then looked back to Charles, and the light clicked on in her head as she deduced the cause for that. “The ink…it’s fast drying?”

Charles smiled and nodded. “Exactly. The inks we use for writing these days dry within seconds under normal conditions. I suspect that isn’t the case for the inks you use where you’re from?”

“It takes a bit longer than that for our ink to dry…so there isn’t any on my face?” Twilight looked up at Charles for any sign of deception or other indicators of anything less than honesty. He shook his head and smiled guilelessly, and the unicorn let out a sigh of relief. “I still feel like I could use a shower or a good day at the spa.”

After a moment’s hesitation and an odd look, Charles spoke up. “That’s actually why I came to see you today. Twilight, the planet I showed you on the screen last night is my world, and I took from your reaction that you couldn’t find your homeland there?” The wording was gentle and slow, and it all but confirmed the theory Twilight had developed before apparently faceplanting on the desk from exhaustion.

“My homeland wasn’t there, and none of the land masses matched either. Does that mean I’m on another planet?” Again Twilight fixed Charles with her eyes for any sign of deception.

“That is a likely assumption. It must be a shocking thing to realize, and there isn’t much I can do for you other than offer hospitality with my friends until…” Charles hesitated as he searched for the right words. “Well, until things calm down, at least. If you are feeling up for it, Twilight, I can take you to a place we’ve prepared for you to stay. Some of my friends are waiting there and they’ve probably got a hundred questions to ask you.”

Another world…that means he’s an alien, Twilight first thought when her theory was confirmed, but her growing alarm was quickly soothed by Charles’ offer. “Thank you. That sounds like a very generous offer, but I wouldn’t want to impose…”

“Oh, I must insist! I’m certain the scientists would never let me hear the end of it if they couldn’t get their questions answered.” Again Charles smiled and another fear of Twilight’s was put to rest. “You’re welcome to stay for as long as necessary, though my friends and I would greatly appreciate you answering any questions we have or helping out with special projects.”

“I’ll gladly help any way I can!” Twilight agreed instantly as she hopped down from the chair and stretched. “I have a lot of questions about your people too! I think I have enough to write a book just on what I’ve seen so far. I feel silly for not asking this earlier; what do your people call themselves?”

Charles turned and headed toward the door and Twilight moved to follow. He raised an eyebrow as Twilight used her telekinesis to roll her letter up and fasten it closed with paperclips from the desk before joining him. “Well…as a species, we call ourselves humans. As for my race, I’m Chinese.”

“There’s a dif…oh! Like how pegasi, unicorns and earth ponies are different races of the same species. How many races of humans are there?” The question seemed to render Charles speechless as they approached the door.

“Pegasi, unicorns and earth ponies?” the human asked, a look of disbelief quite clear on his face, “Earth ponies? Twilight, do you know the name of our planet?”

Twilight arched an eyebrow in return at the emphasis in his words and the following question, then shook her head slowly. “Earth. Our planet’s name is Earth. It’s a little shocking to hear the word used to describe a race of people that’s never been here.”

Twilight opened her mouth to reply, then closed it to consider her reply. “I think this might be another instance of the translation spell bridging the gap in our languages. The word I’m using without the context of species means ‘ground’ or ‘world’, which might explain why it’s being interpreted as ‘earth’. The reason earth ponies are given the name is because their talents and magics tend to be more related to the world itself, like pegasi magic is related to the sky.”

“Ah, I see. The scientists will likely ask you about that once we reach our destination, and I imagine they’ll have several more questions after that.” Charles said with a slow nod. He began to prod a small section of the door with one extended digit too quickly for Twilight to follow. “And to answer your question, there are dozens of races of humans and dozens of variations on each. Most of the differences are usually related to physical characteristics like skin tone, eye and hair color and facial structure.”

Without warning, the door began to slide open with a clank-hiss, revealing a corridor beyond. The corridor beyond appeared to be an intersection leading to other rooms but two of the hallways were blocked with what appeared to be metal shutters with bright red lettering on them. With two of the paths blocked, only one remained unobstructed. The human stepped out into the hallway and beckoned for Twilight to follow.

Twilight moved to follow but hesitated when she saw that they were no longer alone. Two more humans were in the corridor. They wore thick segmented vests and rather scary full-face helmets, and wrapped around their waists and legs were an impressive amount of pockets and pouches. One carried a large metal tool in its claws that looked like a metal box with two pipes sprouting from the end. The other carried two smaller tools, one that looked almost exactly like the one that Charles had when they first met, while the other looked like a silvery hammer with prongs protruding from the head. The second tool looked familiar but Twilight couldn’t put her hoof on just why that was, so rather than dither any longer she stepped outside to stand beside Charles.

“Are these your friends, too?” She asked hesitantly, and Charles gave a nod in response.

“I suppose they are. This is Corporal Harris…” The human indicated to the twin-tool user, who nodded slightly but otherwise didn’t respond, “…and this is Private Jenkins. They’ll be joining us on our short walk to the quarters we’ve arranged for you.”

“They look like guards,” Twilight admitted as she shied away from the faceless masks. The two humans turned slightly towards each other but didn’t otherwise speak, and the unicorn had to wonder if they were speaking but not in a way she could hear or understand.

“Oh, no, they’re hall monitors,” Charles explained, and his smile took on a mischievous bent. “I imagine when you were in school that there were adults who patrolled the halls to make sure no one misbehaved, right? They’re here to keep me from running in the halls and potentially causing accidents.”

Again the two other humans shared a look but remained silent. “Oh, I see. That makes sense.” Twilight tried to sound convinced, while silently trying to quash her suspicions of being lied to and why. Rather than dwell on that, she changed the subject. “I have also been meaning to ask, what do you call those? They aren’t claws…”

“Hm? Oh, we call them ‘hands’. We’re one of the few species on the planet that has them. Well, hands with thumbs. It has been argued that our success as a species is because of…” Charles started to go into his own explanation, and Twilight only half listened. She tried to pay attention but her mind kept drifting to the human with the silver tool. She absently looked over her shoulder and saw that both of the new humans were following. And that was all that was needed for the last piece of the puzzle to fall into place.

Buildings burned around her.

Three humans dead across the clearing.

The bug crushed in front of her.

The shadow falling over her.

She looks over her shoulder and sees another human in armor and pointing the silver tool at her.

A flash of pain, then darkness.

She awakes in a giant glass jar surrounded by humans with unfriendly faces.

The walls of the jar open up and the limbs reach towards her…

“Twilight?” Charles asked, but she didn’t hear him. Her eyes had dilated to pinpricks and her breathing came in quick gasps. “Twilight? Twilight, listen to me. Take a deep breath and look at me. Step back, corporal, you’re making her panic!”

The human with the silver tool muttered something she couldn’t understand and stepped back slowly. The other human had its metal tool leveled at her and was stepping to the side. Charles was somewhere close by and speaking in calm but increasingly alarmed tones. Twilight heard none of it; her mind was consumed with one all-consuming conclusion. She had to escape.

Without a word, she bolted. Applejack and Rainbow Dash might have been impressed with the amount of speed she was able to attain in so short a distance if she hadn’t run straight into a wall and went out like a light.

------

Twilight woke with what was becoming an increasingly familiar headache, but at least she was a nice soft bed with an icepack on the goose-egg growing on her head. Her eyes slowly opened to reveal beige walls and a soothing yellow light on the ceiling, and her recovering panic calmed just a bit. I’m not in that…place again. But where am I now?

The unicorn slowly lifted her head to survey her new surroundings. Her bed was in the corner of a rather spacious room, with a ceiling at least three times her height looming above. In another corner of the room was a small walled-off section with a drain set in the center and what was unmistakably a showerhead built into the wall, and just outside that was a stack of folded beige towels. Twilight’s eyes drifted further to a desk and chair similar to the room she had previously been in, and the only things present on the desktop was a stack of papers as well as several writing utensils. She recognized a few as the pen she had used yesterday, but there were several others with different colors that were new to her. Directly above the desk and dominating most of the wall was a giant mirror that would have cost tens of thousands of bits back home.

The familiar sound of a page turning pulled Twilight’s attention from the mirror to the table in the far corner of the room. It was square and un-ornamented with four simple chairs around it. The familiar form of Charles sat in one chair with a worn paperback book in his hands. He looked up to see Twilight staring back at him and gave her a gentle, if somewhat tired smile. She tried to sink back into her covers and disappear but there was no chance of that now. Charles stood and lifted one of the chairs and brought it beside the bed. For the longest time he simply sat and fiddled with the old book in his hands.

“How are you feeling? You took a rather painful hit back there.” Charles asked tentatively, and when no reply was pending he continued on. “I’m sorry for scaring you back there, Twilight. I don’t mean to scare you any further, but I feel you should know the whole truth about the situation we are in. Humans, I mean.”

There was a long moment of silence he collected his thoughts. “Some time ago, humanity came under attack by forces from outside of our world. These attacks were brutal and without mercy. The invaders would abduct or kill anyone they came across, and my friends and I gathered together to protect our world. That’s our group’s only goal: To protect humanity from invaders from outside our world. This has always meant defeating everything non-human through force of arms, and ‘interrogating’ the survivors for any useful information…until now.

“Twilight, you are the first and only intelligent non-human we have encountered that hasn’t actively sought to hurt us, which has left us all in uncharted waters. There are some who feel you should be treated no differently from the invaders, but they are in the minority. Others are extremely curious and eager to learn from you, and I am one of them.”

The unicorn listened and recognized a lot of the explanation he had given earlier, and was perceptive enough to realize how much of the explanation was sugar coated.

“Am I a prisoner?” Twilight asked, and wasn’t quite successful in keeping the fear out of her voice.

“You’re our guest, for now. Your safety is a concern we have to consider, in addition to our own.” The human set the battered book on the bed, then pulled his glasses off and wiped his face with one palm. Despite his smiles he looked very old at that moment. “Twilight, just on what you’ve told me I get the impression that your culture is extremely tolerant, but have you personally come across something or someone different that didn’t fit in?”

“Well, yes.” The unicorn replied. It’s hard to forget how Ponyville reacted when Zecora came to visit. “Everyone was afraid until we got to know her.”

Charles’ smile became a little less forced now that he had a similar experience to build on, “That’s part of the problem we humans have. When we are afraid, we lash out at the cause.”

“I think I understand. I have a friend who often had to help injured animals, and she was always adamant she'd be notified if one were found rather than trying to help it ourselves. She said the survival instinct can make the kindest animal into a monster,” Twilight blinked, then hastily added, “Not that I’m comparing your people to monsters or animals!”

Charles waved a hand to dismiss any offense. “That was the example I was stumbling for. We humans aren’t so evolved that we no longer have such instincts, and as much as I would hate to admit it the world is simply too afraid for you to wander it safely.”

“You seem quite certain that your race would act that way, but you don’t seem to be afraid.” Twilight observed.

“I was afraid when I first saw you. I grew up in a time of great fear, so I might be a bit more aware of the ability it has to inspire rash actions,” the human replied. He pinched the bridge of his nose and gave a small chuckle before continuing. “I hope I’m not making you afraid, Twilight. Humanity as a race is capable of great and terrible things in equal amounts; I’m just trying to make sure you understand why you have to stay here for now.”

“Tell me about it.” The unicorn said after a long moment.

“About what?”

“Humanity.”

Charles opened and closed his mouth several times before scratching his chin and finally speaking, “I could probably talk for years on ‘humanity.’” A genuine smile crossed his face and he continued, “I told you that I designed and built things, yes? How about I tell you the exact moment I knew that was what I wanted to do?”

Twilight nodded eagerly, so Charles continued. “Humanity is a ‘tool user’ race; we shape the world around us with the tools we create. When I was just a kid, we achieved what many consider to be the greatest accomplishment in our history. We left our planet and landed on the moon.”

And with that, a thousand questions exploded in Twilight’s mind and she had to force herself to not interrupt as Charles continued his story. Within a minute, all of the worries of the last day that hounded the unicorn were quickly buried under more and more questions. Buried, but not dispelled.

------

10:45, 04/03/2015, STARDUST LABS

The door to Twilight’s living area opened and closed as Shen left the unicorn to explore her new living arrangements. Her quarters took up half of the newly christened ‘Stardust Labs’, the other half was dedicated to observation and eventual experiments with Twilight’s participation; an eventuality that appeared much more likely after Shen’s enthusiastic if somewhat longwinded discussion with the unicorn.

Immediately next door to the quarters was a second room designed specifically for observing Twilight, and it contained all the monitoring equipment as well as being on the opposite end of the one-way mirror. The rest of the lab was sparse and empty, and Shen gave it only a cursory glance as he immediately turned from Twilight’s door towards Observation.

Three people were inside; Doctors Vahlen, Mills and Ngo were watching through the mirror and various monitors. Several had filters that altered the image to try and learn the secret to Twilight’s ‘magic’. Judging by Moira’s increasingly perturbed expression, she wasn’t getting the information she wanted.

“Everything working alright?” The engineer asked cautiously, and got a blank stare in return from the lead scientist.

“I know you’re as thorough as they come, Charles, but I have to ask. Did you test the equipment before installation?” This time it was Shen’s turn to level a flat look, and Vahlen continued a bit more defensively, “The equipment is picking up nothing abnormal. Nothing! Sure, the standard cameras are picking up the anomalies around the subject’s horn and whatever it manipulates, but our eyes can do that just as well.”

Shen spared a glance to the monitors and saw Twilight using her telekinesis to sort through the variety of objects provided on the desktop of her ‘workspace’. True to the lead scientist’s word, only the basic camera was picking up the visual portion of the telekinetic effect.

“I was expecting something to show up, but there simply is nothing showing up to hint as to how it’s doing that. No background radiation, no energy spikes, no abnormal thermal emissions. NOTHING! One would think that the violation of the established laws of physics would leave some sort of measurable evidence.” She continued to grumble while watching the monitors.

“Perhaps she’s producing a form of energy not native to this world, and we are thus unable to detect it? Or perhaps she’s able to access existing energies that we are unaware of because we ourselves are not able to access them? Either way, I imagine Twilight would tell you exactly how she does it and in great detail. She says her ‘magic’ is her chosen field of study, wherever she’s from,” Charles explained, and took a small amount of guilty pleasure in watching the lead scientist’s face sour when he addressed the unicorn as ‘she’ and by name rather than ‘the subject’ and ‘it.’

“My questions will wait; I still haven’t exhausted every theory yet. And the others are far more eager to lock themselves in the room with the alien.” Moira’s expression soured even further as she looked towards the other researchers. Kim Ngo and Joel Mills were having a quiet but somewhat heated debate before realizing that their discussion was no longer just amongst themselves.

“Time to make a decision,” Kim said with a note of finality.

“Indeed,” Joel replied grimly.

Both scientists raised a fist and shook it three times in tandem. Joel’s hand spread out into an open palm, while Kim’s index and middle finger shot out in a ‘V’.

“Yes!” Kim punched the air gleefully.

“That’s a fluke! Two out of three!” Joel growled, and the two started shaking their fists again.

“I…hope I won’t be needed to translate. I have my work to attend to back in Engineering for now, but I’d be more than willing to help later tomorrow.” Charles said after tearing his eyes from the spectacle of two professional adults making an important decision with a schoolyard game.

At this point, Moira was studiously ignoring her colleagues. “That should not be a problem. Whoever wins their ’game’ has volunteered to translate if the subject is able to replicate the effect on them. I also suspect that the winner of the game gets the first opportunity for questions in their chosen field. While we’re on the subject, it is required that you head to Medical again before resuming your duties. We cannot afford another incident like Europe.”

“I understand. The security of the project is paramount.” Shen agreed.

“I’ve spoken with Commander Bradford on this, and if you show no immediate negative signs after the check-up today, he’ll see about providing us with some volunteers to ease the burden of translating day to day. Once that happens, I imagine you could return to engineering full time and not have to worry about this any further.” Moira’s stare was now upon him, and Shen knew exactly what she was getting at.

“I still have my breaks and off-duty time, and it’s really no trouble for me. I suspect that Twilight would enjoy some conversations as well, she legitimately seems to want to make friends.”

Moira’s eyes narrowed and looked away. “Perhaps it’s time ‘Twilight’ learned that we don’t always get what we want.”

------

18:00, 04/03/2015, BRIEFING ROOM

“So why are we here again?” Lana Jenkins asked Matt, and it took every ounce of self-restraint he had not to tell her to shut it. “Is it because you scared the crap out of Shen’s furry friend? I suppose that’s an accomplishment every soldier should be proud of, ‘scare the life out of helpless animals’. What’s next, puppy kicking?”

“Private, need I remind you of the definition of classified?” Matt ground out, and glanced towards the only other person in the room. Paul Dryzimski, the often distant heavy weapons specialist, had his arms crossed over his chest and chin down as he leaned back in his chair, apparently taking the opportunity to take a nap in the relative calm before the storm. It’s a pity I can’t do the same, Matt thought as the chatterbox next to him started up again.

“Oh come on. It’s just you, me and Dee here, and Dee is dead to the world right now.” Lana soldiered on, and asked, “What do you think that was? It sure as hell isn’t from Earth, but I’m pretty sure it had nothing to do with the bad guys. And did you see those big eyes? Christ, I don’t think I could pull the trigger on something that cute.”

“Yeah…” Matt replied absently, and thought back to the first time he saw those eyes looking up at him.

Matt crept up to the corner of the delivery truck and peeked around the corner. An alien he had never seen before was doing its best to sneak further into the parking lot, though its footfalls left much to be desired in the way of stealth. With practiced hands he slung his rifle over his shoulder and drew the Arc thrower and his pistol, then rounded the corner to stun the alien…and saw the three civilians get shredded by the berserk Chryssalid charging from the alleyway.

Before Matt could let loose the string of profanity that immediately came to mind, the Chryssalid bolted towards his hiding place. There was no room to run, and no time to switch back to his rifle. The bug would be on him in seconds…and the new alien screamed. A flash blinded the soldier and the ground buckled beneath his feet, and with a few blinks his eyes recovered enough to survey the unpleasant stain and chunky bits where the charging bug had been.

The new alien was sitting down and facing the rather impressive crater, and the soldier saw his chance. Three quick steps forward brought him within easy range of the Arc thrower, which he leveled at it. With a thrill of horror he saw it start to turn towards him and he pulled the trigger. Had he hesitated for just a moment he would have been paralyzed by those wide and impossibly purple eyes, filled with horror and unshed tears—

A sharp elbow to his side snapped him back to the present, and Lana’s sly, “Oh, is that so?” made him realize that perhaps he should be paying attention.

Before either could reply, the door to the briefing room opened to reveal Lieutenant Fowler, followed by Commander Bradford. Both Lana and Matt shot up and saluted, and both gave a somewhat surprised sideways glance at Paul, who had beaten them both to the salute. The two officers returned the salute and the soldiers resumed their seats and waited for whatever was to come.

“First up, I want to thank Strike One for its stellar performance during the mission yesterday as well as the subsequent events at the base. Harris’s live capture is also providing an interesting opportunity for XCOM, and the scientists pass along their thanks.”

Before Matt could pose the question, Bradford continued to speak. “Lee and Anderson are both out of immediate danger and are in recovery. The conservative estimate is two weeks before they can rejoin active duty. They’ll have some impressive scars and some valuable experience from the encounter.”

When no further questions made themselves obvious, Bradford stepped forward and gave each of the junior soldiers a meaningful look. “You’ve all thus far made me proud and you’ve done your duties brilliantly. Because of this you are being given the first opportunity to volunteer for a special task. I cannot go into details as to what that task is specifically, but I can tell you that time invested in this task will earn combat pay. The task itself is more oriented towards testing and intelligence gathering than combat, and it will likely be outside your training and comfort zone. Anyone who does not wish to participate may leave the room and resume normal duties. Two volunteers would be preferred.”

A long moment of silence passed before Lana spoke, “You had me at combat pay.”

All eyes fell to Matt, and he had a sinking feeling as to who the second ‘volunteer’ would end up being.

------

07:04, 04/04/2015, B3F EAST CORRIDOR

Charles Shen’s smile was broad and genuine as he approached the Stardust lab. Two guards stood at the entrance to the lab, and both eyed him warily as he approached. The engineer felt a small degree of amusement when the nostrils of both guards flared as they caught the scent of the coffee in his hand.

“Good morning boys. I didn’t realize you’d be here this morning. If you’re working tomorrow I’ll bring a thermos.” Shen said affably to the pair, and a small bit of gratitude appeared on their faces. “Or stop by the commons after you’re relieved. The boys in engineering have got coffee that could burn a hole in concrete. One sip of that and you’ll be up for days.” That earned a smirk from both guards, and the engineer returned it as the door opened and he proceeded inside.

Both Kim and Joel were in attendance inside the lab, and both looked more than a little worried. “Problems?” Shen asked as he approached. Both scientists looked up, then to each other, then back to the engineer.

“Well…now that you’re here, hopefully not.” Kim said, with more than a little uncertainty in her voice. Shen arched an eyebrow but said nothing, so Kim continued. “Doctor Mills had the opportunity to speak with Twilight yesterday and learned a great deal about the races of her world.”

It didn’t take a mind reader to see a small amount of annoyance in the explanation, and Shen had to hide a chuckle. Looks like Joel managed to pull a reversal in their little game.

“During their session, Doctor Mills asked if Twilight would be able to provide illustrations for the subjects they had discussed, and she agreed. She’s been doing that ever since. She’s been providing drawings for Doctor Mills for the last nineteen hours, and hasn’t slept in the last twenty four.” Kim’s expression alternated between worry and a glare at her colleague. “Joel has tried to talk her into taking a break but she has insisted on continuing until she’s cataloged everything. We were hoping you could have a word with her.”

“I’ll…see what I can do.”

Without another word, the engineer headed towards the door to Twilight’s quarters while the scientists broke off towards observation. The door opened to reveal a blizzard of papers scattered about with a myriad of colorful and exotic shapes upon them. Shen carefully picked his steps through the scattered debris to make his way to Twilight at her desk.

“Oh, hi Charles! I met one of your friends yesterday, his name is Joel Mills. He had lots of questions about Equestria and ponies and griffons and dragons and zebras and changelings and…” Twilight rattled off without looking up, and paused to take a deep breath. The moment she did though, her head turned slowly towards Shen like something out of a horror film. Her mane was a mess and her eyes had a slightly manic quality to them. “Is…that…coffee?”

Before the engineer could reply there was a flash of light and BAM, Twilight was right in front of him. The force of displaced air sent the accumulated papers on the ground flying about and nearly muffled the sound of Twilight’s now-forgotten writing utensil clattering onto her desktop. “You brought me COFFEE? Oh Charles you’re the best po--, no, best human ever! Coffee is just what I need to finish these illustrations for Joel! At this rate I should only need one more day to finish all my drawings.”

“Twilight.”

“I think Joel was having a hard time understanding some of the species I mentioned. He really tried his best but sometimes I think having a visual guide to go off of when discussing something new is the best way to go. New species, new concepts, new everything!”

“Twilight.”

“At first I was really worried that I couldn’t help or be useful but I’m glad I can help Joel so much. He mentioned another friend who was going to be visiting me today so I absolutely have to get his work done and if I don’t then Joel’s work will have to wait or this new friend’s work will have to wait. I don’t want anyone to wait!”

“Twilight!”

The sharp word interrupted the blabbering unicorn, and the manic look gave way to just a bit of worry. Shen merely smiled and pulled his trump card.

“Twilight, as a librarian I’m sure you wouldn’t pass up on the chance to read a classic book from my world? It's fiction for young adults but it has been read by millions of people in the last decade or so. Joel thought you might like to read it while he reviews what you’ve done so far.” The engineer produced a battered paperback and presented it to the unicorn.

Her eyes widened even further as she took in the faded and tattered cover before looking back up to Shen. “YES!” Twilight shouted and the worn book flew from Shen’s hands. “Wait, NO! No I would not pass up on the opportunity. Thank you, Charles! Thankyouthankyouthankyou!” With that manic gleam in her eyes again she started to head towards her desk but stopped when Charles spoke again.

“I never find my desk a very comfortable place to read, I usually read on the bed.”

“You’re perfectly right! You are really clever, Charles! Are all humans as clever as you? You sure do seem to know a lot about a lot…” The unicorn diverted her path towards the bed and hopped up, and in less than ten seconds flat was out like a light. The book fell beside her on the bed as her magic disappeared, and Shen gave a knowing smile to the one-way mirror.

Just as Charles set his coffee on the desk and started to clean up the flurry of papers about him, the door opened and a thoroughly stunned pair of scientists quietly walked in. “That was genius.” Was all Joel could say as he also started to help with the clean-up. The trio worked in silence to gather up the assorted pictures, and the engineer could only marvel at the colors and detail that went into each picture. In his hands was a picture of another of Twilight’s species, a white unicorn with an immaculately styled purple mane and a look that seemed to convey amusement. The lower right corner of the illustration was a set of three diamonds that matched the pattern on the illustration’s flank.

“Don’t worry about sorting them quite yet, I’ll get to that. I seem to have underestimated our new colleague when I asked for some pictures. I won’t make that mistake again.” Joel chuckled as he added to his own stack of papers. He spared a quick glance to Kim, who had been clearing the papers around the bed but now stood transfixed at the sight of the sleeping unicorn.

“If this wasn’t ten kinds of classified and likely to earn me a life sentence, I would totally take a picture and send it to my nieces. They’d love me forever.” She whispered before shaking her head and started to pick up the pace of her own collection. Both Charles and Joel chuckled at that, as neither could disagree that the sight before them was probably the most adorable thing they had seen in all the months of horrible bloodshed and hard work at XCOM.

------

14:23, 04/04/2013, STARDUST LAB

Twilight slaved away at her desk, trying to complete another assignment she had been given. Nothing else mattered. NOTHING.

"Twilight," the unicorn heard Spike's voice from behind her, "Twilight, you're forgetting something. You're forgetting something really important." Twilight looked over her shoulder to ask Spike to elaborate but instead of the plump baby dragon she saw an enormous insect with blade-like legs scuttling towards her. In the blink of a lavender eye it was upon her and reaching toward her with gore-stained claws.

"It's not safe here, Twilight," the monster said in Spike's voice before being crushed into a pile of twitching limbs and blood. "Why would you do that, Twilight?" Spike asked, and Twilight looked down to see the broken body of her assistant giving her a betrayed look. "I thought we were friends."

She tried to recoil, to scream in horror at what she'd done... and her eyes shot open. Spike's crushed body was gone, but her surroundings were still unfamiliar. The bed, the mirror, the desk... everything slowly came back to Twilight as she went over recent events. I was drawing for Joel, then Charles visited and gave me a book, then… Twilight’s gaze fell upon the worn paperback sitting beside her on the bed and she connected the dots. Oh... clever, Charles. Very clever.

Twilight’s annoyance at her work being interrupted and the horror of her nightmare was quickly displaced by a grudging acknowledgement that she had probably overdone it. Moderation, you silly filly, moderation. Just because you can go days without sleep doesn’t mean you should. The humans must think I’m some kind of crazy workaholic now. The unicorn felt another bout of irrational panic coming on, but clamped down on it quickly. She took a deep breath and let it out, then looked around her room.

The clutter she vaguely remembered was gone. All her scattered illustrations were stacked neatly on the desk along with a fresh set of pens and colored pencils, as well as a bowl of various fruits with a paper underneath it. The paper was a hand-written note in human, along with a crude drawing she recognized as Joel with one arm extended and its hand balled into a fist and the thumb extended upwards. Twilight had no idea what the gesture meant but the cartoonish grin on the drawing’s face seemed to indicate something positive.

Twilight’s eyes drifted to the fruit bowl and settled on the grapes. One levitated out of the bowl and into her mouth as she hopped into her chair. She had just started to try and decipher the written note left for her when the door chimed and opened and two humans entered.

“Good afternoon, Twilight,” Joel said with a relieved smile. “I hope you slept well. Is it…normal for your kind to work so long before sleeping?” Just like yesterday the human wore a white lab coat and ID tag, and underneath he wore a similar set of clothes as Charles; earthen colored and with a red tie. Also like Charles he was mostly hairless, though he supported a larger amount of graying hair on his head. The glasses perched on his nose were a different style than the other humans as well. The new human in the room said something that Twilight couldn’t understand, and the unicorn’s eyes scrutinized this new arrival.

It was a bit shorter than Joel and had a significant amount of jet black hair on its head, and the facial structure and skin tone was different. The newcomer was more slender at the shoulders as well. Was this what Charles meant by different races? Or is this one female? Twilight wondered absently before bringing her attention back to the conversation.

“Well, not exactly. Most ponies have a more typical schedule, work during the day and rest at night. When I get working on a project I tend to go a bit overboard, though. My friends are trying to get me to take things a little more easily but sometimes I forget,” Twilight gave a self-deprecating laugh and tapped her head with a hoof. “I hope what I finished was able to help you, Joel.”

“I’m glad to hear it, what you’ve drawn has been most helpful so far. I took the opportunity to scan all of them for the database and I’m currently in the process of adding all my notes from yesterday as well. I must say I never thought in my professional career that I’d ever talk about unicorns with a unicorn,” Joel quickly replied with a smile that was just a little unbalanced.

Despite herself, Twilight had to ask, “And why’s that?”

Before the scientist could reply, the newcomer coughed and cleared her throat while giving Joel a pointed look. “Ah, I’m afraid that was rather rude of me,” Joel apologized to the newcomer before turning back. “This is Doctor Kim Ngo, one of my colleagues. As I mentioned yesterday my field is xenobiology, and Kim's is behavioral sciences. She has some things she’d like to discuss with you today. I’m here as an interpreter.”

“Interpreter? Why? It’s no problem for me to use the translation spell on her.”

“I’m afraid it is a problem for us. Or it might be a problem. We don’t know yet.” Joel fumbled with his words before taking a deep breath and collecting himself. “I can understand the convenience of such an ability, but until we are one hundred percent certain that it doesn’t have any negative effect on us we felt it best to limit exposure.”

Twilight’s expression twisted with just a bit of worry. “Translation spells have been used for millennia back home, I can’t think of anypony ever being hurt by it.”

“I completely agree with you, Twilight, but these abilities you have, this ‘magic’ is completely new to humans. From what you’ve told Charles and I, it sounds like magic is everywhere and in everything, so your bodies and systems are likely accustomed to its presence. As far as we know, this is the first exposure humanity has had to magic, ever. Until we know how our bodies react to exposure in the long term, limits seem prudent. I hope you understand.”

“I hadn’t really thought of that,” Twilight admitted doubtfully before something in his explanation caught her attention. “But there’s no way you haven’t been exposed to magic. The magic field is everywhere and in everything back home, and it’s present here as well. Granted, it’s very stale and stiff like it hasn’t been used in ages. I suppose the best analogy I could come up with would be like the air in an old house that hasn’t been opened or used in years. Stale.” Twilight scrunched her face up at the explanation. How do you describe the feeling of magic to somepony who can’t use it?

“I think I understand, I’m sure Moira will have plenty of questions about that tomorrow,” Joel replied after a long moment of taking notes of the discussion. Before Twilight could ask, the scientist continued, “Oh, Moira hasn’t visited yet. She’s very thorough in her preparations and wants to know everything she possibly can before meeting with you. For now, Kim would like to ask you some questions. Is that alright?”

“That sounds fine. Do you mind if I take notes?” As the question was asked, a small stack of papers and a pen detached themselves from their orderly places on the desk and came to rest in front of Twilight.

Joel arched an eyebrow and shared a look with Kim, “Take notes? Why?”

“There are a few reasons, actually. I’m the first pony to ever leave my world, so if I ever get back I’d like detailed records of everything I’ve seen. I could write at least two full books on just what I’ve seen so far!” Joel’s expression became uneasy at that, while Kim started to look sour at being left out of the conversation. Twilight soldiered on, “I would also like to learn your language. I didn’t realize that it was uncomfortable for you, and it was a bit insensitive of me to assume you would be alright with it because it was convenient for me.”

Kim asked a question, to which Joel replied, “She wants to learn English.” Kim’s eyes widened at that as she replied, and the male scientist turned back to Twilight.

“If that’s something you’d like to pursue, we may be able to provide some tools to help,” Joel offered, to which Twilight readily agreed. “Glad to hear it. Now, I’m afraid Kim has waited patiently to ask her questions so perhaps it’s time for us to change subjects, yes?”

Twilight had expected similar questions that Joel had asked earlier, but was pleasantly surprised to find the subjects were more about pony culture and government as well as history. Both scientists had spent a minute talking back and forth after Twilight had explained cutie marks and how everypony gets one. Several of the illustrations proved useful at this point, especially the ones of her friends and the princesses.

“…the marks for this one are balloons, but you mentioned she was a baker?” Joel said after taking the picture of Pinkie Pie, “I’m not sure we understand the connection between balloons and baking.”

“Pinkie Pie’s talent is parties and event organization, and she often provides the catering for her own events. It’s not uncommon for a pony to develop skills to support their special talents. Rarity, for example, has the capacity to detect the gemstones she uses to create her special outfits.” Twilight indicated to the drawing of the fabulous mare, before bringing her hoof back to indicate to herself, “My special talent is magic, and I imagine I wouldn’t be nearly as successful at it if I wasn’t capable of memorizing the arcane formulae for the spells.”

Joel relayed Twilight’s explanation to Kim, who scribbled half a page of notes before pointing at the drawings of Celestia, Luna and Cadance. “These three, the ‘alicorns’,” he asked, stumbling over the last word, “Their marks are a star, crescent moon and a heart. What do they mean?”

“Princess Celestia and Princess Luna’s marks represent their powers over the sun and the moon. They use their magic to raise them every day and night,” Twilight explained with a smile. Joel relayed the translation with a smile of his own that looked just a bit condescending, which Kim returned after writing only two lines. “This is Princess Cadance, she was my foalsitter and now she’s married to my brother. Her power is of the heart, and can inspire the best in anypony she sees.”

After translating that message, Joel asked, “’Power of the heart’ sounds rather abstract, can you give us an example of how that works?”

“Well, when we were younger there was a couple fighting in the street, and she used her magic to get them to stop fighting and be friends again. When King Sombra attacked the Crystal Empire, she used her magic to give everypony the hope and happiness they needed to resist him. Sombra’s power was drawn from despair and fear and Cadance’s magic inspired the exact opposite in his intended victims, which bought us enough time to end his threat for good.”

Joel relayed Twilight’s explanation word for word to Kim, who began to scribble notes until the end of the page and started on the next one. The female scientist fired off a volley of questions to which Joel started to reply to before he stopped and gave a somewhat abashed smile to Twilight.

“Ah, excuse us one moment,” Joel said quickly and the pair stood and headed towards the other side of the room and started whispering back and forth rapidly. Kim took at least a page of notes in addition to what she had previously. Just as Twilight was about to raise a question, the pair turned and resumed their seats at the table.

“So sorry for that, Twilight,” Joel apologized, “Kim had some theories to run by me really quick. So, uh…” The male scientist floundered before Kim fired off a question which he relayed, “You mentioned the mark appears when an adolescent discovers their talent. Can you explain the process in a bit more detail?”

Twilight did well to hide her suspicion at the subject change but she answered it nonetheless. “Well, foals go through school learning the basics that they’ll need in adulthood. As they grow up they often find that they enjoy certain activities or find some skills come quite naturally. Once they realize these skills, the mark appears! There’s a trio of little fillies I know who have some very good skills but they haven’t realized that what they already do is what they’re best at.”

Just as Twilight was about to continue, the door chimed and opened to reveal another human which Twilight quickly recognized as a male as his stature was more similar to Charles and Joel than Kim. Unlike the previous humans she had seen, this one wore a short-sleeved and nearly skin-tight shirt colored tan and olive and with an emblem on the front. His pants were loose and festooned with pockets and were a greenish tint that didn’t match well with his tan boots.

What was most eye-catching was the expression on the human’s face and posture. One arm was reaching for the door panel to open the door and apparently remained frozen in place along with the rest of his body. His jaw was slack, brown eyes were wide as they locked on to Twilight, and his pale hairless skin was white as a sheet. For nearly five seconds the strange scene remained unchanged with Twilight and the doctors looking at the newcomer and the newcomer staring back.

A voice came from behind the newcomer, and its owner appeared at his side. This one was female, with black hair tied back and bright blue eyes that widened just like the first. The surprise quickly turned a mischievous smile but any further response was cut off by the door sliding back into place.

What was that about? Twilight thought.

Author's Note:

Supplemental Information:

Headlines: A strict media black-out preventing communication is placed over the XCOM facility to prevent potential leaks, however Cmdr David Bradford has access to a news ticker in his office with headlines that may be relevant to the project or the alien invaders.

Helmets: Standard kit for XCOM field operatives includes a full-face helmet designed to provide secure comms in the field for soldiers as well as tactical information on the fly in addition to hiding their identities and ethnicity to outsiders.

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