• 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 Volunteers

RIOTS OCCUR IN BRAZIL AFTER GOVT FORCES USE AIR STRIKES AGAINST INVADER FORCES IN POP CENTERS. GENERALS CLEARED OF WRONG-DOING BUT UN INVESTIGATION STILL UNDERWAY.

US PRESIDENT VISITS FIRST CONTACT MEMORIAL DEDICATED TO LIVES LOST WHEN INVADERS FIRST DISCOVERED. NAMES ON THE MEMORIAL INCLUDE PEOPLE KILLED DURING ATTACK, PEOPLE STILL MISSING, AND PEOPLE KILLED DURING RIOTS AS GOVT RESPONDED.

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15:30, 04/04/2015, B3F EAST CORRIDOR

Matt Harris and Lana Jenkins made their way down the corridor wordlessly, and Matt couldn’t help but feel a small amount of foreboding at the two guards at their destination. Both guards wore combat vests and caps rather than the heavy combat armor and full-face helmets that the Strike teams wore in the field. Neither guard had a weapon larger than a sidearm, but Matt could see the distinctive shapes of Arc Throwers on their belts.

Guards stationed at the entrance are protected and armed but not full kit, and the Arc Throwers are a non-lethal option… Matt assessed quickly as the distance closed between the two volunteers and the guards, Bradford did say intelligence gathering would be involved. Captured civvy? Captured collaborator? Why would we be needed to volunteer for that? There are interrogation experts more capable than us for that kind of work.

“Corporal,” Matt addressed the guard by the ID scanner with a nod. A swipe of his security badge confirmed his clearance, and the guard gave him a wary eye to confirm that the badge he possessed actually belonged to him. After getting a nod from the corporal, Matt headed inside while the process was repeated for Lana.

“Corporal Harris and Private Jenkins reporting…” He started, but his introduction drifted off when he found the lab without anyone inside it. Lana stepped into the lab behind him and the door whisked shut, leaving the two soldiers alone. “Didn’t Bradford say someone would be meeting us here to give us the details?”

“Yep, he did,” Lana agreed as she walked a bit further into the lab.

With their guide apparently missing and without any immediate direction, Matt’s curiosity got the better of him and he started to walk around the lab. A line of desks could be found along the wall from the entrance to the corner, all of which were clean and locked. The computers were all locked as well. Excellent precautions, no one wants to be responsible for a security breach because they left a folder on their desk labeled ‘TOP SECRET’ in bold red letters.

Matt’s eyes scanned the set of items lined up along the perpendicular wall past the desks and saw more of the standard lab materials; recording equipment, a sixty-inch monitor hanging from the wall and a desk with a half dozen reams of paper alongside an impressive display of pens and pencils. The most curious item was a glass-door refrigerator filled with fruits, vegetables and assorted greens. Captive must be a health nut. Or the scientists are. Or both. Matt thought idly as his scan reached the other side of the room.

Another unremarkable and mostly unadorned wall crossed the room, and terminated in a set of doors. One door had a red light above the control panel, while the second had a green light. Lana had ceased her drifting and was looking between the two.

“So…green means go, right?” Lana asked as she gave Matt a leading look.

Matt knew that look from long and painful experience, and all he could do was sigh and head over to the door. Best get it over with, or we’ll not get anywhere, the soldier thought with a sigh as he prodded the door controls.

The door opened and Matt quickly recognized the doctors from the containment breach earlier…and the alien from the hallway and the parking lot the day before. Time slowed to a crawl as his mind sped up in reaction to the danger. No rifle, no pistol, no Arc Thrower, no armor, no grenades. Alien capable of projecting lethal force at range, likelihood of survival is minimal if attacked, Matt’s mind quickly evaluated the less than ideal situation he had stumbled into. The possibility of neutralizing the alien with his bare hands briefly entered his mind but was pushed out by the still-fresh memories of a pulverized Chryssalid twitching on the pavement. Retreat seemed increasingly a suitable action.

And without a word or action taken on either side, the door slid closed. Just before Matt could exit the lab and alert the guards he heard a sound he had come to dread: Lana laughing.

“Oh I didn’t see this coming!” Lana grinned, all teeth, “’Intelligence gathering?’ ‘Out of our comfort zone?’ Oh this is just brilliant.”

“Zip it, Jenkins!” Matt crisply ordered and headed towards the exit, only to be stopped in his tracks by a rather harried-looking Shen coming through the door. He had obviously been running as his face was flushed and his breath was labored, and a sheaf of papers was under one arm.

“Ray! Are you here to introduce us to your furry friend?” Lana asked quickly before anyone else could respond, eliciting a stunned look from Shen and an aggravated look from Matt.

The distraction was only momentary as Matt assessed the new development. An evaluating eye swept over the engineer, and the soldier’s gaze narrowed. “Shen, what are you doing here?” Matt asked, though he was getting a sneaking suspicion as to the answer.

Shen’s expression went from confusion to abashed embarrassment. “Ah, well, I was originally supposed to meet you here for your briefing, but I forgot some homework,” Shen explained as he lifted the papers from under his arm before turning to Lana, “And I suppose you’re right, I am here for introductions. But before I get to that I have to ask. Where did you hear that name?”

Before Lana could reply, the door leading to the alien’s room whisked open and the two scientists joined the growing group in the lab. The male scientist opened his mouth to speak but was promptly cut off by Matt.

“What the hell are you two thinking?” The soldier fumed, “You both were inside the same room as a captured alien without guards or even a weapon. What would you have done if it turned hostile?”

Shen came to the scientists' rescue with his calm reasoning, “Corporal, your concern is appreciated but misplaced. This one is different, as you are no doubt aware. She is intelligent, peaceful and quite curious. The only way there would be any danger is if she feels threatened.”

“And then we’re all just an unpleasant stain on the floor,” Matt replied, and his mind briefly jumped back to that burning parking lot and the crushed Chryssalid, “I don’t need to remind you people that the thing in that room can smash any of us into paste with just its mind.”

“Wait, it can do that?” Lana asked warily, but was promptly ignored.

“Corporal, the situation where she was found is rather different than where we are now. I can guarantee you that so long as you don’t raise your voice and stay an arm’s length away, you will be perfectly safe,” Shen explained patiently. “She has been very respectful and even helpful once we explained our situation.”

“Question!” Lana jumped into the conversation rather forcefully the moment Shen stopped to take a breath, “If your furry friend is being all helpful, then why are we needed? Matt and I are soldiers, not scientists. What can we do that the researchers can’t?”

“Mainly translate for the science team. Doctor Vahlen has decreed that only a limited number of her science team be exposed to our guest’s abilities, so volunteers were requested. I can’t be here every day to help translate, and Joel has other projects that demand his time.”

Matt nearly walked out of the lab the moment he heard the phrase ‘exposed to our guest’s abilities’. Only one thing stopped him, though, or rather one person. Lana is showing no signs of second thoughts, and I just know that if I walk out, it’ll take ten minutes for the entire base to hear that I ran away from a little purple unicorn, no matter how highly classified this lab is. His gaze flicked to Lana, who was grinning like a Cheshire cat. Oh, I’ll get you for forcing me into this.

“I can understand your reservations, corporal. All I can say is relax and just talk to our guest like you would talk to another human being, and you just might be surprised.” The male scientist said, having finally found an opening in the conversation. “I know I certainly was.”

Matt could only growl and run a hand over his face. “Alright, fine. But I swear the moment it decides to start killing people I reserve the right to say, ‘I told you so.’”

“If you’re holding out hope of saying that, then I’m afraid you’re going to be disappointed in the long run,” Shen replied with a smile. “I think it’s time we made our introductions, shall we? Doctor Mills and Ngo you may be familiar with, they’re two of the researchers with this project.”

The two scientists nodded, and the two soldiers returned the courtesy when Shen continued, “…and these are our two volunteers, Corporal Harris and Private Jenkins. Assuming they take well to our new friend, they’ll be assisting with the translation workload in the future.”

The doubtful expression on Matt’s face didn’t desist until Shen gave him a gentle pat on the shoulder. “Try to relax, son. You’re not going in there alone, and all you have to do is talk to her. Seriously, you’ll probably look back at this moment and have a good laugh at how tense you are now.” On that note, Shen led the soldiers over to the door and prodded the door controls.

------

15:40, 04/04/2015, STARDUST LAB

When Joel and Kim stood to leave, Twilight began to review her notes. Already she had begun to organize the chapters and sections of the book she would eventually write on the humans and everything she had learned thus far. Nothing like a nice project to take your mind off of things… she thought, and was almost able to suppress a wince as she subconsciously thought of what she was trying to forget.

She had just started to add further notes to her papers when the door opened and Charles entered the room followed by the two strangers she had seen through the door. “Good afternoon, Twilight. How was your nap?” He asked with a knowing smile on his face.

“It was quite refreshing, thank you for asking,” Twilight replied, forcing herself to not feel annoyed at his somewhat triumphant smirk. He wouldn’t have had to trick me into it if I had used a bit of moderation and common sense. Silly filly. “It was probably for the best, I tend to go a little overboard sometimes.”

“I’m relieved to hear it,” Charles nodded as he took the far seat at the table. The other humans followed suit and gave Twilight further insight on her human hosts. Unlike Charles, the scientists or those scary guards she had seen, these two humans wore light shirts with sleeves that barely went half-way from their shoulders to their elbows. Without the baggy lab coats and multiple layers Twilight could get a better picture of their builds. Both were powerfully built as far as she could tell, with their exposed and hairless arms showing well-defined muscles but that was where most of the similarity ended.

The female was seated across the table from Twilight and was more slender about the shoulders and arms, and had jet black hair like Kim’s tied back behind her head. Her bright blue eyes locked on to Twilight in such a way that reminded her uncomfortably of the expressions she saw during the whole ‘Smarty Pants’ debacle back in Ponyville. Combined with her grin and those blue eyes, Twilight almost half expected Pinkie Pie to jump out of the human’s mouth, and the human was simply a suit used in one of her pranks.

The last human took the east to Twilight’s right and was a bit larger than the others she had seen. Powerfully built and wide at the shoulders, he kept his brown eyes straight forward and didn’t wander anywhere near Twilight’s position at the table. His face was also studiously blank and his posture ramrod straight. All of this reminded the unicorn of Shining Armor while he was on duty.

“So, who are your friends?” Twilight asked leadingly after bringing her gaze back to him.

“Ah, yes, my friends,” Charles said, and pointed to each of the humans in turn, “This is Lana and Matt. They’re going to be helping out around the lab. Specifically they’ll be helping with translation duties if you can reproduce the spell on them.”

“Joel mentioned that there were concerns of negative side effects from my spells. If that turns out to be true I’d feel really bad about hurting anypo—I mean, anybody.” Twilight replied reluctantly, “Are you sure? Are they sure?”

“We are aware, but I’m afraid I can’t be here as much as needed to translate, and Joel has his own responsibilities apart from this lab. These two will help translate for as long as necessary,” Charles said, with that comforting smile on his face again.

“Well, all right…” Twilight agreed, and closed her eyes to cast the spell. Slowly she opened her eyes again and asked, “Did it work?”

Before either of the men could reply, Lana exploded, “Oh my God you are so adorable. How did you get your hair like that? I tried to dye my hair like that when I was thirteen but it turned into a mess. Oh, your tail matches, too? Seriously, how do you do that without fingers? And ho—“

“Lana,” Charles interrupted slowly, “One question at a time.”

“Oh, boo. I didn’t think you’d be the killjoy here, Ray.”

Twilight made a note of the unfamiliar name as well as Charles’ reaction to it. His smile became just a bit thinner and more forced. Rather than let the tension build any further, Twilight intervened, “It’s no problem, Charles. I actually have a friend who tends to talk fast. And to answer your question, these are my natural colors. It’s been this way as far back as I can remember.”

“Oh you are kidding me, right?” Lana asked, “That is so unfair. I would have given anything to have had hair like that growing up…” Her envious statement drifted off as she looked to Matt. Charles was also looking to the other man at the table with a leading expression. The increasingly uncomfortable silence began to build before Matt finally spared a glance toward Twilight and asked his question.

“Why are you on our planet?”

The question was a good one, but it was the tone that gave Twilight pause. Why is he so hostile? Twilight thought, and had to resist sinking away from that glare. You know the answer, silly filly. Charles did say that his people lash out at what they’re afraid of… The unicorn struggled to find an answer she was comfortable with giving when Lana came to the rescue.

“If we’re going to sit around and talk, why not make things interesting?” Lana asked as she produced a small box from within the many pockets on leggings. The design on the box was blue with white lettering, with a red symbol in the center that looked like an upside down heart with a triangle attached to it. As fascinating as the box was, what was inside was even more so. Lana’s slender fingers pulled a sizeable stack of rectangular cards from within the box, and each had an intricate design similar to some of the ancient illuminated books Twilight had seen at the Canterlot library. Lana flipped over a few of the cards to show peculiar symbols and patterns, and Twilight made the connection.

“Oh, those are playing cards of some kind, right?” Twilight asked, and was rewarded with a large grin and a nod from Lana. “I’m afraid I don’t know any rules for human games, though…”

“Don’t worry! The rules for this game are simple. My mom called this game a ‘conversation game,’ it is simple enough to let people talk. I’ll get into the rules in a second; I just want to go over the cards now.” Lana flipped over a few more cards, most were bare save for a few symbols arranged in patterns. The few exceptions were beautifully illustrated pictures of humans in elaborate clothes. “These are the number cards, their value can be determined by the number in the corner or the number of symbols on the card themselves.”

Twilight’s eyes scanned the exposed cards, quickly identifying the two with hearts, the five with diamonds, and the eight and ten of other symbols. “What do the symbols mean?” Twilight asked as she noticed more cards with the upside-down-heart-and-triangle symbol, as well as a new symbol that looked almost like a clover with three leaves.

“We’ll get to that later! You’ve seen most of the number cards going from one to ten, but now we have the face cards.” Lana indicated toward the human-bearing cards, “There are three face cards for each symbol; jack, queen and king. They’ve all got unique appearances, but the best way to tell them apart is the letter in the corner.” She pointed to each of the cards the first with a small hook, the second with a circle and slash mark in the corner and the third looking like a cross that had been flattened on one side so two of the arms went straight up and down. “Now there’s one of each of these cards for every symbol in the deck. There are four symbols total, which gives us…”

“Fifty-two cards total,” Twilight finished before looking up.

“That’s right!” Lana chirped. “Now for this game we shuffle the deck and then deal the cards to the players. The game’s name is called ‘Liars Cards’ and the goal is to drop cards face down in the pile in the center, counting up from one to ten, then jack, queen and king. Once King is reached, the count resets to one.”

“I think I understand, but the odds of any one player having enough of each card to add the right one for each turn is…” Twilight started until the connection with the game’s name occurred, “Oh, you’re supposed to drop cards even if you don’t have the needed number? That’s why it’s called ‘Liars Cards’, right?”

“Right again! But here’s the catch, if you suspect that someone is lying you call them on it! If they are lying, they pick up the entire stack. If they’re not lying, then you have to pick up the entire stack,” Lana further explained. “What makes this a conversation game is that the person who turns out right in one of these accusations gets to pick the topic to discuss until another accusation is made. So, Twilight, would you like to play a game?”

------

17:00, 04/04/2015, STARDUST LAB

Matt, Lana and Charles learned something new over the course of their game of Liars Cards: Twilight was a terrible liar. The first few rounds were typical of a game of Liars Cards with everyone dropping one or two cards before Twilight’s turn came around and is was painfully apparent that what she had dropped was not the card that was needed.

Lana called her out on it and Twilight’s stack of cards doubled. There was a brief flurry of cards as Twilight used her telekinesis to rearrange all the cards in the correct order before the game could continue. It was at this point that the humans learned something else: Twilight had impeccable memory.

“Liar!” Twilight chirped with an apologetic smile before Matt could even reach for a junk card to throw on the stack. “What was it like growing up here? Do you have families you keep in touch with?”

“One two,” Lana said, dropping a card on the recently cleared table, “And I certainly do! Six brothers and my mom are all back home living the normal life. I talk to them and visit whenever I can, which unfortunately isn’t very often these days.”

“Two threes,” Shen added to the pile before continuing on the conversation, “I’m afraid I’m an only child, and my wife passed about ten years ago. My kids…well, I don’t get to speak with them as much as I’d like to anymore.”

Before the suddenly depressing topic could drag down the conversation, Twilight plucked two cards from her collection and placed them on top of the stack. “Two fours! My mom and dad still live in the capitol, and my older brother is out with his wife helping the Crystal Empire get back on its hooves. He and I write from time to time, but I always prefer to talk face to face.”

Silence fell as it came around to Matt’s turn. “Three fives,” He stated flatly before placing the trio of cards on the stack, “Standard family here, mom and dad, younger sister and grandparents passed a while back.”

“Two sixes, and it wasn’t too bad growing up. Things were a bit tight for us money-wise back home, so I joined the navy as soon as I graduated and I’ve been sending money back home ever since. With what I can send back, things are a bit easier for mom and the boys, especially since the bosses here pay top dollar for my skills.”

‘You had me at combat pay’ she said, Matt absently remembered from the briefing. I wonder what happened—

“You mentioned your mom, but what about your dad? Doesn’t he help?” Twilight asked, approaching the subject Matt had been considering with all the subtlety of a HEAT missile.

Lana’s smile became just a bit strained before replying, “He’s no longer with us.”

“One seven,” Shen interrupted before anyone else could elaborate on that, “And I grew up in the sixties and seventies. It was a scary time back then, there was the constant threat of the world being destroyed by the people on the other side of the ocean. Of course, there were some amazing times also, like seeing the astronauts land on the moon. I’ll never forget that.”

“I imagine you’ll never forget when you first heard about indoor plumbing and electricity, right?” Lana said, her smile back to what it once was.

“Hey now, no jokes will be tolerated about my old age from you meddling kids.” Shen chuckled as he further played into Lana’s joke.

A moment of silence reigned as all eyes went to Twilight, who had yet to place any cards on the table. She needs to conquer that hesitation if she’s ever going to win the game. At least she’s not muttering to herself like she did in the beginning, Matt surmised before speaking up, “Might want to pick up the stack already if you don’t have the cards, Twilight. And I think we have a right to know at this point. Why are you here on our planet?”

Matt could see the warning glance from both Shen and Lana, but neither tried to change the subject. Twilight herself seemed surprised by the question as though she had completely forgotten about it, before scooping up the cards in the center of the table. There was a long moment of silence as she organized her newly acquired cards before she spoke.

“I didn’t come here by choice. Well, that’s not right. I did make a choice, but I didn’t ever expect that this would be the result,” Twilight said as soon as her cards were all in order. “My friends and I were given a mission to reform one of the biggest threats to Equestria or send him back to his stone prison if he refused. His name is Discord, and he’s the embodiment of pure chaos. When we freed him from his prison and gave him the option to reform or return to stone, he offered to make a deal. I suspect that the deal was simply a trick because once I agreed, I found myself here. Without my help, there’s no way to return Discord to stone, so he’s probably doing terrible things to my home right now.”

“When you say ‘return to stone’, what do you mean, exactly?” Of all the questions that came to Matt after that explanation, the one he asked made him the most curious. He also took the opportunity to drop a pair of cards on the table that most certainly were not eights.

“We turn him to stone. Petrification is the only way to hold Discord in place, more mundane prisons simply can’t hold him.” Twilight explained which elicited a trio of blank looks in response.

“Making a deal and not getting what you were expecting? That kinda sounds a bit like the devil to me. If you believe in that sort of thing, I mean.” Lana said cautiously as she dropped a card of her own on the table.

“What’s a ‘devil’?” Twilight asked as she looked over her cards to Lana, who suddenly cringed under their scrutiny.

“The most popular depiction of the devil comes from the Christian religion, though many religions have had similar concepts over the many years Humanity has been around,” Shen explained, drawing attention to him as he continued. “Among other things, the devil is said to rule over Hell, a place where evil people’s souls go when they die so they may be punished for their wickedness. The devil also has a reputation for coming to Earth personally or through his agents to make deals with mortals. The devil claims to grant any wish, and the price for that wish is the person’s soul. Of course, the majority of wishes turn out to be tricks that turn out bad in the long run…”

“Have you met him?” Twilight asked sincerely, which again earned a blank look from the humans around the table.

“Met who? The devil?” Shen blurted out before he could contain his disbelief, “Ah, no I haven’t. I don’t think I have, at least. Though I suppose that brings up another subject I had been meaning to ask about. Human religions are all about our beliefs which have no physical proof beyond the belief itself, and as science matured over the years many of the things we attributed to ‘God’ turned out to have perfectly logical explanations. When a philosopher posited the theory that our planet orbited the sun rather than the other way around, he was treated harshly because people at the time thought he was attacking God and their beliefs. Of course, now we know he was right bu—“

“Wait wait, your planet orbits your sun? Why? How? Who controls that?” Twilight interrupted, and it was her turn to have a look of disbelief.

“Uh, well, again there are religions that believe there’s an intelligence controlling everything, but science over the years has studied the movement of the planets in this system to figure out how everything works. I studied it at one time, but I’m afraid that I’d need to bring up some materials on the subject since I’m not confident I’d remember everything accurately.” Shen scratched his chin and threw a card on the table. “Also, it’s your turn.”

“Wh—bu—That’s…” Twilight sputtered, and her eyes unfocused slightly before snapping back into onto Shen with an increasing amount of alarm, “That would be nearly impossible! Without a guiding influence to hold the sun at the right distance for life to flourish, or the resources to allow life to develop, or someone to ward off disasters from the sky like meteors or other planets… the odds of all that coming together without help is so insignificant I can’t even calculate it! Oh Celestia, what if something happens now?” Twilight started to ramble as though the realization that there was no divine protection would herald disaster until Shen intervened.

“Twilight!” He interrupted forcefully, which brought the unicorn back to her senses, “Twilight, I can certainly understand how that revelation might be a bit of a shock to you, I’ll see about getting some written material explaining the math on how planets orbit. What I can tell you now is that the planet has been around for billions of years, and nothing bad has happened yet.”

“Except for the dinosaurs,” Lana quibbled, which earned her a dark look from Shen.

And the invaders, Matt thought darkly, but was tactful enough not to run his mouth.

“We’ve also got telescopes and satellites that tell us if anything is coming that might potentially be a threat. I do agree that the odds of our little world developing on its own are quite astronomical, but we beat the odds to get here and we’re doing everything we can to improve our odds,” Shen explained further, and paused to let Twilight collect her thoughts.

“I suppose that makes sense,” Twilight said after a long moment before looking back to Shen, “You mentioned you had books on the subject? I think I really need to see them at some point. I can get a better grip on all this if I can read about it.”

“I’m certain something can be arranged. Now I’m afraid it’s your turn. I think we’re at Jacks now.”

Twilight plucked a pair of cards from her collection and placed them on the table before Shen continued his previous thought.

“Well, ah, I guess we got sidetracked a bit. The main reason I brought up religion is because a lot of what you’re explaining to us sounds quite a bit like our definition of religion; using supernatural explanations for natural phenomena. But you’ve also said that you interact with these all-powerful figures on a daily basis, which flies in the face of most religions we have here on Earth.”

Matt dropped another pair of cards on the table and kept his eyes on the alien before he spoke, “There are people who claim to talk to the gods they worship, but the vast majority of them are whack jobs looking for justification for doing something terrible to their fellow men.”

“I…think I see what you mean,” Twilight said hesitantly, “If your system isn’t under direct control by somepony you can speak to, then I suppose my descriptions of Celestia and Luna might seem a bit unbelievable. The princesses may be the rulers of Equestria and have more power than anypony but they’re also extremely kind and forgiving, and they aren’t perfect or omnipotent. They both have their… quirks.”

“Oh? And one king, by the by,” Lana asked as she contributed her own card to the pile.

“Well, Princess Luna’s a bit socially awkward and has a tendency to talk really really loud. Apparently that’s how the princesses talked a thousand years ago. And Princess Celestia is amazing to everyone she meets but has a reputation for teasing people but it’s not true, she would never do something like that. Probably.”

“That sounds like a strangely specific denial, Twilight. Do you know why she would have that reputation?” Shen said, and put three cards down on the pile.

“Well, not personally,” Twilight said before closing her eyes and placing a hoof on her face, “Wait, that’s wrong. Part of my responsibilities as Princess Celestia’s student was writing her weekly letters on the progress I had made, and one week I had forgotten about the letter and had nothing to write. I spent the entire day getting more and more stressed because I couldn’t find anything to write. Every time I looked up at the sun to see how much time I had, it would tick like the hand of a clock and I’d get even more stressed. Now that I think about it, she probably deserves that reputation.”

“This ‘Princess Celestia’ controls the sun? And she’d screw around with the orbit to mess with someone’s head?” Matt asked, not even bothering to mask his disbelief. “That’s downright diabolical.”

“I disagree, that’s downright hilarious!” Lana grin nearly took in her ears before continuing, “Come on, think about it, folks! You find yourself with god-like power, what would you do with it? After everything else, I mean. Smite thine enemies, help your friends… what else is there to do after that besides toy with the little people and their little lives?”

“She doesn’t toy with our lives, she was trying to teach me a lesson,” Twilight snapped as she dropped another card on the table. “I had a tendency to take little things too seriously, and I’ll admit that I went a little overboard trying to find something to write about. I think that was her way of trying to let me know she was watching.”

“And she let you know she was watching by giving you a very visible reminder that your deadline was approaching? Diabolical,” Matt said as he reached for another card while keeping an eye on the increasingly flustered unicorn.

“She isn’t diabolical!” Twilight protested while fixing Matt with a withering glare. The effect wasn’t nearly as intimidating as she clearly hoped it would be, “And you have no twos. Pick up the cards.”

She also needs to learn that her memory can’t account for everything, Matt thought as he grinned and flipped over the card in his hand to show her the two of spades. “Afraid you’re wrong there, Twilight.”

“How do you have a two? That’s not possible!” Twilight complained as she gathered up the amassed cards on the table, including two that Matt produced. “I’ve been keeping track of what everyone has and you should not have any twos!”

“I think the answer will make itself apparent when you sort out your new cards, Twilight,” Shen said with a small grin on his face. That grin soon spread to Lana and Matt as Twilight’s mouth dropped open at the cards she now possessed.

“None of these cards are right! Have you all been throwing random numbers on the pile while we were talking?” Twilight asked as her purple eyes swept across the other players. Shen and Matt glanced away but Lana grinned all the wider.

“Nope, I didn’t put random stuff on the table, every choice was deliberate,” The female soldier’s smile turned devious, “I had managed to work out a pattern for your calling the cards so I just made it a point to cater to that expectation until I could unload enough of my junk cards to bring victory into sight. At this point I have one of each card and I suspect the others are the same so victory is assured.”

Twilight opened and closed her mouth several times to try and rebut that assertion but found nothing. “Oh I’ll get you next game. Next game!” The unicorn declared triumphantly and all the cards around the table were lifted by Twilight’s telekinesis, including the cards still being held by the players. The cards flew about in a blizzard before forming into a neat stack and dropping in front of Lana. “Deal the cards!”

“I’m afraid that will have to wait, at least for now Twilight.” Shen said after checking his wristwatch. “I’ve got to head down to engineering to make sure that the kids aren’t about to blow the base up, and I think the doctors wanted to have a word with you two before too long.” At Shen’s prompting, Lana and Matt checked their own watches and nodded.

“Sorry, Twily, but Ray’s right. Next time you’ll have your revenge,” Lana promised with a smile and a wave. Matt afforded the unicorn a half smile before following Lana to the door.

“Don’t run off, kids. I’ll need to speak with you in just a bit,” Shen said before turning back to Twilight and offering her a stack of papers, “I’ve got something for you to work on when you have free time. It is not homework, and there is no due date. Just work on it when you have a free moment.”

“Thanks, Charles. I learned my lesson last time, no going overboard. What is it?” Twilight lifted the papers from Shen’s grasp while giving them a once-over, “Oh, it’s math? I love math! I’m assuming the first page is a number translation guide… oh, base ten will make this interesting. Thanks again!”

“No problem. I’ll see you soon, Twilight,” Charles replied before turning to the two soldiers and leading them out to the lab testing area. The door whisked open and doctor Mills nodded to each of them as they exited the lab before he headed in with a tablet computer and a stylus. Any conversation they might have had was cut off when the door whisked shut behind them.

“Well, that went about as well as I had hoped it could. So, kids, there’s some homework for the two of you. I’m afraid you’re going to need to write a brief summary of your impressions with Twilight, as well as anything odd you experienced during your time in there. The due date for that is tomorrow morning.” Shen gave each a smile and a pat on the shoulder. “Don’t forget your medical screenings as soon as you leave."

“Does the nearly irresistible impulse to hug the alien count?” Lana asked, and if Matt greatly regretted his lack of a camera at that moment.

Damn it, if I had a picture of her looking like a six year old girl at her birthday I could blackmail her into behaving properly, the male soldier lamented before he realized Shen was looking to him for a response. “No irresistible impulses here, though I have to admit you were right. After talking with her for an hour it’s hard to imagine being afraid of her.”

“Good, I’m glad to hear it. Now I’ll be expecting both of you here tomorrow morning to help with Vahlen’s testing. I suspect Twilight will need as many friendly faces as she can get around her.” Shen nodded to Matt and Lana.

Sensing the dismissal, the two soldiers turned to leave but Shen's hand fell on Lana’s shoulder to hold her in place. “Not so fast, young lady. You and I are going to have a discussion about where you heard that name.”

Suddenly free from his tormenter, Matt smiled and waved as he turned to leave. Lana shot him a parting glance that he recognized as I’m going to get you for this. Matt felt it was worth the risk as the door closed behind him.

------

07:00, 04/05/2015, STARDUST LAB

Twilight woke in her bed feeling the best she had since her arrival on Earth. No nightmares chased her from her sleep this morning, which made her quite optimistic for the day. Twilight stretched and yawned widely before nearly tripping and falling out of bed when her front hooves got caught in the sheets. She quickly righted herself and gave the offending sheets a glare.

No! Not going to let that get to me! Today is going to be a good day, Twilight resolved right then, and made herself smile as she made her bed and ran a hoof over the comforter to smooth it out. Today I’ll meet ‘Vahlen’ who wants to run tests on my magic. That won’t be for a little bit, at least.

Twilight turned to face the room and the smile became sincere as she surveyed the changes that had been made since the previous day. After the card game, Joel had come in with a few more things for her. Specifically, something he called a ‘tablet computer’ with a program for teaching his language, and a small roll of adhesive tape. With the tape, Twilight had adorned a significant portion of the walls with the pictures she had drawn of her friends and the princesses, as well as the other ponies she knew.

Like the day before, a bowl of fresh fruits sat on her desk beside the tablet and the stack of math papers that Shen had delivered but were set aside in favor of the tablet computer Joel had provided. It’s tempting to keep using the tablet but I should probably let it rest for now, Twilight decided before hopping up into her chair and levitating a pen over to the math paperwork.

She had memorized the translation key for the numbers when Charles first handed it to her, and Twilight was pleased that she was starting to recognize the numbers in the key with the numbers from the card game as well as the numbers from the language program. The pen began to fly over the paper, and the first sheet was done in just over two minutes. The second proved a little harder, but if there was anything Twilight enjoyed it was an academic challenge.

The second sheet was finished in short order and was quickly moved to the ‘done’ pile, and Twilight took a moment to dig a bit in the basket of food until she settled on a carrot that somehow got buried near the bottom. She had just started to nibble on it before starting the third sheet when the door opened for Charles and Lana to enter.

“Good morning!” Twilight said cheerfully, and both returned the greeting. Shen was opened his mouth to speak but Lana beat him to it.

“Quick, before we get started! If you ever are eating a carrot and Joel or Kim visit you must ask them, ‘what’s up doc’, alright? Trust me, it’ll be awesome,” There was that grin again, the one that would give Pinkie Pie a run for her bits. Charles’ reaction was quite different; Twilight could hear a slight groan as he covered his face with one of his hands.

“Back on topic, Doctor Vahlen will be joining us today for some tests. The tests in question won’t be in this lab, though. Matt, Lana and I will take you over to Medical, where there’s a machine that allows us to scan your body so we can learn how it works without having to do anything invasive. Vahlen’s current theory about your magic has to do with how your horn integrates with your brain, and the machine will hopefully capture something that our eyes have missed.”

Twilight blinked at the explanation before considering. “So… it’s an X-ray?”

“Ah, yes, I suppose it is. It’s something similar. While the machine runs it will take several images of your brain to map where the activity centers are, and I suspect you’ll need to use some simple magic in the process to see if that changes anything,” Charles scratched his chin while giving Twilight an evaluating look. “I’m surprised you know what an X-ray is, that requires a bit of technological development I didn’t know you had.”

“Technology? We use magic for it,” Twilight replied.

“Ah, I suppose that makes sense,” Charles chuckled at something before taking a look at her work on the math sheets. “Very impressive, Twilight. I also heard from Joel that you’re interested in learning our language and he provided you with some learning material? That’s very ambitious. Have you had a chance to go over that material yet?”

“Yep!” Twilight chirped, “I was able to go through the entire character set as well as the basic numbers, and I think I’ve worked out a bit of the sentence structure. In terms of structure the languages aren’t too different, but you use your letters to form the words which can also be broken into syllables. My written language uses specific symbols for the syllables themselves, so that’s a bit of a hurdle to get used to.”

“I’m glad to hear you aren’t easily discouraged,” Charles said with an approving smile, “Most people I know only learn one language through their whole lives, you know.”

“And most of them don’t speak good, either,” Lana added with a grin.

“There’s something wrong with what you just said but I can’t put my hoof on it,” Twilight said as she arched an eyebrow, “Regardless, after talking with Joel and Kim yesterday I realized it was a little insensitive of me to force my translation magic on humans when they might not be comfortable with it, so I’m hoping I can do away with it entirely to make everybody more comfortable.”

Twilight turned to the desk and levitated a use-worn paperback book to the center of the desk, which elicited a small look of shock from Charles. “I also want to read the book you lent to me in its own language, since literary translation spells tend to make mistakes. I’m reasonably certain that the title of this book is not ‘Furry Pot-Maker and the Unicorn Rock’ so I’ll just have to content myself with my imagination until I can read it in the printed language.”

The moment Twilight mentioned the translated name; Lana slapped a hand over her mouth and closed her eyes. Her shoulders began to convulse and she nearly doubled over. “Fu… Furry Po—“ was all she could manage before having to leave the room. The soldier’s released laughter abruptly terminated as the door shut behind her.

Again Charles chuckled before looking to Twilight again, “The correct translation is ‘Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone’. I think Lana found your translation to be rather humorous, though come to think of it, she’s young enough to have read the books when they were new and she was young. I imagine you’ll have to let us know what you think of them once you are able to finally read them.”

“I’d love to be able to talk about the books once I can read them…wait, books? Plural? How many are there?”

“Well, in this series there are seven. ‘Sorcerer’s Stone’ was just book one. I believe I have the rest of the series lying around if you would like to borrow them.” Charles again gave his comforting smile, and Twilight thanked Luna’s lucky stars that the first human she spoke to was him.

“I would really enjoy that. I bet I could translate them into my language so that when I get home my people could enjoy them, too!” Twilight returned Charles’ smile before setting her eyes on the book. “There’s always more room in my library for good books, and if you say this is a good one then I have no doubt that it’s great.”

Charles’ smile faltered somewhat as he asked, “Twilight, don’t you think you might overwork yourself? The work with the doctors will be a bit demanding not to mention the math work you’ve been given as well as trying to learn a new language. Perhaps you should take things one at a time instead of trying to do everything at once?”

“Oh, don’t worry Charles, I’m an excellent multitasker. Plus a busy mind doesn’t wander into dark places,” The unicorn replied, though her tone fell a bit as she finished her thought.

“I suppose I can agree with that. I know from experience how tempting it is to throw one’s self into work to try and avoid the problems you’d rather not think about,” Charles added after a long moment, “On that note, I imagine Vahlen is in the lab now and waiting for us. Perhaps we shouldn’t keep her waiting, yes?”

Twilight nodded and hopped out of her chair to follow Charles and he headed towards the door. Despite the somewhat depressing turn the conversation had taken Twilight couldn’t help but feel optimistic. They want to know about magic! Who better than I to teach them about it? I suppose I should start small since they don’t know anything about it, Twilight decided quickly and started designing a structured seminar on magic specifically for the magically ignorant in mind.

The door opened to reveal the lab testing area as well as the majority of friends she had made already. Matt and Lana were off to the side talking quietly, while Joel and Kim were off to the other side talking with someone new. The new human was female and a bit shorter than the other humans Twilight had met thus far and was dressed in the same labcoat and suit outfit that the scientists wore. It looked as though the brown hair on top of her head might be quite long if it were ever allowed to escape the tight binding holding most of it behind her head.

What was most striking about this new arrival was her expression though; a narrow-eyed and pitiless glare that spoke of clinical detachment at best…or hatred at worst. What surprised Twilight more was that it was a glare she recognized.

“Please let me out!” Twilight yelled as she pounded on the glass frantically. She met the eyes of one of the bipeds, who turned and walked away. “Please let me out! PLEASE!” The unicorn screamed, not daring to look behind her. Another of the bipeds turned away, while the third maintained that icy stare.

“Twilight? What’s wrong?” Charles asked, but his voice sounded distant.

“N-nothing. Nothing is wrong,” Twilight lied as she tried to quell the horror rising within her as she realized that this ‘Vahlen’ she would be working with was the one who had nearly killed her while her new friends had done nothing to stop Vahlen.

Perhaps today isn’t going to be such a good day after all.

Author's Note:

Supplemental Information:

Civilian 'guests': The possibility of civilians being hosted or detained by the XCOM project is not unexpected. Civilian assets with valuable information are housed on site for their safety until such time as it is safe for their return to their countries of origin. High value assets or unwilling assets are kept under guard until it is determined that no further information can be gathered from them or they are no longer a threat to the XCOM project.

Base Security: Primarily implemented to ensure proper security clearances are enforced in addition to acting as a quick reaction force in the event of attack or containment failure, they are lightly armed and armored.

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