• 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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GUN AND AMMUNITION SHORTAGES REPORTED ACROSS CONTINENTAL US AS WORRIES RISE OVER INVADER THREATS DESPITE ALERT STATUS OF NATIONAL GUARD FORCES; MANY STATES NOW TRAINING POLICE FORCES WITH MILITARY WEAPONS AND TACTICS TO CALM PUBLIC FEARS

NASA REPORTS OUTWARD-DIRECTED DETECTION SATELLITES NOW DESTROYED BY INVADERS, COMMENTS THAT OTHER SATELLITES REMAIN UNATTACKED. MILITARY SOURCES SPECULATE OTHER SATELLITES MAY BE MONITORED BY ALIENS

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08:45, 04/15/2015, BARRACKS REC ROOM

Jesus Christ, where did they get half this crap? Lana Jenkins wondered as she plowed into the faded and sometimes crumpled boxes containing board games and various distractions designed to ‘entertain’ the troops when not on duty. I should just scoop everything out of here and pick what I want, then cram everything back in. God knows there’s no logical storage system right now.

The sound of a male voice clearing his throat caused Lana to jerk and bang her head on the top of the storage container she had crawled into. “Damn it, if that’s you, Matt, then you are a dead man. And if you’re staring at my rear your death will be slow and painful,” she threatened as she continued her archaeological excavation of the neglected board games.
.
“This is not Matt, and I am not staring at your rear,” Matt’s voice replied with a hint of amusement coloring his tone. “I am curious, though. Why are you digging through all that crap? I don’t think I’ve ever seen any of those things ever used.”

Lana started to explain, but instead extricated herself from the storage container to deliver her response. “Actually, I was looking for something fun for our short friend,” the female soldier explained and tried to force a smile as she ran her apparently dust-covered hands on her pants. “You know she’s been having a hard time lately, and I don’t think cards will cut it.” I don’t know if Twily would like being referred to as ‘our short friend’ in public, but secrecy rules are rules they threatened to enforce…

“That is true,” Matt agreed, and a look of concern colored his features, “The doctors seem at a loss as to what to do. I don’t know what’s making our short friend act the way she is now, I can’t recall my sister behaving anything like this when we were growing up, but then again all her problems were solved with a pint of ice cream, a sappy movie and a good night’s sleep.”

“Say…”

“No, they wouldn’t allow ice cream, and our short friend doesn’t understand enough of our languages to understand any movie we might play. As to the sleep, well…” Again concern was apparent on Matt’s face. “Apparently she hasn’t had much of that in a week.”

A sly grin began to spread on Lana’s face as she began to open up all the boxes she had unearthed, “Maybe it’s delayed culture shock? She probably finally realized that she’s the only… ah, short person around here and likely won’t be able to go back home any time soon. She’s probably feeling alone and vulnerable…waiting for some strapping stallion on this strange world to come and whisk her away in his muscular arms. That’s all she needs to sleep well is to know someone is there to protect her.”

Matt arched an eyebrow as Lana elaborated on her idea and ended it with a wink at him. “Wh—Oh, bite me, Jenkins.”

“I’m not interested but she might if you ask nicely,” Lana replied without missing a beat, and was rewarded with a crude hand gesture in response. “I’m sure the scientists would be all for it if you told them it was for SCIENCE!”

“Do you have any serious sugguestions?”

“Yep, I do,” Lana answered as she peered into one box and then gave a triumphant grin. “She needs a distraction from whatever is bothering her, and you know how distracting I can be.” The female soldier was rewarded with the disbelieving stare she was accustomed to. “Believe it or not, I can be tactful, too.”

“I have a hard time believing you and ‘tact’ have a relationship beyond one chasing the other out of the room,” Matt said as he maintained his flat look, which gradually morphed into worry again. “I suppose we should be glad Vahlen’s got something else to occupy her time for the moment.”

“On that note, the next time we’re on leave I’m buying the boys and girls of Strike Two a round of drinks. Bringing in three of the bad guys alive is nothing to scoff at, plus it gets Vahlen off our short friend’s back,” Lana said, and Matt could only nod in agreement. “Seriously, she needs to take a pill, or drink, or get laid or something. I thought scientists were supposed to be thrilled when they find questions they can’t easily answer.”

“I thought scientists were smart enough not to try and browbeat a test subject that could reduce her to a red stain and an unpleasant memory with a thought,” Matt muttered, and Lana could only agree with that assessment.

When the stand-down order had been given after Strike Two’s successful mission, Lana and Matt had headed back down to the Stardust labs to squeeze a bit more combat pay out of the remaining hours of the day. Well, at least that’s why I went down there, Lana thought, God knows why Matt goes down there as much as I do. When they had reached the lab, what they found was shocking.

Vahlen was nowhere to be found, but Ngo, Mills and Shen were present. Both of the scientists were pale and wide-eyed, while Shen was livid. The former was odd but the latter was earth-shattering. Charles Shen was considered by most of the base to be the equivalent to XCOM’s Santa Claus, always smiling and giving toys to all the boys and girls. For the soldiers this meant state-of-the-art armor, weapons and kit, for the scientists that meant any equipment necessary for experiments and the labspace to house it when necessary, for the engineers it was a steady stream of new and challenging projects. To see him wearing anything but a smile on his face was jarring.

The two soldiers found out why as Shen showed them the recording of the events from testing.

As with previous experiments that the soldiers had been present for, the lab’s main testing area was empty save for a wide platform in the center along with some sort of fruit sitting atop it. Twilight was in attendance, as well as Shen and the scientists. Vahlen had given a rather frigid set of commands that Shen translated. When Twilight replied with a hesitant refusal, Vahlen became noticeably more irritated. Again she gave her commands while jabbing a finger at Twilight and then at the unfortunate fruit. Again Vahlen issued her commands, and Twilight shook her head while looking like a kicked puppy.

Vahlen’s response was to turn on the monitor nearby and pull up the video recording from Matt’s armor cam, specifically the exact moment that Twilight crushed the enemy attacking her. The look of horror at the recording of the Chryssalid was apparent on Twilight’s face, and she visibly winced when it died. Her shoulders shook as she tried to contain a sob before turning to Shen and muttering something, to which Shen translated her refusal to repeat the act. Vahlen’s response was not constructive to the situation.

Upon hearing the refusal, Vahlen had stalked over to the unicorn to tower over her before again giving the orders. Twilight had broken out into tears but still refused, and Shen moved to intervene. Before he could, Vahlen pointed at the paused recording and barked her orders. Twilight’s tears turned into hysterics as she backed herself into a corner and covered her ears and eyes with her forelimbs. At this point Shen stepped between Vahlen and the terrified unicorn and pointed to the exit, and his expression brooked no argument. Ngo and Mills, both of which were present but too horrified by the scene to act until then, moved to Shen and agreed.

The decision was made for all parties when Twilight vanished in a flash of light, only to reappear inside her habitat. She buried herself under the blankets and pillows of her bed and her sobbing was still audible through the recordings. For the day the only person who had been able to coax her out of bed was Shen, and no testing had been attempted since.

Lana shook herself out of the memory and showed the box she had to Matt. “I have a plan, it involves some nice stress-free games and some girl talk to keep her mind off of what happened with the ice queen.”

Matt nodded his approval before his own mischievous grin appeared, “Girl talk, you say? I assume that means you’ll be translating for Kim, then?”

“Screw you, man,” came Lana’s response, though she was grateful for the diffusion of the tension present after the shift in conversation. “So, you coming with or you bugging out?”

“Not right away, I’m afraid,” Matt said with a helpless shrug, “I’m afraid I have another checkup with the doctors before I can visit. Maybe in an hour or so?”

“Sounds good.”

------

09:01, 04/15/2015, STARDUST LABS

Lana stepped into the Stardust labs and immediately noted Kim and Joel sitting at their desks, obviously killing time. “If Vahlen had caught you two like this, she’d likely slate you two for visits to the business end of Interrogation,” She said, but if her words had any impact there was no sign. Both scientists brushed off her first comment and rose from their chairs.

“Lana, we’re so glad you could make it. Twilight has been…well,” Joel started before drifting off and glancing at Kim.

“We’re really starting to worry about her health,” The female scientist explained as she chewed her lip. “Her sleep patterns have become increasingly erratic since the testing with Vahlen began, and after the last test she hasn’t been able to sleep for more than an hour. Joel has been listening to her as she sleeps and some of her mumbling is a little…disturbing.”

The smile faded from Lana’s face at that. “Has Shen been up here recently?”

“No, and I’m afraid I don’t know when he will be. He’s been in the Foundry since yesterday working on a new project,” Kim replied after a long moment. “We’ve requested his presence but it won’t be until later today at the earliest. Please, can you talk to her? She isn’t talking to us any more either.”

“I’ll see what I can do,” Lana agreed as she headed towards the doors to Twilight’s habitat. True to their description, Twilight wasn’t in bed but at her desk with her head down and apparently asleep with the tablet computer’s translation software obediently waiting for a response from the unicorn. She twitched slightly and mumbled but otherwise didn’t react as Lana made her way over to the table and chairs. She quietly placed the box on the table before making her way over to Twilight.

“Twily, hey Twily. Are you feeling up for company?” Lana asked quietly, and placed one hand on Twilight’s back to wake her as gently as possible.

The moment her fingers made contact, Twilight jerked awake and shoved away from the desk before teleporting to the other side of the room. “No! I won’t do it—“ Twilight shrieked as she tried to look in all directions at once for some unseen threat. Her eyes were wild and bloodshot, not to mention her mane was a frazzled mess. Her eyes fell upon Lana and immediately regained some semblance of calm and control. “Oh, ah, Lana, good afternoon? I didn’t see you come in.”

“Don’t worry yourself about it, Twilight,” The soldier replied slowly while still giving the unicorn a wary look, “How are you feeling?”

“How am I feeling? I’m feeling fine! No need to worry! So what are we going to play today? Can’t play liars cards, not enough people. Black Jack? Solitaire? Poker?” Twilight replied and continued without giving Lana a chance to reply before teleporting over to the table to inspect the box. “This is new! I think I recognize the letters from my ‘Engrish’ studies. J-E-N-G-A? What’s that?”

Lana went with the flow of the somewhat erratic conversation and joined Twilight by the table, “That’s right! Jenga is the name of this game, I felt like bringing something new for us to try if you don’t mind.” Twilight nodded eagerly and took her seat as Lana did the same and dumped the contents of the box and onto the table. “We stack the blocks into a tower, and then the players take turns removing blocks from the lower section of the tower and then stacking them on the top of the tower. The game continues for as long as the tower stands.”

“So it’s a building game? Sounds fun!” Twilight nodded and grabbed all the blocks and stacked them as they appeared on the front of the box, “Who goes first?”

“I think I will,” Lana said as she reached for the first piece.

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09:59, 04/15/2015, STARDUST LABS

Twilight managed to coax another block out from the center of the increasingly unstable tower and then lowered it into position at the top before looking to Lana. “I am starting to think the end might be approaching for this tower, Lana.”

“You may be right,” Lana agreed, and made a grab for one of the lower blocks. Naturally the tower came crashing down around her hands, and she let out an exaggerated sigh. What always made my brothers feel better was a few wins under their belts, Lana thought to herself as she saw Twilight grin and reset the tower, they never figured out I was losing on purpose, but that’s beside the point.

“I think it’s your turn to start,” Lana said, and Twilight made the first move, “Twilight, how are you feeling, really? The doctors are really worried because you aren’t talking to them anymore.” When Twilight hesitated but didn’t change the subject, Lana pressed the issue, “C’mon, you can tell me. We’re friends, let me help you work this out.”

There was a long pause before the flood gates opened. “They were there! In that horrible room! I was so scared and wanted out and they did nothing. Nothing! I-I could have died and all they did was watch. How can I trust somepony like that?” Twilight’s explanation abruptly stopped and she clamped her mouth shut and she looked away.

Lana’s response was long in coming. “That is horrible, Twilight, and it must have been terrifying for you. They must have seemed like monsters to you,” Twilight nodded weakly at that summary, and Lana continued carefully. “When you were in school, did you ever do a dissection? On a plant or something?”

Twilight again nodded, “Of course. It’s how we learn how the natural world works, and how we learn how to make potions and remedies with the various plant extracts.”

“What would you do if you just picked a new undiscovered plant to use in an experiment only to find that the plant could talk and had a personality and was just like you? How would that make you feel?”

“Well, I’d feel like a monster. If it was just like a person then I’d feel just terrible about the experiment I had planned.”

“And how would you think the plant would feel?” Lana asked, and she fixed Twilight with a gentle smile.

“Probably terrified. What does… oh,” Twilight said before she realized the real meaning behind the example.

“Mhm,” Lana nodded as she moved a block to the top of the tower, “And Kim and Joel feel terrible for what happened. They do want to be friends as well as put all those uncomfortable memories behind you and them. Besides, I’m certain Kim and Joel would help you with your language stuff. Having someone without the translation trick on them would definitely help.”

Twilight dithered on her answer for a long moment as she plucked a block from the middle of the tower and set it on top. “Okay, I guess…” She said though she didn’t sound convinced quite yet, “And what about Vahlen? She’s…”

Ah, crap, Lana thought as the subject turned to Vahlen. How does one justify that kind of behavior?

“Well, Vahlen’s... well, she has been studying how the world works for most of her life. She is quite good at understanding how everything comes together in the world. Your magic is something that she has never seen before, and it defies a significant portion of what she understands about the world,” Lana stumbled on her explanation as continued, “And, well… you know all the machinery and devices you see around here? Every single one of them is designed to detect something. Heat, radiation, tons of different stuff; your magic isn’t showing up on any of them, and that’s making Vahlen a little frustrated. I’m sorry that she’s taking that frustration out on you.”

Twilight nodded slowly before replying, “I think I can understand. I kinda had something similar happen with a friend.”

“Oh?” Lana prompted, and she thanked her lucky stars that Twilight was able to inadvertently rescue the soldier from her own explanation. She quickly plucked a block towards the bottom and placed it on top and waited for Twilight to continue.

“I have a friend back home who would get little feelings that she could use to predict what was going to happen,” Twilight started as she moved a block to the top. “I may have gone a little overboard trying to figure out how she does it. She was an earth pony, after all, there is no way she could have any sort of magic to determine the future… and yet she does. Repeatedly.”

“That would be a mighty useful skill to have,” Lana smiled as she moved a block of her own, “Knowing what’s coming, I mean. Let me guess, she speaks in cryptic riddles or everyone assumes she’s crazy?”

“’Crazy’ is a bit of a harsh word…”

“Say no more,” Lana said, finally glad to have addressed the elephant in the room, so to speak. Twilight had just started to telekinetically probe some of the lower blocks to pry one loose, when Lana moved onto the next stage of her plan. She’s finally let out what’s been bothering her... now to give her something new and maybe better to bother her, Lana thought, and suppressed a grin. I am so going to hell for this.

“So, Twilight, you’ve told us all about your friends and family and everyone you know, but there hasn’t been any mention of a ‘significant other.’ I imagine you’ve got a line of stallions waiting around the block to be your coltfriend.” Twilight’s reaction was delicious, her telekinesis flinging a block out from the tower and causing a premature collapse. “Is that the right term, ‘coltfriend?’ Or is it ‘studfriend?’” Twilight was sputtering now and blushing terribly, and Lana had to fight to keep her face straight.

“Coltfriend!” Twilight shouted, having finally managed to form a coherent response, “The term is ‘coltfriend’, or ‘marefriend’ if the other is a mare, or ‘special somepony’ as a non-gender specific title. And no, I don’t have a coltfriend back home.”

“Ah, I see,” Lana said, and she really did understand what Twilight meant. It didn’t mean she’d let it go at that. “So how many ‘marefriends’ do you have, then? I bet that one right there keeps you up all night.” Lana pointed to the row of pictures, specifically the rainbow-haired Pegasus with the devilish grin.

“I DO NOT HAVE MAREFRIENDS!” Twilight sputtered, again blushing furiously.

“There’s no need to be embarrassed, Twily,” Lana started to say but the unicorn cut her off.

“I’m not embarrassed! How did we get to talking about this?” Twilight said as she tried and failed to set the tower up again before giving Lana a flustered look, “How about you? Who’s your coltfriend? Matt? Joel?”

Oh, I know that look, Twily, Lana smirked inwardly, I’m afraid you won’t be able to turn this around on me, dear. “Nope, wrong on both counts. Don’t have a special someone, the men aren’t really my type.” Lana replied with a wolfish grin, and Twilight’s reaction was simply perfect.

“The men? Oh… OH! Well, uh, that’s nice?” Twilight struggled to laugh off her surprise.

“You’re not one of those folks who frowns upon such relationships, are you?” The soldier said light-heartedly and with a smile, but she couldn’t help but wonder if Twilight’s answer would disappoint her.

“N-no, I have complete respect for the preferences of everypony!” The unicorn quickly replied, and then her voice took on that narrator quality that Lana was becoming quite familiar with whenever she started quoting facts. “Such relationships are actually common in Equestria, considering the proportion of stallion to mare population is approximately a thirty/seventy split. Inter-species relationships are less common but not unheard of with the other races that live around the pony lands. Close to the borders you could likely see several ponies in relationships with buffalo, zebra, or even griffons.”

Again Lana had to suppress a grin as all the pieces began to come together. “Ponies and other species, you say?” The soldier said, and gave Twilight just enough of an evaluating eye for her to blush under the scrutiny before continuing, “Don’t worry, dear. I like ‘em a bit taller and with fingers. You wouldn’t believe what fingers can do.” Lana had thought about going on but Twilight’s blush might have caused her to catch fire, so she switched to the next phase.

“That’s actually good news for Matt. He thinks you’re cute, he told me himself,” Lana remarked offhandedly while still keeping an eye on Twilight’s reaction. He didn’t actually say it, but he did agree with me when I said it. Close enough.

“W-w-w-“ Twilight began to sputter as Lana’s words registered, and just at that moment the door opened to reveal Matt.

“Sorry for the wait, doctors held me back for some extra tests…” Matt explained as he stepped into Twilight’s habitat. He halted as he finally noticed the barely contained laughter on Lana’s face, and the wide-eyed shock on Twilight’s. “…what’s with the weird looks?”

“W-w-w-“ Was all that Twilight could manage before going into a dead faint.
------

10:20, 04/15/2015, STARDUST LABS

Matt let out a breath as the two scientists returned to the Stardust lab testing area from the habitat with relief and smiles on their faces. “Is she alright?”

Interesting response, Matt… Lana thought to herself, perhaps I was a little closer to the mark than I thought.

“Preliminary diagnosis is exhaustion due to sleep deprivation and stress, her heartbeat and temperature both appear to be within recorded norms now, and she appears to be asleep,” Joel reported, “Despite the dramatic event, this might be good for her. If she can manage to rest without interruption, I have every belief that she’ll be on the road to recovery from the past… troubles. We want to give her at least six hours before disturbing her, so I’m afraid you aren’t needed any longer at the moment. Sorry for the wasted trip.”

“Wasn’t wasted at all, it was all according to plan,” Was all that Lana said, and started to head to the door with Matt, but a clean getaway wasn’t in the cards for her.

“A moment before you go, Lana. We still need to discuss the discoveries your conversation elicited,” Joel spoke up, and Lana fixed her most frustrated expression she could fake on her face.

“I’ll see you later, Jenkins,” Matt waved with a grin as he left the lab.

Smile now, my plan has only just begun, Lana returned Matt’s grin in her mind as she turned back to the scientists, “Well then, what did you want to discuss?”

“First things first, what the hell did you think you were doing in there? Twilight looked about ready to have a heart attack before she passed out!” Joel barked as soon as the door to the labs closed. “Not to mention the content of your little chat. Vahlen would have had an aneurism on the spot if she were in observation.”

“What was I thinking? That was quite simple, really,” Lana said with a smile as she let Joel’s angry words slide off of her. “Twilight is lacking two things right now: Stability, and hope. Whatever stability Twilight had here was dramatically weakened after her trip to Medical, and what was left was undermined quite thoroughly by Vahlen since then. By letting her vent to me, we were able to get the issues out in the open, and I suspect she’ll be a little less guarded around you two. Vahlen… well, that’s up to Vahlen.”

“As for the second thing, I think Twilight knows her chances of making it home aren’t the best and she’s trying to avoid dwelling on that. She admitted during the teleport testing that she has no way of getting herself home, which leaves whatever powers that be in her home finding her and bringing her back. Judging from that Discord character she keeps mentioning, I suspect anyone powerful enough to bring her back will be tied up dealing with him. Either way, Twilight’s looking at a long time here on Earth as the only member of her species. What does she have to realistically hope for while she’s here at XCOM besides the same rooms and corridors she’s seen already? Giving her the hope that she can find companionship here might make her stay a little less stressful in the long run, I think. And if she’s obsessing about what she thinks is a crush on her, she’s less likely to obsess about Vahlen’s next test.”

“That’s… quite insightful,” Kim commented after a long moment, though she was buried in the notes she had taken from the conversation.

“Does Matt know about this?” Joel asked with an arched eyebrow.

Lana answered with her trademark grin, “Oh, I think this will be more exciting if it’s a surprise, don’t you?” Her grin widened as Joel face-palmed at the response.

“I am quite impressed with the conversation itself; you’ve revealed some interesting cultural cues during the course of your discussion,” Joel finally said, which caused Lana to give him a questioning look, “She commented that her culture has no taboos when it comes to relationships with those of the same sex or even outside their species. It honestly sounded like she was quoting a history book when she was explaining it, so I suspect this has been the norm for some time. Compare with our own culture; how long was it considered a crime to marry a person of another race, let alone the same sex?”

“Aha, point taken,” Lana nodded, her expression thoughtful.

“Thank you again for stopping by,” Joel said before turning back to Kim to review the notes from the morning’s events. Sensing the dismissal, Lana turned to leave.

“’Girl talk’, huh?” Matt’s voice said flatly the moment Lana stepped out of the lab. The voice’s owner leaned against the corridor wall a few meters past the door, and his expression was flat suspicion. “Your ‘girl talk’ appears to have a corrosive effect on the mind.”

Lana’s only response was to grin.

------

17:34, 04/15/2015, STARDUST LABS

Charles entered the Stardust Labs with a smile on his face despite the fatigue that was there. The lab’s testing area was empty, so the engineer made his way over to Twilight’s habitat to see if the unicorn was faring any better since the last time they spoke.

When the door opened to reveal Kim, Joel and Twilight sitting around the table, Charles had to act quickly to school his features. Twilight looks a bit better… I wonder what changed. “Evening, kids, sorry for the delay in coming back here. The boys and girls down at engineering needed a hand with something.”

“Hi Charles!” Twilight said with a hoof-wave and a smile, “Were you inventing something new?”

A remote-operated mobile heavy weapons platform designed to help minimize the risks to the boys in the field… “Oh, not really inventing anything new, just helping update something old to help out. You might be surprised how often old concepts are discarded when all they need is a revision and an update to make them current,” Shen summarized quickly, “What are you kids up to?”

“Joel and Kim are helping me with English pronunciation. Lana was right, having someone to talk to that doesn’t have the spell cast on them really helps!” Twilight said as she indicated towards Kim, who turned to Shen and nodded.

“She’s made more progress than you can imagine, Shen. She’s had access to the language programs for a little over a week and has passed all of our expectations,” Kim reported before giving Joel a meaningful glance, “One of the volunteers stopped in and spoke with Twilight this morning and was able to smooth things out regarding the… incident when she first arrived and more recent events.”

Shen was perceptive enough to realize that the second part of Kim’s explanation was worded in such a way as to prevent Twilight from connecting the dots as to the contents of her comments, and his suspicion was confirmed when Joel's translation neglected the second part entirely. “That’s great!” The engineer sincerely replied as he pulled up a chair at the table and sat. “And how’s reading comprehension?”

“All the letters, most of the punctuation usage, and sentence structure I think I have down,” Twilight answered eagerly, “We’re working on vocabulary and verbs now. Your language is really frustrating when it comes to words with multiple meanings and usages. Nouns that can be verbs, plural and singular forms, tense and so on. To be honest, it’s…”

“Challenging?” Shen provided when Twilight hesitated, and her response was not what he anticipated.

“Fun! I’m learning a language nopony has ever heard before, and I’m really looking forward to talking with everyone without needing magic to do it. Oh, that reminds me,” Twilight turned towards the desk and levitated a stack of papers onto the table, “The math work you gave me is done! Sorry it took as long as it did to finish it.”

Shen grinned and reached for the papers, “There’s no need to apologize, Twilight. I told you there was no due date, after all.” He had just started to go over the math work when Kim’s watch beeped.

“Ah, looks like our time is up,” She said as she looked to Joel, “We’ve got to give some face time down at… ah, ‘guest quarters’ or the boss will be in a foul mood.”

“I’m afraid Kim’s right; our time is up for today. Sorry, Twilight,” Joel apologized as he rose from his place at the table, “We’ll be back tomorrow, alright?” The unicorn nodded in acknowledgement and the two scientists headed for the door, leaving Shen alone with her.

A long moment passed before the engineer finally spoke, “I’m glad you seem to be feeling better and that you’re speaking with Kim and Joel again. We were all really worried after what happened during the last test with doctor Vahlen. Kim and Joel were especially worried because you weren’t talking to them anymore as things got worse.”

Twilight’s smile became a little strained as she formed her response. “I’m sorry to make you all worry. Lana stopped by this morning and we had a nice talk while playing a new game. She helped me gain a little bit of perspective on their point of view, even Vahlen’s point of view. I can understand why they’ve done what they’ve done, but it still is scary when I remember that it was done to me.”

Oh, Vahlen, this little girl is giving you another chance. I wouldn’t, Shen thought to himself, but kept his anger from appearing on his face. “That’s very forgiving of you.”

A long moment passed and Twilight chewed her lip before starting tentatively, “Charles, if testing goes well, do you think I could maybe… go outside?” When Shen’s expression morphed into surprise at the request, Twilight quickly backtracked, “O-only if it’s convenient, and it doesn’t have to be right away or anything. I don’t want you to go to any trouble or anything. In fact, forget I even asked.” The unicorn quickly tried to laugh off her request unconvincingly.

“I’ll see what I can do for you,” Shen promised with the best confident smile he could fake before changing the subject, “You mentioned Lana stopped by for a chat? I didn’t take her for much of a conversationalist, but it seems I was wrong.”

“She was really good at putting things into perspective,” Twilight said with a nod, “Lana helped me look at this situation from another angle, and after I spoke with Kim and Joel about it we were able to move forward. I haven’t had a chance to speak with Vahlen yet but I’m confident we can patch things up and start over.”

If only it was that simple, Shen lamented, but again kept it from showing on his face. “I certainly hope things work out that way. I had been meaning to ask, did you get some sleep? You’re looking a bit more refreshed than the last time I saw you.”

“I did, actually,” Twilight said before blushing slightly and looking to the side, “That’s actually a little embarrassing. Lana started talking about—“

And just then, the door to the habitat opened. “Hey, I see Twi—“ Matt said with a smile but was promptly cut off.

“-- NOTHING! Nothing at all!” Twilight abruptly terminated her thought and proverbially buried her nose in the translation tablet while pointedly not looking towards the door or Shen. The blush on her face was steadily becoming more and more obvious as she quickly sputtered, “Well, I have lots of work to do, no time to talk! Best get to it!”

Shen looked from Twilight to Matt, then back again. That’s a new development. During testing the scientists weren’t cut out so thoroughly from personal conversations, the engineer though, and he couldn’t help but notice the glances Twilight kept stealing in Matt’s direction after several moments passed.

“I’m afraid I have to agree with Twilight, we should probably call it an early night tonight,” Shen said as he attempted to stifle a yawn. “I’ll see you tomorrow, Twilight.” With that, he headed towards the door and motioned for Matt to follow. The moment the door closed behind them, Shen turned to Matt and asked, “What was that all about?”

“Hell if I know. Prior to this morning everything was perfectly normal. I came in and she had some sort of episode, the only person who spoke to her prior to that was Lana,” Matt replied, clearly as perplexed about the situation as Shen was about the situation. “Both the scientists were observing and they would have stepped in if their conversation was too mind-warping, I’d think.”

“Hmm,” Was all that Shen could say as he rubbed his chin, “I’ll ask Lana the next time I see her exactly what they talked about. But for now, I’m afraid I have to go call in a favor.”

------

18:02, 04/15/2015, OFFICE OF CMDR DAVID BRADFORD

David once again looked over the plethora of research material that the Stardust project had produced, from text files to pictures to personal notes. He had initially just glossed over the reports like he had all the other technical reports coming from interrogations and autopsies, having learned how to pick up the important parts from a scientific wall of text early on in his career. But now that he was taking the time to actually read them and learn about the curious guest XCOM now hosted, and a curious kernel of regret had taken root in him as he considered the choice before him.

“I can’t authorize it, Charles,” the commander said, “The security of this facility’s location is paramount, and I cannot in good conscience allow this creature to view landmarks or terrain that might give away our current location, not to mention the hazards of trying to contain it if it decides to fight once it does get on the surface. I still agree completely with you that the diplomatic approach is best but we can’t risk the facility, at least not now.”

Shen sighed but nodded to concede the point, “I understand, David. If that does change in the future, I imagine Twilight would be extremely thankful.”

David arched an eyebrow at the use of the alien’s given name. “I’m going through the personal notes attached to the project as well as Frank’s summary as well. ‘Twilight’s’ nature is rather shocking to say the least. If she is being honest, then there is peaceful and intelligent life in the universe,” He said before rubbing his eyes with one hand, and he suddenly looked much older and weary than at the start of the conversation. “And it just happened to end up here at the least convenient time for first contact.”

“It’s an unfortunate series of events, but I am still glad to have met her. Everyone else would say the same if you were to ask,” Shen commented as he stood and started to head towards the door.

“Does that also include doctor Vahlen?” David asked, and Shen’s hesitation answered the question for him. “I’ve also reviewed the video footage from the testing she’s performed so far. I’ll be having a word with her regarding her ‘technique’ in handling the subject, God only knows what she was thinking during that last test. I’m afraid she does have a point with her suspicions, though. If it wasn’t for Frank giving you and the others a clean bill of health, and Medical showing no signs of mental tampering, I would be highly suspicious of the behavior of all personnel involved with Stardust right now.”

Shen’s response was steady and even. “I know I don’t have any hard proof for my belief, but I am convinced that Twilight is no threat to XCOM, and she will become an asset for us as soon as Vahlen can unlock the secrets of her ‘magic.’”

It was David’s turn to concede the point. “That’s what my gut is telling me. Vahlen has had a week’s worth of testing various abilities, has she made any progress determining how it’s done?”

“Well, she would be better equipped to share any discoveries that she has made,” The engineer said doubtfully, and David was perceptive enough to read between the lines.

“I have no doubt that I’ll be the first to know the moment there’s a breakthrough,” David said with a tone of finality. “Is there anything else?”

Shen hesitated before finally posing his idea, “I understand that going outside is not possible, but I may have an alternative in mind.”

“I’m listening.”

------

02:35, 04/16/2015, STARDUST LABS

“Testing period begins…now!”

Immediately Twilight’s telekinesis grabbed a pen from the desk and started to fill out the math equations at an increasingly frantic pace. She had gotten past the first three problems when a hand slammed down on the table in front of her.

“That’s not good enough! Do it again!” The voice shouted, and Twilight looked up to see Vahlen’s icy stare look down at her…from four different angles. Vahlen’s head sat atop four serpentine necks of a hydra and the hand now on her desk was a claw. The claw pulled back to reveal the crushed corpse of a giant insect that twitched and leaked yellow blood. “Do it again! Again! Again!” The many Vahlens screamed, and the claw came down on the insect repeatedly with a sickening crunch each time.

Twilight tried to recoil from the bloody mess that was now on her desk, only to find her retreat blocked as someone stood behind her. She looked back in a panic and saw nothing, but when she looked back the shape of a human stood between her and the Vahlen hydra. The human, Matt, looked over his shoulder and said, “Twilight, can you hear me?”

It was Charles’ voice that asked the question, and for some reason it was very comforting.

“Twilight,” Matt-with-Charles’-Voice said, this time more insistently, “You need to wake up, I’ve got something to show you.”

Twilight jerked awake as she felt a hand tap her back. She blinked her eyes several times before finally focusing on Charles in the dim light of the Habitat. “Charles? Ugh… good morning? How early is it?”

“Oh, it’s very early,” The engineer confirmed, and the more that Twilight focused the more she recognized the signs of fatigue that Charles was showing. “If you’re feeling up to it, I’ve got something I’d like to show you.”

“I suppose…” Twilight agreed with a stretch and a yawn before hopping out of bed and heading towards the door out of the habitat. Joel was waiting in the lab’s testing area, as was Lana and Matt. The last human snapped Twilight right out of her fatigue and flooded her mind with questions. Oh sweet Celestia what do I say? What do I do? I know there’s TONS of books back at the library about how to act when somepony says they like somepony else but I don’t have them here! What do I do? WhatdoIdo? WhatdoIdo? WhatdoIdo? WhatdoIdo?

Twilight’s internal dilemma was interrupted by Charles pulling ahead and addressing the group, “We’re all here, now it’s time to move quickly.” The entire group made their way towards the lab’s exit, and only Twilight hung back.

“Where are we going?” She asked, and all eyes fell to Charles for an explanation.

“I’m afraid we can’t go outside right now, but I’ve worked out someplace where we can go that I know you’ll enjoy. But we have to be quick,” Charles explained and motioned for Twilight to follow, which she did after a brief moment of hesitation.

Unlike the previous excursions from the lab, which were taken slowly and casually, the humans were moving at a brisk walk and in some sort of formation. Matt walked ahead of the group and looked down each intersection before motioning for the group to move forward, while Lana made up the tail end of the group. Thus far they were the only humans Twilight had seen, and the dimly lit hallways seemed rather lonely because of it.

After a dizzying array of corners, intersections and staircases, the group came to a wide metal door with a word Twilight had never seen written on it before. She had started to work out the letters when Charles turned to her.

“All right, Twilight, we’ll have to be quick in here. Matt will head in first and signal, and then we can go in. Do not leave my side once we’re in there, even for a moment, alright?” The engineer explained seriously, and he didn’t release her gaze until she nodded. With her understanding confirmed, Charles gave the signal and the door opened before them.

Twilight didn’t get much chance to see inside before Matt slipped through the doorway and gave things a quick scan. After a long moment he waved his hand and the group followed him into the room.

This isn’t a room, it’s a cavern, Twilight thought as she craned her neck to look around the monstrous place she now found herself in. The floor was alternating cement and metal that was quite different from the Labs she had grown to call home, and the metal plates were often filled with checker-box holes to reveal dark pits beneath them that seemed to go on as far as her eye could see. The majority of the room was dark, though the lights illuminated most of the floor and some of the massive alcoves in the walls and along the floor. Several ominous metal shapes that looked like birds of prey lurked in the shadows, and Twilight found herself drifting towards the center of her group without even thinking of it.

“Twilight, look up.” Charles suggested, and as she did a rumble could be heard overhead. Lights appeared to reveal a massive door directly above their heads, which split open to reveal the night sky. Twilight’s eyes widened as all the lights in the cavern winked out, so the only part of her sight that wasn’t pitch black was the portal opening to the night’s sky.

A long moment passed as she simply stared out into the night trying to memorize the stars and constellations she saw.

Her concentration was broken as she noticed the temperature had begun to drop in the cavern and a flood of new smells hit her nose. The odors of the cavern were foreign to her, most reminded her of the smoke and oil smells common around the massive train station in Canterlot, but what she now smelled was a hint of clean, unspoiled air along with trees and grass.

“Thank you, Charles,” Twilight said after taking in several deep breaths to try and hold on to the scents of the outdoors for as long as possible, “I really needed this.” The engineer simply smiled and nodded in response.

The moment stretched on for perhaps a minute longer until all the lights snapped back on and a klaxon blared from all directions. Before Twilight could ask what was going on, she spotted a new shape walking towards the group at a brisk pace. It was a male human wearing the same earthen colors as Charles, Lana and Matt, though he wore a vest over a white collared-shirt and tie. His dark brown mane was cut extremely short , and Twilight recognized one of the long distance conversation devices perched in one ear. His eyes met the unicorn’s and for one brief moment Twilight was certain she was looking into the eyes of a dragon. Confidence without arrogance, command without tyranny, certainty of one’s decisions, Twilight saw all these traits in the brief moment their eyes met, while at the same time she felt herself being evaluated and found… insufficient. Then the moment passed as eye contact broke, and Twilight let out a breath she didn’t know she was holding.

Charles met him half way and after some tense conversation the newcomer turned away and headed to a door on the opposite side of the cavern.

“We’re going to have to cut this short, something important has come up. We have to get back to the lab now.” Charles answered the unspoken question with a degree of urgency, “This place is about to be flooded with people that wouldn’t react well to our presence.”

The unicorn had thought to ask just what was going on but Charles’ tone told her that now wasn’t the time to delay. “Okay! Back to the lab!” She said, and with the ease born from many hours of practice teleported the entire group back to Twilight’s habitat in the blink of one purple eye.

Lana was the first to recover but the others reeled from the experience at teleportation. Matt was white as a sheet as he let out a huff of held breath, while Charles and Joel stumbled as they regained their balance. “Ah, Twilight, a bit of warning next time,” Was all that Charles said as he placed a hand on the nearby bulkhead to steady himself.

“Sorry…you said we needed to get back, so I thought quicker would be best,” Twilight apologized, but Shen waved it away.

“No need to apologize, Twilight, just keep that in mind for the future,” Charles replied before turning to Lana and Matt. “You two should head to the armory, Bradford is taking a council transmission right now and that likely means a priority mission.”

Both the soldiers nodded and turned to leave before Twilight stopped them. “Wait, wait! A mission? Is it going to be… dangerous?”

Matt and Lana exchanged a look before the female soldier replied, “It might be, Twily. Don’t worry though, we’re the best at what we do. And Matt’s not too bad either.”

“Thanks for the vote of confidence,” Matt replied while giving her a flat look.

The soldiers turned to leave but Twilight again stopped them. “Wait! I…I can do something to help.” She closed her eyes and dredged up the mountains of spells she knew before settling on one of the newest ones in her repertoire. She gathered the necessary energy and cast it on both soldiers before opening her eyes again. “There, it’s done.”

“So, what does it do?” Lana asked as she looked at her hands as though they might start glowing.

“If it works out right, nopony will notice anything,” Twilight said cryptically before waving a hoof at them as they turned to leave, “Good luck!”

“Twilight?” Charles asked, but Twilight couldn’t sacrifice her concentration any longer. She had to put everything into maintaining the spell on them, the lives of her friends depended on it.

Author's Note:

Supplemental Implementations:

Recreational Activities: In the present day and age, recreational activities almost always involve connectivity to the internet. With the XCOM facility in a communications blackout for all but senior level personnel, more mundane entertainment needed to be arranged. Naturally, it was almost completely ignored.

Open Door: Commander David Bradford has an open-door policy with his senior-level civilian personnel. As the leaders of all three branches of XCOM have little in the way of peers, this allows them to socialize with their counterparts in the other branches in an environment outside the scrutiny of their subordinates.

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