• Published 12th May 2014
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Mente Materia - Arad



Twilight’s trip to Earth and friendship with the humans brings new friends and enemies to her peaceful world. With the specter of war hanging over them, Equestria will have to form an alliance like no other to fight the menace from the void.

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29 -- Interlude (Part One)

“What have we done in the face of this threat to all mankind? Did we band together to halt this universal threat? Did we put aside our differences to face this common foe? Did the leaders of humanity stand shoulder to shoulder for mutual support and in defense of their citizens? Did we, as a civilization, tell these invaders that an attack against any of us is an attack against all of us?

“It is with utmost condemnation that I say to you, ‘No, we did not!’

“We have done as we always have. We suspected our neighbors, we cast blame upon each other, and we fought amongst ourselves while these alien invaders escorted us to the hangman’s noose. This. Cannot. Continue.

“Benjamin Franklin stated that we must all hang together or we most assuredly will hang separately. As individual nations, we are fractured and weak. As a united people we can stand against this darkness that threatens every human that will ever live. As a united people, we can stand against any threat and cast it aside.

“We stand at an impasse. We can choose to cling to the past and the feuds that have kept us divided and weak. Or, we can usher in a new age for humanity and the planet Earth… the advent of a united mankind…”
--Lord Henry Renfeld, speaking before the United Nations

23:07, 12/10/2015, SITUATION ROOM, XCOM BETA SITE

Commander David Bradford was a man with many traits. He was practical, no-nonsense, and a seasoned campaigner even before he had been recruited by the XCOM organization. All of these traits had earned him the respect of his soldiers and through them he had accomplished much to ensure the safety of the Earth. Though the publicly elected heads of state around the globe gnashed their teeth at the prospect, even they had grudgingly acknowledged the feats he had accomplished in his time leading the defense of their world.

One thing that Bradford had not been in the past six months, was surprised. His gift of foresight had allowed him to anticipate alien attacks and EXALT operations, countering them almost before they were underway. Very little escaped his notice before it occurred, which some had speculated was the cause for the decreasing number of alien and collaborator attacks over the past two months.

It was because of Bradford’s growing reputation for anticipating everything that it was a complete shock when an intercepted EXALT communication had revealed the covert group’s movements in Australia. The commander had been eating at the time, and he had stared in disbelief at the communications tech that had delivered the report of enemy movement. Bradford had dispatched a strike team immediately afterward

As events continued to unfold, Bradford’s foresight had resumed with its usual effectiveness. Just as his gift told him, EXALT had been spotted at an abandoned farmhouse. Ten minutes before the Skyranger reached the operations area, his gift informed him that all of the alien collaborators would be found dead due to… suspicious circumstances. Only one living creature would be at the scene of the battle, an Equestrian by the name of ‘Sweetie Belle.’

The arrival of the Equestrian on Earth (not to mention the Equestrian herself) was a conundrum all on its own, but the problem that continued to demand Bradford’s attention was that her arrival had seemingly evaded his foresight. Every theoretical explanation that he could conceive was worse than the last. ‘Sweetie’ could have been transported by a power that was capable of blocking Bradford’s foresight, as Discord had when he had crashed the first official meeting with the Equestrians. EXALT may have developed a method of shielding their movements until more conventional methods could be used. It could even have been something as simple as a lapse of concentration on the commander’s part, or his powers might be less comprehensive than he had thought.

It was maddening to consider all the potential explanations for his power failing. For the first time in over half a year, Bradford had to face the very real possibility of something… anything happening without the helpful warning beforehand. It was not a welcome feeling.

You were a commander long before you were an oracle, Bradford told himself with a mental slap as he took the coffee mug off of his desk to warm his hands. It’s probably best that the power failed in this instance for something relatively minor. I shouldn’t… we shouldn’t depend on my abilities like this. The XCOM project won’t be effective if it depends upon my foresight for everything. I won’t be around forever…

“Enter,” Bradford said reflexively as his gifts informed him that Captain Harris was on the other side of the door. A moment later, the door opened and the junior officer stepped through. He closed the door behind him before standing at attention in front of the desk. Bradford couldn’t help but let his gaze linger on the folded left sleeve of Matt’s uniform, then the sheathed sword in his right hand before dragging his eyes upward to his face. “At ease, captain. Have a seat.”

“Thank you, sir,” Matt replied, and he placed the sword across his lap as he sat. Despite the private setting and what Bradford had hoped had been an informal tone, Captain Harris sat ramrod straight and his expression was completely blank. “Was Lieutenant Romalov’s mission successful?”

“It was, though the intel wasn’t entirely accurate,” Bradford answered, and he would have tried hard to miss the expression that finally cracked Matt’s stoic facade. He looks like I just told him the standard operating procedure for breathing isn’t accurate. I suppose that’s the downside of having a reputation for predicting the future. When you suddenly can’t, no one can believe it. “An Equestrian was recovered successfully, and EXALT was confirmed at the area of operation. The Equestrian reports that the EXALT ground team and air support were neutralized by one of their own operatives… Have you seen any indications of infighting on the other world?”

The wide-eyed expression answered the question long before Matt spoke. “No, sir, we’ve not encountered anything that severe. There have been a few reports from the liberated survivors of EXALT operatives not following orders to the letter when it came to treating prisoners. Those reports almost always ended with the operative in question being replaced with another that was far… harsher than necessary.” Matt’s hand came up scratch his chin. “Do you think it means anything?” When Bradford shrugged at the question, his hand dropped. “Do we know how the Equestrian got here? Discord? Captured by EXALT?”

“Unknown at this time,” Bradford answered, and he couldn’t keep the grimace off of his face. “There are a significant number of inconsistencies that I can’t account for, but I’ve spoken to our liaison to Princess Luna and it’s agreed that she should be returned home as soon as possible. That means she’ll be going back with you with the next Kaleidoscope activation.”

Bradford waited for Matt to nod in understanding before he continued with the slightest bit of hesitation.“For now, we need to talk about the situation on the other world, especially in light of recent developments. With Colonel Fujikawa's death, there’s a gap in the XCOM command structure. Captain, I’m sorry to say that I cannot promote you to major to fill that gap. With our organization’s public exposure, the politicians are going over everything with a fine toothed comb. Had it been just your previous incident with the US Army, I could have overruled their decision. However, your… performance during your first operation there has been a point of contention behind closed doors and they’re worried you’re going to cause a diplomatic incident between the worlds.”

Matt sat straight as the bad news was delivered, and he let out a sigh as Bradford finished. “Permission to speak freely, sir?”

A nod was the first response to the question. “We’re in private, Matt. Speak your mind,” Bradford added.

“To be honest… I had been intending to decline if the promotion was offered.” The subordinate officer pulled his gaze upward to meet Bradford’s. “Aside from my captaincy to lead the Mente Materia division, every one of my promotions was over someone’s dead body. Cologne, then China, then Iceland… it’s hard for me to be proud of my career if the foundation is built on the corpses of my superiors and squadmates.”

Bradford studied the younger man for a moment before nodding. “Fair enough,” he said.

“If I may ask, who is going to be assuming command? Kerenski? Fareman?” Matt asked.

Not even the smallest of grins was able to escape into Bradford’s expression. “That is still being ironed out. I can’t say until things are finalized but the best candidate will be using Kaleidoscope to join you in just over a week. I’m also authorizing the deployment of the rest of the Mente Materia division and half of the XCOM operators on Earth to join you over the next two weeks.”

Matt’s initial response was a wide-eyed stare. “How’d you pull that off, sir? Doesn’t that leave us a little short-handed on the home front? Come to think of it, how are they all even going to get here?”

“News of the alien attacks on the Equestrian homeworld may have been leaked to the public… and certain insinuations may have been made that the attacks were as a result of the assistance they gave to us. As such, the United Nations is being disbanded and a new unified governing body is being negotiated to ensure the safety of the world. This new administration will rise above the petty issues that have plagued humanity… ” Bradford recited before casting a wary glance toward his subordinate, and he halted the rote explanation when he caught the understanding look in Matt’s eye. “I was also granted the funds and resources to construct additional Kaleidoscope chambers, which will significantly increase our ability to send reinforcements your way.”

“That’s a relief, though I’m not so certain about all the politics. I’ve yet to meet a fighting force that can’t be rendered combat ineffective by one idiot that paid for his seat,” Matt said, doubt coloring his tone as he brought his hand up to scratch his chin again. “Do you think they can pull it off, or do you think this is just going to be the UN but with a different coat of paint?”

“Only time will tell, but I can say the support they are pledging is very real.” Bradford shrugged before he fixed Matt with another look. “What can you tell me about the last operation? Your unofficial conclusions, and this stays between the two of us.”

Matt’s jaw clenched and he closed his eyes. “Regarding our deployment, it was a strategic success. Thousands of civilians were rescued and the city itself was returned to our control. Over a hundred EXALT troops were killed over the course of the operation, as well as nearly two dozen of the ‘Toy’ MEC units. We were unable to secure an undamaged Toy core during the operation, and the HVT ‘Vide’ also managed to escape capture.”

“And your unofficial conclusions,” Bradford repeated.

“Strategically… EXALT’s defenses weren’t prepared for our coordinated assault. I suspect that they had anticipated that the attack to be disorganized and easily repelled due to the saboteurs...” Matt explained, and his voice caught in his throat as he finished.

I don’t blame him for focusing on what he has. It's not something I would wish on anyone, to have a friend assassinated like that, Bradford thought. “Do we have any information as to how they managed to infiltrate the capital?”

“Nothing concrete at this time, sir. I have Zhang working on an investigation and he should have a report when I return.” He clenched his jaw and took a slow breath before he continued, “I understand that we’re going to be under additional scrutiny, so I’ve also had Zhang working on collecting evidence for conviction of the assassin that Princess Twilight detained as well. It wouldn’t reflect well if we had the prisoner shot without due process.”

“Were you able to extract any intel? It’s rare to capture EXALT agents alive.”

“No, sir. Time constraints meant our options were limited. Traditional methods of interrogation were used, with no results,” Matt explained as he shrugged his shoulders. “Princess Luna induced unconsciousness and was able to perform an interrogation using more… unconventional means. No information was available regarding EXALT’s strategic goals, though they did provide some insight into Vide.”

When the commander motioned for Matt to continue, he took a breath. “The saboteur’s primary objectives had been to strike at the command center at the start of the next major operation to maximize confusion and casualties… but only if Lana and I were not available as targets. Apparently he had given orders to target us specifically, and before any other objectives if we were present in the capital. If they hadn’t… visited Lana first, they would have hit the command center just as the troops were landing.” Matt’s expression darkened as he took another breath to steady himself. “He also went out of his way to bait me during the attack on the city.”

Matt and Lana were the ones who were responsible for capturing Vide when he first made himself known. If he has a high enough rank to issue counterproductive orders to covert operatives, then he should be mature enough to separate his personal grudges from strategic objectives. Something isn’t right here… Bradford thought as he nodded, though what was missing from the summary gave him pause. “Weren’t there two agents captured?”

“As the other saboteur was confirmed as the one who attacked Queen Chrysalis and Princess Twilight, Princess Luna asserted her jurisdiction over him. I felt it wise not to argue with her on the subject. Captain Armor stated that the assassin was banished to the moon, though I suspect that it’s something more complicated than tossing him onto an airless rock to suffocate,” Matt elaborated.

Bradford nodded, and a glance to the wall clock halted any further questions he had. “I think that will be all for now, Captain.” Matt nodded and stood, but he stopped just outside the door when Bradford added, “You’re doing good work, Matt. I know that can be sometimes hard to see in times like this, but I wanted you to know that you have my confidence.”

------

08:15, 12/11/2015, MENTE MATERIA BARRACKS, XCOM BETA SITE

The door to the Mente Materia barracks opened with barely a whisper, and Matt made scarcely more noise than that as he stepped through the waiting portal. The familiar sight of his division’s living area was almost exactly how he’d left it, though it was quieter and emptier than he remembered. I suppose that’s expected, with over half of us over on the other world. Of course, if Lana-- That painful train of thought was aborted immediately, and Matt gave silent thanks that there was someone else in the room to distract him from dwelling on it.

Sergeant Matthew Hawkins, or just ‘Hawkins’ to eliminate confusion, Matt thought with a small grin as he came up behind the man. Hawkins had yet to notice his superior’s approach, his face buried in a coffee mug while reading a pile of papers that Matt recognized as the cultural primer that had been prepared by the Equestrians and Twilight. I have to say that I admire his dedication to his job. I feel bad for whatever police department he worked at prior to being abducted… but their loss is our gain. Matt thought before finally speaking. “Sergeant Hawkins.”

The former police officer shot up from his seat with respectable speed and whirled about. “Captain Harris! I didn’t think you would be stopping by so early…” Hawkins said in a rush, though his explanation wavered when he spotted what was left of Matt’s left arm. His face paled visibly before he looked back up to Matt’s face. “Sir, is everything alright?”

“That’s the reason for my visit, actually,” Matt nodded, and he gave the sergeant the closest thing he could manage to a smile to try and set him at ease. “Do you know where the lieutenant is, or the twins for that matter?”

“I’m afraid you just missed Yuri. Doctor Vahlen showed up about fifteen minutes ago and asked for him. Apparently she wanted to run some tests with the Equestrian that we picked up last night?” Hawkins offered, his tone apologetic. “The twins are in one of the practice rooms running a convection test. I could get them, but they tend to get snippy since interruptions usually results with one or the other losing badly. They should be joining us in about ten minutes, give or take.”

Matt nodded as he pulled up a seat at the table that Hawkins had been sitting at. “I don’t mind waiting, though I don’t know what you mean by ‘convection test’. Is that something they’re doing for Vahlen?”

“It’s actually something that Yuri came up with for them to practice with their gifts,” Hawkins explained as he sat back down. His eyes again drifted back to Matt’s missing limb, though his gaze snapped back to the captain’s face almost immediately. “Said uses his abilities to cool a container of water, while Fatima heats it at the same time. If either one uses too much or too little power, the container shatters and they have to start over. In the past month they’ve come a long way. For one, Fatima is no longer in danger of incinerating everything in her immediate vicinity when she uses her powers in combat.”

“Well color me impressed,” Matt replied, though the comment was meant for more than just the firestarter in question. I know Yuri likes to play the big dumb oaf but he did earn his rank. I really should thank him for helping the others improve their powers while I was gone. “Has he been having you work on anything regarding your gifts?”

The sergeant’s response was a hesitant nod. “I’m afraid there’s been no change regarding the power flow for me. It’s either full throttle voltage or nothing, though we’ve been working on different applications. In training I was able to magnetize a grenade in mid-air to make it stick to a target.” Hawkins gave a small laugh and scratched the back of his head. “I don’t think I’ll be able to do that in combat anytime soon.”

“It’s still impressive, though I’m really curious about how much you can do with magnetism. Could you use it to propel a projectile like a railgun?” Matt asked.

“Maybe?” Hawkins replied. “I had never really tried. I could give it a shot but I don’t know if it’ll be as effective as just throwing an arc at something. Still, it wouldn’t hurt to play around with that, right?”

Matt nodded in agreement before turning back to the contents of the table. “I’m glad to see you’re doing some reading in your spare time. It’s actually good that you’re getting a head start, since your next deployment will be on the other world.”

“Are we rotating with the Lieutenant Zhang and the others?” Hawkins asked, and he let out a whistle when Matt shook his head. “Things are pretty bad then. With how easy things have been going here, I had a sneaking suspicion that you guys were getting hit hard. When are we moving out?”

Matt’s reply was lost as the Tariq twins entered the commons area. Sayid Tariq was almost the picture of a university student with his baggy casual clothes and the mop of dark hair that hung past his ears. Previous attempts to order the man to crop the mess had ended in failure, and Matt had to remind himself that the Mente Materia specialists had been allowed a certain amount of leeway in discipline to account for the fact that four out of the ten Gifted humans had no military training or background.

That haircut just screams civilian to me, even more than the loose uniform and slouching posture. Lana called the look ‘douchebag,’ but-- The amusing thought halted full stop to avoid the memory attached to it, and Matt glanced toward the other twin.

Fatima, like her brother, was around college age at the time of the abduction which had caught them both. Her hair had apparently been dyed a platinum white, which was slowly fading to its more natural color. The partially dyed hair still clashed vividly with her dark skin. The only thing more shocking than that was her propensity to stare at people without making so much a sound. Fatima had done nothing to help the ‘spooky’ reputation of the Mente Materia division since her arrival, though Matt couldn’t exactly find fault with her behavior.

“Aside from Yuri, I guess that means we’re all here,” Matt announced to the twins as they approached, and he waited for them both to take a seat as he cleared his throat. Another moment passed as the siblings caught sight of his missing left arm before casting a sideways glance at each other. “All of you will be deploying to the other world to assist in the defense of the Equestrians against the aliens in less than a week. While we’re there, you’ll be under some unique constraints both on and off the battlefield.

Matt locked eyes with all three of the civilians before he continued. “The first and most important factor is that we will not be using the PSI modules while we’re away from Earth. The modules didn’t work quite right on the other world, and that was how I-- I was injured.” Judging by the expressions of the others and how their eyes drifted to what remained of his left arm, the gravity of the explanation wasn’t lost on them. “The members of Mente Materia have standing orders to wear personal Rule Breakers to reduce the chances of wild magic in the new environment. Also, if you feel anything out of the ordinary while using your powers--” Like a voice ordering you to kill them all, “--I want you to notify Lieutenant Romalov or me immediately.”

“Understood, sir,” Hawkins said, and the Tariq twins nodded without saying a word.

An awkward pause entered the conversation as Matt looked down and clenched his right hand. “I’m afraid that I must also inform you that Sergeant Lana Jenkins was killed in action during our last operation. We’ll be adding her name to the wall tonight.” The shock of the announcement affected the civilians to varying degrees, and he did his best to keep his own feelings on the announcement from showing.

Matt was saved from wallowing in the painful silence as the door slid open to reveal Firecracker. The disguised changeling had a sour look on her face, but it vanished a moment after all eyes fell on her. “Good morning, folks!” she greeted, her cheerful voice assaulting the gloomy mood like a battering ram. “My name is--”

“Firecracker?” Sayid asked, and comprehension dawned on the other two civilians. “Sorry, you look just like him.”

“We do look alike, and mother couldn’t be bothered to remember which was which so we ended up with the same name, too,” Firecracker explained, and she rolled her eyes in mock exasperation. “Mother was a bit of a broodmare, you see, and she had way too many children to keep them all straight. But that’s getting a bit off topic! I’ll be your cultural liaison with Equestria, and I’ll be giving you a brief rundown of what to expect once you’re over there. Wouldn’t do for anyone to be accidentally offended by an innocent mistake, right?”

The three civilians exchanged glances before Hawkins cleared his throat. “I’m sure I speak for the others when I express my gratitude for your help, ma’am. I would also share my relief. Your brother is very friendly but he tended to toe the line with what might be considered socially acceptable.”

Firecracker’s expression didn’t so much as twitch at the comment. “I’m afraid my brother likes to push on boundaries when he meets new people. But don’t worry! I’m much more tactful,” she explained with a grin before moving to stand beside Matt. “Captain Harris, I believe Doctor Shen has something prepared for you down at the Foundry. If you would like to head there sometime today, I’ll go over some basics with these folks.”

That might be for the best, since it would give those three something else to think about rather than dwelling on what happened to Lana, Matt thought before rising to his feet before stopping to address the three civilians. “I will be returning to Canterlot tomorrow. If any of you need to talk before then, all you have to do is ask.” He made eye contact with each of them before turning and heading out of the Mente Materia barracks.

------

12:00, 12/11/2015, THE FOUNDRY, XCOM BETA SITE

The Foundry was almost empty as Matt entered the central work area. The only person that was present was an engineer that was nearly running towards the testing area at the far end of the Foundry. “Excuse me, is Doctor Shen in?” he asked as the other man approached.

The engineer paused for just a moment, his eyes tracing the now predictable path from Matt’s face to his left arm, then finally to the sheathed sword in his right hand before speaking. “Dr. Shen and most of the staff are in the chamber for the Project Nightcrawler test. You’re more than welcome to join us until it’s done.”

Matt nodded as he followed in the wake of the engineer, his curiosity piqued. Nightcrawler? Considering their previous fixation with mythology for their project names, this one seems out of place. I wonder what it is. The door to the observation area opened to reveal a half dozen engineers and scientists watching the test chamber and various devices, with Shen standing watch over the main consoles. A man wearing what appeared to be a stripped down and highly modified suit of Titan armor stood on the left side of the testing chamber, while a small spherical device not unlike a battle scanner sat to the right. A large and, in Matt’s opinion, theatrical countdown clock began to tick down from ten. The engineers gave status updates and reports as every second passed, but Matt’s eyes were locked squarely on the testing chamber.

At five seconds, the object on the right began to emit a faint purple light, which coincided with the the lights emerging from the armored soldier on the left at three seconds. At one second, the lights became blinding, and at zero both lights winked out. The armored soldier was no longer on the left side of the room, but instead was now standing on the right side giving an enthusiastic thumbs up.

The observation area burst into applause, but it quickly died down as Shen raised his hands. “Congratulations, gentlemen. This was the one hundredth successful test of the Nightcrawler armor with no malfunctions or defects. The testing phase is now complete, and the production phase begins now. I want at least three suits of armor ready for transport by tomorrow morning, with a stretch goal of five total.” The cheers crumbled into a chorus of grumbles as Shen continued. “If we reach our stretch goal, I have two bottles of fifteen year old scotch that I’m willing to donate for morale purposes…”

It would be an exaggeration to say that Matt was run over by the stampede of engineers, but not much of one.

Shen made to follow his workers out before he caught sight of who was waiting for him. His jovial expression fell, and he couldn’t meet Matt’s gaze for long. “I’m sorry you had to wait, Matt. I hadn’t expected you to show up so soon. I… would offer my condolences but I can tell you’ve had enough of that already.”

“This is my first time hearing about Nightcrawler. How long has this been in development?” Matt asked, also unwilling to meet Shen’s eyes. Instead, he focused on the testing chamber as a pair of engineers carefully removed the armor plates and power supply from the soldier’s suit. Concentrate on work, don’t think about it.

Shen seemed to understand the younger man’s intent, and he also turned to inspect the testing chamber. “This started almost immediately after your arrival on the other world, and it’s intended users are you and those of Mente Materia.” He caught the wary look that Matt shot at him as he continued. “Commander Bradford reviewed every deployment of your soldiers since the formation of your division, and in almost every instance they proved themselves as force multipliers for both the Strike teams and any local forces in the area. The problem has always been getting to where you’re needed quickly, and this method does this more admirably than the other alternative we had been considering.”

“Other alternative?” Matt asked, the slightest bit of apprehension creeping up on him at Shen’s tone.

Shen’s expression grew somewhat sheepish as he scratches his chin. “Original concept for high mobility armor involved grappling hooks and cables. It was deemed not worth the cost to explore, since it would require a significant amount of training to mitigate some of the dangers, and that isn’t even taking into account environmental hazards. We’re hoping Nightcrawler and the upcoming Bellerophon projects will make our forces significantly more nimble on the battlefield without potentially breaking anybody’s neck.”

Matt continued to stare at the engineer as he processed everything that he had heard. Armor with grappling hooks? Bellerophon… that’s greek mythology, the guy who rode the pegasus, right? If naming conventions are any indication, then that likely means flight capable armor… He finally broke eye contact with the engineer to rub his eyes with the back of his hand. This is what happens when you give the best and brightest scientists in the world unlimited funding, carte blanche to create whatever they want, and a little alien genius willing to show us how to break the laws of the universe. “So, how does Nightcrawler work? I’m assuming the armor teleports the wearer to the location of this… ‘beacon’?” Matt finally asked as he let his hand drop to his side again.

“Correct. You deploy the beacon, it scans the nearby area to confirm that there’s enough space to teleport, then the soldier can jump straight to the beacon.” A gleam entered Shen’s expression as he continued to explain. “What’s better is that the armor can teleport to any beacon that’s active, and the beacons are reusable. If the deployed Strike team needs assistance, they can drop a beacon for you, or you can deploy a beacon at the landing zone and use it to fall back quickly.” The engineer stopped mid-gush when he caught the expression on Matt’s face. “Is there a problem?”

“I’m just wondering how this is less dangerous than a grappling hook,” he answered doubtfully.

“There’s no way for us to account for the stability or instability of where the grappling hook might attach itself. An anchor that can’t support the soldier’s weight might lead to a fall and injury, and if you’re under fire, then you likely won’t be able to properly test the anchors to prevent this. Grappling hooks are useful in some situations, but this isn’t a computer game,” Shen said, his voice somewhat aggravated. “The majority of the tech we use for the Nightcrawler suits is conventional, and the exotic portions are simply miniaturized Kaleidoscope circuits with an Ea circuit to maintain the power flow. It’s not ideal, I know, but it’s better than the alternatives.”

“I suppose you have a point...“ Matt conceded with a sigh. “All of these changes happening so quickly is just a bit jarring, I guess? If I had thought that any of this were possible just three years ago, I’d have probably reported myself for Section 8.” He shrugged before deciding to change the subject. “Firecracker stopped by to let me know that you might have something for me, and I figured you and Vahlen might want to take a look at this,” Matt said as he lifted the sheathed sword to eye level.

Shen reached out with both hands to lift the blade from Matt’s grasp before heading into the Foundry’s central room. The engineer had apparently been expecting a chance to inspect the weapon, as workbench had been cleared with two small blocks placed on it at the appropriate distance to let the blade rest. “The griffons call it Skysteel, correct?” he asked as he placed the weapon on the blocks before inspecting the sheath. “Interesting… it looks like the sheath is made from a grain of hardwood we’ve yet to encounter, or something close to ivory or bone. I imagine a sheath with any sort of metal component wouldn’t fare well with the weapon inside.”

“I suppose so? All I ask is that the weapon is treated carefully. It was a gift from the High Talon himself, and I don’t want to risk causing offense by breaking or damaging it with something not combat related,” Matt advised. Hrm, when I get back, I’ll see if I can grill Zhang for any details about proper protocol with this thing… I’ll worry about that later. For now, there’s something more important to worry about. “About what Firecracker said you had for me? I’m assuming it's my arm?”

Shen nodded, and he motioned for the soldier to follow him. “We’ll have the analysis done on the weapon before your departure tomorrow,” he said as they entered the chief engineer’s office. The prosthetic in question sat on the workbench along the far wall, a small halo of various tools and instruments arrayed neatly around it. Shen waved towards the seat near the table as he spoke, “When the jammer grenade activated, it burned out a small amount of the Elerium circuitry. I suspect that was why it wasn’t operable after the mission ended. I’ve taken steps to harden the components inside to better resist shocks, both physical and otherwise. Of course, Rule Breaker fields will still prevent you from using the prosthetic, but at least the limb won’t be dead when you escape the field.”

“Thanks, Shen.” Matt said as he unbuttoned his shirt. His right hand struggled before shrugging the shirt off of his shoulders. The undershirt was next, which revealed a wide swath of burn marks along his left torso and shoulder. “Let’s get this over with…” he said as he lifted what was left of his left arm towards the table.

A minute passed as Shen slid the prosthetic into the corresponding socket and slots that had been installed into Matt’s shoulder, which were supplemented with a series of bolts around the connector. That minute seemed to stretch on for an eternity as he expected every single jolt or nudge to be accompanied by the searing pain of the limb activating before they were interrupted.

A knock on the door was followed by a familiar Russian accent. “Doctor Shen? It’s Lieutenant Romalov with our guest. Is this a bad time?”

“Almost done, Yuri,” Shen answered, before slotting one of the tools from the workbench into Matt’s prosthetic. “Are you ready, son?” he asked, and when Matt nodded, he gave the tool a twist.

Whatever arcane processes resided in the limb activated, and the phantom limb sensation became searing pain. Did you go through this every time you had to get your arm checked out, Lana? Matt couldn’t help but think as the pain settled and he relaxed.

“Connections look stable. Run through basic motor functions and let me know if there’s any problems, okay?” Shen reported quietly before giving the younger man a gentle pat on the shoulder. The engineer’s voice became indistinct as he stepped out of the office and pulled the door partially shut behind him.

I know Shen’s trying to be thoughtful by giving me some privacy, Matt thought as he rotated the prosthetic through his normal range of motion before flexing each finger on his left hand. I would just as much rather get this all done as quickly as I can to get back to work. Though… when Yuri said he had a ‘guest’, he might have meant the Equestrian that was rescued. Perhaps it’s best if she isn’t exposed to someone missing an arm. The burns aren't appealing to look at, either…

Seemingly summoned by Matt’s thoughts, a female voice could be heard from the doorway. “How-- Do you feel through that at all? Like a regular limb?” The question was colored with obvious curiosity, and lacked any of the hesitation that even the other soldiers showed when they asked the same questions.

The door clicked closed before he could even consider an answer, and Matt again gave silent thanks to Shen as he pulled the undershirt back on and slipped his dress shirt back on. The buttons were far easier to manage with two hands, and the final touch to his uniform was the black glove that hid the bare metal in his left hand. With his appearance once again acceptable, Matt turned and exited Shen’s office. “Everything is one hundred percent. Thanks, Shen,” he reported before turning to nod to Yuri, and he got his first good look at the Equestrian that had been rescued.

She was a unicorn of approximately Twilight’s size, though her body type was a bit leaner around the barrel. Her coat was an off-white color, and her curly mane was a two tone pink and purple. Green eyes looked up at him with an expression that was a bit too guarded to be considered curiosity, but was neither suspicious or fearful.

He tried to think of something to say, either a greeting, or a joke, or something comforting to the mare, but came up short. All he could manage was a nod to her as well before turning to leave the Foundry. Self-recriminations chased him out into the corridor, but was interrupted by the appearance of Firecracker.

“Ah, there you are, Captain!” she said, either not noticing Matt’s mood or purposefully ignoring it. “I’m looking for our Equestrian guest but Yuri’s been dragging her everywhere. Do you know where she is?”

“In Engineering, with Shen a few minutes ago. She should still be there if you hurry,” Matt answered as he continued down the hall, and he didn’t catch the reply as he continued down the hall, desperately searching for something to keep his mind occupied.

------

17:30, 12/11/2015, MESS HALL, XCOM BETA SITE

To Firecracker’s ears, the mess hall was just as noisy as it had always been. Loud bursts of laughter occasionally cut through the din of conversation that filled the large room. An occasional shout could also be heard, either from the kitchens or from the various people in attendance to eat. Aside from the fact that the room was populated with humans instead of Equestrians, Firecracker would be hard-pressed to find much difference from this mess hall with the Guard barracks back in Canterlot.

Her less conventional senses painted a different picture. Relief overflowed from the Strike teams just coming off of rotation, but was overpowered by the anxiety emanating from everyone else in the room. Small pockets of fear and anger stood out like torches in a moonless night. The faintest undercurrent of excitement could also be felt, as the news of their upcoming deployment had been made earlier in the day. The mix of clashing emotions was almost enough to make Firecracker queasy, but she shook her head and reinforced her willpower. I’m not leaving until Commander Bradford shows up. I owe that much to Lana.

In the months prior to XCOM’s relocation, the soldiers that had fallen in combat were memorialized on a small board nestled in the far corner of the rec room, or so Firecracker had been told. Names, pictures, and mementos of the fallen were left behind in what quickly became something of a shrine to the lost. The new base, combined with the evolving nature of the XCOM project, had necessitated a change of how the casualties were remembered.

The din of noise in the mess hall died almost immediately as Commander Bradford entered from the barracks with a small cloth-wrapped package held in one hand. The soldiers stood at attention as he passed, and the only sounds that could be heard were his boots as he marched to the far side of the room and to his final destination. The corridor just outside of the mess hall was the longest running single section in the base, and the wall was slowly being consumed with small black plates with only a few humble words engraved in them.

Bradford slowly unwrapped the package in his hand to reveal nearly twenty plates, and he placed each in its respective place. When the last of the plates was secured to the wall, the commander folded the cloth wrap carefully before stepping back and marching out of sight. The moment of silence lasted a minute longer before the assembled soldiers and base personnel finally sat and resumed their meals.

No one noticed Firecracker as she slipped from the table bench and made her way towards the corridor. Hundreds, possibly over a thousand of the tiny plates covered the wall, but it wasn’t a challenge to find the one she was looking for.

Elaine Jenkins -- 12/08/2015 -- Applewood

How can a person’s life and death be condensed down into so small a statement? Firecracker thought, and the smallest bits of anger entered her thoughts. That anger began to build alongside darker emotions, and it took a moment for the changeling to realise that they weren’t entirely originating from her.

Matt stood beside Firecracker, his own emotions apparently camouflaged by the general depression emanating from the mess hall. An undercurrent of frustration and hate was quickly becoming apparent from the human, and Firecracker found it very easy to sympathize with that feeling. Neither said anything for several moments as they continued to stare at the wall and the names listed there. Then, without so much as a glance or a word, Matt turned and walked away.

Firecracker shook her head as she tried to clear the bitter aftertaste of guilt and anger from her mind before she also turned away from the wall. Neither emotion would help the changeling with what she had to do next.

Shortly after she and Matt had returned from their visit to Lana’s family, Firecracker had spoken with the human doctor called Frank regarding the rescued pony, or at least she had tried to. The large man had stuck to his professional ethics with an admirable amount of dedication, and the only tidbit he had been willing to share was that he did not believe that ‘Sweetie Belle’ was a threat to herself or others at the current moment. The changeling hadn’t called the doctor on what he was hiding, instead electing to simply introduce herself and form her own opinions on the mare. Once she built a rapport, she could pry loose any details of how she ended up on Earth.

That had been the plan, anyway.

Shen’s voice carried out into the Foundry’s central work area, and Firecracker had to take the long way around to avoid the frantic work of the humans there. The bustle reminded the changeling of the organized chaos of the hives, though the humans lacked the mindless loyalty to their ruler as their motivation. Concepts, unlike emotions, were hard for Firecracker to discern, especially from an alien species like humans. Only a pair of phrases was all she could decipher as the motivation for the frantic behavior: Single Malt and Blend.

That mystery would have to wait as Firecracker tapped her hoof against the doorframe to Shen’s office. The door was open as she rounded the corner, and she recognized Shen and Yuri immediately. The Equestrian, however, seemed just a little bit off, but that could be explained by all of the stress of the past two days. ‘So that’s the mysterious ‘Sweetie Belle,’ then. If the reports from Frank and Vahlen are accurate, she’s a -long- way from home… or at least that’s what she believes,’ Firecracker thought, though she kept her suspicion in check long enough to offer an affable greeting.

“Good afternoon, Doctor Shen,” Firecracker greeted with a smile. “I hope I’m not interrupting but I heard we had someone who’s a bit far from home.”

The mare locked eyes with Firecracker before turning to Shen and Yuri. “Uh, you guys know she’s a changeling right? Not that there’s anything wrong with that! I just… I mean, this is a high security base, right?”

Firecracker froze the moment that she heard the declaration of her species, and it took a monumental force of will not to resort to the nigh-hard coded responses her race resorted to when publicly outed. Her eyes narrowed as she inspected the Equestrian with a more suspicious glare. “Well, I must admit that’s a surprise. Unless you’re casting a detection spell on everyone you meet, I can’t come up with a plausible explanation as to how you guessed that,” she stated, and she struggled to keep her voice level despite her every changeling instinct telling her to flee or silence the mare. “Only one person has ever guessed what I really am, so I suppose the question now is ‘what are you?’”

Firecracker winced as she pointedly forced herself not to relive the entire disaster that had followed that conversation. The last person who outed me for what I was… was Lana. Lingering thoughts of the late woman, combined with more recent events, nearly caused the mare to miss a step. Now that I think about it, when I had that chat with her a while ago and I said she was a changeling… she reacted almost like I did. I don’t know if Lana was as startled as I was, but I think she was less than a hoof away from violence. What could make a human react like that?

Firecracker forced herself to stop worrying over a puzzle that she would never solve and instead switched to the more pressing matter at hand. Yuri and Doctor Vahlen were both more than willing to share what they had learned from Sweetie, though I think I’ll see Yuri if I have any more questions, she thought, and she suppressed a shiver as she recalled her conversation with the lead scientist. The last time I had so much anticipation focused on me was when I stumbled too close to a leopard spider ambush in the Badlands the first time I left the hive. She barely gave me a glance the last time I was here… I wonder what changed?

The disguised mare came to a stop beside a base security soldier outside the now mostly deserted Equestrian barracks. The human gave Firecracker a simple nod and waved her through without a word. With the interruption behind her, the changeling drifted back to what she had learned. Yuri said she wasn’t from my Equestria. I know the big lug sometimes has language problems, but he was extremely specific. Hopefully I can patch things up with Sweetie and she can explain what he meant...

The search for the room that Sweetie was residing wasn’t nearly as hard as Firecracker had feared, as only one radiated frustration and panic. What could she be up to that would make her feel that way? she thought as she gave a gentle knock on the door. “Sweetie? It’s Firecracker. Can I please come in? We need to talk.” Guilt and suspicion flared from behind the door, followed by a spark of hope. Hope? What does--

The door flew open and Firecracker was yanked into the room by a textbook changeling abduction hold, though she was released just as quickly once she was in the room. The perpetrator looked down the hallway frantically before slamming the door. Firecracker had just settled her stance to prepare for some kind of follow up attack when the mare she had come to see levitated something between them. “Quick! What is this, why did it fry when I shocked it and how do I fix it?”

Sweetie’s panicked explanation and her behavior was finally explained when Firecracker recognized the object she was levitating: A miniature wireless surveillance camera. So it isn’t just my room, then? Humans have some strange concepts when it comes to privacy when they really want to know something. I’m rather curious as to just how much equipment they had watching Twilight... The suspicion that Firecracker held for Sweetie lessened and was replaced by an equal amount of exasperation. I suppose this is preferable to what the aliens do. I’d rather deal with all of the ingenious little listening devices the humans can come up with rather than being cut open for answers.

“Many of the things that the humans make use electricity to operate,” Firecracker explained, and she slowly relaxed from her fighting stance. “However, they often won’t operate or will simply break if they have too much or too little electricity running through them. They have methods of regulating the power they receive from their batteries or from outlets. Power from you or any external source would likely ‘fry’ it, as you said. Where did you find this one, by the by?”

"Inside the vent," Sweetie explained, ears twitching. "And there's another under the table. I just heard it."

Firecracker nodded as she stretched to inspect the vent, then underneath the table. Two more tiny devices were found and placed on the table as the changeling moved about the room. “Listen, Sweetie, I know it’s rather abrupt but I should apologize for what happened earlier. It’s my job to be paranoid. My kind is supposedly helping in the fight against the aliens but I wouldn’t trust the Queen any further than I could throw her. The aliens are also capable of creating fakers that try to pass as ponies, too. And then there’s EXALT,” she snarled the last word like a curse as she continued to go over every detail in the room.

Sweetie shrugged as she sat on her bed. “I understand… sorta. I can be a lot to handle at times as well so… I won’t take it personally if you don’t.” She gave a self-deprecating laugh before clearing her throat. “So, what queen do you work with?”

“I serve no queen!” Firecracker hissed reflexively, and she took a moment to draw in a breath and let it out slowly. “Chrysalis nearly drove us to extinction in service to her greed. I choose to serve the princesses because they are what rulers should be. I don’t know what Chrysalis’s plans are but the sooner this alien threat is dealt with, the sooner she can go back to the Badlands.”

“Chrysalis is a hassle wherever I go with all of her unnecessary manipulation and subterfuge,” Sweetie answered, and she could hear the eye roll in her tone. The unicorn’s tone took on an exaggerated sneer as she rattled off a string of petty orders that sounded remarkably like the Changeling queen.

“I rarely spoke with her directly.” Though I was around her enough to recognize who Sweetie’s mocking, Firecracker mused as she felt under the bed to retrieve two more electronic devices that had been stashed under the bed. I am rather curious as to how she knows enough about Chrysalis to mock her so… “Before the disaster at Canterlot she was far more cunning and subtle. Something about all that love twisted her. She may have initially chosen Cadance as a source, but the temptation of all that love… I guess it was too much to resist. Every creature, no matter how ancient or wise, goes a little bonkers when they’re offered so much power. In Chrysalis’s case, it was more than just a little bonkers,” Firecracker had the smallest chuckle at the changeling queen’s expense before looking directly up to the light fixture in the ceiling. “Can you produce a light spell of some sort?”

Sweetie nodded, casting a simple light spell, floating a glowing white orb up to the lamps. "Will that work?" she asked, stepping back to let the changeling do what she needed. "I don't know if the power drove her bonkers, or she was there already, but she's always... scary bonkers."

Firecracker inspected the globe of light before hitting the light switch with her magic. The light fixture winked out, and she began to slowly disassemble the casing. “Chrysalis has always been flexible with her ethics, but that comes from being the matriarch of a parasitic hive race.

“Her going double scoop bonkers, though… all comes back to power,” Firecracker explained as she plucked what appeared to be a wireless camera from the light housing before dropping it on the table. The light itself was rebuilt with care, and it flicked back on once the changeling was finished.

The pair continued to talk as Firecracker continued to sweep the room for bugs, though the changeling’s attention was almost fully on the other mare in the room. Had I not lost my cool when we first met, I would have had the entire afternoon to analyze her. Even with what the others told me, there’s something that’s bugging me about her. Something that’s horribly obvious that I’m missing... Firecracker walked over to the other side of the room to inspect a power outlet, and she noted that Sweetie slowly turned to keep the changeling directly in front of her. She’s been doing that the entire time, ensuring I never leave her sight and minimizing her profile in the event of an attack. I doubt she’s even aware that she’s doing it. That, combined with the hold she used to drag me into here suggests training… or experience.

The changeling bent down to fiddle with the power outlet as they continued to make conversation, and she drew in her breath through her nose when Sweetie offered her replies. The humans say she’s been here for at least one night but there’s no scent I recognize, or any scent for that matter. That rules out changelings, and the aliens… and normal Equestrians for that matter. For every answer I get, more questions arise. A small microphone wired into the outlet was carefully removed before the outlet itself was replaced, and she once again turned her eyes on Sweetie as she trotted back to the table. The unicorn turned to keep Firecracker in front of her, and the changeling had to nearly do a doubletake when she was finally able to nail down what had been nagging at her instincts: Her hooves hadn’t made a single sound since Firecracker had entered the room.

That raised a whole flurry of questions in Firecracker, though she was able to keep her surprise in check. Wasn’t there a human book with a quote for times like this? ‘When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.’ Perhaps I shouldn’t have doubted Yuri’s explanation...

“So, I guess it’s true then,” Firecracker declared, putting an end to the small talk that they had been sharing. “I thought it was a little outlandish that you weren’t from my Equestria, but there’s too many inconsistencies for it not to be true. I’m an expert on the behaviors of just about every race back home and I see things in you that I have never seen before.”

"Ah, yeah.. hehe..." Sweetie chuckled weakly, and the flash of anxiety was more of a confirmation than the mare’s words. "You haven't told Vahlen, right? I heard that it would be bad for her health to have that bit of info..." She then tilted her head. "And what do you mean by inconsistencies? Like what?” Her curiosity took a different turn when Firecracker deposited the last of the surveillance equipment on the table. “And what are those things? From what I hear, there’s dozens of them left in the room: behind the walls, under the floor, every three panels on the ceiling... Are they some kind of weird human eccentricity?"

“I haven’t shared anything specifically with the good doctor, but we may be past the point where that’s our concern,” Judging by the amount of devices I was able to uncover combined with the numbers that are left according to Sweetie, Vahlen or one of her scientists probably have a video recording of this conversation from five different angles. Of course, I don’t want to be the one to tell her that… Firecracker thought, and she elected to answer Sweetie’s other questions rather than her last.

The unicorn nodded and made a few comments of her own, but her expression gradually fell. Anticipation and dread emanated from her as she finally said, "Tell me something though, ever since I arrived here everyone keeps hinting at something having happened to Twilight recently... and Captain Harris seems to have gone through the same thing. Just... what is happening in Equestria?"

The smile on Firecracker’s face fell as she explained what had happened in the last operation, from EXALT capturing Applewood all the way up to Twilight detaining the two assassins. Her voice was an even monotone as she spoke; it was the only way she could keep any emotion from breaking through.

The emotions that Firecracker expected from Sweetie, horror and sadness, never appeared. A strong current of sympathy and concern was easily apparent, as was anger. "That must have hit Twilight pretty hard.” Sweetie said, her expression mirroring the emotions that Firecracker could detect. “If your Equestria is anything like mine, I don't think anypony was ready for this kind of war." She looked at the changeling. "How... how is she taking it? From what I heard she had to deal with something similar while here... Is she, well, not okay but... not too bad?"

“She’s… coping as best she can,” Firecracker answered, and what she didn’t say spoke volumes.

"I see," Sweetie sighed. "I... Twilight has always been a very important part of my life... She's my best friend in one universe, and my teacher in just about any other. I hope we can talk, but I guess that won't happen until we make it to Equestria, huh?” She tapped the bed with her hoof, lost in her thoughts. “Do you think I'll be able to see her?"

“I can check when we get there, but it will really depend on her condition when we get there,” Firecracker said as she swept up the little devices on the table with her magic. “The Kaleidoscope should be charged by tomorrow morning, and then we’ll be in Equestria. Was there anything else?”

"Yes, actually. You still haven’t answered my question," Sweetie said, looking up at Firecracker, then to the table with all of the devices that had been retrieved over the course of the conversation. "What are those devices you found?"

Drat… I had hoped to leave before having to try and explain this particular human behavior… Firecracker thought as she gave Sweetie a sheepish smile. “Well… you know how Doctor Vahlen is a scientist, yes? One of the many ways a scientist gains information is through observation, and many scientists feel that if the observed is aware of the observer, the results would invariably be skewed…” she trailed off as she gave Sweetie a meaningful look.

Sweetie blinked, then blinked again. Panic and outrage erupted from the mare. “Wait. She’s spying on me!? Is that even legal!?”

Firecracker offered a placating smile as the mare looked frantically about the room. I suppose this is my revenge for trying to spy on me in MY room, Dr. Vahlen, she thought as she backed out through the door and into the corridor. She didn’t get more than a half dozen steps before all of the lights in the corridor flared brightly before burning out. Emergency lighting kicked in, bathing the corridor in orange light, which let Firecracker navigate past the guard as he reported the power surge.

I imagine this will be quite the report… I wonder if Captain Armor will believe it, the changeling thought. Her hooves carried her to her bunk on auto pilot, her mind already concentrating on just how she would explain this particular traveler from distant lands.

Author's Note:

(( For an alternate take on the events of this chapter, The Sweetie Chronicles: Fragments has updated. ))

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