• 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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38 -- Revelation

“There is a curse. They say: May you live in interesting times.”
--Terry Pratchett

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11:27, 12/19/2015, INTERSECTION OF 5TH AND MANE, HAVERDASH

The Muton Berserker’s armored fist descended with painstaking slowness as Matt’s most erratic ability came into play. The hectic battle that was consuming the town seemed far less chaotic as events played out at a fraction of normal speed, which was more than enough advantage for him to calculate the best possible way to dispatch his enemy without too much hassle. It was more than enough time for Matt to review just how complicated his life had gotten over the past two days.

A summons to speak with Col. Van Doorn had been waiting for Matt the moment he had been discharged from the medical wings. The reason for the meeting had been obvious, and it had honestly surprised Matt that he hadn’t been visited while still in the hospital bed. After all, it was only natural for the expedition commander to want to know exactly how and why his immediate subordinate had put another soldier in the infirmary less than a day after arriving in theater.

As much as Matt avoided the sticky issues of politics, he was extremely aware of how they could have disastrous effect if the wrong thing was said at the wrong time… even if it was the right thing to say. Van Doorn had only said it in passing, but he had mentioned a Renfeld had approached the former general to lead the expedition, and Matt highly doubted that it was a coincidence that his subordinate shared the same last name. At best, Major Renfeld joined the expedition due to her skill and experience, and it was just dumb luck that she had also suffered a personal loss due to the disaster in the middle east. At worst… Lord Henry Renfeld installed a family member in a position of power to deliberately get revenge and damn the consequences.

There simply wasn’t enough evidence to sway Matt to either conclusion, but there was one thing that he was almost certain of. If Henry Renfeld was responsible for the assignment of the command echelons of the reinforcements, he likely had significant pull regarding the future of the expedition. While Matt didn’t have much experience with British politicians, he was well acquainted with being left to flap in the breeze for daring to put a black mark on someone’s career… a black mark like getting an honored family member thrown out.

Van Doorn’s scowling expression had left no doubt as to if he believed Matt’s assertion of a training exercise gone awry. He had no doubt come to the same conclusion, except the consequences would be far less personal. A person in Lord Renfeld’s position could sabotage the war effort in Equestria if sufficiently motivated, not to help the aliens but to save his own prestige and position, or even to get back at them if they hurled the younger Renfeld through the Kaleidoscope back to Earth with an attempted murder charge tied around her neck.

Matt hadn’t envied putting Van Doorn in the position of having to find a solution that kept the expedition functional without offending anyone that was higher up the chain, but the former general had apparently anticipated this exact scenario and implemented a solution. As Matt’s skills as a Mente Materia operator were in incalculably high demand, he would be leading the way on strike missions with the new recruits during daytime operations while under Van Doorn’s watchful eye.

While it was never explicitly labelled as a punishment or even a reprimand, Major Renfeld’s assignment to the graveyard hours in the command center seemed as much a banishment as it was keeping her away from Matt by scheduling. The threat of Renfeld may have been mitigated, but she wasn’t the only personality that he had to contend with.

Beyond the Berserker's descending arm, the pegasus named Flash Sentry rolled in slow motion to avoid the metal talons of two Revenants simultaneously. A blob of green energy spun lazily out from the flying pony’s foreleg-mounted plasma pistol, the projectile’s destination being the mutilated griffon’s screaming beak less than a body length away. The other Revenant’s attack was already off-balance; one of Flash’s rear hooves planted squarely on its puckered forehead to propel the pegasus into his pirouette. As soon as Matt’s accelerated perception stopped, both of the Revenants would no doubt drop to the ground as Flash moved on to other enemies.

Seeing Flash Sentry in the ready room during their first deployment the day before had been a surprise to Matt. He hadn’t been privy to all of the details, but an offhand comment from Twilight indicated that the pegasus had finally done enough to warrant the wrath of Shining Armor. The fact that Flash hadn’t been with Twilight and scowling seemed to indicate his career had come to an abrupt end, a realisation that brought up a small amount of guilt and sympathy from Matt.

It was brutally obvious that bad blood flowed freely when Matt had arrived for his shift in the ready room, and he wasted no time in pulling the scowling pegasus aside to clear the air as much as possible. They could hate each other until the end of time when off duty, but it had to stop the moment they entered the operation area. Their lives, the lives of their comrades, and the lives of civilians in the area might depend upon it.

Flash’s displeasure at being deployed beside Matt was clearly apparent, but he had agreed to the proverbial cease fire before sweeping up nearly a third of all the hostiles that had been deployed for the next two missions. Whatever his personal faults, nobody could argue that Flash Sentry wasn’t effective in direct engagements.

On the subject of direct engagements, it was with reluctant satisfaction that Matt saw the human reinforcements’ opinions change regarding their hosts. While he hadn’t been briefed on everything that had happened while he was in recovery, Matt had heard grumblings about the lack of respect given by the newly arrived humans. That had reversed abruptly when the reinforcements were added to the duty roster in the ready room. A team of SAS operators had deployed alongside Finch and a handful of Equestrians, only to come back bloody and beaten. The main factor that had kept the operation from disaster had been the heroism and sacrifice of the pegasus Headwind. While there were some holdouts who held fast to their believed superiority, the most vocal of the offenders were soon silenced by cold stares and at least one ‘training incident’ not unlike the one Matt had experienced.

Of course, reviewing everything that had happened over the past few days was simply an exercise in avoiding what was really bothering Matt. He had been stoned out of his mind with whatever the Equestrians used for pain killers when he was in recovery and much of his time there was a drug-induced blur, but he had been sober enough to recall most of his conversation with Twilight.

The hours prior to their little talk had been the first time he had even considered anything of that nature with Twilight, and it had been the first time he had even entertained such a pursuit with anyone since he had been thrown out of the Army years earlier. Matt wasn’t sure if the idea had been jumpstarted by Renfeld’s ambush or the conclusions he had come to the night prior to said accident. It was even possible that the conversation would never have happened were it not for whatever the doctors had given him to suppress the pain. No matter the source or the reasons, in the end Matt couldn’t help but be a little anxious as to where things would go from here.

The closest analogy he could come up with was the anticipation of a door breach. The door could lead to an empty room, hiding civilians, or it might lead to a Chrysalid hive. At first glance, it seemed a bit of an exaggeration for Matt to equate his current situation with the mission to Newfoundland. The more he thought about it, the ‘worst case scenario’ became more catastrophic. Even if Twilight agreed to whatever nebulous future Matt had proposed, that didn’t change the fact that they were from two very different species, from staggeringly different classes in their respective societies, and from upbringings that couldn’t possibly be less similar.

Matt did not regret the conversation that they had, though it did thrust him into the relative unknown without much of a safety line to call on. He still hadn’t had a conversation with Firecracker on the subject, and he hadn’t had much time to talk with Twilight since their conversation earlier. While inconvenient (not to mention life-threatening), the alien attacks had ramped up in the past two days. After twelve-hour shifts with sometimes three deployments per day, Matt often didn’t have much more strength but to shuffle into his bunk upon being relieved. Given recent events, the relative normalcy of the Strike missions might have been considered relief in and of themselves.

Relative normalcy? Matt thought as the barrel of his LANC rifle finally inched into position to punch a hole in the Berserker's head. Is this what my life’s become? Fighting aliens with sci-fi/fantasy weapons is the happy normal I escape to when things get rough? If he hadn’t been in the middle of a mission, Matt would have facepalmed and groaned at the realization.

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12:30, 12/19/2015, HUMAN COMPOUND, CANTERLOT

Twilight Sparkle was adept at handling stress. Her work to be worthy of Princess Celestia’s apprenticeship had demanded much of her. She was quite used to managing several projects simultaneously and she understood the fundamental foundations of current magical practice unlike any other pony. Her time spent in Ponyville had certainly added to her experiences with others less talented (but no less special) than herself, so Twilight felt that she was more than capable of teaching the humans that had the capacity for magic. This was not the source of Twilight’s stress.

The one familiar face in the group was Yuri, who was all disarming smiles despite his gigantic figure. Finch apparently had been with XCOM as long as Yuri, but his potential hadn’t manifested while Twilight had been on Earth. Annette Durand, Matt Hawkins, and the Fariq siblings were recruited in the months afterward, and this was their first face-to-face meeting with the young princess. The biggest hurdles to the class so far had been Twilight’s struggles with Annette’s accent as well as Fatima Fariq’s unnerving tendency to silently creep up behind Twilight with a hand outstretched to try and pat her on the head. Despite this, meeting the new humans wasn’t the source of Twilight’s stress.

Not even the chilling realization that all of Twilight’s friendship studies hadn’t given her the slightest clue as to what to do with her… evolving situation with Matt was the source of Twilight’s current stress.

No, the source of Twilight’s current stress was six small cylinders lying on the table beside her, each labelled ARCANE DAMPING DEVICE 87.

“This is it?” Yuri asked as he stared down at the half-dozen grenades that rested on the table. He spared a glance toward Twilight before lifting one up to inspect it. “I was expecting something more… futuristic. Blinky lights or something. It is hard to believe that these are able to block magic.”

Twilight offered as much of a confident smile as she could manage while in the presence of the Jammer grenades. “Block might not be the right term. The grenades themselves produce a localized, repeating arcane effect that disrupts any gathered magic in the area. Someone casting a spell would lose control of it and suffer some side effects, but if you humans aren’t channeling any of your gifts, then there’s no magic to disrupt. If there’s no disruption, then you shouldn’t suffer the side effects… in theory.”

“In theory? Has this been tested before?” the human named Hawkins asked, and the doubt on his face was mirrored by the two olive-skinned humans beside him.

“I’ve not participated in any tests personally, but I’ve interviewed the ponies that were incapacitated by one in earlier engagements. Ma-- er, Captain Harris also survived one during an operation,” Twilight explained as her words began to break down into a ramble. “All of them had been channeling some kind of magic when the devices were used, but documents we’ve recovered in the field confirm that the device effect isn’t constant. It operates on an interval of two seconds, and my theory is that there will be no effect on you if you can suppress your magic when it activates…” But if you can’t, you’ll suffer horrible pain, Twilight nearly finished as she cast another wary look at the enemy weapons that had been recovered. I really don’t like having them run these kinds of tests without me doing them first… but I’m an alicorn and the Element Bearer for Magic. It might not work on me… or it might kill me.

“There’s another test, right?” Finch asked quickly even as he deliberately did not look towards the table. “Matt said there was another test. Something about being able to spot camo spells or something?”

“Exactly right! With enough practice and exposure, you all should be able to detect when enemies are using magic to conceal themselves! You might not be able to tell exactly where someone is hiding, but you’ll at least be aware that someone is nearby,” Twilight explained, thankful for the change of subject. The sound of footfalls in the hallway outside of the conference room immediately drew her attention, and she cast a hopeful look toward the doorway. Matt wasn’t anywhere to be seen, the new arrivals being Shaojie Zhang and--

BANG!

Twilight had reflexively lurched backward when she recognized the man beside Zhang, her flank striking the table with enough force to send the grenades from their standing positions to rolling towards the edge. Twilight knew rationally (and she suspected the humans did as well) that the weapons were as safe as paperweights with the pins and levers secured, but it was enough for Twilight’s focus to be diverted from the new arrivals to the tumbling devices on the table. The first had nearly reached the edge when Finch positioned himself against the table with his arms spread. None of the tumbling grenades made it past his outstretched arms, and the human let out a long sigh of relief through his teeth.

“I apologize for the shock, princess,” Zhang said, uncertainty coloring his tone for the first time since Twilight could remember. A glance back in his direction showed the scarred human was alone, the man behind him having seemingly vanished into thin air. “I had thought you would be aware of Victor’s possible attendance, though that no longer seems to be the case.”

“It’s fine,” Twilight replied as she tried to bring her hammering heart under control. Breathe in, breathe out. Nice and slow. You’re just imagining that pain in your side… it’s all in your head. Nothing to worry about. “I guess I was just surprised. It’s nothing, really!” she lied, as much to them as herself.

Yuri, Finch, and Zhang all shared a look, but their concern evaporated into nervous smiles... at least until Annette asked, “What’s going on?”

“Nothing of any importance,” Zhang replied, cutting the others off with his far more usual tone. “Captain Harris has briefed me on the lesson plans, so I will be taking over for now. Harris mentioned wanting to speak with you upon his return from the field, and I understand he has just done so. He should be in his office.”

Does he know something? If it was Lana or even Rarity giving me this message I would have suspected them, but Zhang is so serious all the time. Curse you and your poker face! Twilight thought as she nodded. “I just need to gather some things and I’ll make my way there shortly,” she said, and her ears folded back sharply at the collective groans from the other humans at the change of teacher.

A quick teleport later, Twilight was back in her room within the castle and the organized chaos hidden within. Stacks of books and paper littered nearly every surface and a small portion of the floor, which she navigated with practiced ease. A moment later and she was by her work desk to retrieve her saddlebags and a stack of books. Paper and writing utensils were next, followed by other odds and ends before another teleport deposited her outside of Matt’s office.

She gave a short knock on the doorframe before pushing the door open, and her nose was immediately assaulted by two competing odors. The first was immediately identifiable as sweat, which was all but confirmed by the stained shirt that Matt was wearing. The second smell was familiar enough to nearly make Twilight queasy, and she quickly traced the source to the sandwich that Matt had just sunk his teeth into. A sandwich that no doubt contained the cooked meat she was smelling.

“S-sorry!” Twilight stammered as she backed out of the doorway and closed the door behind her. Remember your manners, silly filly. Knock, wait for a response, THEN enter, she chided herself as she sat on the bench outside of the office.

“I’ll be out in a minute!” came Matt’s reply after a moment, and he made good on the prediction. The door opened to reveal the human in a fresh shirt and a sheepish look on his face. A towel rested around his shoulders, which he used to soak up the water from his hair. “I thought I’d have enough time to eat and clean up before you got here. Did you teleport straight here?”

“Not exactly,” Twilight fibbed. She had stopped at her own room first. She dithered for a moment before continuing, “I’m glad you made it back alright…”

Matt’s gaze narrowed as he took a seat beside Twilight. “What’s wrong, Twily?”

“Well…” she started, before hesitating again. “After what happened to you, how can you eat meat? I was the one who stabilized you enough so that the other ponies could save your life after the first fight in Ponyville. I can still smell the… the…”

Matt’s expression went pale as he glanced subconsciously down at his left arm. “I had honestly forgotten about it, and I’ve been starving since the first deployments this morning. Of course I think you’ve got a bit more sensitive nose than me.” The slightly haunted expression was replaced with a self-deprecating smirk. “I’ve been in my armor for over the past six hours, and four of those were in deployment. I probably smell like three week old socks at the moment.”

“Well, I wouldn’t say that bad. Maybe just one week old socks,” Twilight was quick to reply with a giggle. I suppose the past month and a half has been a learning experience for me on the subject. I’ve been wearing clothes almost constantly since the humans arrived in late October. Before I made arrangements with the maids, my laundry basket was starting to smell quite ripe. Twilight caught the look Matt was giving her, which pulled her from her musing. “What?”

“Twilight, how do you even what socks are? You don’t exactly have feet. I don’t think I’ve met a single creature in Equestria that wears them. Or human-style shoes for that matter.”

“The garments might not have the same usage, but we have similar articles of clothing for various occupations,” Twilight said as she tapped her chin. “I know earth ponies that work on printing presses use them for their forelegs so that their coats don’t get stained. Rainbow Dash has also mentioned something similar that’s combined with a vest for when a pegasus isn’t comfortable with a full body suit for insulation. Come to think of it, I think Rarity has something similar for some of her outfits…” When nothing but silence responded, Twilight again caught Matt shooting her an odd look. “Are you listening? You shouldn’t ask a question if you aren’t going to listen to the answer.”

“Sorry about that, Twily,” Matt apologized before looking away. “I was thinking about you wearing socks and got distracted.”

That particular admission caused Twilight’s train of thought to derail quite spectacularly, until Matt’s right hand came to rest on her head and his thumb began to scratch the base of her ears. “You’re so easy to tease, Twilight,” he added with a chuckle.

Any annoyance at the comment quickly melted away as Matt continued to work his thumb and index finger around her ear. It was only a few moments before everything else on Twilight’s mind melted away with it. Why did I come here again? The ear scratches make the teasing worth it, but there was something important we had to do… right? Something about…

“Training!” Twilight blurted out the moment the thought struck her, as much to jolt herself out of the comfortable place her mind had drifted to as anything. “I’ve been working on a way for you to counter Jammers if you face them, but I couldn’t think of a way for you to avoid the effect other than pinpoint telekinesis to push it out of range. I’ve worked up a training regimen that should help you hone your reflexes enough to provide some protection.” Twilight adopted as stern a tone as she could manage. “It will take a lot of practice, and no amount of ear scratches will get you out of it!”

“Alas, my evil plot to slack off has been thwarted by your iron willpower,” Matt laughed as he withdrew his hand. He stood before turning back to Twilight. “I imagine the hallway probably isn’t the best place for this kind of practice, yes?”

Twilight nodded as she hopped off of the bench. “I suppose not. There’s a room just outside the compound that I don’t think anyone is using that should suit our needs,” she explained as she walked down the corridor with Matt falling into step beside her. Twilight glanced over her shoulder towards Matt before continuing, “It was nice meeting up with Yuri again and the others that joined after I left Earth… though I have to ask, does Fatima ever say anything?”

Matt’s initial response was an uncertain shrug. “I know she talks with her brother a little, but I’ve never heard her speak, personally. Both she and her brother were abducted by the aliens and while she’s healthy physically… I’m afraid they might have done something that hurt her up here.” He tapped his head with one finger. “We’re hoping that she’ll recover with time.”

“I hope so, too. I can’t imagine what it would be like, not being able to talk,” Twilight replied. A small moment of silence passed before she asked, “Is there anything I can do? I might not be the best when it comes to healing magic, but I’m certain I can find the best. I’m sure we can get her on the road to recovery!”

The sad smile on Matt’s face sank Twilight’s idea as much as the words that followed. “There are some things that not even magic can heal. She just needs time and closure regarding what happened to her, I think.”

The feeling of being unable to help someone in need stuck in Twilight’s mind like a splinter. There must be something I can do to help… right? Maybe I’ll let her pat my head, since Matt always seems happier after he does that. I don’t know if it will help, but I have to try… right? Any further consideration on the subject would have to wait as they approached their destination. Just as Twilight had predicted, the room was empty and the door unlocked as they entered. “As I had explained earlier, the training regimen I have planned will hopefully build up an automatic reflex to identify and push away the Jammer grenades the moment you see them. And for that, we’ll use flash cards!”

An arched eyebrow was more than enough to convey Matt’s doubts. “I’m not sure I follow,” he said as he pulled a stool from one of the empty tables that lined the walls.

Twilight’s response wasn’t immediate as she took off her saddlebags and opened them. From one of the pouches emerged a deck of cards. The deck exploded into motion as Twilight’s telekinesis brought them around in a dizzying pattern around her before coming to a stop. “As you can see, some of the cards are blank, while others have a random shape on them,” Twilight explained as she indicated to two specific cards. “There’s also a few cards with the a sketch of the Jammer grenade. I’ll be rotating the cards in rapid succession, and you’ll try to ‘push’ the grenade cards with your telekinesis the moment you spot them.

“That makes a bit of sense,” Matt said before clenching and relaxing his prosthetic hand. “I suppose it’s because of this that I’m doing this exercise instead of what you’re having the others do?”

“Correct! Your mind is passively and continuously using your magic to move your arm.” A small amount of hesitation gave Twilight pause before continuing, “To be honest, you’re a bit more like one of my people because of it. We’ve been exposed to magic long enough that our bodies would struggle to function without it. If we run into these things out there, we’ll have to rely on you and your friends--” The rest of Twilight’s muttering was interrupted by a gentle pat on the head, which was batted away with a hoof. “None of that! We’ve got work to do!”

“Sorry, Twily. It just looked like this was getting to you, and I thought a pat might help,” Matt replied as he retracted his arm and looked to the cards. “So all I have to do is use telekinetics to push the right cards when I see them?”

“Exactly!” Twilight replied as she started up the movement pattern for the cards. “The cards are running on an autonomous spell that will pull the Jammer cards if you can use your telekinetics on them. I’ve got some reading to do, so you can get to it.” A book was extracted from the saddlebags next, and she took a moment to peek over it towards Matt. “Thank you for the head pat,” Twilight said quickly before burying her nose in the book.

“I hear you’re rather skilled in magic,” the human said, his eyes never leaving hers as the pair entered the apartments.

The smile on her face was equal parts eagerness and a promise of what was to come. “I’m quite skilled in many things, and I think we will both enjoy a private lesson.”

The book slammed shut just as quickly as Twilight had opened it. This… this… this is… she thought as her face colored rather brilliantly. THIS IS THE WRONG BOOK! Mom gave me one of her silly romance novels to pass along to Rarity, and I forgot that I put this on top of the stack! There’s no dust cover for it so it looks like all of the other books! A second later, her mind caught up with the parallels between the snippet she had read from the book and her current situation, and it took an enormous amount of willpower not to teleport away at that very moment.

“Twilight?”

The question snapped Twilight out of her embarrassed/horrified spiral enough for her to peek over the offending book at Matt, only to see that the array of cards had stopped. All of the Jammer cards hung lazily to the side of the decoy cards. Matt gave a small shrug to Twilight. “I guess I’m done?”

“How!?” Twilight blurted out, her book forgotten as she stomped forward. “There’s no way that you could have picked all of those cards in less than five seconds! The shuffling spell was too complex to allow that! Tell me how you did it!”

Matt’s initial response was to look away and scratch the back of his head. “Well… you’ve reviewed everyone’s files. Mine lists telekinesis since that’s something I can do at will. There’re some other things I can do, but they come and go. One of those things involves altering my perception of time… but it isn’t something that I can really do on a whim. It just kinda comes and goes.”

“Is that the only thing you can do that isn’t in the reports? What do you mean by ‘alteration of your perception of time’? Can you describe the effects? If you aren’t using the ability at will, then there’s some instinctual trigger that activates due to some sort of stimulus! Tell me everything and I know we’ll be able to reproduce it!”

A cough from the doorway was enough to draw both Twilight’s and Matt’s attention. “Ah, pardon the interruption. I heard shouting and thought to investigate,” Alvar explained, seemingly frozen mid-step halfway through the door. “If… if I’m interrupting something, then I can wait outside.”

“Good afternoon, Alvar! We were just in the middle of a--,” Private lesson, Twilight’s treacherous mind whispered to her. It was at that same time that she realised just how much of Matt’s personal space she had invaded during her interrogation. “--we just finished!” Twilight blurted before retreating back to her saddlebags and gathered her things.

“Excellent! I just need to borrow a moment of Captain Harris’s time. In fact, I was hoping that I could interest him in the basics of blade defense,” Alvar explained, his body language unusually timid given his status.

Were Twilight in a less flustered state of mind, she would have tried to speculate as to why that was. At the moment, all she could think of was a convenient way to escape the awkward situation. “That sounds great! Matt, you can use this as an opportunity to try and reproduce this new ability of yours! Now, I want you to keep a running log of when it happens and the circumstances involved, so that we can take advantage of any patterns that trigger it.”

“You’re giving me homework?” Matt asked, disbelief clear in his voice. “Why do I feel like I’m being punished?”

“A new ability means I’ll have to rework the training exercises to account for it! I’ll talk to you soon!” Twilight replied quickly before practically running out of the door. Ugh! Everything was going so well until I picked up that stupid book! I need to find Rarity so she can take the ridiculous piece of trash off of my hooves! Twilight’s gallop slowed to a trot as a thought struck her regarding her friend. Rarity… she gave me some really good advice the last time I talked with her. Maybe I need to sit down and have a talk with her again.

A second thought occurred to Twilight as she retreated to the safety of her room. Maybe I should ask her about… socks, too...

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13:30, 12/19/2015, DEBRIEFING ROOM, CANTERLOT

“Was there anything else, sir?” Flash Sentry asked after placing his report on the table before Shining Armor, his eyes never leaving the spot on the wall directly behind the captain.

“No, private, that will be all. Dismissed,” Shining replied as he took the report. He made a show of going over the report until he was certain that the pegasus was gone before letting out a long sigh. This report is as well written as any that I get from one of the field guards, and it seems like only a matter of time before Flash does enough to overcome his previous mistakes. The implications of the Flash Sentry’s performance weighed heavily on Shining Armor’s mind as he rolled the report and slipped it into his bags before heading to the exit of the debriefing room.

I had thought the situation regarding Flash had been rooted in his lack of maturity as a pony, but it wasn’t entirely his fault, was it? Shining thought as he walked at a slow pace down the hallway. I had considered several candidates to watch her after she had returned from Earth, and that list narrowed considerably after she became a princess. And that list narrowed down to just Flash Sentry after I started hearing about her ‘friends’ from Earth.

Shining had to suppress a grimace as he rounded a corner, his hooves moving independant from his mind. Twilight Sparkle is a grown mare, not some little foal. Even in just a few years, she’s grown from the sheltered bookworm she used to be into a pony worthy of her status of princess. I can offer my opinions to her as a brother, but in the end it’s nopony’s business but hers regarding who she’s friends with, or who she wants to… be with.

That particular thought led to the root cause of the guilt that had been eating at Shining Armor over the past two days. The way that Twilight had talked about her time on Earth, I knew that Captain Harris had left an impression on her. At the time, I knew nothing about him personally, and I made the assumption that Twilight needed protection from something that I knew nothing about. Is that the real reason why I chose Flash Sentry over other guardsponies, I wonder? The other two candidates were mares… did I choose the only stallion left on the list to try and tempt Twilight with something more conventional? Did I say something to imply that to Flash, which resulted in the behavior that had derailed his career?

Regardless of the reasons, Shining’s decision had ultimately destroyed any chance of Flash Sentry moving beyond the lowest ranks in the Guard barring a miracle, not to mention that the assignment had earned him nothing but aggravation from his sister. Captain Harris had also suffered from that decision in a far less dramatic fashion, though he had gone out of his way to not make things worse for Flash Sentry. Given what Shining had endured during the earliest stages of his pursuit of Cadance, he had often endured similar confrontations… and Shining wasn’t so certain he would have had the restraint not to heap dirt onto those plotholes if he had been given the opportunity at that time.

You’ve no time to waste on such doubts, Shining! What would Cadance think if she saw you moping around when you have responsibilities? You’re the captain of the Solar Guard! Stop wallowing in what you perceive to be your failures and FIX THINGS! Shining snapped to himself in his best drill instructor voice. He immediately stood straighter, his head held high as one would expect of somepony of his rank.

It’s time to face the facts, Shiny. Fact number one: Twilight Sparkle is a grown mare who is capable of making her own decisions regarding her own life. She’s got some of the best friends a pony could want to help her through this, and she doesn’t need me smothering her, Shining told himself before grimacing. Fact number two: Captain Harris has proven himself to be a gentleman over the past several months. He also has a younger sister, so he already has a certain amount of understanding about the situation. Matt also hasn’t done anything to warrant my disapproval or scrutiny… other than showing up with the previous day’s uniform that had Twilight’s hair on it. Not that it’s any of my business what two consenting adults do!

Shining’s train of thought diverted to another subject almost reflexively. Fact number three: The black mark on Flash Sentry’s career will always be there, but he can recover from it. It’s obvious now that he’s destined for greatness on the front line, not in the rear echelons playing bodyguard. With the proper guidance, he’ll overcome the mistakes he, and I, have made.

The unicorn let out his breath in a huff before resuming his march down the corridor, his head held high and his gait as precise as a captain’s should be. The first step in defeating a problem is defining it. Once defined, a problem can be corrected… or at least accepted. I’ll have to monitor Flash Sentry’s deployments closely over the next few weeks to make sure he doesn’t get himself killed, but as for the other problems… I suppose the best I can do is make sure Twilight knows I’m here if she ever needs anything, and stop interfering.

“Captain Armor?”

The question was enough to shake Shining from his thoughts, and while he recognized the speaker as Firecracker, the disguised changeling’s tone inspired a small amount of wariness. “Is there a problem?” he asked as he stopped to address Firecracker.

“Yes, there is, sir. Please follow me,” Firecracker answered before she turned to walk down one of the less populated corridors. The faux unicorn remained completely silent as she led Shining down a second corridor and to a small deserted room. She opened the door and stepped inside while Shining followed. Once the pair were in the room, the door closed behind them. The room itself was sparsely furnished, with most of the contents covered by sheets or hidden in boxes. The only other occupant in the room was the filly known as Firefly, a wide-eyed and fearful expression on her face.

“What’s going on, Firecracker?” Shining asked as he scanned the room. The princesses trust Firecracker implicitly, so this isn’t any kind of trap… but something has both of them spooked. His wary eyes completed their circuit around the room before settling on the two changelings.

“Princess Luna was the first pony that was made aware of this new intelligence, and the rest of the council will be made aware of this tomorrow. We, Chrysalis included, felt that you should see this before anypony else,” Firecracker explained, and she placed one hoof on Firefly’s back.

The younger changeling gave Firecracker a pleading look. "But I really don't wanna. I really don't!"

Firefly's initial response was a small tap on the filly's back with her hoof and give her a sympathetic look. "I know it's scary, but it can't hurt you. If you do this for me, I'll go get some cookies for you and your friends, alright?"

The young changeling nodded weakly, and her horn lit up to illuminate the room. The dark and dusty surroundings were replaced by what Shining suspected was a scene caught by another changeling.

The harsh and angular features that were emblematic of griffon architecture had not held up well under the alien bombardment. The stone roosts and structures that had been cut into the side of the mountain were pock-marked with melted stone from plasma blasts, and the centuries old trees that had jutted from the peak fared little better. Once, those ancient trees had been large and numerous enough to support structures of their own... but now the majority had been reduced to little more than cinders and stumps.

Unfamiliar structures could be seen among the ruins, their style and material clashing vividly with that of High Peak. Muted grays and purples adorned the buildings, the aesthetic and materials drawing an obvious parallel to that of the invaders’ ships. The similarity was made even more obvious when a section of the sky shimmered and one of the alien ships appeared. The new arrival descended to the alien structures lazily, and a moment later a series of flashes lit its belly. Two white-armored mutons appeared, and behind them followed the Damocles Ethereal and the casket that had been given the title ‘Windigo’. All four proceeded into the structure, and the changeling observing them followed.

Alien lighting did a poor job of keeping the dark at bay as the changeling crept behind the four down the wide corridor. It was enough to buy the changeling time to scramble into a side passage when one of the mutons suddenly stopped and whirled about. The perspective slid up the wall as the changeling crept into the dark corner near the ceiling, and a moment later the muton marched to the hallway’s entrance with a plasma pistol drawn. A moment passed, then another before the muton turned and resumed its march through its original course.

Another moment passed before the changeling began to descend from its hiding spot, but it froze in place when a sound echoed through the corridors: a scream, then silence. The changeling peeked around the corner of the central hallway before resuming her creeping path.

A second scream came, much closer this time as the changeling approached an open doorway. The sounds of violence and desperation followed, a litany of snarls and crashing metal. The changeling spared a glance into the room as she crept past, revealing a struggling griffon strapped to what could only be an operating table. A sectoid with a bundle of spider-like metal limbs attached to its back clattered up to the bound griffon, who resumed his struggles and let out a muffled roar. Then the changeling was past the operating room, and it didn’t take a stretch of the imagination to guess why the griffon’s shouting ended shortly after. No further interruptions stopped the changeling until she had reached the next operating room.

What’s this?!” the words boomed like those of an angry god. The changeling whipped around just in time to see a massive red hand close around it. An equally red face filled the changeling’s vision, a face framed by a white beard and curving black horns. “A bug has wandered somewhere it shouldn’t be. Oh, what will we do with it? The same thing that we do with every other bug, I think...” Tirek answered rhetorically with a booming laugh that was quickly overwhelmed by a wet crunch.

The changeling’s perspective fell from Tirek’s grip and tumbled to the ground, its body falling a short moment later. Any horror that might have been felt for the changeling’s fate came second to where its gaze settled.

The Windigo sat in the center of the operating room, a pair of the operator sectoids scurrying about it. The armored plates of its hull were open, revealing what remained of Princess Cadance.

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