• Published 11th Nov 2011
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The Sweetie Chronicles: Fragments - Wanderer D


Sweetie Belle must find Twilight by travelling through different Fanfic worlds...

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Mente Materia Pt. 1

The Sweetie Chronicles: Fragments

Mente Materia Pt. 1

Based on the story: Mente Materia

Taking place during Interlude Pts. 1-3

Special thanks to my editors: Lammy, Magical Trevor, Masked Ferret, Nick & SuperBigMac

o.0.oo.0.o

The apparent peace of the cornfield was disrupted by a wave of energy and wind that pushed the tightly-packed corn stalks away from its epicenter. Energy crackled and spun, slowly raising in little blue-white tendrils as Sweetie materialized from the hooves up. Her first instinct, once she blinked the glare from the energy away was to run her tongue under her teeth, trying to sense the presence of her "Queenly Fangs". Thankfully they were gone. Not that she minded that much having them… they were really useful for intimidation, but as her counterpart had pointed out, in the end, they were more of a hindrance than anything. Especially if she ended up in another situation where she needed to prove she wasn't a "local" changeling.

Taking a deep breath and releasing it slowly, she shook her head with a smile at the thought of the other 'her' and the trials that would await Blueblood and the others. But, if anypony could make it work, it would be them.

Clearing her throat, she glanced around, taking in the perfect crop circle she was standing on top of and the feel and appearance of the cornfield. Maybe she had appeared close to Ponyville again? She noticed a structure in the distance… a farm. She started walking towards it, trying to see if it was one of the several that lay scattered around Ponyville itself.

However, something seemed odd about it. Perhaps it was that the scale for it seemed a bit off—structurally, it was very similar to the one in Sweet Apple Acres, but at the same time, not the right size for something made for ponies.

She let her senses tell her what was around her. Much like in Bitaly, the air had a different quality to it than she was used to. The elements spoke... but it was muted. The earth itself barely reacted to her presence, and although she knew she still had her changeling fae-like powers, the rocks seemed even more dormant than usual.

She was sure if she made an actual attempt at communicating, she might—just maybe—get a reaction of some sort, but for now… she might as well not have the ability for all the good it would do. There was magic here... it was just disused and stale.

With nowhere else to go, other than losing herself in the corn field and with no other markers to go by, Sweetie stealthily made her way towards the barn, mindful of any sounds that would betray somepony's presence and keeping herself in the shadows.

Despite her precautions, she was only aware of the rows and rows of plants around her; the only sound being the rustling of thousands of leaves when the wind blew between the corn stalks.

Silent as a shadow, she finally made her way to the edge of the field and gazed upon the structure in front of her. She had been correct in her assessment: the barn was very similar to the Apple family's, and it was even built right next to a two-level house.

It looked pony-made for the most part, but the scale was bigger than a pony required. Not terribly so, but certainly just enough to give her pause.

"Maybe this is a world where ponies are bigger?" she mused in a whisper. "But, where is everypony?"

Her musings were interrupted by an unfamiliar sound—a dull roar that slowly increased in volume, as if it were getting closer. It had a strange cadence to it, a constant thumping sound, almost like the sound of a knife cutting vegetables... only it would have to be a very big, very fast knife.

The wind suddenly blew around her, kicking up dust and bending the corn stalks around her.

Sweetie looked up in surprise at some sort of... machine. It was made of dark metal and glass, looking almost like a cross of Pinkie's helicopter machine and some sort of fish, with giant blades spinning over its body and on its tail.

The roar was now all around her. The wind, dust, lights and the noise the machine was producing was disorienting. Sweetie moved quickly. She needed to get out of sight.

With the idea of stealth tossed out the window, she dashed towards the barn, galloping straight into its open doors. Inside, tall crates and barrels lined the floor; Sweetie leaped behind a haystack up against the wall nearest to her, using her magic to slam the doors shut against the wind.

She carefully hid in the shadows, muting her breathing and preparing her spells. A slight shimmer across her horn allowed Akela to zoom out of the interdimensional pocket where she kept her notebook.

Several abandoned blocks of concrete piled up against the wall in a makeshift outline of a door. Whatever the situation was here, entrances to the Hedge Space were rare enough in their dimension of origin, that the chances of anypony (or thing) realizing what that actually was, would be close to nil.

A glance through a crack in the barn wall showed the mechanical contraption hovering just outside. It didn't take long for sliding doors on both sides of the machine to open, and for several creatures to drop down nearly twenty feet to the ground below.

The roar began to fade as the machine gained altitude, and Sweetie got her first clear look at what it had left behind.

There were eight of them: tall, clad in black armor, and to the unicorn’s surprise, bipedal. The tools they carried in their arms reminded her of the weapons she had seen when visiting Puppysmile's world, and they assembled quickly into formation as they approached. Clearly they were trained soldiers of some sort, and Sweetie cast another glance towards her makeshift doorway, weighing her options, but she paused when she heard voices outside.

“There’s one inside the barn, but it doesn’t feel like any Equestrian I’ve ever been around,” one stated with an otherwise pleasant tenor.

“Intelligence was right, and ahead of Bradford for once. Remember, we need the target alive. If you make a corpse, then Vide will take his time with you,” another said, his baritone voice carrying a threat that Sweetie didn’t want clarified.

“That makes things simple, then,” a third voice said, sounding more feminine than the previous two. The tone, however, left Sweetie with only more apprehension. The words agreed with the second voice, but--

The sharp snap of weapon fire caused Sweetie to flinch, and she didn’t dare look through the crack in the wall as the reports of a dozen or so shots filled the air. She heard roar of the machine approaching again, drowning everything out, only to be interrupted by a loud explosion that shook the walls and roof of the barn.

She felt the ground shake as something large crashed onto it with a screech of metal bending and secondary explosions following soon after. The only sound she could hear for a few moments after was that of fires burning outside the barn.

As silently as she could, Sweetie crept to the crack in the wall and peered outside. A half-dozen bodies littered the clearing between the barn and the house, and the burning husk of the flying machine lay on its side at the edge of the corn field.

Six bodies… where are the other two? Before she could even think to seek out the missing pair, one of the farmhouse's windows exploded outward as the two remaining creatures violently dove through it.

They tumbled a few feet before one planted a kick squarely in the chest of the other and sent it flying. Rather than hit the ground and roll into a defensive position as Sweetie would have, however, the second biped twisted in the air and landed on its feet in an impressive display of acrobatics.

The acrobatic one drew a gun from a holster on its leg. The other creature did the same as it quickly rolled to its knees, and a second later, a torrent of blood-red beams lit the area between them.

A lucky shot from the first destroyed the other's gun, and it quickly followed up with two more shots that knocked its opponent to the ground.

The fight finally ended as the first crossed the distance between the two and planted three beams into the head of the second. With no more apparent targets nearby, the victor sheathed its weapon before turning to the barn.

“Can you hear me in there?” it asked, and Sweetie recognized the feminine lilt in her voice from just before the fighting had erupted. Her empty hands were raised with palms facing outward as either a placating gesture, or to simply show that she had no weapons. “Everyone else is dead out here, so it’s just me now. I’m going to come into the barn alright?”

Whoever—whatever—these creatures were, this one was aware that Sweetie was in the barn. They had somehow seen her through the walls, so there was no point in hiding.

Sweetie prepared herself, Akela floating steadily next to her in the shadows.

"Who are you?" she finally called out. "What are you? And why should I trust you?"

“You speak English?” the creature asked with disbelief in its tone. “Nevermind. You’ve got no reason to trust me beyond my word. The others that were out here would have taken you someplace terrible, and I couldn’t allow that. If you don’t want to come out, then you should be safe until people you can trust get here. Okay?”

Despite the creature's sorely lacking assurances, Sweetie stepped into the light. She had seen the fight, and while the creature was anything but harmless, Sweetie was fairly confident that she could defend herself if worst came to worst.

"I heard you talk to your comrades... before you started the fight. You betrayed them." She circled around the female creature. She was dressed in a tight-fitting uniform designed for combat, even if it was not designed like the armor she’d seen ponies wear. "And another one of you mentioned I was Equestrian... how did he know? And who are these people you think I can trust? Are they ponies?" Her string of questions finished as she came to a stop, ready to react at a moment's even one of the creature’s fingers twitched towards her weapons.

The creature brought her hands to her helmet and lifted it upwards, revealing dark, hairless skin save for a black mane. Green eyes, tiny by pony standards, looked down at her with a mixture of curiosity and caution.

“Betrayal implies that they were on my side, but I will grant that I did shoot a couple of them in the back.” The creature’s right hand grasped the helmet which came to rest on her hip. “As for the ‘how’s and the ‘why’s, that’s a bit complicated and I don’t exactly know all the details. The people that are coming soon will be able to answer more of your questions than I can, and they’ve been working with your people for a while. I haven’t seen any ponies here on Earth for a while though.”

Sweetie considered the creature. "Earth? Is that the name of this world?" She shook her head. "Well, at least it's a new one. I usually end up in Equestria." She sighed. "Okay, I'll play along for now. How will I know these, uh... acquaintances of yours? How should I identify myself so I don't end up on the wrong side of their guns?"

A wan smile appeared on the creature’s face. “They wouldn’t attack a pony unless you provoke them They’ll be wearing black armor that’s bulkier than mine, and they should have an identifying mark like this…” She knelt in the dirt and drew an upside-down pentagon with an ‘X’ through the middle. Beside it, she drew a hexagon with a simplistic eye over a small curve. “But if you see anyone with this symbol here. Run. Don’t try and fight, just run as fast as you can. Okay?”

"I take it those are the enemies?" Sweetie asked, memorizing both symbols. "Do they have names?"

A finger pointed to the first symbol. “This is for XCOM. They’ve got contacts with your people, and they’ll keep you safe until you can get home.” The finger moved to the other symbol. “This is for EXALT. As for who is the enemy… that depends on who you ask. And don’t ask me, it’s above my pay grade.” A sheepish look crossed the creature’s face. “There’s a few more things out there that would better qualify for that label. I suppose the golden rule is: if it doesn’t look like you or me, run.”

"I've met a lot of things that don't look like either of us," Sweetie muttered. "And so far that has turned out to be the wisest choice." She sighed. "How much time do we have before this XCOM comes here? Maybe you can tell me a bit of what's happening in general, just so I have some idea." She cleared her throat as she surreptitiously dismissed Akela making the soldier raise an eyebrow. "My name is Sweetie Belle... and if you saved me, I guess the least I can do is thank you. What’s your name?"

“My name isn’t that important, but you can call me Vivi for now. As for XCOM… they could be here at any moment, depending on how far ahead their commander is seeing things,” Vivi said with a shrug before looking over her shoulder at the bodies outside.

Without a word she closed the barn door and moved to sit on one of the hay bales. She opened her mouth to speak but stopped herself, giving Sweetie an odd look. “How do you not know what’s going on? Didn’t the Ethereals nab you off of your homeworld and dump you here? There’s no way we would have brought you here, and XCOM wouldn’t be this sloppy.”

Sweetie shrugged, walking over to sit besides Vivi. "I travel to different worlds through different means than these... Ethereals might use." She frowned at the title, pondering.

'Are they creatures without substance? Maybe beings made of pure, ethereal energy?'

She shook her head, bringing herself back to the conversation. "I'm stranded here for now, but I wasn't dragged into this world by them. XCOM is an unknown entity to me... although, if you're speaking of homeworlds... you mean to imply that these Ethereals have foalnapped ponies from Equestria and brought them here before?"

Vivi’s eyebrows rose at the explanation. “We’ve been told only the Princesses and Discord were able to travel to other worlds under their own power… No wonder the Alphas and Vide wanted you so badly.” She waved a hand to dismiss that train of thought. “I don’t know what the Ethereals are doing exactly. They were attacking Earth, but we’ve got reports that they’ve moved on to your homeworld. I don’t know the details on what’s happening there, but it can’t be anything good.”

Sweetie cringed. "Do they have any sort of help?" She looked up at Vivi. "You said XCOM was working with them. Are they helping them?"

“XCOM’s best and brightest are over there to help with the defense. They’ve got every race of the world helping out, too. I just hope it will be enough for them,” Vivi explained, grimacing. “And it seems Bradford’s slipping. Normally he gets strike teams out the door before us.” She slipped the helmet over her head and pointed to draw Sweetie’s attention towards the barn doors. “When you see Captain Matthew Harris, tell him that I would have left that bastard Vide to rot back at the Alpha site if I had known the source of his orders.”

"Matthew Harris," Sweetie repeated, nodding.

A thump outside the barn drew her attention, Sweetie frowning as she felt a tremor run through the ground as if something massive had landed. The thump was followed by several more, softer thumps as whatever or whoever it was drew nearer.

She hadn't heard anything approach. How had they done that?

"Is that XCO—" She turned to ask, but Vivi was already gone.

Sweetie studied her surroundings for a bit, eyes flicking between open windows, doors and even a hole on the side of the barn's roof.

Vivi’d had plenty of escape routes, but it was the speed of her escape that was astounding.

She turned her attention back to the barn doors, backing away and bracing herself for action. Already her usual repertoire of spells were ready to be cast in quick succession, and the barn had plenty of things to use to her advantage if things turned nasty.

The first words she heard from outside the barn were not the ones she was expecting.

“Sweetie Belle? Are you in the barn?” A male voice asked, the words mangled by a thick accent. “If you’re okay, please come out. We’ll be able to take you someplace safe until you can go home. I’m coming into the barn now, okay?”

Right on cue, a gauntleted hand slipped through the gap of the door and pushed it open. Just as Vivi had predicted, another biped stood in the doorway, wearing bulky black armor that covered every inch of his body. Tilting her head, she could see several other soldiers in similar outfits just outside, inspecting the bodies.

Just as Vivi had earlier, the new figure reached up and pulled the helmet off of his head to reveal drastically different features. His face was shockingly pale and his mane was cut short. Despite the somewhat foreboding collection of scars on his face, the smile he wore was wide and genuine when he caught sight of the unicorn.

Sweetie blinked, taking note of what little she could see of the design on the right shoulder of the new arrival.

"You must be with XCOM," she began before falling back into silence. She blinked a couple of times before she spoke up again. "Wait. Hold on. First, how did you know my name? And..." She leaned in closer, looking at another symbol adorning the soldier's armor. "Why do you have Twilight's cutie mark on your shoulder?"

If it were possible, the new arrival’s face lit up even more. “Twilight? You know Twilight? Twilight taught me how to use magic months ago!”

”Me too!” Sweetie grinned. “What type of magic did she teach you? Did you have to study for hours too? I mean, I love Twi but she can be excessive about... hold on, wait, that didn't answer my question." Sweetie shook her head, but feeling that she could trust the tall... whatever he was, she approached him. "How did you know my name? And what's yours?"

“Yuri is my name!” the giant shouted, as though it would explain everything. He even opened his arms in a welcoming fashion. At least that's what Fluttershy had said bears meant, when they did that, although Sweetie could've sworn it meant they were about to crush you.

When Sweetie didn’t release him from her stare, Yuri faltered before continuing. “Commander Bradford told us that you would be here. He said your name specifically. The Commander knows things before they happen, usually. We have learned not to question it.” Yuri glanced to the side as a steady stream of heavy footfalls approached. A massive golem painted gold and silver approached and said a few quiet words to Yuri before turning and marching away from the barn. “As for learning magic, Twilight… Sweetie, are you well?” Yuri asked, blinking in amusement as he turned back to the unicorn.

Sweetie's eyes had widened considerably and a small grin twitched the corners of her mouth. "Th-that... that's amazing!" She gushed out. "Lyra would be—I don't even know!" In a flash of light she was gone, reappearing atop the golem's shoulder, peering into its entrails. "How do you make it work? Does the spell matrix stay active all the time or do you have to recharge it? What's the spell feeding it? How many nodes does it have? Is each one connected independently to a central one, or is it a single chain? How do you command it? Does it do the calculations and behaviours by itself? Oh! Wait! This is some sort of receiver! Is the signal being sent from nearby? What's the range? Who's the pilot? It has to be one of your species since it's bipedal, right? I don't think many ponies could do it otherwise! Can it fly?" She teleported again, appearing next to Yuri. "Did you design it? Or was it Twilight? Is it specifically for combat or have your people developed it for other purposes like safe construction as well? Can I take it apart to see how it works?"

“I… don’t know?” Yuri said once the barrage of questions ended. “I am best at fighting, not so good at the engineering. Doctor Vahlen or Doctor Shen would be better able to answer those questions, I think.”

Sweetie pouted. "That's too bad... I guess I'll have to wait." She followed him outside the barn, giving a curious look at the bodies around the barn, noticing the torn and cooked flesh where they had been hit. "I'm not familiar with your weapons, but they seem excessively violent." She looked around at the other soldiers, noticing that they held their positions and covered every angle effectively, acting just as aggressive in their actions than the group that had tried to capture her earlier. "I can see you guys have been battling for a while."

“Da.” Yuri nodded as he waved one hand above his head. “Most have been fighting in armies for a long time. Some of us have been with XCOM for almost a year. Others have joined more recently. XCOM takes only the best.”

Anything else he might have said was lost due to the sudden roar that filled Sweetie’s ears as an airship riding two pillars of fire seemingly popped into existence above them. A trio of wheels appeared on stubby legs beneath it as it touched down, and a broad ramp extended from the back of the craft. More of Yuri’s race poured down the ramp, though only a few wore armor. The majority carried what looked like hospital gurneys and heavy bags.

Yuri did not pay them any mind as he stepped up the ramp. “Are you coming?” he asked as he turned back to Sweetie.

Sweetie nodded, turning once to take a look at the barn for the last time before trotting after Yuri. She glanced curiously at the other soldiers and the ones that were picking up the bodies behind them before reminding herself that the quicker she went with XCOM, the quicker she would be back in more familiar territory.

o.0.oo.0.o

"Wait, so you're seriously telling me that Twilight only taught you how to levitate a coin?" Sweetie asked as she followed Yuri out of the Skyranger. There were a lot of terms and names for XCOM related things, but Sweetie was getting the hang of it.

"Seriously?" She repeated. "A coin. She was satisfied with that? If you can do that, you clearly had more potential! Can't believe she only taught you how to levitate coins! What use is that? Can't you reach the vending machine’s coin slot?"

She stopped when they reached the metallic floor of what Yuri had called the ‘hangar.’ She finally took a look around, noticing that she was inside a massive cave of some sort... probably dug out by the humans, which Yuri had finally told her was the name of their race. It was lined with metal and had several markers of black and yellow, marking off areas that could be dangerous. Several more humans in uniform were taking stock, organizing things or attaching tubes to the Skyranger.

The soldiers that had accompanied Yuri in her retrieval, as well as the large golem they had called Schutzwald also came down the ramp and funnelled out of the hangar, the soldiers sparing her honest if tired smiles and a blank expression that gave a sense of being smiled at from the golem.

"So, what now?” Sweetie asked.

Yuri raised one hand to point towards a small cluster of humans that were standing near one of the large doors going out of the hangar. “Frank will take you to get food and rest if you need it. He’s the one with the beard. Once you have rested, we may meet again.” The large human grinned widely before jogging to catch up with the rest of the soldiers.

The human Yuri had pointed out hobbled his way over with a cane to Sweetie and knelt in front of her with some difficulty. Although he was shorter than Yuri, she still barely made it higher than his waist.

“Hello, Sweetie Belle,” Frank said. “I don’t know how much Yuri has told you at this point, but I’m Doctor Frank McKendrick. You look well, but it would be best for us to run a check-up to make sure. That can wait, though, if you’re hungry or tired.”

Sweetie shrugged. "I'm okay, I was well rested before I arrived here. And I haven't really exerted myself at all since I got here."

Frank blinked at the response before casting a look to the rather severe-looking woman that approached to stand beside him. “Well, I’m glad to hear that. Let’s get out of the hangar, shall we? We’re a bit in the way,” he said as he struggled to his feet and leaned heavily on his cane. The trio made their way to the hangar exit, which was less of a traditional door than a vault door that rolled into the wall as they passed through it and closing behind them. “This is my colleague, Doctor Vahlen,” Frank introduced the woman when he noticed Sweetie gave her a sidelong glance.

“Lieutenant Romalov’s report indicated several EXALT agents were found dead and their helicopter destroyed near your retrieval location,” Vahlen asked without preamble. “I find it a bit shocking that you aren’t tired from the effort.” While the iron mask of impartiality remained in place, the faintest signs of concern showed in her eyes. “You also seem to be handling the aftermath of such violence… adequately.”

Sweetie shrugged. "I've seen worse. And it wasn't me that killed them... it was one of EXALT's own. One of them killed the others." Sweetie sat down, looking at the two humans. "The last survivor told me to call her Vivi. She also said never to trust EXALT and that I could trust you, since you’ve worked with equestrians before." She hesitated for a second. "She was a very effective fighter... and if she hadn't run before Yuri and the rest arrived I would have thought she was working for you." She raised an eyebrow. "I assume she isn't from your reactions."

Vahlen spared a glance to Frank before covering her face with her palm. A muffled string of what sounded like Germane came from her, but Sweetie couldn’t make out much more than the words ‘blunt instrument’ and Yuri’s name before she turned and walked away.

Sweetie called after her, "Lass es nicht zu dir kommen!" She smiled encouragingly at Vahle, who stopped and turned to look back at her, frowning before shaking her head and walking away.

“Don’t mind Doctor Vahlen,” Frank said with an apologetic smile. “She’s an exceptionally brilliant individual and sometimes gets frustrated when everyone isn’t as smart as her. I suspect she’s going to question our friend Yuri more directly about what he saw.”

The pair crossed through a hallway and into a meeting room of sorts, and Frank sat heavily in one of the seats, motioning for Sweetie to do the same.

“I am surprised by your reactions so far to all of this,” Frank admitted. “When Twilight first arrived on Earth, she had a hard time accepting some of the hard things we do to survive. She gave the impression that such violence was extremely rare back on your homeworld.”

"Twilight... is... a very smart pony," Sweetie said slowly, sorting through her words carefully. "A considerate teacher and scholar, always looking for the best in everypo—everyone." She frowned. "She's never been really exposed to what's out—as the poets describe—in the darkness between the stars.

“There's much more out there than any equestrian has seen, and I imagine her only struggles before this place were Nightmare Moon or Discord." Her gaze darkened. "I've seen creatures that dwell just beyond our sensory capabilities. Worlds that co-exist with ours, full of completely alien intelligences all wrapped in their own agendas... and I've seen what they can do when they try and affect this world." She snorted. "This Twilight had seen nothing until she came here, and then she just saw a little of what evils plague the unwary."

Frank’s expression fell as Sweetie continued, and a long moment of silence passed before he spoke. "Twilight was my patient here on Earth and it wouldn't be my place to tell you what she went through personally. You'll have to ask her once you're back in Equestria."

Sweetie smirked humorlessly. "So you're saying I shouldn't judge her based on my preconceptions of who she is." She sighed. "I guess you're right. It's just hard to reconcile those with Twilight Sparkle dealing with... stuff like what happened with EXALT. I'm not saying she's incapable at all, just..." She struggled for the words to explain herself. "Just... she shouldn't be exposed to this kind of thing. A pony like her should never have to deal with this kind of thing."

Frank nodded silently, but before he could say anything further, the door to the meeting room opened. Vahlen stepped through with a small object in her hands and a suspicious look in her eyes.

“I don’t mean to interrupt, Doctor McKendrick, but I took the liberty of retrieving some of the portraits that Twilight created during her time with us,” she said, giving Sweetie a wide berth as she handed Frank a small stack of papers. “According to the information she provided, there seems to be some… discrepancies between the information she provided regarding Sweetie Belle, and our current guest.” After a minute of inspecting the object, Frank placed it on the table and pushed it towards Sweetie.

Sweetie smiled, looking down at a drawing of herself as a young filly, captured in mid prance by Twilight. She didn't have a cutie mark then. "Aww, I remember when I looked like that!"

The two humans shared a glance at that answer before Frank rose from his chair.

“Excuse us a moment,” he said, and the two moved to the other side of the room.

A flurry of hushed whispers went between the two, who were unaware that Sweetie could pick up on their conversation.

“It’s a reasonable explanation, Frank. The alien modifications have been seen to increase the size and capabilities of those that receive them, and it makes sense that EXALT would attempt to retrieve her if she escaped,” Vahlen hissed quickly and she prodded a flat object similar to the one on the table. “We may need to warn the equestrians about the potential of a local EXALT cell. For all we know, their recovery operation failed deliberately so we would end up bringing her here. If she’s half as powerful as Twilight before modification, she could destroy most of the base.”

"You know," Sweetie called from the table. "EXALT had nothing to do with me being in this world. In fact, I had never even heard of EXALT until today." She glanced at Frank and Vahlen for a moment when they turned to face her with flat faces. "With being able to travel to other worlds, you can't possibly think there's only one reality, can you?" She smirked. "Besides, what good would come from destroying a base full of people that are not hostile to me?"

“The last person to visit us unexpectedly was also full of smiles and friendly words,” Vahlen said tersely. “He killed two guards with his bare hands and nearly killed Twilight, two of my colleagues and myself. If you are who and what you say you are, then you will forgive my skepticism until proven wrong.”

Sweetie tapped her hoof against her chin and leaned back on her seat, weighting Vahlen. "You put me in a difficult position, though. Any evidence I could produce that I am telling you the truth could be in turn be interpreted as me simply making things up to deceive you."

Sweetie leaned on her forehooves, looking at the pair. "For all the magical talent Yuri talked about, you seem to be far more focused on mechanical science than the arcane. I could of course provide some proof of my identity, but there will always be a chance to your eyes that I am literally making it up. What possible way could I prove to you that I'm not lying?"

Frank cleared his throat to puncture the building tension in the room. “I think what Doctor Vahlen is trying to say is that we don’t trust easily. We live in the age of unknowns, and we can’t predict what will—” The man’s face went blank before he covered his face with his palm. “Commander Bradford.”

A look of dawning comprehension appeared on Vahlen’s face as well before she mirrored the gesture and produced an impressive string of inventive Germane profanity. “I sometimes forget that he’s ahead of us when it comes to base security.” The woman tucked the flat device under her arm before heading to the door. “Mederau, your services will not be needed.”

“Yes, ma’am,” an armored human near the door said, and Sweetie did a double take as she tried to remember exactly when he had entered the room.

The point became moot, however, as both he and Vahlen exited into the hallway and closed the door behind them.

"Well," she said after a moment. "That was interesting. Didn't even notice him." She turned back to look at Frank. "Is she always that intense? It can't be good for her health."

“She’s also my patient, so there isn’t much I can say beyond what just about everyone in this organization shares. We’ve all lost someone over the course of this war,” Frank said before moving on to a different topic. “Something you said earlier has me curious, so I hope you will indulge me," He said after a pause. "Twilight was sent to Earth over six months ago by Discord, and since then we have found a way of travelling between the two worlds.”

He pulled out a handful of trinkets from his pocket and placed two silvery coins on the table. “Your world and ours are two distinct destinations that are separate from each other, like two islands in the same ocean. What you’re describing sounds more like travelling to parallel universes of the same world, rather than interstellar travel.” The point was illustrated as one coin was flipped from the portrait of a human to that of an eagle. “Am I understanding this correctly?”

Sweetie nodded. "Exactly. One small change in each one... or sometimes a big one. For example," Sweetie's horn glowed with light and another coin appeared next to the other one. "One change... sexes are inverted." Another coin. "Twilight and the others are immortal." Another coin. "Ponies destroy Equestria and turn it into a Wasteland..." She smiled as the extra coins poofed out of existence. "You get the gist. Discord didn't send me here."

Frank closed his eyes as he rubbed his forehead. “Whatever you do, don’t tell Doctor Vahlen about this. She had a hard enough time trying to decipher how magic worked when Twilight first came here. I don’t want to think about how she’ll handle this kind of revelation.”

Sweetie chuckled. "It's pretty crazy to think about, even when you're used to it." She leaned back in her seat, watching Frank warily. "But to be honest, your people scare me. You’re used to war. I can tell. You hide your secrets, doubt everything, extend a... hand of friendship, but keep the other one on your guns, ready to shoot." She shook her head. "Tricky."

“I would very much like to say that these behaviors were caused by the invaders from the void, but that would be a lie,” Frank said as he clasped his hands in front of him and his gaze grew distant. “Humanity has its fair share of saints and monsters. I’m hoping that once the threat to both our peoples has passed, we might be the better for the experience. Surviving something as monumental as an alien invasion will certainly change things, and I’m hoping that exposure to your culture will help us as well.”

"I wouldn't put so much faith in that... I've seen the best and worst of it in many worlds. I'd say your chances are 50-50," Sweetie said, shrugging. "It really depends on a number of factors, but now that they've been involved in a war..." She hesitated. "I guess finding allies so far away will bring out the good in them, or I would hope so. Tell me something, Frank, what do you really want to find out with this discussion?"

Frank seemed to weigh her before answering, “I’m a doctor, Sweetie, and you were retrieved from a battlefield surrounded by bodies. We had been expecting a filly, not someone as… worldly as you. The point of this conversation was to gauge how you were coping.” A sad look entered Frank’s eyes. “I’m afraid you’re doing far too well for what you’ve seen. Have you… have you spoken with anyone about what you’ve been through? And I don’t mean just the CliffsNotes version. I mean everything.

Sweetie fidgeted. "I... sort of..." she admitted. "I don't go into specifics... but I've talked a little to most of the friends I’ve made... I don't want to be a whiny victim." She growled under her breath. "I've seen other ponies suffer more than I have. It doesn't seem right for me to put my... needs before theirs."

“‘Everyone is entitled to their own sorrows. The heart has no metrics or form of measure,’” Frank said as he clasped and unclasped his hands. “I’ve had soldiers come to me. Grown men and women come to me at every hour of the day because they’re still haunted by what they’ve been through. Some have done terrible things for their countries, some have had terrible things done to them. The question of ‘is my suffering greater or lesser than anyone else’ is irrelevant because no one but you lived those events. If you don’t let it out to someone, it will eat away at you until you think there’s nothing left. I’m not telling you to share with me or even share with anyone else right now. Just… consider what I’ve said, alright?”

Sweetie nodded, tracing patterns with her hoof on the table. She didn't meet his eyes. "I'll think about it. For now, I believe I'll keep most things to myself... not everypony I meet is ready to hear what I have been through… but thank you for the offer."

Frank continued to eye Sweetie for a long moment before nodding. “My door is always open, day or night. If you change your mind, I’m always available to listen.” With some effort he stood before walking to the door. “The Kaleidoscope chamber will be charged and able to return you home in a day or so, so you may need to find something to occupy yourself until then. If you’ll follow me, I’ll take you to the guest quarters.”

"Alright!" Sweetie said cheerfully, jumping to the floor and following Frank to the exit, but just before she crossed the door she paused. "Frank?" she called, blinking in confusion. "Who is Cliff's Note?"

o.0.oo.0.o

Transcript of Audio Recording, Dr. Frank McKendrick, ██/██/████

Today was rather more eventful than the last few weeks have been, and that’s saying something. Commander Bradford came to me earlier today to inform me that an equestrian foal had somehow managed to find herself on Earth, and that she would be retrieved under less than ideal circumstances for someone of her age. More to the point, an EXALT extraction team would be killed while attempting to retrieve her.

Therapy with children, especially Equestrian children, is not something that I handle while on base, I will be the first to admit. I am, however, the only mental health professional on Earth who has spoken with any equestrian at length. Twilight, while not a child by her culture’s standards, was still very naive on certain topics by our own standards. This isn’t to say she was unfamiliar with conflict, as she has successfully faced down several enemies with near godlike powers.

Through luck or skill, she had never faced the prospect of death prior to her arrival on Earth. With a child born from the same environment, I was expecting anything from blissful ignorance of the violence around her, to catatonic shock. Neither probability proved true.

The equestrian that was recovered by the strike team was thankfully unharmed due in no small part to an individual identifying herself as ‘Vivi’ that killed the EXALT extraction team, which is something Intelligence needs to look into immediately, but she was not the filly we were expecting. The young mare identified herself as ‘Sweetie Belle’ and appeared closer to Twilight’s age than the adolescent I had prepared for, and she explained the manner of her retrieval with a matter-of-fact tone that I’ll go into shortly.

Shortly after Sweetie had described the circumstances of her retrieval, Doctor Vahlen approached us with some of the art assets that Twilight had drawn back in the spring. One of these art assets was of a filly also named ‘Sweetie Belle’ who shared similar mane style, coat coloration and eye color as the mare we recovered. The only differences were the lack of flank mark and advanced physical maturity. Due to these inconsistencies, Doctor Vahlen had come to the conclusion that we had invited an infiltrator into our midst, a perfectly valid concern given what has happened in the past. Of course, the odds of that happening again has been significantly reduced by the presence of Commander Bradford on base.

[[Dr. Frank McKendrick stops recording, rewinds, plays what has been recorded so far.]]

Dear God, I’m starting to ramble.

As I mentioned prior, I had expected to be treating a child until she could be delivered safely back to her homeworld or at the very least someone better equipped to deal with Equestrian psychology. The revelations about her age and origins were certainly surprising, but what gave me cause for concern was how she explained it. There was a distance in her tone that I hear all too often with my regular patients. She described the deaths of the EXALT agents in the same way Strike operators describe the deaths of aliens: she had distanced herself enough that it could be said she didn't care.

I don’t mean to assert that she suffers from some form of sociopathy as she has expressed both verbal and nonverbal cues indicating a great deal of protectiveness towards Twilight. But the EXALT operatives were never elevated to the status of living, thinking persons, in much the same way the aliens are depersonalized by Strike operators. They are obstacles that must be removed, and obstacles don’t have lives and families. This dehumanization, if you’ll forgive the narrowness of the term, lets triggermen cope with what they do. It’s this mode of thought leads me to believe that this Sweetie Belle has seen a good deal more violence and death than someone of her apparent age normally would.

When confronted on this, she confirmed my theory but declined to go into details with me. I hope she will be able to talk with Twilight upon her return. I suspect her protectiveness towards the princess may enable her to better to disclose her experiences in a cathartic release.

And Heaven knows Twilight could use someone to relate to.

o.0.oo.0.o

Transcript of Audio Recording, Dr. Moira Vahlen, ██/██/████

A rather interesting development presented itself today when Commander Bradford informed me of an Equestrian youth that had somehow found herself on Earth. Six months ago I might have questioned as to why he chose to notify me in addition to the Strike and medical teams. Now though, I realise he has a reason for everything he does. That reason became apparent shortly after meeting our wayward traveller.

She claims to be ‘Sweetie Belle,’ one of Twilight Sparkle’s younger acquaintances back on her homeworld, but the creature that was recovered is most certainly not the one that was illustrated for us earlier this year. She is several years older than expected, as well as being in possession of a flank mark which appears genuine upon cursory inspection. My first thought was a top-shelf infiltrator created by the aliens or EXALT, but Frank put that concern to rest. Commander Bradford would have seen such a deception coming days in advance.

Of course, just because this ‘Sweetie Belle’ isn’t a threat, does not lessen the mystery behind her. How did she get to Earth? Why does she so closely resemble the being of the same name that we are already familiar with? I’m hoping to get some insight into these questions over the next several days until she makes the transition through Kaleidoscope. I was able to have some cursory surveillance equipment installed in her quarters before her talk with Frank was finished. I’ll review the footage tomorrow to see if any answers present themselves while our guest thinks she’s alone.

Even if nothing comes of this, it certainly provides an interesting diversion from my usual studies. There comes a time when vivisection and dismantling wrecks become typical, and even I feel the need for a challenge.

o.0.oo.0.o

Sweetie awoke the next morning well rested.

Despite the small size of the room—especially compared to the oversized rooms Blueblood or Esteem had insisted she inhabit—it was much more comfortable than she had expected.

It reminded her a little of her own room or even the guest room at Bon Bon's house.

There was little else in the room besides the bed and desk... except for the mini-fridge. The mini-fridge was the best thing she had encountered in a long, long time.

Need a cold drink but don’t want to hoof it all the way to the kitchen? Bam! It’s there right next to you! No need to even get out of bed if you could levitate things!

She needed one. As soon as she could go home, she would invent one. Or maybe see if she could somehow set one up in her Hedge Space. Sure, they had fridges where she came from, but not mini-fridges.

The novelty of it entertained Sweetie Belle for a solid half-dozen minutes the night before, giggling at the concept.

The morning, however, wasn’t nearly as novel.

Breakfast had been provided but had hardly been imaginative. Toast, butter and honey. It was nice, but not very filling. She had mentioned eggs and bacon to the guard that brought it in, and had received a very confused look.

Maybe humans were adverse to eating other animals?

She had just finished up and was in the process of retrieving some orange juice from the mini-fridge when someone knocked on the door.

"Yes? Who is it?" Sweetie called, pulling the bottle of juice out and not hesitating in taking a deep drink.

“Yuri! It is time to show magic!” came the shout from the other side of the door.

Sweetie pressed the button beside the door, causing it to slide open. "Yuri! Are you here to show me some magic coin tricks?" she teased with a good-natured smile. "Or were you thinking of something more flashy?"

The large human had the same wide grin as always on his face, along with the heavy black armor he had worn the day before. “I’ll show you my magic! I can’t do it here though. Doctor Vahlen and Doctor Shen don’t want me destroying rooms anymore. So we go to practice range! Are you ready?”

"That sounds great!" Sweetie said, nodding. "I can't wait to see what Twilight taught you!"

“I am also curious to see what you are capable of, Sweetie,” a voice said from behind Yuri, and it took a moment for the mare to put a face to the voice. “I am very curious to see just how you compare to Twilight while she was here,” Doctor Vahlen said as she stepped from behind the large human.

"Oh, Doctor Vahlen." Sweetie blinked. "I didn't realize you were here," she admitted sheepishly. "What parameters of comparison are you thinking about?"

“Initially, telekinetic capacity for both volume and mass, then the largest number of objects that can be manipulated simultaneously,” Vahlen explained, before glancing down at a small tablet in her hands. “I had also hoped to have a demonstration of any unique spells you might be willing to share, but Lieutenant Romalov insisted on a demonstration of his own first.”

"Sounds like a good deal," Sweetie said, falling in step next to Vahlen as they both followed Yuri. "But I can tell you right now that I wouldn't be able to handle as many different objects as Twilight or Rarity can. Twilight can be obsessive when it comes to organizing things and that translates to her levitation... she automatically categorizes and reorganizes things without a second thought, and Rarity... she's not as organized, but her fine control could easily rival Twilight's. I'm... not as detail-oriented."

“According to our information, Twilight is quite gifted in that regard,” Doctor Vahlen said as she consulted the tablet. “She demonstrated the ability to telekinetically lift several tons worth of weight, and was able to manipulate nearly a hundred individual objects simultaneously when pressed to. One of her preferred means of practice while on base was shuffling a deck of playing cards using this method.”

The trio rounded a corner and proceeded down another hallway, but this one was guarded by two sentries in light armor. Both saluted as Yuri approached, and he returned the salute before joining the conversation.

“I never had magic before meeting Twilight, you know. I went to my physical and they told me to go see a special teacher to develop my talents. She taught me, Fujikawa and Rodriguez how to lift coins first day! Matt and Lana were there too!” The giant man’s enthusiasm seemed to fade as he added, “Only Matt and I are left now. I hope Twilight is alright.”

Sweetie grimaced at Yuri's words. "Twilight loves all her friends," she said. "I'm sure she misses them all."

They all stopped in front of a large door, which opened as they approached. The room past it was dark, although Sweetie's eyes could already pick out shapes in the shadows. When they all stepped in, lights slowly turned on with distant, metallic 'clicks,’ illuminating the warehouse. Inside, she could see rows and rows of statues of some sort of creatures. There were several of the same types, arranged in neat rows.

There was something unsettling about the way they were all crafted frozen in mid-action, attacking, running, shouting...

There were bipedal creatures, larger and bulkier than even Yuri, and smaller ones with bigger heads as well as some insectoid monstrosities with four legs and fangs.

But, although they were made of stone, she found no sense of life in the stone itself. This stone was literally unchanging even beyond her abilities. She couldn't wake it up or even hear it whisper. It was... empty.

"What are those statues made of?" Sweetie asked.

Yuri walked forward. “Two of Twilight’s friends died protecting her from Vide. She was very… angry, and sad,” he said solemnly as he examined the first of the bipedal brutes before turning to walk over to a human that sat at a desk in the corner.

“Every one of these statues was an alien creature that had attempted to attack the XCOM Alpha site,” Vahlen said as she rubbed a pair of fingers down a network of scars along the right side of her forehead. “To date, Twilight Sparkle has the most confirmed kills of anyone that has worked with us at nearly five hundred. The next closest is Captain Harris at just over a hundred and fifty.”

The quiet conversation between Yuri and the other human ended, and the large human came back to join their group.

“Four should be enough for me. Do you want any, Sweetie?” he asked as he waved a hand towards field of statues. “For practice?”

Ignoring the question, Sweetie slowly approached one of the statues.She placed a hoof against one of the biped’s legs, leaning forwards to whisper in the language of earth and stone. Beneath the metallic floor, she felt a muted resonance, but from the statue itself... nothing.

Twilight had eradicated all life from them.

She slowly stepped back. "I'll... see what you do, and go from there," she rasped out. She glanced at the statues. None had any trace of compassion in their features.

Could it really be so clear cut as that when it came to these creatures?

"Maybe four. I’ll take four too."

Yuri nodded and held up four fingers to the human by the desk before he waved his hand for Sweetie and Doctor Vahlen to follow. Another series of corridors came and went before they entered what could only be some form of armory, judging by the care in which the tools were handled as Yuri picked up one of them.

“XCOM weapons rely on various forms of directed energy. Laser weapons fire coherent light to melt and burn targets. Plasma functions similarly.

"Light Armor Negators use magic to punch holes where you shoot. Our older weapons used an explosive reaction to throw a projectile at an enemy with enough speed to hurt or outright kill them,” Yuri explained clinically as he inspected one of the weapons before plugging a curved box into a slot just before the rear grip. Once the box was secure, he retrieved a helmet from one of the tables and turned to Sweetie. “Understand?”

“Basic guns, yeah." Sweetie nodded before continuing. "About five years ago I shot a minigun."

Yuri and Doctor Vahlen shared a look at the mention of the minigun, but Sweetie just grinned.

"It scared the hay out of me… and I kinda missed every single target with it." Her smile faded as curiosity took hold. "So what do you do with that? Is the magic in the gun itself, or do you have to be a magic user to use the magical ones?"

“I am most effective with the projectile weapons, since it works with my gifts," Yuri explained. "Regarding the LANC weapons, anyone can use them. They run off battery.”

Sweetie nodded again. "I see, it makes sense to let everyone use them, although I'm surprised you didn't devise a way to have magic users use their own magic to replenish the battery if needed... I suppose it would depend on the output of a human magic user versus the needed energy to fire the gun, but playing around with the matrix you should be able to lower the resistance threshold for it to improve the efficiency." She clamped her mouth shut, grinning around her hooves. "Sorry... I tend to ramble."

Yuri’s smile was back in full force as he slipped his helmet onto his head. Like the one he had worn the day before, it was almost entirely black glass, with the only metal parts being around the collar and jaw line. “Not everyone with the gift can do the same things. Come! I show you!”

He waved for them to follow into the next room. Doctor Vahlen offered Sweetie what appeared to be a set of ear plugs before donning a pair herself as the next room lit up. The first four statues were spaced around the room, but the amount of damage the room itself had sustained was enough to raise eyebrows.

“Projectile guns are effective against flesh and blood. Not so much against harder targets,” Yuri explained, his voice crackling in her ears. “Watch here,” he continued as he brought the weapon to his shoulder. A burst of muffled thumps could be heard, and several puffs of powdered stone launched into the air around the face of one of the targets. “My gift lets me push things. Now watch.”

A coil of metal wires sprouting from the back of Yuri’s armor began to glow all the way down to the gauntlet on his left hand. Again, Yuri assumed his shooter’s stance and pulled the trigger. The staccato reports of weapon fire now struck Sweetie’s gut like a bass drum, and the statue began to tear apart as he slid the weapon’s muzzle down its torso. He switched targets and the process repeated itself on the second in line.

With the second target rubble from the waist up, Yuri turned to the third and stomped his left foot on the ground.

A surge rushed through the deck launching the target up into the air just in time for Yuri to eject the empty box from his spent weapon. His right foot snapped forward at the box as it fell, and the only sign that the strike had been successful was the third target shattering and a shaft of sunlight trickling into the testing area from a new hole in the ceiling.

With only one target remaining, Yuri charged and swung his left fist. There was a flash of magic and the last statue shattered as if made of glass.

“See? I push things!” Yuri said again, as though it explained everything.

Sweetie whistled appreciatively. "That was amazing!" She grinned. "I particularly like how you kicked the magazine and blew a hole through the ceiling. I can see why Dr. Vahlen would not let you practice indoors."

Yuri scratched the side of his helmet sheepishly even as Doctor Vahlen stepped forward to inspect the second target that the large man had demolished with gunfire.

“It’s less a problem of patching the ceiling so much as worrying about low-flying aircraft. It is rather therapeutic to watch, though,” she said, before planting one foot on the remains of the second target and pushing it over.

A small trolley carrying the next four targets entered the practice area as Doctor Vahlen resumed her post. Once the targets were set in place, all eyes fell on Sweetie.

Sweetie shuffled a little, taking off the ear muffs. "Well, seems it's my turn." She closed her eyes, ears twitching as if listening to unheard voices. As Vahlen watched, she bent low, muttering in whispery words that sounded wholly unfamiliar to the humans. Later on Vahlen would try to describe the experience in her report, but no matter how she put it, she couldn't convey why exactly she was filled with a sense of unease when she had witnessed it.

"This world seems to hate these creatures almost as much as you," Sweetie said after a moment. "And the magic around here is bit more pliable." She nodded. "Alright... I'm more of an up-close and personal combatant," she said before she trotted towards the four statues. "Although usually I wouldn't just march straight at an enemy."

She made her way into the center of the four statues, then, to the eyes of her spectators, she seemed to pose for them for a second. The next, Sweetie was sweeping under the four legs of the insectoid statue, which was suddenly impaled and broken into pieces by a spike of earth that had slammed through the metal floor, twisting it out of shape.

The sweep turned into an almost-glide circle around one of the smaller ones with the big heads, which was suddenly encased in solid ice, while she turned, throwing her mane around in a way that reminded her human friends of conditioner TV commercials. the bipedal, bulky statue was engulfed in flames.

Finally, the final statue, another biped, was struck by a bolt of lightning that leapt from the ceiling, singing it, but otherwise not doing much damage to the solid stone.

Sweetie slid out from the circle and, with the same flowing movements, stopped in front of the statues before something shot out from beside her, exploding through the standing trio too quickly to follow before vanishing once more.

With a grin, she bowed to her audience. "Normally, I’d blind my opponent first... I wouldn't want to risk being hit by one of those big guys, especially if they're faster than they look."

The sound of Yuri’s loud applause and laughter filled the testing area, while Doctor Vahlen continued to tap at the tablet in her hands at an increasingly furious pace.

“Remarkable,” she said, her tone less conversational and more observational. “Twilight’s testing displayed extreme control over telekinetics, space/time, and matter transformation. She never attempted more exotic forms of energy projection such as fire or lightning... “ She looked up to the mare and Yuri before nodding. “Thank you both, this test has given me some very interesting readings to study.”

Without another word, she turned on her heel and exited the testing area.

Sweetie spared a glance at Yuri. "She likes to keep busy, doesn't she?"

“She is very dedicated,” Yuri nodded, pulling his helmet off as they made their way back to the armory.

o.0.oo.0.o

Transcript of Audio Recording, Dr. Moira Vahlen, ██/██/████

Today provided some... interesting revelations.

As I thought, our guest revealed something once she was safely inside her quarters. She produced a book, seemingly out of thin air. Now, this might seem relatively tame compared to some of the things Twilight showed us, which did include the kind of matter manipulation that might be able to reproduce what Sweetie did. However, the examples Twilight provided us were mostly natural objects or things of simple nature, and the book that Sweetie revealed last night was far from simple.

The Thaumaturgical Energy Detectors were not able to recognize the spell that brought the book into being. The TEDs also detected complex layers of magic already present on the book itself. Sweetie seemed to treat it as a diary or journal, but it is clearly far more than that. I can only hope she produces the book again tonight as I’ve had a far wider range of surveillance and recording devices installed to properly document the artifact.

One of the Strike team’s Gifted operators, a tolerable blunt instrument named Yuri, provided an excellent excuse to gauge Sweetie’s capabilities under the pretense of showing off. During the session, she exercised a wide range of elemental effects on the four targets that were present.


This was quite useful for our own studies as the Equestrians that have previously served on Earth have rarely exercised those abilities. She also exercised a level of control over stone beyond what we had been led to believe was only possible by the ‘Earth Pony’ race, and only on their homeworld.

What is perhaps the most interesting revelation is the object she used to finish off the four targets. It moved too fast for us to see during testing, but high speed cameras clearly captured a small crystalline object that appeared and disappeared in rapid succession to strike each target. My initial conclusion was an elerium artifact, a potentially dangerous one if taken back to her homeworld, but further inspection disproves this. I can only speculate on the object’s composition and exact nature, but I am almost certain that it is conjured in the same manner as the book.

I suspect that both the book and this crystalline object are pre-existing and summoned from some unspecified location, rather than fabricated on the spot. If this is a teleport analog that is fast and easy enough to use in close combat, then we may have a new avenue of research for our Strike operators. The Fragarach systems are too cumbersome and slow to be used effectively in the field, so I hope to gain some new insight from our visitor.

o.0.oo.0.o

Sweetie trotted after Yuri, glancing around at the corridors as she continued to add to her mental map of the complex. "So, where are we going again?"

“Captain Harris will be joining you in Kaleidoscope tomorrow morning for the trip to your homeworld,” Yuri explained. “Twilight also helped him learn magic, though he learned a lot on his own after. I’m a ‘one trick pony,’ all I can do is push things. Captain Harris can do much more.” The large man paused for a moment, as if weighing how much he should say before continuing. “He may not be able to talk with us for long. He is very busy. Doctor Shen should be there, and I’m sure he would love to talk to you, though.”

Sweetie nodded. "I'd definitely like to meet another of Twilight's students! And what about Doctor Shen? I don't think I've heard of him before, but Vivi did mention a Captain Harris... is he the only one?"

“There is only one Captain Harris I am aware of,” Yuri said as his brow wrinkled in confusion, as the pair approached a larger door labelled ‘MEC Maintenance.’ “Who is Vivi? One of your friends?”

"Vivi. You know"—Sweetie waved a hoof—"the EXALT agent that saved me before you all arrived?"

An uneasy expression crossed Yuri’s face, the pair's momentum slowing to a nervous crawl. “Do not mention this ‘Vivi’ to Captain Harris. He will not enjoy such discussions."

Sweetie's brow wrinkled in frustration before she let out a sigh. "Well, it's not like it matters too much. I don't think I'll ever see her again anyways." She shook her head before brightening back up as they resumed their quick clip. "Why don't you tell me about Shen and Harris, Yuri? Do they like combat as much as you do?"

Yuri thought for a moment. "Doctor Shen is less a fighter. He builds things! Most of this base was made using his designs, and he helped with our weapons and armor also.” The pair stepped through the doorway as it opened, and were the subject of more than a few curious glances as they walked towards the small offices lining the engineering bay's outer walls. Yuri’s voice dropped in volume as he added, “Captain Harris is a good soldier, but he does not like it. And he has lived longer than most.”

Sweetie gave him an odd look. "Isn't that good thing?" she muttered. But then, some of what Yuri had said sunk in, and as her inner nerd emerged, the thoughts about fighting were pushed away. "Wait. Are you saying that Doctor Shen designed Schutzwald on his own?" she asked, suddenly giddy. "That's incredible! Do you think he'll let me see his design notes? I was trying to figure out how the matrices connected, and all I could figure out was that they were using some sort of metal to conserve energy because it wasn't self-sustaining!"

“Doctor Shen and Doctor Vahlen worked on the MECs. It would not hurt to ask, though,” Yuri said with a nod as he opened the door to the last office in the row. “Doctor Shen? It is Lieutenant Romalov with our guest. Is this a bad time?”

Sweetie peeked around the doorframe and spotted a pair of humans, an older one—judging by his wrinkled face—standing beside a younger one sitting at a work table set against the far wall.

“Almost done, Yuri,” Shen replied before grabbing a small tool and turning to the other occupant in the room. “Are you ready, son?” he asked as he put one hand on the seated man’s shoulder.

When he nodded, Shen inserted the tool onto the other man’s shoulder, and he tensed. A muffled scream escaped him and what little of his body that Sweetie could see was tensed in obvious pain…

And then the moment was over and his patient slumped forward.

“Connections look stable,” Shen said as he consulted a small device on the workbench. “Run through basic motor functions and let me know if there’s any problems, okay?” He gave the younger man a gentle pat on the shoulder before turning and walking towards Sweetie and Yuri. “Apologies for the delay. Is this our guest? My name is Charles Shen,” Shen introduced himself with a warm expression. “And you’re Sweetie Belle, right?”

"That's right! It's very nice to meet you!" Sweetie smiled in return. "I have to say I'm very impressed with your work, Doctor Shen! I heard that most of the things I've seen here were designed by you, is that correct?"

Shen shook his head, still smiling. "It was a team effort."

Sweetie looked at the lab around them. "There's so many interesting designs! Although your average magical creation seems to require a lot of recharging. Is that intentional?"

Before Shen could even reply, Sweetie continued, "Or is it simply due to degradation of your matrices? I didn’t get a good look at Schutzwald earlier, but from what I saw, your creations seem to operate differently. Why don’t you use standardized modules to keep them working longer?"

She blinked, noticing that all humans were giving her odd looks. Realizing she had gone full-egghead, she chuckled weakly. "I'm sorry, am I asking too many questions?"

Shen arched an eyebrow. “Well now, that’s unexpected. Twilight gave us the basic building blocks for most of our magic-derived technology but we were able to puzzle out some interesting solutions on our own. We’ve been able to shrink our generators down significantly since we completed the first Ea reactor, but they’re far too large for most humans to carry. For handheld devices, we use stored energy, though some devices are capable of receiving energy directly from a gifted individual.” Shen’s explanation trailed off as he glanced at the man behind him, who appeared to be stretching out his left arm.

Sweetie's eyes widened as she noticed the arm in question was metal from fingertip to shoulder blade, the man’s shirt pulled back to reveal puckered burns covering his entire left torso as well as a disconcerting amount of metal that entered the flesh around his collar and shoulder blade.

"That doesn't look like it was pleasant," she half-whispered with a grimace, remembering too many wounds and cleaning a mess of blood in the obsidian palace. "That looked like it was really painful when you activated it..." She continued, clearly curious, but also sympathetic. "How—Do you feel through it as well? Like a regular limb?"

The man with the prosthetic said nothing as he continued to rotate the arm through its full range of motion, followed by the wrist and then the individual fingers. Shen reached an arm out to gently herd Yuri and Sweetie back into the main engineering area with a tired smile.

“Truthfully, I don’t know how exactly the process works, or why it’s painful. It works, though. A lot of soldiers are able to keep fighting because of technology like that, and once this terrible war is over, I hope others will benefit from this, as well.”

Sweetie nodded in understanding. "So the inventions will be used for the benefit of everypony? You think they could be adapted into wings for pegasi that have lost them?"

“We’ve not tried that, but I don’t know if that would work,” Shen said as he scratched his chin. “From what I can tell, pegasi channel magic through their wings to allow them flight. From a physics standpoint, their wings are far too small to generate enough lift to carry something of their size. I’m confident we could create a prosthetic to replace the limb but channeling the magic would be problematic.””

"But what if you use matrices like the ones you use for power on the feathers?” Sweetie asked. "You could use them to disperse their magic the same as regular wings would. Might take some extra effort, but they could compensate for it once they get used to it." She tapped her chin thoughtfully before nodding. "Just splitting the source and focusing on a specific node that emulates the natural pegasi magic could work."

“That would be something to bring up with Twilight,” Shen pointed out with a smile and a shake of his head. “She’s the one who originally designed the prosthetics. My work has largely been focused on modifying and supplementing her original designs.” Shen stopped as the office door opened again and the man with the prosthetic limb stepped out.

Both the limb and the scars were hidden beneath a well-tailored uniform, the metal hand covered by a black glove.

“Everything is one hundred percent. Thanks, Shen,” the man said, his seeming pleasure at odds with his flat, hollow tone. His eyes glanced towards the elderly man and the others beside him but they did not focus on any of them before he turned to walk towards the exit.

“I’m glad to help, Matt. If you need to talk, please stop by anytime,” Shen offered, but it was clear he didn’t expect to be answered.

Sweetie watched the man walk out of the room, frowning. "I've never met him, but there's something oddly familiar about him," she said. "Was that Captain Harris?" She looked over to Shen and Yuri. "He seems really... lost."

“You’re right, that is Captain Harris,” Shen said with a slow nod. A glance to Yuri showed an almost identical look in his eyes which smacked against the usual cheerful expressions he showed. “From what I understand, you’ll be going home on the Kaleidoscope. The Captain will be accompanying you along with a few others." Charles knelt down to look at Sweetie at the same level, a somber expression on his face. "I recommend giving him space, Sweetie. He’s had a rough time lately.”

"Seems like it," Sweetie said in a hushed tone. "He looks like the world's on his shoulders." She remained silent for a little bit. "Did something happen to him? Other than the arm, I mean."

Shen grew very quiet before leading the pair into the now empty office. “Someone died. Well, that’s not quite right. Many died, and he lived. It’s… it’s really not my place to talk about it,” he finished as he sank heavily into his chair. “Don’t be offended if he doesn’t talk to you much. We all need time to cope.”

A sharp knock on the office doorway put a halt to their conversation. “Good afternoon, Doctor Shen. I hope I’m not interrupting but I heard we had someone who’s a bit far from home.”

Sweetie watched as in walked a unicorn mare with a light gray coat and red mane and tail, casting a curious glance at her.

"Uh, you guys know she's a changeling right?" Sweetie asked, looking at the mare up and down for a second before glancing back at Shen and Yuri. "Not that there's anything wrong with that!" she quickly added. "I just... I mean, this is a high security base right?"

The faux mare’s gaze went from bright and cheerful to calculating in an instant. “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. Nobody that I haven’t told has guessed what I am except for one person. I suppose the question now is ‘what are you?’”

Sweetie shrugged. "A pony. And I didn’t need a spell; I'm just used to hanging out with a bunch of changelings. You could say it's almost instinctual by now." She drifted off, memories of her training with Chrysalis flooding back to her as well as the almost-disaster with Cerci and her changeling remnants before she shook them off and forced her thoughts towards Bon-Bon. "And they're not all that bad. When you get used to them, you catch onto certain things."

“Saying that you’ve met plenty of changelings does not grant me any reassurance,” the newcomer said, the look on her face unchanging as she entered the office. “I’ve had my fill of people and ponies feigning ignorance to hurt my friends. It doesn’t matter what you are so long as you remember that.”

“Now, girls…” Shen started in an attempt to defuse the tension, but the effort was futile.

"I normally don't take kindly to veiled threats," Sweetie said, smile slipping a little. "I’ve had very bad experiences with changelings, but I have also met some that are trustworthy and honorable. What you turn out to be is still up in the air, but for now, as long as you remember that, I think we can get along just fine."

“An interesting insinuation, coming from the unknown in the room. The princesses asked me to come here with the original volunteers because I earned their trust. My loyalty to them is absolute, and I’ll do whatever is necessary to—”

“ENOUGH!” Shen snapped. His once gentle gaze had been replaced with a steely glare, and while the majority of his glare was pointed at the newcomer, just a glance was more than enough for Sweetie. “Firecracker, there is no trouble here. Perhaps you should be elsewhere until Kaleidoscope is ready? And put down all of my tools where they were on my desk, please.”

Firecracker winced at the glare that was directed at her, before nodding.

A brief glance at Shen’s desk showed a half dozen screwdrivers and other tools levitating back to their original places.

“You’re too trusting, Charles,” the disguised changeling said as she turned to leave. “Even with Twilight, you are far too trusting.” Without another word, she trotted out of the office.

"Huh... so that's how it feels to be on the receiving end of that trick," Sweetie murmured, wincing as she looked back to Shen."I'm sorry... I didn't exactly react properly there. Especially given my... circumstances."

“It’s an unfortunate convergence that you find yourself in, Sweetie Belle, in even more ways than you realize,” Shen said as he rubbed his forehead. “Trust is precious commodity these days.” The human let out a long sigh, seeming to age before Sweetie’s eyes. “Yuri, would you please see our guest out? I’m afraid I’m not up for much more talking today.”

The large soldier, who had remained serious and quiet through the whole exchange, nodded silently and motioned for Sweetie to follow as he exited the office.

o.0.oo.0.o

Sweetie groaned as she fell onto her bed.

"What a day," she muttered, rolling onto her back to stare at the ceiling. "I wish this place had a bar. I could use a few bottles of something right now," she groaned.

Letting her body relax, she let her eyes wander about the room. Everything seemed to be exactly as it had been that morning, but something caught her attention.

Just under a ceiling vent, there seemed to be some sort of metallic object that didn't appear to fit. She had certainly never seen something like that in any other ventilation system.

Curious, she carefully plucked it from the vent with her magic and levitated it down. It had some sort of thin, metallic-blue mesh on the side facing down, and some sort of glue on the other.

"What is this thing?" she asked, tapping it several times with her hoof. "Doesn't look like it was part of the vent at all! Did it fall from someplace else? I wonder what it does." She twirled it around, trying to figure out how the little light on the back worked. "Is this... electronic?"

Feeling even more curious, she cast a very low-powered lightning spell at it. The little object fizzled and started smoking a bit before the light went out.

"Aww!" Sweetie groaned. "I broke it!" She sighed.

She looked at the thing and the little sparks of electricity on it. "Hey," she whispered, "Hey you, why’d you mess it up? I only wanted you to supply more power!"

She remained quiet for a moment, nodding at the random sparkles.

"What? What do you mean you didn't know that's what I wanted?" She hissed. "Why else would I call you out?"

A snap-fzzt-pop sounded.

"Well, okay, yes, normally I do use you for battle but this thingy was not attacking me!"

Sweetie listened in dismay to the electricity.

"You... but, I—you could have asked!"

The sparks continued.

"Alright! You can look around and see if you can figure out how to make it work but—"

A soft knock on the door startled Sweetie, a brief flush of guilt and panic leading her to the conclusion that the humans already knew she’d broken the thing.

An entirely different kind of anxiety gripped her when the visitor on the other side of the door spoke.

“Sweetie? It’s Firecracker. Can I please come in? We need to talk.”

Sweetie looked to the door in trepidation. Firecracker hadn't been too friendly earlier, but perhaps this was a good thing after all. Changelings were certainly more reasonable than lightning, after all.

She opened the door and pulled the changeling in, closing the door behind them.

"Quick!" she hissed levitating the small thing up to Firecracker. "What is this, why did it fry when I shocked it and how do I fix it?"

A curious series of expressions crossed the changeling’s face, from surprise at being yanked into the room, to a narrow-eyed glare at the object that Sweetie had damaged, before finally settling on a cheerful smile.

“Many of the things that the humans make use electricity to operate. 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 but power from an external source will ‘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."

“Uh-huh,” Firecracker said as she stretched to inspect the vent, as well as under the table. Two more of the 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 our earlier confrontation. 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 fakes that try to pass as ponies, too. And then there’s EXALT.” She spat the last word like a curse.

Sweetie shrugged. "I understand... sorta." She sat down on the bed, watching the changeling roam the room looking for tiny devices. "I can be a lot to handle at times as well so... I won't take it personally if you don't." She chuckled a bit. "So"—she cleared her throat—"what Queen do you work with?"

“I serve no queen!” Firecracker hissed, though her anger seemed more reflexive than directed. “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.”

Sweetie rolled her eyes. "Chrysalis is a hassle wherever I go with all her unnecessary drama, manipulation and subterfuge." She assumed a slightly imperious pose. "You! Bring me tea! You! What news from that pest, Celestia? Did you do as I commanded? Heads will roll! You call this a report? I should have you drained and thrown back in a cocoon, you imbecile, but I cannot waste the resources! Off with you! What do you mean Cadance doesn't call her underlings 'minions?' What am I supposed to call them then?"

“I rarely spoke with her directly, but that does sound like mother dearest before the disaster at Canterlot,” Firecracker said with a suppressed laugh as she tossed two more devices onto the table from beneath the bed. “Before that, she was far more cunning and subtle.

“Something about all that love twisted her. She might have initially chosen Cadance as a target to leech emotions from using our usual methods, but I guess the temptation was too much for her. Every creature, no matter how ancient or wise, goes a little bonkers when they’re presented with so much power. In Chrysalis’s case, it was more than just a little bonkers,” the changeling mused before looking up directly into the light fixture above them. “Can you produce a light spell of some sort?”

Sweetie nodded, casting a basic 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, I guess."

Another small electronic device was telekinetically plucked from the light housing before all the pieces were slid back into place. “I hate how everything comes down to getting power... " Fireckracker sighed as she continued her search. "You know, there was a pair of railroad baronesses who were minority shareholders in the transportation utility. They concocted a plan to undermine the confidence of the other shareholders so that they would vote to buy out Princesses’ shares. I will grant you that they were triple scoop bonkers due to unsafe enchanting practices, but they did it because they wanted more power."

A small smile crept onto the changeling’s face. “I actually use coins from their hoard as telekinetic weapons. Their twisted love for their wealth is actually something I can draw on. I don’t suppose you’ve ever come across anything like that? An object so loved or loathed that an emotional imprint was left on it?”

"I've... heard of things like that in books or stories," Sweetie said after a moment’s hesitation. "But I've never seen any. It would require an unhealthy amount of investment in an object to leave such a mark though." She frowned a little. "The only thing I can think of that might be slightly similar is the Alicorn Amulet, but even then, I believe that was a mistake in the enchantment of the dweomer rather than an actual imprint of ill intentions that affected it."

“Oh, is that so? We’ve a running theory about the Alicorn Amulet that was born from an unfortunate incident with the humans. You met Captain Harris when you were with Doctor Shen, correct?” Firecracker asked as she pulled a power outlet out of the wall to remove another device from it. When Sweetie nodded, she hesitated. “Did you see his scars? And his left arm?” Another nod, though this one was less eager. “On Earth, the humans have technology that uses an alien element called ‘Elerium’ to control and boost their magical control and power. On Equestria, these same devices will burn out. Literally, burn out.”

Sweetie blinked. "I see, sort of like when I fed too much power to that device?" She pointed at the burnt thing she had found earlier. "But that doesn't make much sense in comparison to the amulet... the amulet doesn't only increase power, it actively affects the mind of the user, and it doesn't burn out."

“Excellent catch, and that’s where things get interesting,” Firecracker said, pausing long enough to replace the electrical socket and deposit yet another device on the table. “There’s a strategic resource on Equestria that we know as ‘Arcanite’, and was used during the Tribal Civil War to turn unicorn magisters into walking superweapons. According to popular history, most of it was destroyed once Celestia calmed things down. It turns out that the gemstone that’s built into the Alicorn Amulet is an allotrope of the alien's Elerium. It’s the best explanation we have for the increase in power, but regarding the effects on the mind…

“What I’m about to tell you doesn’t leave this room, okay?” Firecracker whispered.

Sweetie nodded.

“When Captain Harris sustained his injuries, he was performing arcane feats that only the princesses are capable of. He was also laughing like the jackals of the Badlands when they catch an easy kill. Lana—” Firecracker halted abruptly, taking a deep breath. “Corporal Jenkins said that he would have likely killed her if his injuries hadn’t caught up with him. He went from completely sane to total insanity in the span of twenty minutes. The running theory is that because the gemstone in the Alicorn Amulet is an imperfect sample of Elerium, the effects are less severe. But the inevitable outcome is the same: extra power, and insanity.”

"Huh," Sweetie said, tapping her chin in thought. "I wonder what sort of... personality elerium has?" When she noticed the changeling giving her a quizzical look, Sweetie grinned sheepishly. "You know... fire is temperamental, electricity is irrational, wind is playful, water is considerate most of the time and earth is generally lethargic... and don't get me started on metals." She shook her head. "But crystals and I have good ways of... understanding each other. I'm just wondering what I could learn just from looking at a piece of it a bit closer."

“I wouldn’t recommend it, but I imagine it could be arranged,” Firecracker said with a nod before giving the desk on the opposite side of the room a blank stare. She trotted over and removed the drawers to reveal another device beneath one of them. “So, I guess it’s true then. 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’ve seen things in you that I have never seen before.”

"Ah, yeah.. hehe..." Sweetie chuckled weakly. "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 inconsistent? Like what?” Another device clacked into the ever growing pile 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. As for inconsistencies with you…” Firecracker turned to face Sweetie directly, and her expression made her appear far older than she had just a moment earlier. “I’ve been following you for most of the day and I’ve yet to hear a single one of your hooves on the floor. Your steps aren’t muffled or reduced, they’re completely muted. While silence spells aren’t too uncommon, there is the fact that I can hear your speech and even your breathing if I try hard enough. There’s also the lack of scent about you. The last thing is more of a general impression. I grew up around changelings, and I know how to spot a faker or when something isn’t quite right.

The changeling raised one hoof to forestall any interruptions. “You’ve got all the idiosyncrasies and behavioral ticks I would expect from an Equestrian mare after significant conflict, but you’re something more than that now, aren’t you? Or something different at least. I won’t ask you to reveal just what you are right now, as I would certainly be uncomfortable if a stranger just trotted up and demanded to see my carapace.” The ancient look on her face turned into a wan smile. “Celestia certainly knows I’m not very comfortable letting anypony see me au naturel. This face suits me just fine, and yours suits you well too.”

Sweetie sighed. "This is my real face... but yeah, I've been through a lot of things that made me what I am today... thanks for understanding." She hesitated, pondering whether to say more but shook her head, deciding to change the topic. "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 slowly fell, and her voice took on an emotionless monotone. “Earlier this week, a joint operation between the allied races of Equestria was launched to liberate a city that had been captured by a hostile human faction known as EXALT. During the assault, several casualties were sustained, including Elaine Jenkins and Yumiko Fujikawa. These two, along with Captain Harris, were the longest serving strike operators working with XCOM. They were also part of Twilight Sparkle’s magic class while she was here.”

Firecracker let out a breath and drew in another slowly before she continued. “Both Corporal Jenkins and Major Fujikawa were slain in Canterlot, and Twilight bore witness to their deaths. She was instrumental in the capture of the two EXALT spies that were responsible. One was guilty of attacking the princess herself and Luna banished him to the moon for eternity. The one that committed the murders is in XCOM’s custody and will be executed upon Captain Harris’s return to Equestria.”

Sweetie shook her head, saddened. "That must have hit Twilight pretty hard. If your Equestria is anything like mine, I don't think anypony would have been 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 conditions 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. "What are those devices you found?"

Firecracker’s expression turned sheepish, and she looked away as she contemplated her answer. “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 she blinked again, before her eyes went wide and her mouth opened. "Wait. She's spying on me?! Is that even legal!?" She kept sputtering as Firecracker stepped out of the room, leaving her to panic on her own.

"Oh, they're not getting away with this!" Sweetie growled.

She walked to the lamp and started whispering to it. Soon the lights flickered and every electronic device in the room crackled and died, including the lights, leaving her in absolute darkness.

She blinked for a moment, before groaning into a hoof. "Smart, Sweetie. Real smart."

o.0.oo.0.o

Transcript of Audio Recording, Dr. Moira Vahlen, ██/██/████

I knew that Firecracker was trouble.

o.0.oo.0.o

Sweetie responded to the knocking on the door by forcing it open with magic. "Firecracker?" She yawned. "Is it morning already?"

“Yes, I’m afraid it is, Sweetie,” the mare in question said, and a glance to the door showed that Firecracker’s expression was sympathetic but serious, and she was clad in a uniform marked with Celestia’s cutie mark. “I figured you might need some time to properly wake up or even eat if necessary. The Kaleidoscope will be activating in half an hour.”

Sweetie yawned again. "Well, I could use some food." Her horn glowed and her disheveled mane snapped back into pristine condition, her coat clean and shiny. "Wish that spell worked with morning grogginess as well as coffee does."

“I’m sure they will have coffee available, but we’ll have to hurry,” Firecracker said as she led the way down the corridors to a large elevator. When they both entered, she tapped one of the buttons and the doors closed behind them. “What have you been told about Kaleidoscope before now?”

"People keep mentioning it, but not what it is," Sweetie confessed. "Although I presume it's some sort of portal to Equestria?"

“Correct. With Twilight’s help, XCOM was able to create a chamber that acts as a teleporter to Equestria, and it has been enchanted so two-way travel is possible from the destination,” the changeling explained as the doors opened. The pair trotted down another series of corridors to the mess hall and directly to the coffee machines. “I don’t know how it will measure up to your normal methods of travel between worlds, but it is rather jarring, and not like a regular teleport.”

"I've had all sorts of teleportations... some were pretty bad, but I'll keep that in mind," Sweetie replied, levitating a mug and filling it with coffee. She glanced at the bacon forlornly. "Too bad we don't have time for breakfast. I could eat a whole pile of bacon."

The latter comment elicited an arched eyebrow from Firecracker. “Is that so?”

Sweetie chewed on the single slice of bacon she had shoved into her mouth. "What?"

“You might want to keep a lid on those appetites when you get home. Or at least until I’m back on duty so I won’t have to try and explain it,” Firecracker said, arched eyebrow still in place as she levitated a water bottle from the cooler to drink from. “We best get to the Kaleidoscope chamber. If nothing else, it’s better to be early than late.”

Sweetie shrugged and stole another piece of bacon as she followed Firecracker. "What's wrong with liking bacon? It's delicious!" When Firecracker didn't look back at her, Sweetie simply shook her head.

The pair entered the corridors again and made their way back to the elevators. They descended two floors before the doors opened to reveal a nearly identical set of hallways. “I suppose I should continue where our previous conversation was interrupted. The Kaleidoscope uses an artificial teleportation matrix that mimics a unicorn’s natural spellcasting. The transition can be rather… jarring.”

Sweetie nodded, sipping her coffee. "I imagine it requires a tremendous amount of power on both ends. The originating pull must be a concentrated blast, rather than a regular flow of magic, which causes the jarring effect... such as snatching away a ball rather than letting it roll down an incline."

She considered her theory for a moment. "I think if there was a concentration of magic just as strong on this side, the Kaleidoscope wouldn't have to compensate so much and would create a more stable teleportation. XCOM might want to consider investing in some Elerium-fueled switch that could release an equitable amount of energy on this side of the teleporter so that both could... I guess meet in the middle would be the best way to put it?"

Firecracker shrugged. “I’ll be the first to admit that I’m just a passenger on this trip; I don’t understand the thaumatology behind it. The impression I had was that the jarring sensation was due to the artificial source of the teleport, much like how some pegasi feel uneasy flying in airships.”

She glanced at the machine and chuckled. “I think everyone’s just happy it works. Maybe they can iron out the kinks once the aliens stop trying to kill everyone.”

Sweetie chuckled sheepishly as well. "Sorry I went off on a tangent like that, I tend to do that when I find new magitech... I'll probably have a new theory once we go through it, but I'll try not to share it."

She downed the last of her coffee and left the mug on a nearby desk. "I don't suppose you know who will be waiting for us on the other side?"

“On the other side? In a situation like this it would normally be Captain Armor with an escort but he has... responsibilities.” Firecracker waffled over the explanation. “It might be Captain Shot or Captain Song instead. Truth be told, I don’t know for certain who will be waiting for us.”

Sweetie chuckled. "It'll be nice to see some familiar faces. My last world was far from home, and well, even if I saw some very familiar faces, I miss my family. Even if it's extended through the multiverse."

“They may have been informed already, so you might end up seeing them sooner rather than later,” Firecracker said as the pair approached one of the largest doors yet. Rather than swing on a hinge or split down the middle to open, the massive vault door rolled slowly into the wall beside them. The pair stepped through and the door closed behind them.

The entrance to the chamber was sectioned off from the rest of the area with thick glass windows and concrete walls no doubt intended to resist explosive strengths. Similarly armored control booths lined one wall, while various pieces of equipment had been stacked in an orderly fashion on the central platform.

The platform itself was lit from below as power flowed into the mechanisms, which gave the entire affair an ominous hue. The only person on the platform was Captain Harris, standing ramrod straight and with his gaze locked on the countdown timer on the far wall.

Sweetie silently approached the human, holding at a respectful distance and sitting down to wait. She glanced at the Captain Harris, but he didn't seem inclined to acknowledge her presence. For all she knew, he was not particularly stable if what Firecracker had said was true. So, she took a deep breath and resigned herself to a long wait, looking at the equipment around her but not really feeling like taking a closer look. Harris' attitude seemed to suck the energy out of the room.

The countdown clock on the far wall continued to tick down, and the only sounds in the chamber was the low bass hum of machinery charging up and the human workers scurrying about in their preparations.

Firecracker’s nervous whispers joined the countdown all the way to zero.

And just as the changeling had predicted, the transition was jarring.

In a flash of light, Sweetie lurched, her stomach and various other vital organs seeming to spread out across the cosmos, a burbling flood of bile coursing up through her distended innards soon followed by a flash of brilliant violet light.

...And as suddenly as it had begun, Sweetie was standing in the middle of a large crystal cavern coughing and hacking.

It was not unlike the one she, Scootaloo, and Apple Bloom had fought a dragon-creature in. The cavern had enough railings and metallic paths for all of them to make their way down from the platform carefully but safely, and although she had never visited, she recalled Twilight's description of the caverns under Canterlot to quickly realize where she was.

As she regained her footing and control of her gymnastically inclined stomach, Sweetie immediately recognized two ponies at the base.

"Rarity!" she called happily, waving at her sister’s interdimensional counterpart. "Applejack!"

The two ponies stared at her for a moment, before Rarity took a hesitant step forward and said… something completely incomprehensible in a language that Sweetie had never heard before in her life.

"Well, that's... unexpected," Sweetie whispered.

o.0.oo.0.o