• Published 5th Jan 2022
  • 1,414 Views, 261 Comments

Return to Sender - Starscribe

After first contact with true aliens goes disastrously wrong, Equestria's chosen explorer has very little time. She must discover a way to communicate with this new alien race, before her discovery can be turned into a smoking crater.

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Chapter 1

Felicity stood at the edge of the Alcyone, where the complex interplay of simulation fields and her implants fooled her senses into thinking she was looking out on the barren void of space. If she squinted just so, she could see one star that was brighter than all the others, its welcoming orange glow the herald of what they’d come to find.

The planet of course would be far too small to see at this distance. But she wanted to keep looking, as though the familiar call of life would cry out to her through the void.

It didn’t, but her first officer did from just behind her only moments later. “I’m getting green signals from all decks. I barely even felt it.”

She spun, turning away from what she knew was really just a flat, alloy wall.

Just now, every member of her crew was here for the momentous occasion. Mostly ponies, looking small in the vaulted space meant to accommodate other creatures. First Officer Watts was the only human among them all, but the ship wasn’t meant to be unique. With luck, there would be many more Alcyones, and many more signs of civilization and life to discover.

“Of course you didn’t feel it, Collin.” Chief Engineer Escape Gear glared up at him, sticking out her tongue. Felicity was frankly surprised it didn’t have holes like the rest of her. “You’re human. You wouldn’t feel the spells in your shower if they didn’t heat the water.”

For all that her modest crew—friends, really—crossed every species and creed, they all wore the same uniforms, simple blue and white with modesty appropriate to the race wearing it. That meant slacks and a jacket for Collin, while Felicity only had a vest and appropriately sized captain’s hat. Her mother might be weird about stuff like that, but she never had been. She’d been born to this.

“This is great and all, but you should really be watching these readings,” Martin said, gesturing at the gigantic screen hovering in front of the sensor station.

They hadn’t, but now Felicity looked. Her wings jostled slightly as she squeezed in between the others. True, any of these consoles could be replicated and moved anywhere in the bridge. But there was something that felt right about standing beside her friends while they saw it.

Martin had zoomed in on a planet, their target. “Looks exactly like what Harmony told us,” he continued. “Oxygen atmosphere, with trace concentrations of carbon dioxide. Stable surface temperature between ice melting and water boiling.”

“We are closer now,” said a voice, echoing evenly through the room. Chorale could speak directly to them, though it generally didn’t. It wasn’t the unknowable being it had been copied from, but only the tiniest sliver. Enough that sometimes, Felicity could almost imagine she understood it. “My sensors read organic molecules in the atmosphere. No radio bleed, which is less encouraging.”

“We expected that,” Lexis cut in. “A civilization that survived this long might very well have developed customs that helped preserve them. Avoiding outward signs of sophistication would be the most obvious.”

“There aren’t any space stations or orbiting satellites we can see,” Martin said, sounding a little disappointed. “But I’m sure we’ll find something, Felicity. Maybe they’re just being careful, like she said.”

“And I’m sure we’ll work that out great,” Gear said. “I like making friends too, but I like being able to go home in this century even more. Did you finish your scan for metals yet, Martin?”

“I did,” Chorale interrupted, before Martin could say anything. “I found a few objects of more direct interest if you incline your eyes forward.”

Felicity did, and watched as the view panned, zooming forward to a large planet—what Pioneering Society dinosaurs like Martin would probably call a “super-Earth.” The rocky world had been completely shattered, with chunks so large that some of them were beginning to round in their own gravity. A smaller view superimposed on the first, showing structures blanketing some of them.

“We are only a refrain of the vast Harmony, and do not know this particular world. It appears it was removed from our cartographic records.”

“That seems stupid.” Collin fumbled at his belt for the sidearm there—only he and Felicity carried them. He didn’t actually draw it. “Why wouldn’t you be given everything about our known destination?”

“I do not know,” Chorale said. Its voice might be imitating fear, or maybe it was genuine. Felicity could never tell. Though hearing any emotion from it was reassuring. She’d only spoken to Harmony the one time she could remember, and it wasn’t an experience she was eager to repeat. “The Harmony has a purpose for every action it takes. But it may be that it did not know. Perhaps it didn’t want to petition a program that had executed its purpose to relinquish control of the systems it should have given up a country ago.”

Now that Felicity recognized, even if its actual words didn’t make sense to her. “That wasn’t an answer, Chorale. Can we build a Displacer here, or do we have to do something more… conventional?”

“I believe a direct return trip is possible using materials we can harvest on this planet,” it said.

“Ex-planet,” Martin muttered. “Damn, that thing looks big. I don’t want to think about how many people died on it.”

“The number is an insignificant fraction of those the Tide slaughtered,” Chorale said. “Do not mourn for them. All the galaxy burned in it equally. This is not unexpected.”

“We didn’t come here to be grim,” Lexis said. “We didn’t even know about that place, but it proves there was life here once. Maybe some of it survived, and it’s living on that planet right now.”

“Get a probe out, Chorale,” Felicity ordered, crossing in front of her crew and adjusting her little hat in her bright red mane. “Make it quiet. If these people have been hiding for their lives for years, we don’t want to panic them.”

“Probe away,” Chorale answered. Felicity could feel it through her hooves, though only for a second. A slight vibration from several decks below, and a brief flash of engines. “Forty hours until it reaches the planet. We will keep the crew synchronized regarding its discoveries as its path progresses.”

“Perfect,” Collin said, nudging past the other members of the crew. “Now if you don’t mind, I’ve been planning the most amazing first-manned-ship-to-leave-Harmony party, and I think it’s high time we all get there before we miss it.”

“We’re the only guests,” Gear said flatly, glaring up at the towering human. “How would we miss it?”

“By getting so caught up in our adventure that we don’t get the chance to relax,” he answered, taking another few steps back. The automatic doors expanded like an iris, opening to a gently rounded hallway. Simulation field windows lined the walls, showing realistic depictions of the starfield outside.

Eyes seemed to settle on Felicity—Martin would rather keep working, Gear wasn’t much for socializing. Lexis wanted to be wherever the people were.

And Felicity thought they could use one last chance to take stock before they dropped down into the answer to Equus’s most important questions.

She turned away from the bridge, following Collin through the open doorway. “He’s right, we may not get another chance. Chorale, interrupt us the instant there are any meaningful discoveries. And… you should come too.”

“Me?” The ship’s AI sounded somewhere between incredulous and flattered. “You can’t do anything in which I am not an integral part. I can enjoy your festivities as an observer of your success”

That might be true for Harmony, but I’m not so sure about you, Felicity thought, waiting in the doorway as the rest of her crew made their way out. It’s an unfathomable digital god. But so far you’ve been more like the Forerunner.

“I will… attend,” Chorale said, a moment later. “Though I make no promises about my cheer during the occasion. Only that I will remain entirely attentive to affairs outside.”

“Let’s just make it quick,” Martin muttered, glancing briefly out the window as they passed, as though he expected to be able to see the distant planet outside. He couldn’t. “I don’t want my pants down when we find out there’s really a planet with life out here.”

“Should’ve chosen a human body then,” Collin called, tapping his belt with two fingers. “Whoops! I’ve got more pants than this whole crew combined. Look at that.”

Lexis grinned mischievously. “Technically we don’t have any replacement human bodies ready, Collin. If something happened to you, you’d be instanced in a pony. Wouldn’t that be funny.”

“Still won’t date!” he called, rounding the bend and out of sight. But despite the friendly jab, Collin waited for them at the lift, and held it with one hand as the crew entered. Even though it being the entire crew of the Alcyone, they all fit comfortably.

There was no reason the two inhabited decks couldn’t be comfortable. They emerged from the lift into the common room, which had been transformed since Felicity had passed through to her morning on the bridge. How Collin had found the time to put up streamers and bake human treats, she didn’t know.

You’re wrong about them not having magic, Gear. He’s got a cutie mark, what do you think it’s for?

A figure already waited for them, a pony with a simple white coat, white mane, and completely black eyes. Her cutie mark was a perfect recreation of the elliptical Alcyone, depicting from the front on one flank and from the retreating engines on the other. Chorale wasn’t a pony, so she didn’t have to follow their rules.

“Research leads me to suggest that there will be dancing,” she said, smiling at them like she’d just figured out how. “I have studied extensively during your elevator ride should the need arise.”

“That’s… good,” Collin said. He patted her affectionately on the head, as he never would’ve done to any of them. Well, maybe Lexis, but the rest of them pretended politely not to notice that. He made his way over to the refreshment table, stepping behind it. “Well then, let’s eat this stuff. I didn’t spend three days printing sugar to dump it into the biodigester.”

Felicity ate with everyone else, danced along to the music with everyone else, though she would’ve rather gone to the shooting range. But Collin was the only other member of the team who even remotely cared about that kind of thing.

Alcyone wasn’t a military ship—if one was needed, none of them would be here. Felicity hadn’t come here to fight; she’d come to explore.

There were no new developments for the probe to report during the celebration. Martin asked every ten minutes or so, apparently not listening or caring that Chorale had promised to update them as soon as anything happened.

One by one they left—Gear first, then Martin back to the bridge for another dose of Alertness and probably forty hours of staring at screens. Then Lexis, and Collin stealing casually away down her hallway when he thought Felicity wasn’t watching.

Felicity grinned as she watched him go, settling into the comfortable nook with her coffee. She hadn’t had anything to drink with the others—even if the chances of anything going wrong approached zero, their captain had to be prepared.

The simulation field beside her was filled with the Alcyone’s status information, still green from every deck. Chorale approached slowly, wearing only a paper hat. Her eyes still seemed uncanny to Felicity, but she was polite enough not to say so.

“You should rest, Captain. Nothing meaningful will happen until we receive new information. If there are survivors here, there is no rush to meet them.”

“I know.” She sipped at her coffee, the only direct answer to the request for bed that she needed to give. “But it’s like Martin said—I want to be awake the instant we know. Did we come out all this way to learn we weren’t alone? Or just to waste six months building a machine to send us home?”

“The latter,” Chorale answered, without thinking. “All life was destroyed during the Tide. Only Equus was preserved.”

Felicity shook her head. “I don’t know about that, Chorale. I think that… if Harmony has anything like a religion, I think that might be part of it. But it doesn’t fly with me. Nature doesn’t really do little numbers. You either get zero, or infinity. We know it wasn’t zero, so what does that leave?”

“Organic hopes and biases,” Chorale answered, removing its hat and setting it down beside her in the nook. “I suppose you’ll be awake when my sensors confirm what we already suspect.”