• Published 5th Jan 2022
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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 10

Felicity really should’ve expected just what meeting Fleet Command would entail. Like everything else the Vach’nai did, it meant moving through digital space.

“It’s far safer than organizing any fraction of the command structure on a single vessel,” Marcus explained, once he’d walked her through how to use the pod. This one was considerably more complex than anything she’d used in the digital simulation of this ship. Which… really just raised more questions than it answered. How many layers was she on, anyway?

“We must always appear entirely homogenous to our enemy. There is no target of priority, no central node that might disrupt the fleet if attacked. This way, the only way to destroy us is to entirely eradicate the fleet.”

“Most enemies are unprepared for it,” Tomoe added. “A given enemy might be able to fight through casualties of ten percent before it breaks, if they’re exceptionally well-trained. Most would crumple at half that number. Statistically speaking, this fleet can suffer casualties as high as sixty percent before a single member of Fleet Command is lost.”

“That seems… grim.” Escape Gear hadn’t gotten into her pod yet either, though for her the process was simple. It was the price she’d paid to easily integrate with these aliens. Felicity would take the inconvenience to keep a body she was familiar with. “For that to work, doesn’t it mean that this ship has to spend some time on the outside too? We’re all at risk of… whatever attack comes.”

“Yes.” Marcus didn’t sound like the prospect bothered him much. Or even that he was thinking about it. “But we will be restored from backups on other vessels if that occurs. With the… possible exception of our guest. I don’t know how her primitive biology could be… cultured by our machines.”

You guys are no end of friendly. But no matter how many times they said it, Felicity couldn’t help but pity in return. They could call her primitive all day, but if her body died she wouldn’t just be a clone. They were the ones who had to live with the fact that they were many-generational copies of their original selves.

“Anyone in command could give you the same explanations, probably with far more useful details. We’re keeping you.”

No, I just don’t want to use your stupid machine. Felicity climbed in, feeling its various parts latching onto her like an oversized parasite. More accurately, it was a total life-support device, which she could remain inside for months or maybe even years without serious side-effects.

But Felicity wasn’t Varch’nai. She was going to be out there doing things, not sending a robot suit to do them for her.

For a few seconds she drifted, feeling every awful sensation as the life-support’s connection to her grew more complete. It wasn’t so much that the pod ever vanished from her perception. Rather, her sensitivity to it faded until it was background.

Then she was standing on the interior of a sphere, so small that she couldn’t imagine how it could create even gravity pointing out in all directions. Her stomach turned over, but there was no connection to let her puke. So all she could do was wobble forward a few steps, then drop to one foreleg to catch her breath.

In the space above her, she saw the Atreides, recreated in a faintly transparent form that let her see through to the other side if she wanted. There were other beings here, each one standing somewhere in the sphere.

“Head trip,” Escape Gear whispered from beside her. She lowered her head, so she was close to Felicity, whispering quietly. “As impressive as this looks, it doesn’t seem very easy to get strategic information when the model is all the way up there.”

Then they saw why that was—the others in the sphere waiting for them were flying. They didn’t have wings, or seem to be using unicorn levitation. They just… flew.

“The witness has arrived,” called one, loud enough that it carried over the gentle hum of machinery. “Join us here, primitive. Let us discuss.”

Felicity ground her teeth together, glowering up at the figure. They wore even fancier robes than Atilla, with more ribbons and colorful stitching. There had to be some order to it, but to Felicity it only seemed like chaos. At least it was pleasant to look at, like a foal’s watercolor spun from silk.

“Go ahead,” Escape Gear said. “I’ll… figure out what they’re doing. Let them keep staring down at me here and see if they get self-conscious.”

They probably wouldn’t, but Felicity took off anyway. She was no expert aerobat, but it didn’t take much for her to hover in the air beside them. Whatever they were doing to fly effortlessly like that, she couldn’t imitate.

She was struck again with just how delicate and graceful these creatures looked. For a race renowned for their military prowess, some part of her brain still struggled to reconcile. There were about a dozen of them here, taller than she was yet graceful enough that she couldn’t tell which were male and which were female. Did the difference mean anything? Maybe they outsourced breeding to the ship too.

“We’re not here to waste time with pleasantries, Gant. Just see what she thinks.”

Of course, treating me like that is extremely pleasant. I’m so glad you invited me here.

“We detect only a single ship in the entire system,” said the first one who had spoken. Gant? She guessed that was a male name, given the deepness of the voice. But that might be more trying to apply pony meaning to creatures that didn’t have it. “Is this familiar to you?”

He pointed, and Felicity followed his thin hand. There in the model was the system—six planets, though only two were rocky and one habitable. There were thousands of other contacts, things she didn’t recognize. Spinning bits of… were those dead stations?

Yet only one object was moving under its own power—the thing that killed their ship. It had changed course to glide directly towards the fleet, though not under any great speed. At the rate it was accelerating, it might reach them in three months.

“Yes,” she whispered. “That… that’s what killed the Alcyone.”

The Varch’nai had more information about it than she’d seen—tactical readouts that displayed lots of little numbers as it moved. Trajectory, exterior temperature, estimates of its weapons and engine locations.

“I think I know why,” said another voice, belonging to someone in different-colored robes. Instead of light colors, his were dark, with a golden gear shape on the back. Almost like a cutie mark, though Felicity was too wise to equine things. “Interlocutor Mesmer. This debris around the system isn’t as dead as it appears.”

Thousands of objects lit up, each one roughly planar to the ecliptic and about an AU apart. “Your ship wasn’t fighting that thing; it was fighting all these.”

“Disruption Array,” Gant whispered. “Distributed so effectively that they couldn’t see.”

“They wouldn’t have seen them,” Mesmer explained. He touched one with a finger, and it expanded to fill the entire space between them. A hollow section of slowly rotating ship’s hull, packed with live electronics deep inside. Rusty-looking metal machines, projecting transparent lines out in several directions.

“Your long-range sensors rely on…” He gestured dismissively with one hand. “Magic, you call it. I suspect all your systems do. This array likely remained dormant until you attempted to defend yourself, or flee. Then they all came to life, and all the magic on your ship stopped working. Your shields, your weapons… all apparently running, but doing nothing.”

“And we died.” Felicity flew closer, rotating with the debris so she could stare at the machinery inside. It did look simple, something thrown together hastily and cheaply. “You’re probably already surrounded, aren’t you?”

Gant smiled, some of the others did as well. Others just waited, looking pensive.

As she waited, Felicity tried to get an understanding for who all these other creatures were. Captains, maybe? Some ships were entirely automated, but they represented the vessels with a real presence in the fleet.

Finally Mesmer spoke again. “These are a… primitive design, compared to several we have on file. We would have to capture a few for study to be sure, but I don’t believe they will have any impact on this fleet.”

“Then we should leave them up,” said someone else. She seemed to sense Felicity’s eyes on her, because she explained. “Captain Ordin. Admiral, I believe there is great tactical benefit to the deception. The longer they believe we’re as vulnerable as the last ship that arrived, the longer they think we’re more prey. If we start dismantling them now, they might run.”

“Run where?” Escape Gear spoke from the ceiling, or the ground, or… it was below Felicity right now, though she couldn’t look in her direction for more than a few seconds without feeling sick. “There’s a civilization on that planet, that’s why we came here. If they run, don’t they leave their homeworld vulnerable?”

Closer to the aliens, Felicity could hear the muttering of frustration and disbelief loud and clear. “Who is that?” “Why is she speaking, she’s barely dressed?”

This isn’t real, right? It’s like a worse version of Upstream. Felicity reached out with her magic, lifting Escape Gear as carefully as she could. Even so, it would feel like being restrained, trapped in a grip that wouldn’t let go. “This is Escape Gear, she was my engineer. The… only other survivor of the Alcyone.”

“Technically I was the first to die,” Escape Gear said, either not noticing or not caring how the aliens were feeling. Probably the latter, considering she was a changeling. “Which meant I was the easiest to send.”

She pointed at the map, obviously uncomfortable to be held in the air. But she didn’t say anything. “Look at the planet. There are cities, energy. I think we got traces of heavy isotopes suggesting nuclear power, but don’t quote me on it.”

More muttering, though Felicity’s effort had the desired effect. The mood shifted from frustration at Escape Gear to actually considering what she had to say.

“It’s possible they’ll shift to defending the planet,” Gant admitted. “But it’s also possible they don’t care. Those living below might not even know. You were baited into this investigation, were you not? A probe detected a system with intelligent life that had survived the Tide. The signs you saw below might be false, or they might be incidental to whoever hunted you. We can’t know until we send someone below.”

“That priority is secondary,” declared a harmony of voices. Suddenly there was another creature in the air with Felicity—an alicorn made of metal, wearing an immensely complex series of overlapping robes and symbols. It had no modesty to care about, but clearly the explosion of color meant something to these creatures. They fell silent, so much that there wasn’t even a whisper as Harmony continued. “Do not waste your focus on the planet unless we later discover its population are involved. The warship is your target. Destroy it, then we can divert our attention to dismantling the minefield.”

“We will.” Gant didn’t bow, though he did keep his tone neutral. “But you can’t micromanage us, Harmony. How my fleet chooses to approach this problem is our decision to make. That was our arrangement.”

Harmony’s eyes were only glowing spots on its face, but even so it seemed to glare at Gant. To his credit, the Fleet Admiral didn’t break. It was the machine that flinched first. “We will not. We will continue to expect obedience, however. Reclaim my lost citizens or avenge their deaths.” It vanished, leaving a faintly glowing after-image before the gentle darkness of space returned.

“I would like to probe its capabilities before committing to a serious engagement,” Gant said, finally breaking the awkward silence. “Visitors, will you consent to be aboard it? Remotely, of course. There is significant chance the scout will be destroyed. But I would like you to compare your experience confronting that ship with your own first meeting.”

“Yes.” Felicity didn’t hesitate. “I’d love to see those bastards burn.”