• 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 11

Despite her elevation to Alicorn, Felicity hadn’t worked on many ships during her service to the Forerunner. There was no great mystery behind her record—back around Equus, there just weren’t that many ships to go around. A few service vessels traveled back and forth from the ring’s surface to Forerunner’s station far above, where the assembly of their exploration ship and presumably the war fleet had taken place. Felicity had captained one of these for several months, doing little of consequence and never in any danger.

In all her service, she had never operated a ship she knew was doomed. A strange world she entered, where an entire crew could board a starship destined for destruction without caring that they had only days to live.

Such was the strange reality of Gant’s first orders, and the scout ship Orion. Yet Felicity’s body was still locked away in her complex and uncomfortable life-support pod, while her mind reached out to control something distant.

The Varch’nai had made only a nominal attempt to give her a pony body—the one she controlled looked to her like herself, but she sometimes caught her reflection out of the corner of her eye and saw a basic plastic skeleton without wings or a horn. Or any of the magical hardware that Harmony had installed in her actual chest, which was far more pressing. It meant her presence was entirely intellectual, and she could offer no practical benefit to the crew.

The transition from captain to passenger was even harder in its way than the knowledge her ship was doomed. Varch’nai rushed around at every moment, moving puppets of their own. They had colorful robes here instead of armor, which didn’t cause any of the inconvenience of the real thing.

At least they gave the two of them a position on the bridge, even if they were to have very little to contribute to the encounter.

“You’re free to disconnect if this grows too difficult for you,” Captain Ordin said, from her own captain’s chair. The bridge wasn’t anything Forerunner would’ve designed—it was tucked deep inside the ship, spacious and airy.

Though the expense for fancy simulation hardware hadn’t been paid for something destined only for destruction, there were wooden slats on the walls, a running fountain in the center of the room, and comfortable cushions in front of each station. The air was filled with lavender and saffron, in a low haze that obscured many of the screens to Felicity’s eyes.

That’s how you prepare for battle? Incense and tea?

“I don’t think we will,” Escape Gear said. “But I am curious about the delay. I thought maybe we’d have data transferred and run up here, but…” She glanced sidelong at Felicity. “That can’t be it. She’s here too. Where’s the light lag?”

Ordin grinned at them, somewhere between mischievous and proud. “That innovation is what allowed our fleets to be so powerful in the Amalgam Wars. Even if I knew the secret, I wouldn’t be allowed to share it with you.”

And from that grin, I’m guessing you know. It was something to be proud of, surely. Maybe Escape Gear had a guess at how it worked. But if she knew, the not-changeling said nothing, only nodding once with satisfaction. Apparently, it was enough to her that there was some method, and she didn’t care how it worked.

“How close are we to intercepting them?” Felicity asked instead. “I assume you’re trying to talk long before we get there, right? Demanding the return of our crew, threatening them with horrible reprisals if they don’t… that kind of thing.”

Ordin nodded, sipping delicately at her tea. “We’ve been sending them demands like that since we arrived in the system, pony Felicity. They haven’t replied, and we weren’t really expecting they would. The kind of civilization willing to attack travelers without explanation isn’t the sort that’s usually open to negotiation.”

Felicity’s ears perked, and she tried to overhear the crew as they rushed from station to station, doing… something important, presumably. But none of their words made any sense. Maybe they weren’t supposed to. “So, when do we escalate?” Escape Gear asked. “I’m still learning to read your tactical readouts, so I’m not quite sure…”

Ordin nodded once towards the map in the center of the room. It showed a faint grid in the air, marked with little numbers relative to position. There were suggestions of planets and other large objects further away, though none of those were terribly important to her. All that mattered was the ship in the distance, getting closer every moment.

“How is it accelerating that fast?” she asked. “If it can generate the energy to move like that, shouldn’t it be radiating all that out into space? It’s so cold.”

“Could be a stealth ship,” Ordin answered noncommittally. “We have something similar—thermal capacitors that fill while we’re running some dangerous or tactically critical maneuver. Gives you a little time to get into position or strike a target.”

But they’re not hidden, Felicity thought. We’re watching them right now; they’re not even trying to hide.

Ordin settled her glass down in front of her, grinning at them both. “Anyway, we’ve already begun firing on them. Every artillery crew is rushing new calculations to compensate for the object’s rapid acceleration. But we should start seeing impacts soon.”

Felicity’s mouth hung open. Why are you shooting already? That ship still looked so far away! Not only that, but how could they know the enemy ship wasn’t about to make some move of surrender, or cooperation? For all they knew, it couldn’t communicate without getting up close. Shooting at it, by contrast, was likely to be a universal signal, even if no part of their language was compatible.

“Get me a better view,” Ordin instructed, resting both hands gently on her lap. The map shifted to an image of the approaching enemy ship. It was blurry and slightly out-of-focus, but that still seemed like a monumental achievement for any optical system.

Felicity leaned forward to squint at the screen as the first barrage of projectiles approached the vessel. She never would’ve been able to see them with any optical system of course—the projectiles were just too fast moving and far too small to see. But this little scout ship had a tracking system, enough for her to watch as they encroached on the boundary of the ship, then finally struck it a few moments later.

There was no flash of a shield, if the vessel even had one. She didn’t see terrible tears open in that armor as the speed of each bullet was amplified by the attacking vessel’s inverse acceleration. Rather, she saw nothing at all.

“Impact,” called a voice from the front of the room. One of the artillery crews, probably. “No effect, captain. Either it bounced clean off that armor, or penetrated without visible internal damage.”

“No change to energy readings,” someone else said. “The vessel hasn’t altered course. It’s still moving towards the fleet, not a specific intercept with this ship.”

“We aren’t stinging hard enough,” Ordin muttered, sitting upright. “When will they be in range for Entropic Dispersion?”

“Sixteen minutes,” said another crewman. “Assuming their acceleration doesn’t change. Stars only know what that ship can do, Captain.”

“Let me know if it does. In the meantime, let’s watch the rest of our artillery.”

Felicity watched with bated breath as progressively larger shells struck the vessel. It made no attempt to alter course, or dodge, or to fire in response. It didn’t seem to even care they were trying to kill it.

“I take it this Entropic Dispersion is… your most powerful weapon?”

“The best we were permitted to bring,” the captain said. “If you’re going to ask how it works, I can’t tell you that either. Anything that could be used to recreate Varch’nai weapons requires a level of security clearance that hasn’t been granted to either of you.”

“But there’s no reason you couldn’t share tactical information, right?” Felicity prompted. “We’re helping you fight this war. You’re here to save our people. Give us the range and capabilities—we don’t need to know how any of your tech works.”

She paused, and a barrage of little explosions went off on the surface of the alien ship. From the disappointed signs that followed, she guessed they’d expected something more impressive.

“Torpedoes destroyed prior to impact,” called the same artillery crew as before. “No nuclear events detected, Captain.”

“But they bothered to intercept them,” Ordin said, looking satisfied. “That’s important information on its own. It means we aren’t fighting something invincible. They don’t care about kinetic shells, but they have defenses to prevent torpedoes. Are you reading any countermeasures, sensors?”

“Nothing! But we’re having the same problem with that hull the primitives did. Our active scans are scattering along the plating. Not even the stars know what’s inside that hull.”

“Shouldn’t we be worried by now?” At least Escape Gear had the politeness not to shout it, and potentially frighten the crew. “This ship doesn’t care we’re shooting at it. It’s heading straight for your fleet. The fleet that all our bodies are sitting on. I just ran the numbers on its acceleration, and it’s not buckin’ good. Pioneering Society doesn’t even speculate at a reactor that can belch out so much energy. What happens to us when all that output gets routed to the weapon systems instead?”

“This is not a subject for alarm,” Ordin declared. “The fleet will have hours, even if it doesn’t slow to intercept us. If it becomes necessary to engage the vessel with the sum of the invasion fleet, then we will do so. This system is a trap built for someone else—for Evokers, and their strange technology. Its weapons may be dangerous to us, but not nearly as dangerous as they were to you. Penetrating Evoker shields has always been the hardest part of any assault. Once they’re breached, your ships peel like ration cans. This ship is about to discover we’re a little tougher than that.”

“The fleet might be,” Felicity said. “I don’t know about this little scout ship. Will we feel it when we explode?”

“Not a bit,” Ordin answered, a little too quickly. “There is only an instant of pain to transmit, before the hardware responsible for relaying consciousness is destroyed. You will wake aboard whatever vessel your body was stored, and have plenty of time to prepare.”

“Unless we blast them apart!” The artillery officer was apparently listening, his voice eager despite the rapidly growing image on the screen. “We’ll only get one shot, Captain. Less than a second sustained contact with the enemy vessel. That might not be enough to destroy one of our own ships.”

“We don’t need to destroy it,” Ordin said patiently. “We’re here gathering information. Everyone, remember your purpose. Our service here is a lesson we teach the other ships in the fleet. When we return to them, we do so with the knowledge necessary to face this adversary. Otherwise, our sisters and brothers will do battle in blindness.”

She rose to her feet, straightening her robes with a few careful touches of one hand.

Felicity knew the words were translated, but still she couldn’t help but feel a little of the patriotism Ordin was trying to channel. “Crew, prepare for contact. Gunner, I want a countdown.”

“Thirty seconds,” answered the crewman. “Twenty-five…”

“What’s this thing do, anyway?” Escape Gear asked. “You need to be close, but… I’ve never heard of an entropic disruption.”

Apparently that question wasn’t too much for the captain to be willing to answer, or maybe she was just caught off-guard in the moment, and with Escape Gear looking like one of them.

“While the beam is maintained, the strong nuclear force is greatly minimized compared to other atomic forces. This results in a complex interaction that generally makes anything you shoot with it explode.”

“Ten!” called the artillery.

Felicity swallowed, eyes fixed on the approaching ship. She’d seen this view before, right before losing her last vessel. Now it was happening again, and she’d come here willingly.

“Five, four, three, two… one.”

They fired.