• Published 5th Jan 2022
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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 13

If it had been anyone else waiting for her, with the possible exception of Escape Gear, she probably wouldn’t have been willing to follow. But for all that Harmony could oppose her interests—even violently—she knew with absolute confidence that it wouldn’t lie. As far as she knew, it couldn’t.

Unfortunately for her, Felicity’s whole body felt like it had been squeezed dry, and every movement cost her great effort.

She didn’t run after Harmony so much as shamble and trip after it, cursing herself with every step. She spread her wings to try and glide, and a dozen feathers flaked off, crumbling away from cryodamage.

“What the hell happened?” she asked. “Don’t waste my time with how complicated it all is. You’re a supreme superintelligence, just summarize it while we walk. Wait, first. Escape Gear. I need her.”

She stopped, turning to Escape’s pod. But it was open, and the alien body that should’ve been there was missing.

“We cannot locate Escape Gear,” Harmony answered flatly. “We have made every possible attempt, but your friend opted for an inferior body allocation. She does not possess the evoking transducer necessary for magical effects.”

Right. We need Equus for our magic, or the reactor that’s in my chest. That’s probably how it’s talking to me.

“Further, you should temper your expectations of our abilities. With this ship soon to be destroyed, we have switched into power saving mode to preserve your life as long as possible. This means we are no longer in contact with Harmony collectively. You communicate with the smallest echo of Harmony’s wisdom, stored on the transducer’s redundant medium.”

They made it out into the hall, which looked about as bad as her quarters. Fires burned in a few places, and doors had been forced open. There were bodies, or at least the armored suits they puppeted like soldiers. She couldn’t tell if any of them were alive, or just remote controlled.

Yet Harmony’s admission slowed her steps, calling up more dread. She couldn’t count on her all-knowing AI from the distant reaches of space to help her. It was probably still smarter than she was, but not that much smarter if it was trying to save magical power. I need to be conservative. I can’t do magic just because I want to.

“Can you at least tell me what’s going on?”

“Very little,” Harmony answered, pointing down a service hatch. It had been forced open, and led to a ramp into the bowels of the ship she had never explored. “We woke when support to your body began to fail, gathered all information we possess since then via communications with isolated ship systems.

“It appears this specific ship was struck out of formation and began to drift at least six months ago. While the rest of the formation fought on, it was boarded by… incongruous aliens from the large carrier. They did not discover you, but whatever they did eventually damaged the cryogenics in your bay.”

Felicity ran through a few possible scenarios—battles against the carrier ship that would make casualties vulnerable to search. But she couldn’t think of any. Except: “Do you think they had some kind of… scrambling technology, like what they used against magic? Maybe they had a way to target this civilization as well as ours?”

Harmony shrugged one shoulder, a gesture that was at once more pony and also more frightening than anything she’d seen from it. An admission of ignorance from one she’d previously looked at like a god. “If so, there’s no sensor log accessible of anything like it. But much of this ship’s database is unavailable to me. Critical systems were either detonated upon boarding, or… removed by the intruders.”

Me. Had she ever heard Harmony refer to itself in the singular before?

They descended through the depths of the ship, past more of the same devastation. Occasionally they had to change directions to avoid electrical fires or a section of flooded passage, but Felicity followed along and kept her complaints to herself.

She didn’t have to ask where they were going. Apparently even the Varch’nai had escape pods.

They passed a dozen empty bays before they came to one that was still there, and there was no mystery about why. The life-support systems aboard had ruptured, spilling rotten-smelling gray slime onto the pod’s floor.

“This doesn’t concern you,” Harmony said, stepping through it without making a splash. Because Harmony wasn’t really there—probably it was only projecting into her mind directly. That would be the cheapest way for them to communicate. “Varch’nai biology is incompatible with yours, and you do not require the maintenance system to survive.”

“No,” she countered, “I just need food and water. Where am I supposed to get that?”

Harmony hesitated, expression thoughtful. Finally it conjured a spell diagram into the air in front of her. “This is curious. The alien intruders emptied the entire stockpile of food meant for you, while leaving the protein paste and bio reprocessing equipment alone. This teleportation spell should bring several full water containers directly here.”

She looked it over, frown deepening as she ran through the magic it would cost. Far less than the endurance of an Alicorn over just one day, but that wasn’t how she should measure magical expenditures anymore. “If I cast this spell, won’t I be losing energy I can’t replace?”

As usual, Harmony neither lied nor tried to lessen the impact of its statement. “Yes. But if you do not, you will not survive the trip to the planet’s surface. With proper coaching and low activity, your body can endure the lack of food. Dehydration will kill you, however.”

“I can’t go through this ship and just get the containers myself?”

“Not unless you want to die of radiation poisoning. The invaders left every deck they visited contaminated to varying degrees. They spent most of their time in engineering, which you would have to cross to reach the supplies you need.”

She groaned, then repeated the spell in a lower mutter. Felicity wasn’t terribly good at magic, and hadn’t made a habit of studying it. But a teleport from a hundred meters away, with someone else providing all the details for easy reading—that was simple.

Her horn flashed, and a pair of large containers appeared in the air in front of her. Not water-bottles as she knew them, but insulated white boxes, with no visible way to be manually emptied.

They drifted through the air in front of her, and she urged them through into the lifepod, before clambering in behind.

It was actually quite a bit larger than she might’ve expected from an evacuation ship, maybe twenty meters of internal length and room for fifty people. Most of it was devoted to pods and other arcane Varch’nai hardware, all of which was useless to her.

“Are we sure there aren’t any survivors aboard?” She rested one hoof on the bright red “hatch close” lever, but didn’t push it yet. “We don’t have to go alone.”

“We cannot observe any survivors, but even if we did this vessel would be of no use to them. The symbiotic bioculture was destroyed—intentionally, by the look of the weapons fire. A Varch’nai body would die within two days, and likely sooner. Begin the launch sequence.”

She sighed, then shoved the lever down. Metal hissed and groaned, and the hatch shut violently behind her. Quick enough that it could’ve severed a limb, if she’d been unlucky enough to have one extended out there.

She hopped over the pool of biosludge, covering her mouth with one leg at the stench it produced. She’d probably have to clean that up, but… not right now.

Past the pods, past a sanitation area, and a tea lounge, she eventually found her way to the cockpit. Except that it looked more like another pod, with various interfaces meant to connect to Varch’nai implants.

“Well, Harmony? What the buck do I do about this?”

The robotic pony hesitated again, inspecting the cockpit with a critical eye. Finally it pointed to one panel among many. “All Varch’nai systems are meant to be remotely piloted, but maintain a security layer to prevent hostile forces taking control of their ships. The security layer is impossible to bypass remotely, but you could shunt it for the navigation and life support systems. Then I will operate the vessel.”

There it is again. She didn’t say anything, fumbling about for the emergency tools. At least these had been clearly labeled, and she tore the plastic box off the wall and into the air beside her.

“I’m guessing this thing doesn’t have artificial gravity,” she said while she worked, removing the side-panel and adjusting the fiber cables underneath as Harmony instructed. “Is that slime going to leak all over the ship?”

“Acceleration gravity should keep it contained,” Harmony answered. “But you have no need to fear. It may cause mild irritation if you ingest any by accident, but Varch’nai life-support and its associated decontaminators cannot interact with your biology in any meaningful way. It will not make you sick.”

Harmony was probably right about that, she knew better than to question it about something with such a simple answer. “Then why does it smell so rotten? Shouldn’t it make different smells?”

Something clicked, and the navigation console lit up with a thousand little lights. Alarms began to blare, whispering warnings in Varch’nai. She didn’t need them translated to know what they’d be screaming about. “Life-support failure. Critical internal damage detected. Do not launch.”

The ship rumbled under her hooves as Harmony went to work. Liquid rushed and churned through unseen channels, and the engines finally spooled to life.

“Okay, something else.” She packed the tools back into their plastic case, then hobbled over to a chair. It didn’t fit right, but at least there were some straps. “We just removed the safeties on remote operation. Doesn’t that mean that the evil space carrier could smack us into a wall? Or… just shut off the air?”

Harmony did not reappear to answer her question, though she could still hear the voices. Maybe that was an indication of how much of its processing resources were focused on getting them underway. “There is a nonzero possibility that will be attempted. The alternative is certain death, however.”

Great. Felicity didn’t say anything else until she’d secured herself in place, rotating the chair in preparation for the acceleration. Without any of the magical systems for internal mitigation, this would probably be as unpleasant as last time. And she was even less physically prepared for it.

“Where are we going, anyway? The sensors on this pod showing you the rest of the fleet? I guess it’s smart not to call for rescue, considering who else might show up.”

Metal ground and clattered behind them, and suddenly she was moving. Felicity was conscious of very little else as she pressed into her chair, whole body protestesting at the treatment. It was an acceleration chair, meant to both cradle her and constrict her against further damage—but it wasn’t shaped for a pony, and so mostly it just pinched uncomfortably against her rump and added one more source of pain to the plentiful list.

The discomfort never faded so much as she adapted as the seconds passed. Enough that she could sit up a little in her seat, and look around the pod. Plenty of loose metal junk was now pressed against the far wall, and sure enough there was no sign of artificial gravity.

“Sensors cannot detect either the Varch’nai, or the alien carrier,” Harmony answered. “We will inform you if that changes, but for now the only path towards your survival is the planet.”

She sighed, slumping back into her chair. “What about Escape Gear? Don’t you care about her? Or the rest of those minds?”

“We will recover her, and do what we can for the success of that fleet. But rage that does not further a productive aim is energy we cannot afford to waste. For now, focus on your own survival.”

“How long?” she asked, glancing weakly towards the cockpit. There were no screens inside of course, just a few emergency indicators still flashing deep red. “How far away is that planet?”

“Two weeks,” Harmony answered. “It would be best to minimize your activity as much as possible. We will direct the vessel.”