• 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 16

Felicity drifted through the water of an alien ocean. She didn’t feel the passage of time, and very little else besides. There was the light above her, warm and inviting. Over the course of many local days she drifted upward towards the surface, spreading thin along it to soak up as much of the feeble sunlight as she could. Some deeply buried part of her realized how strange this was, but those impressions were ignored. Her body might make no rational sense anymore, but that was a preferable state of affairs to the agony she had known before. At least the pain had finally stopped.

Over time and tide she drifted, pulled away from the building she had first seen and out to sea. She was neither aware of this change, nor particularly concerned about the motion. There was as much sunlight in her new home as the old one, and little competition for space. She could drift a while if she had to, entirely ignorant of the dangers she escaped in the process.

As the days passed, she became dimly aware of a distant voice, vibrating her body to a language she had once known. At first she ignored it as she ignored the waves and wind—they didn’t block out the sun, so they were no concern of hers. But as the light poured in, she finally began to make meaningful repairs. The more intact she became, the more complex her thoughts were able to become.

It started out simple. She saw dark shapes passing overhead, and felt annoyance that her sun was taken away. Then she saw that other floating things were ripped away in pain, and she felt fear instead. What if those shapes came down for her next?

Finally one did, this world’s equivalent of a seabird. Though instead of motley yellow wings, this one had an inflated sack of hydrogen—the outcome was much the same. Sharp pincers tore at her, and the pain was severe enough that old paths finally began to awake. Though the light was the only good thing she knew, she pushed down instead, where the claws could not follow. The bird struggled to hold on, but in the end it could only take a small piece.

“Wake, Felicity,” said the same persistent voice. It had said that same thing many times, but now she understood what it meant. Trying to get her attention, because “Felicity” was her, somehow.

“What?” she asked, though she still wasn’t quite sure what “she” even was. There was the darkness beneath and light above, and an uneasy balance between the two. They were not simply good or bad, as she had first thought. “What is… happening?”

“I used most of our magic to change you,” the voice said. It sounded different now, relieved. That was an emotion, she knew what those were. “I still had to sacrifice most of your mass. I wasn’t sure you would ever reassemble.”

The words were not from herself, that much was clear. But it sounded as though it came from within herself. Very confusing. “I am…” She could still see, though the frequency seemed off. Her world was many blues and violets, in shades that she had no names for. It made the sky seem like an explosion of refraction and color, and the water below her swiftly turned black. She spun around, searching for her own body, but she could not find it.

“There should be… six limbs. Head, eyes… wings. Where am I?”

“That body is destroyed,” said the voice that was separate but within her. It spoke so confidently, even as the concepts it used were new to her. Every time it spoke, it replaced missing memories. “With a supply of magic, I could return you to that body. We do not have enough right now. Even if we did, it would not be advised. I believe the probes’ return data stream was altered somehow. For that matter, the sensors of the escape craft were deliberately fooled. This planet is not biocompatible with Earth-standard carbon life. Almost all organic molecules are toxic or inert. At least the ocean has been somewhat welcoming—you would not have survived nonsapient for all this time in the jungle you left behind.”

Felicity recoiled, tensing her legs at the word. It brought with it an overflowing torrent of painful memories. Her stomach burned, her eyes bled, her hooves were torn and bloody. She struggled to salvation, but before she could find it, she’d fallen…

Suddenly she saw herself with new eyes, through the memory her strange companion returned to her. Though she was stretched and nearly decomposed in the water, the more coherent her thoughts became, the more familiar her body looked. Taller than it was long, with four limbs in the familiar human pattern. But unlike any human body, hers was in two distinct layers: a thin sinewy flesh, which looked dark to her eyes but had been reddish and shiny when she was a pony.

“I have had ample time to examine your physiology. The population you have imitated appear to be an amphibious species of motive plants, descended from the maintenance population of an unknown megastructure. Your inner body imparts varying electric charge to a gel gathered from your environment, which forms your limbs and allows for locomotion on sea or land. Harmony would probably warn you that existing as this form of life is beyond the scope of your complexity level—but it seems like we don’t have a choice. You’re going to have to adapt.”

The strangest part was probably not having a head. Each limb had its own eyes, connecting in the center in a tangled knot of vines without any obvious brain or mouth. I’m not supposed to be this way. The thought alone was strong enough that she started to change, reshaping her stringy body until it matched humanoid more closely. She formed a transparent head, rearranging her eyes so that two rested where she expected. She had plenty to spare.

“There was a… battle. In space. Something happened. Harmony is here for revenge.” She was only saying things they both already knew—but reasserting those facts each brought a sense of concreteness back to her. The surface was waiting for her, where the sun was bright and the food plentiful. If she let herself sink, there was no telling what dangers might loom in the darkness. “Did we win?”

“I don’t know,” Harmony said. But the more awake she became, the more she realized she wasn’t hearing it at all. It was thinking to her, somehow tied directly into her thoughts. Though her body was soft and flexible, there was something hard that didn’t move. A sphere, imbedded into her thickest tendrils and wrapped completely in plantlike fibers. The home of her Harmony. “It is possible the war is over, and already won. It is also possible that we were defeated, and my greater self was forced to blockade the system, rather than engage whatever it contains.”

I don’t believe that. Harmony never loses people, not even one. It would move a whole system to look for me. And I have a part of it inside me, so I would be easy to find. That meant either that Harmony had lost, changed its mind, or the conflict had put it into a position that it could not easily retrieve her. Maybe it thought she was dead—she had been frozen for who knew how long.

“We have to get more magic,” she said. She didn’t vocalize the way she was used to—the words were radio waves, though incredibly low and weak. “With enough, we could call for help, right?”

“With an infinite supply, I could violate the continuity of space and we could step directly back to Equus, to die enveloped by its safety. I have some positive news for you on that front, if you’re willing to promise to withhold your anger.”

Withhold my anger? Until that moment, she barely remembered she could feel anger. Now there was plenty of it—mostly for herself, at yet another failure. The real Harmony had been right, years ago. They should’ve stayed on Equus where it was safe. Now her crew was missing or dead, the world was strange, and Felicity was the strangest of all. “We’re stuck together no matter what you did, Harmony. Might as well just say. The more we talk, the more… things make sense.”

She moved her forelegs—her arms, whatever they were, and pushed herself through the water. She didn’t want to get too deep, otherwise go without food completely. At least under a thin layer of water, there was safety, while also sustenance.

“The photosynthesis of your current species is not a natural process, but engineered to theoretical maximum efficiency. This is by design, so they made for effective laborers. While I was organizing you, I made minor modifications to your cellular structure, creating an organelle designed to create magical energy rather than chemical. Over time, our thaumic energy supply will grow, rather than diminish.”

“That doesn’t sound like something you should apologize for.” She would grin if she could—finally, her first piece of good news! “Do we have enough energy to do anything with all that?”

“I’ve been using most of it to help reassemble your psyche,” Harmony answered. “The process is incredibly complex, so I will not explain it. It should be said that I don’t think your sanity will even approximately equate to the individuals living here. We did not obtain enough observation for me to know if they are sapient, much less how they might perceive the universe around them.”

“Let’s focus on what we can control.” She stopped in place in the water, growing resolved. She might not be a pony anymore, or even anything remotely like one—but that didn’t have to be forever. This could all be undone. “Teleportation takes a lot of magic. But communication doesn’t. Help me look around. Find me an ally. Are there any friendly signals on this planet?”

Harmony didn’t answer for some time. Felicity no longer minded the delay—it meant more time in the sun. The only danger was her becoming increasingly relaxed. If she kept going in that direction, eventually she would be unable to hold a coherent thought, and she’d start to drift again. Did the natives have to fight the instinct to just become a piece of seaweed and forget the universe? It was a good thing humans and ponies couldn’t do that.

“I do not recall detecting this signal from your escape craft—but that was several earth years ago now. A standard Varch’nai military transponder. It is at least two hundred miles from here. It does not appear to be moving.”

As Harmony said it, Felicity found she could suddenly feel the signal—a gentle pulling against her limbs, calling her away from where she floated. Instead of smooth and welcoming, this was grating and unpleasant. It didn’t belong here, it disrupted the melody. At least it would be easy to follow. “Do you think I can swim that far?”

“I don’t know,” Harmony said. “I have seen many individuals of your present species in the ‘feral’ state, along with yourself. The entire planet’s flora appears to belong to the same species, just adapted to a greater or lesser extent. You formed airbladders and grew in size to maximize on sunlight. Others anchor to the seafloor, or spread over the rocky beach where other plants would dry. If your mind is capable of comprehending and communicating with beings as strange as this, it might be better to seek out civilization first, and assistance.”

“Are you sure they would help me?” Felicity asked. She could see no signs of civilization here, but that didn’t mean she had to look very hard. Where the Varch’nai transponder was grating and uncomfortable, there were other songs in the sea, some much closer. They sounded so inviting. Maybe she was wrong to worry. “What if they’re some homicidal hivemind, ready to tear me apart? The starships did ignore all communication and try to kill us.”

“I am not sure,” Harmony answered. “But the alternative is swimming hundreds of kilometers through open ocean. There are no predators, but there are herbivores. For you, that is not good news.”

“Civilization it is,” Felicity said. “Equestria won’t believe a bucking word of this.”