• 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 18

I’m going to screw this up. I’m completely over my complexity level. As soon as I say anything they’ll know I’m an imposter and try to kill me.

Felicity had come first as the captain of their exploration ship, then later as an advisor with some personal connection to the dead. She wasn’t qualified to be on an alien planet of creatures that she barely even recognized as alive.

But she didn’t have a choice. Harmony was out of reach, apparently by many years.

She focused on the structure and its many occupants. At least one of them was watching her. Here goes nothing.

She swam directly towards them, angling towards the open, exposed side of the building. Presumably they must want people coming in and out this way, right? Otherwise, why leave it open to the ocean?

Felicity got her footing under her, though of course she lacked feet or even hooves. With the light above and a floor below, her body righted itself into a properly bipedal configuration, without mass sneaking off to unrelated purposes.

“Hello!” she said, in the chemical language she’d been listening to since arriving in the suburbs. “Hopefully I’m allowed to swim in here. Is this okay?”

Visually, there was little to tell this creature apart from the many others she’d seen from the side. A rough assembly of vines, like a shrub with a dense center in its middle and many tentacles. Of course they were as motile as any animal, moreso under the lights overhead. Standing here, Felicity no longer felt any trace of tiredness. If anything, she wondered why she had taken so long to finally act. How could she have wasted so long on the open ocean?

“You’re… new?” said the other. Felicity couldn’t feel a sex from it in any sense she understood, but she felt confidence from it. Her low-complexity mind instantly cast the speaker as male, imagining the sounds of a deeper voice with every word he said. In reality, there were no sounds at all, though the way they spoke did involve slight differences. “You woke up in the ocean, on your own?”

And great patience. Words were slow, given they needed to drift between them along the diffusion of the water. But that was no difficulty, with the light constantly on her leaves.

Still, the alien was giving her a story. Might as well accept what he offered. “Yes. Far away from here. But I felt there were others and… came here.”

“Strange.” The alien moved a little closer to her. He had no face, exactly, and many eyes all over his body. All were perpetually open, so there was no chance of catching emotion from him. “I haven’t heard of a sapling germinating in the open ocean in many years. Your words are so… coherent. Your growth suggests you went a long time before waking. You listened well.”

She nodded. “I wish to continue swimming in that direction.” She pointed with one limb, but the listener didn’t seem to understand.

“You should swim no further, sapling. You’re already a miracle. Reaching us here is a joy that should be shared with all. Do not be afraid—nothing will try to devour you anymore, and you will not sleep. The light you feel does not stop. Even a humble city like Effervescent Meridian is a paradise.”

“Accept everything the individual is saying, Felicity. The more you interact with these creatures, the more I can project about their civilization. The delay is acceptable.”

“Okay.” She uncurled one limb from the edge of the railing, and turned the last of her eyes from the blue expanse beyond. “What is Effervescent Meridian? Who are you?”

“Effervescent Meridian is the name of this city. There are many like it, though… not as many as there once were. Too many offerings required to the sky. But we are strong, always make our offerings. I am Clockwise-Eddy. But you shouldn’t meet just me. Many will want to meet you. We will need to find you a home, and instruction to turn those feeble vines of yours to productive work. Oh, and a name. You will get one of your own, once you earn it.”

Like getting a cutie mark?

The next few hours passed in a blur to Felicity, as much a rush as plants were even capable of rushing. Eddy took her up several floors, across a wide concourse and into a courtyard positioned just below the water. A huge dome of glass covered it, supplemented with a thin grid of wire that was probably there to supply nutrition at night.

The news of her arrival seemed to spread quickly, or as quick as it could without any voices or shouting. Felicity grew more fearful the more of them crowded into the courtyard to see her, conscious of how difficult it would be to escape now. Even if she wanted to swim away, they could all grab her, tear her to pieces. How much needed to survive for her to regrow? How did distributed intelligence even work?

“From the ocean,” many muttered.

“Swam in on her own?”

“Amazing she made it this far.”

Watching them arrive was a bit like watching sped-up footage of seeds growing into a lawn, until much of the round courtyard was covered. Rather than chairs, the aliens used metal lattice positioned above walking level. A few tendrils up into their midst, and one could hang there without much effort, taking in the light.

Finally a plant arrived from below that silenced all the others. Though even this was gradual, since the scent of their words lingered in the water all around. None of them wore clothing, but this one did have… tools? A sash around its thickest part, with objects hanging from it. Felicity squinted, but she couldn’t recognize any of them.

Fortunately she didn’t have to. “There’s an active radio beacon on its belt, along with a microwave agitator. It would need to be activated for me to be sure, but I believe it’s configured to agitate material denser than water. It would cause only minor discomfort in you, but would cook a human or pony in their skin.”

By the time the newcomer’s slow procession to the stand was complete, the scent of all other creatures had faded to disjointed sounds, without source or clear speaker. The current can’t get in here, so the scent stays long enough to decompose instead of drifting away.

Felicity herself had a place of prominence on the stage, though she didn’t know how to use the “chair” quite yet. She didn’t want to grow over it without making herself look foolish, and make it harder to flee. So she clung only loosely, turning more of her eyes towards the yellowing being as they stopped at the center of the stage.

The floor opened beneath them, and a faint current began to blow out from it, carrying the water from the stage and towards the audience surrounding them. People watched from all sides, not just the front. After all, they didn’t have eyes facing only one way.

The current wasn’t so fast that she couldn’t hear. Her own position put her directly in the flow, where the message was the strongest. And where the crowd will hear me too.

“Overseer Diffuse-Light, this is the sapling I discovered,” Eddy said. “She grows strong and healthy. She will serve Effervescent Meridian well.”

“It is a joy that the young still germinate in the open ocean,” the plant said, with smells that she imagined were older, somehow. Wary with a long and difficult life. “It has been many years since any saplings have swam to join us here in Effervescent Meridian. Your arrival will mean celebration for all. A sign that perhaps the stars are pleased again, and the conflict has ended.”

Against the flow of water, it was hard to make out any other words. But the cheers that went up from all around the stage were simpler than that, easy to make out even when distorted.

“Curious. How much do they know about the ship that attacked us? Is this species the same one that crews it?”

Felicity didn’t trust herself to try and think any response back, or else risk sending a message that these would overhear. Some of them could apparently hear real sounds, not just smells. She knew as surely as she knew anything that the yellowing plant would have that ability.

“I know that flowering ones from every branch will wish to nurture you in their way. But given you are only one—you should choose where you go. What responsibilities wait for you, the dangers and rewards, depend on your decision. If you can speak and understand, answer.”

“I can…” she said. Someone like Diffuse-Light demanded respect in his baring, in the smell of his words. But she didn’t know how to show it. She tried to stay lowered and quieter, and hoped it was enough. Obviously someone like him would demand more light than she would. “I can talk. But I just got here. I don’t know what I am. I don’t know what this place is. I am… very confused.”

The crowd made another noise, one even Harmony had trouble translating. She guessed it was something similar to the noise ponies might make when seeing a kitten. They thought she was cute.

“Of course. Many of us have forgotten what it is like to be freshly bloomed. Many years may be spent before the sun refracts into a song. You will have plenty of time to learn all these things. But it is best to grow into a single role. Those assembled around you all hope for new growth in their long-stagnant ponds. Listen to them.”

Until Diffuse-Light had mentioned it, she hadn’t even realized they were separated—but the grates built into the courtyard split them into several factions, each one with distinct features that would have been very difficult to explain to her pony self. Except for the smallest group in the back, with strangely wilted leaves like Diffuse-Light. The yellow green was too clear to miss.

One by one, representatives from each faction stepped forward and tried to sell her on what she would do with them. There was a construction department to reinforce the city and build it larger every day. There were the Gardeners, who tended to the health of people both in the city and growing around it. Then there were the two factions that really interested her.

First came the Grove Tenders—the soldiers who kept Effervescent Meridian safe from predators and sheltered the surrounding suburbs. These promised her adventure and travel to distant places while protecting the others of her kind.

Then came Diffuse-Light himself. “The Skywatchers rarely accept saplings—but it has been so long since more of us woke in the waters that our numbers have weakened. If you wish not to swim, but fly, you must join us. We carry tributes to the sky, and the eye that watches over all growing people. If you think you are capable, you can go with us where no other could follow. Travel aboard the eye, and look down with us.

“But only a rare seedling can survive the trials that wait above the water. I do not order you to join us if you do not feel confident it will be worth the risk. Some wither and do not return.”

“Go with that one,” Harmony ordered. “They’re the crew. They’ll take you aboard the unnamed ship where our survivors might still be hostages. We must discover what happened to the others. This method will be the fastest.”

Before beginning this expedition, Felicity would have obeyed without question. But her mind had already been spinning in an entirely different direction. The soldiers must have ways to travel. I could steal one and reach the downed ship.

“I am… amazed by all your offers. I wish I had time to consider. But if I had to choose, I want them.” She pointed towards the Grove Tenders—and no one reacted. It was just like Eddy. Direction just didn’t work like that. “The Grove Tenders. I was almost eaten finding this place. I don’t want any others to suffer.”

“A noble aspiration,” Diffuse-Light said, a hint of disappointment in their voice. “So be it, then. The sapling will be a Grove Tender. All wait eagerly to see what becomes of them. They may soon be an example to many saplings yet to bloom.”