• Published 5th Jan 2022
  • 1,413 Views, 261 Comments

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 2

“Captain Felicity.” Chorale’s voice was gentle in her ears, gentle enough that she might’ve missed it completely if she wasn’t already prepared for some disaster to come upon them. But being a citizen had imparted her with many enhancements, and one of those was incredibly light sleep.

She sat up, shaking her head once to clear the bleariness away. “Go ahead, Chorale.”

She was back in her quarters. She couldn’t have said exactly how she got there—maybe she had fallen asleep on duty at some point. “We’ve completed our flyby of the planet. The drone is continuing on course towards the outer solar system and will pass outside the star’s gravity well within the week. Observations give me no reason to believe that we have been noticed.”

She hadn’t heard the AI sound so flat since she’d first spoken to it in drydock, several years ago.

Felicity rose from her bed, carefully making it in a wave of magic. “Do the others know?”

“Not yet. Do you want me to inform them?”

“Yes.” She wandered towards her private bathroom, removing her uniform as she walked. “Inform them only that the probe’s observations have been taken without hostility. While I’m getting cleaned up, I want a dump of everything.”

Was Chorale’s voice reproving? “Captain, are you certain it’s wise to use your abilities in such a manner? Don’t you think some of the crew will be resentful of your withholding information from them?”

“No,” she said flatly. She was the only one with a private restroom, the only bathtub aboard. She was still saving it for a special occasion, and this didn’t quite rate. She stepped into the steam-shower, turned it all the way up. The sound of hot air rushing around her and quickly scrubbing her clean probably would’ve drowned out the voice of somepony in the room with her. But there was nopony here, so nothing to worry about.

“The crew of the Alcyone appreciates a pony to give them direction, to interpret and parse the facts before them. I’m like… the Harmony for Harmony. Those who want to dig into the technical side will do so, but they’ll have to wait a few minutes.”

“As you wish.”

The data began to pour into her mind—petabytes of sensor recordings, and speculative projections for history and technology and language. More than an ordinary mind could handle, but Felicity was no ordinary mind.

Like all who lived on Harmony, her existence only controlled the body she was using, it did not dwell within it. Those who were unable or unwilling to take on the mantle of citizens were restricted to roughly equivalent processing power of an organic mind.

For a citizen like herself, those restrictions could be lifted under some circumstances, and used to manipulate almost anything. The perception of time, absorbing new information, recalling past lives.

Felicity had always stayed away from that last. Citizens of Harmony were so old, so unbearably old, that she was terrified of what she might find lurking back there in her own history. I don’t want to hate myself.

Less than an hour later, and she was standing at the head of the conference-room table, with a huge projection between her and her crew. No longer was the image on its surface projected based on distant telescopes—now it was strikingly detailed, and disturbingly real.

Not just the core planet, the one they’d named “Caladan”, but several others as well.

“You see the first detail as I did,” Felicity explained, gesturing from one planet to the other. Or the places that had been planets. The hologram represented things grossly out-of-scale, so that at the distances represented they would still be visible at all. In the shimmering light of the projector were four rocky planets, including one super-Earth of incredible size.

Three of them had been shattered. The smaller ones now formed a loose belt of asteroids and other debris in the inner solar system, with gradually condensing planetoids in the center of the orbital path. They would reform, perhaps, in another few million years.

The outermost super-Earth had faired a bit better, losing huge swathes of material. It showed recent signs of volcanic activity, and a surface that had been entirely reliquified in the terrible fury of whatever event had destroyed it. But there was still a planet there, joined by its own debris cloud and vast rings.

“Our target isn’t broken,” Collin pointed out, reaching into the projection with thin human fingers and pointing at the planet there. “Still looks green. The Red Tide didn’t reach it.”

“Obviously it did,” Martin countered, glaring sidelong at him. “But the ones living here fought it off. Of course Equus wouldn’t be the only one. If the Tide could fail in one place, it could fail in an infinity of ways. Though it does mean the survivors might be technologically advanced, perhaps more so than we are. If they managed to defy the Tide openly, rather than hiding from it…”

“I would like to know if there are any survivors first,” Lexis interrupted. “We don’t know that they did survive. Captain?”

“They did,” she said. The room filled with cheers, hoofstomps, shouts of congratulations. Even Chorale’s drone near one wall seemed to smile.

She waited for the noise to die down before engaging with the projectors again. Her horn glowed, and the image zoomed in on this inner planet. It was in the perfect position for liquid water, almost the perfect size for Earthlike gravity. Exactly the sort of candidate humans (or some variation of them) might’ve chosen to terraform.

As it zoomed to fill the screen, its qualities became more apparent. Its surface was a brilliant, welcoming green, covering every landmass. There was far more land than water here, with large lakes and rivers, but no oceans as Old Earth had known.

But however the planet had been geoengineered, its systems clearly worked, because it seemed lush.

She selected a few more of the probe’s natural images—pictures of rainforests from above, with trees that weren’t all that different in appearance from what might’ve grown on Earth—a sprawling savanna with large grazers roaming. Not intelligent in their look, or with any sign of sophistication. That would be a little hard to adjust to.

“Great, it’s got land,” Escape Gear said. “But where are their gigantic space-guns? They survived something that cracked the other planets in this system—how?”

“I do not know,” Felicity answered, wincing slightly as she said it. “There are no megastructures in the system. The planet does not possess a moon, or any other large artificial structures we can find.”

“That’s not quite true,” Chorale corrected. She approached the projector, stopping just beside the image and looking from one to the other with a blank expression. “We can’t be certain there are no large structures on the planet, only that if there are, they are not using ferromagnetic materials for their construction. Vast rock caverns might be possible, for instance, or webs made of undetectable composite. With aliens of an unknown lineage populating this planet, it is unwise to grow too comfortable with our assumptions.”

“This is all fascinating, I’m sure everyone here is very interested in all this,” Lexis said, her voice only slightly annoyed. “But this is all objects. We didn’t come out here to see rocks and old spaceships, we came out here to see people. So are there any people or not?”

“Yes,” Felicity admitted. There was no sense hiding the information from them for any longer. She swapped out the images of plants and animals with the ones depicting cities. They were small, and in many ways they resembled the Crystal Empire.

The natives of this planet appeared to use only a strange, glasslike substance to make their cities, which rose in unusual hexagons of varying colors and shapes, with bridges and walkways connecting them. It was a little like a particularly tenacious beehive had grown completely out of control.

There were few vehicles, primarily in the form of something that was almost a railway using troths and magnetism, connecting the larger patches of population.

“But what we don’t see are any aircraft,” she finished. “Or space stations, or even satellites.”

“There are no easily analogues to much of what we observe,” Chorale added. “But projection suggests they are probably industrial, perhaps early information age. They seem to rely completely on geothermal energy for power, because I can find no suggestion of hydrocarbon use in their atmosphere.”

“I’m reading an… unusually high concentration of alpha sources. Might be a radiation hazard for a crew spending too much time down there. No need for suits, but you’d probably want to filter the air.”

“The locals don’t seem to care,” Gear countered.

“You’re getting ahead of the mission,” Lexis interrupted. “We’re here for first contact, maybe we should be thinking about that first. What are we supposed to do about a civilization that isn’t spacefaring? Is it right to call them at all, Felicity?”

She nodded. “I might answer differently if the realities of space travel were different. But we aren’t positive the Tide is gone for good. We still don’t even know what it was, really. But it looks like this planet did once, and they survived it. I think we’re obligated to investigate for that reason alone.”

“Are we sure these aren’t the Tide’s descendants?” Collin suggested. “Maybe they just murdered all the humans living there and took the real estate for themselves. They wouldn’t want to blow up their beach resort.”

“No beaches,” Martin pointed out. “There aren’t any oceans down there.”

“And you’re assuming the original inhabitants were human,” Chorale added, just a tad reproachfully. “We aren’t ready to conclude that yet. There is no wreckage to analyze. Technically, we’re making assumptions about the method of the ancient Tide’s attacks, as well. Though incredibly unlikely, perhaps the destruction we see is somehow natural in origin.”

“Not a chance,” Gear said. “I’m with the captain. We’ve bucking got to go down there and talk to them. Or maybe radio down there first? Does it look like they’ll be able to accept a radio transmission?”

“There’s no way to be certain,” Chorale said. “I am not detecting radio traffic in the system—nothing beyond the background radiation generated by the star, as well as an unusually geometric pattern emanating from one of the gas giants. Neither are communication so far as I can determine.”

“That doesn’t mean they can’t communicate,” Lexis said, raising her voice over whatever Martin had been trying to say. “Captain, there are a dozen different ways we’ve speculated an intelligent creature might communicate. The wildlife down there does suggest an originally Earth lineage, but there’s no telling how long ago that timeline branched.”

“Radio’s slow, too,” Gear said. “There are better ways. Like what Harmony hid in that egg in our hold.”

Chorale whirled on her, the softness of her plastic face instantly gone. “You should not be aware of the contents of the emergency fallback obolid.”

“Great.” Gear didn’t even look ashamed. “I’m not trying to talk about that. I’m just suggesting they might still be shouting, just not in a way we can hear. Can we see what they look like?”

Felicity selected a single photograph out of thousands. “They appear to hate being exposed to the sun. Every image we have shows them under complete shade. But the probe did manage to snap this image of one wearing its clothing—or maybe an exposure suit?”

Taken from space, the image was necessarily somewhat fuzzy, even with the best correction for atmosphere and speed and half a dozen other factors. It showed a figure wrapped in thin, metallic fabric, with what looked like six distinct protrusions. Arms? And a head, wrapped in glass. The top of the head inside was brown, or maybe its hair was. Either way.

“Not much to go on,” Martin said, a little disappointed. “Maybe we should’ve orbited the probe instead, to get a better look.”

“That’s actually exactly what we plan to do,” Felicity said. “But with a second probe, one equipped with active camouflage, in case they have telescopes. We know someone on this planet did something incredible, long ago. But we’re not in a hurry to figure out what it was. Ideally, I’d like to know who I’m talking to, and how to talk to them, before we send anyone down to say hello.”