• 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 20

It was hard to tell time when you were a plant. Felicity never would've guessed before, had no context and comprehension for the level of complexity needed to exist as a non-animal creature.

At least during her journey across the ocean, she had the steady rising and falling of the sun to keep her grounded in at least the day. With a little mental math, she could keep track of the months of her travel.

But even during her trip, nothing she'd done had felt much like she was traveling for an extended period. Her nights spent sleeping in open water hadn't been sleeping as she knew it.

But now that she was in Effervescent Meridian, Felicity completely disconnected from the flow of time. She trained in hundreds of different ways, learning the way to operate tools for dealing with all kinds of pests. All were animals, as she quickly learned that all plants in the ocean were seen as their "kind."

"There are dangerous plants if ever you leave the water," Undertow explained once, after a long session of training with a long rod meant to snip away fungal growth from an otherwise healthy plant. "We fought a war with them long ago, and we won. But where islands rise above the water, there they keep their enclaves. We don't try to clear them away."

You don't even know it's not water. But to them, it was. Or as Harmony had put it, their biology was entirely hostile to carbon-based life. Which made it a common defensive strategy, given Equus made itself inhospitable to visitors in much the same way.

"You call it a war," she said. "Are they intelligent too? They didn't seem smart at all. It was all passive defenses, spines and toxins and stuff. Nothing moved like we do."

That drew Undertow's attention like a laser. He turned, suddenly staring with absolute intensity. But when he spoke, it didn't taste like suspicion, but astonishment. "A sapling like you has seen the surface? Are you sure you aren't repeating stories? Which of the others suggested that?"

If she were a pony, she might've flushed under the attention, maybe backing away to recollect herself in her embarrassment. But whatever plants had to share their embarrassment, she didn't understand those systems enough to manipulate them.

It was a moot point, as Undertow could clearly detect it. They shifted to amusement, apparently interpreting her silence as admission. "Well?"

"A long time ago, when I can barely remember, I floated past... guess it was an island. There was another city, like Effervescent Meridian, but smaller. There were—" She stopped herself short of saying trees, though she seemed able to do so. "Tall things growing there, up into the sky. And smaller ones on the ground. Lots of things."

Undertow was silent for a long time, circling once around her. But when he didn't see whatever he was looking for, he continued. "It's a good thing you didn't go up there, sapling. Probably you couldn't if that's where I think you were. The currents from... you've been drifting a long time."

He lowered his voice, or at least reduced the odor of his words. It was the same thing. "Please don't repeat that story, sapling. News of your growth is already growing far. Every city wishes to be the first to show the spreading of new green leaves across this desolate ocean. If they think you originate far from here, there might be an argument about your true home. You wouldn't want to be taken away, would you?"

"No!" she snapped. "Of course not!" Not until I get my hands on a vehicle, and I'm leaving this place behind.

"Good." Undertow straightened, moving away from her again. "So long as we know how to be careful with our words, you'll be enveloped in the safety of Effervescent Meridian."

She didn't put up an argument, and that seemed to be enough for him. So long as he thought she cared about all the same things, that was enough to make him think he could move on to other subjects.

Training continued for an indeterminate length of time, long enough that she grew more and more concerned about Harmony's silence. A few days she could deal with, but when it felt like far longer had passed, she began to grow concerned.

"Harmony, we're in this together," she whispered, in the quiet moments when she was left alone to change some equipment, or to verify that a particular machine was functioning well. "I'm sorry I didn't agree with you. But don't you care about the rest of the crew? Escape Gear is still out there somewhere, in the body of one of those... almost-humans you revived. She was gone when I woke up. She might be somewhere in the water with us right now."

To her surprise. Harmony actually responded. Any fear that it had been damaged somehow was mercifully mistaken. "There is a very low probability that any member of your crew is alive on the surface of this planet. The Varch’nai have been modified so significantly that only a functional ship would allow them to survive on even a peaceful planet. Without immune systems, their bodies will fail rapidly once exposed to the exceptionally hostile conditions of this world. Below all their steel and armor, they are even less than human."

Felicity wasn't sure if she should take that as an insult on Escape Gear's behalf. But then again, it wasn't like the bug was actually one of them, any more than she was. She just happened to be using one of their bodies the last time they were together.

"On the alternative, the chances of discovering the truth of our enemy grows to a near certainty if you were taken up with them. We could have infiltrated the ship from within and disabled it."

Or maybe they would've just got themselves killed, and given up any hope of rescuing the remainder of her crew. But she didn't want to argue with it, not after so much silence. Harmony might not be a person strictly speaking. But it was the closest thing to another member of her civilization she had.

The plants were friendly, and she could increasingly relate to the way they thought. But they weren't colleagues and friends, they were the race they had come to contact. I wish the others were here.

"We'll find another way up there," she said. "They believed I was the firstborn sapling, maybe another settlement will as well. If I can't rescue anyone, I'll find another faction and try the same thing."

Harmony didn't respond at first. For a few moments Felicity was alone with several dismantled guns. She replaced a few burned circuits with fresh disks from a bin, amazed all the while at just how well it worked underwater.

You people must know you came from somewhere else, if you think about it. You have all this advanced technology to let you live under the ocean, and none of it could've been discovered here.

The more she thought about it, the more she felt like she was actually meant to be the captain of an exploration ship, and not an ugly ball of weeds.

"We will see. The opportunity may come again, but to forfeit was wrong in the first instance. Once the mothership is disabled, the system is ours to do with as we see fit. That would include a rescue of anyone unfortunate enough to be stranded on this hostile planet."

The more Harmony said it, the more she realized the machine was probably right. She'd been chosen to captain an expedition, not just save the last survivor.

She said little to Harmony after that for a good long while. Training went on, and her familiarity with the native culture continued to grow. It had great gaps around many of their customs, but her method of arrival permitted any depth of questions she wished. They thought she was a newborn, and that any ignorance was natural. She took full advantage.

But eventually—after laboring without interruption for a length of time she couldn't even name—eventually it was her first chance to go out on a vehicle.

Delta was the one to take her for her first trip, coaching her through the operation. "It may be some time until you operate one yourself. You are so precious to Effervescent Meridian that I know you will not be sent alone for many years. But using skimmers is fun, so you might as well learn."

Delta was right about that too, they were fun. The vehicles seemed like a strange design, since the majority of the craft skimmed along the surface rather than traveling through the water. Once launched from the city, buoyant tanks lifted it all the way up, and spindly limbs spread out on the water's surface. Only the cockpit remained in the water for the craft's operators.

There were plenty of larger craft in the back of their hangar, with space for dozens of plants or plenty of cargo. But they left all those where they were, and only flew one of the smallest, two-seater.

If Delta was suspicious at how easily Felicity took to operating the skimmer, she made no sign of it. But there was no need to explain any of the operating principles. As soon as Felicity could wrap her mind around the controls, they were traveling smoothly over the water.

Almost smoothly. The skimmer itself bumped and groaned as they traveled, and the strange motor would seize and cease working altogether if they pushed it too fast.

The seats were held together with makeshift welds and wrapped with fiber—essentially, the skimmer was taped together.

"You're a natural!" Delta exclaimed, after they'd done a complete circuit around Effervescent Meridian and the planter boxes for many miles around. "If I didn't know any better, I'd ask you who took you out to learn before me."

The more time she spent with them, the more Felicity began to realize that the plants did have visual ways of showing their emotions. It wasn't as easy as reading a face, but there were signs. The way some tentacles tensed and others relaxed, the way some leaves turned away from the direction of sunlight streaming in above. All meant something.

In that way, Felicity was a newborn, learning it all for the first time. And being an incredibly bad liar until she did.

"It makes sense," she said. Short, simple explanations generally did the best, since she was expected to be a young, simple creature. "But there are some things I wonder." She slowed the skimmer as they neared the building, letting it coast in some of the way. She couldn't hear the engines slow, but she could feel the absence of motion through her body.

The cockpit had no seats, just more of those dense metal rods, perfect for tentacles to wrap around. While the configuration had been incredibly confusing in her first few days, seeing them demonstrated enough times made them seem almost comfortable.

Besides, the cockpit was fully enclosed, protecting her from the currents outside no matter how fast they went. Now I need to find a way to steal one.

"But there are some things I don't know. Like... how far away can the skimmers go? Will they run out of fuel?"

Delta twisted in the negative, pushing at Felicity with two vines. Without a word, she uncurled from around the several different controls, settling into the passenger seat as her companion brought them in to dock.

"I don't know if there's a limit," she said. "In theory, anyway. The surface harvests sunlight much like we do, and there's even enough to keep a light on through the night if the trip is particularly long. The biggest problem for a long voyage would be storms. The skimmer is tough, but if it gets knocked over, it would need maintenance. We're short on spare parts, you can probably see that."

With a command, there was a loud pop of air from above, and they started sinking again. Now they moved only at a crawl, slower than swimming on their own. But Delta knew how to time it, so they drifted towards the werehouse's open doors.

Sure enough, most of the skimmer racks were empty, or had only partially-assembled craft inside. "It's the same way everywhere, so don't think we can get parts from other cities. That's one of the reasons we have to treat them so carefully. If we ever lose a skimmer, it's gone forever."

Maybe I can figure out which one they need least.