• 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 21

Felicity had to act—every day she remained in Effervescent Meridian was another day that the survivors of her original ship went unfound. Or worse, maybe the mysterious vessel lingering in orbit had somehow defeated the Varch’nai, and was preparing for an attack on Harmony itself. There might be critical tactical information to extract, with the fate of her entire civilization depending on it.

But it was hard to remember all while living with the strange aliens of Effervescent Meridian. The realities of their lives were so different they were almost incomprehensible to her, or at least they had been. But with every passing (and uncounted) day, she found it was easier and easier to understand the way they thought.

Felicity learned to distance herself from favoring one shape over others, making better use of the inherent versatility of a body without radial symmetry. There was no denying that the plants had been built for labor by another race. They required little more than water and a sunny place to live, they had powerful instincts to cooperate and organize.

Even stranger, they came with much of what they needed to know imprinted at a genetic level, ready for use. That was how they could reproduce so haphazardly, expecting saplings to drift in on the tide already understanding their language and somehow mentally prepared to join society.

They didn’t need parents, they didn’t need schooling in any basic skills. They all knew it already.

Even her. Felicity first discovered this fact while working with a pest-control system around the city. A sonic broadcaster—which filled the water with noise that would be agonizing to many animals, but that she couldn’t hear—had failed.

So she and Delta swam out with a few tools and replacement parts to fix it. But as Felicity worked, she realized no one had ever instructed her how the machine functioned, or how to diagnose the faulty parts. Before she’d noticed what happened, she’d wedged half her body inside, pried off the outer casing, and stripped a half dozen faulty components from within.

Delta passed them to her, and she worked in subdued silence. I don’t even have to think of where these go. How do I know already?

“Because of economic factors,” her little Harmony said. It wasn’t the kind of question she would usually care to have answered in detail. But Felicity was so happy to hear a familiar voice that she didn’t complain.

“Any engineering problem in non-simulated space ultimately reduces to a scarcity mitigation heatmap. What resources are abundant, and which are rare? The race you belong to are one answer to that problem. In the places that biological life tends to choose as their homes, carbon and water are typically abundant.

“Rapid scaling and reproduction of a large biological workforce is often simpler than a manufactured one. The population of this world are plants, which are ideal for terraforming and colonial construction. There is no need to deploy infrastructure—just bring enough seeds for a starting population, release them to grow, and wait.”

You do it too. Harmony’s infrastructure doesn’t use robots, it has changelings.

Felicity finished with the sonic broadcaster. She couldn’t hear the deterrent pulses, mercifully, but she could feel it shaking under her tentacles. Delta expressed her approval with a single scent, and they made their wordless way back to an access hatch. It was dark out here, alongside the lower parts of the city. She needed some light, or she would sleep.

With more experience, Felicity had learned her limits a little better. She could force herself to stay awake in darkness, maybe for hours. But the longer she did it, the sicker she would feel. After a particularly grueling training exercise, she’d even lost a few leaves. But that was one advantage of a distributed body and intelligence—no single part mattered too much. She could grow them back.

“That’s everything for now,” Delta said, as soon as they’d shut the door behind them. The room was a little like an airlock, with a set of brilliant white tubes on every wall. So maybe espresso bar was a more appropriate comparison. It took only seconds for the drowsiness to fade.

“Everything?” she turned towards Delta, even though her motion served no purpose. The plants did not have body language, at least none that didn’t involve physical contact. Orientation, direction, size—all that was meaningless.

But some habits were hard to stop. “That’s weird. I thought we didn’t take breaks.”

It was the most maddening part of living here. The plants used means of locomotion so different from animals that it trickled all the way up their society. They didn’t get sore, they didn’t tire, didn’t seem to get emotionally impacted by working for days at a time.

Delta signaled agreement, though the weakness of it also conveyed that Felicity was only partially right.

“We must stop if someone in the process is injured. In this case, it is not one of us who is hurt, but the computer. It will be offline for the rest of the day while others perform repairs. That means the tracking and performance metrics for everything in the city won’t be working, as well as the communication we rely on during missions. There will be no new assignments for us until it is repaired.”

Felicity could feel the frustration in her words. Delta didn’t want to put so much on hold, and she couldn’t really blame her. Their whole society was in constant motion, that was the very thing the city promised to entice its residents to stay.

But this was also the opportunity she needed. “What were you planning to do?” she asked. “If we can’t work…”

Delta signaled uncertainty. “The others are gathering below. Practice drills, or something. Might be fun.”

“Or we could do something else,” Felicity suggested. When the door finally opened, they drifted towards the building’s central shaft.

It was divided in half, with a clear barrier between them. In one side, water moved upward at a comfortable pace. In the other, water was drawn downward. Felicity floated into the upward column, then spread out to let it catch more of her volume.

She began to rise, at exactly the pace that could be easily stopped with a single tentacle. There were no moving parts in the shaft, indeed nothing at all but polished walls. There were no protrusions or crevices to catch and tear off parts of her body on the way.

She was a little surprised to see Delta following her, a tentacle trailing after her as if to grab and pull her down. But of course she couldn’t—they’d have to exit onto a floor to change directions, swimming against the elevator was just too much work.

“What are you doing, sapling? I know you’re eager to prove yourself, but there’s no need. We aren’t maintenance, the repairs don’t need us. This happens from time to time, we just settle down and wait until it’s over. The lights and reactors will keep working.”

“I’m not going to try and repair the system,” she said. Not too loudly, since the elevator would likely carry her words all the way to the top. “I have another idea.”

She exited another floor later, springing forward and gripping a pair of soft rods just outside the water-column. At first she had been clumsy with it, jerking and hanging off the pole like a flag and having to tug her way down with mean strength.

But now she had plenty of practice, so she gripped the floor before her destination, swinging herself forward so that she drifted in without trouble.

Delta followed behind. I need to get rid of her.

Of course, there was no security anywhere in Effervescent Meridian. The Grove Tenders were the closest thing to police the plants even had, and they didn’t carry weapons to use against each other.

There were no guards stationed inside the building—only where it opened to the outside was there any need to watch and protect it.

“What task could you possibly have in the vehicle bay?” Delta asked, a little louder now that they didn’t have to worry about being overheard. There were no other creatures down here, only dark hallways that came alight at their motion. Felicity stopped at the door, then turned. Another stupid gesture—she had just as many primitive eyes watching Delta no matter how she faced.

She’s bigger and stronger than me. Until I get moving, she could raise an alarm.

“I know you said communication was down…” Felicity began. “But even if most of Effervescent Meridian isn’t working, the skimmers are their own system. I was thinking I would get some more practice. Just swimming around nearby, no task to accomplish.”

“Oh.” Delta took that in, and didn’t reply for a long time. Felicity didn’t know how long objectively—they did things so much slower than animals, she suspected her own perception of duration was skewed.

“That does sound… useful,” Delta said. “The drills would be too. You couldn’t really be blamed for wanting to practice something else.”

“I’m already faster than half the Grove Tenders,” Felicity said. “I can dismantle, repair, and reassemble that rifle with my eyes closed.”

Delta laughed, or the plant equivalent of it anyway. The smell still translated to amusement. “You have such strange expressions, sapling. What is a closed eye? Why would you ever want to do that?”

She almost tried to explain, then caught herself. She needed to be more careful about that. If the plants had expected an intrusion, she would’ve given herself away a dozen times.

I’m no Lucky Break. I’m such a terrible spy.

So she opened the door, then floated through the room until she found the smallest, oldest-looking skimmer that wasn’t falling apart. She didn’t want to take something the city would need, but if she took one that was too old, it might break down long before she reached her destination.

“You don’t have to practice in that,” Delta said. “It’s at the end of its service life. Above water mode doesn’t work at all.”

Normally Felicity obeyed every order, even suggestions. There was something of an instinct about that, and a relief that came from doing what she was told. But now she defied it, and clambered up into the old craft.

“I want to try on something older,” she said. “That way anything else I drive will feel easier.”

There was no indication of it, but Felicity could feel Delta staring at her. But whatever mysteries she thought she would learn from her observation…

“I’ve never worked with a sapling before,” Delta finally said. “I guess strange behavior might be normal for you. I guess it makes sense.”

Then, to Felicity’s horror, she clambered into the passenger seat, wrapping herself securely. The exterior doors only partly closed, plastic jamming up on each other. Apparently Delta was expecting this, because there was a makeshift strap attached to one, which she could use to tighten it closed.

“It’s a bit bumpy, might want to hold on.”

Felicity did. “You don’t have to come with me,” she said quietly. “If you wanted to go do the drills instead… I promise not to cause trouble. I won’t go out to fight pests on my own.”

Delta answered with a polite denial, a noncommittal scent. “I don’t want to do drills either. Swimming is more fun, even if we’re just doing loops around the city. Go on, show me how you leave the hangar.”

Felicity did, accelerating slowly along the tracks. The engine hissed and spluttered as she did so, making her doubt her original choice.

She hit the accelerator, and the engines started spinning normally again. As soon as both buoys hit the surface, they began accelerating, water blurring past in front of the craft.

“Don’t go too fast,” Delta cautioned. “Don’t want to get too far from Effervescent Meridian.”

Felicity ignored her, and held down the throttle as far as it would go.