• Published 5th Jan 2022
  • 1,545 Views, 311 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 22

Delta didn’t react at first, as Effervescent Meridian faded further and further into the distance. Though part of that might just have been Felicity’s inability to judge their implications. The plant-beings were so alien to everything she knew that she still couldn’t tell for sure if their visual communication was even intentional or not.

As she left Effervescent Meridian behind, she felt something pulling her onward, though not quite in the direction she was moving. “That’s the signal we’re looking for?”

At least Harmony was talking to her again. “That’s the Varch’nai beacon, yes. Over the last few weeks I have monitored it for changes and observed none. This suggests that nothing is altered, and likely allows us to confirm that the crash had no survivors.”

Felicity wrapped herself tighter over the controls. Delta still hadn’t moved, though she’d gone from signaling casually to active confusion and concern. “What should I do if Delta tries to pry me off?”

“Magic,” Harmony answered. “You have the standard suite of unicorn abilities, diffused through this body along with your intelligence and personhood. But be conservative—you may need them soon. We will likely need to repair that crashed vessel and use it to escape. Unless you plan on finding a new city and going through this act all over again. I cannot determine if they have the ability to distinguish individuals well enough to detect the deception.”

“Sapling, you need to stop!” It was the loudest Delta had ever been, loud enough that Felicity turned her attention back to her. “We’re way past the perimeter! If we go out much further, we’ll be in estate land. No entering the estates without explicit permission from Moderate-Undertow.”

Felicity didn’t listen. Instead her limbs tightened even further, preparing for a fight. I can drop her a little further away. She needs to be so far that her swim back will take too long for them to catch me.

Given she’d chosen the slowest, crappiest skimmer she could, she’d probably have to wait a little longer.

“I’m sorry, Delta. You shouldn’t have been here with me when I left. I tried to go alone. It’s going to be inconvenient for you.”

Delta spread out across the interior of the skimmer, coating the upper surface like she was trying to pry off the shell. But with the water whipping about so fast outside, she didn’t actually open it. “What’s this stink, sapling? Are you wilting already? You haven’t even been to the sky. I need you to release the controls, okay? I’m going to take us back to Effervescent Meridian.”

She could imagine the world she let that happen. It would be so easy to just forget. These aliens might strain the complexity of her mind, but it got easier to understand them every day. At least living here made it possible to forget the loss of her crew, and the Alcyone.

She wasn’t a failure if all she did was fight away predators and trim weeds.

But she couldn’t, however strong the temptation might be. She was more than one lifetime. Harmony wasn’t going to let itself lose in this system, one way or the other. The chorus would protect itself.

And I’m part of that. It wouldn’t let me be a traitor even if I wanted to. She didn’t either way. “I can’t do that,” she said. “I’m sorry, Delta, really. I don’t want to hurt you, or Effervescent Meridian. But I needed a ship. Yours was the only one I could get my hands on.”

Delta might’ve complained about the strangeness of her word choice, if it wasn’t for the desperation of her situation. She said nothing, though she did trail closer and closer by the second. Maybe she thought she could quietly wrap around Felicity, and pull her away.

“I do not understand, sapling. Whatever this is, you must tell. I am frightened for you, and for me. Your mind wilts like an ancient one, trapped in a box of sun and stone. Share what torments you, and I will soothe it.”

“I’m not…” She didn’t have to turn to focus on Delta. Skimming along the surface meant there was very little to encounter along the way. So long as she watched the top reflector for surface plants, and scanned the outside for shallow water, there was almost nothing for her to do.

Little grew right on the surface, or at least nothing as big as a person. There were too many predators in the air, ready to snatch them at a moment’s notice.

“Delta, I am not what you think. I’m not the first sapling on your world, I’m a traveler from another world.”

She was surprised enough that she was able to speak the words at all. The plants had a far wider range of vocabulary than she’d expected.

But Delta barely twitched at first. She kept getting closer, curling around Felicity one tendril at a time. But it didn’t matter—Felicity had the two sturdy driver’s poles, her whole body wasn’t stretched across the skimmer.

Delta doesn’t know how to fight. She kills animals for her job, but not other plants.

“You’re confused,” Delta said. “Don’t be ashamed, sapling. All of us have trouble eventually. Adapting to life in Effervescent Meridian is hard sometimes. But running away won’t solve it. Stealing a skimmer hurts Effervescent Meridian, but it will hurt you even more. You can get yourself into serious trouble with this—take yourself where the currents can’t bring you back. Get so lost that you never see Effervescent Meridian again. If you wanted to go for a swim, you should’ve said so. I would come.”

Felicity didn’t flinch, just let the tightness build in her body. Any moment now, Delta would attack, and she’d have to be ready. I can’t hurt her. She’s trying to help me. She thinks I’m insane.

“My name is Felicity,” she said. “I came from the sky many years ago, on a Varch’nai escape shuttle. My ship, the Alcyone, was on a peaceful diplomatic mission. We saw your cities, and we wanted to meet you. But something destroyed us. I’m here because of that attack.”

It didn’t matter what the Element of Honesty said—clearly it wasn’t the best policy here. Instead of getting less hostile, Delta sprung suddenly, crossing the distance and trying to pull Felicity free of the driver’s chair.

She was stronger than Felicity expected. Despite looking so spread out a moment ago, Delta brought half her body together for a single blow, tearing so violently that pain shot through one of Felicity’s tentacles as it ripped free.

When one started to go, they all started slipping.

She acted by reflex then, shoving against Delta with a burst of magic.

It felt like forever since Felicity had been a pony. She could only imagine what her mom would’ve thought about her clumsy spellcraft. It came out mostly as light, a brilliant blue-white flash and only a little pressure. She barely even shoved against Delta.

But the plant didn’t react that way. She fell limp, bumping up against the back of the skimmer and laying there in the water. Not unconscious, or else she would’ve floated up against the top of the skimmer.

“Shit, did I kill her somehow?”

“Not as far as I can tell,” Harmony replied. “But I’m not equipped to judge the difference adequately. There are thousands and thousands of individuals just like you growing in the water under this skimmer. I can observe no difference, yet they are lifeless while these move. What separates you? I do not know.”

Felicity drove on, grateful for the chance to get further from Effervescent Meridian without fighting. Soon they were far enough away that a swimming plant would take ages to make it back. Long enough that she could be long gone. When we drop her, I should remove the locator from my skimmer. The city won’t be down forever.

At least one fear was in vain: she hadn’t accidentally killed Delta. She began to recover, curling one tentative arm around the passenger chair. “What was that? How did you make light?”

She was still feeble, assaulted with shock and bewilderment. The smell wasn’t overcome with pain at least. She didn’t even sound mad, if they were even capable of feeling that.

“I told you,” she said. “I’m not confused, I’m not crazy. My name is Felicity, I came here from another world. What you saw is magic—something all creatures like me use to survive.”

Delta stared. She clambered back into her chair, and didn’t act like she was going to fight this time. Instead she held rigidly still.

“You should not tell her more than you have. You should have told her nothing, Felicity. Remember, the ship in orbit hunted us. If she belongs to their faction, that information will be used against us. In fact, it may be wise to kill her ourselves.”

“I thought you couldn’t do that! You can’t kill people!”

“Harmony doesn’t kill its residents,” Harmony said. “This being is not one of my residents, they aren’t even present on the ring. But if killing them makes it more likely to recover the ones who are missing, then we must kill them.”

We don’t even know it would help. Felicity sighed, though the smell had no easy translation. The plants didn’t weaken, so the only equivalent meaning was returning to light after time in the dark.

“Can you do it again?” Delta asked. “The light from nowhere. I want to see.”

I shouldn’t. But at the same time, a simple glowing spell was one of the first things any filly learned. She could use the practice in this body. Demonstrating it wasn’t information the enemy didn’t have—they already knew magic existed!

She concentrated, forming a faintly greenish blob between them. It wasn’t as bright as the last one, since she wasn’t using nearly as much magic. But she held that one there, intense.

“Bewildering,” Delta said. “I’ve never felt anything so nourishing. Brighter than sunlamps of Effervescent Meridian.”

Was it? Felicity stretched her leaves, but didn’t get to wonder.

“It would seem that way,” Harmony said. “The ability to perceive magic is present in your leaves. I have suppressed that instinct. Remember, we expend energy for this spell, and that power takes enormous time to regenerate. But if you do not feel it, you will not experience that illusion.”

That made a kind of sense, with one obvious flaw. “Why can we feel magic at all? Isn’t this system colonized by someone who hunts us?”

“We have no idea who colonized it,” Harmony said. “They hunted the Varch’nai as well, or so we must assume from our present location. We do not know what they are, only that we must pray that they are not what Harmony has always feared.”

Delta wasn’t saying anything, or resisting. But she was also burning valuable magic with that glow. Felicity put it out, then came to a slow stop in the water. She didn’t open her door, or move from the controls.

“You can get out here,” she said. “Swim back to Effervescent Meridian. You should make it before nightfall, if you’re fast.”

She didn’t actually know that, of course. The Grove Tenders didn’t exactly have to practice marathon swimming.

But Delta didn’t move from her seat. She didn’t open the door, or take her eyes from Felicity. “You’re really from the sky? A place with… magic?”

She nodded. Then she had to confirm it, because of course she still didn’t have a head. “Yes. I have a… task here. I have to accomplish it. I wish no harm with Effervescent Meridian, or you, or any other growing thing. But I have to do my job.”

“What kind of job?”

“Do not answer,” Harmony ordered. “She will deliver anything you say to the enemy.”

Felicity was becoming a very bad listener. “I must travel far,” she said. “And find others who are lost. I am their… Grove Tender. I failed to protect them, but I can’t fail now.”

If only the plants had some face to read, she might’ve guessed what Delta was thinking. But the plant was silent for ages, long enough that Felicity began to think she was stalling.

Eventually her smell of anxiety was replaced with a simpler, more pleasant aroma. Trust. “Then you will need help from an experienced Grove Tender. I will come.”

“Absolutely not,” Harmony said. “We don’t know her. We don’t know her motives.”

“Are you sure about that?” Felicity asked. “Might be a long time before we’re back here. We might go further than you ever dreamed.”

“Good,” Delta said. “What is a dream?”