• 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 24

There could be no confidence or peace on the strange ship, not when any moment might bring the collapse of all safety and the destruction of their skimmer. If simple technical failure wasn't enough to fear, there was also the presence of the predatory fish just behind them waiting for a chance to devour the contents of their little sub. Then there was the unknown alien threat overhead, which might figure out what she was and who she represented at any moment. Maybe she would die in an orbital strike long before she reached the distant distress signal.

It didn't matter that there were plenty of rational signs against it. Most succinctly: the crashed ship hadn't been blown up. If they were allowed to remain on the planet somewhere, then either the ship above didn't know, or didn't care.

But despite her anxiety, despite Harmony's warnings against sharing any details with her traveling companion, they encountered no trouble during the rest of the trip. The skimmer limped along, the predators following never got close enough to do real damage. No other ships arrived to stop them. She was safe.

The ocean changed as they neared their destination, however. Chunks of ice began to drift overhead, obscuring some of the light to the distant seabed. The liquid became shallower, but not necessarily more populated. There were no boxes here, and only a thin film of green had colonized the sea floor.

This was no Earth habitat, or even a simulation of one recreated on Harmony. The water here was rocky and barren, and geology had clearly had a far stronger impact than life.

Faint chunks of water became larger pieces, then larger chunks of pale white collecting below them, rising closer and closer to their sub in strange, twisting formations.

"Why is the ice... sinking?" Felicity asked aloud, her tentacles feeble on the controls. "Or is that not ice... is it glass or something? Volcanic activity?"

Delta had been watching the external windows far more than Felicity herself, so much that she'd grown across the front and side of the craft, leaving only enough space for Felicity to see where she was going. It seemed perfectly natural to her companion to take a more comfortable shape if she wanted to get a better look at what was outside.

"It is unlike anything in Effervescent Meridian," she muttered. "There are old stories of the world frozen solid. Nothing could grow, no matter how deep or how shallow you swam. But that was long ago."

“You are biased by familiar biology," Harmony thought. It had been silent for hours, maybe days. But now it spoke, like it had been waiting for this specific moment. "You do not swim through water. What you see below is frozen ammonia. This is likely why the natives can reliably travel with skimmers—obstructions sink to the bottom, rather than interfering with sailing."

"So why do we use ammonia instead of water? If life usually chooses one, it must be for a reason."

"What?" Delta turned, staring at her. "That's a strange question, Tea. Are you having second thoughts? If we were going to give up and turn around, we should probably have done that sooner. I don't think this skimmer will make it all the way back. We would have to swim. Sleep through darkness, fight off predators... Were your friends supposed to be here?"

"No," she snapped, without hesitation. She could already see Delta uncurling from the supports, settling back into the seat beside her. Even a suggestion that things might not be right was enough to rouse her. She did seem to be a good Grove Tender, all things considered. And now she'd been kidnapped. "They're close! Really close, actually..."

She didn't close her eyes to focus on their transmission, since her eyes lacked lids and couldn't ever be closed. But she could stop noticing them, the same way she did automatically when some of them pointed into walls or furniture. It was natural to watch some parts of her world more than others.

Her eyes might not be closed, but the concentration was enough to angle her mind squarely at her other senses. She was already a plant, why not also be sensitive to radio?

The SOS hadn't changed in the intervening weeks. The same plea for help, repeating the desperate state of their ship and need for evacuation. But now there was no distortion. The signal might as well be coming from the space beside her head.

"At this distance, it should be safe to send a reply. We cannot ever be perfectly certain the message will not be overheard, or that they will respond as intended. But the alternative is to approach without signaling first. A hostile reaction in this case seems a near certainty.”

This time Felicity didn't just respond carelessly, repeating the message chemically as well as audibly. She concentrated, then spoke her question without signaling it. "How do I do that?"

"I have already negotiated key exchange. Secure channel established. I cannot yet determine if there is a survivor on the other end, or just the vessel’s automated response. Speak, and I will send your message."

Felicity waited a moment, watching Delta intently. She made no sign that she'd heard, not even a twitch.

She already knows I'm an alien and what I’m doing. Even if she can hear, she won't speak our language. That knowledge won't mean anything.

"Escape ship, this is Felicity—the Equestrian advisor on contact and colonization mission. Please respond."

She made a few subtle adjustments to their route as she spoke, towards the signal. It was still a dozen kilometers out, maybe a little more. But she wasn't moving fast enough to arrive before their conversation was complete in any case.

Seconds stretched into minutes, and Felicity began to despair. What would she do if this was just another piece of debris? Could she repair an escape ship enough to get them back into orbit? Could she fly it all the way home to Harmony?

"Anything?" she asked, insistent.

"No," Harmony replied. Then only a few seconds later, "Yes, wait. Incoming."

She heard the reply in her ear as though she were wearing a headset, signal fuzzing slightly as it passed through water and ship. "Captain? Queens know it's good to hear your voice after all these years."

The voice wasn't the version of Escape Gear she knew best—but it was the one she'd known most recently. The little changeling was a Varch’nai now. Apparently a living one.

"What is it?" Delta asked, turning towards her. "That's not a smell I've seen in many saplings. Something good in this wasteland? Oh, have we almost arrived?"

"Yes," she said. "Almost. I'm talking to them now. We're close."

She accelerated the skimmer to its highest possible speed. It wasn't like there was any ice on the water's surface to slow them. "You too, Escape Gear," she responded, careful not to send her message with scents as well. "Your landing craft is intact? This planet killed me when I first came down."

Such statements might've been nonsensical to a human crew, or absurd. But she had no doubt the changeling would make perfect sense of it.

Should I still think of her as a bug? She hasn't been one for far longer.

"I'm only a few kilometers out," she continued. "I would have signaled sooner, but I wasn't sure who would be listening. What's your status?"

The reply took a little longer this time. Maybe the bug was consulting with the other Varch'nai on the other end. How much could they risk a mysterious voice on the radio that claimed to be a dead pony?

"Not good. We can't fly. The fleet can't send help. We've been on our own, and getting anything done for repairs is hell. This planet makes Equus look like a luxury resort." Pause. "We're getting a metal object approaching at twenty knots about where your signal is coming from. One of the native construction vehicles."

"That's me. If you know how dangerous this place is, you guessed I needed to adapt. Harmony and I have been impersonating one of the plants for the last few... decades? I'm unclear on how long. Been focused on survival."

That wasn't strictly true, of course. She'd enjoyed her time at Effervescent Meridian. Months, years, days—she could've stayed another few either way. It was good to have a purpose.

"If that's you, reduce speed," came the eventual reply. "We've crashed on the edge of a small patch of water ice. The surface is colonized by a biome of extremely hostile plants and animals, but they gave up on the lander about a decade ago. I'm sending a docking plan. You can come in below the ice. We dug a tunnel through for mining a few years ago, but lost everyone we sent to try."

"I have received a docking plan. It includes topographical information for the surrounding area. I will superimpose the route on your vision to make it simple to follow. Do not deviate."

Felicity nodded her not-head, then adjusted course. The route in would be a little longer this way, but the skimmer didn't seem to mind. Neither did the shadowy presence dogging them through the water.

Persistent bastard, chasing after them for hundreds of kilometers. But it wasn't like the arctic had an abundance of other food options. Too bad I didn't talk Delta into borrowing a gun for my driving practice.

"Almost there," Felicity called back, another few minutes later. "I can see the ice overhead. But I don't think I should come aboard just yet. I don't even really understand what I am, but... if I'm living comfortably in this water, I'm probably full of the same poisons that would be dangerous to you and everyone else on that ship."

Indeed, a glacier loomed in the near distance. From the single camera view she had above the surface, it looked as tall as a mountain in its own way. This was a more familiar sight, ranging from pale white near the edges to deep blue around the peak. Sure enough, it was covered with life. The plants were numerous and varied—towering purple trees dominated the landscape, with shrubs and mosses in similar shades nearby.

Only on the glacier's extreme end did she see anything different—a smooth, glassy surface, culminating in a shiny metal object.

Even Delta leaned suddenly close to inspect the screen. If she had a mouth, it would probably be hanging open in wonder. "What are those shapes?"

"A Varch'nai heavy cruiser," she muttered. That explained how it had survived so long. This was no escape pod as they had first thought. The ship was well over a kilometer long, and had a staff of hundreds. According to her research, ships like this could cross vast interstellar distances without resupply, sailing for hundreds or thousands of years.

Most of them probably weren't cut in half, though.

The ragged end pointed away from her, so she couldn't get a good view. But great sections trailed into the darkness, with lengths of metal pointed upward.

"It appears the vessel split upon landing, with the bow remaining above-water and the stern cracking as it went over the edge. Roughly two-thirds of the vessel is submerged.

"Starlight ends and leaves wither," Delta cursed. "That is... incredible."

"What do you suggest?" Escape Gear asked. "If you're alive, I'm not leaving you here. But we don't have the resources to build you a... habitat? What would you even need? They keep telling me to study biology, but keeping this ship running doesn't exactly leave me much free time. I like not letting this planet kill me."

"We have enough magic to return to familiar form," Harmony said. "This is tempting. But I believe it is also premature. That vessel clearly requires intervention to fly again. This body is likely better suited to render aid. Waste that magic now, and we will have to delay for months."

Felicity repeated more or less the same words. It was thoughtful of Harmony to let her speak for herself, even if parts of what it said didn't quite make sense. What did the program care what body it had? Just because she wanted to be a pony again didn't mean the computer would. Right?

"Go ahead and find somewhere to park," Escape Gear instructed, after a long delay. "We'll catch up in person through the airlock. Then we can decide what to do."

You're answering to someone, and they still don't trust me. Well, Felicity could deal with that. She'd have to find a way to explain Delta too. And escape being devoured by a dangerous predator.

"Sure. You and your friends prepare yourselves, I am aggressively ugly."

"And I used to be a bug," Escape Gear replied, almost instantly this time. "I think I can handle it."