• 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.

  • ...

Chapter 25

Felicity took the skimmer as close as they could go—until patches of ice coalesced on the surface of the ocean made forward progress impossible. If I'd just taken one of the good skimmers instead of a broken piece of junk, we’d glide right up to the tunnel without needing to put ourselves in danger.

Would Effervescent Meridian even care that she jumped through all these hoops to do as little harm as possible?

"Do we have to stop here?" Delta asked, watching one of the rear windows with most of her body. There wasn't enough space through the leaves to get a good look at what was outside, but Felicity didn't have to wait long. "There’s more of them out there. They're coming right up to the skimmer."

Felicity glanced down at the rear viewfinder, and sure enough Delta wasn't wrong. She didn't have to use the camera for more than a few seconds before the skimmer was surrounded by circling figures. Familiar, animal eyes looked inward, fixed on her. But pony nightmares of predatory dragons and evil griffons didn't translate well, given these creatures had buck teeth and flat molars.

We're being hunted by underwater rabbits.

Or maybe that wasn't intelligent enough. Maybe the strange animals outside were like something between stingrays and manatees.

"We're waiting for Grove Tenders, right?" Delta asked, her scent suffused with nervous energy. "They brought flesh-agitators to kill the animals and free us."

Felicity sighed, glancing through what was left of their repair tools. Something bumped against the skimmer, tilting them slightly. It hadn't even dented the metal, but why would it? These weren't gigantic monsters—these were herbivores! As a pony, they wouldn't even look at her twice.

But she wasn’t a pony, neither of them were.

There were plenty of tools here, any of the basics she could need to make field adjustments to the skimmer. Unfortunately that didn't include weapons, or else they wouldn't have to be worried. Three predators was nothing against a single “agitator.”

"Are you alright out there, Captain?" Harmony kept the separation clear in her mind, even as it facilitated translation of the scent-language. "External cameras haven't seen anything leave the alien craft."

"We'll be alright in here," she responded. "The creatures outside are hostile to us. We will have to fight them before we can reach you." Then she turned, looking up at her companion. Unlike the impatient Escape Gear, the plant beside her expected communication to be deliberate and purposeful. If that meant moving a little slower, then why rush?

"They cannot enter the water," she said. "The others from my expedition are trapped in the ruin you saw. If they try to swim, the liquid will kill them. It's too cold, and full of poison."

"A little chilly," Delta countered. "Are your friends saplings too? Afraid of things that aren't dangerous?"

Felicity shook her head—then had to repeat her meaning, as usual. "You will realize when you see them, Delta. For now, we have to fight." She lifted the sharpest tool she could from the container, a saw with jagged blades for cutting external plates. She gripped it firmly with one tentacle, showing it off to Delta. "If it gets bad, I have other ways of fighting them. But I think I'm about to need all the magic I have. It would be better to use strength alone to fight them. Predators should give up quickly, right? If I hurt them, they leave."

Delta rested one tendril on hers, touching the saw. She tapped against her mass with a second—a correcting gesture, the same she might've used if she'd assembled something improperly. "That's a vorashi out there. They don't give up, Felicity. Even when we fight a single one with an entire copse of Grove Tenders. The other two might give up and go another way. But they might be... arctic vorashi. Strange creatures live in the north. Maybe that's why they're hunting together."

"She seems entirely confident in the information she shares with you. We cannot afford to risk serious damage to your body now. Put down the weapon and extend a limb through to the exterior of this craft. There are efficient ways to kill an animal."

"I can fight them," she argued, pulling the saw closer to her chest. "They're just fish. Twice my size, muscled, but not armed. How dangerous can they be?"

She kept expecting Delta to respond whenever she spoke to Harmony. She didn't react, other than to try to pull the saw from her grip.

"These do not appear to be natural predators. The construction system to which your species is a degenerate form had natural safeguards in place. Natural selection and evolution would allow them to move beyond their purpose and become useless as tools.

“Every ecological niche had to be filled, and made hostile to individuals who stepped away from their purpose and might form independent populations. Listen to what your companion said. Determined hunters, utterly unconcerned with their own survival. If you had a familiar body and armor perhaps I would allow martial combat. Your body is not familiar, and that weapon is not designed to combat them. We will use spellcraft."

She wanted to argue, if only for the sake of it. But Harmony was probably right. Besides, if it thought she could afford to spend the magic, then she could.

"Good..." Delta said, as she finally lowered the weapon. "There's no shame in what you're doing. Grove Tenders never fight vorashi without many weapons. This skimmer is unarmed, but... tell your friends vorashi are here. They will understand and send someone, you'll see."

Instead, Felicity extended a single tentacle through the door. She didn't push it out very far, just a few inches. But even knowing she could regrow did not make it easy. She shook as she moved, wavering. "Are you sure about this?"

Delta reacted in a flurry of swirling limbs, trying to drag her away from the opening. She screamed almost incoherently, but the message was clear enough. Get away, was she completely crazy? They would get hold and drag her out through the opening! Words overlapped in a confused rush that sounded more like many speakers yelling discordantly, rather than a single one.

Outside the skimmer, their pursuers reacted almost instantly to her movement. If she had any doubt they were specifically trained to hunt mobile plants like her, that settled it. But academic questions about their nature and purpose mattered very little when sharp teeth were swimming for her.

But she held on, fighting Delta's grip as she had done once before. "If we're going to cast any spells, now's your chance, Harmony!"

She felt the magic before she heard a reply. Like before, it resembled any natural use of her own spellcasting, except that it required no actual concentration or act of will from her. Harmony used her body in a way that it never did in Equestria. In that world, the act of learning to use magic guaranteed some responsibility with it.

Her whole body went briefly rigid as the power passed through her, emanating as a glow bright enough to make Delta freeze. She twitched, then fell limply off her body and coalesced at the bottom of the cabin.

Felicity felt it too, in that moment. A brief, overwhelming sense of euphoria, far stronger than the light could produce. But for her the sensation was muted, like somepony else was experiencing it, and she was only observing the memories secondhand.

She had no eyes outside, not on that thin tendril she'd edged out through the opening. The magic faded, and she was free to move again. Delta remained stunned on the ground, emanating a gentle scent of contentment. You have such a hardwired reaction to magic. There has to be a connection there.

But that was for scholars to explore. Hell, even Escape Gear might have some idea. "Is it safe?" she asked, pressing against the glass to try and get a good look.

"The animals will not be a threat. This does not imply greater knowledge of our surroundings, however. There are other native animal species, and many are necessarily herbivores. I have no memories of other apex species developing civilizations from so low on the pyramid of life."

Felicity nudged the door, swinging it slowly open. If anything came rushing for her, there was still plenty of time to yank the door closed and retreat to safety.

But that wouldn't be necessary. Their three attackers were here, floating limp in the water. All were now on their backs, and didn't so much as twitch towards her as she emerged. She poked the nearest one with one tentacle, feeling the strange firmness of animal flesh. Why did it feel so unnatural?

She held still in the entrance, watching closely for any sign of attack. Would the fallen monsters revive? Maybe Harmony hadn't known what it was doing.

She took long enough that Delta recovered, rising slowly from the bottom of the cabin. "What are you... why is the door open, Tea?"

"Because it's time to go," she said, as quietly as she could. The very idea of quiet was somewhat nebulous—it was more that she kept from signaling for too long. The longer a message went out, the "louder" it would seem. "The attackers are dead. I hoped to save the magic, but..."

Even Felicity hesitated at the idea of mentioning Harmony. That was a great deal of detail to give someone whose loyalty wasn't yet certain. Delta didn't want to lose her out here in the wilderness, that was true. But that didn't mean she was convinced.

"You didn't need an agitator," Delta whispered. "You killed them with magic?" There were no facial expressions of course, and little she would consider body language. But somehow the words came heavy with excitement. Awe. "You have to teach me!"

"Captain, are you still there?" Escape Gear asked, urgent. "We still haven't seen motion from the skimmer. I don't see anyone alive inside, just some... seaweed, maybe?"

"I told you I was ugly," she replied. She trusted Harmony enough to tell when she wanted to send a return transmission. "That's us. Me and a local who wanted to... who's part of this. She's friendly, you'll see."

No reply came after that. Felicity waited a few seconds, before clambering out into open water. She let herself drift, shaking out the soreness and lethargy of her long journey. She found herself uncurling in the open water, abandoning the simple imitation of head and torso that she'd maintained for most of her life among the plants. Just now she felt better spreading out, taking in what feeble sunlight could trickle in through the chunks of ice overhead.

"It should feel cold..." she said, to Delta this time. "I've been to the cold before. I have to wear special clothing not to feel uncomfortable. But this doesn't seem different."

Delta followed nervously, peeking out the entrance and prodding at their dead attackers before finally braving the open water. "I have never been," she admitted. "But there are some things said. The cold is dangerous. Not because it harms directly, but... harder to find nourishment here. You stay too long and you will need to sleep, even if light surrounds you at all times. No one builds cities this far—no one wants to live somewhere the ocean is so unwelcoming."

Great, Felicity thought. One more problem she didn't know how to solve. She filed it away beside so many others for later attention. But she couldn't fixate on them now, or they would crush her.

"You see the ice, up there?" She pointed, but of course that meant nothing. She could only swim towards it. At least that kind of signal was clear enough that her companion could make sense of it. "There's an opening there, leading into the ship we saw. Time for you to meet my friends."

"I can't wait!" Delta said, trailing close behind her. "Will they be kinder than the Skywatchers? Those plants never want to say anything interesting about where they serve, or what they do. So boring."

"Much kinder," Felicity promised. “But stranger than you can imagine.”