• 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 26

Felicity wasn't in any particular hurry to make it to the entrance.

It wasn't just that they swam through a graveyard of the creatures she had killed to defend herself, though their alien corpses certainly didn't help anything. It wasn’t even the cold and the ice. There was something else on the surface, something clear and strange that didn't quite mix with the ocean.

Water, she realized. I'm looking at actual water. There wasn't much of it—anything that separated would freeze almost instantly at these temperatures. How would this world look when she was back in her pony body, and she saw the ocean through real eyes? Bleak, frightening cold. She'd probably sound a lot like Escape Gear.

"Metal," Delta said, rapping on the side of something emerging through the ice. It wasn't just a tiny section of ship either, but a smooth, polished fuselage, extending through a shattered glacier like a toppled skyscraper. Her eyes did a poor job focusing on it, yet she could still look down into the gloom, and see a suggestion of the gigantic vessel.

By some definitions, anyway. Effervescent Meridian had been big, continuing all the way down to the sea floor hundreds of meters.

"It's so smooth," Delta whispered, running one tentacle along it for a short distance. "How is anyone supposed to climb this? Where are they supposed to sit? What if they need to come out for repairs?"

"They don't expect to do any of those things," Felicity said. "This is a starship, it's supposed to function out in space. There's no water there, so being outside wouldn't be safe. We use machines when something goes wrong, or space-suits. They..."

But getting into the details of magnetics and various respiratory systems would probably just confuse her. Felicity couldn't imagine this species would build anything remotely the same way that ponies did things, anyway.

"It still seems unwelcoming," Delta declared. "So... unliving. Wouldn't those who grow into the stars wish to show others they welcomed visitors? There is so little up there—every encounter must be a pleasant surprise."

Felicity would've giggled, if she had the capacity to make that sound anymore. She could see the familiar ladder-rungs running up the side, the only thing breaking the otherwise flat material. A round opening near the ocean's surface glowed with faint red emergency lights.

"We never met anyone else before coming here. But we don't usually stay close enough that they could see our ships. They're too far apart."

They swam the last little distance together, over to the airlock. The outer doors were already open, and from the buildup of ice and algae around the edges had probably been that way for days, maybe weeks.

A pair of automatic turrets tracked them as they approached, servos grinding uncomfortably as they swiveled. Like so much else about this crashed destroyer, they didn't seem to be working well. At least they didn't fire.

Delta seemed to grow more energetic as they slipped inside, touching and gliding over everything. The airlock had a set of lockers with hooks for space-suits, though all of them were empty. Varch'nai machines took up two corners of the room, entirely caked full of grime and visibly non-functional.

They probably can't even open this. That might make it a safe place for their first conversation—or maybe it was extra vulnerable.

"Don't actually move anything," she said, tugging on Delta's tentacles as she got dangerously close to the airlock's mechanical override control. They probably wouldn't work, not if the ship was operating in any way that made sense. But trying to open that would look an awful lot like an attack.

"That right there... that most of all. Don't touch those valves." Felicity drifted towards the window, one aspect of the airlock that apparently hadn't interested Delta at all. There was nothing visible in the space beyond, just a metal wall, and the faint suggestion of flashing lights somewhere out of sight.

"Why?" Delta asked. Not confrontational, her tone was just curious. The way she usually sounded. "It doesn't look like the maintenance department of your ship is very good at their job. This place is crumbling! Maybe we should poke around, see what we can fix."

"Maybe we will. But not at random—if you turn those, you let water into the ship, and everyone in this section probably dies." Or, more likely, none of their actual minds were here, and they'd just break a ton of equipment. But explaining how the Varch'nai worked when she barely understood it herself didn't seem like a particularly good idea.

Before Delta could say anything else, something moved from the window. Her companion didn't even react at first, which wasn't all that strange from the plant creatures. Scent mattered so much more, and there was no smell on the other side of an airlock.

First a metal figure tromped past—a marine in heavy armor, with a rifle larger than Felicity’s whole body. Something smaller followed along beside her—another Varch'nai, but this was a face she actually recognized.

Escape Gear, or at least her most recent iteration.

Even looking at her took effort from Felicity. She seemed to blur into view, little twitches of movement happening so fast that her face never settled into focus. Without a scent or vibrations in the water, she could get no sense of her size either.

Felicity knew this should feel little different than looking at a human through the glass. But without those old memories, she might've mistaken her for an interesting rock, blown sideways in the current.

Then she spoke, her voice slightly distorted by failing airlock speakers. Delta didn't react to that either. But Felicity had suspected that too. "I must assume I'm looking at my captain out there, somehow," said the voice. High-pitched, and so rapid that it took great effort for Felicity to make out the words. "But I don't know how I could. I only see some seaweed."

"Is something happening?" Delta asked, condensing her mass around Felicity. "You smell nervous. Do you think they're coming soon?"

"They're already here," she said silently into the water. But it wasn't Delta she was really worried about. She approached the control panel, and found the touchscreen ignored her tentacle. Whether it was the temperature, the damage, or something about the conductivity of plant tissue, she couldn't say.

I will facilitate radio communication, Harmony said. Know that they perceive the flow of time far faster than you do. It would be better not to deliberate or consider, or else lose them. I will ensure your words are intelligible.

"I'm here," Felicity said. Out loud, though she was fairly certain that Harmony would be able to broadcast her messages no matter how she chose to send them. "We're here, rather. There are two of us—myself and a friendly native."

The face on the other side was impossible to read. Funny, considering how she'd previously seen the Varch'nai’s natural form with their big eyes and expressive faces to be an improvement over dealing with humans. She might as well be staring at a plaster cast.

"Harmony did this, somehow?" Escape Gear asked. "How did it change you without a new source of magic?"

I have sent technical details, Harmony thought, its own voice entirely clear in her head. They will not have the understanding to unravel them, but they will contain accurate information. You may wish to provide a summary.

"Harmony used the last of my magic," she said. She found herself speaking as rapidly as she could, though there was no way of knowing if that made the slightest difference. How much faster did they experience time, anyway? "It made organs that could generate more magic over time. It was either that, or give up and die."

There was no response from the other side at first, though several other faces appeared by the entrance. The motion did nothing to rouse Delta, but one of the marines had a headlamp on, briefly blasting the airlock with white.

That was enough for her to turn towards the opening. With Felicity blocking the lower section, Delta drifted towards it from above. She only needed a little stretch to get a few tentacles near, and the weak eyes that ran along them.

"There are predators in there! Tea, your friends are in danger! That one is so strange... but those eyes! It's looking at us!"

There was a little fear, but it lasted only for an instant. Delta tightened, her body condensing into a few smaller coils. It wasn't like she'd brought some helpless secretary along for the trip, after all. Delta was a Grovetender.

"Relax!" Felicity urged. "Delta, I know you don't... I don't know how to tell you this. But I'm here to talk to the ones on the other side of that glass. They do not want to eat us."

It had only been a few moments of silence—but that could've been whole minutes from the perspective of the people watching them. Maybe longer. Escape Gear's voice came again, desperate.

"Captain, if that's really you... we're in a desperate situation here. The ship is basically helpless. We've extended our survival time by sacrificing almost every body we have and just running the system on reserve. The Varch'nai aren't trained for conditions like this—when they lose a ship, they transmit to another one and self-destruct. But something in the atmosphere has coms completely disabled. We could really use a miracle about now."

Even with her voice stretched and distorted, Felicity could hear the exhaustion in her tone. Escape Gear was a brilliant engineer, and she'd already spent hundreds of lifetimes patching and repairing a slowly-failing starship. Now she had to do the same thing all over again, and she was running out of steam.

"I am not an engineer," Felicity said. "If anything is broken that you cannot fix, there's probably nothing I can..." She trailed off. But she couldn't wait, not even for a moment. Her friend would think she was sitting silent. "Almost nothing. My companion and I can swim safely through this environment. That's why I took on such an... awful shape, to begin with. Is there anything I can do?"

Delta retreated from the window now. She held to Felicity with a single tentacle, while the rest of her drifted out into open water. If she had a better grip, Felicity might've been worried about being dragged away.

The reply came almost instantly though, giving her no time to worry about the other plant. "The majority of the ship is submerged. As far as we can tell, the central reactor is still functional, but that whole deck is flooded. No body we sent to fix it survived the trip. If your implants can receive radio, I could guide you down. You cycle the reactor, drain the deck, and get main power back online."

She lowered her voice—though speaking over the radio like this meant anyone who wanted to listen would still hear. "The captain doesn't want to trust you. If you'd come a few years ago, we probably would've shot you. But if we can't get the reactor back online, we're all dead anyway. You can't really kill us any faster."

"Tell the captain he can apologize when we save his ass," Felicity turned away from the window. "Do you know what killed those bodies?"

"Not radiation," Escape Gear replied. "We'd have a reading on that by now. Best theory is that the ammonia got into their suits. They're not exactly rated for submersion into cryogenic fluids. If there's some other danger to living here, you'd know it better than we would. We have low radar and the external cameras working, that's it."

"Come on, Delta." She swam past her, yet the other plant lingered in the opening. Was she looking back through the window one last time? With the strangeness of their bodies, it was impossible to be sure.

"You're right, my friends are in danger. Why don't you help me save them?"