• 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 27

Felicity swam away from the entrance, leaving the fast-moving shadows behind on the other side of the glass. There was no way to look in that direction without feeling at least a little self-conscious—what was Escape Gear thinking, looking at her strange body through the glass? Would they ever speak again?

Delta wasn't patient enough to wait, though, and swam along just beside her. One tentacle trailed against the metal at all times, though Felicity couldn't tell if she was investigating or afraid of drifting away.

"That was over so fast," Delta said, after they'd made it a short distance down the ship's outline. It stuck sideways, all the way down until it pierced the arctic sediment far below. The water here wasn't nearly as deep as at Effervescent Meridian, but the ice covering most of the sky simulated some of that depth just by blocking out the light.

She was already feeling the gloom. Both of them were slowing down here. If we fall asleep down in the dark somewhere, we'll never wake up, she realized. The sun won't ever shine here again. We'll die.

"Who were you talking to in there? I didn't see anyone growing. Just animals trapped inside the broken ship. They didn't look too threatening, but still... I wouldn't want to be trapped inside with them."

Felicity slowed, letting Delta's words fade into the background for a moment. There was something more important for her to deal with first. "Harmony, can you help me repair this ship? When we get down there... I'm not an engineer."

"That depends on the damage to its reactor," Harmony answered. "The function and maintenance of Varch'nai vessels was considered relevant when I was created. But the severity of damage might not allow a repair. We will have to hope the cryofluid preserved the engine, rather than destroying it."

They reached an entrance—an open maintenance hatch, caked with bits of debris and rotting plants. Rotting people, maybe? But even if all the ocean-borne plants on this planet were people at some point in their life-cycle, not all were people all the time.

"That's going to be hard for you to understand," she began. Particularly since I thought I already told you. But how much more could she explain? "We don't even have the words to explain it properly."

The interior of the vessel was entirely flooded. The dull glow of sunlight from above barely penetrated a few meters through the opening. Beyond that was utter blackness. I never thought I'd be afraid of the dark before. But for Felicity, the dark itself could kill, given enough time.

"Do we have to go in there?" Delta asked, hesitating just behind her. "That doesn't look safe. If it's been dark this long, no one could still be alive."

"They aren't," she agreed. Maybe she could change the subject without Delta noticing? "They've been running on emergency power for years now, and it's about to run out. If we can't turn it back on, the lights on the rest of the ship will go out."

"Oh." Delta swirled energetically through the water, before finally zooming in behind her. "You're saying we have to be heroes!"

She nodded. Some of it might be a lie... but that part was still true.

Felicity had never seen this specific ship before. But even with Harmony translating the Varch'nai writing, she would need to see it to read it. So she let one tentacle trail against the wall, resisting the urge to grip anything. She probed the space in front of her with another, in case anything particularly dangerous got in her way.

"This is what the ship should look like," said Harmony, and suddenly the blackness faded. She saw walls, doorways, hatches and corridors, all in shimmering gray. "Do not become complacent, however. This reflects design spec only. I have no better senses than you do."

A thin red line appeared in the water ahead of her, leading down a particularly wide corridor. Felicity reached back, wrapping one limb around Delta to make sure they didn't get separated, then swam off in the indicated direction.

Soon enough, they were in total blackness.

It was as though sleep deprivation was a switch she could flip in her mind. Within seconds it seemed, Felicity felt as though she'd been up for days. Her thoughts slowed, and her motions became less precise.

I've felt this before. This is the body shutting down automatically, when the sun goes down. Or the mind, anyway. If these plants were like the ones from Equestria, they still did things in the dark. But for whatever reason, those things didn't include remaining conscious.

Why bother. Our predators are all awake during the day. If herbivores are asleep, we can sleep too.

But she couldn't, not now. Even if Delta stopped swimming with as much effort, flailing against the nearby bulkheads rather than jetting through the water like a squid.

"The longest I've ever done in the dark was..." she began. She didn't finish, apparently losing interest in her thought. "How much further?"

"Here," Felicity declared. They came to a huge doorway, large enough for service vehicles to pass while the ship was in full operation. That could only be the central reactor.

She smacked one tentacle against something heavy, floating in the water. She pushed it aside, leveraging herself against the wall as she did so. A disturbingly space-suit sized lump drifted past her, before thumping up against the ceiling.

They're not even dead. It's just a mechanical body. It's okay.

The darkness made it worse. She pushed against something round, and knew beyond a doubt she was up against a helmet. Not knowing otherwise, she could imagine a skeletal human figure inside, with sightless eyes staring at her. Did she really know the Varch’nai didn't send someone in here to die?

Another meter, and one of her tentacles touched up against the doorway. She followed the closed door almost all the way down to the floor, but not quite. Maybe five centimeters before the floor, her tentacles finally found an opening.

There was only darkness ahead, just like behind. "This way," she called, crawling down through the opening. She had to stretch herself out into a single layer to make it. That wasn't so hard. She didn't have a head, or shoulders to crush against the metal. Where the Varch’nai crew had probably struggled, she passed through easily.

She waited on the other side, knowing the room was utterly dark. Yet gray outlines showed her the general shape—parked forklifts and machines against one wall, with a huge flat area for storage shelves. Then there was the actual reactor in the dead center of the room, with thick pipes and conduits flowing into it from every angle.

Finally Delta made it through behind her, smelling of anxiety and restlessness. "I hope we can get the lights on soon," she whispered. "This is awful."

"Me too," Felicity said. Then, out loud, she said, "What do we do, Harmony?"

"We were sent pre-crash diagnostic data from the crew of this vessel," Harmony said. "It suggests standard failsafes engaged, dissolving the antimat core along a nullspace vector when the mechanical integrity of the engine could not be guaranteed."

"Uh... okay. So what do we do?"

"The ship has a single redundant core in storage, utilizing a vacuum-energy isolation circuit. First, we disengage the mechanical isolation. We bring it across the room to the reactor. Then we hope the reactor actually works when we plug them in. Otherwise, our corpse will wait here for Harmony to salvage when it finally completes conquest of this world."

"This way," Felicity urged, following the new line. She floated up what would've been several shelves, to a secure metal box. She circled around it, before finally locating the metal security straps. "Could you bring me tools, Delta? There should be some... just beside the door. Emergency maintenance equipment. Tear it off the wall, and come here."

"Sure." Delta's scent was distant and unfocused, but she drifted off to do as directed. Felicity remained in the dark, with only a vague idea of the direction she'd gone.

Minutes passed, maybe hours. Time was confusing without a sun.

But the water shifted, and finally she smelled Delta returning. "This? How are we supposed to fix anything here in the dark, Felicity? No one was meant to grow under these conditions."

"Just a little longer," Harmony urged. "The magbottle still reads with intact status-code. Its power cell will provide emergency illumination while you work."

Felicity dug through the tools, relying purely on her sense of touch to find the right crank. Finally it clicked against the emergency rack, then began to turn.

A metal shell fell away from around her in two pieces, floating slowly away through the water. More importantly, the room finally lit up.

Felicity had never seen the Varch'nai's antimat cores up close before. Incredibly mass-efficient though they were, she'd always felt anxious when she got too close. Fusion reactors were safe—when one lost containment, fusion stopped, and usually just melted the sensitive machinery within. When an antimat core lost containment, you wouldn't live long enough to realize something was wrong.

It was several times bigger than they were, roughly the size of a pony-drawn cart. The core formed a clear toroid of hardened black metal, except for directly in the center. Bright green lights flashed on the bottom. Each flash illuminated the engine room, though it did little to alleviate Felicity's exhaustion.

There were so many bodies. Dozens at least, most in cloth uniforms with simple mechanical exoskeletons. Their flesh had frozen to cryogenic blue, with icy swirls forming on faces and eyes.

Not one looked like it had decayed, or were missing pieces from local fish.

Of course they aren't. The locals can't digest animals that use water as their biosolvent instead of ammonia.

"Woah," Delta muttered. "Was this ship under attack when it crashed? There are so many."

"I think so," Felicity said, without needing to lie. "Now comes the hard part. See this thing? We have to float it across the room to... that opening."

"Oh." Delta remained silent for another moment, then surged with excitement. "Leverage. Let's use a tied push-pull! Once we get it moving, it won't be that hard. We can tug it along the ceiling."

A tied push-pull meant wrapping their bodies together, contracting in tandem to move a particularly heavy load. By working together, the plants could turn multiple people into the fibers of a single muscle. In construction, plants did this all the time...

But Felicity never had. She moved sluggish and self-conscious as Delta showed her what to do, wrapping vines together in a tangled mess that spread the load equally between them.

Should this be intimate? She'd never been in such close contact with another plant before. Delta didn't seem to think so. "Count it off. One... two... three!"

They began to pull. It felt as though Felicity's limbs might tear at the edges, unraveling. Yet whenever she strained too far, Delta was there to soak up some of the slack. They began to move.

Once they were, it became much easier. "God, this thing must weigh tons."

"Several," Harmony replied. "Roughly half of that mass is contained inside the antimat bottle. I hope you trust Varch’nai engineering. If the bottle is breached, there is no chance Harmony will recover you."

Felicity groaned, focusing on her task. She heaved, centimeter by painful centimeter. At least the ceilings and walls were covered with handholds for zero-gravity. There was plenty of space to grip.

As they got close, she turned more of her attention towards the waiting reactor. Somehow, the last core was completely disconnected—there was nothing to pull out of the old slot, just an open socket waiting for them.

"We have to push the rest of the way," she said, uncurling from around Delta. "We can't get crushed under it. That's where it connects."

Delta followed, pushing and maneuvering those last few centimeters.

A heavy mechanical click echoed from around them as it settled into place. By the flashing green light, Felicity saw several metal arms interlocking with divots in the warped taurus.

All at once, reactor panels beneath them came to life, glowing with red emergency lights. A choir of corpses continued to drift through the room, though Felicity imagined they were moving closer, as though watching her work with approval.

"Now the hard part," she said to Delta. "Time to turn it on."