• 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 28

Felicity circled around the control-panel. She couldn't say exactly how many times she had swam around it. Not just to bask in the warmth that radiated from it, though there was certainly some element of that. After being in the dark for so long, even the emergency lights served to help wake her up.

They were nowhere near as strong as the illumination that filled even the most broken-down skimmer she'd ridden in. Those were designed to nourish one of her kind, minimizing light-bleed along other spectra. This happened to be useful to her just by chance.

Delta was there in the water beside her, though she couldn't exactly have pointed to where. Her endurance hadn't been as great—with the machine on again, she went back to drifting, though she clung to the reactor with one tentacle.

She was close enough to the light that Felicity didn't doubt she could rouse her, if she thought she needed to. But turning the reactor back on wasn't something her friend could help with.

"We are receiving a radio message," Harmony said.

"They can reach down here?" Felicity stopped swimming, drifting until she was right up against the light. But she couldn't stay there—Delta twitched in her sleep, a reminder that this nourishment needed to be shared. She let go, moving further away again.

"Obviously. Those bodies need a signal to control them. More sophisticated entangled models exist, but are not deployed on a ship like this."

And you expect me to tell the difference?

Harmony didn't answer, and the signal came into her mind like she'd been wearing a radio. "Captain Felicity, I'm making a welfare check. How is your status down in the reactor?"

At least she cares enough to check in. Hopefully that meant she actually believed Felicity was the person she claimed to be. Hardware key verification could convince security computers, but not many people.

"Dark and cold," she answered. "One of those is more of a problem than the other. We don't do well in the dark."

"Seems like a strange way of designing your labor force," Escape Gear answered, after a few seconds. "They're bound to need to work in dark environments, right? Even if they only work on the surface, they'd still be confined by the orbital period. Why limit yourself?"

This probably wasn't the time to casually speculate over the past. Escape wasn't making small-talk, she was probably gathering information. Maybe she thought she could get Felicity to reveal information about the creatures she must be "spying" for.

But the joke was on her, Felicity would share everything she knew. "Whenever something looks like a dumb design choice, I usually take that to mean it was done intentionally, deliberately," she said. "Whoever created us didn't want us escaping sunlight. They wanted an easy way to shut us down, a way to limit our growth. If you don't want something taking over the universe, make sure there are a dozen different failsafes to prevent them from expanding too far."

She didn't wait, and give her friend more chance to waste their time. "I'm about ready to try the cold-start. Anything you need to do to prepare?"

"No," Escape said. There was never any delay, even when she sounded hesitant and unsure. "Are you sure? You know what happens if this goes badly."

"We all die," Felicity supplied. "Spectacularly. What happens if I don't try it?"

Again, no pause, though the words came slower than usual. "Everyone aboard goes back into the cold. When the life support goes out, we all die. Unless rescue comes first, which no one is sure is even out there. We gave up repairing long-range communication decades ago."

But does anyone know where you crashed? They should—space battles weren't exactly hard to see. And if they hadn't come...

"Do not become distracted with considerations about the rest of the fleet," Harmony said firmly. "This speculation does not aid our escape, and thus is not productive."

And you care about that?

But Harmony didn't say more, leaving Felicity to drift in the darkness and silence. For a little while longer, anyway. "I have Harmony to help me," Felicity said. "I'm pretty sure we're as prepared as we'll be. Harmony seems to think that everything is in place. When we get this working, don't you dare shoot my friend. I wouldn't have made it here without her."

Mostly without her being gullible enough to let me steal a vehicle.

"If we are alive not to shoot you," said another voice—even translated by Harmony, the Varch'nai captain sounded polite, dignified. "Then we will not shoot your friend, either. You have every opportunity to sabotage this vessel in a permanent way while down in the reactor. This test is enough."

Of course you were listening in. Felicity shook herself out once, though of course she didn't have a head or any central organ. She relaxed each tendril of her body, all except for the two that wrapped around the central column.

"Show me what to do, Harmony," she said. "I'm ready."

It did. The process was surprisingly simple for the incredible task at hand—that was one of the advantages of a drive like this. The really hard part was over when the antimatter was prepared. All they had to do was mix it together with matter, capture the resulting energy, and do it slow enough that the carefully contained fuel didn't escape and kill everyone.

"Annihilation rate: 10%," Felicity called, and knew without asking that it would be translated over the radio. That should be more than enough to get all the ship's life-support systems up and running again, while also far too little to use the engines or weapons. A real engineer could come down and verify everything was safe before going that far.

"Three... two... one." She flipped the switch.

For a second, she imagined that nothing had happened. There was no opening into the reaction chamber, where a cascade of radiation pouring out would deliver swift death to anyone exposed to it.

Instead, she had only the instruments to rely on. Streams of numbers and symbols moved over the screen in front of her, far too fast for her to perceive. "Did it work?"

It was hard to tell with such rapidly-moving graphs, but she saw a lot less red, and far more friendly shades. Something heavy and mechanical clicked not far from her, and then a rapid alarm began to blare.



The whole chamber shook once, then white light came on around them. It began at the far end of the room, switching on one segment at a time until the entire engineering bay was fully lit. There were more bodies than she might've guessed, at least a dozen poor souls who had tried to get down here, and failed.

The light itself might've been wonderful, if that was all that happened. But even as Delta began to twitch and wake from her dozing slumber, the water all around them started to shake. A current switched on, pulling steadily backward towards a large vent at the back of the room.

Felicity didn't stop to think, she just reached out and snatched Delta with one tentacle, constricting as tightly as she could while two other legs remained on the controls. Just in time, as the liquid began to drain from around them. The sound of a great pump echoed and whirred, shaking her so loudly that her companion could probably hear it without ears.


Red and white lights flashed, even as the corpses and debris drifted down towards the back. It was all happening so fast, like someone had put the world on fast-forward. What could she do?

"Tell them to stop!" she shouted, though she wasn't sure what language she'd used. "We're still in here! We need to get back into the water!"

Harmony's response was delayed this time, long enough that Felicity saw a shimmering silver surface form overhead. The liquid was draining all right. At human perception, this might feel like agonizing slowness. But to her, it was rapid. About a centimeter every few seconds.

How many sections are connected here? Those must be powerful pumps is this is fast enough to watch.

Apparently the ship was autonomous enough to seal up holes once it had power. Or maybe it had used a structural integrity field. The result didn't much matter from her perspective—it meant that even if they could swim, there would be no safety.

The surface overhead was enough to tell her that. If there were any openings to the outside, the chamber wouldn't be draining.

Delta clambered along Felicity's outstretched arm, until she too was clinging to the controls. Probably for the best, considering how strong the pull had become.

"They're trying!" Harmony finally said. "So am I. The circuits appear to be fused. Those pumps won't shut off."

"Kill power to the junction!" Felicity ordered. Exactly the command she would've given her own crew, without a second thought. The water was about a third of the way down already, close enough that she could almost reach the surface. A thin sheen of ice condensed on everything above it, along with a billowing fog—ammonia gas, or maybe water ice. She wasn't really equipped with the senses to say.

So close to Delta, she could sense her panicked smell, even if none of her words were making it through. She needed no magic or radio to guess what she must be yelling.

"Cryogenics were already almost empty!" Harmony responded. "They already switched over. If we pull the circuit, way more than one crewman dies!"

They're sacrificing us. The thought was enough to make her lose focus, her body loosening on the bar. She might've been ripped up into the water and sucked away to the pump, if it wasn't for the tentacles that wrapped along her then, at three separate points.

Delta gripped her firmly, dragging her back to the controls. Felicity took hold of them again. She could use these to shut the reactor down again, before she died. It wouldn't be hard.

But if she did, many others would die. That was a sacrifice she could never dream of making.

The pump isn't magical, it's just draining connected volume. Where can't it reach? She scanned the room, and found she didn't even need to see it. Good thing, considering the debris frothing through the water, making it completely impossible to see.

The reactor was in a large container, it's hollow now.

Without words to communicate, Felicity could only wrap a few limbs around her companion, in a familiar maneuver. The one they'd just used to install the reactor in fact, only this time it wouldn't be to pull.

Delta seemed to recognize what she wanted, because all the other grips on her body relaxed, leaving only one of Felicity's own tendrils holding to the console.

She braced against it, then shoved as hard as she could. She was flung instantly out into the water, buffeted back and forth and sideways. A terrible moment of pain pierced her, as something sharp blasted past, shearing one of her arms clean off. But she had others, and one finally touched against the storage shelf.

She curled around it, twitching to signal to her companion. Delta let go, and suddenly it was Felicity who held their combined weight against the torrent. Even worse, she felt herself brush up against the surface of the liquid, gaining rapidly on them now.

She pulled anyway, dragging Delta across the space. Her companion held on, though the buffeting of water and bits of debris threatened to tear the two of them apart.

As soon as she was there, Felicity pulled her up a little further, reaching up into the air.

It felt incredibly hot to the touch, like sticking her limb up into a spa might. But just a little further, one crude eye found exposed water. She pulled, twitched, and heaved. Soon Delta joined her, working their weight together up through the air, and down into the container.

Finally Felicity's strength gave out, and she relaxed, slumping down into a little bowl-shaped tank. She felt another's limbs entangled with hers, and couldn't muster the least bit of attention for embarrassment.

They lived. Nothing else mattered.