• 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 29

If traveling in the skimmer had been cramped, hiding in a container full of water made that experience seem like a luxury vacation.

It wasn't just that there was barely enough space for the two of them. Plants didn't really care about personal space, in the same way that ponies didn't have the modesty taboo that caused humans so much discomfort.

It was the heat that really got to her, and the darkness.

When she first woke, she found the liquid in the huge container had dwindled significantly, and that the surface of her prison appeared to be boiling slowly away. She touched at the edges with a tentacle, disturbing a terrified Delta as she went. But the rest of the container somehow managed to stay cooler.

"This vessel is meant to contain an antimat cell, insulated from the forces of interstellar flight and physical shock. But the temperature is already beginning to cause denaturing in your external surface. I have been expending a low level of your reserve magic to keep this liquid cool.

She couldn't reply, not without Delta overhearing her. But the plant could already sense her distress directly, considering how closely they were packed inside.

"Do they know where we are?" she asked. The words came out distorted in the narrow confines of the tank, but she managed.

Her companion replied, but the message was unintelligible. This space wasn't big enough for even one of them to float comfortably, let alone two.

But as Felicity neared despair, the ground around her began to move. She twitched, adjusting one of her tentacles to look up through the surface. Not up into that awful void. Sticking herself up there made about as much sense as shoving her head into an oven.

A pair of heavy figures in thick metal armor carried her box suspended between them. Their motions were a blur, so that it was hard to even focus on them. At least that meant they moved quickly.

"Your situation is known, and they are responding. I do not know how the captain will act. He said this would prove your loyalty, but this response does not suggest he is acting as though it has."

She didn't have long to wait to find out. They came to a large room, one with a thick layer of fog condensed on the ground that billowed as they walked. Her escort lifted them high, then dumped.

For a single terrible instant, she was on fire. The liquid substrate around them boiled, and her own flesh started to burn too.

But as soon as the pain began, it was already over, and she splashed down into something blessedly cool. Compared to the searing heat, she would even take the mind-numbing chill of the outside liquid for the oven that filled this ship.

It took her a little time to recover, and explore her surroundings. Her companion was here with her, still slightly tangled. But the longer they remained here, the more they relaxed from one another, drifting into separate spaces to maximize light-area. There was no need for verbal negotiation on the topic—when twisted up, it just made sense to spread out, so they could both get as much space as possible.

As Felicity began to wake, she explored the rest of the tank, first with a single tentacle, then swimming cautiously around it.

The container was about the size of the skimmer cabin, except that it was completely devoid of furniture. There was only a drain on the bottom, and a heavy metal lid on top, both sealed. The walls were clear though, giving her a view into the chamber beyond.

Shapes moved in the fog there. Her mind could barely comprehend the rigidness of their flesh. Metal hammered into the shape of stumps and weights and whole limbs, yet somehow it moved.

They look so strange. The room was clearly quite cold, judging by the fog that condensed at the floor, and obscured most of the walls from view. It meant that every figure within wore protection over their whole body.

Finally a single one approached the tank, and she saw her first glimpse of a familiar face. Escape Gear stared in, though her eyes didn't meet Felicity's. Instead she skimmed over the whole tank, unable to find where to look.

But why should it matter where? Even that idea seemed strange to Felicity now. Eyes were not for communication, they were just a sensing organ. She could send no messages by staring.

"Felicity, do you know... what's going on?" Delta asked. Her voice was small, but in such a confined space the message reached her before too long. "There are predators outside. Not-growing ones have somehow... trapped us. Where are your friends? Did we save them in time?"

"Yes." Felicity drifted back to the bottom of the tank, settling down across the drain beside Delta. She needed a little solidarity right now. "We saved them. It didn't work the way we expected, but everyone lived. Even us."

Delta was silent for a long time, long for their kind anyway. Maybe she was watching the motion outside. Armored figures passed by, carrying instruments. The screens and probes positioned around their tank were probably monitoring every part of them. But so long as they kept the lights on, and the temperature from getting too high, that was all she needed.

"Incoming message," Harmony said. "It is Escape Gear."

As though she needed Harmony for that. Felicity recognized her voice. "Can you hear me, Felicity? We weren't sure we reached you in time?"

"Yes," she replied. "We're both alive. But the temperature almost killed us."

"Yes, ammonia has a vastly more limited range of usefulness as a solvent compared to liquid water. Getting this containment vessel ready in time took all the ingenuity we had."

"Don't contain us," Felicity replied, indignant. "We're here to help! I'm here to rendezvous with the fleet! We need..." What did she even need? How could she work together with creatures that were so different from herself? "Maybe we could retrofit a few suits to fill with ammonia? The Varch'nai must have portable life support!"

Another voice spoke over the radio, no less clear. This was Pasquale, the captain. "I am grateful for the work you've done to restore power to my reactor. We've found the local ocean uniquely destructive, exploiting any potential weakness in our armor to kill those who approached too closely. You saved many lives."

That isn't telling us we can leave. Felicity couldn't breathe exactly, so there was no way to take a deep breath and cool off. Instead, she forced herself to spread out, tentacles drifting through the water. What would she have done in this captain's position? If this were her ship, and a dangerous alien with security keys and magic had shown up, would she trust it?

"I've never seen predators do that," Delta said. pressing up against the glass. "They aren't trying to get in. There's no food out there, but they're so distracted by those... ruins? Did your friends lose their ship to predators? If we're the last survivors... Effervescent Meridian is going to be furious with me."

Felicity groaned audibly. Even after all this, Delta still thought they were going back to the city.

"Delta, the ones you see moving around out there aren't predators. They don't even eat plants, not the way you understand them. They don't eat other predators. They're out there because this is their ship. They're the ones we came to see."

"Not possible," Delta insisted. She pulled free of the sides, lifting herself higher than Felicity in the tank. "There is no predator that can understand... machines. Solving mazes and remembering colors and buttons is not the same as being intelligent. One who does not grow does not think."

She said it with utter conviction, an axiom that might as well be religious faith.

As she did, Escape Gear came up to the glass. She stopped just in front of it, transparent helmet pressed up against the glass along with her gauntlet. She looked up at the two of them as she had before, and seemed to be making an effort to hold still.

"Captain Pasquale is gone now. He's not sure what to do with you. Varch’nai battle doctrine doesn't allow us to release beings that aren't meaningfully human without consulting an admiral or greater. But we don't have communication back yet. Right now we're using all the power we can to wake people back up. Repairs could take months. And even if we do get our transmission capability back..."

There might not even be a fleet up there anymore, Felicity thought for her. Escape Gear didn't speak those words, but she didn't have to.

"See what I mean?" Delta asked, drifting up towards Escape Gear's hand, touching the glass with one tentacle. "This one has come to eat us. It will try to get in. This barrier seems sturdy, however. It won't be able to."

"She's wearing powered armor!" The words didn't translate, but her impatience sure did. "Delta, that's my friend over there! Her name is Escape Gear, and she's one of the smartest people I know. She's probably trying to come up with a way to save us right now."

Delta let go of the glass, apparently intimidated by her sudden energy. She drifted back down, squashing herself as she had when Felicity first rebelled against her in the beginning. "Does that thing really look smart to you, Tea?" she asked, her voice slow and sensitive. Like she was speaking to a child. A child holding a gun. "Only four limbs. Thick shell. How could it build anything?"

"There's nothing more I can do," Escape Gear went on, retreating a short distance. "I've tried convincing them. But keeping you two alive is the most I think I'm going to get. You'll probably have to stay in here until we can get contact with Harmony back up. Assuming we... ever do. Let me know if you need anything."

It would be so easy just to give up. Felicity could ask for a sunlamp, then curl up at the bottom of this aquarium and give up her mission for lost. How many others in her position would've done exactly that? She'd done everything she could to help, and the Varch'nai had turned around and betrayed her.

For good reason, maybe... but ultimately she was still in prison.

"Harmony, can we get out?"

"Certainly," it answered. "We have accumulated significant magical reserves. Such close proximity to the high-energy radiation of the unshielded reactor allowed me to fully saturate your body with magic. But if you're hoping we can use it to escape the gravity well, I must disappoint you—when we left the planet, we would just freeze in space. I am certain your current body is little more resistant to hard vacuum than a pony or human being."

Teleporting blindly around was exactly what got Felicity and her original ship in trouble in the first place. The real Harmony was probably right—they should've stayed on Equus.

But she hadn't lost yet. If she could still move, she might still find her crew somewhere. They might be hostage anywhere in this system, waiting for rescue. If the Varch’nai wouldn't do it for her, she would just need to take a more personal role in the process.

"I have a spell in mind," she said. "Not teleportation." She tried to picture it, the same way she would've if she were about to cast. But Felicity was no changeling—there were even some unicorns with more sophisticated knowledge of this kind of magic than she had.

"Goodbye for now, Captain," came a voice from the other side of the glass. "If I can figure a way to get you out of this, I will."

She left, and the door sealed shut behind her, leaving only the occasionally blinking sensors in the room, aimed into the tank.

"Is the environment outside livable?" she asked.

"Arctic," Harmony answered. "But for a short time, yes. It should be enough."

"Then do it," she commanded.

Magic flared from within her. The tank exploded into splinters of acrylic, scattering the little lake of ammonia into the lab. Much of it vaporized instantly in contact with the air. But by then, Felicity was past caring.

Her spell had begun in earnest.