• Published 5th Jan 2022
  • 1,410 Views, 260 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.

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Chapter 3

Felicity was asleep when the Alcyone started to shake. It only took her a few seconds to wake up, shrugging out her wings and hopping to alertness. Whatever she’d been dreaming faded away, and she was back at her desk.

The Alcyone shook again, twisting violently to one side. A string of emergency warnings piped directly into her head joined the blaring sirens from outside it. “Battle stations! All hands, report to the bridge! Battle stations!”

This planet doesn’t even have a space station. We sent a probe slower than light, even if they had a fleet hiding somewhere it shouldn’t have arrived yet. Felicity shuddered, sorting through the flood that Chorale had sent directly into her brain.

A noncitizen probably wouldn’t have had the brainpower to process so much at once, but things were a little better for Felicity. In the five seconds it took her to wake up, she learned that the Alcyone had detected spatial disruption less than a minute ago. Now she saw a ship, a ship several times their size, even bigger than the ruined Stormbreaker was said to be.

She started galloping, passing a bleary Lexis helping Collin into his trousers as he shambled forward. “I’ll… meet you there, Captain!”

She ignored him, didn’t even try to speak as she ran. She probably would’ve teleported directly to the bridge, but she didn’t know just how the Alcyone’s defenses worked. For all she knew, the magical power required would take energy they couldn’t spare.

The Alcyone shook again, jolted to one side so violently that the gravity field couldn’t absorb the acceleration and she was almost smacked into the wall. More sirens blared, and she was sure she could hear metal tearing somewhere far away.

“How the buck is it hitting us, Chorale? I thought we had better defenses than the Stormbreaker!”

The AI responded just as she spoke, communicating mind-to-mind through her implants. Her panic was unmistakable. “I’m not sure. The Alcyone’s Interdiction Field is the highest class of defense I’m aware of. It doesn’t seem to care!”

Chorale shared a few seconds of video footage, from an external camera pointed up at the unknown ship. She watched as the whole surface of the vessel seemed to shudder, darkening so far she wondered if it would redshift out of existence entirely. But then it fired, and another explosion shook the ship.

There was no transit time, no chance for the Interdiction Field to activate. No projectiles, no energy. They just exploded one piece at a time.

She stumbled into the bridge, which only had Martin just now. The unicorn had moved to the defense console, though didn’t seem to understand what he was doing there.

“I assume we’re stopping them from just teleporting bombs at us. That’s something the ancients thought of, right?” She shoved past Martin, over to weapons. This was the one system that Chorale couldn’t operate autonomously. It had not been given permission to kill.

“The ancients didn’t design this ship, humans and ponies did in the present. But yes, teleportation as you understand it is impossible in the field.”

Felicity took a full second to absorb what the tactical console was telling her. The ship firing on them was several times their size, and its hull was completely impenetrable to their sensors.

Vessel Class: Unknown
Complement: Unknown
Weapons: Unknown
Observed maximum energy: 65TJ

“Give me targeting vector for something that looks vulnerable!” Felicity shouted, this time out loud. They were armed, though it was all more conventional. Felicity armed their most potent system: RAID—the Relativistic Ablative Impact Device.

“Capacitors charged,” Chorale said, with a tone suggesting she would’ve fired it ten minutes ago if she could.

Felicity fired, and felt the slight push backward as the massive slug exited towards their unknown enemy. Within the two-ton projectile, a simple spell rapidly accelerated the bullet towards the speed of light.

A bubble around the enemy vessel lit up less than half a second later, exactly the way their own defenses should’ve done. She imagined it buckled slightly under the impact, then there was a flash as the RAID exploded.

“I thought those could punch through a moon!” Felicity squealed, magic moving rapidly through the controls as she activated anything and everything.

“Humans approximated that prediction, not me. I can’t vouch for the effectiveness of your systems.”

The bridge doors opened again, and Collin finally entered, with Lexis following close behind.

“That felt like we shot something!” Lexis squealed, annoyed. “You didn’t even wait for me to tell them to stop?”

“Don’t really have an option here!” She didn’t even look back. “I assume Chorale already tried that.”

“In every possible language and form of communication. My modeling suggests that vessel intercepts our signals before they reach it. It is not sending anything I interpret as communication.”

“What about the color?” Lexis settled into the comms console, pulling up her chair and swiveling to one side. “The ship is getting…”

Then they rocked again, more sirens joining the homogenous choir.

“Pretty sure the message there is obvious!” Felicity snapped.

“Bridge, are you alive up there?” Gear’s voice came in over the communicator, full of pain and fear. “You have any idea what kind of beating we’re taking?”

“I can guess!” Felicity yelled, keeping her voice down as best she could. She bit her lip, then fired again with everything she had. The simulation field remained constant, but the lights on the bridge went out for a second as she fired. Only the bio illuminator strip along the floor remained glowing, showing the way out.

An array of weapons terrible enough to level Equestria in a single shot were soaring through space right now—or at least the ones that had activated. Felicity waited in the sudden stillness, as even the sirens went out.

The lights didn’t come back on. After a few seconds, Chorale herself emerged in the doorway. “Reactor is down,” she said, mechanical body seeming to shake. “Escape Gear is dead.”

“Don’t be so buckin’ dramatic.” A changeling appeared behind Chorale, looking dazed and confused, but intact. She only existed in the crew’s implants, but that was enough. “I didn’t even feel it. That thing is damn near dismantling us.”

“That’s weird every time I see it,” Martin muttered, rising shakily from his seat. “Controls aren’t responding anymore.”

“I shut the Interdiction Field down,” Chorale said flatly. “Waste of energy. It seems to have had a positive impact: they stopped shooting at us. But also a potentially negative side-effect, because now they’re moving in.”

Felicity took one more look out the window, staring at the approaching ship. It was nothing like the graceful wing design of the Alcyone, it was more like jagged metal rectangles stacked atop each other, more or less with each layer in a gentle spiral. But now it was advancing on them.

“Engines are gone, Captain,” Gear said, before she could even open her mouth to ask. “And we don’t have the juice to charge the capacitors for another shot, so don’t suggest it. I’ve got enough for a few torpedoes. I’m thinking they might be coming in close to board, that would be a good time to shoot, Captain.”

The ground seemed to jerk, and suddenly they started drifting off the ground. Felicity winced, spreading her wings and turning away from the bridge.

I have to stay strong for these ponies. I was always the brave captain. I’m the explorer they followed.

“Chorale, what do we do?”

The AI didn’t judge her, though she did turn to face her as she spoke. “My first priority is for your lives. Harmony prepared for this eventuality.”

“We didn’t come to fight,” she said, gesturing for the door. But then she hesitated—there were faster ways around, and every second mattered. “Can you teleport us, Chorale?”

Before any of the others could even open their mouths to object, they were already somewhere else. Packed inside a strange ovular room, which wasn’t even physically connected to the ship.

Now its insides lit up, filling the cramped space with an even glow.

At the far end of the room was a cushion, built for a pony. Heavy machinery surrounded it, glowing with the white of a new star.

Even as they shuffled forward, the floor rocked again, and began to tilt.

“I’m thrilled we get to see inside the egg, Captain… but we aren’t really going to hide in here while they take the Alcyone, are we? She’s ours. We’re not giving up.”

Chorale marched straight up to the machine, and it came to life around her. “The critical failure redunden—the egg will not survive much more than the Alcyone. It’s not meant to hide in, it’s meant to send you home.”

“Send us…” Lexis repeated. “You mean we spent years flying here, and it’s all just…”

“Yes.” Chorale gestured urgently at the chair. “Captain, you must be first. I’ve stored all relevant tactical information in your pattern. I thought I could protect you—but I was wrong. The Harmony was right about the dangers waiting for us out here. Only Harmony can solve this now.”

“My crew should go first,” she said, pointing at the chair. “I, uh… however this works. Captain goes down with the ship, that’s how that works.”

“No, that’s stupid,” Officer Watts snapped, shoving her forward towards the chair. “Captain, you’re a citizen, you’re an Alicorn. If the rest of us get captured by… can’t believe I’m saying this… if we get captured by evil aliens or something, who do they listen to? One of us, or the princess?”

She snapped around, glaring at him. “I told you not to call me that.”

For once he didn’t seem cooperative. “Get in the chair. Besides, what do we have to worry about? We can’t really die here. This is a matter of honor.”

“I’m still trying to talk to them,” Lexis said, looking distracted. “Didn’t… comms are still up. I really think we can get them to stop if we ask nicely enough. We could still fix this.”

Collin reached down, setting one hand on her shoulder. “You can do it. And you, Captain, get out of here.”

“I’m more interested in how this machine works,” Martin muttered, staring at the strange, polished metal machinery beside the chair. Almost none of it was actually connected to the seat, but to a cylinder strapped in behind it.

“I can explain it in detail,” Chorale said. “Or you could return to Equus after the captain. All of you will, once she’s gone. She’s carrying our information.”

Felicity shrugged into the seat. She hated having her position used against her, but on the other hoof—she did want a rescue to make it back. This better not be because I’m a citizen and they’re not.

The cushion wasn’t comfortable, though the chair did tighten around her slightly. From the back of the egg, something began to glow so bright it shone through its metal shell, filling the egg with white.

“This process will not be transporting your physical body,” Chorale said, standing beside her. There was definitely real emotion on her face now—guilt, worry, and genuine fear. “I thought I could protect you. I’m sorry I was wrong.”

“I don’t blame you,” she whispered. “And you’re not done yet. Maybe Gear’s nuke plan will work. Collin, you’re in command. Until you follow me.”

The egg began to shake—whether from the building spell, or whatever their enemy was doing to dismantle the ship, Felicity didn’t know.

“We’ll be waiting for you, Captain,” Collin said.

“Seriously,” Martin added. “If this doesn’t work, please don’t take seven—”

There was a brief spike of pain, and suddenly Felicity was falling. She fell right out of her body, right out of the enigmatic failsafe device tucked away in their cargo-bay, out of the nearby star system with its mysterious ship and unknown civilization.

She was long gone by the time the Alcyone exploded.