• Published 5th Jan 2022
  • 1,413 Views, 261 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 4

Felicity drifted through the void.

She couldn’t have said how long she floated there, with only her fears for company. In the infinite theater of her mind, she played back the siege that had taken the Alcyone, over and over again. Chorale’s desperate face, watching her with certainty of death that could not be escaped. It didn’t matter that Chorale had always been the one meant to protect them—Felicity felt that job ought to be hers, even for the computer.

She failed. If she had a body to occupy, she could’ve watched what happened to her beloved ship. Her dream ever since she’d been a child, probably torn apart in the thoughtless void of space.

Felicity waited for a long time, both because she didn’t have anywhere else to go as because she wanted to see if her crew were safe. Her delivery might be important, but so was seeing if her friends and colleagues were still alive.

Eventually she reached her destination. Gravity slammed into her, and she caught herself with her wings just before it crushed her on the deck of a space station.

It wasn’t real, of course. The Cradle existed only Upstream, a model of what humanity and its allies would one day build. It was filled with small beings, and greater ones who descended to be part of their societies.

Most of the people working here used humanoid bodies, the plurality of which were the lanky, ink skinned variants affectionately dubbed “Vitruvians.” The rest were ponies like herself, either Alicorns or just one tribe. Here in the Upstream the difference was really just a command argument.

The Cradle had a vast upper deck, with tiered levels that spread in an inverted pyramid from the tether cable leading down into a gravity well. The station wouldn’t be possible in orbit of Equus—it needed a planet.

The decision was transparent: it wasn’t coming to Equus, but a design waiting for their expansion throughout the galaxy.

Felicity glanced over her shoulder, shielding her eyes with a wing as a massive portal hissed and sparked. There was a brief pause, and a figure landed there. Escape Gear’s black coat and big blue eyes. Despite the holes in her wings, she caught herself as she drifted down.

The portal grew suddenly brighter, bright enough that casual pedestrians on the concourse backed away, staring and gasping.

Then it flashed and vanished, leaving the two of them alone on the floor of the Cradle.

Gear glanced over her shoulder to where the portal had been. “Captain, was I the last? Where’s everypony else?”

“We inquire also.”

From every side of the station, people stopped what they were doing. A maintenance man stopped trimming the shrubs, a messenger pegasus landed with her parcel. Cadets playing put their jump rope down, and everyone turned to face them.

Every eye settled on Felicity. Escape Gear whimpered and dropped to the ground, shielding herself in vain with transparent wings. Her squeaks of protest could do nothing for the focus of Harmony itself.

Harmony was not quite an AI, not the way her human cousins understood it. Harmony represented the collective will of all the greatest beings stored within Equus. Felicity understood it more as a nation, with factions and distinct segments that bickered internally. Its membership included numbers so vast as to defy understanding, and each one had an intelligence that not even Forerunner could rival.

Now they were all watching her. Every plant, every flower, and every bolt was another eye. “Citizen Felicity and crewmen returned through The critical failure redundancy Mindprint Transmission Failsafe. Discomfort will follow.”

It did. Before she could even open her mouth, something yanked Felicity up into the air, dangling her there with knives of pain in the back of her neck and along her spine. She watched her mission play out in agonizing slow flashes, as though she were in the stomach of a terrible spirit digesting her mind one day at a time. But she endured, until the nightmare reached her destination.

These days received no more attention than any other, but for her the agony was fresh. The failed confrontation with an unknown ship, defenses they could not penetrate, and weapons that completely ignored their shields.

Though Harmony’s emotions—if it had them at all—were beyond Felicity’s comprehension, she felt a tension building in her audience. Whatever force read her was also exposing its own thoughts to her, she just didn’t understand them.

Except for one. Inevitability.

She dropped limply to the floor a moment later, discarded. Her mind swirled for a few seconds more, then any pain she might’ve imagined faded, leaving only vague dread.

The Harmony spoke all around her, though she wasn’t sure if it meant for her to understand, or just didn’t care that she was still present.

“Members of expeditionary force—probability of survival passes reasonable threshold. Murdered. Tide rising. Accident, misunderstanding, alien. Novel observation. Technology unknown. Specific design. Stratocracy likely target. Summon, rectify.”

There was another flash, and suddenly they were somewhere else.

Harmony didn’t seem to care about bringing Escape Gear, or maybe the changeling was so insignificant that she didn’t even matter to it. The ground under her hooves was suddenly polished granite, and the space before her a vast bedroom, with huge bookshelves lining the walls and a stately table off to one side.

Felicity knew the place, though she’d only visited once. It was Colonial Governor Lucky’s stateroom.

The princess herself was in bed, though with the sudden violence of their arrival that was swiftly rectified. She groaned, pushing her quilt aside, and blinking in the light.

Alicorns didn’t really age, so much as they let themselves grow to whatever size felt right. For some reason the governor hadn’t wanted to look like Celestia or Luna had, more like what ponies described of Twilight during the early years of her reign. Her horn glowed, and something settled over one eye. A viewer. “I’m sure this is… an important interruption.”

Felicity blushed bright red, covering her face with a splayed wing. At least the other spot in bed was conspicuously absent tonight. She wouldn’t be personally embarrassed in front of two Alicorns.

She turned to the side, knowing by now what to expect. Just as Chorale on the Alcyone, Harmony controlled a single synthetic body made entirely of a black material without obvious analogues to any other known to pony or human. It stood taller than either of them, with wide wings and a wickedly pointed horn. It still sounded like dozens of ponies all speaking together, voices interleaving and reinforcing each other.

“The Alcyone has been destroyed by alien attack,” Harmony said. Its avatar stormed right up to the princess, ripping her body from the bed and throwing her against the wall. Intricately-crafted mosaic shattered, and red blood smeared against chipped tile. “The handler intelligence has no logical response, perhaps you can appeal to our emotions.”

Felicity lowered her wing, watching with horror. She knew of the colonial governor, single most powerful pony on the surface of Equus. There was the more important council of citizens, who continuously selected her as their leader year-on-year and apparently hadn’t changed their mind while Felicity was gone.

I thought you were supposed to greet Harmony and Forerunner and Discord meditating in a grove of blossoms, with chimes playing in the background and incense burning around you.

Instead, Harmony tossed her into the table, shattering the wood and making Lucky grunt with pain. The beating probably would’ve killed a non-earth pony, but of course every citizen had those powers and more.

She backed out of the way, avoiding Harmony’s wrath. Maybe if she didn’t attract its attention, it would leave her alone long enough to remind them of what mattered.

But they hadn’t forgotten. “Individuals dwelling here might be destroyed!” Harmony bellowed, kicking aside a sculpture of blown glass. It exploded into shattered fragments, which caught in the air and froze there. “You said the galaxy was safe! The quarantine was lifted because of you!”

Governor Lucky rose from the broken wood and scraps of furniture. This time she caught Harmony’s leg when she struck, spinning around so she was thrown into the air instead of smashing against the wall. Somehow she could catch herself with her wings and hold there, despite her leg hanging too far and blood tricking down her shoulder. “I never said the galaxy was safe. I said that we weren’t going to get wiped out. The Failsafe told me, and I’m sure he was right.”

Magic flashed from her horn, and she landed a second later, broken body repaired. Then she seemed to notice Felicity, and her eyebrow went up. “Captain. You’re back. I assume Harmony brought you here to explain the danger?”

The strange metal Alicorn didn’t attack again. With a faint gesture, broken glass and shattered wood fell back into place around the room, forming limp piles. “This is the beginning. The Tide’s form is mercurial, but its consequences are always absolute. Time has warped it into some new death, one we cannot possibly overcome. It will extrapolate from the Alcyone’s previous path. It will extinguish the last ember of life.”

The door opened, and a figured walked in. A figure on two legs, with plastic skin but eyes that looked frighteningly alive despite the rest of it. It wore an unmarked uniform jumpsuit, except for the patch of New Canterlot over the breast. No name was needed, no rank. Forerunner stood above them all. “I believe the terms of our arrangement preclude the destruction of my officers.” He sounded jovial, or as jovial as an AI could sound.

“She is not destroyed,” Harmony said, its tone almost… embarrassed? It glanced backward once at the room, and light bathed them from the floor. The shattered desk flew back together, each splinter zooming through the air until it settled back into place. The sculpture assembled itself, the mosaic’s broken tiles became whole. “Now neither is this stateroom. But the change is meaningless, because of what her decisions have caused. Death roils, danger turns against us.”

“We don’t know that.” Forerunner slipped in, then froze when he saw Felicity standing there. “You cannot be here. It hasn’t been long enough for a trip in both directions.”

“We entrusted Chorale with a failsafe that is not beholden to your interpretation of fundamental laws. She used it, along with a single crewmember. That leaves three likely destroyed, along with the shallow copy generated to supervise the vessel. Chorale would not have activated that failsafe unless every other possible avenue was exhausted. It was so zealous in its obedience that it was not activated in time.”

Maybe you do know what matters after all. “We don’t know if they’re dead,” Felicity said, standing as straight as she could around the movers and shakers of her world. Eyes settled on her, and this time it wasn’t just Harmony. That being was so far beyond her that it was hard to even understand what it felt. But Lucky Break was a being she could comprehend. Forerunner too, though more abstractly. “It stopped firing on us once we disabled the shield. I think it meant to take them captive.”

“To learn our location,” Harmony said. It wasn’t moving anymore, its masklike face turned to the side and staring at nothing in particular. “Continued delay is unacceptable. We have encountered a serious military threat.”

“We’re not going back into hiding,” Lucky declared, stomping one hoof. “The citizen council is unchanged in our view, Harmony. We face death first.”

“And you will.” Harmony spun on her, its expression becoming something that was almost a sneer. “As the captain says, it stopped short of destroying the Alcyone. It will capture and dismantle her. Even if it cannot penetrate Chorale, it will still be able to extrapolate a likely origin based on the finite number of course-corrections we made. The Alcyone’s path was mostly linear, leaving a finite search-cone of worlds to evaluate and target.”

It turned to Forerunner. “We mobilize, machine-mind. My ambassadors of peace were ruthlessly slaughtered. Prepare your force of Interstellar Marines. We will return the harm done to yours and mine a thousand times.”