• 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 6

Felicity considered briefly whether she should try to flee. Certainly she knew enough about Harmony’s basic systems that she could move herself around the otherworldly realm of “Upstream” without difficulty. But as the siren and pounding boots briefly brought up a surge of defensive instincts, her rational mind reasserted itself after only a few moments.

I’m Upstream. They can’t hurt me here. They could shoot her, throw her in a cell, eject her out an airlock, and she could still return to any part of Upstream she wished.

Instead of running or hiding, Felicity settled into place on the deck, legs folded beneath her. The bigger question was: who thought she would be playing along with their game?

She learned only seconds later, when the owners of those pounding boots emerged through airlocks on either side of the room. It was a good thing she was unafraid for her life, because otherwise she might’ve run right then.

They were human shaped in the sense that any being with two arms and two legs might strike her as human, through the law of familiarity. But these didn’t have similar biological outlines to anything that lived on Equus—these creatures were thicker around than the largest stallions, with boots that shook the deck with each step. They had to be ten feet tall, their limbs so large that she could barely imagine them doing anything with dexterity.

But it might’ve been the armor. What they wore made that Pioneering Society stuff they’d sieged Canterlot in look like it had come from a food can. If those gauntlets were any guide, she was fairly certain the Emperor’s Soul had a thinner hull.

Though they were gigantic, they weren’t slow. They moved with perfect balance in the spin gravity, pounding around until they surrounded her, and a dozen weapons were pointed at her head. “Do not move, intruder,” said one voice among many. “Or you will be destroyed.”

She didn’t move. She kept her magic ready to fight, or flee as felt wiser in this case. But that was mostly by reflex. She wasn’t going to bring back those old memories again. “This is Upstream,” she said. “Getting violent with me is a waste of time.”

No response. She glanced from one helmet to the next, but each was a totally polarized dome. As far as she could tell, they couldn’t even open.

But then one soldier holstered their weapon. At first there was nothing different about them, but then the symbols on their shoulder changed, and a little light came on in its chest plate.

Every other soldier acted in unison, standing to attention and moving their rifles into a ready position, no longer aimed at her.

That one soldier alone stepped towards her, through their ranks.

“Harmony sent me,” she said, twisting slightly to face them. “I’m going to be part of your upcoming mission. I’m one of the survivors from the Alcyone.”

The helmet seemed to light up, and a face appeared inside it. Felicity didn’t get the sense that she was actually seeing a person underneath, though. More like… an image constructed to make it look as though there was someone inside. But it wasn’t entirely convincing.

It looked nothing like the armor suggested. There was a thin body inside, with inky squid skin that shifted and changed. The speaker clearly wasn’t waiting for her to figure things out though, because they spoke immediately. Or he did, if her biases were anything to go on. “Pony—Alicorn. You are from this megastructure, are you not? The one that… imprisons us here in virtual space.”

You don’t sound happy about that. “No,” she said. “I’m a human explorer that was trapped here by Harmony myself. I’ve made some changes over the years,” because I didn’t know until five minutes ago, “but I’m not one of them.”

Apparently she’d made a good guess, because the face inside relaxed immediately. “Then you’re a welcome member of the Pandamonium.” The massive suit extended one hand towards her, wide enough around that it could’ve closed around her torso if he wanted. She took it with a hoof anyway, even though her leg was the same distance around as one of the gloved fingers. She expected the fake pain of her limb being crushed—but it didn’t come.

The creature shook her limb in the human way, gently enough that it didn’t hurt. “I am Atilla, High Captain of the Pandemonium. And if I had to guess, I’d say you’d be happier having this conversation in person. Perhaps you’d join me on the bridge?”

You’re not here, she realized, glancing over the suit again. That was why the helmets didn’t open—there was no one inside to open them. “You’re using a… human-shaped robot?” she asked, glancing from him to the others in turn. “These aren’t people?”

A single face illuminated, near her in line. This figure seemed female, or maybe that was more bias coming from the amount of hair she had. “We’re people, we’re just not down there.”

Is this something to do with being in Upstream, or is this how you usually are? She almost asked, but High Captain Atilla was probably right. “I’d love to meet you in person,” she said. “Maybe you can help me understand your ship. I… recently lost mine, as I’m sure you’ve heard. I’d like yours to do better.”

“We aren’t horses,” said another one of the suits, this time without a face at all.

One nearby smacked it in the torso, muttering something she couldn’t quite hear.

“Follow the armor you’re talking to,” Captain Atilla said. “I’ll lead you there. Escort, you’re dismissed.”

The crowd of other soldiers departed from around her, scattering in several directions. In moments, only the captain remained to lead her down another hallway to an elevator.

“Do you really have sensors that can detect magic?” she asked, as the massive doors slammed shut behind her. Probably hard enough to sever her head, if it was in the way.

“Your language is… curious, but not unexpected,” Captain Atilla said, sounding almost amused. So at least the emotions were something familiar. These weren’t unknowable aliens. Vitruvians could be understood by ponies, so maybe these creatures could too. We’re all descended from the same original ancestry, that’s what Harmony says. We share similar instincts.

The floor jerked under her, so fast that she actually felt that brief surge of pressure that was meant to suggest she would be feeling pain. She collapsed to the floor, groaning under the weight. Her bones would’ve been broken if she had them.

“Right, uh… we’ll have to restore the organic safeties. The ship is technically listed as ‘on duty,’ even though we aren’t physically instanced. Digital semantics, right?” He made a sound like laughter, apparently expecting her to do likewise.

But Felicity couldn’t do much of anything from her present position of a quivering heap on the floor.

But the sensation passed a few moments later, as the elevator physically launched her up into the air with its abrupt stop. This time she was prepared, catching herself with spread wings and settling back down a moment later. “Please do. If I was real right now, I’d be… more than a little upset about that. And a non-Alicorn pony would be dead.”

“I’ll make a note for the computer,” Atilla said, extending one hand across the doorway and gesturing for her to proceed. So she did. The door shut a second later, without the captain following.

Whatever she’d been expecting from the bridge—it wasn’t this. A round room, with machinery along the walls. Like pods, or cells, filled with a grayish gel. And in the center, something like a pleasant lounge, with low sofas and a quietly heating teapot.

As she watched, one of the cells hissed, then opened, and a figure emerged from inside.

Still taller than she was, with two sets of limbs ending in delicate many-fingered appendages, with the lower set folded and clearly more complex than the more familiar upper set. He wore an elastic jumpsuit that covered most of his body, and what wasn’t covered had numerous signs of augmentation. Strange joints, interfaces for cables and tubes, and so on.

“Forgive the introduction,” he said, extending the limb that was almost a human hand. This wasn’t nearly as frightening as the suit, and she took it without worry. Despite the apparent dampness from the gel of its cell. “We’ve been running combat drills for the last six months, and at first I thought your arrival was part of one of them.”

His voice was a full octave higher than the suit—more like a pony than a human, in fact. Even so, the accent was completely unplaceable, and the strange diction suggested Harmony was working overtime to translate for them. “Please, sit for tea. We have a little time while our bodies are created in the world of free space and stars.”

She sat, though the smell coming from the teapot sure didn’t seem like tea. It didn’t taste much like it either, sliding out of the pot as a thick gel with green swirls. She drank anyway, confident that she couldn’t be poisoned Upstream. “You were going to tell me about your magic sensors,” she prompted. “All I did was teleport something, but your whole ship lit up.”

“Well…” The captain perched delicately on his cushion, sipping demurely on his tea. “I suppose it would be insulting your intelligence to remind you that magic does not exist. But you’ve been trapped on this megastructure for what I guess is a significant duration, so I’ll remind instead.”

He raised one of his smaller, lower hands, making her twitch once. Up close, it was clear they were for some technical purpose—a few of those fingers were so tiny they could probably work on circuitry with ease. Between that and his height, it made the captain seem a little like an insect. “No, I’m not suggesting that what you call magic doesn’t work. Just understand that it isn’t actually a supernatural force. It’s a projection of power, along domains that… probably elude your understanding. Nothing to be ashamed of, none of my marines would understand it either. Wrong caste. Judging by your willingness to… integrate with primitives, I’m going to guess your caste is similar.”

“We don’t have them,” she said flatly. “Ancient Equestria—” But she trailed off. That wasn’t a winning direction. “I agree. It isn’t really magic.”

“It requires energy, and can be detected,” Atilla finished. “And intercepted, generally speaking. Magic as you understand it does not come from organics—your bodies couldn’t produce the energies you use. Whatever source projects your power can be blocked. But this isn’t a real place, and so your power wasn’t projected. Hence you could use it at all.”

Will there be ponies on this fleet? I don’t like the idea of flying somewhere without any magic. But that was a question for Harmony, not the captain. “Your bridge is… not like anything I’ve seen either,” she said. “No controls, no screens…”

“Virtual,” Atilla explained. “Anywhere. All around you. Dragonfly caste officers like myself don’t use the barracks as the others do, but have comfortable arrangements to take the occasional visitor. Of course the interface is…” He tapped the side of his head with his hand. “Implanted. The pods maintain our bodies. I expect you’ll become familiar with one soon, if you’ll be accompanying us.”

He settled his cup back on the table, looking her over. “I’ll have to speak to the senior officers, but I’m not sure they’ll be comfortable with a… creature like yourself aboard. Perhaps the evoker technology contained here can create a new body for you, instead of a copy of the one you’re using now.”

You’re the big bad army that even Harmony thought would be Forerunner’s trump card? Then again, she’d been more afraid when the soldiers first captured her. If she wasn’t friendly, she never would’ve seen this room.

“I’m not sure I like that idea,” she said, gesturing to his chest and the arms folded there. “I’ve grown attached to the body I have.”

Atilla waved a dismissive hand. “It’s not for me to work out the details in any case. Forerunner made it clear that your presence was… a foregone conclusion. If you’re settled, why don’t we get into virtual space and you can meet the other senior officers. Maybe you’ll change your mind about acquiring a different body then.”