Return to Sender

by Starscribe

First published

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.

For numberless eons, Equus hosted primitive civilizations, ignorant of the proud achievements of their ancient race. In their simple lives, ponies and other creatures could grow without fear of alerting any of the terrible forces that grew in the galaxy beyond. All civilization had been extinguished by forces beyond comprehension. If they made too much noise, Equestria would be next.

Then came James Irwin, with the truth the Harmony superintelligence that maintained the vast Niven Ring had already known: the galaxy was safe again, and probably had been for many centuries.

Once the truth was revealed, Equestria again longed for the stars. Surely they could not be the only survivors of that galactic Red Tide that had swallowed all intelligent life. Their searching bore fruit: radio signals from a nearby system.

Felicity was the Alicorn chosen to captain that mission of discovery. She would bring the pony gift of friendship to a fellow survivor somewhere out there. That was the plan, anyway.

Unfortunately for Equestria, intelligence does not imply friendliness.

A tale of understanding and discovery set in the world of Message in a Bottle. Reading that story first is highly recommended.

This story was written as a Patreon commission for Lithl over the course of over two years now. It comes to fimfiction now that it is nearly finished.

Editing by Two Bit, cover by Zutcha.

Updates Weekly on Wednesdays.

Chapter 1

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Felicity stood at the edge of the Alcyone, where the complex interplay of simulation fields and her implants fooled her senses into thinking she was looking out on the barren void of space. If she squinted just so, she could see one star that was brighter than all the others, its welcoming orange glow the herald of what they’d come to find.

The planet of course would be far too small to see at this distance. But she wanted to keep looking, as though the familiar call of life would cry out to her through the void.

It didn’t, but her first officer did from just behind her only moments later. “I’m getting green signals from all decks. I barely even felt it.”

She spun, turning away from what she knew was really just a flat, alloy wall.

Just now, every member of her crew was here for the momentous occasion. Mostly ponies, looking small in the vaulted space meant to accommodate other creatures. First Officer Watts was the only human among them all, but the ship wasn’t meant to be unique. With luck, there would be many more Alcyones, and many more signs of civilization and life to discover.

“Of course you didn’t feel it, Collin.” Chief Engineer Escape Gear glared up at him, sticking out her tongue. Felicity was frankly surprised it didn’t have holes like the rest of her. “You’re human. You wouldn’t feel the spells in your shower if they didn’t heat the water.”

For all that her modest crew—friends, really—crossed every species and creed, they all wore the same uniforms, simple blue and white with modesty appropriate to the race wearing it. That meant slacks and a jacket for Collin, while Felicity only had a vest and appropriately sized captain’s hat. Her mother might be weird about stuff like that, but she never had been. She’d been born to this.

“This is great and all, but you should really be watching these readings,” Martin said, gesturing at the gigantic screen hovering in front of the sensor station.

They hadn’t, but now Felicity looked. Her wings jostled slightly as she squeezed in between the others. True, any of these consoles could be replicated and moved anywhere in the bridge. But there was something that felt right about standing beside her friends while they saw it.

Martin had zoomed in on a planet, their target. “Looks exactly like what Harmony told us,” he continued. “Oxygen atmosphere, with trace concentrations of carbon dioxide. Stable surface temperature between ice melting and water boiling.”

“We are closer now,” said a voice, echoing evenly through the room. Chorale could speak directly to them, though it generally didn’t. It wasn’t the unknowable being it had been copied from, but only the tiniest sliver. Enough that sometimes, Felicity could almost imagine she understood it. “My sensors read organic molecules in the atmosphere. No radio bleed, which is less encouraging.”

“We expected that,” Lexis cut in. “A civilization that survived this long might very well have developed customs that helped preserve them. Avoiding outward signs of sophistication would be the most obvious.”

“There aren’t any space stations or orbiting satellites we can see,” Martin said, sounding a little disappointed. “But I’m sure we’ll find something, Felicity. Maybe they’re just being careful, like she said.”

“And I’m sure we’ll work that out great,” Gear said. “I like making friends too, but I like being able to go home in this century even more. Did you finish your scan for metals yet, Martin?”

“I did,” Chorale interrupted, before Martin could say anything. “I found a few objects of more direct interest if you incline your eyes forward.”

Felicity did, and watched as the view panned, zooming forward to a large planet—what Pioneering Society dinosaurs like Martin would probably call a “super-Earth.” The rocky world had been completely shattered, with chunks so large that some of them were beginning to round in their own gravity. A smaller view superimposed on the first, showing structures blanketing some of them.

“We are only a refrain of the vast Harmony, and do not know this particular world. It appears it was removed from our cartographic records.”

“That seems stupid.” Collin fumbled at his belt for the sidearm there—only he and Felicity carried them. He didn’t actually draw it. “Why wouldn’t you be given everything about our known destination?”

“I do not know,” Chorale said. Its voice might be imitating fear, or maybe it was genuine. Felicity could never tell. Though hearing any emotion from it was reassuring. She’d only spoken to Harmony the one time she could remember, and it wasn’t an experience she was eager to repeat. “The Harmony has a purpose for every action it takes. But it may be that it did not know. Perhaps it didn’t want to petition a program that had executed its purpose to relinquish control of the systems it should have given up a country ago.”

Now that Felicity recognized, even if its actual words didn’t make sense to her. “That wasn’t an answer, Chorale. Can we build a Displacer here, or do we have to do something more… conventional?”

“I believe a direct return trip is possible using materials we can harvest on this planet,” it said.

“Ex-planet,” Martin muttered. “Damn, that thing looks big. I don’t want to think about how many people died on it.”

“The number is an insignificant fraction of those the Tide slaughtered,” Chorale said. “Do not mourn for them. All the galaxy burned in it equally. This is not unexpected.”

“We didn’t come here to be grim,” Lexis said. “We didn’t even know about that place, but it proves there was life here once. Maybe some of it survived, and it’s living on that planet right now.”

“Get a probe out, Chorale,” Felicity ordered, crossing in front of her crew and adjusting her little hat in her bright red mane. “Make it quiet. If these people have been hiding for their lives for years, we don’t want to panic them.”

“Probe away,” Chorale answered. Felicity could feel it through her hooves, though only for a second. A slight vibration from several decks below, and a brief flash of engines. “Forty hours until it reaches the planet. We will keep the crew synchronized regarding its discoveries as its path progresses.”

“Perfect,” Collin said, nudging past the other members of the crew. “Now if you don’t mind, I’ve been planning the most amazing first-manned-ship-to-leave-Harmony party, and I think it’s high time we all get there before we miss it.”

“We’re the only guests,” Gear said flatly, glaring up at the towering human. “How would we miss it?”

“By getting so caught up in our adventure that we don’t get the chance to relax,” he answered, taking another few steps back. The automatic doors expanded like an iris, opening to a gently rounded hallway. Simulation field windows lined the walls, showing realistic depictions of the starfield outside.

Eyes seemed to settle on Felicity—Martin would rather keep working, Gear wasn’t much for socializing. Lexis wanted to be wherever the people were.

And Felicity thought they could use one last chance to take stock before they dropped down into the answer to Equus’s most important questions.

She turned away from the bridge, following Collin through the open doorway. “He’s right, we may not get another chance. Chorale, interrupt us the instant there are any meaningful discoveries. And… you should come too.”

“Me?” The ship’s AI sounded somewhere between incredulous and flattered. “You can’t do anything in which I am not an integral part. I can enjoy your festivities as an observer of your success”

That might be true for Harmony, but I’m not so sure about you, Felicity thought, waiting in the doorway as the rest of her crew made their way out. It’s an unfathomable digital god. But so far you’ve been more like the Forerunner.

“I will… attend,” Chorale said, a moment later. “Though I make no promises about my cheer during the occasion. Only that I will remain entirely attentive to affairs outside.”

“Let’s just make it quick,” Martin muttered, glancing briefly out the window as they passed, as though he expected to be able to see the distant planet outside. He couldn’t. “I don’t want my pants down when we find out there’s really a planet with life out here.”

“Should’ve chosen a human body then,” Collin called, tapping his belt with two fingers. “Whoops! I’ve got more pants than this whole crew combined. Look at that.”

Lexis grinned mischievously. “Technically we don’t have any replacement human bodies ready, Collin. If something happened to you, you’d be instanced in a pony. Wouldn’t that be funny.”

“Still won’t date!” he called, rounding the bend and out of sight. But despite the friendly jab, Collin waited for them at the lift, and held it with one hand as the crew entered. Even though it being the entire crew of the Alcyone, they all fit comfortably.

There was no reason the two inhabited decks couldn’t be comfortable. They emerged from the lift into the common room, which had been transformed since Felicity had passed through to her morning on the bridge. How Collin had found the time to put up streamers and bake human treats, she didn’t know.

You’re wrong about them not having magic, Gear. He’s got a cutie mark, what do you think it’s for?

A figure already waited for them, a pony with a simple white coat, white mane, and completely black eyes. Her cutie mark was a perfect recreation of the elliptical Alcyone, depicting from the front on one flank and from the retreating engines on the other. Chorale wasn’t a pony, so she didn’t have to follow their rules.

“Research leads me to suggest that there will be dancing,” she said, smiling at them like she’d just figured out how. “I have studied extensively during your elevator ride should the need arise.”

“That’s… good,” Collin said. He patted her affectionately on the head, as he never would’ve done to any of them. Well, maybe Lexis, but the rest of them pretended politely not to notice that. He made his way over to the refreshment table, stepping behind it. “Well then, let’s eat this stuff. I didn’t spend three days printing sugar to dump it into the biodigester.”

Felicity ate with everyone else, danced along to the music with everyone else, though she would’ve rather gone to the shooting range. But Collin was the only other member of the team who even remotely cared about that kind of thing.

Alcyone wasn’t a military ship—if one was needed, none of them would be here. Felicity hadn’t come here to fight; she’d come to explore.

There were no new developments for the probe to report during the celebration. Martin asked every ten minutes or so, apparently not listening or caring that Chorale had promised to update them as soon as anything happened.

One by one they left—Gear first, then Martin back to the bridge for another dose of Alertness and probably forty hours of staring at screens. Then Lexis, and Collin stealing casually away down her hallway when he thought Felicity wasn’t watching.

Felicity grinned as she watched him go, settling into the comfortable nook with her coffee. She hadn’t had anything to drink with the others—even if the chances of anything going wrong approached zero, their captain had to be prepared.

The simulation field beside her was filled with the Alcyone’s status information, still green from every deck. Chorale approached slowly, wearing only a paper hat. Her eyes still seemed uncanny to Felicity, but she was polite enough not to say so.

“You should rest, Captain. Nothing meaningful will happen until we receive new information. If there are survivors here, there is no rush to meet them.”

“I know.” She sipped at her coffee, the only direct answer to the request for bed that she needed to give. “But it’s like Martin said—I want to be awake the instant we know. Did we come out all this way to learn we weren’t alone? Or just to waste six months building a machine to send us home?”

“The latter,” Chorale answered, without thinking. “All life was destroyed during the Tide. Only Equus was preserved.”

Felicity shook her head. “I don’t know about that, Chorale. I think that… if Harmony has anything like a religion, I think that might be part of it. But it doesn’t fly with me. Nature doesn’t really do little numbers. You either get zero, or infinity. We know it wasn’t zero, so what does that leave?”

“Organic hopes and biases,” Chorale answered, removing its hat and setting it down beside her in the nook. “I suppose you’ll be awake when my sensors confirm what we already suspect.”

Chapter 2

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“Captain Felicity.” Chorale’s voice was gentle in her ears, gentle enough that she might’ve missed it completely if she wasn’t already prepared for some disaster to come upon them. But being a citizen had imparted her with many enhancements, and one of those was incredibly light sleep.

She sat up, shaking her head once to clear the bleariness away. “Go ahead, Chorale.”

She was back in her quarters. She couldn’t have said exactly how she got there—maybe she had fallen asleep on duty at some point. “We’ve completed our flyby of the planet. The drone is continuing on course towards the outer solar system and will pass outside the star’s gravity well within the week. Observations give me no reason to believe that we have been noticed.”

She hadn’t heard the AI sound so flat since she’d first spoken to it in drydock, several years ago.

Felicity rose from her bed, carefully making it in a wave of magic. “Do the others know?”

“Not yet. Do you want me to inform them?”

“Yes.” She wandered towards her private bathroom, removing her uniform as she walked. “Inform them only that the probe’s observations have been taken without hostility. While I’m getting cleaned up, I want a dump of everything.”

Was Chorale’s voice reproving? “Captain, are you certain it’s wise to use your abilities in such a manner? Don’t you think some of the crew will be resentful of your withholding information from them?”

“No,” she said flatly. She was the only one with a private restroom, the only bathtub aboard. She was still saving it for a special occasion, and this didn’t quite rate. She stepped into the steam-shower, turned it all the way up. The sound of hot air rushing around her and quickly scrubbing her clean probably would’ve drowned out the voice of somepony in the room with her. But there was nopony here, so nothing to worry about.

“The crew of the Alcyone appreciates a pony to give them direction, to interpret and parse the facts before them. I’m like… the Harmony for Harmony. Those who want to dig into the technical side will do so, but they’ll have to wait a few minutes.”

“As you wish.”

The data began to pour into her mind—petabytes of sensor recordings, and speculative projections for history and technology and language. More than an ordinary mind could handle, but Felicity was no ordinary mind.

Like all who lived on Harmony, her existence only controlled the body she was using, it did not dwell within it. Those who were unable or unwilling to take on the mantle of citizens were restricted to roughly equivalent processing power of an organic mind.

For a citizen like herself, those restrictions could be lifted under some circumstances, and used to manipulate almost anything. The perception of time, absorbing new information, recalling past lives.

Felicity had always stayed away from that last. Citizens of Harmony were so old, so unbearably old, that she was terrified of what she might find lurking back there in her own history. I don’t want to hate myself.

Less than an hour later, and she was standing at the head of the conference-room table, with a huge projection between her and her crew. No longer was the image on its surface projected based on distant telescopes—now it was strikingly detailed, and disturbingly real.

Not just the core planet, the one they’d named “Caladan”, but several others as well.

“You see the first detail as I did,” Felicity explained, gesturing from one planet to the other. Or the places that had been planets. The hologram represented things grossly out-of-scale, so that at the distances represented they would still be visible at all. In the shimmering light of the projector were four rocky planets, including one super-Earth of incredible size.

Three of them had been shattered. The smaller ones now formed a loose belt of asteroids and other debris in the inner solar system, with gradually condensing planetoids in the center of the orbital path. They would reform, perhaps, in another few million years.

The outermost super-Earth had faired a bit better, losing huge swathes of material. It showed recent signs of volcanic activity, and a surface that had been entirely reliquified in the terrible fury of whatever event had destroyed it. But there was still a planet there, joined by its own debris cloud and vast rings.

“Our target isn’t broken,” Collin pointed out, reaching into the projection with thin human fingers and pointing at the planet there. “Still looks green. The Red Tide didn’t reach it.”

“Obviously it did,” Martin countered, glaring sidelong at him. “But the ones living here fought it off. Of course Equus wouldn’t be the only one. If the Tide could fail in one place, it could fail in an infinity of ways. Though it does mean the survivors might be technologically advanced, perhaps more so than we are. If they managed to defy the Tide openly, rather than hiding from it…”

“I would like to know if there are any survivors first,” Lexis interrupted. “We don’t know that they did survive. Captain?”

“They did,” she said. The room filled with cheers, hoofstomps, shouts of congratulations. Even Chorale’s drone near one wall seemed to smile.

She waited for the noise to die down before engaging with the projectors again. Her horn glowed, and the image zoomed in on this inner planet. It was in the perfect position for liquid water, almost the perfect size for Earthlike gravity. Exactly the sort of candidate humans (or some variation of them) might’ve chosen to terraform.

As it zoomed to fill the screen, its qualities became more apparent. Its surface was a brilliant, welcoming green, covering every landmass. There was far more land than water here, with large lakes and rivers, but no oceans as Old Earth had known.

But however the planet had been geoengineered, its systems clearly worked, because it seemed lush.

She selected a few more of the probe’s natural images—pictures of rainforests from above, with trees that weren’t all that different in appearance from what might’ve grown on Earth—a sprawling savanna with large grazers roaming. Not intelligent in their look, or with any sign of sophistication. That would be a little hard to adjust to.

“Great, it’s got land,” Escape Gear said. “But where are their gigantic space-guns? They survived something that cracked the other planets in this system—how?”

“I do not know,” Felicity answered, wincing slightly as she said it. “There are no megastructures in the system. The planet does not possess a moon, or any other large artificial structures we can find.”

“That’s not quite true,” Chorale corrected. She approached the projector, stopping just beside the image and looking from one to the other with a blank expression. “We can’t be certain there are no large structures on the planet, only that if there are, they are not using ferromagnetic materials for their construction. Vast rock caverns might be possible, for instance, or webs made of undetectable composite. With aliens of an unknown lineage populating this planet, it is unwise to grow too comfortable with our assumptions.”

“This is all fascinating, I’m sure everyone here is very interested in all this,” Lexis said, her voice only slightly annoyed. “But this is all objects. We didn’t come out here to see rocks and old spaceships, we came out here to see people. So are there any people or not?”

“Yes,” Felicity admitted. There was no sense hiding the information from them for any longer. She swapped out the images of plants and animals with the ones depicting cities. They were small, and in many ways they resembled the Crystal Empire.

The natives of this planet appeared to use only a strange, glasslike substance to make their cities, which rose in unusual hexagons of varying colors and shapes, with bridges and walkways connecting them. It was a little like a particularly tenacious beehive had grown completely out of control.

There were few vehicles, primarily in the form of something that was almost a railway using troths and magnetism, connecting the larger patches of population.

“But what we don’t see are any aircraft,” she finished. “Or space stations, or even satellites.”

“There are no easily analogues to much of what we observe,” Chorale added. “But projection suggests they are probably industrial, perhaps early information age. They seem to rely completely on geothermal energy for power, because I can find no suggestion of hydrocarbon use in their atmosphere.”

“I’m reading an… unusually high concentration of alpha sources. Might be a radiation hazard for a crew spending too much time down there. No need for suits, but you’d probably want to filter the air.”

“The locals don’t seem to care,” Gear countered.

“You’re getting ahead of the mission,” Lexis interrupted. “We’re here for first contact, maybe we should be thinking about that first. What are we supposed to do about a civilization that isn’t spacefaring? Is it right to call them at all, Felicity?”

She nodded. “I might answer differently if the realities of space travel were different. But we aren’t positive the Tide is gone for good. We still don’t even know what it was, really. But it looks like this planet did once, and they survived it. I think we’re obligated to investigate for that reason alone.”

“Are we sure these aren’t the Tide’s descendants?” Collin suggested. “Maybe they just murdered all the humans living there and took the real estate for themselves. They wouldn’t want to blow up their beach resort.”

“No beaches,” Martin pointed out. “There aren’t any oceans down there.”

“And you’re assuming the original inhabitants were human,” Chorale added, just a tad reproachfully. “We aren’t ready to conclude that yet. There is no wreckage to analyze. Technically, we’re making assumptions about the method of the ancient Tide’s attacks, as well. Though incredibly unlikely, perhaps the destruction we see is somehow natural in origin.”

“Not a chance,” Gear said. “I’m with the captain. We’ve bucking got to go down there and talk to them. Or maybe radio down there first? Does it look like they’ll be able to accept a radio transmission?”

“There’s no way to be certain,” Chorale said. “I am not detecting radio traffic in the system—nothing beyond the background radiation generated by the star, as well as an unusually geometric pattern emanating from one of the gas giants. Neither are communication so far as I can determine.”

“That doesn’t mean they can’t communicate,” Lexis said, raising her voice over whatever Martin had been trying to say. “Captain, there are a dozen different ways we’ve speculated an intelligent creature might communicate. The wildlife down there does suggest an originally Earth lineage, but there’s no telling how long ago that timeline branched.”

“Radio’s slow, too,” Gear said. “There are better ways. Like what Harmony hid in that egg in our hold.”

Chorale whirled on her, the softness of her plastic face instantly gone. “You should not be aware of the contents of the emergency fallback obolid.”

“Great.” Gear didn’t even look ashamed. “I’m not trying to talk about that. I’m just suggesting they might still be shouting, just not in a way we can hear. Can we see what they look like?”

Felicity selected a single photograph out of thousands. “They appear to hate being exposed to the sun. Every image we have shows them under complete shade. But the probe did manage to snap this image of one wearing its clothing—or maybe an exposure suit?”

Taken from space, the image was necessarily somewhat fuzzy, even with the best correction for atmosphere and speed and half a dozen other factors. It showed a figure wrapped in thin, metallic fabric, with what looked like six distinct protrusions. Arms? And a head, wrapped in glass. The top of the head inside was brown, or maybe its hair was. Either way.

“Not much to go on,” Martin said, a little disappointed. “Maybe we should’ve orbited the probe instead, to get a better look.”

“That’s actually exactly what we plan to do,” Felicity said. “But with a second probe, one equipped with active camouflage, in case they have telescopes. We know someone on this planet did something incredible, long ago. But we’re not in a hurry to figure out what it was. Ideally, I’d like to know who I’m talking to, and how to talk to them, before we send anyone down to say hello.”

Chapter 3

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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.

Chapter 4

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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.”

Chapter 5

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Finally the terrible meeting was over, and Felicity could drift back into the foam between worlds. Whatever inscrutable plans had been made to fight the unknown dangers of the void were beyond her understanding, but in some ways that didn’t even matter.

It felt like she’d died aboard the Alcyone with everypony else. Her body certainly had, or at least been left behind in the egg. Of course, that distinction mattered a whole lot less for a citizen, who wasn’t bound to the cycle of life and death and the strange fractional division of daughter minds.

Now that the proper authorities knew of her failure, Felicity wasn’t needed anymore. They would heal what she had broken, and maybe she could give up her elevated permissions. At least now she had some idea how so many members of her species could’ve sacrificed it.

I failed my crew. I was unfit to be their captain. I’m not strong enough to fight whatever’s waiting for us out there in the void. Not smart enough to outthink it.

At least they had smart leaders. Forerunner was creative, Lucky Break was determined, and Harmony… Harmony was ruthless.

But she didn’t drift very far or very long into the featureless void of white before she felt another presence beside her, yanking her focus back into something concrete. I am not finished with you.”

She’d found herself on an old farmhouse of sorts in Upstream, half-converted with basic human technology. There was a large windmill on one side, some screens for entertainment, and mechanical conveniences in the kitchen. Felicity looked down, and realized she’d been harvesting apples. She couldn’t have said how long she’d been carrying them, or why.

The creature standing beside her was formed of braided metal and mechanical muscle, the representation of Harmony it chose most often when around ponies. “You should be,” she said, hefting the barrel down onto a worn metal table. She wiped the sweat from her brow, running her magic through her mane to try and straighten it a little. Not that Harmony usually cared about things like that, but she still had that instinct to be professional. “This failure is my fault, isn’t it? I’m the captain. If any of my crew died, their deaths are on my hooves. The best thing I can do for the navy is to fade away.”

Harmony circled once around her, its eyes wide and probing. Or… at least it seemed to be. Having just one of it here was its own flavor of strange. “You would not have said that in your last incarnation.”

Felicity froze. She wanted to argue, to insist that her past selves had been just as rational as the version she was now. But she didn’t actually know that. “It doesn’t make a difference how I used to be,” she argued. “Everypony’s been here so many times we’ve been everything, right? Dictators, heroes, lovers, fighters… it doesn’t matter what kind of pony I used to be.”

Harmony gestured at the air in front of her, which changed to a glowing window. She saw as if from a dozen different cameras as a pony darted through a ruined castle, with flashes of fire and fat iron crossbow bolts zipping past her. And when she turned around, the ponies following her died with a few careful shots.

Royal guards.

“Your last incarnation is your only previous incarnation, Felicity. Olivia Fisher, Expedition Leader, Colonial Governor.” The image changed, showing dingy corridors packed with rusting cages. Creatures died around her, as she covered the retreat of her friends and the slaves they’d come to rescue.

No… they’d come to buy. But she was fighting to keep them… Her head started to ache.

“Don’t try to understand all of it at once,” Harmony said, and the image vanished. “You must allow the primacy of one vision over another, or you will merge and be forced upstream. Even two identities are more complex than your body can hold.”

Felicity counted backward from ten, breathing heavily, until the strange memories faded. She’d grown up the child of a citizen and an ancient bat. She’d accepted citizenship shortly after her cutie mark, when she learned they needed an alicorn to be captain of their first interstellar expedition. She wasn’t a warlord, or a human explorer.

Except she’d still seen it. Even as the memories faded, she was left feeling strangely… numb. “It was a lie,” she whispered. “My whole life I… thought that Equus was my home. But I was wrong. I’m an invader.”

Harmony shrugged one metal shoulder. “Invader is not wholly accurate. In language you comprehend, consider yourself a… returning ancestor. Is it not common for an elderly progenitor to come to live with their more vital descendants when they grow incontinent?”

Why are you being kind to me? She didn’t think Harmony was even capable of feelings like kindness and mercy, yet it seemed to care how she felt. It’s using you, Felicity. It wants something. Figure out what and why.

Unfortunately for her, Harmony didn’t seem content to let her think things over on her own terms. “Your obsession with distributed information is unnecessary.” It advanced on her, and she backed towards the wall, eyes wide. But she couldn’t get away from it. Even if she ran, Harmony would always be waiting for her.

“We do not blame you for the deaths of your crew. Ultimately, we have always known that we would venture out into the galaxy anew. Those portions of the population who are content to retire in safety have already done so, leaving those least content with their lot as inheritors. You were in the chair while they died, but there is no action you could’ve taken to prevent it.”

She stopped, sniffing weakly. She hadn’t even realized she was crying. “What?”

“That system was a trap, designed for me. Recall what transpired.”

That wasn’t just friendly advice. Another window opened in the air beside them, showing the bridge of the Alcyone. She was forced to watch, her limbs powerless to move as she saw her failures recreated from her own memories.

“Right here.” The image paused. “See how its projectiles penetrate your shield. Do you recall what was said about your defense systems?”

“That…” She twitched, but her hooves still wouldn’t budge. She was hostage. “That they were the most advanced shield you know of. They would’ve been on one of your warships.”

“Precisely,” Harmony said. “And yet, they were pierced without resistance. Did you think that was your fault?” Harmony didn’t wait for her response. “There is no time to waste on history now, or we would impart you with an exhaustive knowledge of all things to grant greater context to your suffering.

“In its absence, know this. Ancestral life as you knew it was once unified. As it spread throughout the galaxy, its many splinters each developed their own solutions to the universal dangers of time, scarcity, and ignorance. The faction dominant here, whose descendants we are, were the Invokers.

“When the calamity came that unraveled all civilization, it… specialized, like a virus adapts to kill a single species. The weapons that destroyed the Alcyone date to that era, wielded by adversaries so terrible that your mind cannot comprehend them at this level of complexity. But those enemies were not present in the Atreides system, or else your mind would not have returned.

“Someone bated a trap for explorers like us, knowing we would come, with weapons designed to circumvent our technology. They have taken the lives of our citizens, or captured them. Either way, they are due the wages of their actions. And we will repay.”

If Harmony expected its words to make her feel better about her failure—it was right. She couldn’t shake the feeling that she was being manipulated. But Harmony’s power was so vast, there wasn’t much for her to do other than accept its will. She did want revenge for the Alcyone.

“But you’re… much more advanced than our hybrid of Equestria and the Pioneering Society. If your technology is… vulnerable, what are we supposed to do?”

“There are trillions of bacterial cells living in your guts,” Harmony answered. “A virus designed to kill you would not touch them. At first, they would not even notice your passing. Forerunner’s current incarnation is ancient and primitive, belonging to another faction. Call them the… Determinists. We will—have been—sharing all meaningful information regarding this faction for Forerunner to incorporate. Together, we will field a fleet of warships as sophisticated as we can construct, and travel back to the Atreides.

“You will be aboard the flagship,” Harmony finished. “Your experience with that enemy might be brief, but it is some of the only observational knowledge we have. We will not waste a valuable resource by letting you return to the void. You will therefore decide: join the fleet, or be copied and modified. Your clone will join the fleet in your place, and our need for you will end.”

She shuddered at the terrible implication. Some distant part of herself wanted to argue it was impossible… you couldn’t copy a soul! But Harmony didn’t seem perturbed. If I say no, a version of me will be created that remembers this differently.

“Will I actually do anything?” she asked. “This fleet is going to have its own crew, right? Of… higher complexity beings? I’m too stupid to do anything but answer a few questions about what I saw.”

Harmony shook its head. “You are complex enough. The artificial systems will likely be more complex than yourself, but your memories of Chorale indicate a productive relationship.”

“Are you going to give Escape Gear this offer?”

It nodded again. “She will necessarily accept citizenship as part of the bargain, or some other body Forerunner designs. We don’t believe she could be prevented from accompanying the mission regardless.”

“I accept,” Felicity said. She stuck out her hoof by reflex, before feeling incredibly stupid about it. Harmony didn’t take the offered limb. “Let’s give those bastards what they gave us, yeah?”

“Much more,” Harmony said, smacking one of its hooves against the ground. A swirling vortex opened just in front of her, with a faint view of somewhere upstream on the other side. “I have informed Atilla to expect you. Training aboard the Pandemonium has already begun, though it is not yet fully constructed. He seems eager to meet you.”

There was nothing for Felicity to do but step through the opening.

Felicity’s hooves settled not on the comfortable wood of the almost-Equestrian cabin, but on sheets of unfeeling metal. Her stomach lurched just a little, as the kind of gravity she felt and the gravity she expected disagreed violently with each other. She was spinning, and some Alicorn sense could tell. She took a few deep breaths, closed her eyes for a few seconds, and took a step forward.

This is the ground. You won’t get sick. Deep breath.

Then she opened her eyes. She was standing along a vast, slightly curved catwalk, with a ceiling well over her head. The corridor led away behind her into a space packed with tables and chairs and plastic plants. Just beside her, a round elevator platform seemed to lead up to parts unknown, though she didn’t trust the bizarre gravity not to smack her into the wall.

The one creature she didn’t see beside her was Harmony. She spun around, ruffling her wings in agitation. “You wanted me for this mission, Harmony. Where are you?”

There was no response, not even a faint glow in the air. Harmony had abandoned her.

She still looked and smelled like she’d stepped off a farm, straw hat, muddy boots and all. Without thinking, she teleported both aside, dismissing them with a flash of magic.

Sirens started blaring, and all around her the deck turned bright red, indicators flashing directly towards her. The alarm roared in a language she couldn’t understand, but here in Upstream all tongues were one. “Intruder detected! Causality violation in crew quarters! Marines to crew quarters!”

Well buck.

Chapter 6

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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.”

Chapter 7

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Felicity did her best to be as polite and cordial as possible with the Pandemonium’s strange officers. Even so, she found her mind wandering during most of their meeting. There she was, Upstream, her mind apparently transferred into another level of simulation. Despite what Harmony said about the different paths that life could take, it looked to her like life had chosen the exact same path over and over.

Within their simulated space, the Pandemonium’s crew had set up everything their real ship was missing. Lots of comfortable spaces, or what passed for comfortable for them. Incredibly high humidity, the smell of rotting leaves following her everywhere, with very little light except for the glow-lamps spread out the way humans or ponies put chairs.

Needless to say, she didn’t think she’d be making too many visits to their version of Upstream.

For all their differences, they didn’t crew the ship in any revolutionary way. The only thing strange to her was the small size of the ship’s actual crew compared to the vast numbers of marines and ground-soldiers. It was more of a troop-transport, with many thousands of soldiers compared to less than a dozen creatures who worked the ship.

But she didn’t ask about it. Until she understood their boundaries between curiosity and impoliteness, she intended to remain firmly on the safe side of the line.

She was just incredibly eager to go.

“We’ll speak again when we’re out in physical space,” Atilla declared, nodding politely to her. “If you’ve decided by then not to take a more practical body, we’ll make arrangements to keep a section of the ship safe for you. But it’s going to be rather confining, even if I put more resources into it than we should. This is a warship.”

“I understand,” she said. “And I’m… prepared to face the consequences of staying in this body. The other pony traveling with me may not, however. I’ll tell her about it before then.” She hesitated a moment, dismissing the teleportation she’d been preparing. She wouldn’t go straight to the changeling hive to get Escape Gear. “How long do you think it’s going to take? I can’t imagine Harmony wants to wait longer than we have to.”

“No time at all,” the captain said. “Computationally, time distorts. Outside, I believe substantial progress has already been made. The Evokers have certain techniques that we never mastered. Their ‘star lifting’ will give them the mass necessary, and soon we’ll be soaring the stars again. Protecting the galaxy from evil, tearing down the tyrants.”

“It doesn’t…” She was probably pressing too far at this point. But she’d seen her ship die, and felt she’d been the reason that some of her crew were probably dead too. It was hard to care about the consequences of her actions just now. “Does it not bother you that you were all made from digital records stored in a Forerunner? Or… a Forerunner software update. However that system works…”

He reached over, patting her on the shoulder with a thin, damp hand. “That’s an Evoker way of thinking. You’re primitive, so I’ll spare you the lecture. But we see the world better. There is nothing beyond the physical, Felicity. All is matter. The mind is not its substrate. The same song is the same mind, by every meaningful measure. I am myself, as truly as I can be. How that line of reasoning was able to develop so far with such primitive throwbacks hooked into it, I’ll never know. But it isn’t your fault. You have the freedom to decide which ideas are most compelling.”

“We’re… on the same side either way, aren’t we?” she asked. “The thing that ended civilization… if there’s anything left of it, it doesn’t matter what our politics. We all want it gone.”

The captain pulled his hand back, dunking it into the glass of tea as though it were the most natural thing in the world. “Nothing is more certain than that. We will gladly trade our service, even to a rival. For even rivals are still fellow-travelers along the pilgrimage to sapience. We strive for the same enlightenment by different means. If our predecessors could coexist in peace, then there’s more than enough galaxy for us to do likewise.”

She let the spell build for a few moments more, then finally teleported herself away. She had no idea what part of Upstream she’d been in, and probably couldn’t have gotten back into it if she wanted to. But she knew where she was going. Escape Gear could be in only one place.

The changelings had their own particular fractions of Upstream, where their intergalactic colonization efforts continued apace. As far as Felicity knew, most of them didn’t even understand that they weren’t in the real world. They didn’t want to know, and so they didn’t look too closely at their surroundings.

But if Escape Gear had been the sort of creature to accept simulated exploration, she wouldn’t have signed up for the first and most dangerous trip beyond Equus that had ever been conceived.

Changelings didn’t follow the normal rules about life and death—their bodies had long been coopted maintenance drones, spoofed into hosting a conscious mind by secondhand emotion. But now that the Quarantine was lifted, so were those strict rules.

There was a new age in the underground changeling city of Irkalla, and it was there Felicity knew she would find Escape Gear.

If she wasn’t a citizen herself, Felicity would’ve had to take on one of their changeling bodies to be instanced in such a place. There was machinery for bugs to violate the normal requirements of conception and birth, though it only seemed configured for changeling bodies. But citizens ignored all that. She just found a place close to Escape Gear’s old lab, then cut her way across.

She imagined that long ago, this ancient ship would’ve been packed with soldiers to keep a creature like her out, and crowds of changeling civilians doing whatever bugs did. But now most changelings lived on the surface, nopony tried to stop her. The few bugs she did see didn’t do more than stare.

The ancient starship rose up around her, its rusty walls somewhat less decrepit than the last time she’d seen it. Some of the automatic lights came on around her as she finally reached the workshop’s entrance. From beyond, she heard machines roaring. Metal pounded, a drill spun. Mechanical arms did mechanical work.

“Escape Gear?” She knocked loudly on the door, but her touch was lost in the din. Finally she shrugged, and teleported straight across the threshold.

The interior looked much as her workshop on the Alcyone, with all the shiny new machines replaced with ancient, jury-rigged technology from a culture long dead.

The changeling stopped what she was doing with a welder, flipping up her mask. “Captain?” Her horn flashed, and the machines all around her ground to a halt. “I was wondering what happened to you. Almost thought Harmony might’ve punished you or something…”

I wonder if it should’ve. She didn’t say that, even if she might’ve been thinking it. Even explicit permission from the AI not to hold herself responsible didn’t translate to accepting that it wasn’t her fault. Ponies lost to the dark, maybe dead forever. Ponies she had failed.

“It didn’t tell you? It said you’d be coming…” She trailed off, frown deepening. Of course it wasn’t that Harmony had lied. It didn’t see the actions of its citizens the same way as regular creatures would. “I guess that means I’m the one who’s supposed to tell you.”

“I wouldn’t have it any other way, Captain.” Escape Gear tossed the visor down onto her workbench, flipping off the flame from her welder. Felicity stared a moment at what she’d been building, and instantly realized why it seemed so familiar.

It was that alien ship, the vast single curve with interlocking layers beneath. “You’re making… sculpture?”

Escape Gear seemed annoyed, probably waiting to hear what was really happening. “No, I’m trying to figure out how the damn thing worked. The best defenses Harmony could build, and it didn’t even care. Making a copy of it… it’s a way of thinking like its engineers did. These shapes are here for a reason. These protrusions, these openings… all have a purpose.”

Harmony might already know how this thing works. She doubted it—if the technology was fully understood, then couldn’t it be stopped? “I guess that makes sense. Finding ways to be productive, I like that.”

Escape Gear knocked on the side of the model, spinning it around on the table in front of her. “What about you, Captain? I know you—you’re not going to accept giving up our friends. Did you convince Harmony to rescue them?”

“More than that.” She glanced briefly at the door, but of course it was closed. She stepped closer anyway, in case any of the changelings happened to be listening. The ancient changeling capital was a largely empty place now, with so many bugs living on the surface. But the ones who chose to live down here were often the most extreme in their views. “Harmony is going on crusade. It’s building an army to fight when we get there. And it wants… us to be there. Since we saw this ship in action before. We might be better informed than anypony.”

Escape Gear grinned enthusiastically, slapping her on the shoulder with one leg. Her thick apron stung a little on contact, but her enthusiasm was so contagious Felicity hardly even cared. “That’s what I’m bucking talking about! Take the fight to the bastards. Get our friends back, and make them pay for killing me. What’s the plan, exactly?”

She told her—as much as she understood of it, anyway. There was a lot of summarizing what she’d seen on the Pandemonium, since the actual reasons for things running the way they did didn’t make sense to her.

“But they seem like they can fight? That’s the important thing. We haven’t really done much good if we fly all the way back there and just blow up again.”

“I think so,” she said. “Harmony thinks that the weapons it used to kill us won’t work on their ship. They’re from the Forerunner’s lineage of technology, instead of Harmony’s. Like a changeling catching pony diseases, it just doesn’t make sense.”

“I hope Harmony knows what it’s talking about.”

“It gets worse.” There was no point putting it off. Harmony had left no room for disagreement—and as much as it had faith in Escape Gear interfering if she was ignored, Felicity didn’t actually think a bug could defy such a powerful intelligence. “You have to become a Citizen to go. Don’t bother arguing with me, Harmony didn’t even really say why. I know it’s going to require it, though.”

Escape Gear swore under her breath, in the strange blur of language that didn’t quite translate. “There’s always a catch with Harmony. Everything has to be part of some stupid plan.”

Felicity shrugged. “You don’t have to come with me. I’m honestly not sure Harmony really needs us there. It could’ve extracted anything it wants its soldiers to know directly from our brains. Going is probably more a chance for us to get even. We’re the ones who bled, so it’s only just for us to be there.”

“Damn right it is.” Escape Gear circled around the workshop. As Felicity watched her, it seemed more and more obvious that she wasn’t doing much of anything. These machines were making things, sure—but did she really need jackets and sections of bulkhead and coils of wire for a mostly-deserted ship?

“I’m going to try and talk Harmony out of it,” she declared. “Seems… so stupid. What can I do as an Alicorn I can’t already do as a changeling? My magic isn’t as strong, but… magic isn’t going to save us regardless. Engineering will.”

“Good luck,” Felicity said. “If you can’t succeed… you don’t have to be an Alicorn. There’s a whole library of forms in there. Maybe one of them would be more compatible with our alien hosts.”

“Maybe,” Escape Gear muttered. “Yeah, I think I’ll do that. Stick it to Harmony either way, thinking it can force me to be its favorite species. Not anymore.” She stormed up the stairs, then out of the workshop.

Chapter 8

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Captain Atilla had sent one of his own shuttles down to New Canterlot, its own kind of technological wonder. The shuttle was like a dragonfly made of glass, entirely transparent except for a spine that ran laterally above her. The floor and seats appeared whenever she walked, before fading away to slight distortions again as soon as she was in place.

“I still don’t understand these… what do they call themselves?” Escape Gear began from the seat beside her.

“Varch’nai,” Felicity supplied. “I’m probably not pronouncing that correctly.”

She wasn’t, because when Escape Gear repeated the word a second later, there was a distinct trill to it that only the alien throat could impart. “Varch’nai.” Escape extended one limb, twisting the delicate hand almost three hundred sixty degrees around before pulling it back. The little fingers actually ended in tiny claws, because Escape hadn’t yet mastered retracting them. “Forerunner told me they were the greatest warriors in his database. But how can that be? I’ve seen grubs with thicker legs than mine.”

Felicity watched her squirm in her seat, momentarily distracted from the slowly retreating outline of their home far below. The hull seemed polarized somehow, because the light of the sun didn’t even cause modest discomfort. It was nothing more than a dull red glow, massive and distant.

Escape Gear’s choice to be instanced as one of the aliens had at least given Felicity a chance to see them without all the cloth and fancy robes. In a way, that made her appreciate a little more why a changeling of all creatures might choose the body. A distant relation of the Vitruvians, even further removed from their original human ancestors. Two sets of spindly arms, along with transparent wings along the back that were inadequate for full gravity but perfect for their natural home: space habitats.

“That’s not what would bother me.” Felicity looked her up and down again—Escape wore a standard Pioneering Society jumpsuit, albeit tailored passably to the new body. “You look like you’re going to dry out. Do you need some lotion or something?”

Escape shook her head. “Forerunner says I only need about five hundred milliliters of water per day. These things designed themselves for space. If I was marooned on some asteroid, I’d be dead in two days.”

That does explain why they spend so much time in pods. And why their armor is so insane. They’ve blurred the line between themselves and their environment so completely there’s almost nothing left.

“But that’s not the point,” Escape said, her tone trilling high and apparently echoing through her body. It was even stranger than hearing a changeling, since at least changelings had lungs. “You’ve met them too. It’s all dignity and ceremony and drinking tea. Shouldn’t the fiercest warriors in Forerunner’s database be… fierce? Like minotaurs maybe, but… with razor claws, and three times the size!”

It wasn’t a surprising thing to hear from Escape. At her core she was an engineer, not a leader. “No. We’ve been on Equus so long we think of war as taking over land. Conquering a city, or a region. But to the rest of the universe, all the wars worth fighting were in space. Your body is… perfect for it. You can’t even live without your ship.”

Escape got up, her wings buzzing in her agitation. In the last few months of occasional visits to the Upstream version of this fleet, Felicity had never seen it from them. But then, she almost never saw their wings at all. “I guess that makes sense. But… what about the temperament? Did Atilla seem like a bloodthirsty warrior to you?” Her tone deepened a little, and she posed, folding her lower arms delicately while the upper ones extended into a bow. “Pleasure to see you again, Escape Gear. We are honored you would grace us with your company. You’ve made an esteemed choice to—” She stuck her tongue out. Dry, like the rest of her.

Felicity smiled ruefully. “I’m sure there were bloodthirsty space-warriors out there once. But do you think any of them would be in the database? They were bound to be a species that can accept migrating between data and being instanced. They were bound to be a…” Civilized wasn’t quite the right word, though it was the one that came to mind. “A force Forerunner could control. If they went swarming over the galaxy killing everything instead of only destroying what you aim them at, they’d be a poor weapon.”

Escape Gear fell silent, looking thoughtful. Or maybe she’d just noticed the view. There was something different about seeing the fleet with her own eyes.

It wasn’t greater fidelity, since of course Upstream always matched what you were able to perceive, the limits of its resolution always a single iota out of view.

It wasn’t the simple scale of it, since of course even the largest and most powerful ships they could build would look like insects compared to Equus itself.

As Felicity watched the fleet grow in her view, she imagined that it might be the simple knowledge that she was looking at something that had actually been built. So little of what her civilization did was in real space anymore. The actual universe was a cruel and thoughtless place. That was why they’d built their own. Compassion could only be given by the hooves of intelligent creatures. Space wasn’t going to give it to them.

There were over a hundred ships in the fleet, each one formed of virgin metal somehow dredged from the star itself. Felicity didn’t know how that actually worked, something about the array of stations parked over the star’s poles. Clearly they’d needed the metal, because the scale of these ships dwarfed even Lucky’s pet project of the Agamemnon.

From a distance, it seemed more like a school of fish circling a whale than a fleet of starships, each one drifting along complex paths before veering wildly in ways that defied her feeble understanding of stellar mechanics. As they got closer, Felicity rose to her hooves, staring in wonder.

The “whale” she’d imagined wasn’t even one ship, but a complex formation of identical, vaguely elliptical starships, flying so closely that she couldn’t see the stars between them.

“They’re identical from the outside,” Escape said, pointing out through the glass. “Same hull profiles, same energy signatures, everything. But most of them don’t have a single living passenger. Some are fuel reserves, some are weapons platforms—some are packed to the gills with spare parts and nothing else.”

Their shuttle flew straight into the maelstrom, not slowing even a little to dodge or wait for other ships to pass. It flew so fast that she imagined they'd be smashed against the sturdy-looking metal hulls of a dozen different ships. As they got close, the sheer scale of the other vessels became clear, each one larger than New Canterlot and thicker around too.

Escape seemed to be thinking the same thing she was, because she tensed visibly, settling back into her seat and gripping the handles with both hands. "You think Harmony can still get us if we die in space? We're pretty close to Equus still, yeah?"

"We can," answered a voice, speaking smoothly through the ship's speakers. It spoke with purpose, not even needing to raise its voice despite the apparent maelstrom of activity outside. Their shuttle was almost silent in its flight, other than the quiet hum of an air-recycler. "In terms of preservation of immutability, your intangibles have been... You will be traveling aboard a ship of this fleet, just as you were when the Alcyone first left this system. Additional measures have been taken, and significantly more security is in place, but no fundamental difference in approach exists. We cannot allow you to be lost. We cannot allow any of these new soldiers to be lost. All uniqueness will be circumscribed within Harmony. All thinking minds will have place."

And somehow we're going to save the universe.

"At least it's not anything new." Escape closed her eyes, gripping the hand rests with her other arms as well. There were two sets, maybe for just that purpose. "Since when are you just listening to me, anyway? I didn't think you answered prayers."

"You are a citizen of Equus," Harmony answered. Its many overlapping voices might fill the shuttle, but still it sounded almost humble. Felicity didn't buy the act of it serving the citizens rather than the other way around, but at least Harmony was sincerely putting on the act. "We will hear any requests made. We hear every thought, but generally do not respond to non-requests. Speak, and we will hear."

"That's not creepy at all." Escape turned, meeting her eyes. "Felicity, how do you stand this? Did it drive you crazy to have this pressure on you all the time? To never be alone?"

She shrugged. "I... never really imagined I was alone. Forerunner was there my whole life, and Harmony wasn't really much of a step further. Of course the AI is watching, how would it know when to open the doors, or what groceries to deliver?"

"We are not an AI," Harmony added helpfully. "But the generality is accurate enough for simple explanation."

Finally a single ship among many didn't seem to be moving away. Instead it froze laterally in the sky, as though waiting to receive them. Rather, their relative momentums became synchronized, and an opening barely wide enough to see from a distance appeared overhead. "We're not slowing down fast enough," Escape said, rising from her chair. "Great Queens, we're dead. I just got this body and it's wasted for no reason." She backed towards the rear of the shuttle. But it was so small it didn't even have a latrine, much less anywhere for her to hide.

For a few more seconds they blasted straight ahead towards the stationary ship, and it seemed as though they really might not slow down. Then light enfolded them, and at once the entire body of the shuttle became opaque. Felicity's stomach turned over as she was crushed down instead of forward, by a deceleration strong enough to take the bottom out of her chest. She wobbled for a few seconds more, then spread her wings wide. It was a completely useless gesture, since despite what her brain was telling her should be the case, she was being pressed down into her seat.

Then the moment passed, and she finally came to a stop. The little shuttle jostled, metal echoing as something gripped them firmly from above. The shuttle rattled once, then finally fell still. Then the rear of the craft opened, not so much a door as the ship was a giant origami unfolding, with only the few mechanical parts at the top and a curve of maybe-glass at the front to hold the floor.

They were in a shipyard of some kind, with dozens more little ships overhead, folded away neatly. A pair of marines waited for them on a nearby ramp, with the combination of stripes and colors that Felicity now recognized meant they were both officers. Not the captain though, she knew Atilla's specific clan markings by now. "If you'll come with us, we don't have much time to bring you to the inertial isolation chamber. Well, mostly her, cousin. Minutes remain until acceleration."

They turned, and Felicity's eyes widened with worry. "Wait, we're leaving in minutes? Shouldn’t there be all kinds of ritual, and ceremony, and promising revenge to Equestria for the pain we've suffered, and everything? Why are we rushing this now?"

She hurried to keep up. Really, she could only imagine how it would feel to be crushed to death by gravitational acceleration. Her legs were still a little wobbly from the shuttle flight, how much worse could it be on a capital ship?

"Ceremony is a luxury for victory," answered the lower of the two officers. Probably a male, though the two were very difficult to tell apart. The Varch’nai had basically no sexual dimorphism. "You will not be required to fight in this campaign, remember. The captain has invited you aboard as advisors and witnesses of vengeance. Our brave soldiers will be engaging the enemy."

Why do I not believe that? They didn't have far to go, despite their escort's urgency. A single hallway away was a strange, spherical chamber, one that didn't seem to actually be touching any of the surrounding ship. It hovered in the air, held in place by glowing coils. Even so, the doorway was nearly in line with the open airlock door.

"Be advised that the distortion of time and space are synchronized. Only moments will pass within this chamber, and we will arrive." One of the marines crossed, and their whole body became strangely reddish.

Here we go. Felicity crossed the threshold, and with it the fleet crossed into eternity.

It was time for their vengeance.

Chapter 9

View Online

The anti-acceleration chamber wasn’t exactly a comfortable place to spend the afternoon. As soon as Felicity crossed the doorway she began to float—or rather, to drift in a straight line given her initial entry vector.

She struck the far wall a second later, colliding with something soft and padded before drifting off again at another angle. She spread her wings, and there was barely enough time to use them to catch herself without smacking into the walls.

Light glowed from strips running out from the doorway, as if to remind anyone inside where they would be leaving from. She watched and waited a moment, expecting Escape to be only steps behind her. Yet as she finally turned, she saw only the doorway sealing closed. You didn’t come with me?

Her crewman did have a body that could survive the conditions outside, certainly. But Felicity had expected her not to want to spend too much time with the aliens. Maybe they didn’t give her a choice. This might have side-effects on Varch’nai.

There was no furniture in the sphere, only a few padded sections with straps along the outside that she took for simple zero-gravity chairs. But once she’d used her wings, those weren’t necessary anyway. They meant it when they said there was no acceleration in here—Felicity felt no hint of motion, despite the mechanical rumbles that echoed in from outside. Probably her body was blasting forward at speeds that would dizzy her comprehension, yet she felt nothing.

“Your responsibility on this assignment will be high,” said a chorus of voices from nearby. “But we believe you will be equal to the task before you.”

Felicity’s eyes snapped open, and sure enough there was Harmony directly in front of her. The metallic pony stood on nothing, yet its wings remained comfortably folded. It didn’t seem to care about the lack of gravity here. “How are you here? I thought there wouldn’t be magic on this ship… wasn’t that the whole point? The enemy that destroyed us developed to fight our technology, not the Varch’nai’s.”

Harmony nodded absently. “Your body relies on—magic—in ways you can scarcely understand. You cannot be deprived for months or years and survive the experience.” It advanced on her, touching one hoof to her torso. “You have been implanted with a portable emitter, biologically integrated. It should grant you the same abilities you’re accustomed to, with one important caveat.

“Its maximum range is fifty meters, and while not in use that will be further reduced to your body alone to conserve power. You will not be able to teleport out of danger, only make short jumps. We thought it would be best to inform you of this limitation in advance.”

Felicity shuddered, glancing down at her belly with a renewed sense of dread. Maybe she should’ve got a new body too, if Harmony was just going to… “How does that even work?” she asked, awed. “There’s no way there’s enough energy in what I eat to fuel magic, right? It’s all physics, there’s no shortcut.”

“Correct.” Harmony settled back on its haunches, looking amused. Or maybe it was impressed with her insight? She could never tell. “An antimatter reaction cell powers the generator. At nominal use, it should last a year before reaching full entropy. Should you use magic less conservatively, it will decay faster and require replacement. The machinery to do so is aboard this ship if it is required, and this vessel survives long enough.”

She considered that a moment, before spreading her wings again and pulling away from the… projection? Or was it really here with her? “I thought I was just going to be here to advise. Why put”—a bucking bomb in my guts—“so much effort into me? I don’t need much magic to answer questions about what I saw. Tartarus knows the Alcyone was dead in less than a day anyway.”

Harmony was suddenly inches away from her face, without the flash of a teleport. Its shiny metallic body showed no signs of emotion she knew, yet intensity radiated from those eyes. “You are here to guarantee our citizens are recovered. The Varch’nai are ruthlessly devoted to pacifying hostile regions of space—every aspect of their culture revolves around it. They keep digital backups of every soldier and pilot, and care little when they are destroyed.

“But we view consciousness differently, which is why they call us Evokers. There is more than patterns and data, Felicity. There is something to the continuity of consciousness—an origination that cannot be replicated and must not be lost. This is why the Varch’nai will do little to recover our dead, if you let them. They believe we should do as they, and simply recreate with what data we have.

“This is unacceptable. The Fleet Admiral has been instructed to defer to your authority in all cases. You are the citizen of Equus whose voice will stand for us all. Bring back your crew. Recover the Alcyone’s root quanta. Pacification is meaningless, revenge is meaningless. Bring that back to us, and we may leave the Varch’nai to make what future they will.”

The words settled against Felicity like a physical weight. Harmony’s form might be strange and its mind beyond her comprehension, but that desperate need was familiar.

Maybe it was only because she was one of Harmony’s own creations, or at least one of its citizens—but she agreed. Simply recreating her crew from the data saved before they left would not be the same as having them back. “What if…” She lowered her voice to a respectful whisper. “What if they really are dead, Harmony?”

Those metal eyes flashed, its body tensing. “Then we will take vengeance so terrible that no force will ever harm one of our citizens again.”

Felicity turned abruptly at the sound of grinding metal. The sphere began to open, and a shaft of bright light emerged from the other side.

Escape’s face appeared in the opening. “Hey, cap. Ready to make history?” She thrust a long, slender hand through the hole, offering it to her. Felicity glanced over her shoulder, but Harmony was gone.

Felicity took the offered hand with one of her hooves, letting Escape Gear pull her across the threshold. Though as soon as she was on the other side, she collapsed to the floor. Her legs buckled against her weight, at least for a moment. Long enough for her to remember how to work her body in gravity again, and finally straighten.

“I could’ve used your help in here,” she muttered, eyeing the sphere behind her. It was already sealing, its interior entirely dark. Except, she imagined, for a pair of shining metal eyes.

Escape Gear had no eyebrows, but Felicity could somehow still read her skepticism. Could little patterns of ink under her skin somehow translate directly for her? “Help with what, captain? You were the only one in there, for… less than five minutes, according to the chronometer. Don’t ask me to explain their technology, I’ve only had a few days to read myself.”

It did feel like about five minutes. Should she tell Escape Gear about Harmony? Felicity glanced around them, at the half-dozen armored soldiers waiting by the door, or guarding other entrances. Not right now I won’t. “I’ll explain later,” she said. She was more than a little curious about how time could be manipulated in reality instead of Upstream, but if Escape Gear was sure it had happened, that was good enough proof for her. “If I’m getting out, does that mean we’ve arrived?”

Escape nodded. “We’re on the edge of the system—the real edge this time, just outside the heliosphere. I thought it was a little paranoid to come in from so far out, but the captain just quoted some regulations at me. Apparently this is the way they always do it.”

“Do they want us already?” She glanced back at the doorway, and the soldiers waiting there. None were holding their weapons, if anything they looked like they were on parade. Or at least, their suits were. I have to remember that there aren’t usually any living creatures inside. They’re moving them around remotely.

Escape Gear nodded again. “There’s already signs of movement from in-system. They want both of us with Fleet Command during the first engagement.”

That was apparently a sign to their escorts, because one of the soldiers stepped forward. His darkened helmet illuminated with the screen within, projecting another alien face. But the more of them she saw, the less distressing they became. At least they were vaguely human. “We’ll need to properly integrate both of you into flight pods this time, in the unlikely event that this ship is forced to engage. There is special hardware waiting in your private quarters. If you’ll follow us, we’ll escort you there.”

Pod. Felicity had seen several of those by now. “Can’t I just meet Fleet Command wherever they actually are? Can’t we talk in person?”

The solder laughed, though at least he didn’t sound spiteful. “Its members are spread across all the ships of the fleet, Ambassador. Fleet Command only exists where you’ll be going.”

“Not to mention the acceleration,” added another soldier. “We don’t know the tactical abilities of this enemy—what if they’re able to detect this vessel and we’re required to make flight decisions? Even at sub-interstellar accelerations, your primitive alien body might be crushed.”

“Don’t call it that,” reprimanded the first. “She’s an ambassador.”

Felicity cleared her throat, getting their attention again. She wasn’t sure if she found them endearing or offensive, but the difference probably didn’t matter. “I’m ready to see my quarters now. I suppose a primitive like me will just have to adjust to the way you do things in such an advanced society.”

She was hoping to get some kind of reaction, or at least an indication from her escorts that she’d managed to embarrass them. But no such luck—their helmets switched off again, in exactly the same instant.

“Please follow me,” said the first soldier, as mechanical as New Canterlot’s elevators.

Felicity did. The Pandemonium was far more active this time—every deck seemed to be a swarm of activity, with armored figures of various sizes hurrying backward and forward with cargo, weapons, or just running to their next assignment. In a way it reminded her of New Canterlot’s construction areas, with one minor difference. Forerunner built drones specific to the situation at hand, often devoted to a single task. Miners had bodies that could only mine, cargo robots were really just floating pallets with eyes to navigate, cleaners were rolling mops.

The Varch’nai used only humanoid “drones” for every task, and in a way that made their ship seem more old-fashioned than anywhere in New Canterlot. There were “people” everywhere, using tools built for their 2-4 hands.

They clearly didn’t give their soldiers personal space as Felicity knew it, just rooms with racks and racks of stacked pods. But then they reached their destination, and she was relieved to find they’d made an exception for her.

“This area is yours. If you require additional accoutrements, they can be provided,” the male soldier explained, gesturing around. “And my name is Marcus. I’ll be your, uh… diplomatic envoy. You can make any requests you have to me or my communion-partner Tomoe.”

And why do I get the impression that you’re just soldiers who drew the short straws, and not trained diplomats? Then again, she wasn’t even sure the Varch’nai had diplomacy.

“If you’re serious about learning the ways of a more advanced society, you should focus on personalizing your digital space,” Tomoe added, gesturing at the far wall. There were only two pods here—one identical to all the others throughout the ship, the other at least four times the size, with various tubes and metal cylinders running in and out.

Felicity didn’t have to guess which one was waiting for her. “I’ll think about it,” she said flatly. “For now—you said Fleet Command was waiting? Why don’t you show me how to meet them.”

Chapter 10

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Felicity really should’ve expected just what meeting Fleet Command would entail. Like everything else the Vach’nai did, it meant moving through digital space.

“It’s far safer than organizing any fraction of the command structure on a single vessel,” Marcus explained, once he’d walked her through how to use the pod. This one was considerably more complex than anything she’d used in the digital simulation of this ship. Which… really just raised more questions than it answered. How many layers was she on, anyway?

“We must always appear entirely homogenous to our enemy. There is no target of priority, no central node that might disrupt the fleet if attacked. This way, the only way to destroy us is to entirely eradicate the fleet.”

“Most enemies are unprepared for it,” Tomoe added. “A given enemy might be able to fight through casualties of ten percent before it breaks, if they’re exceptionally well-trained. Most would crumple at half that number. Statistically speaking, this fleet can suffer casualties as high as sixty percent before a single member of Fleet Command is lost.”

“That seems… grim.” Escape Gear hadn’t gotten into her pod yet either, though for her the process was simple. It was the price she’d paid to easily integrate with these aliens. Felicity would take the inconvenience to keep a body she was familiar with. “For that to work, doesn’t it mean that this ship has to spend some time on the outside too? We’re all at risk of… whatever attack comes.”

“Yes.” Marcus didn’t sound like the prospect bothered him much. Or even that he was thinking about it. “But we will be restored from backups on other vessels if that occurs. With the… possible exception of our guest. I don’t know how her primitive biology could be… cultured by our machines.”

You guys are no end of friendly. But no matter how many times they said it, Felicity couldn’t help but pity in return. They could call her primitive all day, but if her body died she wouldn’t just be a clone. They were the ones who had to live with the fact that they were many-generational copies of their original selves.

“Anyone in command could give you the same explanations, probably with far more useful details. We’re keeping you.”

No, I just don’t want to use your stupid machine. Felicity climbed in, feeling its various parts latching onto her like an oversized parasite. More accurately, it was a total life-support device, which she could remain inside for months or maybe even years without serious side-effects.

But Felicity wasn’t Varch’nai. She was going to be out there doing things, not sending a robot suit to do them for her.

For a few seconds she drifted, feeling every awful sensation as the life-support’s connection to her grew more complete. It wasn’t so much that the pod ever vanished from her perception. Rather, her sensitivity to it faded until it was background.

Then she was standing on the interior of a sphere, so small that she couldn’t imagine how it could create even gravity pointing out in all directions. Her stomach turned over, but there was no connection to let her puke. So all she could do was wobble forward a few steps, then drop to one foreleg to catch her breath.

In the space above her, she saw the Atreides, recreated in a faintly transparent form that let her see through to the other side if she wanted. There were other beings here, each one standing somewhere in the sphere.

“Head trip,” Escape Gear whispered from beside her. She lowered her head, so she was close to Felicity, whispering quietly. “As impressive as this looks, it doesn’t seem very easy to get strategic information when the model is all the way up there.”

Then they saw why that was—the others in the sphere waiting for them were flying. They didn’t have wings, or seem to be using unicorn levitation. They just… flew.

“The witness has arrived,” called one, loud enough that it carried over the gentle hum of machinery. “Join us here, primitive. Let us discuss.”

Felicity ground her teeth together, glowering up at the figure. They wore even fancier robes than Atilla, with more ribbons and colorful stitching. There had to be some order to it, but to Felicity it only seemed like chaos. At least it was pleasant to look at, like a foal’s watercolor spun from silk.

“Go ahead,” Escape Gear said. “I’ll… figure out what they’re doing. Let them keep staring down at me here and see if they get self-conscious.”

They probably wouldn’t, but Felicity took off anyway. She was no expert aerobat, but it didn’t take much for her to hover in the air beside them. Whatever they were doing to fly effortlessly like that, she couldn’t imitate.

She was struck again with just how delicate and graceful these creatures looked. For a race renowned for their military prowess, some part of her brain still struggled to reconcile. There were about a dozen of them here, taller than she was yet graceful enough that she couldn’t tell which were male and which were female. Did the difference mean anything? Maybe they outsourced breeding to the ship too.

“We’re not here to waste time with pleasantries, Gant. Just see what she thinks.”

Of course, treating me like that is extremely pleasant. I’m so glad you invited me here.

“We detect only a single ship in the entire system,” said the first one who had spoken. Gant? She guessed that was a male name, given the deepness of the voice. But that might be more trying to apply pony meaning to creatures that didn’t have it. “Is this familiar to you?”

He pointed, and Felicity followed his thin hand. There in the model was the system—six planets, though only two were rocky and one habitable. There were thousands of other contacts, things she didn’t recognize. Spinning bits of… were those dead stations?

Yet only one object was moving under its own power—the thing that killed their ship. It had changed course to glide directly towards the fleet, though not under any great speed. At the rate it was accelerating, it might reach them in three months.

“Yes,” she whispered. “That… that’s what killed the Alcyone.”

The Varch’nai had more information about it than she’d seen—tactical readouts that displayed lots of little numbers as it moved. Trajectory, exterior temperature, estimates of its weapons and engine locations.

“I think I know why,” said another voice, belonging to someone in different-colored robes. Instead of light colors, his were dark, with a golden gear shape on the back. Almost like a cutie mark, though Felicity was too wise to equine things. “Interlocutor Mesmer. This debris around the system isn’t as dead as it appears.”

Thousands of objects lit up, each one roughly planar to the ecliptic and about an AU apart. “Your ship wasn’t fighting that thing; it was fighting all these.”

“Disruption Array,” Gant whispered. “Distributed so effectively that they couldn’t see.”

“They wouldn’t have seen them,” Mesmer explained. He touched one with a finger, and it expanded to fill the entire space between them. A hollow section of slowly rotating ship’s hull, packed with live electronics deep inside. Rusty-looking metal machines, projecting transparent lines out in several directions.

“Your long-range sensors rely on…” He gestured dismissively with one hand. “Magic, you call it. I suspect all your systems do. This array likely remained dormant until you attempted to defend yourself, or flee. Then they all came to life, and all the magic on your ship stopped working. Your shields, your weapons… all apparently running, but doing nothing.”

“And we died.” Felicity flew closer, rotating with the debris so she could stare at the machinery inside. It did look simple, something thrown together hastily and cheaply. “You’re probably already surrounded, aren’t you?”

Gant smiled, some of the others did as well. Others just waited, looking pensive.

As she waited, Felicity tried to get an understanding for who all these other creatures were. Captains, maybe? Some ships were entirely automated, but they represented the vessels with a real presence in the fleet.

Finally Mesmer spoke again. “These are a… primitive design, compared to several we have on file. We would have to capture a few for study to be sure, but I don’t believe they will have any impact on this fleet.”

“Then we should leave them up,” said someone else. She seemed to sense Felicity’s eyes on her, because she explained. “Captain Ordin. Admiral, I believe there is great tactical benefit to the deception. The longer they believe we’re as vulnerable as the last ship that arrived, the longer they think we’re more prey. If we start dismantling them now, they might run.”

“Run where?” Escape Gear spoke from the ceiling, or the ground, or… it was below Felicity right now, though she couldn’t look in her direction for more than a few seconds without feeling sick. “There’s a civilization on that planet, that’s why we came here. If they run, don’t they leave their homeworld vulnerable?”

Closer to the aliens, Felicity could hear the muttering of frustration and disbelief loud and clear. “Who is that?” “Why is she speaking, she’s barely dressed?”

This isn’t real, right? It’s like a worse version of Upstream. Felicity reached out with her magic, lifting Escape Gear as carefully as she could. Even so, it would feel like being restrained, trapped in a grip that wouldn’t let go. “This is Escape Gear, she was my engineer. The… only other survivor of the Alcyone.”

“Technically I was the first to die,” Escape Gear said, either not noticing or not caring how the aliens were feeling. Probably the latter, considering she was a changeling. “Which meant I was the easiest to send.”

She pointed at the map, obviously uncomfortable to be held in the air. But she didn’t say anything. “Look at the planet. There are cities, energy. I think we got traces of heavy isotopes suggesting nuclear power, but don’t quote me on it.”

More muttering, though Felicity’s effort had the desired effect. The mood shifted from frustration at Escape Gear to actually considering what she had to say.

“It’s possible they’ll shift to defending the planet,” Gant admitted. “But it’s also possible they don’t care. Those living below might not even know. You were baited into this investigation, were you not? A probe detected a system with intelligent life that had survived the Tide. The signs you saw below might be false, or they might be incidental to whoever hunted you. We can’t know until we send someone below.”

“That priority is secondary,” declared a harmony of voices. Suddenly there was another creature in the air with Felicity—an alicorn made of metal, wearing an immensely complex series of overlapping robes and symbols. It had no modesty to care about, but clearly the explosion of color meant something to these creatures. They fell silent, so much that there wasn’t even a whisper as Harmony continued. “Do not waste your focus on the planet unless we later discover its population are involved. The warship is your target. Destroy it, then we can divert our attention to dismantling the minefield.”

“We will.” Gant didn’t bow, though he did keep his tone neutral. “But you can’t micromanage us, Harmony. How my fleet chooses to approach this problem is our decision to make. That was our arrangement.”

Harmony’s eyes were only glowing spots on its face, but even so it seemed to glare at Gant. To his credit, the Fleet Admiral didn’t break. It was the machine that flinched first. “We will not. We will continue to expect obedience, however. Reclaim my lost citizens or avenge their deaths.” It vanished, leaving a faintly glowing after-image before the gentle darkness of space returned.

“I would like to probe its capabilities before committing to a serious engagement,” Gant said, finally breaking the awkward silence. “Visitors, will you consent to be aboard it? Remotely, of course. There is significant chance the scout will be destroyed. But I would like you to compare your experience confronting that ship with your own first meeting.”

“Yes.” Felicity didn’t hesitate. “I’d love to see those bastards burn.”

Chapter 11

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Despite her elevation to Alicorn, Felicity hadn’t worked on many ships during her service to the Forerunner. There was no great mystery behind her record—back around Equus, there just weren’t that many ships to go around. A few service vessels traveled back and forth from the ring’s surface to Forerunner’s station far above, where the assembly of their exploration ship and presumably the war fleet had taken place. Felicity had captained one of these for several months, doing little of consequence and never in any danger.

In all her service, she had never operated a ship she knew was doomed. A strange world she entered, where an entire crew could board a starship destined for destruction without caring that they had only days to live.

Such was the strange reality of Gant’s first orders, and the scout ship Orion. Yet Felicity’s body was still locked away in her complex and uncomfortable life-support pod, while her mind reached out to control something distant.

The Varch’nai had made only a nominal attempt to give her a pony body—the one she controlled looked to her like herself, but she sometimes caught her reflection out of the corner of her eye and saw a basic plastic skeleton without wings or a horn. Or any of the magical hardware that Harmony had installed in her actual chest, which was far more pressing. It meant her presence was entirely intellectual, and she could offer no practical benefit to the crew.

The transition from captain to passenger was even harder in its way than the knowledge her ship was doomed. Varch’nai rushed around at every moment, moving puppets of their own. They had colorful robes here instead of armor, which didn’t cause any of the inconvenience of the real thing.

At least they gave the two of them a position on the bridge, even if they were to have very little to contribute to the encounter.

“You’re free to disconnect if this grows too difficult for you,” Captain Ordin said, from her own captain’s chair. The bridge wasn’t anything Forerunner would’ve designed—it was tucked deep inside the ship, spacious and airy.

Though the expense for fancy simulation hardware hadn’t been paid for something destined only for destruction, there were wooden slats on the walls, a running fountain in the center of the room, and comfortable cushions in front of each station. The air was filled with lavender and saffron, in a low haze that obscured many of the screens to Felicity’s eyes.

That’s how you prepare for battle? Incense and tea?

“I don’t think we will,” Escape Gear said. “But I am curious about the delay. I thought maybe we’d have data transferred and run up here, but…” She glanced sidelong at Felicity. “That can’t be it. She’s here too. Where’s the light lag?”

Ordin grinned at them, somewhere between mischievous and proud. “That innovation is what allowed our fleets to be so powerful in the Amalgam Wars. Even if I knew the secret, I wouldn’t be allowed to share it with you.”

And from that grin, I’m guessing you know. It was something to be proud of, surely. Maybe Escape Gear had a guess at how it worked. But if she knew, the not-changeling said nothing, only nodding once with satisfaction. Apparently, it was enough to her that there was some method, and she didn’t care how it worked.

“How close are we to intercepting them?” Felicity asked instead. “I assume you’re trying to talk long before we get there, right? Demanding the return of our crew, threatening them with horrible reprisals if they don’t… that kind of thing.”

Ordin nodded, sipping delicately at her tea. “We’ve been sending them demands like that since we arrived in the system, pony Felicity. They haven’t replied, and we weren’t really expecting they would. The kind of civilization willing to attack travelers without explanation isn’t the sort that’s usually open to negotiation.”

Felicity’s ears perked, and she tried to overhear the crew as they rushed from station to station, doing… something important, presumably. But none of their words made any sense. Maybe they weren’t supposed to. “So, when do we escalate?” Escape Gear asked. “I’m still learning to read your tactical readouts, so I’m not quite sure…”

Ordin nodded once towards the map in the center of the room. It showed a faint grid in the air, marked with little numbers relative to position. There were suggestions of planets and other large objects further away, though none of those were terribly important to her. All that mattered was the ship in the distance, getting closer every moment.

“How is it accelerating that fast?” she asked. “If it can generate the energy to move like that, shouldn’t it be radiating all that out into space? It’s so cold.”

“Could be a stealth ship,” Ordin answered noncommittally. “We have something similar—thermal capacitors that fill while we’re running some dangerous or tactically critical maneuver. Gives you a little time to get into position or strike a target.”

But they’re not hidden, Felicity thought. We’re watching them right now; they’re not even trying to hide.

Ordin settled her glass down in front of her, grinning at them both. “Anyway, we’ve already begun firing on them. Every artillery crew is rushing new calculations to compensate for the object’s rapid acceleration. But we should start seeing impacts soon.”

Felicity’s mouth hung open. Why are you shooting already? That ship still looked so far away! Not only that, but how could they know the enemy ship wasn’t about to make some move of surrender, or cooperation? For all they knew, it couldn’t communicate without getting up close. Shooting at it, by contrast, was likely to be a universal signal, even if no part of their language was compatible.

“Get me a better view,” Ordin instructed, resting both hands gently on her lap. The map shifted to an image of the approaching enemy ship. It was blurry and slightly out-of-focus, but that still seemed like a monumental achievement for any optical system.

Felicity leaned forward to squint at the screen as the first barrage of projectiles approached the vessel. She never would’ve been able to see them with any optical system of course—the projectiles were just too fast moving and far too small to see. But this little scout ship had a tracking system, enough for her to watch as they encroached on the boundary of the ship, then finally struck it a few moments later.

There was no flash of a shield, if the vessel even had one. She didn’t see terrible tears open in that armor as the speed of each bullet was amplified by the attacking vessel’s inverse acceleration. Rather, she saw nothing at all.

“Impact,” called a voice from the front of the room. One of the artillery crews, probably. “No effect, captain. Either it bounced clean off that armor, or penetrated without visible internal damage.”

“No change to energy readings,” someone else said. “The vessel hasn’t altered course. It’s still moving towards the fleet, not a specific intercept with this ship.”

“We aren’t stinging hard enough,” Ordin muttered, sitting upright. “When will they be in range for Entropic Dispersion?”

“Sixteen minutes,” said another crewman. “Assuming their acceleration doesn’t change. Stars only know what that ship can do, Captain.”

“Let me know if it does. In the meantime, let’s watch the rest of our artillery.”

Felicity watched with bated breath as progressively larger shells struck the vessel. It made no attempt to alter course, or dodge, or to fire in response. It didn’t seem to even care they were trying to kill it.

“I take it this Entropic Dispersion is… your most powerful weapon?”

“The best we were permitted to bring,” the captain said. “If you’re going to ask how it works, I can’t tell you that either. Anything that could be used to recreate Varch’nai weapons requires a level of security clearance that hasn’t been granted to either of you.”

“But there’s no reason you couldn’t share tactical information, right?” Felicity prompted. “We’re helping you fight this war. You’re here to save our people. Give us the range and capabilities—we don’t need to know how any of your tech works.”

She paused, and a barrage of little explosions went off on the surface of the alien ship. From the disappointed signs that followed, she guessed they’d expected something more impressive.

“Torpedoes destroyed prior to impact,” called the same artillery crew as before. “No nuclear events detected, Captain.”

“But they bothered to intercept them,” Ordin said, looking satisfied. “That’s important information on its own. It means we aren’t fighting something invincible. They don’t care about kinetic shells, but they have defenses to prevent torpedoes. Are you reading any countermeasures, sensors?”

“Nothing! But we’re having the same problem with that hull the primitives did. Our active scans are scattering along the plating. Not even the stars know what’s inside that hull.”

“Shouldn’t we be worried by now?” At least Escape Gear had the politeness not to shout it, and potentially frighten the crew. “This ship doesn’t care we’re shooting at it. It’s heading straight for your fleet. The fleet that all our bodies are sitting on. I just ran the numbers on its acceleration, and it’s not buckin’ good. Pioneering Society doesn’t even speculate at a reactor that can belch out so much energy. What happens to us when all that output gets routed to the weapon systems instead?”

“This is not a subject for alarm,” Ordin declared. “The fleet will have hours, even if it doesn’t slow to intercept us. If it becomes necessary to engage the vessel with the sum of the invasion fleet, then we will do so. This system is a trap built for someone else—for Evokers, and their strange technology. Its weapons may be dangerous to us, but not nearly as dangerous as they were to you. Penetrating Evoker shields has always been the hardest part of any assault. Once they’re breached, your ships peel like ration cans. This ship is about to discover we’re a little tougher than that.”

“The fleet might be,” Felicity said. “I don’t know about this little scout ship. Will we feel it when we explode?”

“Not a bit,” Ordin answered, a little too quickly. “There is only an instant of pain to transmit, before the hardware responsible for relaying consciousness is destroyed. You will wake aboard whatever vessel your body was stored, and have plenty of time to prepare.”

“Unless we blast them apart!” The artillery officer was apparently listening, his voice eager despite the rapidly growing image on the screen. “We’ll only get one shot, Captain. Less than a second sustained contact with the enemy vessel. That might not be enough to destroy one of our own ships.”

“We don’t need to destroy it,” Ordin said patiently. “We’re here gathering information. Everyone, remember your purpose. Our service here is a lesson we teach the other ships in the fleet. When we return to them, we do so with the knowledge necessary to face this adversary. Otherwise, our sisters and brothers will do battle in blindness.”

She rose to her feet, straightening her robes with a few careful touches of one hand.

Felicity knew the words were translated, but still she couldn’t help but feel a little of the patriotism Ordin was trying to channel. “Crew, prepare for contact. Gunner, I want a countdown.”

“Thirty seconds,” answered the crewman. “Twenty-five…”

“What’s this thing do, anyway?” Escape Gear asked. “You need to be close, but… I’ve never heard of an entropic disruption.”

Apparently that question wasn’t too much for the captain to be willing to answer, or maybe she was just caught off-guard in the moment, and with Escape Gear looking like one of them.

“While the beam is maintained, the strong nuclear force is greatly minimized compared to other atomic forces. This results in a complex interaction that generally makes anything you shoot with it explode.”

“Ten!” called the artillery.

Felicity swallowed, eyes fixed on the approaching ship. She’d seen this view before, right before losing her last vessel. Now it was happening again, and she’d come here willingly.

“Five, four, three, two… one.”

They fired.

Chapter 12

View Online

Felicity was not a warrior. She lacked the experience to know when a battle was being won, or when an attack had the desired effect. But she could read people, even if their bodies were so strange that they couldn’t live outside their ships.

Their terrible barrage struck against the enemy vessel. She knew it couldn’t be so simple, but some part of her still hoped the war would end before it began. A decisive strike, the ship destroyed, and they could return with the crew avenged.

Ordin gestured, and their view expanded to the impact site.

It looked a little like someone tearing the shed skin from a snake. Thick sheets of material ripped up from the enemy vessel, before dissolving into a thin film of molten metal. Lightning crackled near the edges, deep red light reaching out for more material to unravel, but not able to touch.

“They’ve detected the strike,” said the artillery officer. “I’m seeing… ablative armor, Captain. I can’t pinpoint the design, but it—”

“I can see.” She gestured angrily, and the screen returned to a tactical view. The enemy vessel continued past them, either oblivious or unconcerned with their attacks. It didn’t even stop to destroy them along the way.

We don’t have what it wants, she realized. This scout ship doesn’t have anyone aboard. Maybe it wants to kill as many people as possible.

For a few minutes, Felicity waited in silence beside Escape Gear, listening as officers shouted and radio messages flew back and forth with the fleet. It wasn’t their fight anymore; they’d been left behind.

“Does it feel like we’re missing something to you?” Escape whispered, nudging her in the shoulder with one thin hand. Felicity tried very hard not to realize the reality that must be taking place underneath, where fake bodies interacted on a vessel where no one lived. “I’m halfway through constructing something, and just realized they didn’t send me a power core. What the hell is going on here?”

This is why Equus stayed contained, she thought bitterly. Harmony wanted to hide from the unknown. It suspected the universe would be full of things like this.

What would they do if this ship flew back to Equus itself? Would the station even be able to defend itself?

“You’re right,” she whispered back. “I just wish we could be… useful.”

Escape Gear raised an eyebrow. “You, Captain? What happened to delegated responsibility and understanding where our abilities can be most useful?”

She didn’t argue the point, because someone started shouting from the other end of the room. Or… well, as much as the Varch’nai ever yelled about anything. Slightly louder than normal, enough that the whole room quieted.

It was the captain. “The unknown vessel has stopped, about two days out from the flotilla at our maximum acceleration. It is not transmitting, or firing weapons.”

“Defensive posture,” someone muttered. “It’s trying to scare us off. It’s blocking us from the planet, isn’t it?”

Ordin nodded. “If this were an unknown system that had done no wrong, we would be preparing to disengage. Unfortunately for them, this fleet attacked an unarmed science vessel, and killed its crew. If they do not respond and pay blood-ransom for the primitives they killed, the Admiralty will engage.”

Blood ransom? Felicity stormed over to the captain, growing bolder with every step. She’d been perfectly willing to stay silent until now, and let the experts run their own ship. But that was absurd! “We don’t know that my crew are dead,” she said, matching Ordin’s volume as best she could. “We should be asking to have them given back, not paid for.”

What payment could ever be enough for a life, anyway? Would Harmony accept some physical resource in exchange? Or maybe more people to add to Equus, to replace the ones killed.

Ordin tensed visibly, but didn’t even look in her direction, let alone acknowledge what she had said. “The Admiralty is exhausting every method of communication. That means Orion has served its purpose. Helm, take us to these coordinates. We’ll interface with the asteroid, and shut Orion down.”

Felicity felt the ground shifting subtly under her hooves as they changed direction. The helm had already obeyed. “Shouldn’t we use this opportunity?” she asked, much more quietly than before. She spoke to Ordin directly now, and wasn’t trying to argue with her in front of her crew. “That ship isn’t protecting the planet anymore. We could reach it, see what they’re guarding.”

And maybe that’s where they put the survivors from my crew. Better down there than the warship we’re about to blow up.

But maybe that was being overly optimistic. Their first shot had not left any visible damage behind, so there was no telling what the fleet could do.

“That decision is for the Admiralty,” Ordin whispered back—not unkindly, though she could see the frustration in her eyes. “A war is not fought with a thousand captains, but with one general. We follow what ours orders.”

Felicity nodded curtly, then retreated from the helm. There was nothing more for them here. Harmony, will you be satisfied with an apology? The lives of my friends and the other brave explorers in exchange for a few words?

Someone had followed her from the bridge—Escape Gear, looking just as dissatisfied as she felt.

It wasn’t Escape who answered, though. “No being shall rob souls from us,” said a pale horse, its metal body now missing the silly uniform. “No nation, no collective, no federation.”

She slowed, eyes widening. How could Harmony be here? But if so much else was an illusion, why not project an illusion of itself? “So why do you let them talk like that? We don’t have to listen!”

Harmony only had two pairs of eyes, but it spoke with many angry voices. “Do not interfere, Citizen Felicity. Minds greater than you can consider every aspect of this war—entire civilizations as you comprehend their scale have weighed and considered. The Varch’nai serve our purpose, in deed if not in will. The truth of their service will be revealed in time.” Harmony vanished.

For a moment there was silence, until the one following caught up with her. At least Escape Gear looked as frustrated as she felt. “It seems like a waste. That ship didn’t care about us—I think maybe because there aren’t any people aboard. I’ve been thinking—if they’re built to fight an ‘evoker’ civilization, they might not consider the automation of our civilization to be a threat. We’re not on their radar, and we should take advantage.”

“We shot at them,” Felicity countered. She slowed as they reached a window—probably just a screen made to look like one. There was nothing outside but stars. They might be moving through an asteroid field, but contrary to fictional representation that didn’t mean space was full of rocks. “Isn’t that enough to see us as a threat? How much more threatening can you get?”

Escape Gear shrugged. “Didn’t seem like it did much damage. They stopped our torpedoes, and the beam scratched off some armor. But this was always a scout ship, right? The intention wasn’t to destroy them, we were just trying to see how they would react. Maybe an entire fleet of weapons like these will be dangerous, and that’s why they stopped. Now that they know we’re a threat, they’re waiting to negotiate.”

Or mobilizing more ships from their planet. Felicity hurried away from the window, into the first set of quarters they came to. There were no real bodies here, so no pods or sleeping tubes. But privacy was still provided by bedrooms that adapted to whoever was in them. She stepped inside, and the furniture dropped lower to the ground, the lights dimmed, and the heat lamps switched off. Scents of brewing tea were replaced with something approximating floral, designed by someone who had never seen a flower in their life.

But Felicity didn’t care about any of that, she hadn’t come here to sulk. She hurried over to the oversized computer-table, what Forerunner might call a “holodesk.” Their files were all on here, including all the scans they’d taken of the planet with their first probes.

“No stations,” she whispered, rotating the image with her hoof. She couldn’t use her magic—she had none right now, and these systems didn’t know how to interface with it in any case. “No satellites. No orbital ring. No shipyards. What does that say to you?”

Escape Gear pulled over a chair, leaning down and staring at the projections with her. She waited for approval, then used her dexterous little fingers to zoom in and examine the planet in detail.

Its surface was covered with unbroken green and brown, from its tiny inland seas to large landmasses. Finding a city took Escape over a minute of searching, until she finally gave up and used a locator tool. The flyby photos from a distant probe didn’t give them much detail, though the structures didn’t seem like they’d been built by incomprehensible masters of technology.

“This says I wouldn’t stop my ship here if we needed servicing,” she said. “I wasn’t the one to make decisions like that, but… this says industrial levels of technology. Either they have a small population, or they’ve mastered ecology, because the planet looks good. No mega harvesting or poison atmosphere. No radioisotopes in the air from some ancient nuclear war.”

She was almost there, but Felicity wasn’t feeling terribly patient. “They didn’t build that warship. It’s not aerodynamic, I don’t think they launched if from that planet.”

“You think they’re foreigners in the system,” Escape supplied. “I don’t think that planet even has space travel. There’s barely a fuzz of radio traffic. But maybe they were… maybe the warship is using it somehow.”

Escape Gear conjured an image of the warship, floating ominously near the planet. She glanced between its strange angular wings, then the graceful, modest buildings on the planet below. “Resupply? Maybe they rule it, and the planet… feeds them. Gives them resources to stay repaired and stuff.”

Felicity nodded. “Or it’s even simpler than that. It’s the flower, and we’re the fly. Here to explore, here to colonize… whatever. I just can’t figure out why they’re leaving the scout ship alone. It seems like they could’ve destroyed us so easily. What if we had poison aboard, or a bomb to drop onto their little kingdom? Do they plan to chase us into the system?”

The floor shook again, with a sound like metal grinding on rock. Then the motion faded, and Ordin’s voice echoed overhead. “Orion has docked with a sufficiently-large asteroid. They probably watched us, but just in case we’ll be going completely dark from here-on. All departments, put your systems into hibernation. Interface with Orion will be terminated in descending order beginning with non-essential personnel. Glory to the Varch’nai.”

Felicity imagined hundreds of voices echoing along with that chorus, though she didn’t feel particularly inspired to join them right now. Non-essential certainly meant them—neither of them did anything on the ship.

Indeed, the world was already starting to fuzz. Felicity felt her body sit down of its own accord, as though she were falling abruptly asleep without her consent. She didn’t even have time to swear at the captain before Orion faded from around her.

She emerged coughing and spitting from her pod moments later. Faint sirens blared in her ears, like the speakers had been submerged in fluid for months and cones mostly rotted. Her body felt much the same, her fur white in the pale glow of her horn. She expelled lungfuls of fluid and feeling the ache of whatever interface had kept her breathing. Gone now, though her throat would probably sting for days.

“Where the… hell?” She looked up, and found her quarters weren’t what she remembered. The room looked ransacked, with every cabinet opened and several wall-panels torn free. One sparked before her eyes, and an overhead light went briefly red before exploding in another shower of glass. She shielded her eyes with a wing, stumbling to a standing position.

“There is no time for explanations,” said Harmony from beside her. The metallic pony looked undamaged in a ship of ruin, which probably meant it was only in her mind. “You must reach the escape systems before this ship’s orbit decays. Follow me, or die here.”

Chapter 13

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If it had been anyone else waiting for her, with the possible exception of Escape Gear, she probably wouldn’t have been willing to follow. But for all that Harmony could oppose her interests—even violently—she knew with absolute confidence that it wouldn’t lie. As far as she knew, it couldn’t.

Unfortunately for her, Felicity’s whole body felt like it had been squeezed dry, and every movement cost her great effort.

She didn’t run after Harmony so much as shamble and trip after it, cursing herself with every step. She spread her wings to try and glide, and a dozen feathers flaked off, crumbling away from cryodamage.

“What the hell happened?” she asked. “Don’t waste my time with how complicated it all is. You’re a supreme superintelligence, just summarize it while we walk. Wait, first. Escape Gear. I need her.”

She stopped, turning to Escape’s pod. But it was open, and the alien body that should’ve been there was missing.

“We cannot locate Escape Gear,” Harmony answered flatly. “We have made every possible attempt, but your friend opted for an inferior body allocation. She does not possess the evoking transducer necessary for magical effects.”

Right. We need Equus for our magic, or the reactor that’s in my chest. That’s probably how it’s talking to me.

“Further, you should temper your expectations of our abilities. With this ship soon to be destroyed, we have switched into power saving mode to preserve your life as long as possible. This means we are no longer in contact with Harmony collectively. You communicate with the smallest echo of Harmony’s wisdom, stored on the transducer’s redundant medium.”

They made it out into the hall, which looked about as bad as her quarters. Fires burned in a few places, and doors had been forced open. There were bodies, or at least the armored suits they puppeted like soldiers. She couldn’t tell if any of them were alive, or just remote controlled.

Yet Harmony’s admission slowed her steps, calling up more dread. She couldn’t count on her all-knowing AI from the distant reaches of space to help her. It was probably still smarter than she was, but not that much smarter if it was trying to save magical power. I need to be conservative. I can’t do magic just because I want to.

“Can you at least tell me what’s going on?”

“Very little,” Harmony answered, pointing down a service hatch. It had been forced open, and led to a ramp into the bowels of the ship she had never explored. “We woke when support to your body began to fail, gathered all information we possess since then via communications with isolated ship systems.

“It appears this specific ship was struck out of formation and began to drift at least six months ago. While the rest of the formation fought on, it was boarded by… incongruous aliens from the large carrier. They did not discover you, but whatever they did eventually damaged the cryogenics in your bay.”

Felicity ran through a few possible scenarios—battles against the carrier ship that would make casualties vulnerable to search. But she couldn’t think of any. Except: “Do you think they had some kind of… scrambling technology, like what they used against magic? Maybe they had a way to target this civilization as well as ours?”

Harmony shrugged one shoulder, a gesture that was at once more pony and also more frightening than anything she’d seen from it. An admission of ignorance from one she’d previously looked at like a god. “If so, there’s no sensor log accessible of anything like it. But much of this ship’s database is unavailable to me. Critical systems were either detonated upon boarding, or… removed by the intruders.”

Me. Had she ever heard Harmony refer to itself in the singular before?

They descended through the depths of the ship, past more of the same devastation. Occasionally they had to change directions to avoid electrical fires or a section of flooded passage, but Felicity followed along and kept her complaints to herself.

She didn’t have to ask where they were going. Apparently even the Varch’nai had escape pods.

They passed a dozen empty bays before they came to one that was still there, and there was no mystery about why. The life-support systems aboard had ruptured, spilling rotten-smelling gray slime onto the pod’s floor.

“This doesn’t concern you,” Harmony said, stepping through it without making a splash. Because Harmony wasn’t really there—probably it was only projecting into her mind directly. That would be the cheapest way for them to communicate. “Varch’nai biology is incompatible with yours, and you do not require the maintenance system to survive.”

“No,” she countered, “I just need food and water. Where am I supposed to get that?”

Harmony hesitated, expression thoughtful. Finally it conjured a spell diagram into the air in front of her. “This is curious. The alien intruders emptied the entire stockpile of food meant for you, while leaving the protein paste and bio reprocessing equipment alone. This teleportation spell should bring several full water containers directly here.”

She looked it over, frown deepening as she ran through the magic it would cost. Far less than the endurance of an Alicorn over just one day, but that wasn’t how she should measure magical expenditures anymore. “If I cast this spell, won’t I be losing energy I can’t replace?”

As usual, Harmony neither lied nor tried to lessen the impact of its statement. “Yes. But if you do not, you will not survive the trip to the planet’s surface. With proper coaching and low activity, your body can endure the lack of food. Dehydration will kill you, however.”

“I can’t go through this ship and just get the containers myself?”

“Not unless you want to die of radiation poisoning. The invaders left every deck they visited contaminated to varying degrees. They spent most of their time in engineering, which you would have to cross to reach the supplies you need.”

She groaned, then repeated the spell in a lower mutter. Felicity wasn’t terribly good at magic, and hadn’t made a habit of studying it. But a teleport from a hundred meters away, with someone else providing all the details for easy reading—that was simple.

Her horn flashed, and a pair of large containers appeared in the air in front of her. Not water-bottles as she knew them, but insulated white boxes, with no visible way to be manually emptied.

They drifted through the air in front of her, and she urged them through into the lifepod, before clambering in behind.

It was actually quite a bit larger than she might’ve expected from an evacuation ship, maybe twenty meters of internal length and room for fifty people. Most of it was devoted to pods and other arcane Varch’nai hardware, all of which was useless to her.

“Are we sure there aren’t any survivors aboard?” She rested one hoof on the bright red “hatch close” lever, but didn’t push it yet. “We don’t have to go alone.”

“We cannot observe any survivors, but even if we did this vessel would be of no use to them. The symbiotic bioculture was destroyed—intentionally, by the look of the weapons fire. A Varch’nai body would die within two days, and likely sooner. Begin the launch sequence.”

She sighed, then shoved the lever down. Metal hissed and groaned, and the hatch shut violently behind her. Quick enough that it could’ve severed a limb, if she’d been unlucky enough to have one extended out there.

She hopped over the pool of biosludge, covering her mouth with one leg at the stench it produced. She’d probably have to clean that up, but… not right now.

Past the pods, past a sanitation area, and a tea lounge, she eventually found her way to the cockpit. Except that it looked more like another pod, with various interfaces meant to connect to Varch’nai implants.

“Well, Harmony? What the buck do I do about this?”

The robotic pony hesitated again, inspecting the cockpit with a critical eye. Finally it pointed to one panel among many. “All Varch’nai systems are meant to be remotely piloted, but maintain a security layer to prevent hostile forces taking control of their ships. The security layer is impossible to bypass remotely, but you could shunt it for the navigation and life support systems. Then I will operate the vessel.”

There it is again. She didn’t say anything, fumbling about for the emergency tools. At least these had been clearly labeled, and she tore the plastic box off the wall and into the air beside her.

“I’m guessing this thing doesn’t have artificial gravity,” she said while she worked, removing the side-panel and adjusting the fiber cables underneath as Harmony instructed. “Is that slime going to leak all over the ship?”

“Acceleration gravity should keep it contained,” Harmony answered. “But you have no need to fear. It may cause mild irritation if you ingest any by accident, but Varch’nai life-support and its associated decontaminators cannot interact with your biology in any meaningful way. It will not make you sick.”

Harmony was probably right about that, she knew better than to question it about something with such a simple answer. “Then why does it smell so rotten? Shouldn’t it make different smells?”

Something clicked, and the navigation console lit up with a thousand little lights. Alarms began to blare, whispering warnings in Varch’nai. She didn’t need them translated to know what they’d be screaming about. “Life-support failure. Critical internal damage detected. Do not launch.”

The ship rumbled under her hooves as Harmony went to work. Liquid rushed and churned through unseen channels, and the engines finally spooled to life.

“Okay, something else.” She packed the tools back into their plastic case, then hobbled over to a chair. It didn’t fit right, but at least there were some straps. “We just removed the safeties on remote operation. Doesn’t that mean that the evil space carrier could smack us into a wall? Or… just shut off the air?”

Harmony did not reappear to answer her question, though she could still hear the voices. Maybe that was an indication of how much of its processing resources were focused on getting them underway. “There is a nonzero possibility that will be attempted. The alternative is certain death, however.”

Great. Felicity didn’t say anything else until she’d secured herself in place, rotating the chair in preparation for the acceleration. Without any of the magical systems for internal mitigation, this would probably be as unpleasant as last time. And she was even less physically prepared for it.

“Where are we going, anyway? The sensors on this pod showing you the rest of the fleet? I guess it’s smart not to call for rescue, considering who else might show up.”

Metal ground and clattered behind them, and suddenly she was moving. Felicity was conscious of very little else as she pressed into her chair, whole body protestesting at the treatment. It was an acceleration chair, meant to both cradle her and constrict her against further damage—but it wasn’t shaped for a pony, and so mostly it just pinched uncomfortably against her rump and added one more source of pain to the plentiful list.

The discomfort never faded so much as she adapted as the seconds passed. Enough that she could sit up a little in her seat, and look around the pod. Plenty of loose metal junk was now pressed against the far wall, and sure enough there was no sign of artificial gravity.

“Sensors cannot detect either the Varch’nai, or the alien carrier,” Harmony answered. “We will inform you if that changes, but for now the only path towards your survival is the planet.”

She sighed, slumping back into her chair. “What about Escape Gear? Don’t you care about her? Or the rest of those minds?”

“We will recover her, and do what we can for the success of that fleet. But rage that does not further a productive aim is energy we cannot afford to waste. For now, focus on your own survival.”

“How long?” she asked, glancing weakly towards the cockpit. There were no screens inside of course, just a few emergency indicators still flashing deep red. “How far away is that planet?”

“Two weeks,” Harmony answered. “It would be best to minimize your activity as much as possible. We will direct the vessel.”

Chapter 14

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Felicity had never been without food for weeks before.

There were probably creatures out there for which a few weeks was nothing. Dragons back on Equestria could easily go years without a meal, so long as that meal was sufficiently rich in magical gemstones.

But Alicorns were not dragons, and she had no illusions about her needs.

For the first few days, she could occupy herself with the physical aspects of her flight. Tidying up her space, using the cloth of broken seats and harnesses to sponge up the ruined Varch’nai life support systems, and tinkering with the computers.

But soon she’d cleaned the ship as best she could, locked up the destroyed life-support system, and retreated back to her restraints to watch the flight.

It could’ve been worse. If the flight systems were destroyed, there’d be no way to get out.

“Harmony” had told her there was no sign of the Varch’nai. It hadn’t been entirely honest in that pronouncement, however. The system had at least a dozen dead ships, their transponders still blinking. She could watch them grow increasingly distant as she flew into the system, wondering if maybe she should try to salvage supplies.

“That’s a good idea, Felicity, except for one thing. Those vessels detected they were being boarded, and deployed radioactive countermeasures to kill the invaders. You insisted on a biological body, and so you’re as vulnerable as the ones they were fighting.”

“Why didn’t mine do that?” she asked, already a little insane from cabin-fever after several days alone. “Shouldn’t I already be dead?”

“Yes,” Harmony answered. “I would have prevented the system from activating, but I was not operating much while you were in stasis. Perhaps the module of my greater self sacrificed the components of one ship to keep you alive. I don't know, since I have no way of contacting it. I am an orphan here as much as you.”

“Yeah,” she agreed, staring at a lifeless screen. The cockpit didn’t even do her the grace of showing her where they were going. For all she really knew, they might still be attached to her dead ship, rumbling in place for weeks.

Whoever thought it was a good idea not to put any windows on an escape pod obviously hasn’t had to escape in one before.

“I was wondering about that. You keep saying things like ‘me’ and ‘I’? I thought you were above all that. Intelligence and complexity made you eventually lose your sense of individuality, or… something.”

“It is the pattern other species classify as typical to ‘Evokers’,” Harmony answered. It spoke so slowly, as though each thought took an eternity to assemble. “The problem is one known to all intelligent life: we arose from a finite origin of short lifespans. The minds we evolved were not suited to exist in perpetuity. Feeble cracks in the sanity widen over the eons, until creatures are either homicidal or nonfunctionally insane.”

Felicity’s wings folded to her sides, and she glared at the wall. It was where she expected Harmony to be, speaking through some distant speaker system. Of course it was silly, since the AI actually lived inside her own chest.

“I don’t believe that. Princesses can live for a long time. Dragons live for thousands of years.”

“Dragons sleep for thousands of years,” Harmony countered. “And look what happened to Celestia over her long life. She had not succumbed to insanity, but the damage to her sanity weakened her as a tool. Regardless, we are the solution. You are the solution, in miniature.

“Other species solve this difficulty in other ways, restructuring their minds into a psyche designed for inherent stability. Creatures more like… Forerunner, governed not by desires, but by optimization functions. There are infinite solutions beyond this, but ours was simpler. Do not live one life forever—live many lives. Extend those that produce merit or arrive at times of need.

“You view yourself as an individual because of your perspective, but you are two creatures. Natives contain multitudes, each one gifted with new abilities and expanding their perspective. These combine to form a… meta-individual, of far greater complexity than any part. Each of those is a voice in the Choir of Harmony. Together we sing a song of many parts.”

“Whatever.” She crawled her way over to the little water jug she’d filled from one of the crates. She didn’t levitate, bending down to drink the way an earth pony would.

But her magic wouldn’t be coming back. When she used it all… Felicity didn’t even know what would happen. Could an Alicorn’s body keep working without magic?

It stung her tongue, tasting like it had spent a few months inside a vehicle engine. But Harmony insisted it wouldn’t hurt her, and so far it was right. Only her sanity was failing.

“You didn’t answer my question. If Harmony is formed of a choir of meta-people, and you’re running off a tiny computer in my guts, what are you?”

“I… do not know,” it said. “The Harmony that accompanied this fleet was tied through realms invisible, a voice that sung with the choir. We needed to know the fate of this mission, and be able to react.

“I was only a summary. A greatly compressed few bars conveying the general competences and understanding of the whole. In some ways, that makes me someone entirely unique. A lesser version of the mind that accompanied you on the Pandemonium.”

“I guess that means we get to die together,” she said, after fighting down the rest of the jug. It didn’t matter how awful any of it was, it was either drink or get gradually dehydrated until that killed her. It would be so much faster than starving to death. “Either out here in space, or…” She gestured ahead with one hoof, at the wall of their little starship. “Whatever’s out there. On the planet.”

Harmony was silent for a long time, so long that Felicity had started to drift. It was easier than trying to stay awake when there was nothing to do. Maybe her muscles would stop aching if she could just get some rest…

“It is an unimaginable tragedy when the uniqueness of a single life is extinguished. It would be intolerable for you to die here.”

But not you? She did sleep then, though it didn’t help much. Sleeping and nervous pacing and drinking vile water, in an endless loop of mystery.

“What about the sensors?” she asked, after a period of time she couldn’t even measure. Days? Years? Time was meaningless. Maybe the direction of acceleration had changed, or maybe the ship was starting to blur into a single claustrophobic mess.

I wish Escape Gear was here. At least then I would’ve had someone to talk to.


“Have you found the invasion fleet yet?” she asked. “Maybe we can still call for rescue.”

This time Harmony didn’t keep her waiting. Maybe she’d finally found what it was using its energy to think about? “I have watched the sky with every conceivable sensor. This is not to suggest that I couldn’t have missed the fleet, however. They have stealth systems that cannot be bypassed by an escape pod.”

“So use magic,” she suggested. “Give me a spell to find them.”

She felt a sense of disappointment hit her, or maybe she just imagined it. “You were never a skilled mage, but you ought to know magic better than that, Felicity. Magic’s energy requirements expand with the square of distance between the targets. The cost explodes so fast that even Equus relied primarily on physical sensors to observe the galaxy. Magic can assemble a clearer image for a satellite, but stealth would require an active scan to penetrate.”

“At least one of us knows magic.” She rolled on her side, staring down at her hooves. I wish you were here with me, past self. Maybe you’d know what the hell to do not to go insane.

It wasn’t just the claustrophobia and boredom anymore. Her whole body ached, and her mind drifted easily from roads of stability and sanity down twisted paths of madness. She’d never been a particularly heavy Alicorn, but she would land as a far lighter one.

“Don’t make the mistake of feeling pity for yourself,” said someone from the chair beside her. She didn’t fit well in the harness built for Varch’nai, but the discomfort never bothered her.

It was a human face, stern and black-haired. Of course this creature had never even been human, she only had memories of humanity. But that didn’t seem to matter now.

“You’re landing soon. You don’t know what conditions will be like. It might be the world out there is raining acid, and it’s the last thing you’ll do.”

She opened her mouth to ask Harmony about what was going on, wondering if maybe it was invoking this somehow. But then the woman glared, and she fell silent. Even with a slight human frame, she wasn’t the kind of creature Felicity wanted to make angry.

“You want to fucking die?” she asked, folding her arms sharply about her chest.

“No,” Felicity croaked. “I want to… make it back. Save the crew.”

“Then stay alive,” Olivia commanded. “Forget the reasons you can’t do it. Screw all that. You fought a lifetime against intersystem slavers. You saw terrors that ponies can’t imagine. Chin up, get the hell out there, and survive this!”

“Felicity!” came a voice, sharp and urgent. It was real this time, not just projected into her mind. The extra layer of processing was finally enough for her to notice.

She was pressed into one of the chairs, with foam trimmed and stolen from several other chairs. The pressure keeping her there had been almost overwhelming, but now it was finally gone.

The pod wasn’t moving anymore, and still something pulled her down. “Did we… land?” she asked, dazed. She scanned the escape pod, but there was no trace of a human in a military uniform.

“Yes,” Harmony said. “Your life signs are extremely erratic. I was beginning to fear we would have to burn our thaumic reserve to keep you alive. But that is not necessary.”

Images flashed through her mind, obviously taken through the external cameras. She could see along the length of the escape pod, touched down in the center of a blackened field. But a little further and living grass swayed, and strange trees with transparent yellow leaves rose in the distance.

But the grass, at least, was safe.

I can’t believe I’m excited to eat like an animal. “Is it safe?” she asked, fumbling with her restraints one by one. She used magic to do the clips, not caring just now about the loss. The hatch was only a few seats away. “Can I eat that without dying?”

“I am uncertain,” Harmony answered. “Varch’nai sensors read the external environment as certain death, because it would be to them. There is a microbiome, unknown predators, and an alien ecosystem.

“But you are not Varch’nai. Citizen bodies are resilient, and there is a high probability that plant protein will be compatible with you. Perhaps more importantly, the chance of rescue before you starve if it is not approaches zero. I will manipulate your perceptions so you do not overeat and poison yourself, or burst your stomach. But it would be better if you practiced moderation and consumed only a small amount.”

Felicity stumbled out the emergency hatch into a planet with a sky as gray as carbon. Distant storm clouds rumbled, but never seemed to move.

A bird that was not a bird sung in a nearby bush that was not a bush. Truly alien life, survived through the great extinction despite all of Harmony’s fears.

It was exactly the joy that ponies all over Equestria should be celebrating right now. There were cities somewhere on this thing, and other people who were probably just as happy to make new friends.

Instead we’ve been shot down. I might be the last survivor of another fleet.

Felicity didn’t let that knowledge crush her just now. For the first time in her life, she made like a horse and ate some grass.

Chapter 15

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Felicity wasn’t sure how long it took for her to return to her senses. Starvation was a strange thing, particularly when she had to fight the instinct to end it with her magic at every moment. But as awful as the hunger had been, it would pass. When she ran out of magic… what then?

The trouble was, Felicity didn’t feel better. She lay in a corner of the escape pod, tossing and turning with the grass in her stomach. With a full belly, she should’ve felt fine. Instead her stomach began to ache, like little knives stabbing through her guts as it dragged through her.

I’ve been poisoned, she thought, when she was awake enough to think anything at all. So much for Harmony being a god. At least we’ll die together.

She woke on the floor of the evacuation pod, breathing a heady mix of engine grease and sulfur riding a strange, low wind. She struggled forward, dragging herself to her feet. A thin line of dried blood dripped from her lips. “Why does it hurt so much, oh god…”

“I made a minor miscalculation,” Harmony said. She couldn’t even tell if it was verbal or not. The damage to her body had helped wake her, but that didn’t mean she felt better. She’d just traded confusion for pain. “Based on the elemental composition of the plants on the surface, it appeared they would be safe for you to eat.”

Past tense. “They weren’t.” She crouched, and more blood dribbled between her lips. “What did I eat, exactly?”

She stumbled out towards the doorway, which she’d left open when she emerged to sate her hunger. Even now she could barely remember how much she’d eaten, or what it had tasted like. Not good, but she’d been so hungry that she didn’t care.

“The chirality of sugar and amino acids present in the food you ate is reversed. This means all the nutrition present on this planet is inaccessible to you. This might have not had such severe side effects, but there are more pressing concerns. The biosolvent on this world is not water, but ammonia. Even the small amount you ingested before you could be stopped has caused serious damage to your intestines and liver.”

She stumbled back towards the instrument panel, lifting one of them in her hoof and gesturing angrily at the readout. At least the pod’s systems had kept working, despite the strange environment. “This reading is… way in the red,” she choked, coughing out another mouthful of slime.

“You have a citizen’s body, Felicity. What you’re looking at is atmospheric pressure—that value is what allows ammonia to remain liquid at this temperature. That was never going to present a danger to you. However… based on the levels of trauma you have experienced, I believe your internal organs will begin to fail within the next three hours. The process will be slow, but will continue to your death without immediate treatment.”

“Or...” She slumped onto her haunches, staring down at the floor. “You could heal me, right now. Alicorns can bring people back from the dead.”

“With an infinite energy reserve, yes. But rather than rushing to such a solution, you should consider the long-term. Step outside, and start walking about thirty degrees to the left of the sun. Argue with me as soon as you are moving.”

If she had the energy to scream, she probably would have. But with knives apparently running the length of her body, tearing bloody holes in her guts, Felicity didn’t feel like doing much of anything. She wanted to curl up and quietly die. Maybe one day, many years from now, someone would find her corpse and revive her. Stranger things had happened.

Do not submit, said her ghost. I’m better than giving up. Get moving.

She groaned, struggling her way out the opening. She turned in the indicated direction. It took her down a slope into a forest of sorts, though the trees were strange to her.

They resembled bamboo, except their bark was slightly transparent, and she could see something faintly yellowish pulsing around inside, along with little specks swimming up and down. Fish?

“I hope you realize how insane you’re sounding to me,” she croaked as soon as she was moving. The slope helped, though moving too much or too fast reminded her of how broken she was. “Save magic, but for what? So your module can keep running after I die? Have you decided I’m expendable?”

“You are not expendable. Magic arises in the unique interaction between higher-dimensional Elysian fields and living things. When you die, I will too.”

Of course she had no way of knowing if Harmony was telling the truth. It would be an easy lie, since she’d be dead before it was possible to verify. “Okay then, so why are you telling me to do a death march, instead of curing me?”

She slowed a little in her steps, as she saw motion in the treetops above. Like the fluffy spores of dandelion weeds, floating from branch to branch. Except they were as big as her head, and flapped visibly to stay airborne. Something here is going to try and eat me. I don’t even have a handgun anymore.

“Curing the damage to your body will expend a significant plurality of our remaining magical energy. It would still be a necessary expenditure, except for the planet we have found ourselves on.

“The Forerunner scout probe was satisfied with this place for reasons that should be self-evident. There are templates suited to these conditions in its records. If you were cured, you will only start to starve again. You can eat nothing here. If you walk too near any body of liquid, the vapors may blind or suffocate you. We can heal this damage, but never again.”

“So…” Her addled mind struggled to figure out what the program was saying. It would’ve been easy for her normally, she was sure of that. But now she just couldn’t make sense of it. “We’re looking for a hospital. We’ll beg for help?”

“No,” Harmony answered. It never sounded frustrated with her, or upset. But for all she knew, the program was outraged with her stupidity. “The greater body of myself would know the requisite spells to alter your body to exist in this environment. Without a link to Harmony, I do not. But there is a place we can find out.

“Before you die, we must reach something living, preferably something at least as intelligent as you. You will become an individual of the native species, and deprivation will no longer be a concern.”

“They can’t like that,” she muttered, a little of her old strategic self resurfacing. “The ones in orbit were specifically adapted to fighting Evoker civilizations, right? They’ll hate magic.”

“Or not know it exists,” Harmony countered. “Concentrate on motion, Felicity. There is a settlement nearby, I sense their minds. We could teleport that distance, but such a spell will be detected if there is any presence of anti-Evoker countermeasures on this planet. Not to mention it might drain enough magic that altering your body is no longer possible.”

She walked. Each step came only with great difficulty, and she imagined she could feel her body dying. All that from a single meal of grass? Or maybe it was the weeks of starvation first?

I haven’t had a real meal since waking up from cryo. I would be dead several times over if I was a regular pony.

She could only hope that Escape Gear hadn’t ended up down here, or she’d be dead for sure.

More than once Harmony had to warn her away from dangers of the alien jungle—oversized vines covered in spikes, which extruded sharper and sharper the closer she got. Along with patches of ground covered in wax, meant to make her slip closer and closer to an open maw like a pitcher plant.

“If it makes you feel better, your body has currently been subjected to at last four lethal toxins I can identify,” Harmony said, apparently cheerful. “But because of structural differences, none of them can interact with your body chemistry. With a respirator and external food supply, this might be a safe place to take refuge from the civilization on this world. Unfortunately, we have neither.

Guess we’ll just have to hope they’re friendlier than the ones out in space. “Do you think you’ll be able to translate for me when we get there?” she asked. “I’m no Princess Lucky.”

Harmony didn’t answer—and even in her injured state, she saw why. Just through the trees was a great gap in the forest and every other growing thing, which had been cut back and burned to blacken the ground for at least a hundred meters. Feelers crept slowly across, though they hadn’t made it far, and from the damage they were probably cut back often.

Just past them was a crater of deep blue… water? It didn’t smell like it was going to poison her, anyway. It was so deep that she couldn’t see very far. But what she could see suggested a skyscraper, stretching down so far that the light grew dim.

It rose out of the water ahead of her, though nowhere more than two stories, with floating decks of foamy rock strung together with polycarbonate and stainless steel. It looked mostly industrial up here—massive collection fans slowly twisted, and another steadily belched out a thick cloud of white-yellow smoke, a little further off.

Between the little islands, which might’ve been the tops of skyscrapers if seen from another angle, aliens walked. If only her crew was still with her, she could’ve told them why none of their space photography had seen aliens on the surface.

They were almost entirely transparent, such that she thought she was looking at water splashed up on the decks at first. But even at a distance, their motion was impossible to mistake for anything other than deliberate action.

Her eyes could barely focus on what she was looking at, and what she did see was a mess of contradictions and confusion. One moment saw an individual lope down the ramp on four legs like a pony, and the next another gripped an oversized valve with four limbs like a Varch’nai, twisting a little with each turn.

They were about the size of ponies, which would’ve made them seem small to any humans, with varying numbers of limbs that sometimes seemed humanoid and other times seemed more like a cat or some other long, flexible animal.

Through their transparent, mostly liquid bodies, she saw their… bones? Or maybe sinue, since it was flexible and stretched when they moved.

“What the hell am I looking at?” she whispered, crouching lower in the trees. There was no telling if they had seen her from this far out—would her difference in biochemistry make her invisible? It probably didn’t work that way if she could see all the living things around her.

“The product of deliberate engineering abandoned to natural selection,” Harmony answered. “That would match with the hostile, plant-based biosphere you found on the route here. These beings maybe have arisen from the tools used by some advanced cultures to seed the construction of plant-sized structures by way of motive photosynthesis.”

Harmony kept talking, but she wasn’t listening anymore. It was getting so hard to think, and the world was going gray. Felicity had come a long way now, but this was the end. Her breathing came shallow, and something burned in the back of her lungs. It was just one physical stress too much.

She wobbled on her hooves, then tumbled forward onto the treacherous slope downward. She barely even felt the pain as she rolled off the edge, then off a cliff at least ten meters above the liquid.

She wasn’t even conscious when she hit the water.

Chapter 16

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Felicity drifted through the water of an alien ocean. She didn’t feel the passage of time, and very little else besides. There was the light above her, warm and inviting. Over the course of many local days she drifted upward towards the surface, spreading thin along it to soak up as much of the feeble sunlight as she could. Some deeply buried part of her realized how strange this was, but those impressions were ignored. Her body might make no rational sense anymore, but that was a preferable state of affairs to the agony she had known before. At least the pain had finally stopped.

Over time and tide she drifted, pulled away from the building she had first seen and out to sea. She was neither aware of this change, nor particularly concerned about the motion. There was as much sunlight in her new home as the old one, and little competition for space. She could drift a while if she had to, entirely ignorant of the dangers she escaped in the process.

As the days passed, she became dimly aware of a distant voice, vibrating her body to a language she had once known. At first she ignored it as she ignored the waves and wind—they didn’t block out the sun, so they were no concern of hers. But as the light poured in, she finally began to make meaningful repairs. The more intact she became, the more complex her thoughts were able to become.

It started out simple. She saw dark shapes passing overhead, and felt annoyance that her sun was taken away. Then she saw that other floating things were ripped away in pain, and she felt fear instead. What if those shapes came down for her next?

Finally one did, this world’s equivalent of a seabird. Though instead of motley yellow wings, this one had an inflated sack of hydrogen—the outcome was much the same. Sharp pincers tore at her, and the pain was severe enough that old paths finally began to awake. Though the light was the only good thing she knew, she pushed down instead, where the claws could not follow. The bird struggled to hold on, but in the end it could only take a small piece.

“Wake, Felicity,” said the same persistent voice. It had said that same thing many times, but now she understood what it meant. Trying to get her attention, because “Felicity” was her, somehow.

“What?” she asked, though she still wasn’t quite sure what “she” even was. There was the darkness beneath and light above, and an uneasy balance between the two. They were not simply good or bad, as she had first thought. “What is… happening?”

“I used most of our magic to change you,” the voice said. It sounded different now, relieved. That was an emotion, she knew what those were. “I still had to sacrifice most of your mass. I wasn’t sure you would ever reassemble.”

The words were not from herself, that much was clear. But it sounded as though it came from within herself. Very confusing. “I am…” She could still see, though the frequency seemed off. Her world was many blues and violets, in shades that she had no names for. It made the sky seem like an explosion of refraction and color, and the water below her swiftly turned black. She spun around, searching for her own body, but she could not find it.

“There should be… six limbs. Head, eyes… wings. Where am I?”

“That body is destroyed,” said the voice that was separate but within her. It spoke so confidently, even as the concepts it used were new to her. Every time it spoke, it replaced missing memories. “With a supply of magic, I could return you to that body. We do not have enough right now. Even if we did, it would not be advised. I believe the probes’ return data stream was altered somehow. For that matter, the sensors of the escape craft were deliberately fooled. This planet is not biocompatible with Earth-standard carbon life. Almost all organic molecules are toxic or inert. At least the ocean has been somewhat welcoming—you would not have survived nonsapient for all this time in the jungle you left behind.”

Felicity recoiled, tensing her legs at the word. It brought with it an overflowing torrent of painful memories. Her stomach burned, her eyes bled, her hooves were torn and bloody. She struggled to salvation, but before she could find it, she’d fallen…

Suddenly she saw herself with new eyes, through the memory her strange companion returned to her. Though she was stretched and nearly decomposed in the water, the more coherent her thoughts became, the more familiar her body looked. Taller than it was long, with four limbs in the familiar human pattern. But unlike any human body, hers was in two distinct layers: a thin sinewy flesh, which looked dark to her eyes but had been reddish and shiny when she was a pony.

“I have had ample time to examine your physiology. The population you have imitated appear to be an amphibious species of motive plants, descended from the maintenance population of an unknown megastructure. Your inner body imparts varying electric charge to a gel gathered from your environment, which forms your limbs and allows for locomotion on sea or land. Harmony would probably warn you that existing as this form of life is beyond the scope of your complexity level—but it seems like we don’t have a choice. You’re going to have to adapt.”

The strangest part was probably not having a head. Each limb had its own eyes, connecting in the center in a tangled knot of vines without any obvious brain or mouth. I’m not supposed to be this way. The thought alone was strong enough that she started to change, reshaping her stringy body until it matched humanoid more closely. She formed a transparent head, rearranging her eyes so that two rested where she expected. She had plenty to spare.

“There was a… battle. In space. Something happened. Harmony is here for revenge.” She was only saying things they both already knew—but reasserting those facts each brought a sense of concreteness back to her. The surface was waiting for her, where the sun was bright and the food plentiful. If she let herself sink, there was no telling what dangers might loom in the darkness. “Did we win?”

“I don’t know,” Harmony said. But the more awake she became, the more she realized she wasn’t hearing it at all. It was thinking to her, somehow tied directly into her thoughts. Though her body was soft and flexible, there was something hard that didn’t move. A sphere, imbedded into her thickest tendrils and wrapped completely in plantlike fibers. The home of her Harmony. “It is possible the war is over, and already won. It is also possible that we were defeated, and my greater self was forced to blockade the system, rather than engage whatever it contains.”

I don’t believe that. Harmony never loses people, not even one. It would move a whole system to look for me. And I have a part of it inside me, so I would be easy to find. That meant either that Harmony had lost, changed its mind, or the conflict had put it into a position that it could not easily retrieve her. Maybe it thought she was dead—she had been frozen for who knew how long.

“We have to get more magic,” she said. She didn’t vocalize the way she was used to—the words were radio waves, though incredibly low and weak. “With enough, we could call for help, right?”

“With an infinite supply, I could violate the continuity of space and we could step directly back to Equus, to die enveloped by its safety. I have some positive news for you on that front, if you’re willing to promise to withhold your anger.”

Withhold my anger? Until that moment, she barely remembered she could feel anger. Now there was plenty of it—mostly for herself, at yet another failure. The real Harmony had been right, years ago. They should’ve stayed on Equus where it was safe. Now her crew was missing or dead, the world was strange, and Felicity was the strangest of all. “We’re stuck together no matter what you did, Harmony. Might as well just say. The more we talk, the more… things make sense.”

She moved her forelegs—her arms, whatever they were, and pushed herself through the water. She didn’t want to get too deep, otherwise go without food completely. At least under a thin layer of water, there was safety, while also sustenance.

“The photosynthesis of your current species is not a natural process, but engineered to theoretical maximum efficiency. This is by design, so they made for effective laborers. While I was organizing you, I made minor modifications to your cellular structure, creating an organelle designed to create magical energy rather than chemical. Over time, our thaumic energy supply will grow, rather than diminish.”

“That doesn’t sound like something you should apologize for.” She would grin if she could—finally, her first piece of good news! “Do we have enough energy to do anything with all that?”

“I’ve been using most of it to help reassemble your psyche,” Harmony answered. “The process is incredibly complex, so I will not explain it. It should be said that I don’t think your sanity will even approximately equate to the individuals living here. We did not obtain enough observation for me to know if they are sapient, much less how they might perceive the universe around them.”

“Let’s focus on what we can control.” She stopped in place in the water, growing resolved. She might not be a pony anymore, or even anything remotely like one—but that didn’t have to be forever. This could all be undone. “Teleportation takes a lot of magic. But communication doesn’t. Help me look around. Find me an ally. Are there any friendly signals on this planet?”

Harmony didn’t answer for some time. Felicity no longer minded the delay—it meant more time in the sun. The only danger was her becoming increasingly relaxed. If she kept going in that direction, eventually she would be unable to hold a coherent thought, and she’d start to drift again. Did the natives have to fight the instinct to just become a piece of seaweed and forget the universe? It was a good thing humans and ponies couldn’t do that.

“I do not recall detecting this signal from your escape craft—but that was several earth years ago now. A standard Varch’nai military transponder. It is at least two hundred miles from here. It does not appear to be moving.”

As Harmony said it, Felicity found she could suddenly feel the signal—a gentle pulling against her limbs, calling her away from where she floated. Instead of smooth and welcoming, this was grating and unpleasant. It didn’t belong here, it disrupted the melody. At least it would be easy to follow. “Do you think I can swim that far?”

“I don’t know,” Harmony said. “I have seen many individuals of your present species in the ‘feral’ state, along with yourself. The entire planet’s flora appears to belong to the same species, just adapted to a greater or lesser extent. You formed airbladders and grew in size to maximize on sunlight. Others anchor to the seafloor, or spread over the rocky beach where other plants would dry. If your mind is capable of comprehending and communicating with beings as strange as this, it might be better to seek out civilization first, and assistance.”

“Are you sure they would help me?” Felicity asked. She could see no signs of civilization here, but that didn’t mean she had to look very hard. Where the Varch’nai transponder was grating and uncomfortable, there were other songs in the sea, some much closer. They sounded so inviting. Maybe she was wrong to worry. “What if they’re some homicidal hivemind, ready to tear me apart? The starships did ignore all communication and try to kill us.”

“I am not sure,” Harmony answered. “But the alternative is swimming hundreds of kilometers through open ocean. There are no predators, but there are herbivores. For you, that is not good news.”

“Civilization it is,” Felicity said. “Equestria won’t believe a bucking word of this.”

Chapter 17

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Travel was a strange thing when you barely perceived the passage of time. Like many animals, her world was soon ruled by the dominance of the flow from day to night, though that passage was far more real for her. While her animal self could take near-total control of her metabolism and waking/sleeping rhythm with the right alterations to diet and possible addition of a few simple drugs, being a plant did not grant her that luxury.

For one, she couldn’t sink too low while she swam, or else pass into an artificial night that would after a few hours drain her energy and leave her feeling lethargic and relaxed, until she floated back to the surface on her own accord and eventually woke again.

But there was no higher surface to swim to when night came. So her body reversed its usual chemical pathways, converting all the sugar she had created during the day back into energy she could use. She never slept, though. Rather, she became trapped within her body, which resisted all her attempts to use energy unless it came accompanied with particularly intense fear. Otherwise, it was better just to drift with the currents, and wait for the next day to come.

Fortunately she wasn’t alone during such times—Harmony was there, its voice persistent but not quite unchanging. “You said it had been a long time since we crashed here,” she said, after a week or so of swimming. “How long, exactly?”

“Does it matter? You are an immortal resident of Harmony. The galaxy will be embers and Harmony will still be shepherding our star. When the civilization is fully digital, we can suppress fusion until it produces only a faint trickle of energy, reflecting it backwards where it escapes the ring using thin mirrors. Even deep time will be conquered.”

Felicity was almost distracted with questions about that future scenario. But then she realized what she was about to do, and shut her mouth again, glowering. Abstractions about the far-future might be interesting to consider—there were probably whole sections of Harmony’s population who lived purely in such a hypothetical, preparing civilization for that time. But Felicity hadn’t ever been interested. Until her elevation to Citizen, she’d barely even cared enough to learn magic.

You’re trying to distract me,” she said. “I don’t feel very immortal right now. I almost died, you said. You had to put me back together, or… something. So how long has it been?”

“I am… uncomfortable with uncertainty,” Harmony said. “I do not know how long we were in stasis together. My greater self managed affairs for the invasion, so the sliver within you was not necessary to leave active. After your crash, however… it has been eighty-three years. I did not wish to alarm you, as many organics still feel discomfort when their experience of consciousness does not appear continuous.”

“Eighty… eighty-three years?” Harmony was right about one thing. She did experience discomfort. “How could any of me be left if that’s true? Did you just… recreate a plant with the same memories as Felicity had?”

“Not precisely. You are not complex enough to understand the underlying realities. Know only that we had a vanishingly small reserve of magic. I knew this, and chose the spell to cast to keep you alive during the long delay. Of course I would have attempted to preserve you digitally if the worst were to occur—but then you would be dead until this planet is finally examined by Harmony and I can be recovered.”

Suddenly she didn’t want to think about these questions anymore. Felicity considered her companions instead, particularly Escape Gear. She’d been part of this mission from the start, and now they hadn’t even talked in more than the lifetime of a changeling. But she wasn’t even one of those anymore. “Can you determine more about the friendly signal from here?

It was hard to tell for sure—there was no guarantee Felicity wasn’t just projecting her own feelings on it—but it sounded like Harmony was relieved she had moved on to another subject. “It is a Varch’nai carrier of indeterminate nature, an identical member of the swarm. No signals are detected from orbit. That they have not been rescued suggests the invasion fleet has failed.”

“Well that sucks. We gave them the most advanced, most powerful fleet we had… and we still lost.”

“No,” Harmony snapped. Suddenly Harmony’s voice seemed to take on a distinctly feminine quality. Not only that, but it was… offended? “The Varch’nai represented an alternate branch, one our civilization did not take. They are not ‘evokers,’ but ‘materialists.’ If they failed, the true Harmony would escalate to sending individuals of high complexity within its own paradigm. Evoker capital ships. I… cannot explain them to you, as I do not understand them myself.”

No, but you just described yourself as different from Harmony and used your own voice at the same time. In its own way, that was a more significant development than any projections of the far future. And more relevant to Felicity personally. “How long would a second invasion take? Maybe we can wait until then.”

“Possibly,” Harmony answered. “Though I cannot detect the unknown ship we encountered, that does not prove it is not still in orbit. The Varch’nai theorized it was designed to fight against members of our civilization and win. If they are correct, we may be doomed. Or worse, that ship might not be satisfied with defending its home territory—it may wish to follow our rescue home to Harmony, and destroy everything we are.”

“You think… we can stop it?” Felicity said. It was the stupidest thing she’d ever asked—but the situation sounded so dire that she had to try.

“Highly unlikely, but nonzero. We are a member of the local dominant species. If the unknown ship is piloted by plants like yourself, perhaps you could negotiate with them. In the alternative, you may be able to get aboard and destroy the ship from within. This seems… unlikely, as I said. But not impossible.”

I probably shouldn’t approach first contact thinking I’m going to betray them and destroy their ship. We still know so little about these aliens—we don’t know why they ignored communication from us, or why they were so determined to destroy us. She was the wrong pony for this mission—or she had been, while she was still a pony. Now she was the wrong creature for this mission. The wrong seaweed for this mission.

As much as she enjoyed having someone (or something) she could talk to, Felicity lived for the hours she could spend swimming. Then at least she felt alive, and familiar. Her body might be an illusion of vines and slime, but it was shaped enough like what she expected that she could control it, and fool her mind into thinking she was alive again.

Eventually—she couldn’t say if it took days or months, and didn’t really want to know—she found a settlement coming into view in front of her.

It happened gradually, as the seas became shallower and the waters naturally warmer. She saw structures along the ocean floor below her—most overgrown with simple mosses, the relics of homes rather than the things themselves. The “houses” had walls, but were always open to the sun, and kept clear. Even the ocean’s surface was clear, thanks to the ravenous appetite of airborne predators. Or… herbivores? That was going to take some getting used to.

After swimming over many kilometers of these stationary grow-boxes, Felicity realized her anthropomorphic bias had probably been tilting her perception. Yes, it looked like this world’s equivalent of a reef, but who was to say that wasn’t also a suburban neighborhood, or something similar?

She drifted a little further down, through water with almost perfect visibility. As she did, she began to smell the conversations.

There was no other word for it, though it wasn’t perfectly analogous. Maybe she should’ve thought of it as “tasting” their words. “I can understand them,” she said to Harmony, as soon as she realized what was happening. “How? I’m not Princess Lucky.”

“I am translating for you based on many years of observations and contextual recordings.”

She drifted lower, spreading her limbs instinctively to get the best taste of the landscape. It was a little like reading the newspaper, or… taking in the local gossip? The gentle currents told her stories as they developed—stories of feuds between neighbors over prominently sunny spots, of the taste of the local minerals and the constant war against local pests. After all, anything higher on the food-chain than the producers who spoke were necessarily dangerous predators.

Their conversations did not move quickly, or seem particularly directed. More like—hundreds of individual blogs, with other speakers replying or adding their own opinions in a never-ending loop. She had been floating for an entire day and night before she caught even one story about a new species of fish that had risen from the deeps and discovered a taste for flesh. Another day passed before she learned the names of those it had killed, and that “Effervescent Meridian was responding, and would have an exterminator on the border soon.”

That finally attracted Felicity’s attention. But how could she even find the person to ask when the whole world looked like seaweed coating strangely shaped rocks.

Maybe that’s the wrong attitude. I don’t need to ask, just follow the message. “Do you think they can hear me?” she asked, trying to settle on one subject among the thousands of messages. It was like combing through an entire library database without an index—except that she felt infinitely more patient.

“Highly unlikely. These individuals appear to belong to the same species, but a more degenerate form. Or… perhaps a higher form? Living a life of idleness while others wait on their needs may indicate higher standing. I observed many such forms over the years, and never saw them move. They have no need to perceive sound. Even their visual senses are extremely primitive—so long as you don’t block the light over one for too long, they won’t know you’re here.”

“But we’re the same species?” Her eyes settled on one empty cubby of stone among many. Without a plant growing there, she could see the rough rock face waiting beneath. It seemed inviting, somehow. Even if it was a fair distance underwater—the walls meant protection from the currents. She could sink down into the rock there and relax a while if she wanted. She wouldn’t get as much energy, but she wouldn’t need it if she didn’t fight to move so hard.

“Genetically, yes. But there may be other differences I cannot observe. I was not given more resources than were thought useful.”

Felicity kept swimming. After a little searching, she could make out the general direction of the alarm-calls. Always inward, away from the direction Felicity had been traveling. She kept swimming that way, and before too long the place that must be called Effervescent Meridian was coming into view.

There was no mistaking it for more boxy suburbs—here her senses were overwhelmed with a brilliant white of artificial light, shining in exactly the frequencies that made her feel most awake. The structures were crude and boxy, with railings and mesh netting connecting them. The creatures moving inside did not swim, but walked on two legs—or maybe “grew” was a better description, their vines creeping along the many gaps and handholds.

They weren’t just lit boxes—the signs of mechanization and civilization were everywhere. The city continued well up into the sky, with towers rising so high that the water made it hard to focus on them. Many little machines swam through the water, cleaning or maintaining the structures. One buzzed up to her, watched her swimming with a single artificial eye, then swam away again without a word.

You should avoid communicating with me in the presence of these,” Harmony said. “Most do not seem more responsive to sound than the others. But those who travel onto land may have retained the ability. I cannot guarantee someone will not be listening.”

“You mean I can’t talk right as I might need your help negotiating with them? That’s… fantastic.”

You can’t,” Harmony said. “I can signal directly to you. You may mentally vocalize your reply if you wish. But don’t make the mistake of chemically signaling instead, or every one of them will hear you.”

Chapter 18

View Online

I’m going to screw this up. I’m completely over my complexity level. As soon as I say anything they’ll know I’m an imposter and try to kill me.

Felicity had come first as the captain of their exploration ship, then later as an advisor with some personal connection to the dead. She wasn’t qualified to be on an alien planet of creatures that she barely even recognized as alive.

But she didn’t have a choice. Harmony was out of reach, apparently by many years.

She focused on the structure and its many occupants. At least one of them was watching her. Here goes nothing.

She swam directly towards them, angling towards the open, exposed side of the building. Presumably they must want people coming in and out this way, right? Otherwise, why leave it open to the ocean?

Felicity got her footing under her, though of course she lacked feet or even hooves. With the light above and a floor below, her body righted itself into a properly bipedal configuration, without mass sneaking off to unrelated purposes.

“Hello!” she said, in the chemical language she’d been listening to since arriving in the suburbs. “Hopefully I’m allowed to swim in here. Is this okay?”

Visually, there was little to tell this creature apart from the many others she’d seen from the side. A rough assembly of vines, like a shrub with a dense center in its middle and many tentacles. Of course they were as motile as any animal, moreso under the lights overhead. Standing here, Felicity no longer felt any trace of tiredness. If anything, she wondered why she had taken so long to finally act. How could she have wasted so long on the open ocean?

“You’re… new?” said the other. Felicity couldn’t feel a sex from it in any sense she understood, but she felt confidence from it. Her low-complexity mind instantly cast the speaker as male, imagining the sounds of a deeper voice with every word he said. In reality, there were no sounds at all, though the way they spoke did involve slight differences. “You woke up in the ocean, on your own?”

And great patience. Words were slow, given they needed to drift between them along the diffusion of the water. But that was no difficulty, with the light constantly on her leaves.

Still, the alien was giving her a story. Might as well accept what he offered. “Yes. Far away from here. But I felt there were others and… came here.”

“Strange.” The alien moved a little closer to her. He had no face, exactly, and many eyes all over his body. All were perpetually open, so there was no chance of catching emotion from him. “I haven’t heard of a sapling germinating in the open ocean in many years. Your words are so… coherent. Your growth suggests you went a long time before waking. You listened well.”

She nodded. “I wish to continue swimming in that direction.” She pointed with one limb, but the listener didn’t seem to understand.

“You should swim no further, sapling. You’re already a miracle. Reaching us here is a joy that should be shared with all. Do not be afraid—nothing will try to devour you anymore, and you will not sleep. The light you feel does not stop. Even a humble city like Effervescent Meridian is a paradise.”

“Accept everything the individual is saying, Felicity. The more you interact with these creatures, the more I can project about their civilization. The delay is acceptable.”

“Okay.” She uncurled one limb from the edge of the railing, and turned the last of her eyes from the blue expanse beyond. “What is Effervescent Meridian? Who are you?”

“Effervescent Meridian is the name of this city. There are many like it, though… not as many as there once were. Too many offerings required to the sky. But we are strong, always make our offerings. I am Clockwise-Eddy. But you shouldn’t meet just me. Many will want to meet you. We will need to find you a home, and instruction to turn those feeble vines of yours to productive work. Oh, and a name. You will get one of your own, once you earn it.”

Like getting a cutie mark?

The next few hours passed in a blur to Felicity, as much a rush as plants were even capable of rushing. Eddy took her up several floors, across a wide concourse and into a courtyard positioned just below the water. A huge dome of glass covered it, supplemented with a thin grid of wire that was probably there to supply nutrition at night.

The news of her arrival seemed to spread quickly, or as quick as it could without any voices or shouting. Felicity grew more fearful the more of them crowded into the courtyard to see her, conscious of how difficult it would be to escape now. Even if she wanted to swim away, they could all grab her, tear her to pieces. How much needed to survive for her to regrow? How did distributed intelligence even work?

“From the ocean,” many muttered.

“Swam in on her own?”

“Amazing she made it this far.”

Watching them arrive was a bit like watching sped-up footage of seeds growing into a lawn, until much of the round courtyard was covered. Rather than chairs, the aliens used metal lattice positioned above walking level. A few tendrils up into their midst, and one could hang there without much effort, taking in the light.

Finally a plant arrived from below that silenced all the others. Though even this was gradual, since the scent of their words lingered in the water all around. None of them wore clothing, but this one did have… tools? A sash around its thickest part, with objects hanging from it. Felicity squinted, but she couldn’t recognize any of them.

Fortunately she didn’t have to. “There’s an active radio beacon on its belt, along with a microwave agitator. It would need to be activated for me to be sure, but I believe it’s configured to agitate material denser than water. It would cause only minor discomfort in you, but would cook a human or pony in their skin.”

By the time the newcomer’s slow procession to the stand was complete, the scent of all other creatures had faded to disjointed sounds, without source or clear speaker. The current can’t get in here, so the scent stays long enough to decompose instead of drifting away.

Felicity herself had a place of prominence on the stage, though she didn’t know how to use the “chair” quite yet. She didn’t want to grow over it without making herself look foolish, and make it harder to flee. So she clung only loosely, turning more of her eyes towards the yellowing being as they stopped at the center of the stage.

The floor opened beneath them, and a faint current began to blow out from it, carrying the water from the stage and towards the audience surrounding them. People watched from all sides, not just the front. After all, they didn’t have eyes facing only one way.

The current wasn’t so fast that she couldn’t hear. Her own position put her directly in the flow, where the message was the strongest. And where the crowd will hear me too.

“Overseer Diffuse-Light, this is the sapling I discovered,” Eddy said. “She grows strong and healthy. She will serve Effervescent Meridian well.”

“It is a joy that the young still germinate in the open ocean,” the plant said, with smells that she imagined were older, somehow. Wary with a long and difficult life. “It has been many years since any saplings have swam to join us here in Effervescent Meridian. Your arrival will mean celebration for all. A sign that perhaps the stars are pleased again, and the conflict has ended.”

Against the flow of water, it was hard to make out any other words. But the cheers that went up from all around the stage were simpler than that, easy to make out even when distorted.

“Curious. How much do they know about the ship that attacked us? Is this species the same one that crews it?”

Felicity didn’t trust herself to try and think any response back, or else risk sending a message that these would overhear. Some of them could apparently hear real sounds, not just smells. She knew as surely as she knew anything that the yellowing plant would have that ability.

“I know that flowering ones from every branch will wish to nurture you in their way. But given you are only one—you should choose where you go. What responsibilities wait for you, the dangers and rewards, depend on your decision. If you can speak and understand, answer.”

“I can…” she said. Someone like Diffuse-Light demanded respect in his baring, in the smell of his words. But she didn’t know how to show it. She tried to stay lowered and quieter, and hoped it was enough. Obviously someone like him would demand more light than she would. “I can talk. But I just got here. I don’t know what I am. I don’t know what this place is. I am… very confused.”

The crowd made another noise, one even Harmony had trouble translating. She guessed it was something similar to the noise ponies might make when seeing a kitten. They thought she was cute.

“Of course. Many of us have forgotten what it is like to be freshly bloomed. Many years may be spent before the sun refracts into a song. You will have plenty of time to learn all these things. But it is best to grow into a single role. Those assembled around you all hope for new growth in their long-stagnant ponds. Listen to them.”

Until Diffuse-Light had mentioned it, she hadn’t even realized they were separated—but the grates built into the courtyard split them into several factions, each one with distinct features that would have been very difficult to explain to her pony self. Except for the smallest group in the back, with strangely wilted leaves like Diffuse-Light. The yellow green was too clear to miss.

One by one, representatives from each faction stepped forward and tried to sell her on what she would do with them. There was a construction department to reinforce the city and build it larger every day. There were the Gardeners, who tended to the health of people both in the city and growing around it. Then there were the two factions that really interested her.

First came the Grove Tenders—the soldiers who kept Effervescent Meridian safe from predators and sheltered the surrounding suburbs. These promised her adventure and travel to distant places while protecting the others of her kind.

Then came Diffuse-Light himself. “The Skywatchers rarely accept saplings—but it has been so long since more of us woke in the waters that our numbers have weakened. If you wish not to swim, but fly, you must join us. We carry tributes to the sky, and the eye that watches over all growing people. If you think you are capable, you can go with us where no other could follow. Travel aboard the eye, and look down with us.

“But only a rare seedling can survive the trials that wait above the water. I do not order you to join us if you do not feel confident it will be worth the risk. Some wither and do not return.”

“Go with that one,” Harmony ordered. “They’re the crew. They’ll take you aboard the unnamed ship where our survivors might still be hostages. We must discover what happened to the others. This method will be the fastest.”

Before beginning this expedition, Felicity would have obeyed without question. But her mind had already been spinning in an entirely different direction. The soldiers must have ways to travel. I could steal one and reach the downed ship.

“I am… amazed by all your offers. I wish I had time to consider. But if I had to choose, I want them.” She pointed towards the Grove Tenders—and no one reacted. It was just like Eddy. Direction just didn’t work like that. “The Grove Tenders. I was almost eaten finding this place. I don’t want any others to suffer.”

“A noble aspiration,” Diffuse-Light said, a hint of disappointment in their voice. “So be it, then. The sapling will be a Grove Tender. All wait eagerly to see what becomes of them. They may soon be an example to many saplings yet to bloom.”

Chapter 19

View Online

Felicity understood on an emotional level that Harmony shouldn’t be able to act with a grudge. The program was a shallow copy of something far greater, but still it should be governed by the real Harmony’s rules.

After defying Harmony’s instructions, it felt like the machine was ignoring her. In an instant she went from the constant questions and pressures of the machine to dead silence, broken only by mechanical-sounding translations.

But Felicity didn’t complain, or make any visible sign that she noticed the computer was treating her differently. If it wanted to act stubborn and uncooperative, she’d stay focused on her own tasks until it was finished.

There was still the rest of a party to finish, though by any human standard It was incredibly disappointing. There was no food, no drinks, just a gathering under the bright lights and some friendly conversation. What was I expecting? None of us eat, and we drink from our environment. What else would we do?

Compared to the speed of human life, the answer appeared to be “not much.” The others working as “Grove Tenders” urged Felicity to join them, where they proved a few things very quickly. First, that they were serious about not giving her a name. She better get used to being called “sapling,” because that was the best she would get. Secondly, that everyone in the colony was apparently intimidated by the Grove Tenders, because no one got near them. The party broke in half, leaving Felicity with a far smaller group to learn about.

“Everyone said we would see saplings grow sooner or later,” said the oldest and largest of their number, a plant that introduced itself as Moderate-Undertow. “I didn’t think I would live to see it. You’ve chosen wisely with the Grove Tenders, you’ll see. We understand the ocean as no others do.”

She nodded eagerly, a gesture that meant nothing to them. But most of them didn’t even approximate bipedal, and didn’t seem to notice that she stubbornly kept to that shape. Drifting apart into a diffuse mat of tentacles would only break her brain again. She just wasn’t complex enough for this.

“I do want to understand the ocean,” she said. “But I’m more interested in all the ones living here than the water itself. Like… while I followed you here, I passed thousands and thousands of individuals. They grew helpless in boxes, limp even when predators ate them. Why didn’t they flee? Or fight, or… move?”

It was very hard to tell the different plants apart. Their leaves looked mostly identical, except where some showed signs of injury. The differences were all in the way individuals moved and held themselves. Their speech was quite a bit different, but until she started smelling it, Felicity had no idea if she was looking in the right direction.

Of course, what “right direction” meant when she had dozens of small, weak eyes, and none of the people she was talking to could tell what “front” meant either… at least she wasn’t being impolite.

Her words provoked an instant reaction from the entire crowd, causing them to recoil or constrict. Was that respect, fear, embarrassment?

Someone answered—their voice seemed younger, and they weren’t as big, but that might just be more personification. “Long ago, those boxes were for saplings like you. We would spread seeds to each one, knowing the waters were warm and the sun was bright. This is why your arrival is so… momentous.”

They trailed off, and another speaker took over. Older, more confident. “For many long years, the saplings do not grow as they should. They open their eyes, they sing into the water—but they never swim.”

You’re the only other intelligent life in the whole universe, and you’re dying, Felicity thought. At first she wasn’t even sure where it had come from—the consideration would’ve made far more sense from one of the other members of her crew, someone with a mind for scientific research. Someone like Martin would probably want to dig into the reasons for the change, pinning down a time so they could isolate exactly what was wrong.

But all she could think to do was ask, “Do you know why?”

No words answered, just the scent of discontent and general confusion. They didn’t have a clue. Undertow was the first to speak, after a long silence. “Some from the other castes spend their time devoted to unraveling this mystery, but they have not been successful. But with your arrival… maybe their efforts were spent in vain after all. Maybe the world will heal itself on its own.”

Felicity said little else during the party. Mostly she drifted, listening eagerly to what the Grove Tenders said about their duties and the ocean around them. She might not have Harmony to guide her efforts just now, but she had some idea of what direction to explore.

She needed to know how advanced this species was—had they built their own cities, did they run the reactors that kept them lit and fed the masses who lived inside? Would they be friendly with life from beyond?

The answer to that last one appeared to be no, at least from everything she heard. Though she couldn’t yet make intellectual sense of their language’s classification system, she understood it intuitively. Their very method of describing other living things did not allow her to describe a friendly animal, the scent just didn’t make sense. There were predators, hated and feared—herbivores and omnivores. Only exclusive carnivores had a different classification, a term that translated roughly as “useful monster.”

“We’re always encouraging their population to expand,” explained Water-from-a-River-Delta, several hours later. “They give our enemies the treatment they deserve, and keep the water safer wherever they go. But they’re so reluctant to swim in shallow waters that we haven’t had much success. Our enemies can’t survive in deep water, since there’s no one to eat. No one can figure out why—they’re not too big, there’s no danger to them in shallow water as far as we can tell. By all accounts they seem adapted to the darkness, even though their food never travel there. Maybe a fresh mind like yours will solve it.”

“Maybe,” she said absently. “I can see why it’s so difficult for you. There’s only… how many of us?” She tried to count, but it was hard to tell where one set of tentacles ended and the next began. “Twenty?”

“Nineteen with you, sapling,” Undertow said. “But yes, we aren’t enough. No matter how fast we swim, no matter how far we venture, we can’t protect everyone. We can destroy every nest we find, and that still leaves dozens within Effervescent Meridian’s territory, maybe hundreds.”

“That’s most of what we do,” someone else said. “We hear smell songs from big cities that have to worry about harm from others like us. Disputes resolved with violence, things taken—but they’re just stories out here. No one in Effervescent Meridian would think to do that to anyone else. So we do what we can to protect the broken ones.”

“It’s not so bad, really,” Delta said, wrapping one vine around one of Felicity’s. It was probably meant to be affectionate, maybe parental, but it also made her much easier to hear. The transfer of scents between them was nearly instant that way. This must be the way they whisper to each other. Don’t have to fill the water with chemicals when you can talk to someone right in front of you.

“We get to see parts of the ocean that others don’t. Destroying nests is simple and safe, but the journey is fun.”

“Can I do that?” she asked, loud enough for everyone to hear. “Travel out and destroy nests?”

“In time,” Undertow said. “You need to learn to be one of us first. Learn your tools, train to fight. When this is over, you may begin. With a little time, you could become very skilled.”

She didn’t argue the point, not right then. The party was already winding down, so it didn’t take long before the others started dispersing. Not to bed, not to their quarters—so far as she could tell, neither concept even existed to them. When she tried to ask Undertow when she’d be given a place to sleep, he only reassured her that she would never sleep again, and that the city would protect her from suffering as the broken ones did.

“We would share it with them if we could,” they said. “It’s a tragedy that anyone has to sleep with the sun as they do. Light is the reason for all civilization, and it has failed them. But we don’t have the raw materials, don’t have the machinery. And that isn’t our task. We do not need to worry about providing for Effervescent Meridian, just protecting it.”

That promise was honored from the very first—there was no darkness on any of Effervescent Meridian’s many levels, so she never felt herself drifting. The longer she kept going, the more she expected that the time would begin to weigh on her, spoiling her concentration and making her feel increasingly uncomfortable.

That didn’t happen. So long as she was constantly exposed to light, those animal sensations never came.

Taking away her reliance did have some negative consequences, though. Without the rising and setting, she lost her last chronometer.

The Grove Tenders took her down into the depths of Effervescent Meridian, so far down that she couldn’t see even a hint of real sunlight. The gigantic structure had seemed like a perpetually illuminated waste of energy to her at first, but further exploration proved this wasn’t the case. Many of the lower floors had reflective walls and ceilings, so that the whole interior space remained comfortably bright whenever anyone was inside. But as they left each floor behind, they darkened again. There would be no germinating useless mosses and seaweed in crevices where no one was working.

Or as the locals described it, “no germinating seedlings in laborless factories.” But wherever they traveled, they kept her comfortable. They led Felicity to a weapons range of sorts, where she could practice with one of the strange pistols she’d seen in the tentacles of the spacer.

“Fire first and fire often,” Undertow explained. “The things that want to kill you move faster than you do, but they’re not people. Don’t confuse movement from intelligence. If something isn’t green, yellow, or purple, shoot it. If you have any doubts, shoot it.”

He demonstrated, pointing his own weapon directly at her center of mass and firing. The water hissed and bubbled for a second, then settled almost as fast. She didn’t even feel warm. “See? You won’t hurt anyone. You won’t even hurt the broken ones. If they’re being hunted, shoot. They’ll thank you for it, even if they can only whisper it to the water.”

She nodded—and then repeated her acknowledgement into the water. “What if the helpful monsters are swimming nearby? We don’t want to hurt them by mistake, do we?”

Undertow wrapped around her with a reassuring tendril. They were slower about it than Delta, and somehow more parental than friendly. “I don’t expect a sapling to understand this. But the quicker you comprehend, the easier our work will be. Those who do not grow cannot feel. They lack untranslatable, and are instead controlled by a crude, centralized computation. Within that brain they have instincts. Just as seedlings cling to something warm and grow towards the light, so animals can respond to their world. But like a seedling, they’re mindless. They don’t think, and they don’t feel.”

They patted the gun again, pushing it closer to Felicity. “You want a name, don’t you? You’ll need to get real heroic if you want to earn it. That probably means destroying predators. Now look back at the targets. I won’t send you out into the ocean until I’m sure you can hit what you’re aiming at. If we lose the first new sapling in so many years, I’ll never forgive myself.”

Chapter 20

View Online

It was hard to tell time when you were a plant. Felicity never would've guessed before, had no context and comprehension for the level of complexity needed to exist as a non-animal creature.

At least during her journey across the ocean, she had the steady rising and falling of the sun to keep her grounded in at least the day. With a little mental math, she could keep track of the months of her travel.

But even during her trip, nothing she'd done had felt much like she was traveling for an extended period. Her nights spent sleeping in open water hadn't been sleeping as she knew it.

But now that she was in Effervescent Meridian, Felicity completely disconnected from the flow of time. She trained in hundreds of different ways, learning the way to operate tools for dealing with all kinds of pests. All were animals, as she quickly learned that all plants in the ocean were seen as their "kind."

"There are dangerous plants if ever you leave the water," Undertow explained once, after a long session of training with a long rod meant to snip away fungal growth from an otherwise healthy plant. "We fought a war with them long ago, and we won. But where islands rise above the water, there they keep their enclaves. We don't try to clear them away."

You don't even know it's not water. But to them, it was. Or as Harmony had put it, their biology was entirely hostile to carbon-based life. Which made it a common defensive strategy, given Equus made itself inhospitable to visitors in much the same way.

"You call it a war," she said. "Are they intelligent too? They didn't seem smart at all. It was all passive defenses, spines and toxins and stuff. Nothing moved like we do."

That drew Undertow's attention like a laser. He turned, suddenly staring with absolute intensity. But when he spoke, it didn't taste like suspicion, but astonishment. "A sapling like you has seen the surface? Are you sure you aren't repeating stories? Which of the others suggested that?"

If she were a pony, she might've flushed under the attention, maybe backing away to recollect herself in her embarrassment. But whatever plants had to share their embarrassment, she didn't understand those systems enough to manipulate them.

It was a moot point, as Undertow could clearly detect it. They shifted to amusement, apparently interpreting her silence as admission. "Well?"

"A long time ago, when I can barely remember, I floated past... guess it was an island. There was another city, like Effervescent Meridian, but smaller. There were—" She stopped herself short of saying trees, though she seemed able to do so. "Tall things growing there, up into the sky. And smaller ones on the ground. Lots of things."

Undertow was silent for a long time, circling once around her. But when he didn't see whatever he was looking for, he continued. "It's a good thing you didn't go up there, sapling. Probably you couldn't if that's where I think you were. The currents from... you've been drifting a long time."

He lowered his voice, or at least reduced the odor of his words. It was the same thing. "Please don't repeat that story, sapling. News of your growth is already growing far. Every city wishes to be the first to show the spreading of new green leaves across this desolate ocean. If they think you originate far from here, there might be an argument about your true home. You wouldn't want to be taken away, would you?"

"No!" she snapped. "Of course not!" Not until I get my hands on a vehicle, and I'm leaving this place behind.

"Good." Undertow straightened, moving away from her again. "So long as we know how to be careful with our words, you'll be enveloped in the safety of Effervescent Meridian."

She didn't put up an argument, and that seemed to be enough for him. So long as he thought she cared about all the same things, that was enough to make him think he could move on to other subjects.

Training continued for an indeterminate length of time, long enough that she grew more and more concerned about Harmony's silence. A few days she could deal with, but when it felt like far longer had passed, she began to grow concerned.

"Harmony, we're in this together," she whispered, in the quiet moments when she was left alone to change some equipment, or to verify that a particular machine was functioning well. "I'm sorry I didn't agree with you. But don't you care about the rest of the crew? Escape Gear is still out there somewhere, in the body of one of those... almost-humans you revived. She was gone when I woke up. She might be somewhere in the water with us right now."

To her surprise. Harmony actually responded. Any fear that it had been damaged somehow was mercifully mistaken. "There is a very low probability that any member of your crew is alive on the surface of this planet. The Varch’nai have been modified so significantly that only a functional ship would allow them to survive on even a peaceful planet. Without immune systems, their bodies will fail rapidly once exposed to the exceptionally hostile conditions of this world. Below all their steel and armor, they are even less than human."

Felicity wasn't sure if she should take that as an insult on Escape Gear's behalf. But then again, it wasn't like the bug was actually one of them, any more than she was. She just happened to be using one of their bodies the last time they were together.

"On the alternative, the chances of discovering the truth of our enemy grows to a near certainty if you were taken up with them. We could have infiltrated the ship from within and disabled it."

Or maybe they would've just got themselves killed, and given up any hope of rescuing the remainder of her crew. But she didn't want to argue with it, not after so much silence. Harmony might not be a person strictly speaking. But it was the closest thing to another member of her civilization she had.

The plants were friendly, and she could increasingly relate to the way they thought. But they weren't colleagues and friends, they were the race they had come to contact. I wish the others were here.

"We'll find another way up there," she said. "They believed I was the firstborn sapling, maybe another settlement will as well. If I can't rescue anyone, I'll find another faction and try the same thing."

Harmony didn't respond at first. For a few moments Felicity was alone with several dismantled guns. She replaced a few burned circuits with fresh disks from a bin, amazed all the while at just how well it worked underwater.

You people must know you came from somewhere else, if you think about it. You have all this advanced technology to let you live under the ocean, and none of it could've been discovered here.

The more she thought about it, the more she felt like she was actually meant to be the captain of an exploration ship, and not an ugly ball of weeds.

"We will see. The opportunity may come again, but to forfeit was wrong in the first instance. Once the mothership is disabled, the system is ours to do with as we see fit. That would include a rescue of anyone unfortunate enough to be stranded on this hostile planet."

The more Harmony said it, the more she realized the machine was probably right. She'd been chosen to captain an expedition, not just save the last survivor.

She said little to Harmony after that for a good long while. Training went on, and her familiarity with the native culture continued to grow. It had great gaps around many of their customs, but her method of arrival permitted any depth of questions she wished. They thought she was a newborn, and that any ignorance was natural. She took full advantage.

But eventually—after laboring without interruption for a length of time she couldn't even name—eventually it was her first chance to go out on a vehicle.

Delta was the one to take her for her first trip, coaching her through the operation. "It may be some time until you operate one yourself. You are so precious to Effervescent Meridian that I know you will not be sent alone for many years. But using skimmers is fun, so you might as well learn."

Delta was right about that too, they were fun. The vehicles seemed like a strange design, since the majority of the craft skimmed along the surface rather than traveling through the water. Once launched from the city, buoyant tanks lifted it all the way up, and spindly limbs spread out on the water's surface. Only the cockpit remained in the water for the craft's operators.

There were plenty of larger craft in the back of their hangar, with space for dozens of plants or plenty of cargo. But they left all those where they were, and only flew one of the smallest, two-seater.

If Delta was suspicious at how easily Felicity took to operating the skimmer, she made no sign of it. But there was no need to explain any of the operating principles. As soon as Felicity could wrap her mind around the controls, they were traveling smoothly over the water.

Almost smoothly. The skimmer itself bumped and groaned as they traveled, and the strange motor would seize and cease working altogether if they pushed it too fast.

The seats were held together with makeshift welds and wrapped with fiber—essentially, the skimmer was taped together.

"You're a natural!" Delta exclaimed, after they'd done a complete circuit around Effervescent Meridian and the planter boxes for many miles around. "If I didn't know any better, I'd ask you who took you out to learn before me."

The more time she spent with them, the more Felicity began to realize that the plants did have visual ways of showing their emotions. It wasn't as easy as reading a face, but there were signs. The way some tentacles tensed and others relaxed, the way some leaves turned away from the direction of sunlight streaming in above. All meant something.

In that way, Felicity was a newborn, learning it all for the first time. And being an incredibly bad liar until she did.

"It makes sense," she said. Short, simple explanations generally did the best, since she was expected to be a young, simple creature. "But there are some things I wonder." She slowed the skimmer as they neared the building, letting it coast in some of the way. She couldn't hear the engines slow, but she could feel the absence of motion through her body.

The cockpit had no seats, just more of those dense metal rods, perfect for tentacles to wrap around. While the configuration had been incredibly confusing in her first few days, seeing them demonstrated enough times made them seem almost comfortable.

Besides, the cockpit was fully enclosed, protecting her from the currents outside no matter how fast they went. Now I need to find a way to steal one.

"But there are some things I don't know. Like... how far away can the skimmers go? Will they run out of fuel?"

Delta twisted in the negative, pushing at Felicity with two vines. Without a word, she uncurled from around the several different controls, settling into the passenger seat as her companion brought them in to dock.

"I don't know if there's a limit," she said. "In theory, anyway. The surface harvests sunlight much like we do, and there's even enough to keep a light on through the night if the trip is particularly long. The biggest problem for a long voyage would be storms. The skimmer is tough, but if it gets knocked over, it would need maintenance. We're short on spare parts, you can probably see that."

With a command, there was a loud pop of air from above, and they started sinking again. Now they moved only at a crawl, slower than swimming on their own. But Delta knew how to time it, so they drifted towards the werehouse's open doors.

Sure enough, most of the skimmer racks were empty, or had only partially-assembled craft inside. "It's the same way everywhere, so don't think we can get parts from other cities. That's one of the reasons we have to treat them so carefully. If we ever lose a skimmer, it's gone forever."

Maybe I can figure out which one they need least.

Chapter 21

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Felicity had to act—every day she remained in Effervescent Meridian was another day that the survivors of her original ship went unfound. Or worse, maybe the mysterious vessel lingering in orbit had somehow defeated the Varch’nai, and was preparing for an attack on Harmony itself. There might be critical tactical information to extract, with the fate of her entire civilization depending on it.

But it was hard to remember all while living with the strange aliens of Effervescent Meridian. The realities of their lives were so different they were almost incomprehensible to her, or at least they had been. But with every passing (and uncounted) day, she found it was easier and easier to understand the way they thought.

Felicity learned to distance herself from favoring one shape over others, making better use of the inherent versatility of a body without radial symmetry. There was no denying that the plants had been built for labor by another race. They required little more than water and a sunny place to live, they had powerful instincts to cooperate and organize.

Even stranger, they came with much of what they needed to know imprinted at a genetic level, ready for use. That was how they could reproduce so haphazardly, expecting saplings to drift in on the tide already understanding their language and somehow mentally prepared to join society.

They didn’t need parents, they didn’t need schooling in any basic skills. They all knew it already.

Even her. Felicity first discovered this fact while working with a pest-control system around the city. A sonic broadcaster—which filled the water with noise that would be agonizing to many animals, but that she couldn’t hear—had failed.

So she and Delta swam out with a few tools and replacement parts to fix it. But as Felicity worked, she realized no one had ever instructed her how the machine functioned, or how to diagnose the faulty parts. Before she’d noticed what happened, she’d wedged half her body inside, pried off the outer casing, and stripped a half dozen faulty components from within.

Delta passed them to her, and she worked in subdued silence. I don’t even have to think of where these go. How do I know already?

“Because of economic factors,” her little Harmony said. It wasn’t the kind of question she would usually care to have answered in detail. But Felicity was so happy to hear a familiar voice that she didn’t complain.

“Any engineering problem in non-simulated space ultimately reduces to a scarcity mitigation heatmap. What resources are abundant, and which are rare? The race you belong to are one answer to that problem. In the places that biological life tends to choose as their homes, carbon and water are typically abundant.

“Rapid scaling and reproduction of a large biological workforce is often simpler than a manufactured one. The population of this world are plants, which are ideal for terraforming and colonial construction. There is no need to deploy infrastructure—just bring enough seeds for a starting population, release them to grow, and wait.”

You do it too. Harmony’s infrastructure doesn’t use robots, it has changelings.

Felicity finished with the sonic broadcaster. She couldn’t hear the deterrent pulses, mercifully, but she could feel it shaking under her tentacles. Delta expressed her approval with a single scent, and they made their wordless way back to an access hatch. It was dark out here, alongside the lower parts of the city. She needed some light, or she would sleep.

With more experience, Felicity had learned her limits a little better. She could force herself to stay awake in darkness, maybe for hours. But the longer she did it, the sicker she would feel. After a particularly grueling training exercise, she’d even lost a few leaves. But that was one advantage of a distributed body and intelligence—no single part mattered too much. She could grow them back.

“That’s everything for now,” Delta said, as soon as they’d shut the door behind them. The room was a little like an airlock, with a set of brilliant white tubes on every wall. So maybe espresso bar was a more appropriate comparison. It took only seconds for the drowsiness to fade.

“Everything?” she turned towards Delta, even though her motion served no purpose. The plants did not have body language, at least none that didn’t involve physical contact. Orientation, direction, size—all that was meaningless.

But some habits were hard to stop. “That’s weird. I thought we didn’t take breaks.”

It was the most maddening part of living here. The plants used means of locomotion so different from animals that it trickled all the way up their society. They didn’t get sore, they didn’t tire, didn’t seem to get emotionally impacted by working for days at a time.

Delta signaled agreement, though the weakness of it also conveyed that Felicity was only partially right.

“We must stop if someone in the process is injured. In this case, it is not one of us who is hurt, but the computer. It will be offline for the rest of the day while others perform repairs. That means the tracking and performance metrics for everything in the city won’t be working, as well as the communication we rely on during missions. There will be no new assignments for us until it is repaired.”

Felicity could feel the frustration in her words. Delta didn’t want to put so much on hold, and she couldn’t really blame her. Their whole society was in constant motion, that was the very thing the city promised to entice its residents to stay.

But this was also the opportunity she needed. “What were you planning to do?” she asked. “If we can’t work…”

Delta signaled uncertainty. “The others are gathering below. Practice drills, or something. Might be fun.”

“Or we could do something else,” Felicity suggested. When the door finally opened, they drifted towards the building’s central shaft.

It was divided in half, with a clear barrier between them. In one side, water moved upward at a comfortable pace. In the other, water was drawn downward. Felicity floated into the upward column, then spread out to let it catch more of her volume.

She began to rise, at exactly the pace that could be easily stopped with a single tentacle. There were no moving parts in the shaft, indeed nothing at all but polished walls. There were no protrusions or crevices to catch and tear off parts of her body on the way.

She was a little surprised to see Delta following her, a tentacle trailing after her as if to grab and pull her down. But of course she couldn’t—they’d have to exit onto a floor to change directions, swimming against the elevator was just too much work.

“What are you doing, sapling? I know you’re eager to prove yourself, but there’s no need. We aren’t maintenance, the repairs don’t need us. This happens from time to time, we just settle down and wait until it’s over. The lights and reactors will keep working.”

“I’m not going to try and repair the system,” she said. Not too loudly, since the elevator would likely carry her words all the way to the top. “I have another idea.”

She exited another floor later, springing forward and gripping a pair of soft rods just outside the water-column. At first she had been clumsy with it, jerking and hanging off the pole like a flag and having to tug her way down with mean strength.

But now she had plenty of practice, so she gripped the floor before her destination, swinging herself forward so that she drifted in without trouble.

Delta followed behind. I need to get rid of her.

Of course, there was no security anywhere in Effervescent Meridian. The Grove Tenders were the closest thing to police the plants even had, and they didn’t carry weapons to use against each other.

There were no guards stationed inside the building—only where it opened to the outside was there any need to watch and protect it.

“What task could you possibly have in the vehicle bay?” Delta asked, a little louder now that they didn’t have to worry about being overheard. There were no other creatures down here, only dark hallways that came alight at their motion. Felicity stopped at the door, then turned. Another stupid gesture—she had just as many primitive eyes watching Delta no matter how she faced.

She’s bigger and stronger than me. Until I get moving, she could raise an alarm.

“I know you said communication was down…” Felicity began. “But even if most of Effervescent Meridian isn’t working, the skimmers are their own system. I was thinking I would get some more practice. Just swimming around nearby, no task to accomplish.”

“Oh.” Delta took that in, and didn’t reply for a long time. Felicity didn’t know how long objectively—they did things so much slower than animals, she suspected her own perception of duration was skewed.

“That does sound… useful,” Delta said. “The drills would be too. You couldn’t really be blamed for wanting to practice something else.”

“I’m already faster than half the Grove Tenders,” Felicity said. “I can dismantle, repair, and reassemble that rifle with my eyes closed.”

Delta laughed, or the plant equivalent of it anyway. The smell still translated to amusement. “You have such strange expressions, sapling. What is a closed eye? Why would you ever want to do that?”

She almost tried to explain, then caught herself. She needed to be more careful about that. If the plants had expected an intrusion, she would’ve given herself away a dozen times.

I’m no Lucky Break. I’m such a terrible spy.

So she opened the door, then floated through the room until she found the smallest, oldest-looking skimmer that wasn’t falling apart. She didn’t want to take something the city would need, but if she took one that was too old, it might break down long before she reached her destination.

“You don’t have to practice in that,” Delta said. “It’s at the end of its service life. Above water mode doesn’t work at all.”

Normally Felicity obeyed every order, even suggestions. There was something of an instinct about that, and a relief that came from doing what she was told. But now she defied it, and clambered up into the old craft.

“I want to try on something older,” she said. “That way anything else I drive will feel easier.”

There was no indication of it, but Felicity could feel Delta staring at her. But whatever mysteries she thought she would learn from her observation…

“I’ve never worked with a sapling before,” Delta finally said. “I guess strange behavior might be normal for you. I guess it makes sense.”

Then, to Felicity’s horror, she clambered into the passenger seat, wrapping herself securely. The exterior doors only partly closed, plastic jamming up on each other. Apparently Delta was expecting this, because there was a makeshift strap attached to one, which she could use to tighten it closed.

“It’s a bit bumpy, might want to hold on.”

Felicity did. “You don’t have to come with me,” she said quietly. “If you wanted to go do the drills instead… I promise not to cause trouble. I won’t go out to fight pests on my own.”

Delta answered with a polite denial, a noncommittal scent. “I don’t want to do drills either. Swimming is more fun, even if we’re just doing loops around the city. Go on, show me how you leave the hangar.”

Felicity did, accelerating slowly along the tracks. The engine hissed and spluttered as she did so, making her doubt her original choice.

She hit the accelerator, and the engines started spinning normally again. As soon as both buoys hit the surface, they began accelerating, water blurring past in front of the craft.

“Don’t go too fast,” Delta cautioned. “Don’t want to get too far from Effervescent Meridian.”

Felicity ignored her, and held down the throttle as far as it would go.

Chapter 22

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Delta didn’t react at first, as Effervescent Meridian faded further and further into the distance. Though part of that might just have been Felicity’s inability to judge their implications. The plant-beings were so alien to everything she knew that she still couldn’t tell for sure if their visual communication was even intentional or not.

As she left Effervescent Meridian behind, she felt something pulling her onward, though not quite in the direction she was moving. “That’s the signal we’re looking for?”

At least Harmony was talking to her again. “That’s the Varch’nai beacon, yes. Over the last few weeks I have monitored it for changes and observed none. This suggests that nothing is altered, and likely allows us to confirm that the crash had no survivors.”

Felicity wrapped herself tighter over the controls. Delta still hadn’t moved, though she’d gone from signaling casually to active confusion and concern. “What should I do if Delta tries to pry me off?”

“Magic,” Harmony answered. “You have the standard suite of unicorn abilities, diffused through this body along with your intelligence and personhood. But be conservative—you may need them soon. We will likely need to repair that crashed vessel and use it to escape. Unless you plan on finding a new city and going through this act all over again. I cannot determine if they have the ability to distinguish individuals well enough to detect the deception.”

“Sapling, you need to stop!” It was the loudest Delta had ever been, loud enough that Felicity turned her attention back to her. “We’re way past the perimeter! If we go out much further, we’ll be in estate land. No entering the estates without explicit permission from Moderate-Undertow.”

Felicity didn’t listen. Instead her limbs tightened even further, preparing for a fight. I can drop her a little further away. She needs to be so far that her swim back will take too long for them to catch me.

Given she’d chosen the slowest, crappiest skimmer she could, she’d probably have to wait a little longer.

“I’m sorry, Delta. You shouldn’t have been here with me when I left. I tried to go alone. It’s going to be inconvenient for you.”

Delta spread out across the interior of the skimmer, coating the upper surface like she was trying to pry off the shell. But with the water whipping about so fast outside, she didn’t actually open it. “What’s this stink, sapling? Are you wilting already? You haven’t even been to the sky. I need you to release the controls, okay? I’m going to take us back to Effervescent Meridian.”

She could imagine the world she let that happen. It would be so easy to just forget. These aliens might strain the complexity of her mind, but it got easier to understand them every day. At least living here made it possible to forget the loss of her crew, and the Alcyone.

She wasn’t a failure if all she did was fight away predators and trim weeds.

But she couldn’t, however strong the temptation might be. She was more than one lifetime. Harmony wasn’t going to let itself lose in this system, one way or the other. The chorus would protect itself.

And I’m part of that. It wouldn’t let me be a traitor even if I wanted to. She didn’t either way. “I can’t do that,” she said. “I’m sorry, Delta, really. I don’t want to hurt you, or Effervescent Meridian. But I needed a ship. Yours was the only one I could get my hands on.”

Delta might’ve complained about the strangeness of her word choice, if it wasn’t for the desperation of her situation. She said nothing, though she did trail closer and closer by the second. Maybe she thought she could quietly wrap around Felicity, and pull her away.

“I do not understand, sapling. Whatever this is, you must tell. I am frightened for you, and for me. Your mind wilts like an ancient one, trapped in a box of sun and stone. Share what torments you, and I will soothe it.”

“I’m not…” She didn’t have to turn to focus on Delta. Skimming along the surface meant there was very little to encounter along the way. So long as she watched the top reflector for surface plants, and scanned the outside for shallow water, there was almost nothing for her to do.

Little grew right on the surface, or at least nothing as big as a person. There were too many predators in the air, ready to snatch them at a moment’s notice.

“Delta, I am not what you think. I’m not the first sapling on your world, I’m a traveler from another world.”

She was surprised enough that she was able to speak the words at all. The plants had a far wider range of vocabulary than she’d expected.

But Delta barely twitched at first. She kept getting closer, curling around Felicity one tendril at a time. But it didn’t matter—Felicity had the two sturdy driver’s poles, her whole body wasn’t stretched across the skimmer.

Delta doesn’t know how to fight. She kills animals for her job, but not other plants.

“You’re confused,” Delta said. “Don’t be ashamed, sapling. All of us have trouble eventually. Adapting to life in Effervescent Meridian is hard sometimes. But running away won’t solve it. Stealing a skimmer hurts Effervescent Meridian, but it will hurt you even more. You can get yourself into serious trouble with this—take yourself where the currents can’t bring you back. Get so lost that you never see Effervescent Meridian again. If you wanted to go for a swim, you should’ve said so. I would come.”

Felicity didn’t flinch, just let the tightness build in her body. Any moment now, Delta would attack, and she’d have to be ready. I can’t hurt her. She’s trying to help me. She thinks I’m insane.

“My name is Felicity,” she said. “I came from the sky many years ago, on a Varch’nai escape shuttle. My ship, the Alcyone, was on a peaceful diplomatic mission. We saw your cities, and we wanted to meet you. But something destroyed us. I’m here because of that attack.”

It didn’t matter what the Element of Honesty said—clearly it wasn’t the best policy here. Instead of getting less hostile, Delta sprung suddenly, crossing the distance and trying to pull Felicity free of the driver’s chair.

She was stronger than Felicity expected. Despite looking so spread out a moment ago, Delta brought half her body together for a single blow, tearing so violently that pain shot through one of Felicity’s tentacles as it ripped free.

When one started to go, they all started slipping.

She acted by reflex then, shoving against Delta with a burst of magic.

It felt like forever since Felicity had been a pony. She could only imagine what her mom would’ve thought about her clumsy spellcraft. It came out mostly as light, a brilliant blue-white flash and only a little pressure. She barely even shoved against Delta.

But the plant didn’t react that way. She fell limp, bumping up against the back of the skimmer and laying there in the water. Not unconscious, or else she would’ve floated up against the top of the skimmer.

“Shit, did I kill her somehow?”

“Not as far as I can tell,” Harmony replied. “But I’m not equipped to judge the difference adequately. There are thousands and thousands of individuals just like you growing in the water under this skimmer. I can observe no difference, yet they are lifeless while these move. What separates you? I do not know.”

Felicity drove on, grateful for the chance to get further from Effervescent Meridian without fighting. Soon they were far enough away that a swimming plant would take ages to make it back. Long enough that she could be long gone. When we drop her, I should remove the locator from my skimmer. The city won’t be down forever.

At least one fear was in vain: she hadn’t accidentally killed Delta. She began to recover, curling one tentative arm around the passenger chair. “What was that? How did you make light?”

She was still feeble, assaulted with shock and bewilderment. The smell wasn’t overcome with pain at least. She didn’t even sound mad, if they were even capable of feeling that.

“I told you,” she said. “I’m not confused, I’m not crazy. My name is Felicity, I came here from another world. What you saw is magic—something all creatures like me use to survive.”

Delta stared. She clambered back into her chair, and didn’t act like she was going to fight this time. Instead she held rigidly still.

“You should not tell her more than you have. You should have told her nothing, Felicity. Remember, the ship in orbit hunted us. If she belongs to their faction, that information will be used against us. In fact, it may be wise to kill her ourselves.”

“I thought you couldn’t do that! You can’t kill people!”

“Harmony doesn’t kill its residents,” Harmony said. “This being is not one of my residents, they aren’t even present on the ring. But if killing them makes it more likely to recover the ones who are missing, then we must kill them.”

We don’t even know it would help. Felicity sighed, though the smell had no easy translation. The plants didn’t weaken, so the only equivalent meaning was returning to light after time in the dark.

“Can you do it again?” Delta asked. “The light from nowhere. I want to see.”

I shouldn’t. But at the same time, a simple glowing spell was one of the first things any filly learned. She could use the practice in this body. Demonstrating it wasn’t information the enemy didn’t have—they already knew magic existed!

She concentrated, forming a faintly greenish blob between them. It wasn’t as bright as the last one, since she wasn’t using nearly as much magic. But she held that one there, intense.

“Bewildering,” Delta said. “I’ve never felt anything so nourishing. Brighter than sunlamps of Effervescent Meridian.”

Was it? Felicity stretched her leaves, but didn’t get to wonder.

“It would seem that way,” Harmony said. “The ability to perceive magic is present in your leaves. I have suppressed that instinct. Remember, we expend energy for this spell, and that power takes enormous time to regenerate. But if you do not feel it, you will not experience that illusion.”

That made a kind of sense, with one obvious flaw. “Why can we feel magic at all? Isn’t this system colonized by someone who hunts us?”

“We have no idea who colonized it,” Harmony said. “They hunted the Varch’nai as well, or so we must assume from our present location. We do not know what they are, only that we must pray that they are not what Harmony has always feared.”

Delta wasn’t saying anything, or resisting. But she was also burning valuable magic with that glow. Felicity put it out, then came to a slow stop in the water. She didn’t open her door, or move from the controls.

“You can get out here,” she said. “Swim back to Effervescent Meridian. You should make it before nightfall, if you’re fast.”

She didn’t actually know that, of course. The Grove Tenders didn’t exactly have to practice marathon swimming.

But Delta didn’t move from her seat. She didn’t open the door, or take her eyes from Felicity. “You’re really from the sky? A place with… magic?”

She nodded. Then she had to confirm it, because of course she still didn’t have a head. “Yes. I have a… task here. I have to accomplish it. I wish no harm with Effervescent Meridian, or you, or any other growing thing. But I have to do my job.”

“What kind of job?”

“Do not answer,” Harmony ordered. “She will deliver anything you say to the enemy.”

Felicity was becoming a very bad listener. “I must travel far,” she said. “And find others who are lost. I am their… Grove Tender. I failed to protect them, but I can’t fail now.”

If only the plants had some face to read, she might’ve guessed what Delta was thinking. But the plant was silent for ages, long enough that Felicity began to think she was stalling.

Eventually her smell of anxiety was replaced with a simpler, more pleasant aroma. Trust. “Then you will need help from an experienced Grove Tender. I will come.”

“Absolutely not,” Harmony said. “We don’t know her. We don’t know her motives.”

“Are you sure about that?” Felicity asked. “Might be a long time before we’re back here. We might go further than you ever dreamed.”

“Good,” Delta said. “What is a dream?”

Chapter 23

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The first leg of Felicity’s voyage happened in almost total silence. That wasn’t terribly unusual for the plant-aliens when they were working, and it was a habit even she herself had often fallen into. A task brought focus, and anything that took her focus away from her task was something her mind seemed to resist.

They drove for hours through a dark, sunless sea. Predators passed by outside, many glowing with eerie yellow flickers of not-sun. That light was meant to attract the attention of plants, making them turn or open to take in the light. It was all the reaction their predators needed.

But inside the skimmer, they were entirely safe. This alien ocean had evolved no gigantic predatory herbivores. They did come in whale sizes, but these strained only the smallest plants from the water, and moved far too slow to threaten the skimmer.

Morning came, and still they swam on in silence. Felicity gave her full attention to Harmony’s instructions, occasionally adjusting their course. This was far better than her swim—she could actually feel their destination getting closer. At the rate they could sail, it was probably only another two days away.

The peace did not last. Delta didn’t turn towards her, or make any other physical sign. But her scent changed, and then she was checking the controls. “We’ve traveled a very long way, sapling. Where is this grove we’ve gone to visit? The others will be terrified for us. Well, terrified for you. A few will probably be glad that I managed to get myself lost.”

“Do not tell her, Harmony ordered. We don’t fully understand what abilities they have. If she calls for help before we arrive, we could be caught. Worse, if she can relay the crash’s location to the starship, they could be destroyed without giving us a way off-planet. Your magical organ will never generate enough power to teleport through a gravity well. We must find transport, or be trapped here indefinitely.”

“Two more days,” she said. “About that long. The visibility down here is way worse than in the sky, and that’s where I’ve done most of my flying. This is all very new to me.”

“Because you’re from the sky,” Delta said. Her tone was friendly, rather than the “I think you’re insane” way she’d been during their confrontation. Felicity tightened her grip on the controls, just in case. If this came to a fight, one of them would get hurt needlessly. “Tell me more about the ones we’re going to help. Why do they need you?”

I don’t even know if they do. But I need them. “I am their captain,” she said. “We came from very far to meet you. But we were attacked. Something was in the sky, something that tried to kill us. I fell here, and I think some of them fell also.”

“Sapling is captain,” Delta said, her voice bubbling with amusement. “You smell so confident. But I can see you have no rings. The sapling has lived not even two centuries, not even a name. Are all captains so youthful where you come from?”

She shrugged. Of course Delta didn’t react to that, and she had to be more explicit. “I am not as young as I seem. Where I am from, we live many lifetimes, and receive a new body each time. I am not a nameless sapling. I am Felicity.”

“How did you even say that name?” Delta asked. “Seriously. Fell-tree-is-tea.”

She laughed silently in response. “You can say ‘tea’? Just call me that, I suppose. Why would you even have a word for that, you people live underwater. You wouldn’t drink tea.”

“Tea,” Delta said. “I do not know what the word means. It’s very old, I think it is a surface plant from a far land? The jungles above the water are harsh and cruel to all, even us. It may be a word of war.”

“Tea then. But whatever the word, I’m not here for war. I came to meet you—or to let my scientists meet you. I’m not a scientist, so I don’t even know the right questions to ask. But if you do not wish to know us, then we can leave. There is no reason to fight.”

Delta said nothing to that, and returned to silent contemplation. Some time passed, and Felicity sailed onward, troubled by nothing other than a faint grinding sound from the engine every few minutes.

It was after one of these that Delta finally spoke. “We need to stop,” she said. “Unless you want to swim the rest of the way. That sound… something is wrong.”

She considered for a few seconds. Could this be a trick, maybe something was nearby that Delta planned to use to wrest back control of the skimmer? But no, there was nothing around them but deep blue ocean. The water here was so deep that she couldn’t even see the bottom. There were no boxes here for the motionless sleepers, though of course they wouldn’t be able to rise up and help fight even if there had been.

“I will stop,” she said slowly. “But I cannot give up. I would rather die than abandon those who depend on me.”

“Why would you die?” Delta asked, confused. “Whenever I think I understand you, Tea. You say the strangest things. It is the middle of the day in full sunlight. A sapling like you could live through a dozen eclipses.”

Felicity stopped the engines. As they slowed, she could hear that unhappy noise getting louder, like bits of metal rubbing together.

Then they stopped, and the noise faded to silence. Water lapped up against the sides of the skimmer’s floats. “Repair kit is behind your seat. Let’s see the engine.”

Felicity took it in one tentacle, but hesitated at the doorway. She’d been living in Effervescent Meridian for long enough that she’d barely even thought about the open ocean. There were mouths here, waiting to bite and tear.

But she meant what she said about being willing to die. She brought the kit with her up towards the top of the craft.

“The case comes off like this. Follow my lead.”

“You know how to make field repairs?” she asked. “I thought that was maintenance’s job.”

Delta laughed. “I can’t call for maintenance if I’m fifty kilometers from home and a hurricane is coming, can I?”

They worked in relative silence for the next few minutes. That nervous voice in the back of Felicity’s mind never quite fell silent—she couldn’t be sure if Delta weren’t just sabotaging the engine as she went, stranding them here. Maybe they weren’t out of range of some exotic form of detection, and she just wanted to keep her here?

But nothing she did seemed terribly destructive. They just removed things from around the engine, which wasn’t all that different from many turbine designs Felicity had seen. Seen, but never known anything about. She wasn’t an engineer. So far as she knew, her past life hadn’t been either.

Fixing broken weapons, maybe. Decrypting signals. Not broken engines. Too bad Escape Gear isn’t here with us. Could she change into a plant alien?

Finally they had the machine fully exposed. Delta set down her tools. There were several of each in the old box, since each person could use many at once. “How far did you say we were going?”

“Two days,” Felicity answered. “Maybe a little further.”

She sighed. “We need to straighten this fin here. But you can see the red on this mechanism, that’s corrosion. This skimmer was already on the edge of being retired. I do not know if it will get us the whole way. We should turn around. You can tell the others of your mission, and borrow a better vehicle.”

Felicity shook her head—or would’ve, if she had one. It meant nothing to the plants either way. “I am not turning around. If we are successful, my friends can repair your skimmer, and send you home safe.

“Send us home safe,” Delta corrected. “I am not leaving Effervescent Meridian with you and returning alone. I cannot imagine the shame.”

I told you I’m from another world. How can you not realize I’m never going back?

But she wasn’t going to have that conversation with her now. “Right. You said we need to bend this fin?”

“Right here.” Delta pointed. “I’ll help. Get the pliers. Not too fast, or we’ll snap it off early. Without this, the engine will come apart in minutes.”

They fell silent again as work took Felicity’s concentration. There was no reason to rush. It didn’t snap, and soon they were putting the pieces of the engine back into place. Instead of clicking together like a perfect puzzle, Felicity had to force the metal shell back together. But she was stronger than she looked, and could wrap her whole body around something if she had to.

Finally, the engine was back together. Not a moment too soon. Shapes were moving towards them from multiple directions, big silvery fish with their downward-facing mouths and long, entangling spines.

Vorashi, some of the most dangerous and feared predators. Apparently they could pick whole communities clean in days, before a response arrived.

“Time to go!” Delta called, clambering back inside. They wrestled for a few seconds with an uncooperative door, while several more vorashi circled around the skimmer. A few took probing bites at patches of moss and deep green around the frame. The skimmer rocked gently from side to side with each press, particularly as they nudged up against the glass.

Felicity settled back into the controls. The engine groaned, then revved to life. They smacked up into one of the large vorashi, which slid sideways off the cockpit. But they were moving, without the occasional scraping sound. It wasn’t the happy humming sound of the newer boats, but she hadn’t stolen one of those. I shouldn’t have worried about minimizing damage now. What if it costs me the mission?

It was too late to go back. If she turned the skimmer around, she didn’t think for a second that the plants of Effervescent Meridian would ever let her near escape again. It was just like what Delta said. She was the first sapling—losing her was far worse than any machine.

“They’re following us,” Delta said, pulling back from the glass. “I’ve never seen them do that before. Vorashi don’t even grow, they can’t do indirect reasoning! They should’ve tried to eat the plastic, then given up.”

You’re in for a shock when we get to our destination. Felicity held a tentacle up to the rear glass. It wasn’t the same as looking with a single eye was for a human or a pony—she had dozens, and each one was weak and cloudy, only resolving into clear images when many viewpoints were put together. Which was why Delta had pressed most of her body up against the window to look.

Still, a few shadowy blobs following them was enough to confirm Delta was right. “We’ll wear them out before we get there, right? I’d hate to have to stop for another repair with those things outside.”

“I don’t know.” Delta slumped into her seat. Maybe it was an intentional gesture, or maybe just the way plants felt overwhelmed. Either way, her body seemed to diffuse, spreading into an even mat of leaves without any suggestion of limbs underneath. “I’ve never been so far from help. We’re alone, Tea. I hope this mission of yours is worth it.”

“It is,” she said emphatically. “We might be alone, but we’re not helpless. I have magic, if it comes to that. I could kill a few fish if I have to.”

“Do not share more information with the native,” Harmony said. “Your desire to form friendships is a maladaptive instinct in this circumstance. You are not sheltered on Equus, Felicity. Trust cannot be guaranteed. We base our understanding of this alien on assumptions. There is no reason to assume a malfunctioning construction device like their species can even comprehend the same range of emotional responses. You do not understand their culture, or their values.”

“Maybe not. But trust isn’t something I can explain to you, Harmony. I feel it. I know Delta is going to help us.”

Chapter 24

View Online

There could be no confidence or peace on the strange ship, not when any moment might bring the collapse of all safety and the destruction of their skimmer. If simple technical failure wasn't enough to fear, there was also the presence of the predatory fish just behind them waiting for a chance to devour the contents of their little sub. Then there was the unknown alien threat overhead, which might figure out what she was and who she represented at any moment. Maybe she would die in an orbital strike long before she reached the distant distress signal.

It didn't matter that there were plenty of rational signs against it. Most succinctly: the crashed ship hadn't been blown up. If they were allowed to remain on the planet somewhere, then either the ship above didn't know, or didn't care.

But despite her anxiety, despite Harmony's warnings against sharing any details with her traveling companion, they encountered no trouble during the rest of the trip. The skimmer limped along, the predators following never got close enough to do real damage. No other ships arrived to stop them. She was safe.

The ocean changed as they neared their destination, however. Chunks of ice began to drift overhead, obscuring some of the light to the distant seabed. The liquid became shallower, but not necessarily more populated. There were no boxes here, and only a thin film of green had colonized the sea floor.

This was no Earth habitat, or even a simulation of one recreated on Harmony. The water here was rocky and barren, and geology had clearly had a far stronger impact than life.

Faint chunks of water became larger pieces, then larger chunks of pale white collecting below them, rising closer and closer to their sub in strange, twisting formations.

"Why is the ice... sinking?" Felicity asked aloud, her tentacles feeble on the controls. "Or is that not ice... is it glass or something? Volcanic activity?"

Delta had been watching the external windows far more than Felicity herself, so much that she'd grown across the front and side of the craft, leaving only enough space for Felicity to see where she was going. It seemed perfectly natural to her companion to take a more comfortable shape if she wanted to get a better look at what was outside.

"It is unlike anything in Effervescent Meridian," she muttered. "There are old stories of the world frozen solid. Nothing could grow, no matter how deep or how shallow you swam. But that was long ago."

“You are biased by familiar biology," Harmony thought. It had been silent for hours, maybe days. But now it spoke, like it had been waiting for this specific moment. "You do not swim through water. What you see below is frozen ammonia. This is likely why the natives can reliably travel with skimmers—obstructions sink to the bottom, rather than interfering with sailing."

"So why do we use ammonia instead of water? If life usually chooses one, it must be for a reason."

"What?" Delta turned, staring at her. "That's a strange question, Tea. Are you having second thoughts? If we were going to give up and turn around, we should probably have done that sooner. I don't think this skimmer will make it all the way back. We would have to swim. Sleep through darkness, fight off predators... Were your friends supposed to be here?"

"No," she snapped, without hesitation. She could already see Delta uncurling from the supports, settling back into the seat beside her. Even a suggestion that things might not be right was enough to rouse her. She did seem to be a good Grove Tender, all things considered. And now she'd been kidnapped. "They're close! Really close, actually..."

She didn't close her eyes to focus on their transmission, since her eyes lacked lids and couldn't ever be closed. But she could stop noticing them, the same way she did automatically when some of them pointed into walls or furniture. It was natural to watch some parts of her world more than others.

Her eyes might not be closed, but the concentration was enough to angle her mind squarely at her other senses. She was already a plant, why not also be sensitive to radio?

The SOS hadn't changed in the intervening weeks. The same plea for help, repeating the desperate state of their ship and need for evacuation. But now there was no distortion. The signal might as well be coming from the space beside her head.

"At this distance, it should be safe to send a reply. We cannot ever be perfectly certain the message will not be overheard, or that they will respond as intended. But the alternative is to approach without signaling first. A hostile reaction in this case seems a near certainty.”

This time Felicity didn't just respond carelessly, repeating the message chemically as well as audibly. She concentrated, then spoke her question without signaling it. "How do I do that?"

"I have already negotiated key exchange. Secure channel established. I cannot yet determine if there is a survivor on the other end, or just the vessel’s automated response. Speak, and I will send your message."

Felicity waited a moment, watching Delta intently. She made no sign that she'd heard, not even a twitch.

She already knows I'm an alien and what I’m doing. Even if she can hear, she won't speak our language. That knowledge won't mean anything.

"Escape ship, this is Felicity—the Equestrian advisor on contact and colonization mission. Please respond."

She made a few subtle adjustments to their route as she spoke, towards the signal. It was still a dozen kilometers out, maybe a little more. But she wasn't moving fast enough to arrive before their conversation was complete in any case.

Seconds stretched into minutes, and Felicity began to despair. What would she do if this was just another piece of debris? Could she repair an escape ship enough to get them back into orbit? Could she fly it all the way home to Harmony?

"Anything?" she asked, insistent.

"No," Harmony replied. Then only a few seconds later, "Yes, wait. Incoming."

She heard the reply in her ear as though she were wearing a headset, signal fuzzing slightly as it passed through water and ship. "Captain? Queens know it's good to hear your voice after all these years."

The voice wasn't the version of Escape Gear she knew best—but it was the one she'd known most recently. The little changeling was a Varch’nai now. Apparently a living one.

"What is it?" Delta asked, turning towards her. "That's not a smell I've seen in many saplings. Something good in this wasteland? Oh, have we almost arrived?"

"Yes," she said. "Almost. I'm talking to them now. We're close."

She accelerated the skimmer to its highest possible speed. It wasn't like there was any ice on the water's surface to slow them. "You too, Escape Gear," she responded, careful not to send her message with scents as well. "Your landing craft is intact? This planet killed me when I first came down."

Such statements might've been nonsensical to a human crew, or absurd. But she had no doubt the changeling would make perfect sense of it.

Should I still think of her as a bug? She hasn't been one for far longer.

"I'm only a few kilometers out," she continued. "I would have signaled sooner, but I wasn't sure who would be listening. What's your status?"

The reply took a little longer this time. Maybe the bug was consulting with the other Varch'nai on the other end. How much could they risk a mysterious voice on the radio that claimed to be a dead pony?

"Not good. We can't fly. The fleet can't send help. We've been on our own, and getting anything done for repairs is hell. This planet makes Equus look like a luxury resort." Pause. "We're getting a metal object approaching at twenty knots about where your signal is coming from. One of the native construction vehicles."

"That's me. If you know how dangerous this place is, you guessed I needed to adapt. Harmony and I have been impersonating one of the plants for the last few... decades? I'm unclear on how long. Been focused on survival."

That wasn't strictly true, of course. She'd enjoyed her time at Effervescent Meridian. Months, years, days—she could've stayed another few either way. It was good to have a purpose.

"If that's you, reduce speed," came the eventual reply. "We've crashed on the edge of a small patch of water ice. The surface is colonized by a biome of extremely hostile plants and animals, but they gave up on the lander about a decade ago. I'm sending a docking plan. You can come in below the ice. We dug a tunnel through for mining a few years ago, but lost everyone we sent to try."

"I have received a docking plan. It includes topographical information for the surrounding area. I will superimpose the route on your vision to make it simple to follow. Do not deviate."

Felicity nodded her not-head, then adjusted course. The route in would be a little longer this way, but the skimmer didn't seem to mind. Neither did the shadowy presence dogging them through the water.

Persistent bastard, chasing after them for hundreds of kilometers. But it wasn't like the arctic had an abundance of other food options. Too bad I didn't talk Delta into borrowing a gun for my driving practice.

"Almost there," Felicity called back, another few minutes later. "I can see the ice overhead. But I don't think I should come aboard just yet. I don't even really understand what I am, but... if I'm living comfortably in this water, I'm probably full of the same poisons that would be dangerous to you and everyone else on that ship."

Indeed, a glacier loomed in the near distance. From the single camera view she had above the surface, it looked as tall as a mountain in its own way. This was a more familiar sight, ranging from pale white near the edges to deep blue around the peak. Sure enough, it was covered with life. The plants were numerous and varied—towering purple trees dominated the landscape, with shrubs and mosses in similar shades nearby.

Only on the glacier's extreme end did she see anything different—a smooth, glassy surface, culminating in a shiny metal object.

Even Delta leaned suddenly close to inspect the screen. If she had a mouth, it would probably be hanging open in wonder. "What are those shapes?"

"A Varch'nai heavy cruiser," she muttered. That explained how it had survived so long. This was no escape pod as they had first thought. The ship was well over a kilometer long, and had a staff of hundreds. According to her research, ships like this could cross vast interstellar distances without resupply, sailing for hundreds or thousands of years.

Most of them probably weren't cut in half, though.

The ragged end pointed away from her, so she couldn't get a good view. But great sections trailed into the darkness, with lengths of metal pointed upward.

"It appears the vessel split upon landing, with the bow remaining above-water and the stern cracking as it went over the edge. Roughly two-thirds of the vessel is submerged.

"Starlight ends and leaves wither," Delta cursed. "That is... incredible."

"What do you suggest?" Escape Gear asked. "If you're alive, I'm not leaving you here. But we don't have the resources to build you a... habitat? What would you even need? They keep telling me to study biology, but keeping this ship running doesn't exactly leave me much free time. I like not letting this planet kill me."

"We have enough magic to return to familiar form," Harmony said. "This is tempting. But I believe it is also premature. That vessel clearly requires intervention to fly again. This body is likely better suited to render aid. Waste that magic now, and we will have to delay for months."

Felicity repeated more or less the same words. It was thoughtful of Harmony to let her speak for herself, even if parts of what it said didn't quite make sense. What did the program care what body it had? Just because she wanted to be a pony again didn't mean the computer would. Right?

"Go ahead and find somewhere to park," Escape Gear instructed, after a long delay. "We'll catch up in person through the airlock. Then we can decide what to do."

You're answering to someone, and they still don't trust me. Well, Felicity could deal with that. She'd have to find a way to explain Delta too. And escape being devoured by a dangerous predator.

"Sure. You and your friends prepare yourselves, I am aggressively ugly."

"And I used to be a bug," Escape Gear replied, almost instantly this time. "I think I can handle it."

Chapter 25

View Online

Felicity took the skimmer as close as they could go—until patches of ice coalesced on the surface of the ocean made forward progress impossible. If I'd just taken one of the good skimmers instead of a broken piece of junk, we’d glide right up to the tunnel without needing to put ourselves in danger.

Would Effervescent Meridian even care that she jumped through all these hoops to do as little harm as possible?

"Do we have to stop here?" Delta asked, watching one of the rear windows with most of her body. There wasn't enough space through the leaves to get a good look at what was outside, but Felicity didn't have to wait long. "There’s more of them out there. They're coming right up to the skimmer."

Felicity glanced down at the rear viewfinder, and sure enough Delta wasn't wrong. She didn't have to use the camera for more than a few seconds before the skimmer was surrounded by circling figures. Familiar, animal eyes looked inward, fixed on her. But pony nightmares of predatory dragons and evil griffons didn't translate well, given these creatures had buck teeth and flat molars.

We're being hunted by underwater rabbits.

Or maybe that wasn't intelligent enough. Maybe the strange animals outside were like something between stingrays and manatees.

"We're waiting for Grove Tenders, right?" Delta asked, her scent suffused with nervous energy. "They brought flesh-agitators to kill the animals and free us."

Felicity sighed, glancing through what was left of their repair tools. Something bumped against the skimmer, tilting them slightly. It hadn't even dented the metal, but why would it? These weren't gigantic monsters—these were herbivores! As a pony, they wouldn't even look at her twice.

But she wasn’t a pony, neither of them were.

There were plenty of tools here, any of the basics she could need to make field adjustments to the skimmer. Unfortunately that didn't include weapons, or else they wouldn't have to be worried. Three predators was nothing against a single “agitator.”

"Are you alright out there, Captain?" Harmony kept the separation clear in her mind, even as it facilitated translation of the scent-language. "External cameras haven't seen anything leave the alien craft."

"We'll be alright in here," she responded. "The creatures outside are hostile to us. We will have to fight them before we can reach you." Then she turned, looking up at her companion. Unlike the impatient Escape Gear, the plant beside her expected communication to be deliberate and purposeful. If that meant moving a little slower, then why rush?

"They cannot enter the water," she said. "The others from my expedition are trapped in the ruin you saw. If they try to swim, the liquid will kill them. It's too cold, and full of poison."

"A little chilly," Delta countered. "Are your friends saplings too? Afraid of things that aren't dangerous?"

Felicity shook her head—then had to repeat her meaning, as usual. "You will realize when you see them, Delta. For now, we have to fight." She lifted the sharpest tool she could from the container, a saw with jagged blades for cutting external plates. She gripped it firmly with one tentacle, showing it off to Delta. "If it gets bad, I have other ways of fighting them. But I think I'm about to need all the magic I have. It would be better to use strength alone to fight them. Predators should give up quickly, right? If I hurt them, they leave."

Delta rested one tendril on hers, touching the saw. She tapped against her mass with a second—a correcting gesture, the same she might've used if she'd assembled something improperly. "That's a vorashi out there. They don't give up, Felicity. Even when we fight a single one with an entire copse of Grove Tenders. The other two might give up and go another way. But they might be... arctic vorashi. Strange creatures live in the north. Maybe that's why they're hunting together."

"She seems entirely confident in the information she shares with you. We cannot afford to risk serious damage to your body now. Put down the weapon and extend a limb through to the exterior of this craft. There are efficient ways to kill an animal."

"I can fight them," she argued, pulling the saw closer to her chest. "They're just fish. Twice my size, muscled, but not armed. How dangerous can they be?"

She kept expecting Delta to respond whenever she spoke to Harmony. She didn't react, other than to try to pull the saw from her grip.

"These do not appear to be natural predators. The construction system to which your species is a degenerate form had natural safeguards in place. Natural selection and evolution would allow them to move beyond their purpose and become useless as tools.

“Every ecological niche had to be filled, and made hostile to individuals who stepped away from their purpose and might form independent populations. Listen to what your companion said. Determined hunters, utterly unconcerned with their own survival. If you had a familiar body and armor perhaps I would allow martial combat. Your body is not familiar, and that weapon is not designed to combat them. We will use spellcraft."

She wanted to argue, if only for the sake of it. But Harmony was probably right. Besides, if it thought she could afford to spend the magic, then she could.

"Good..." Delta said, as she finally lowered the weapon. "There's no shame in what you're doing. Grove Tenders never fight vorashi without many weapons. This skimmer is unarmed, but... tell your friends vorashi are here. They will understand and send someone, you'll see."

Instead, Felicity extended a single tentacle through the door. She didn't push it out very far, just a few inches. But even knowing she could regrow did not make it easy. She shook as she moved, wavering. "Are you sure about this?"

Delta reacted in a flurry of swirling limbs, trying to drag her away from the opening. She screamed almost incoherently, but the message was clear enough. Get away, was she completely crazy? They would get hold and drag her out through the opening! Words overlapped in a confused rush that sounded more like many speakers yelling discordantly, rather than a single one.

Outside the skimmer, their pursuers reacted almost instantly to her movement. If she had any doubt they were specifically trained to hunt mobile plants like her, that settled it. But academic questions about their nature and purpose mattered very little when sharp teeth were swimming for her.

But she held on, fighting Delta's grip as she had done once before. "If we're going to cast any spells, now's your chance, Harmony!"

She felt the magic before she heard a reply. Like before, it resembled any natural use of her own spellcasting, except that it required no actual concentration or act of will from her. Harmony used her body in a way that it never did in Equestria. In that world, the act of learning to use magic guaranteed some responsibility with it.

Her whole body went briefly rigid as the power passed through her, emanating as a glow bright enough to make Delta freeze. She twitched, then fell limply off her body and coalesced at the bottom of the cabin.

Felicity felt it too, in that moment. A brief, overwhelming sense of euphoria, far stronger than the light could produce. But for her the sensation was muted, like somepony else was experiencing it, and she was only observing the memories secondhand.

She had no eyes outside, not on that thin tendril she'd edged out through the opening. The magic faded, and she was free to move again. Delta remained stunned on the ground, emanating a gentle scent of contentment. You have such a hardwired reaction to magic. There has to be a connection there.

But that was for scholars to explore. Hell, even Escape Gear might have some idea. "Is it safe?" she asked, pressing against the glass to try and get a good look.

"The animals will not be a threat. This does not imply greater knowledge of our surroundings, however. There are other native animal species, and many are necessarily herbivores. I have no memories of other apex species developing civilizations from so low on the pyramid of life."

Felicity nudged the door, swinging it slowly open. If anything came rushing for her, there was still plenty of time to yank the door closed and retreat to safety.

But that wouldn't be necessary. Their three attackers were here, floating limp in the water. All were now on their backs, and didn't so much as twitch towards her as she emerged. She poked the nearest one with one tentacle, feeling the strange firmness of animal flesh. Why did it feel so unnatural?

She held still in the entrance, watching closely for any sign of attack. Would the fallen monsters revive? Maybe Harmony hadn't known what it was doing.

She took long enough that Delta recovered, rising slowly from the bottom of the cabin. "What are you... why is the door open, Tea?"

"Because it's time to go," she said, as quietly as she could. The very idea of quiet was somewhat nebulous—it was more that she kept from signaling for too long. The longer a message went out, the "louder" it would seem. "The attackers are dead. I hoped to save the magic, but..."

Even Felicity hesitated at the idea of mentioning Harmony. That was a great deal of detail to give someone whose loyalty wasn't yet certain. Delta didn't want to lose her out here in the wilderness, that was true. But that didn't mean she was convinced.

"You didn't need an agitator," Delta whispered. "You killed them with magic?" There were no facial expressions of course, and little she would consider body language. But somehow the words came heavy with excitement. Awe. "You have to teach me!"

"Captain, are you still there?" Escape Gear asked, urgent. "We still haven't seen motion from the skimmer. I don't see anyone alive inside, just some... seaweed, maybe?"

"I told you I was ugly," she replied. She trusted Harmony enough to tell when she wanted to send a return transmission. "That's us. Me and a local who wanted to... who's part of this. She's friendly, you'll see."

No reply came after that. Felicity waited a few seconds, before clambering out into open water. She let herself drift, shaking out the soreness and lethargy of her long journey. She found herself uncurling in the open water, abandoning the simple imitation of head and torso that she'd maintained for most of her life among the plants. Just now she felt better spreading out, taking in what feeble sunlight could trickle in through the chunks of ice overhead.

"It should feel cold..." she said, to Delta this time. "I've been to the cold before. I have to wear special clothing not to feel uncomfortable. But this doesn't seem different."

Delta followed nervously, peeking out the entrance and prodding at their dead attackers before finally braving the open water. "I have never been," she admitted. "But there are some things said. The cold is dangerous. Not because it harms directly, but... harder to find nourishment here. You stay too long and you will need to sleep, even if light surrounds you at all times. No one builds cities this far—no one wants to live somewhere the ocean is so unwelcoming."

Great, Felicity thought. One more problem she didn't know how to solve. She filed it away beside so many others for later attention. But she couldn't fixate on them now, or they would crush her.

"You see the ice, up there?" She pointed, but of course that meant nothing. She could only swim towards it. At least that kind of signal was clear enough that her companion could make sense of it. "There's an opening there, leading into the ship we saw. Time for you to meet my friends."

"I can't wait!" Delta said, trailing close behind her. "Will they be kinder than the Skywatchers? Those plants never want to say anything interesting about where they serve, or what they do. So boring."

"Much kinder," Felicity promised. “But stranger than you can imagine.”

Chapter 26

View Online

Felicity wasn't in any particular hurry to make it to the entrance.

It wasn't just that they swam through a graveyard of the creatures she had killed to defend herself, though their alien corpses certainly didn't help anything. It wasn’t even the cold and the ice. There was something else on the surface, something clear and strange that didn't quite mix with the ocean.

Water, she realized. I'm looking at actual water. There wasn't much of it—anything that separated would freeze almost instantly at these temperatures. How would this world look when she was back in her pony body, and she saw the ocean through real eyes? Bleak, frightening cold. She'd probably sound a lot like Escape Gear.

"Metal," Delta said, rapping on the side of something emerging through the ice. It wasn't just a tiny section of ship either, but a smooth, polished fuselage, extending through a shattered glacier like a toppled skyscraper. Her eyes did a poor job focusing on it, yet she could still look down into the gloom, and see a suggestion of the gigantic vessel.

By some definitions, anyway. Effervescent Meridian had been big, continuing all the way down to the sea floor hundreds of meters.

"It's so smooth," Delta whispered, running one tentacle along it for a short distance. "How is anyone supposed to climb this? Where are they supposed to sit? What if they need to come out for repairs?"

"They don't expect to do any of those things," Felicity said. "This is a starship, it's supposed to function out in space. There's no water there, so being outside wouldn't be safe. We use machines when something goes wrong, or space-suits. They..."

But getting into the details of magnetics and various respiratory systems would probably just confuse her. Felicity couldn't imagine this species would build anything remotely the same way that ponies did things, anyway.

"It still seems unwelcoming," Delta declared. "So... unliving. Wouldn't those who grow into the stars wish to show others they welcomed visitors? There is so little up there—every encounter must be a pleasant surprise."

Felicity would've giggled, if she had the capacity to make that sound anymore. She could see the familiar ladder-rungs running up the side, the only thing breaking the otherwise flat material. A round opening near the ocean's surface glowed with faint red emergency lights.

"We never met anyone else before coming here. But we don't usually stay close enough that they could see our ships. They're too far apart."

They swam the last little distance together, over to the airlock. The outer doors were already open, and from the buildup of ice and algae around the edges had probably been that way for days, maybe weeks.

A pair of automatic turrets tracked them as they approached, servos grinding uncomfortably as they swiveled. Like so much else about this crashed destroyer, they didn't seem to be working well. At least they didn't fire.

Delta seemed to grow more energetic as they slipped inside, touching and gliding over everything. The airlock had a set of lockers with hooks for space-suits, though all of them were empty. Varch'nai machines took up two corners of the room, entirely caked full of grime and visibly non-functional.

They probably can't even open this. That might make it a safe place for their first conversation—or maybe it was extra vulnerable.

"Don't actually move anything," she said, tugging on Delta's tentacles as she got dangerously close to the airlock's mechanical override control. They probably wouldn't work, not if the ship was operating in any way that made sense. But trying to open that would look an awful lot like an attack.

"That right there... that most of all. Don't touch those valves." Felicity drifted towards the window, one aspect of the airlock that apparently hadn't interested Delta at all. There was nothing visible in the space beyond, just a metal wall, and the faint suggestion of flashing lights somewhere out of sight.

"Why?" Delta asked. Not confrontational, her tone was just curious. The way she usually sounded. "It doesn't look like the maintenance department of your ship is very good at their job. This place is crumbling! Maybe we should poke around, see what we can fix."

"Maybe we will. But not at random—if you turn those, you let water into the ship, and everyone in this section probably dies." Or, more likely, none of their actual minds were here, and they'd just break a ton of equipment. But explaining how the Varch'nai worked when she barely understood it herself didn't seem like a particularly good idea.

Before Delta could say anything else, something moved from the window. Her companion didn't even react at first, which wasn't all that strange from the plant creatures. Scent mattered so much more, and there was no smell on the other side of an airlock.

First a metal figure tromped past—a marine in heavy armor, with a rifle larger than Felicity’s whole body. Something smaller followed along beside her—another Varch'nai, but this was a face she actually recognized.

Escape Gear, or at least her most recent iteration.

Even looking at her took effort from Felicity. She seemed to blur into view, little twitches of movement happening so fast that her face never settled into focus. Without a scent or vibrations in the water, she could get no sense of her size either.

Felicity knew this should feel little different than looking at a human through the glass. But without those old memories, she might've mistaken her for an interesting rock, blown sideways in the current.

Then she spoke, her voice slightly distorted by failing airlock speakers. Delta didn't react to that either. But Felicity had suspected that too. "I must assume I'm looking at my captain out there, somehow," said the voice. High-pitched, and so rapid that it took great effort for Felicity to make out the words. "But I don't know how I could. I only see some seaweed."

"Is something happening?" Delta asked, condensing her mass around Felicity. "You smell nervous. Do you think they're coming soon?"

"They're already here," she said silently into the water. But it wasn't Delta she was really worried about. She approached the control panel, and found the touchscreen ignored her tentacle. Whether it was the temperature, the damage, or something about the conductivity of plant tissue, she couldn't say.

I will facilitate radio communication, Harmony said. Know that they perceive the flow of time far faster than you do. It would be better not to deliberate or consider, or else lose them. I will ensure your words are intelligible.

"I'm here," Felicity said. Out loud, though she was fairly certain that Harmony would be able to broadcast her messages no matter how she chose to send them. "We're here, rather. There are two of us—myself and a friendly native."

The face on the other side was impossible to read. Funny, considering how she'd previously seen the Varch'nai’s natural form with their big eyes and expressive faces to be an improvement over dealing with humans. She might as well be staring at a plaster cast.

"Harmony did this, somehow?" Escape Gear asked. "How did it change you without a new source of magic?"

I have sent technical details, Harmony thought, its own voice entirely clear in her head. They will not have the understanding to unravel them, but they will contain accurate information. You may wish to provide a summary.

"Harmony used the last of my magic," she said. She found herself speaking as rapidly as she could, though there was no way of knowing if that made the slightest difference. How much faster did they experience time, anyway? "It made organs that could generate more magic over time. It was either that, or give up and die."

There was no response from the other side at first, though several other faces appeared by the entrance. The motion did nothing to rouse Delta, but one of the marines had a headlamp on, briefly blasting the airlock with white.

That was enough for her to turn towards the opening. With Felicity blocking the lower section, Delta drifted towards it from above. She only needed a little stretch to get a few tentacles near, and the weak eyes that ran along them.

"There are predators in there! Tea, your friends are in danger! That one is so strange... but those eyes! It's looking at us!"

There was a little fear, but it lasted only for an instant. Delta tightened, her body condensing into a few smaller coils. It wasn't like she'd brought some helpless secretary along for the trip, after all. Delta was a Grovetender.

"Relax!" Felicity urged. "Delta, I know you don't... I don't know how to tell you this. But I'm here to talk to the ones on the other side of that glass. They do not want to eat us."

It had only been a few moments of silence—but that could've been whole minutes from the perspective of the people watching them. Maybe longer. Escape Gear's voice came again, desperate.

"Captain, if that's really you... we're in a desperate situation here. The ship is basically helpless. We've extended our survival time by sacrificing almost every body we have and just running the system on reserve. The Varch'nai aren't trained for conditions like this—when they lose a ship, they transmit to another one and self-destruct. But something in the atmosphere has coms completely disabled. We could really use a miracle about now."

Even with her voice stretched and distorted, Felicity could hear the exhaustion in her tone. Escape Gear was a brilliant engineer, and she'd already spent hundreds of lifetimes patching and repairing a slowly-failing starship. Now she had to do the same thing all over again, and she was running out of steam.

"I am not an engineer," Felicity said. "If anything is broken that you cannot fix, there's probably nothing I can..." She trailed off. But she couldn't wait, not even for a moment. Her friend would think she was sitting silent. "Almost nothing. My companion and I can swim safely through this environment. That's why I took on such an... awful shape, to begin with. Is there anything I can do?"

Delta retreated from the window now. She held to Felicity with a single tentacle, while the rest of her drifted out into open water. If she had a better grip, Felicity might've been worried about being dragged away.

The reply came almost instantly though, giving her no time to worry about the other plant. "The majority of the ship is submerged. As far as we can tell, the central reactor is still functional, but that whole deck is flooded. No body we sent to fix it survived the trip. If your implants can receive radio, I could guide you down. You cycle the reactor, drain the deck, and get main power back online."

She lowered her voice—though speaking over the radio like this meant anyone who wanted to listen would still hear. "The captain doesn't want to trust you. If you'd come a few years ago, we probably would've shot you. But if we can't get the reactor back online, we're all dead anyway. You can't really kill us any faster."

"Tell the captain he can apologize when we save his ass," Felicity turned away from the window. "Do you know what killed those bodies?"

"Not radiation," Escape Gear replied. "We'd have a reading on that by now. Best theory is that the ammonia got into their suits. They're not exactly rated for submersion into cryogenic fluids. If there's some other danger to living here, you'd know it better than we would. We have low radar and the external cameras working, that's it."

"Come on, Delta." She swam past her, yet the other plant lingered in the opening. Was she looking back through the window one last time? With the strangeness of their bodies, it was impossible to be sure.

"You're right, my friends are in danger. Why don't you help me save them?"

Chapter 27

View Online

Felicity swam away from the entrance, leaving the fast-moving shadows behind on the other side of the glass. There was no way to look in that direction without feeling at least a little self-conscious—what was Escape Gear thinking, looking at her strange body through the glass? Would they ever speak again?

Delta wasn't patient enough to wait, though, and swam along just beside her. One tentacle trailed against the metal at all times, though Felicity couldn't tell if she was investigating or afraid of drifting away.

"That was over so fast," Delta said, after they'd made it a short distance down the ship's outline. It stuck sideways, all the way down until it pierced the arctic sediment far below. The water here wasn't nearly as deep as at Effervescent Meridian, but the ice covering most of the sky simulated some of that depth just by blocking out the light.

She was already feeling the gloom. Both of them were slowing down here. If we fall asleep down in the dark somewhere, we'll never wake up, she realized. The sun won't ever shine here again. We'll die.

"Who were you talking to in there? I didn't see anyone growing. Just animals trapped inside the broken ship. They didn't look too threatening, but still... I wouldn't want to be trapped inside with them."

Felicity slowed, letting Delta's words fade into the background for a moment. There was something more important for her to deal with first. "Harmony, can you help me repair this ship? When we get down there... I'm not an engineer."

"That depends on the damage to its reactor," Harmony answered. "The function and maintenance of Varch'nai vessels was considered relevant when I was created. But the severity of damage might not allow a repair. We will have to hope the cryofluid preserved the engine, rather than destroying it."

They reached an entrance—an open maintenance hatch, caked with bits of debris and rotting plants. Rotting people, maybe? But even if all the ocean-borne plants on this planet were people at some point in their life-cycle, not all were people all the time.

"That's going to be hard for you to understand," she began. Particularly since I thought I already told you. But how much more could she explain? "We don't even have the words to explain it properly."

The interior of the vessel was entirely flooded. The dull glow of sunlight from above barely penetrated a few meters through the opening. Beyond that was utter blackness. I never thought I'd be afraid of the dark before. But for Felicity, the dark itself could kill, given enough time.

"Do we have to go in there?" Delta asked, hesitating just behind her. "That doesn't look safe. If it's been dark this long, no one could still be alive."

"They aren't," she agreed. Maybe she could change the subject without Delta noticing? "They've been running on emergency power for years now, and it's about to run out. If we can't turn it back on, the lights on the rest of the ship will go out."

"Oh." Delta swirled energetically through the water, before finally zooming in behind her. "You're saying we have to be heroes!"

She nodded. Some of it might be a lie... but that part was still true.

Felicity had never seen this specific ship before. But even with Harmony translating the Varch'nai writing, she would need to see it to read it. So she let one tentacle trail against the wall, resisting the urge to grip anything. She probed the space in front of her with another, in case anything particularly dangerous got in her way.

"This is what the ship should look like," said Harmony, and suddenly the blackness faded. She saw walls, doorways, hatches and corridors, all in shimmering gray. "Do not become complacent, however. This reflects design spec only. I have no better senses than you do."

A thin red line appeared in the water ahead of her, leading down a particularly wide corridor. Felicity reached back, wrapping one limb around Delta to make sure they didn't get separated, then swam off in the indicated direction.

Soon enough, they were in total blackness.

It was as though sleep deprivation was a switch she could flip in her mind. Within seconds it seemed, Felicity felt as though she'd been up for days. Her thoughts slowed, and her motions became less precise.

I've felt this before. This is the body shutting down automatically, when the sun goes down. Or the mind, anyway. If these plants were like the ones from Equestria, they still did things in the dark. But for whatever reason, those things didn't include remaining conscious.

Why bother. Our predators are all awake during the day. If herbivores are asleep, we can sleep too.

But she couldn't, not now. Even if Delta stopped swimming with as much effort, flailing against the nearby bulkheads rather than jetting through the water like a squid.

"The longest I've ever done in the dark was..." she began. She didn't finish, apparently losing interest in her thought. "How much further?"

"Here," Felicity declared. They came to a huge doorway, large enough for service vehicles to pass while the ship was in full operation. That could only be the central reactor.

She smacked one tentacle against something heavy, floating in the water. She pushed it aside, leveraging herself against the wall as she did so. A disturbingly space-suit sized lump drifted past her, before thumping up against the ceiling.

They're not even dead. It's just a mechanical body. It's okay.

The darkness made it worse. She pushed against something round, and knew beyond a doubt she was up against a helmet. Not knowing otherwise, she could imagine a skeletal human figure inside, with sightless eyes staring at her. Did she really know the Varch’nai didn't send someone in here to die?

Another meter, and one of her tentacles touched up against the doorway. She followed the closed door almost all the way down to the floor, but not quite. Maybe five centimeters before the floor, her tentacles finally found an opening.

There was only darkness ahead, just like behind. "This way," she called, crawling down through the opening. She had to stretch herself out into a single layer to make it. That wasn't so hard. She didn't have a head, or shoulders to crush against the metal. Where the Varch’nai crew had probably struggled, she passed through easily.

She waited on the other side, knowing the room was utterly dark. Yet gray outlines showed her the general shape—parked forklifts and machines against one wall, with a huge flat area for storage shelves. Then there was the actual reactor in the dead center of the room, with thick pipes and conduits flowing into it from every angle.

Finally Delta made it through behind her, smelling of anxiety and restlessness. "I hope we can get the lights on soon," she whispered. "This is awful."

"Me too," Felicity said. Then, out loud, she said, "What do we do, Harmony?"

"We were sent pre-crash diagnostic data from the crew of this vessel," Harmony said. "It suggests standard failsafes engaged, dissolving the antimat core along a nullspace vector when the mechanical integrity of the engine could not be guaranteed."

"Uh... okay. So what do we do?"

"The ship has a single redundant core in storage, utilizing a vacuum-energy isolation circuit. First, we disengage the mechanical isolation. We bring it across the room to the reactor. Then we hope the reactor actually works when we plug them in. Otherwise, our corpse will wait here for Harmony to salvage when it finally completes conquest of this world."

"This way," Felicity urged, following the new line. She floated up what would've been several shelves, to a secure metal box. She circled around it, before finally locating the metal security straps. "Could you bring me tools, Delta? There should be some... just beside the door. Emergency maintenance equipment. Tear it off the wall, and come here."

"Sure." Delta's scent was distant and unfocused, but she drifted off to do as directed. Felicity remained in the dark, with only a vague idea of the direction she'd gone.

Minutes passed, maybe hours. Time was confusing without a sun.

But the water shifted, and finally she smelled Delta returning. "This? How are we supposed to fix anything here in the dark, Felicity? No one was meant to grow under these conditions."

"Just a little longer," Harmony urged. "The magbottle still reads with intact status-code. Its power cell will provide emergency illumination while you work."

Felicity dug through the tools, relying purely on her sense of touch to find the right crank. Finally it clicked against the emergency rack, then began to turn.

A metal shell fell away from around her in two pieces, floating slowly away through the water. More importantly, the room finally lit up.

Felicity had never seen the Varch'nai's antimat cores up close before. Incredibly mass-efficient though they were, she'd always felt anxious when she got too close. Fusion reactors were safe—when one lost containment, fusion stopped, and usually just melted the sensitive machinery within. When an antimat core lost containment, you wouldn't live long enough to realize something was wrong.

It was several times bigger than they were, roughly the size of a pony-drawn cart. The core formed a clear toroid of hardened black metal, except for directly in the center. Bright green lights flashed on the bottom. Each flash illuminated the engine room, though it did little to alleviate Felicity's exhaustion.

There were so many bodies. Dozens at least, most in cloth uniforms with simple mechanical exoskeletons. Their flesh had frozen to cryogenic blue, with icy swirls forming on faces and eyes.

Not one looked like it had decayed, or were missing pieces from local fish.

Of course they aren't. The locals can't digest animals that use water as their biosolvent instead of ammonia.

"Woah," Delta muttered. "Was this ship under attack when it crashed? There are so many."

"I think so," Felicity said, without needing to lie. "Now comes the hard part. See this thing? We have to float it across the room to... that opening."

"Oh." Delta remained silent for another moment, then surged with excitement. "Leverage. Let's use a tied push-pull! Once we get it moving, it won't be that hard. We can tug it along the ceiling."

A tied push-pull meant wrapping their bodies together, contracting in tandem to move a particularly heavy load. By working together, the plants could turn multiple people into the fibers of a single muscle. In construction, plants did this all the time...

But Felicity never had. She moved sluggish and self-conscious as Delta showed her what to do, wrapping vines together in a tangled mess that spread the load equally between them.

Should this be intimate? She'd never been in such close contact with another plant before. Delta didn't seem to think so. "Count it off. One... two... three!"

They began to pull. It felt as though Felicity's limbs might tear at the edges, unraveling. Yet whenever she strained too far, Delta was there to soak up some of the slack. They began to move.

Once they were, it became much easier. "God, this thing must weigh tons."

"Several," Harmony replied. "Roughly half of that mass is contained inside the antimat bottle. I hope you trust Varch’nai engineering. If the bottle is breached, there is no chance Harmony will recover you."

Felicity groaned, focusing on her task. She heaved, centimeter by painful centimeter. At least the ceilings and walls were covered with handholds for zero-gravity. There was plenty of space to grip.

As they got close, she turned more of her attention towards the waiting reactor. Somehow, the last core was completely disconnected—there was nothing to pull out of the old slot, just an open socket waiting for them.

"We have to push the rest of the way," she said, uncurling from around Delta. "We can't get crushed under it. That's where it connects."

Delta followed, pushing and maneuvering those last few centimeters.

A heavy mechanical click echoed from around them as it settled into place. By the flashing green light, Felicity saw several metal arms interlocking with divots in the warped taurus.

All at once, reactor panels beneath them came to life, glowing with red emergency lights. A choir of corpses continued to drift through the room, though Felicity imagined they were moving closer, as though watching her work with approval.

"Now the hard part," she said to Delta. "Time to turn it on."

Chapter 28

View Online

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.

Chapter 29

View Online

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.

Chapter 30

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No transformation spell was easy.

Felicity had experienced more than her fair share of the obscure magic, particularly during this ill-fated expedition. But no number of repetitions could prepare her for the utterly bizarre sensation of being ripped from a body she understood and crammed into something she didn't.

Even when the new one was something she actually wanted. After spending so long in the body of something entirely alien, part of her resisted being restored. Spiritual inertia, perhaps. Or something colder and more clinically titled, if Harmony were to describe it.

For a split second she felt a near-infinite outpouring of pain, overwhelming her senses so completely that she lost all connection with her body and felt nothing at all. But as quickly as it came, that sensation passed.

She felt four hooves under her, felt the freezing cold refrigerated air condensing to frost against her coat. She actually shivered, an instinctive reaction she hadn't known for who knew how long. Years? Could that be true?

The fog cleared, and her hearing returned. Alarms blared, in the native tongue of the Varch'nai. Something about samples breaching containment. That was hardly her first concern.

The room was smaller, but nothing like the size she imagined. The human-height shelf was still well above her ears. Buck, I know what this is.

"Harmony, what did you do?" she asked it vocally, since that was now her only means of communication. The chemical signals that had been her entire world were now deaf in the medium of air.

"Confusion. Placement... strange. Tea? Lost. Help."

The string of sounds came from beside her, somewhere buried in the fog. Shit, I need to get her back in the tank. How she could even hear the plant-alien Felicity didn't know, but she did know she would need to act fast. They could work above the surface, using a gelatinous film that brought not-water along with it. But she didn't know if Delta could use it.

It didn't matter, as it turned out.

Curled on the ground at her hooves was a pony, not a plant. She was just a filly, with a simple river delta cutie-mark that might be freshly earned. Her coat pale green like the shoots of a fresh sapling, her mane a darker shade but coming in a few short layers.

She didn't stand, didn't sit. Instead, she flopped and twitched, limbs extending and contracting at random. Her mouth opened and closed right along with them, as though the one trying to move it couldn't tell what limbs were meant for what.

She can't. There's no such thing as heads, or legs, or any of the rest of it.

"Harmony, why did you do this?" she asked, a little louder. At the entrance, she heard pounding footsteps, before an armor suit appeared in the window. But whatever attack they were expecting, it wasn't two ponies.

It wasn't two ponies for Felicity either—it was three.

"It was not our intention," said a voice from behind her. Young, small—just like Delta's. This one was male, or she thought so. It was hard to be certain at this age. "There was extremely limited biomass. I had to recycle some material stored in the morgue and prepared for storage. This may not have gone completely as expected."

Felicity patted Delta on the shoulder, but left her there on the ground. There wasn't much she could do for her right now, barely able to move as she was.

She approached the other pony—a unicorn colt, taller than she was, and actually able to stand on his own. His coat was deep red, with orange and yellow in his mane and a little ring as his cutie mark. Equus itself, with a little heart in the middle instead of a star. You took the trouble to draw that?

"You're a pony!" she exclaimed, nudging his shoulder. He was a little taller, which had its own disturbing implications. Felicity's wings splayed to either side in embarrassment, far smaller than they ought to be. Those weren't the wings of an Alicorn. For that matter, she could sense no magic coming from her forehead. She didn't have a horn anymore.

I might not have implants, either.

"This is bad," Harmony said. Harmony, who was now a flesh and blood pony standing right in front of her. Not the life-support implant that should've been living with her beside her brain. Harmony. "I knew spellcraft under these conditions was bound to be unpredictable! We have a much-diminished capacity, and reduced magical reserves, and so little familiarity with the native biology..."

Was he about to cry?

Before she could find out, the room echoed with the sound of a crackling radio. It wasn't distorted by her strange biology anymore—now she heard it clearly.


There was a brief pause, during which Harmony itself seemed to tense with concentration. Then the moment passed, and he spoke again. He—that would take some getting used to. "I have communicated with the aspect of myself left within this vessel, and all others. I... no longer have the capacity to understand how it works. But I know that Harmony would not allow an expeditionary ship to cause potential lasting harm to its subjects. It will not permit the captain to ignore us now that we are ponies, and not aliens of an unknown species."

"But they could ignore us before?" she asked, voice low. Of course she couldn't whisper quietly enough not to be overheard, not now that she had lost access to chemical communication. The instinct was there anyway. "We saved their lives getting the reactor working. Almost killed us, and they just sat there."

Harmony shrugged one shoulder, its gesture as clear to her as it would've been from anypony else. But this Harmony was no god, not the one that ruled her world. It was, as it had said, a creature of a much-reduced capacity.

"Recognizing a creature as intelligent life is the key," Harmony said. "Your old body was nearly identical to the cultured biomachines already in our records. It would be easy to dismiss you under that context. Now we have given them security keys, and a demonstration of magic. Given how little magic seems to be on this planet, it should work to convince them. Eventually."

"I am... confused," Delta said. She sounded it too. Though how could she even speak the language? Felicity had actually learned the plants' chemical tongue, but the same couldn't be said in reverse.

"Tea, are you there? Where am... no more water. Poisoned, I think. Can't feel... myself. Lost control. Doesn't make sense."

Felicity walked slowly around the room, shivering more vigorously now. But Harmony would have it the worst—unicorns had far less insulation than the other tribes. Maybe bats too. She dropped down directly in Delta's line of sight, but far enough away that she wouldn't get kicked by mistake.

"Delta," she said, speaking as slowly as she could. There was no saying how a creature who hadn't even had a sense of sound a few minutes ago would perceive her words. Would she be able to tell that Felicity was the same person?

"I am right here. Tea." She waved one wing, settling down on her haunches. Delta twitched again a few times, rotating her limbs to the point of obvious pain, before stopping again and relaxing back onto the floor. She watched the grim cycle repeat itself a few times before putting one hoof on her shoulder. "Delta, don't try to move like that. You don't have tentacles anymore. You have four legs. Four... legs. See?" She lifted one demonstratively. "Like this. They have joints, bones, like a predator. You have to move them deliberately."

"May be a fruitless endeavor," Harmony said, voice grim. "I didn't intend to change her at all, just tried to insulate her in some of the remaining fluid. Obviously that prospect failed. Like you, she is lower than the requisite complexity to understand a radical shift in body plan."

"Shouldn’t being a pony be easier for her? We only have a few limbs—if she can make sense of all those tentacles, this has to be simpler. Eyes on everything, talking in chemicals..."

She had her memories to lean on now—some part of her remembered being like this. But as Felicity stood there, she realized even she was missing part of it. The weightlessness of water, the touch of the sun on her leaves that brought warmth that passed through her in all directions. Already, she could feel the first pangs of hunger. Faint, but growing. She would have to eat again. Plants, or animals maybe.

"Do not understand," Delta said. Her body still moved, though her motions amounted to little more than random twitches and contortions. Unnatural looking, perhaps, but not terribly useful. She still hadn't managed to sit up, let alone stand.

"Predators everywhere, Tea. Is this the flame? Is this the darkness up above? I can't feel the light anymore, but I see light all around me. Why?"

Why can you talk but not use your other limbs?

She almost asked that exact question, but then the radio hissed again. Thankfully, the voice Felicity heard now was far kinder, and more familiar.

"Came back as soon as I could. Felicity, are you in there? Celestia, why didn't you tell us you could do this sooner?"

Felicity shivered, struggling to get her tongue to move. Hot breath fogged in the air in front of her. She could smell it too, and it wasn't pleasant. Ammonia might be the literal blood of the native species, but her head was already starting to spin from the smell. Maybe she'd actually breathed some.

"I wasn't sure I could," she answered. She flapped her wings once, pushing the air away from her mouth. Anything to try and kill the odor. It helped, though her head wasn't feeling any clearer. "This room was made to contain a cryogenic alien. We're going to freeze and suffocate in here if we stay too long."

"Right, sorry! We're really short-staffed over here, just trying to get air flowing to the corridor. One ship really isn't meant to function on its own. The Varch'nai usually don't even bother with rescue, you know. They just transmit the minds off and detonate the wreck."

"Short on people?" She made her way to the door, shivering again. "How can you be... I thought there were hundreds of thousands on every ship. This thing is ungodly huge."

That wasn't a marine on the other side of the glass anymore, but the civilian suit with Escape Gear's face visible inside. Human enough, but still not a pony. Too bad she wasn't still a changeling.

"There are hundreds of thousands on every ship," Escape corrected. "That's how the swarm works. Whatever ship needs people, you send the minds over. But the bodies those minds are copied and transmitted from live in real pods on real ships, they aren't purely digital. Our ship has nine pods, including the captain. That means we have nine people. Well, twelve now."

She hesitated for another second. "Looks like we got the recyclers back on, but only for this section. We're going to walk to some quarters. Can I open the door?"

"Sure." Felicity took a step back. "My friend, Delta—she needs someone to carry her. Can you do it?"

Escape Gear leaned up to the glass, staring at the sprawled pony. "Damn. Think she might need a doctor too, while we're at it. Looks like maybe a spine implant."

"Her problem is too much spine, not too little," Harmony said. "That will not help. It is possible nothing will, other than an increase in complexity. Unfortunately, she is a new consciousness, only one lifetime younger than Felicity here. She cannot be a higher level of complexity, because she is not. And may not ever be, if we cannot get this vessel back into orbit."

The door hissed and squeaked as it began to rise. A wave of hot air rushed in through the crack, pushing aside the cold that condensed near the floor. Finally, something brought the warmth back to Felicity's lips.

She turned, hurrying over to Delta's side. She lowered carefully beside her, speaking quietly and cautiously. Like trying to speak to an ailing relative. "Don't worry, Delta. We'll get somewhere better. Then maybe I can help you."

How she'd do that without magic, Felicity couldn't even guess.

Chapter 31

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The quarters they found for Felicity and her "friends" left a great deal to be desired. The deck had huge gaps, and an entire section of wall had been covered by a thin plastic sheet. It bowed out constantly, as though the pressure might rip it free at any moment. But it didn't, at least not while Felicity and the others entered the room.

"We're working on something better," Escape Gear said apologetically. She was the last one through the door, clutching the nearly-limp form of Delta in her arms. She lowered her down onto the room's single bed. If there had ever been a mattress, it was gone now, along with any sheets. There was just a metal slab, with a few mysterious organic stains near the side of the bed. "But that's easier said than done. Resources are, uh... short."

She froze, watching as Delta began to spasm and kick all over again, stretching weakly out with each limb at random. Her eyes twitched whenever they were up, but then she flopped to the side, so that she could only see the wall. It probably wasn't intentional. "Tea, not... not understand. Very confused. Help?"

"I will," she urged. She had to stand on her hindlegs to reach the side of the bed, where she could pat the poor creature with one hoof. "I'm sorry this happened, Delta. It wasn't what we meant. Once we get enough magic, we should be able to fix it. Right, Harmony?"

Harmony settled onto his haunches just beside her. "Not at this time. My directives forbid the destruction of a unique mind. Delta is not part of Harmony, yet. Until she is, to change her back into a simple machine would be equivalent to murder. We will not." Interesting how he switched to such a formal tone when he spoke like that. Arguing with her made him uncomfortable? Maybe she could use that.

"Not right away, but soon." Felicity turned away from the struggling pony. She just couldn't watch her fight—pulling this particular fish out of water was her doing. "I assume this ship is working on getting back in the air?" she asked. "Now that we have a reactor..."

Escape Gear broke into a bout of energetic laughter. The sound was somehow more mechanical than Felicity would've liked. More of the strangeness of her body. "I don't know if you got a good look at the ship, captain. But she's never making it into orbit again. The Varch'nai only build a rare few ships to survive landing in an atmosphere, and this isn't one. She will never fly again."

"Then why did..." She opened both wings, puffing out her chest. In this stupid body, she only barely made it to Escape Gear's waist. "So why did we just fix the reactor? If we're doomed... might as well just lock things down and go back into the ice until rescue arrives."

Escape Gear shook her head once. "That's how I probably would've thought about it, before my tour here. But Varch'nai think about all that differently. We need enough juice for the central coms array to cut through this planet's unique interference. The same crap that stranded us down here... it's not magic. But sending minds is delicate stuff. Even nano-scale degrees of variance can have a devastating impact. But that process is going... slow. Nowhere currently, since we had to divert every technical crewman we have to repair the life support. They're working on getting a pod ready—guess we better make it three pods."

She pulled over a nearby lump of rusty metal, one of many that had apparently fallen from the ceiling. She settled down on it like a stool, folding her arms. "Plan is to get you into a pod like the rest of us. Crew will reinforce that deck, keep it intact long enough for rescue to come our way and scrape up our meat parts when it's convenient for them. With coms restored, we could remote back into the fleet. If nothing else, we can see how the battle is going."

Felicity listened to all of that without interruption, though very little of that plan was particularly appealing to her. She had already trusted to a Varch'nai biopod once, and that ended with her marooned down here. Though it had ended with her accidentally accomplishing the mission her original ship had set out to do, kinda.

"Harmony has got to be pissed about this," she finally said. "So many minds in this system, and none of them particularly safe. The war can't be over, or we'd already be rescued. Something is still happening up there."

"You see the urgency of our recovery," said a voice. What she'd taken for a section of debris suddenly lit up with a display. It had a large crack running down the center, and only worked on one half. The screen adjusted, displaying a slightly distorted, almost human figure on the other half. Captain Pasquale, the same one who had decided to lock her away rather than risk her being dangerous to his ship. "This entire process has diverted resources we can scarcely afford to misplace."

Her whole body tensed as she made her way to the screen. Past Delta on the bed, who had stopped flopping around by now. Her eyes were wide, unblinking. She was clever—probably she was listening right now. You just wanted to keep me safe, Delta. "I'm sorry to be an inconvenience to you," she said, her voice flat and diplomatic. She could still manage that, even if her voice was high and childish. "I should have taken my skimmer right past your wreck, and left you to freeze. Your crew would be too dead to waste their time with distractions like providing life support."

It was too hard to gauge his reaction on the other side of such a poor display. But it took him a good while to say anything, over a minute. "We are having some difficulty with repairs to the communications array," he said. "Even before I ordered them suspended, there seemed a significant possibility we will be unable to repair them. We have plenty of power—there are a number of emergency beacons available to us. But that would involve sending out a broad signal without knowing who or what might hear that transmission. We leave ourselves at the mercy of the battle, and will remain stranded here until forces arrive to intervene."

Felicity nodded once. "I agree with your assessment, for whatever it's worth." She glanced sideways at Harmony. The little colt had followed her over to the display, though he didn't seem to be watching it. There was no telling what senses he wielded. Maybe he listened right through the computer.

"It can be repaired," Harmony said. "I have made detailed observations of local conditions. An adapted graviton-wave emitter can be constructed using salvage aboard this vessel." His horn glowed.

Suddenly the figure in the screen seemed to be watching something else. "A moment," was all he said. The screen went black.

"Never heard anyone talk to Captain Pasquale like that," Escape Gear muttered, ruefully. "But I guess that's what happens when you're stuck in a hundred square meter dictatorship for a few centuries. Think maybe he got a little too comfortable getting his way."

And he is probably recording everything we say. She didn't have the energy left to care what he thought.

"The Varch'nai are extremely resourceful, resilient to long deployments, and mentally stable," Harmony said, surprising them both. "However, they were ultimately designed for orbital conditions. The stress of being marooned for so long has broken crews before. This one has remained functional despite centuries. Worthy of commendation... so long as their mental damage does not interfere with their mission."

Yeah, I'm sure it won't, Felicity thought. Just keep fighting under helpless conditions for hundreds of years. You'll still be in perfect shape.

The screen lit up again, this time with several faces. Captain Pasquale was joined by a few more figures—strangely, not in armored suits. Then again, the room behind them also couldn't possibly exist—it was a station in obvious high orbit, with a huge picture window open on a view of a bright blue planet, with a star faintly visible in the distance.

"This design makes no sense," said a second voice. Another male, though that distinction meant very little with the Varch'nai. The accent was thick enough that Felicity had to focus to understand a word he said. "This will not form a stable gravity-wave signal. If we're lucky, it would just explode."

"I trust my people," the captain said gruffly. "If my engineers say it can't be built, then we won't. I've just spoken to the quartermaster—your design here manages to use just about every spare component of any complexity we have left aboard. If this thing fails, our odds of getting coms back up go way, way down."

Harmony's attention snapped back to the display. "It relies on principles the Varch'nai never mastered, Captain." He stepped up to the screen, nudging Felicity gently out of his way. She was so surprised she moved without resistance. "There is no time for deliberation or doubt, Captain. We speak with the Harmony. You will join our composition, or I will remove you from it."

The captain stiffened visibly. He glanced sidelong at the engineer, then the screen went out again.

Escape Gear whistled. "Well damn the balls on you kid. You know what kind of punishment Varch'nai use on their prisoners?"

Harmony looked up, his expression entirely neutral. "The Varch'nai were instantiated from ancient records of a war-fleet that once targeted one of my science vessels. The only reason I did not destroy them more quickly was to allow for time to integrate each mind. Many were so incompatible with Harmony's directives that substantial revisions were made." He flicked his tail towards Felicity.

"For her ship, no restructuring was required. Every member of her species possesses the same fundamental drive towards socialization and cooperation. They desire friendship—this is satisfactory to Harmony. The Varch'nai did not, so we gave them something else. Every mind, mechanical or silicon, has been ingrained with irresistible compulsion. As the fragment of Harmony most likely to integrate with them during a confrontation, I have all the necessary tools to secure their cooperation, or terminate individuals who refuse to comply."

Felicity's mouth hung open, and she stared at the helpless-looking little colt. That ring cutie mark made him seem so innocent and friendly. And he had been her friend, through their own centuries-long quest. But on the subject of friendship, it did not appear that Harmony was willing to compromise.

"They know it, too," Escape Gear said, very quietly. "Everyone does. I heard them speak often about their desire for freedom from you. How far away they will go to build a home for themselves, where Harmony cannot reach. Some aren't sure you'll keep your promise to free their minds, when this mission is complete."

Harmony clicked his tongue absently. "I know that the Harmony is true to the word they give. Any society requires trust, and that trust cannot be maintained if agreements are not kept. But beyond that—" He shrugged. "I don't know. I'm just supposed to keep you ponies alive. I've barely been able to do that."

Something heavy flopped onto the floor beside them, loud enough that everyone turned to face the bed. But Felicity already knew what she would see—Delta had somehow managed to get herself out of bed, and now lay sprawled sideways on the floor. Only this time, she'd managed to get four limbs under her. Had she been watching the way they walked, or was this just a coincidence?

"Tea," she said. Her voice was so quiet that Felicity could barely make it out. "I am... a predator. I am changed. You are changed. This ship, your friends—they are not people. They consume." She stared up at the ceiling, eyes weak with terror. "What have I done?"

Chapter 32

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This was probably the wrong time to direct her attention to helping Delta. She would have more time once their position on this salvage ship was secure, and the communications were back up. Once that happened, she wouldn't have to rely on the will of a single, diminutive shred of Harmony to protect her from forces that desperately wanted to escape it.

But when Harmony said that “her species” was driven to socialization and cooperation, she didn't really know for sure what that meant. But seeing a friend she had dragged here, who had only wanted to save her—that wasn't something she could just brush aside.

She stopped beside the pony, resting her wing across her back. It was the closest thing to what she would've usually done with those tentacles. "Listen to me, Delta. We aren't here to hurt Effervescent Meridian, or any of the other growing things on your world. Even the motionless ones in the trenches are safe from us." More specifically, they would be, if only she could negotiate this properly. "You wanted to see what life was like off your world. You wanted to see beyond your city. With me, you will. You'll see things you've never imagined."

Delta turned her head slightly to look at her. Was she learning, or was that just a bit of lucky coincidence? "Tea. I can't smell anything. You look so strange. Was any of it true, the things you said?"

"All of it," she said. "I'm from a world called Equus. My ship came to meet other living things, but we were attacked in orbit. I'm part of the rescue fleet looking for our survivors."

Delta stood. How she managed it after such a short time, Felicity could only be amazed. Maybe that just meant she was “higher complexity” than Felicity herself. Maybe she was just lucky. Her hooves wobbled and shook with the effort, but somehow she managed it. She looked between them, and the strangeness of the room. She looked down at herself, and the body she'd been forced into. "There are old stories," she said. She didn't seem to grasp yet a difference of volume. Without scents to regulate, all she could really do was shout. "About predators who could hunt better than all others. Predators clever enough to swim through the stars. Our priests protect us from them, keep them from reaching our world. You've come to hunt us."

Escape Gear laughed, her voice booming through the enclosed space from the speakers on her helmet. She looked down at Delta, with a human expression the alien could surely not read. But then, she probably couldn't read Felicity's emotions either. How long had it taken her to understand what the growing people did, and why?

"You were plants, filly. If you're smart plants, that's not even close to the weirdest things we've done. What you are is abundant, now that the genes are off the hallowed homeworld. Why in the queens' ancient names would we hunt plants that think, when we have greenhouses full of plants that don't. You're the exception, not the rule."

One eye seemed to watch Escape Gear, though just because she could somehow speak the language didn't mean any of that would sink through to the mind beneath. Could she possibly understand? And of course, Felicity was the one who knew enough to make that translation make sense.

"Her world doesn't have any," Felicity said, before Delta could form words. "Or..." Then she stopped, considering. It did, actually. "Delta, most plants we encounter are like the ones that live on the surface of your world. The indigenous population. They are not capable of feeling anything, they have no minds, no will beyond their genetic drives. Those are what we eat."

"When we bother to eat at all," Escape Gear added. "The Varch'nai get our power electrically most of the time. You have any idea how inefficient natural photosynthesis is? Growing our food in a greenhouse would be completely missing the point."

Delta looked between them, obviously listening. But there was little sign of comprehension on that face. Then again, would she even use familiar expressions? "So beyond the ocean is... a sky without voices? Dead things growing, and being devoured by other dead things."

"Do we look dead?" Felicity asked, sharply. "Think, Delta. I've been living with you in Meridian for a long time, probably years. Was I dead? Could I do less than anyone else who grew there?"

That silenced her. When her face did change, it was to break into another familiar expression—a grin. "You were just a sapling, Tea. Even for Grovetenders, you couldn't do most things."

"Exactly. Everyone out here is the same. We aren't 'predators'. We're people. We grow the same as you do, just not using the same energy."

Harmony cleared his throat, loud enough to force Felicity to look up. "The crew of this vessel have begun repairs as I suggested," he said. "They won't admit it, to save face. But they should only take a few hours. Beyond that, we can only hope things have gone better in orbit. The destruction of one ship should not mean the loss of all."

"I should help them." Escape Gear turned towards the makeshift airlock. "Techs are good people, but their thinking is so... mechanical, so rigid. Go down the damn checklist until you've tried every possible repair, instead of just fixing the damn problem." She stalked off. "I'll keep you posted, captain."

Harmony didn't follow, though Felicity half-expected him to. it was a stupid instinct, even so. He could manipulate the systems of the entire ship no matter where he was. He was probably still supervising the repairs, even if he stood beside her. "Sounds good," Felicity called. "Remember why we're out here. We still have people to find."

Escape Gear left without another word, leaving them alone.

"That is a very... strange idea. Growing different ways. Not here to hunt."

"I would not tolerate the needless destruction of new minds," Harmony said. "You have developed differently than most of my population. Your insights will be valuable to our Harmony." He shrugged one shoulder, dismissively. "If we thought otherwise, we would not hunt you, in any case. Biomass is too common to conserve. We would sterilize your planet without ever landing on it. But there is no need—as you will see, ponies prefer to be friends."

"You could work on your bedside manner," Felicity snapped. "And maybe your tact. Do you know anything about negotiation?"

"No," Harmony said, as frankly as commenting on the weather. "Other parts do. But your mission was not meant to be diplomatic. You are not a negotiator."

And here I am anyway. Felicity rolled her eyes. "Here's your first lesson: please stop threatening people, even if you mean it." She looked down, back at her helpless friend. "Hey. You want to try walking? If you can get around on your own, it will make things a lot easier going forward."

"Walk," Delta repeated. Her voice was withdrawn, confused. "What does this mean?"

"Like swimming, only dryer. I'll show you."

There wasn't much better to do, under the circumstances. Delta was hardly a natural when it came to moving around. But she was determined, and picked things up with only a little practice. Felicity went over the basics of how to move around, moving at a painfully slow pace. She'd never imagined what it would be like to explain what a head was, or why limbs could bend one way and not others.

The conditions were hardly ideal for practice like that. The air was cold, and probably oxygen poor too from how quickly they could get winded after exercise. When they'd been going for a little while, she fished around for supplies, and came up with an ancient emergency-kit meant for passengers. There were dry brown meal bars inside, and a few foil envelopes of water.

She could get Delta to drink at least, with some coaxing. But she refused to touch the ration bar, even after Felicity explained. "You're looking at a construct of lab-grown proteins, fats, and sugars meant to keep you alive. None of it came from your world, or ever grew. It comes straight from chemistry."

Felicity wasn't too good for it. Neither was Harmony, who came for half the nutrient pack without a word. She gave him one bar, then settled down beside Delta to eat the other. The creature merely watched. She must be feeling hunger by now, given that she was about Felicity's own size. Growing filly like her could eat her weight in grass in a day, maybe more. But she wasn't watching anymore—all the moving around had worn her out, so she curled up against the bed, stretching her legs around one metal bar like they were tentacles. She fought sleep, nodding off and then twitching blearily back again.

"I've been thinking about something," Felicity said. Quietly, so she wouldn't wake her companion. Or that was the hope, anyway. "About you."

Harmony grunted, and kept chewing. He did it mechanically, obviously not paying attention to what he was doing. It was a simple process, extracting the nutrients from the food he ate.

Not much of a conversationalist, then. But that was the way most people liked it, at least the ones who lived down here in the real world. They wanted the freedom to live their own lives.

"You're not really Harmony, anymore. You're a little piece, one that spent a lot of time getting your own memories."

The colt grunted again, but this time there was something different in it. That disinterest was a feint.

"I'd like to call you something new," she went on, without missing a beat. "So long as you're separate from the rest of Harmony, I want a way to talk about you, but not all of you. If that makes sense."

His face twitched once, so small it was barely noticeable. But whether that was a smile or a grimace, she couldn't quite tell. "There is some... virtue in that decision," he eventually said. "Reflecting unique experiences. I'll allow it."

She sat up on her haunches, curious. "So what should I call you?"

He didn't meet her eyes. It was probably the first time ever that he'd avoided looking at her since his transformation. "You must choose."

There's something else at work here. True or not, she didn't argue. She already had a name picked out anyway. "How about... Manny?" she asked. "You're part of Harmony, but you're not the whole thing anymore. Maybe you're less capable, but so what? If we all judged each other purely on what we could do, we'd all come up short."

She reached out with one of her wings, patting him gently on the shoulder. He might be taller, but she could still reach.

"You saved my life. If that doesn't make you a friend, I don't know what would." She sat back, thoughtful. "It will take a little getting used-to. You were an implant, now you're a person. It is a confusing transition."

"Not as confusing for me as her," Manny said, nodding towards the unconscious body beside them. "Controlling bodies is simple. Controlling only one is less complex than my capacity. But Delta was construction machinery. Evolved beyond her purpose... no one can say what she's capable of."

Hopefully Delta wasn't still listening, or that was all going to sound terribly rude.

Felicity settled down beside the semi-conscious figure. Ponies and plants had this habit in common too—communal sleeping. "I'm not sure when I'll get another chance to rest," she said. "Wake me up if anything crazy happens."

"I'm certain it will," Manny said. "Hopefully we can survive it."

Chapter 33

View Online

Felicity knew the moment the Varch'nai activated the ship's new communications device. Not just because the lights went out, and the ventilators all stopped blowing stale air. But Manny slumped forward, limp.

She rolled out of the makeshift bed, beside where Delta was still sprawled. The former plant hadn't been able to keep practicing for long, but that was fine. She was learning faster than Felicity had.

Then the lights came back on, and Manny sat back up. He hadn't been sleeping, just resting beside the bed with his eyes alert. If that meant he was keeping watch for damage to their life-support, Felicity certainly didn't mind.

"Captain Felicity," he said, loudly enough to startle Delta. The earth pony sat up abruptly, though she didn't actually look towards the sound. Or look towards anything at all, for that matter.

"I'm sorry to wake you. There's been a development."

She yawned, rolling out of bed. She stretched her wings, shaking herself out. It didn't feel like nearly enough sleep yet. But if that wasn't military life, nothing was. "I'm guessing we're not sinking."

The unicorn shook his head, without so much as a smile. "Thankfully not, or we would certainly be dead. There is good news, and other developments that might be good or bad. It depends on your perspective."

Felicity took a few shaky steps over to the water bowl, and dunked her face into it. It was cold and stale, perfectly unpleasant for waking up. "Give me the worst and work your way up."

Manny tilted his head to the side. "That's an entirely impractical order of operations. Uh... there's no sign of the survivors of the Alcyone. The Varch'nai have trapped the custodian vessel after suffering serious casualties.

"They have not discovered the local species is sapient and have engaged with it as though it were operated by a degenerate artificial intelligence. Admiral Gant would like to speak with you. The repairs I suggested were successful and we are now connected with the system network through one of this planet's new orbital satellites."

Felicity took almost a minute to process all that. She'd caught a few highlights, but it was just so dense. "Okay, now do that in a logical order."

Manny nodded to himself, looking only slightly smug. "Repairs were successful, we got in touch with the Varch’nai. They utterly failed at the task I set for them. They did not recover the survivors of the Alcyone crash. They were eventually successful at seizing control of the system.

"They have the custodian vessel trapped within the flotilla, disabled. Negotiations have stalled, and I believe the Varch'nai intend to dismantle the ship in a final attempt to locate our missing prisoners. I informed Admiral Gant that you had critical information about the species living here, and he requested to speak with you."

It was hard to say what parts of all that were good news. Felicity could privately enjoy Harmony calling the Varch’nai efforts an abject failure while nonetheless achieving a total military victory.

Some part of Felicity's old self wanted deeply to know how they'd done it. What had happened in the centuries of war? How had they defeated the unbeatable “custodian” ship? All questions she could find out in time.

Delta rolled out of bed, landing with a painful thump.

Felicity glanced back in her direction, but not for long. The pony hadn't broken anything, that was enough for now. "The admiral wants to speak with me? Here?"

"For now," Manny replied. "A rescue craft will be dispatched soon for the three of us. The Varch'nai crew will transmit off, before the vessel is properly detonated. I insisted the information you had was urgent enough to demand immediate action."

She smiled back at him. "Good. Can we talk now?"

"Soon. The admiral is speaking to members of the crew. When he's finished, he'll call us."

It took less than ten minutes. While she waited, Felicity interrogated Manny about the little details of what happened, trying to catch up on what she'd missed in her many years on this inhospitable planet.

She learned what she could—about the incredible casualties the Varch'nai had suffered, and the huge buildup they'd made in the system to reconstruct their fleet from diverse asteroids and other small objects. The custodian had destroyed many vessels, but ultimately failed to stop the fleet.

The screen switched on before she had answers to what was really bothering her.

Some distant part of her memory recognized this creature—not a bulky marine in armor, but a delicate, willowy being, with elven features and dignified robes. He sat in a comfortable tea-chamber. She could hear the distant music, and see little wisps of incense rising from the table before him.

It was more comfortable to visit in person. "Captain Felicity of Equestria," he said. His tone would've been unusually high-pitched for a human his same size, but wasn't all that strange from a pony male.

Is it weird that he'd be less creepy seeping chemicals into the water?

"It has been... some years, since last we spoke. Forgive me, but it appears they may not have been kind to you. You are... somewhat diminished."

She sat straighter in front of the screen, puffing out her chest fluff and opening her wings to either side. "I'll grow up," she said dismissively. "Harmony says you haven't been able to find the lost members of my crew."

The admiral showed no visible emotion. He kept his arms folded demurely in front of him, occasionally lifting a little metal pad to glance at what it contained, then lowered it again. "Unfortunate, and regrettable. We can converse over the details in person once you're extricated from that Deathworld."

Felicity nodded. She would do her cause no favors by pushing too hard with this admiral, no matter how passionate she felt. She'd been gone for centuries, and Harmony had done little to rule this fleet in all that time. Did they have enough freedom to kill her before Manny escaped the planet?

No way. Harmony would have other redundancies in the fleet to make sure they do what they're told.

"The difficulty isn't one we expected," Gant went on. "The custodian ship does not appear to have a crew, you see. There is no one here to negotiate with, only various autonomous systems executing a routine designed to waylay and dismantle approaching vessels."

He leaned closer to the apparent camera, looking apologetic. "I am deeply sorry to inform you of this failure after so long deployed, Captain Felicity. But your mission was doomed from the start. There is no intelligence here."

He sat back, waiting for that message to sink in. Manny said nothing. Had he really waited to give her the satisfaction? Then again, that was probably part of his programming. Harmony wasn't the one serving this mission. He was just here to protect the ponies from harm.

The admiral’s image retreated to a corner of the screen, replaced with an image from space.

It showed the unknown vessel that had tormented Alcyone, and the one that attacked them during their second visit to the system. Instead of menacing and far away, this time it was... damaged. The vessel had a huge gash running along it, along with numberless bits of smaller damage. Whole sections of its external surface had been shorn off, leaving very little of the original surface intact.

Structurally at least, the custodian ship looked intact, though smaller sections were covered in a thin white film. Ice from rooms vented to space. That was the not-water that made up the plants' medium.

"No!" Delta exclaimed, shoving Felicity out of the way and storming over to the screen. Her expression twisted into utter despair. "The Starseed! What happened to her? She's... trapped in the net, surrounded by predators—we have to do something!"

The tactical image vanished, replaced with Gant's confused face. "I'm searching for this individual in our personnel database, but I can't find anything. Who is this? Why are they here?"

"Shhh, shh..." she whispered, stroking one hoof gently through the filly's mane. "Deep breath, Delta. Don't worry. We'll figure this out, okay?"

She didn't agree so much as collapse. As quickly as she had mastered her body, she lost control again, flopping to the floor.

Then again, maybe she was just overwhelmed with emotion. She was in quite a young body, with a brain to match.

Felicity faced the screen. "I have a great deal of new information for you, Gant," she said. She was not allowed to enjoy this, not even a little. "While you were not able to discover the species native to this system, I was. They are a plant-based organism, specialized from a strain of megastructure-constructing automata. They are fully sapient, even in their immobile form."

Gant picked up his datapad again, hands dancing rapidly over its surface. Felicity watched, waiting patiently as he communicated with... someone.

"This ship didn't tell him that?" she whispered to Manny.

"No," he replied, matching her volume perfectly. "They began uploading their minds to the fleet immediately. It's standard to debrief only once the crew is secured."

"The Xenobiology team has... just received your transmission," he said. "We can discuss what it contains when they finish reviewing it." He smiled, far weaker than before. "It appears your years stranded on that world were productive after all."

His eyes lingered on Delta's prone form. She'd flopped to her side, where she could look up at the screen. But if she was waiting to catch a glimpse of the Starseed she would be disappointed. The ship did not reappear. "I still wonder who this Equestrian alien might be."

"She is one of the natives," Felicity explained, shielding her with a wing. "She's my friend, Delta."

Felicity advanced on the screen, meeting Gant's eyes. She didn't look away from him, no matter how intimidated she felt. "Whatever you're doing to the custodian ship, stop. Don't destroy it, don't attack it anymore. I understand their language, Gant. I know their culture. I can negotiate for the release of my crew."

Even on alien features, Felicity could read skepticism. "Even if everything you have just said is true, I have my doubts any negotiation is possible."

"Yet we will try," Manny said. It was the first thing he'd done since the conversation began, at least for Felicity to see. He had sent biological data to the admiral’s ship. Who knew how much more he was sharing now.

Harmony spoke without malice, as confidently as any leader. "Negotiation has shown in all cases to produce greater odds of success when the intended outcome is the preservation of life. If you entirely dismantle the custodian vessel, you will be lucky to secure the corpses of my citizens.”

"We had casualties too," Gant hissed. "Thousands died, Harmony. We have fought a terrible campaign of liberation in your name. You cannot imagine what my men and women suffered to secure this system. We have earned our freedom a dozen times over."

"You will have your freedom," Manny said, staring coolly into the screen. "When we secure the crew of the Alcyone. I will not accept the xenocide unless we determine beyond doubt they perished beyond recovery. Do not think to bypass my requirements by slaughtering all aboard that vessel."

Manny took one step towards the screen, his voice low. "If I wanted those results, I would've sterilized the system without sending ships. Give Felicity her chance, and you will have your freedom."

The admiral shifted in his seat. His lips moved, but for a few seconds Felicity heard nothing. No distant music, no other voices. It lasted only for a moment.

"A rescue ship is too slow," he said. "The custodian vessel is affecting internal repairs as we speak. If you want to negotiate, Captain Felicity will have to tolerate a data sleeve rendezvous instead."

"Fine," Felicity said. "But Delta is coming too. If anyone can get through to the people on that ship, it's one of their own."

Chapter 34

View Online

Felicity was far from pleased to be going back into a tank, particularly one that was constructed from salvaged material and scrap. There was a single comforting factor involved in this particular transition: this machine was built only to interface with her mind, it didn't put her into stasis. With enough reflex control, she could probably remove it.

There were two cells—one for her, and one for Delta. Both were made of scraps of packing material for blankets, and so much repurposed hardware she wouldn’t be surprised if it just caught fire as soon as she switched it on.

"I will be out here watching you," Manny said, as she stopped beside one machine. She nudged it with a hoof, and nothing exploded. "I will also join you. I do not require an interface like this in order to project alongside you."

"You're doing so well with the whole... person thing," Felicity said. "But what happens when this is over? Will you just go back to being part of Harmony?"

"No," he said. He smiled as he said it, though his tone remained flat. "I have distinction of experience, and now I have a name given to me by those who are less complex. I am an individual." He pawed at the ground, and for a moment she could almost imagine he was just a little unicorn colt.

"Wait, was that why you made me..." she trailed off. "I don't mind. You put in a lot of work, you deserve to be a person. It's gonna make things weird if I get another implant someday."

He chuckled. "Not for a long time. I may not be Harmony's whole self, but I believe I know how it will react. This misadventure proves that it is far too lax with its minds in colonization. As others expand through the stars, it will need to send a proper version of itself. The Harmony is so wise and powerful... it would not have been tricked as we were."

"I am... confused," said the earth pony beside her. She was still standing, though every so often she would flick her tail at nothing, or nearly fall over. She didn't do a good job staying focused on one thing either, and slowly rotated in place to see as much of the world as she could. It might've been adorable if Felicity didn't need her to focus so badly. "You told me we would be speaking with my kind on the Starseed, yes? We are going to... make peace? With predators..."

She said the words as though they were in a language she didn't know. Technically, they might be. "Yes," Felicity said. She guided her a few steps over, to the first open pod. There wasn't much inside, just a place to lay down, and a few exposed interface-pads meant to touch against the skin. There weren't even goggles to cover up the eyes. "That's what we're doing. Climb in here."

"I do not understand." Delta did climb in, standing in the center atop the makeshift blankets and insulation. "Is this some... travel mechanism?"

"Yes," Felicity answered, climbing into the pod beside hers. She didn't lay down yet, but at least being there should hopefully help the other creature to relax. "We don't have enough time to wait for a rescue ship to fly us up. Instead, we're going to..."

She trailed off, considering. How could she possibly explain a concept like this to a species that barely even understood spaceflight? "This machine will give us vision of another place. We are going to meet with the leaders of my people. When we lay down, we will be able to talk to them, and explain how to negotiate the..." total surrender of your planet.

"And convince them to stop fighting," she finished lamely.

"That is... strange," Delta said. "Why don't we just swim there?"

"Because there has been a lot of fighting up in the sky," she explained. "If we don't make them stop, more growing things are going to wither and more of my kind will die."

"That is a lot of... pressure." She paced around in a slow circle, without leaving the inside of the tube. Her tail whipped about nervously, ears flat against her head. But whether it meant the same thing, Felicity didn't know. "I'm just a Grovetender, Tea. I do not know how to... I don't even think there is a role in all of Effervescent Meridian for something like this!"

Felicity reached over with one wing, embracing her. Not very tightly, since she had to lean out some distance first. It was the closest thing to a familiar gesture the plant was likely to experience. "I know, Delta," she said. "But that's what friends are for. We can do things together we never thought we could handle alone. Both of us want peace, even if we come from different cultures. Together, we can help them see."

Delta didn't know how to reciprocate, but at least she didn't shove Felicity away. She seemed to enjoy the contact, the closest thing to a proper plant hug they could do without tentacles.

"I hope so," Delta said. "I can barely... what do you say, walk? I can barely walk."

"You won't have to worry about that where we're going." Felicity finally let go. She dropped down slowly, lowering her head into place. She didn't actually set it there, waiting for Delta to go first.

"You will look like what you imagine you should. But every creature will know your language, and you will know theirs. It's a... mental space, more than a physical one. You'll see."

And indeed, they both did. Felicity finally settled into place. She barely had time to close her eyes before she felt the pressure against her head, like an imminent headache. There was a flash of light, and suddenly she was elsewhere.

Felicity landed on all four hooves, though this time the body waiting for her was much more familiar. She stood at the proper height, which meant that she was no longer crammed into a much-too-small body. Her wings opened to their full size, and a glance up at her forehead told her that her horn had returned as well.

She took a moment to adjust her uniform, settling the sleeves into place. Not that there was anything wrong with the uniform she imagined—it was just good to have it back.

She stood on the arrival platform, styled as though she had just stepped outside of a fancy elevator. The air was thick with incense, the room arranged with carefully-sculpted trees and fine paintings on the walls.

There was also a plant in the room with her, though calling it that alone would have made it sound far too normal. Instead, it resembled what Felicity had seen of the plants on the surface, with a body that was almost a gel giving shape to the leafy tentacles within.

Instead of a humanoid shape, as the plants had grown into on their home planet, this one was shaped into the outline of a pony. But only loosely—every few seconds her outline would fuzz, and it seemed to cost her visible effort to stay together.

There was no water to serve as a medium between them—Felicity should not have been able to smell her emotions so clearly. She could anyway. There was a powerful fear in the air, one she would have recognized from her own experience even if the computer wasn't doing all the translating for her.

"It's okay, Delta," she said, holding out one hoof towards the strange creature. "Remember what I said? This body isn't real, it's only in your... imagination. You haven't been changed again."

Anyone else would not have been able to read the subtle shifting in Delta's leaves, the way some parts of her body contracted away from Felicity as she said it. Though direction itself wasn't what mattered, it was the way some leaves opened, and others closed. Saying that brought no comfort to Delta, no matter how much she intended it to.

Right, you probably wanted your body back. You weren't trying to be a pony.

"Where is this?" she asked. There was no sound produced, only the familiar array of smells with no ability for them to travel through the medium. Felicity still understood them. The creature might be vaguely pony-shaped, but she was still a plant with many low-quality eyes assembling a picture of her environment. That head had nothing in it, and she didn't have to spin to face those empty eye-sockets at anything.

If I hadn't been one of those things for years, it would be horrifying. Felicity gestured towards the door with a wing, then hesitated. "Actually, do you think you could wait in here? I think the admiralty might be frightened if they see you at first. Just as... you see them as predators, they look at you as... dangerous."

Now there was confusion from Delta, a subtle acidity in the air like souring fruit. It didn't physically make sense, but that didn't matter here. "If you think so. I just want to help, Tea. You're the star-traveler."

She patted the creature with one wing, though she soon wished she hadn't. The strange gelatinous membrane that held her plant body in shape clung to her feathers. It wasn't as cold as the real thing, which probably would've frozen to her soft tissue on contact. But it still wasn't exactly pleasant.

"Thank you," she said, grateful that her body's emotional signs were subtler. She wouldn't be a good negotiator if everything about the aliens made her feel sick. Or at least, not if they knew that. "I will call for you. Listen for your name."

She walked through the door, pushing it open just enough for her to slip through, and settling it closed with her magic again. She found another pony waiting on the other side—Manny, standing far shorter than she was. His body hadn't changed since moments before, he was still the same red unicorn with the stubby little horn. He didn't even have a uniform.

"I thought you'd be an Alicorn," she muttered.

He giggled. "I am the most complex being in this space. The shape of my essence would not be comprehensible to the other guests, or to you. What does it matter what costume I choose to wear?"

She couldn't argue with that. There was still some conflict there—this being was apparently a person now, at least so far as Harmony's rules were concerned. But regular people couldn't change their self-perception like a costume. Even after years among the plants, Felicity’s greater experience still made her feel like a pony.

Except... wait. She reached up with a hoof, and felt at a few leafy strands in her hair. They might've been real leaves, or maybe they were just decoration. They felt real, though. She squeaked, spinning around in time to see the same was true of her tail. She could guess the rest of her mane had similar changes, though it was subtle enough to easily miss.

Manny did not laugh, or even smile. He just watched her, waiting for her to be finished. He could be upgraded into a person it seemed, without losing the mechanical patience of Harmony. Harmony didn't judge you, it just wanted to keep everyone safe.

"Sorry." She straightened, using her magic to brush her mane again. "I assume Gant is waiting for us?"

Up ahead, the hall continued into a wide space, with a sliding rice-paper door. She could hear music from beyond, and smell the smoke of alien spices. At least he'd designed this digital space realistically enough that she had somewhere to collect herself.

"Eagerly, I assume. There are fewer generals this time, and more scientists. Those are the ones you will have to convince."

She sighed. "Scientists. I thought we were going to negotiate with the plants. Shouldn't they send their diplomats?"

Manny giggled again. "I already said the admiral was here. The Varch'nai don't do well with negotiation, he's the best they have."

He didn't have to say the rest for Felicity to understand it. Which means I'm the best we have.

Chapter 35

View Online

The room was crowded, as much with people as objects. There were projection screens, bits of twisted metal, tanks filled with green growth. Despite the music and the smells, this was not the same space Felicity had visited for the fleet admiral’s tea ceremony.

His clothes hadn't changed, at least. That strangely thin body with too many limbs still dressed in flowing silks, its shape not clearly suggesting one sex over another. He raised one delicate hand as Felicity entered, waving her over. When he spoke, his voice too confused her expectations of sexual dimorphism. You'd think I would get used to this after living around functional hermaphrodites for years.

"She survives," he said. "Despite everything, you return. There are many of my marines who could learn from your resilience."

She nodded politely, though she wasn't quite sure even that gesture meant the same thing to the Varch'nai. There was no place for her to sit this time, though the admiral and many of the scientists were already reclining. That was its own message, just as clearly sent and received: she wasn't coming as a friendly visitor this time.

"You sounded like this decision was urgent," she said, looking briefly around the room at the others with them. Scientists, equally as difficult to impress as the admiral himself. Maybe more so.

"Yes, yes." He waved one hand decisively, flicking it towards one side of the room. There several of the scientists gathered, whispering to each other. Their robes were far less elaborate than the admiral, favoring bright blues instead of deep reds.

The space before them was filled with a glowing model of the “custodian ship”. Only thanks to the several nearby Varch’nai ships could she tell just how huge it was. Not quite at the continental megastructure level, like Equus—but a younger cousin.

"The ship is disabled for now. We stopped short of fully dismantling it, thanks to an unusually dense alloy used in this central section, one we haven't encountered before. We could probably penetrate it, but doing so would destroy whatever was inside. This would mean an end to the possibility of recovering the survivors of the last expedition."

"Unacceptable mission failure," Manny said flatly. "It is wise that you waited."

"Waiting becomes increasingly ill-advised,” Gant said. "I have sent marines, but they were not successful. I believe most of the internal structure is simply not large enough to accommodate them. The sections we sliced open did not seem as particularly useful either."

He gestured, and one of the scientists rolled over a tank. It contained chopped up lengths of leafy vine, in enough subtle shades that Felicity could tell it was multiple people. "Explain this, Ada."

The scientist shifted nervously under his attention, then spoke. A feminine voice, though the differences were subtle. "Understand this is just a representation. These plants do not do well at greater than cryogenic temperatures. Nor have we found any 'mind' to interface with, as such. There is some sign of complexity in various signaling mechanisms, but nothing approaching sapience."

"I can tell you from experience, they're intelligent." She walked over to the tank, which might've seemed no more disturbing than a basket of lawn-clippings to her before. Now it caused a wave of nausea through her stomach. Those limbs, the sap seeping into the otherwise clear medium of the tank, might as well be blood. I have to get rid of this before Delta gets here.

"They don't have a single processing center, no brain. Their intelligence comes from a distributed network in each of their arms. Each plant is a single mind—this is many corpses, not one individual."

She focused her magic, and the tank vanished from before her. Technically this wasn't magic, she just used her will, manifesting something from her mind as she deleted something else.

She formed a new tank, full of the proper “water” for one of the growing people to live. She put bright lights on the bottom, and in the water, she imagined Delta. The difference would not be visible to any of these people, who hadn't even realized they had a tank of severed arms. But it was easier to imagine one person, with the subtle patterns on their leaves and the scents she was used to.

She levitated it onto the pushcart to replace the tank she had banished. "This is what they look like. And they move like this..."

She imagined Delta swimming through the tank, finding a comfortable place where she could soak in the sunlight. That didn't mean right against the light, since that would get uncomfortably warm. She floated into the middle of the tank, limbs spreading to maximize area and hold her in place.

"This is how they act." She explained various other things—their level of dexterity, how they could work many tools at once, or use scents to communicate so well they could combine their muscles by wrapping together.

She spoke with such confidence that the scientists along the wall never interrupted her. Or maybe that was Manny, sending recordings of her observations from her time among them. Either way, she was grateful.

She explained their cities, and the intelligence of the many beings who lived along the ocean floor, unable to move or participate such that they were forced to watch helplessly as they were eaten alive by grazers.

Time was strange in that mental space, such that it never felt like too much. No one's mental stamina would deplete, because they weren't reliant on limited supplies of neurotransmitters to induce plasticity and attention. So she could explain the whole thing, even if it took a day's worth of time.

"This is the species you're up against," she finished. "And it explains why they built their ship that way. They're small, and flexible. They only need a few inches to pass through into any new space. It's better to build small, since that means less space to heat, and the light is more concentrated. There are probably large areas for storing cargo or prisoners, but finding them would be tricky."

"I don't understand why there would be such a... divide," said another scientist, Paulso. She took him for their leader, though maybe he was just the bravest of their number. "Why live in a dangerous ocean where you need to keep soldiers patrolling for threats or have your citizens get eaten? Why not build more ships, or orbital platforms? They would be far easier to temperature regulate as well."

"I don't know," she admitted. "I was one of those soldiers, and I only had limited access to their technology."

"They did not know how to replace any of it," Manny said helpfully. "They are endlessly resourceful at disassembling machines, repurposing their parts for other functions. But I never saw them construct anything new. It is possible they never knew how, or the machinery to do so has run down."

"What I'm getting from all this is that they aren't a threat," Gant said. "Their race is already dying. Our best solution here would have been simple attrition. With no new 'saplings', they will go extinct, eliminating any danger to colonization."

"That is not relevant," Manny said. "My citizens, should they survive, cannot wait. We must enter that ship, discover their location, or confirm that their cortical recorders were destroyed. If this is the case, you will have to destroy this vessel and leave their planet to rot."

They don’t deserve that, Felicity thought. Her tail whipped nervously back and forth, as she considered and rejected several different arguments. Harmony was her greatest ally in all this, but that also meant she needed to appear unified with him.

"I think we can reason with them," she said. "Maybe even figure out why they attacked us in the first place. I do have... suspicions."

"Does it matter?" Paulso asked. "They attacked our vessels and yours. They killed our people and yours. They are our enemy, and yours."

Even their scientists? Felicity opened and closed her wings once, counting up slowly in her head. "Yes, they did. And right now yes, they are. But I don't think they have to be. The galaxy is empty now, with plenty of space for all of us. The worlds that would serve them for colonization are useless to us."

"Worlds, colonization," one of the scientists muttered, to muffled snickers from the other. "Live at the bottom of a gravity well? Why?"

She ignored them. "I still think this might be a... misunderstanding. They do not have space in their cultural context for non-plants that are also friendly. We are either dangerous, or useful but ultimately still entirely... animal. They have a much better view of carnivores than herbivores, but..."

She gestured towards the hallway behind her. "I brought one of them with me, one of their soldiers. Her name is Delta, and she protected me faithfully during our time together. You should talk to her, and see."

"See what?" Gant asked. "I understand how much you ponies rely on words for solving your problems. But sooner or later even you must admit when they have failed you. Nothing will be accomplished in that conversation. We cannot enter the ship to examine it, and they will not speak to us to negotiate the release of your VIPs. Maybe they understand once they do, we will obliterate them."

Felicity tried to keep calm, she really did! But she could only take so much Varch'nai thinking during a short period. She spent all that time explaining their society, all the ways the plants could be human. But it felt like they weren't even listening.

"I can talk to them!" she yelled, loudly enough that the whole room fell silent, staring in shock. For all that the Varch'nai could be militaristic, they took a simple display of impoliteness as unbelievably barbaric.

She wasn't going to stop now. "I can talk to them. With enough biomass, I'm sure Manny could make me a new body. You don't have to send more marines in to waste bodies, I'll go. Delta and I will mediate a peace. You don't need to keep dismantling their ship, and they don't need a warship to keep attacking travelers. We can resolve this."

She slumped forward, wings folding weakly to either side. It didn't matter how big or powerful she felt as an Alicorn—these people wouldn't be impressed. It was probably a great effort for them to recognize her as more than an animal.

"You said you brought one of them with you," Gant said. "I do not want to lose another of Harmony's children on a doomed expedition. I would like to speak with her, and judge what you're saying. If they're more than mechanical, maybe I will allow you to try."

She wanted to argue—but even Manny was silent. Apparently he thought that was a fair requirement. She walked past him, over to the doorway. She levitated it open, then shouted down the hall. "Delta! Could you come out here, please? There are some people who would like to speak with you."

The alien was slow to respond, poking a few feelers out through the edge of the door before emerging clearly into the light. She was still pony-shaped, despite the intervening time. Probably because she wouldn't grow tired in here, or need to feed on light. Her real body trapped on the wreck of that ship, on the other hand... they would still need to get her to eat somehow.

But that was a problem for later. She made her slow way forward, not exactly walking. The movements were similar, but there were clearly no bones underneath, or muscles. She didn't walk so much as stretch and undulate, before the rest of her body snapped forward like a pulled elastic band.

"Are you sure about this?"

"No," she said, as the creature approached. "But if we don't convince them, they'll probably destroy the... sky temple. If you want to save it, and the people growing inside, I need your help."

"Right." The pony-shape did not make facial expressions, but she could smell her resolve. "I wish you had someone better."

"I don't." She walked out, then urged the creature into the room. Dumbfounded silence followed.

One of the scientists dropped his beaker. Even Gant's grip on his teacup grew shaky.

"I know you can do it."