The moon curiously peeked from behind the clouds at the Canterlot maze below, where a large black colt strolled with an equally high blue mare. Chip was mostly doing the talking, as Luna kept asking the changeling questions about himself, his kind, his culture…
The black stallion was grateful for the opportunity to stretch his cramped wings and flex the muscles that were otherwise restrained in his cloaked form. The royal mare decided that it was dark anyway and nopony ever wandered the labyrinth even during the day, so it was safe for Chip to take a stroll in his natural form.
As much as the colt enjoyed his conversation with the pony, his mind was starting to play tricks on him – his jaw was already winded from all the yawning and his eyelids fought to close on their own.
“Oh my, it truly is late,” sighed Luna with a bit of embarrassment. “Please, forgive me for keeping you up so late into the night… I totally forgot you are not a night pony… Emm, changeling.”
“That is no problem, Princess. It was a very…” A yawn unsuccessfully suppressed, Chip managed to continue: “It was a very pleasurable night. Maybe we can do this again sometime?”
Luna beamed at Chip, nodding and saying “With pleasure!”
Barely awake now, the changeling summoned his disguise and got led to his quarters, where a fresh duo of guards saluted the Princess. He got a goodbye smile from the royal mare and once again found himself confined to his room.
On the bed he saw a sprawled Cadance, mumbling something in her sleep. Her briefcase was open and empty, which meant that she managed to unstuck it on her own. Good for her, although it did pinch Chip’s pride that a mare would be capable of unjamming a container and him, a young, large and powerful stallion couldn’t.
Afraid to come closer to the pony (whose scent already made Chip’s tummy rumble), the changeling lay as far away from the bed as he could, curling up and falling asleep almost instantly. It was one of those rare nights that he actually remembered his dreams – he was travelling alone through a green high maze. He felt someone’s gaze on his back, just out of sight – for some reason he could not turn around and look the shadows in the eye.
The dream shattered as Chip felt somepony poking him on the head. His still sleepy eyes recognized the regalia of Cadance, who was smiling down at him. Her smell was as alluring as ever, but the changeling was thankfully still not fully awake.
“Princess Celestia told me to wake you up while she prepares the carriage. You’re going on some kind of trip or something. She didn’t say to where, though.”
“Thank you,” mumbled Chip, getting up hazily. He staggered towards the door, not paying much attention to the mare that resumed combing her head in front of a mirror. Before the colt could knock on the doors, they flung open, revealing Celestia and a bunch of guards in the frame.
“Oh, I see you’re awake. Had a pleasant night?”
“Y-yes, my Princess.”
“That’s good. Please, follow me to the carriage. I found one of your friends in Manehattan. She goes by the name of Hope Dawn.”
Chip’s ears twitched as he heard the familiar name. He would see Dawn again and meet her family. Hopefully she still remembered Chip as a kind savior…
The visit to Dawn’s apartment was a pleasant one – Chip again noted that ponies tended to ignore him in favor of Celestia, who was showered with gifts, praise and nervous bows. The mare herself was relaxed and kind, giving her subjects time to adjust to the unexpected visit.
The questioning also went quite smoothly. Dawn was a lot less emotional while talking about her captivity, which was impressive given she was subject to being fed upon. A giant weight dropped from Chip’s heart when Hope finally recognized Chip and told a story nearly identical to Night Star’s – she swore the changeling was different, kind, intelligent and a little bit clueless. The clueless bit was irritating to the involved colt, but upon reconsideration, he had to honestly admit he didn’t know much about ponies. But it would still sound better if he was just uninformed…
“Now we have two testimonies to your story, dear Chip. How does it feel to visit old friends?”
“… Strange,” replied Chip, cocking his head. “I know them a bit… But these ponies now… They aren’t the same. They are relaxed, groomed, happy… Like the others.”
“Like the others?” asked Celestia, stepping onto the carriage.
“Well… I don’t know how to explain this. You see, changelings are all alike – they look the same, act the same, you know…” Chip flailed his hooves around a bit, trying to find the words. “Back there, at my cave, there were only a few ponies. Each one was different – their manes, their coats, the shapes. They were individuals, unique.”
“Yes, they still are, dear Chip. They haven’t changed that much.”
“It’s not that they have changed… The setting… Ugh…” Chip put a hoof to his forehead. How to explain this? “Well, here, when we look down – we see other ponies, right? Some of them have the same coats, manes, some look very alike. It’s hard to tell that that mass below us are hundreds, maybe thousands of individuals, with their homes, families, dreams…”
“That is an interesting perspective. To tell the truth, many ponies are similar – that is why we have fashions, trends, societies… They want to belong to a group which they can communicate with. With whom they cannot only talk, but also understand, share the same ideas and dreams…”
“So, in fact, they want to have what the changelings have? Be together as one?” cut in Chip.
The Princess pondered this question in silence for a few moments before replying.
“From what I gather, changelings do not have individual personalities. They don’t require alone time, don’t have their personal secrets… So not exactly, Chip. Ponies would like to read the minds of others when it is convenient and be alone when they like to.”
“So… They would like to be somepony like me? Back at home, I could feel the hive and myself at the same time… Be in a group and alone simultaneously… I miss my hive…” he added unexpectedly. A tear fell onto the white carriage floor.
Chip wasn’t banished that long ago – yet compared to how long a single drone can live, it would be quite some time for a regular pony. The changeling got used to the silence in his head, but it still felt awkward – empty even. As if a chunk of his head was missing. There was no buzzing, no images or sensations from another. Just himself. Blink after blink, breath after breath…
“Are you alright, Chip?” asked the concerned Princess.
“Y-Yes, my Princess… I was just… Thinking… Of home…”
After returning to Canterlot, Chip’s life wasn’t exactly exciting – he talked with Cadance about her special somepony, who turned out to be the Captain of the Royal Guard; Gustav came every now and then to teach the changeling about “real food”, as always inducing a smile and cheer with his jolly personality; Luna would spirit Chip away for a night stroll in the maze, talking about nothing or just silently watching the stars.
The colt grew to like all these ponies – hay, even the guards outside became a tad bit friendlier towards him. Of course they didn’t talk much, but there was no longer any snickering behind his back or second guessing each and every of Chip’s demands, which weren’t numerous anyway.
Princess Celestia did a fine job in finding the rest of the saved mares – every few days she would take the colt away to a different city or town, to meet a pony that greeted them kindly and testified to Chip’s kind nature. Haypton, Ponyville, Fillydelphia, Bucksdale – each place he visited was different from the last. Ponies wore their hair differently or had funny a funny accent.
It took a month to locate and interrogate all the ponies that were ever involved with Chip – there were a few slip ups with incorrect names or similar ponies that weren’t the ones they were looking for. It was a happy time and the changeling was looking forward to seeing the end of this journey. What would lie in wait for him next?
Chip waited impatiently at the doors to Celestia’s chambers. He has been summoned here a day after they found and talked to the last mare that was safely rescued by the black stallion.
The guards outside kept their eyes locked on some point in the distance, ignoring the pacing around colt. Chip was obviously nervous – what was happening now would decide on the rest of his life here, in Equestria. Or maybe he would get banished? Oaky, he was a nice changeling, but this was not the place for him; he should go home – would that be the verdict?
Finally, the doors to the Princesses’ quarters opened and Chip was invited inside.
“Dear Chip,” started Celestia, showing him a seat near a small table. In the room there were no guards, only the white mare and, surprisingly, her sister – at this hour shouldn’t she be asleep or something?
“I and Luna have come to an agreement. My original intention was to keep you here in Canterlot – you’d be given an escort that would allow you to move about the castle. Luna here convinced me that there is no such need. Even better, she found a useful function that you could take. Would you care to hear it?”
“Yes please!” exclaimed Chip. Luna winked at him and smiled, raising the changeling’s hopes even higher.
“You see, we still know very little about your kind – try as we might, we just don’t have enough time on our hooves to study you carefully. Instead, we will allow you to be studied by another pony – a mare I completely trust and have faith in her diligence. I believe that she may be able to teach you a whole lot about ponies in exchange for the knowledge about your kind.”
“T-Teach me?” stuttered Chip. “I… I could really learn about ponies? From another pony? My…”
“Yes, yes. Luna told me how very important that is to you, and that it would be cruel to just take from you, after all you’ve been through and all that you’ve done for us. Your kindness has earned our gratitude and the trust of many here in the castle – it is only fair we reciprocate.”
“So… That means… I…”
“Should you accept this proposition, you would be relocated to Ponyville and share quarters with Twilight Sparkle, my most faithful student and your future guardian. She would research you, you would research her. What do you-”
“YES!” shouted Chip, throwing his hooves up and to his face, which now beamed in a giant smile. “YES!”
There were no guards this time to escort him back – probably none would even match his speed. Chip was sprinting with all his might to his quarters. He would lie down and wait, counting the minutes till his departure that was planned for tomorrow at sunrise. The original idea was to wait another week to make some preparations, but Chip’s enthusiasm and authentic foalish joy overwhelmed the Princesses who finally gave in. What kinds of preparations were needed anyway? Chip proved he is pure of heart and could be a valuable ally, as well as a friend.
As the colt dashed along, something made him stop just as he was passing the entrance to the Canterlot maze. A feeling that tingled somewhere deep within his head. It was strange, and very irritating. Without much though, the colt entered the cool shade of the green labyrinth, looking around with suspicion. It was cooler here than out in the sun, and this sudden change in temperature sent ripples of ice down his body.
Stop. A tiny prickling feeling was born under his chin. The sensation intensified, as if something was forcing itself upon his throat. He raised his head high, but the feeling was very strong now – the colt had no doubt something sharp was being pushed against his neck. From the corner of his eye, he saw a green, soft glow.
“Long time, no see, Chip,” he heard a voice from behind. The subtle reverb dissolved within the green walls, deep within the maze, where nopony ever wandered…