H knew that things were looking up the instant she joined the other different changelings. Some of them were like Hydrus, with a strange name and access to others like them that somehow had the power to give directions.
Her guess was right—they all had names. H was placed into the back of the line, without ever having to be told exactly where she ought to go. But she was the smallest, the newest, so it made sense.
The crowd of drones below moved like a single organism, with buzzing ripples that passed through it like the waves on a little black lake. They moved towards loud noises in the distance. H could see walls within walls, and hear occasional rumbles and screams.
Apparently the food-place still had some fighters left, and they were going to get rid of them.
“Hi,” she said, to the one ahead of her in line. He was so much bigger that she almost thought he must be lost—but despite his size he didn’t have things to put on his body, so he must belong. “I’m H. Do you have a name?”
“Thorax,” he said, voice quavering. “You think we’ll have to fight, H?”
“Probably,” she answered. “Fight, then eat. That’s what the queen said.”
“I don’t like it,” he muttered, mostly to himself.
The words didn’t make sense to her, and H’s wings briefly stopped beating. She buzzed to catch up, ears curling in embarrassment, but the one called Thorax was so lost in thought that he didn’t notice her.
Don’t like it.
She tried to put those thoughts together, and couldn’t. They were what the queen wanted. They were her hooves. Hadn’t she learned yesterday that the queen’s promises always came true? She said they would get food after their hard fight, and they had.
“You seem confused,” she finally said, sounding thoroughly confused herself. “The queen promised a place with enough food for forever. Here we are.”
“I guess.” Thorax didn’t sound argumentative as they reached the enclave and its walls—if anything he sounded sick. “I think maybe that’s why she demoted me so many times. She confuses me.”
Demoted. That word hadn’t meant anything to H, but all she had to do was think about it and the meaning came. It was something she didn’t want. This one had been more important, but now he was less because he had been bad somehow.
H’s entire world shifted in that instant, from a waterfall into a mountain. She couldn’t just ride it up to being more, she had to climb. She could act wrong, act like Thorax, and go back down.
H flew further from Thorax the rest of the way, afraid whatever had confused him would infect her too.
She smelled the blood as they got close, and watched as the drones surged over the walls. Many fighters died, as they had died before, but there were so many more of them. Soon enough all the food was captured, and the black river now sloshed through the streets.
Hydrus returned to the air, flying past them in a row. “I can’t trust the drones to capture their homes,” he said. “They’ll do too much damage. A pony dead is a lifetime of food thrown in a gutter to rot, you understand?”
They seemed to understand, even if H didn’t.
“We’re going to get the ponies out,” he went on. “Out of their houses, and down into the lower city with all the others. They think because they had bits that the swarm will treat them differently. But food is food.”
H probably should’ve kept her mouth closed at the back of the line. But she was overflowing with questions. “What is bits?” She could think about the word, and little bits of metal came to mind. But why would having pieces of metal make some ponies act differently than others? Is it the same thing the bigger changelings do? Did ponies have ranks like changelings?
“The reason we’re here,” Hydrus grunted, annoyance instantly returning to his voice. “They buy guards and walls and magic spells.”
H tilted her head to one side. “What is… buy?” She could picture a wall, and she had seen plenty of magic spells. But thinking about “buy” brought images that made even less sense than bits. Ponies in groups, giving things back and forth without knowing their proper order or fighting over them.
Apparently she’d pushed a little too hard. “Come and see,” Hydrus said, gesturing impatiently forward. And she obeyed, buzzing up to him and holding her best battle stance. She could do it way better than the army had the night before.
“You don’t have any weapons…” he muttered. “Lost?”
“Nothing lost,” she muttered. “My teeth are strong; my hooves are fast.”
“Great queens, she’s freshly spawned,” muttered one of the other important ones. She watched H with more than just annoyance, but… disgust. It was like what she had felt around Thorax. This one thought she was better than H. And she might be right… she was so much bigger, and she spoke so much more clearly. “Put her back with the cannon fodder, Hydrus. She can’t negotiate and take prisoners—she’s just going to bite everything until they step on her.”
I want to be like her. “I can do it!” she insisted, wings buzzing a little faster in her agitation. “I can do those! Prisoners… negotiation… I can do the best at those!”
There was laughter from the others like her in the air—all of them but Thorax.
“We’ll see,” Hydrus said. “Okay, H.” He levitated something off his back—one of those wooden things the food fought with, with the metal sharp parts that could kill you from far away.
“One of the good crossbows? That’s a waste, Hydrus.”
“Quiet!” he hissed, holding it out to her. “Can you use this, H?”
H beamed, taking the object in her magic. It took all the concentration she could muster just to hold it up and fly at the same time, but at least she didn’t drop it and look silly. “Yes! I watched the food fight with these. They point it, and pull that bottom part, and…”
“Buzz she actually knows,” someone else muttered. “Can we watch, Hydrus? I want to see what happens.”
“Yes, in fact I want all of you to watch.” Hydrus flew alongside H for some distance, leading her past several of the nests the food lived in. They really did look pretty in the sunlight, with their many colorful windows to let different colors in. Maybe changeling hives should be like that, instead of just green.
“Right here.” Hydrus landed on the ground in front of the house at the very end of the street. Off to one side H could see the bodies of many of her kind, along with a few guards in bright armor made from lots of metal pieces. “There are at least three ponies inside this building, H. I need you lead them out. Do not kill any of them unless I tell you, okay? The food they’ll make is worth more than you. If you get them out, lots of us eat. Understand?”
“Yeah!” She lifted the crossbow. “Get the ponies out. I can do it.”
“Good.” He took a step back. Several of the others joined them on the ground, scattering the drones.
Drones! That’s what that word means. Changelings without names… Did that mean H wasn’t a drone anymore? Was that good, or…
H made her way up to the house, slowing a little to stare at the dead as she passed. The blood was still green from these, hadn’t turned brown in the air yet. They’d probably died in the fighting while she watched. Without names.
H stopped in front of the door, nudging it with a hoof. It swung inward off its hinges, a massive slab of wood that smashed tile where it hit.
H took off, hissing and baring her fangs at it and forgetting about the weapon completely.
“Inside,” Hydrus called from behind her, annoyed. “Don’t take too long! We’re sure they’re in there. Just find the food and bring it out.”
Right. Finding food couldn’t be that hard. And if she did it, then she wouldn’t be like Thorax. She didn’t have to be demoted and forgotten.
The food nest was all wrong. The air was dry, and there wasn’t a patch of comfortable darkness to be seen. Instead of soft slime, the ground was naked stone, along with something that looked a little like food fur.
She stepped over the fallen door, feeling for the food as Hydrus had told her. It was all further—up a slope of little flat pieces. Stairs. Almost everything in the nest was strange to her—patterns attached to the walls, flat containers filled with other objects. As she saw each one, the words came. Pictures, shelves, books. Changelings knew about all these things, but she’d never seen any of them before.
For a place where the food raised their young, it seemed a frighteningly bleak nursery. There was nowhere warm and wet enough for young to survive, only more empty rooms. They trap their rivers in the walls. Maybe they don’t have any young to care for right now.
H reached another sturdy door, behind a pile of debris probably left by the prey as they fled. They were all inside, three just like Hydrus said. All she had to do was get them out.
H banged on the door with one hoof, but it didn’t fall over like the front one had. “Food!” she called, as loud as she could. That was a lot of wood to be in the way. “You need to come out now!”
There were voices on the other side, voices overflowing with energy. Even the fear she tasted on them was delicious, though it was far from her favorite food. “Does she think we’ll just open it?”
Another voice, more quietly. H could hear the emotion thick in the voice, a sickening taste that she tried to banish from her tongue as soon as she felt it there. “Dad needs a doctor. Maybe… maybe if we give up, he can…”
“No, sweetheart,” said a third voice. “I’ll be fine. We can’t open that door. I saw what the monsters did to Soul Shield and Quickstrike. They aren’t letting ponies surrender.”
“We are!” H corrected helpfully, stepping right up to the door. “The fighting’s over! Lots of my brothers and sisters died, it’s really sad. I don’t think they even had names. But no one is fighting anymore.”
She listened, waiting to see how the food would respond. But it had fallen silent, the fear largely replaced with confusion. Confusion, and a few tantalizing drops of hope. That she wanted. So she went on. “Hydrus told me to come in and bring you. They’re taking all the ponies down to the lower city.”
“Soulless barbarians!” shouted a voice from the other side—male, filled with pain and unimaginable anger. “I slew a dozen of you before the walls fell, and I’ll slay a dozen more before you lay a hoof on my family! Open that door and see if I don’t!”
H retreated from the door as though she’d been hit, and would’ve fired the crossbow if she still had it. How could so much hate fit in just one creature? This food has gone bad. I’d be sick for a moon if I ate that.
But no—the food could feel how wrong it was. H felt the hurt coming from him, and knew it was the same one. It’s not good to feel that way. But she couldn’t tell him that, not through a door. He’d only get mad again. So she would have to try something else.
“There are a lot more than… a dozen? What is a dozen? Is that more than three?” And as she needed the knowledge, it came. After three came four, then five, and so on until she got to twelve. A dozen was that many. “Yeah. There’s a lot more than that. There are… so many drones I can’t count them. Lots of them didn’t get to fight. I bet you could probably kill a lot of us—you’re so much bigger and stronger than me. But there’s so many, you’d lose. I think it would be better if nobody fought. Then nobody gets hurt.”