by Beige Monkfish

Chapter Twenty-Three - Adapting

The gentle mid-afternoon breeze, though as pleasant as always, certainly felt somewhat peculiar in her new form. No longer did it play with her mane and tail, nor brush against her coat. Instead it felt as if she were underwater, feeling the slight push of the wind, most noticeable on her crest and delicate wings.

Eyes closed, she concentrated on her breathing. Easier said than done, as even the sound of her breath was different, much closer than the distant low rustle of countless trees. The unfamiliarity was distracting.

“So what exactly am I looking for?” she asked, opening one eye to look at the griffon sitting opposite on the grass.

Gurney flipped through the papers before him. “Whatever changeling magic feels like,” he said absently.

Retcon ground her teeth. There was no point in asking the obvious question.

“When a unicorn summons their magic,” he continued, “they describe it as a… a sort of fizzing, sparking kind of feeling. Might be similar to that. You ever had an electric shock?”

She gave him a look.

“I’ll see if we still have that crank magneto lying around,” Gurney muttered, tapping his beak. “Maybe that’ll help you reach your magic. Eh, it’d be informative either way.”

The two stayed out in the courtyard for a short while longer before Gurney called an end to the session. He had notes on how a changeling used their magic, but not on how a changeling accessed magic.

Retcon imagined an invisible limb protruding from her chest, near her heart, and focused on trying to move it. She had figured out her pegasus wings very quickly, but she could see those, she could feel those. She knew they were there, and she could understand the muscles she needed to pull. Likewise, her new insectoid wings, though different in structure entirely, moved with little thought. She felt no such starting point for magic.

She had tried everything they had together thought of; she had tried concentrating on lighting her horn. She had imagined pushing energy to her forehead (which only made her dizzy), and tried throwing her force of will out from within. She had imagined a reservoir of water deep within herself, and tried to feel a trickle of a stream flowing from it, tried dipping a bucket into it, to siphon some of it off. To her frustration, no matter what she tried, how she analogised it, she had felt no different.

“Focus on finding your magic for now,” Gurney had said. “It’s in their somewhere, and it’ll come to you naturally when you figure out the trigger. Remember, right up until you were retconned, you could switch forms with hardly a thought. Just keep at it and try not to overthink it. Let it come to you.”

She stayed behind after Gurney went inside, relishing her own company in the afternoon air. She was annoyed, electing to direct her frustrations toward mulling over her situation. Seated alone on the grass, her eyes closed and her breathing steady, she tried the suggestions again, and imagined up new metaphors for how to access her magic. The presumption was that when she found it, her horn would light up the way a unicorn’s did and she would feel something.

Eventually, as the shadow of the courtyard walls reached the other side, Retcon called it quits. It didn’t feel like she had made much progress, but Gurney’s conciliatory words kept her from feeling too downhearted.

She did however feel restless. Since she still had some daylight left and little else to do, Retcon inquisitively stretched her sets of wings.

The insectoid wings were nothing like the feathered appendages she had become accustomed to. There were no bones or joints, no muscles or tendons in the thin membranes. They couldn’t bend or fold, she was only able to move them at the base. The muscles in her back that controlled them, if indeed muscles they were, seemed prone to twitching when moved. She had meant to gradually raise her wings, but they seemed to want to rapidly flit instead, like they weren’t built for slow, deliberate movement. Rather than intentionally flapping her wings up and down, Retcon found that tensing these back muscles caused them to buzz without her having to think about the individual motions.

After buzzing her wings experimentally a few times, she gradually increased the rate, feeling herself become lighter as her hooves drifted away from the ground. Despite their size and apparent flimsiness, she was surprised by their output; though nowhere near as powerful as her pegasus wings, it seemed their higher rate made up for it.

Perhaps she shouldn’t have been surprised that she picked up flight as a changeling faster than as a pegasus. Even though she had no memory of it before, she found there was less she had to think about. Flying on pegasus wings was like learning to walk. She had to intentionally pull and push the muscles at just the right rate, making sure to angle them downwards so she didn’t just flop forward onto her face, and then keep that rate constant when in the air. It was something she had got the hang of, but it took a short while to wrap her head around initially. With her changeling wings, all she needed to do was increase or decrease the tension in the wing muscles in her back, essentially acting as a throttle for the buzz rate. With only a gentle shift of her weight, she found she could move, turn and dive with a surprising degree of fine control. It felt like she was being pulled around in the air by intent alone.

Emboldened by the freedom of movement, Retcon buzzed up to one of the upper windows of the Institute, turned, and aimed for a window directly across the courtyard, building up speed and confidence as she repeated the lap. She wasn’t quite as fast as on feathered wings, though she wasn’t slow by any means, but the speed at which she could change direction on the air was startling. Retcon laughed aloud with delight as she barrelled around in the air.

A window caught her eye. It was one of the windows with metal bars set into it, and a thought dampened her mood slightly. It was a thought she hadn’t considered for a while with everything that had been going on.

What was in the rooms with the bars?

She flitted over to the window and, lifting a foreleg to the glass to shield the bright glare of the sky, peered inside.

She saw shelves, lines of shelving units reaching up to the ceiling. She saw boxes lining the shelves, all with small labels. No one was home.

She snorted darkly, shaking her head. Storage. Just storage.

Door after door crawled past her peripheral vision as she walked. Her legs kept moving of their own accord, carrying her somewhere ahead. A touch of a frown graced her expression. A stranger would be forgiven for assuming she was discontent. That was the problem.

Retcon has spent the better part of an hour flying around the courtyard, familiarising herself with her new wings. She had only flown a few times before, it was something that she had enjoyed, but there hadn’t been many situations over the past week where flight had been the preferable option over it’s simply walking. She had assumed this would not be the case once she had left the facility; how she had longed to take to the air during the visit to Canterlot! But still, there had just been more important things to think about.

And so it had come as a shock how much she had enjoyed flying on her membranous wings. The jump in her agility was a delightful surprise. She could bank tighter, accelerate harder, even reverse direction mid-air far faster than she had become accustomed to. While she felt she had never attained her maximum speed on pegasus wings given the limited space above the courtyard, the level of fine control she now had was an amazing feeling. It was enough to make her ignore how her stomach no longer grumbled.

A bug’s wings, maybe. Butterfly’s wings… Not exactly, and perhaps a tad self-unctuous. Dragonfly wings? Retcon glanced over her shoulder as she walked. She liked the sound of that.

Having been a pegasus, she had given very little thought to the notion of wielding magic. It was rather easy to forget the protrusion of chitin on her forehead. So far she had only seen Sky and Sparkler perform magic, mainly the lifting and manipulation of things by means of an energy aura. Obviously learning about her transformation magic was priority, it would be nice to return to the way she was before, to her… Well it wasn’t her ‘true’ form, nor her ‘original’ form. This one was. Her ‘preferred’ form, perhaps.

That was the funny thing; when she thought of ‘Lemony’, it was the cheery pink unicorn with the nice mane that came to mind. For ‘Sky’, it was those piercing, angular emerald eyes. But for ‘Retcon’, she could only picture an olive pegasus with a messy green mane. Maybe this form wanted it’s own name, but that would needlessly complicate things.

After she figured out transformation, well, what other magic could she learn? Could she too learn object manipulation? That certainly looked rather useful. What else could one do with magic? It was a whole field of possibility she had never even considered back when she didn’t have a horn.

And if she could master her transformation magic… what other forms could she take? Could she really be anything she wanted?

The thought worried her, though she wasn’t exactly sure why. The possibility had crossed her mind of improving her old form slightly. What if she took the opportunity to lose a bit of weight, just a little? To be sleeker, like the other pegasi? While she was slimmer now, as a pony she hadn’t been too far off what appeared to be the average. She hadn’t found issue with it before, and maybe she shouldn’t now just because she had the option to change it. If she changed her (what she considered) plain face, it wouldn’t really be her anymore. If she made herself taller or stronger, if such options were available, wouldn’t that be cheating?

The notion of… testing her changeling magic once she figured it out was certainly an attractive one, but if she was going to, maybe it would be best to invent new forms rather than altering ‘herself’.

…What would it be like to be somepony else? Misty Fly was an… air show performer, or something? It would be cool to be able to try out her wings. And what would it feel like to be Sky? Stomping around with a long mane and a big grumpy scowl, didn’t her face muscles get tired?

Retcon pursed her lips. That seemed like a wrong thing to do.

It was a peculiar line of thought, one that would have been entirely alien and unthinkable a few days ago… maybe even repugnant? Perhaps-

She almost stumbled over her hooves as she realised what she was seeing, shaking her from her thoughts. Up ahead, just three doors away, standing in the large circular room at the end of the hallway, was a pony. One she hadn’t seen before. He was blue with a darker blue mane and tail, and he hadn’t spotted her yet.

Her mind, so far away only a moment ago, struggled to catch up. She was a changeling now, and a lot of ponies didn’t like changelings. Should she hide? Should she duck into one of the rooms she had been passing by? Would they be okay with her? She had had to hide from other ponies in Canterlot, but she hadn’t been told what to do if she met anyone new at the Institute.

The last time this had happened was with Misty Fly, and that went well, didn’t it? Surely it’ll be fine here too!

But… she was still a pegasus back then…

She should hide.

She glanced around. Where? Any random door? Then what, just wait? For how long?

There was motion up ahead, but it was the tang of emotion that got her attention. The blue stallion still hadn’t noticed her, but he wasn’t alone. There were two other strangers up ahead, both mares. One was talking with him. The other had stopped moving, and was looking straight at Retcon.

Time seemed to stop as the two made eye contact.

Retcon slowly lifted a forelimb and, with a very uncertain attempt at a friendly expression, waved gingerly.