Day 1 outside the hive
The magical onslaught laid down the night before by the elite outriders had set more than one patch of dry shrub ablaze. Baked vegetation had burned long into the night, shooting up emerald green tongues of flame. As smoke and cloud cover built up above them, the night itself was lit up in a sickly fashion. The beacon, which lingered for hours over the hive, did nothing to dispel the effect. It was as if the world itself had become ill, and was now showing a deathly pallor.
The fires had died down a little before dawn, but the smoke still hung in the air. When the sun finally lifted her face above the eastern horizon, she was pale and weak.
Her green-tinged, washed out light gently touched the carapaces of the changeling pair as they dozed in the cover of a thorny, half dead patch of brush. Their chitin, once dark and glossy, was rendered a dull, matt brown by their night in the dust. That dust had gathered between plates, around eyes, and at the edges of their mouths. Every movement was accompanied by an uncomfortable, grinding sensation.
Renegade stirred first, lifting his head through the brush and scrubbing the dust from his bleary eyes. He coughed, spitting a gritty wad of saliva. It was his first morning as a free changeling, and he wasn't enjoying it one bit.
Briefly, he considered putting his new-found freedom to use by lying down and going back to sleep, but the idea was pushed aside almost as soon as it appeared. There was too much ground to cover, and not enough time to cover it in. So, with a crack of popping cartilage, he stretched, and poked his companion a few times.
The lighter changeling took to the morning even worse than Renegade had. He jerked back into wakefulness in the manner of someling who had been almost, but not quite, asleep, put his head up, and promptly began coughing on the mouthful of dust that he had accumulated.
As Follower hacked, Renegade took in their surroundings. Southwards lay the hive, still visible just beyond the horizon. It was a massive structure, easily the tallest thing in this part of the Badlands. The touch of the rising sun gave the walls of ancient, secreted resin an odd, shiny look and a green cast that was completely out of place in the orange-red dust that surrounded it.
East and west were empty expanses of space, only broken by the ubiquitous shrubs and hollows. A rocky mountain or the odd plateau could be seen in the distance, but they were as barren as the land around them. There was little of any interest in either direction, except perhaps a rival hive. But they would have seen the beacon. Even if the drones had no idea what it meant, the monarchs would. So there would be no welcome to the east or the west.
But north... North was the prize. Beyond the edge of the Badlands, lay civilisation. A land so full of love that it overflowed and flooded the lands around it. They said a changeling could feed for days and not make a dent.
There was a catch, though. Legend said that this land was defended by a being of unimaginable power. So powerful, that no hive had ever even attempted to conquer it, or even the lands that lay before or beyond it. This god amongst mortals was the reason that the changelings had been forced to huddle together in a dry, dusty desert with barely enough love to go around, and what little there was hoarded jealously by the monarchy.
And where better to hide, than in the home of the only thing that the queen feared?
Follower sat upright as he finally cleared his mouth and throat of dust.
"Maybe we'd have been better staying in the hive," he said, his buzzing voice even rougher than was normal for a changeling. One hoof rubbed at the side of his muzzle; the thin slice was still bleeding, even as dust coated the blood oozing out of it, turning it into a thick, sticky mess.
Renegade's only reaction was a twitch of his right ear. A comment like that didn't deserve to be dignified with a proper response.
Follower waited for a moment, but when it was obvious nothing more was forthcoming, he sighed. Idly, he scuffed at the dust.
"So... What now?"
"We keep moving," said Renegade shortly. "Northwards, and we don't stop until we reach something worth stopping for."
"Right. Sounds fun."
Neither one moved.
"You all right, young one?"
Starting guiltily, Follower nodded, giving a grin that was a touch too wide to be genuine.
Renegade huffed out a quiet sigh.
"I know things don't look very hopeful right now. The first night hasn't exactly been what you hoped it might be. But we knew what we were getting into. Noling ever said this would be easy. We've just got to put our heads down and push on."
"And what if that's not enough?"
"Then we die free," he said simply.
Though it was hard to tell so, Follower rolled his eyes at that. If Renegade noticed, he didn't say anything. Instead, he just rolled his shoulder, calling Follower to do what it seemed he did best.
Silently, beneath a green sky, the pair moved north.
It was only a few minutes later, as Renegade was trying to rid himself of a mouthful of dust without wasting water, that Follower asked a question that no changeling would have dared before.
"Should we have...names?"
Renegade burst into a coughing fit, but the coughs quickly became laughter. An odd sound, pitched low and messy with buzzing reverb. He carried on for a while, not really sure why he was laughing. Finally, the laughter subsided, and his face turned serious.
"I suppose we could. It might be easier if I something to call you, besides 'young one' or 'guardsling'."
"I thought so, too. So what do you think my name would be?"
Renegade chuckled. "Young one, I'm not picking your name for you. We're free, now. We don't need someling telling us what to do."
He smiled. "You pick a name. Make a choice for yourself."
Follower looked almost mortified. He glanced around, as if he were afraid something were watching, and leaned in close.
"B-but that's not how it works, is it?" he hissed. "I mean, maybe it does in the hive, but I've heard about places where everyling has names, and they say that your parents are supposed to name you."
That nearly set Renegade off again. "That's only helpful if you know who your parents were," he chuckled. "Closest we have - had - was the queen."
"Yeah, and I doubt she'd have picked a very flattering one if she were here."
"So go on. Pick something."
"It's not exactly an easy choice!" Follower snorted. "Why don't you pick something for yourself? Give me some time to think."
His eyes wandered around the desert, picking out crags and boulders, scrubs and dust-devils. Finally, he turned his gaze eastwards, where the sun, still green and washed out, sat a little ways above the horizon. Somewhere inside of him, something seemed to come together.
"That's my name. Rising Sun." He smiled. It sounded good on his tongue, and felt good in his mouth. "See? Easy enough."
"Oh, yeah, really easy if you just pick the first thing you happen to look at."
"You don't think it suits me?"
"No, it suits you fine. Goes with your sunny personality."
"You know, I never asked; is that mouth of yours what got you sent to me?" chuckled the newly named Rising Sun.
Follower frowned, looking almost surprised at himself. "No. I'm not sure where that came from." He shielded his eyes as a stray gust blew a handful of grit in his face. "They sent me to you because I had ideas. About where I fit into things. You know the drill. Queenie doesn't want anyling acting special unless she tells you to. And even then, it had better be the sort of special she wants, or else."
Rising Sun nodded but said nothing. Inside, he was thinking about Follower's choice of nickname. Queenie? It didn't seem quite right to stick a label like that on her.
"So what about this name, then?"
Follower didn't want to admit it, but there was a name he had thought of. He'd thought of it before Rising Sun, in fact, as he thought about long nights spent watching from the hive walls, with only the night's wind to keep him focussed. It had been the impetus behind his question in the first place. But he was reluctant to actually say it. In part because of the stigma that he couldn't shake; drones were not meant to have names, and any that did were considered dangerous at best. It was an idea that had been programmed, hard-wired even, into his mind.
But the real reason was simply that he was embarrassed. It had seemed like such a good idea when he'd first thought of it, but now at the moment of truth he was almost scared to speak the words.
The expectant stare of Rising Sun was on him. There was nothing for it; either say it, and risk embarrassment, or don't say it and look like and idiot. He swallowed, looking westward to the last resting place of last night's setting moon.
He squeezed his eyes shut, bracing himself for the laughter, but it didn't come. Instead, Rising Sun, pursed his lips thoughtfully, his tongue playing across the curves of his fangs.
"'Evening Breeze'. Not bad. It suits you."
He paused and pulled a canteen from his bags, taking a swig and tossing it to Evening Breeze. "Here. Just a mouthful, mind you. It has to last."
The other took it, nodding his thanks. One mouthful wasn't nearly enough to clear his mouth or soothe his throat, but it was better than nothing. He hoofed it back to Rising Sun, who took his own ration and slid the canteen back into place.
"Come on then, Evening Breeze. We've got a lot of ground to cover."
Many Hours Earlier
The changeling who would be Evening Breeze sighed. After a long day on the hive wall, when any changeling was simply looking forward to climbing into their cocoon and getting some rest, that was the worst word to hear. It was a word that promised bad things on the immediate horizon. After all, there were only two reasons why a changeling would be singled out. Either your abilities had marked you as a candidate for promotion, or your behaviour had marked you as a renegade, and you were due for re-education.
Breeze was fairly sure he didn't measure up as General, or even Drone-Adept, material. Not that he would have wanted to, given the absurd amount of responsibility placed on the backs of Generals of the Hive. No, give him a quiet, follower's post as one of a thousand unremarkable drones, where noling expected anything of you but quiet devotion and silent service.
Besides, even if he did measure up, not every candidate made it beyond training, and noling ever saw the failures and the drop-outs. Breeze had no intention of gaining first-hoof knowledge of the horrors that awaited failures, no matter how much mystery there was behind them. There were rumours, of course, but they were never spoken at anything above a whisper, and never in the uncanny hearing of a superior officer. Such things marked you out as an aberration.
The alternative was not particularly promising either, though re-education was surprisingly hard to fail. But it wasn't the danger of failure that made re-education a less than desirable prospect. It was the stigma. Even if he came out a model changeling in every way, Breeze would still have been the renegade, the changeling who didn't fit into the hive. That was a mark he would carry to his grave.
There was nothing he could do to stop it. The Generals were, for reasons beyond his ken, extremely adept at spotting the differences between otherwise indistinguishable drones. And it was no use pretending he didn't know that it was him they wanted. Generals were able to somehow catch the attention of the drone they wanted, even though the only thing they said to catch it was "you". There was some strange timbre in their voice that either told you to put your head down and keep walking, or stop and make yourself known.
So he looked back over his shoulder at the General who had called him, dipping his head but taking care never to point his horn at the General.
"General, is there a problem?"
Of course there was a problem. If there hadn't been, then the General wouldn't have been here. But one had to be respectful, obedient, and utterly generic.
The General paused, his face looking like it had been carved from onyx. There was no hint of emotion there, no clue as to the nature of his summons. All he said was, "Come with me."
Breeze suppressed a sudden urge to scowl. It wouldn't do to show irritation. Not here. Just be a good little drone, and follow. He let himself roll his eyes, though, once the General's back was turned. It wasn't as though anyling could tell. With a changeling's eyes, you had to look closely to even see where he was looking.
His hooves made a funny, hollow 'click-clack' sound on the resin floor as he walked. If the hive had had traditional clocks, it might have reminded him of the steady tick-tock of a clock counting down to some unenviable fate. But they didn't, so it only made him think of the countless times he'd walked down a tunnel in the hive, listening to his own hoofbeats echoing away and then drifting back to him.
Presently, they reached a small chamber set off to one side of the tunnel. The General beckoned him in, and sealed the doorway shut behind them. The chamber was spartan, like most parts of the hive, furnished with two chairs and a lump of resin that had been moulded into a desk. The General sat behind the desk, gesturing for Breeze to take the other chair. He didn't bother. Instead, he remained standing, trying to focus on keeping perfectly still.
"There have been some problems, guardsling," the General said, tapping his hoof against the desk. "Put bluntly, your attitude is not as it should be."
"I don't see a problem with my attitude, sir," Breeze replied before he could stop himself.
"That's exactly the problem. You shouldn't have an attitude."
The General sighed. "What's your name?"
"Your name. Tell me what it is."
"I-I don't have a name, sir."
"You don't have a name. You don't have an attitude. You are a drone, guardsling. The hive speaks with one voice; how can that voice mean anything if the hive is not united?
"This attitude of yours sets you apart from your fellows, where no division should exist. It compromises efficiency and performance. If you are to function as a hive, you must think as one. A single discordant voice can ruin us all."
He stood, pacing around the desk. "My predecessor would probably just have had you recycled, and saved us a lot of trouble. Count yourself lucky that I'm the one dealing with you, and not him. I don't like to see resources wasted. So I'll take a chance with you. You're to report to re-education in two hours. Once I feel you've been made properly aware of your place within this hive, you will return to your post. We will not have this conversation again. Am I understood?"
A slow sense of unease built in Breeze's gut, but he nodded, said the right words, and walked away once he was dismissed.
As he trod the resin halls back to his barracks, he felt as though someling had slung an iron weight around his neck. It was as he'd feared; he was a renegade. An aberration. He was wrong. And at the same time, he was sure he wasn't. He saw the others. The only difference between him and them was that they were better actors than he was. But they either didn't notice, or they didn't care about that.
So this was Evening Breeze, or the nameless changeling who would become Evening Breeze. He was either broken, or the only one to realise that everyling was broken. Either way, he was alone.
As soon as he was sure noling was watching, he ducked into a smaller side passage, found himself a comfortable hole, and curled himself up inside, like a grub cuddling itself inside a cocoon.
"Welcome to re-education, guardsling."
The Re-educator stared at Breeze down a chunky, angular muzzle, blinking slowly. He looked as if he were sizing the young changeling up for something. It made Breeze uncomfortable.
It was almost funny; it would have been extremely difficult to find two changelings as utterly different as the two currently sitting in the re-education chamber. The Re-educator was big, bulky, with narrow eyes and a fairly average coloured chitin. Breeze was slender, slight, with a normal changeling's short, round muzzle and chitin that was a shade or two lighter than was normal.
The difference wasn't astounding. Had the pair been standing together in the middle of a crowd, you might not even have noticed it. But here, sitting alone in this chamber built for a small gathering, they seemed to represent the two very extremes of changeling physiology.
"The General tells me you have, as he put it, an 'attitude issue'. He clarifies that this means you have an attitude, and it has become an issue."
The Re-educator said everything in that same dead, buzzing tone, with the same precise intonation that every other drone possessed when not in disguise, but Breeze thought for a moment he detected something else in that voice.
"Your record," he continued, "details borderline seditious mutterings, a tendency to answer back to senior members of the hive, and an inability to mesh with other guardslings. All in all, young one, your performance is not satisfactory. There is an obvious issue with you, one that needs addressing as soon as possible."
"Yes sir," Breeze replied. It was the first thing he'd said since he'd entered the room.
"It's clear to me that you are dissatisfied with life as part of the hive. This, as well as a tendency towards unwanted independent thought, breeds discontent and ultimately sedition.
"So, tell me just what your problem is with the hive."
"...I'm not sure that's wise, sir."
"You're afraid that you might say something that could be seen as seditious?"
He hummed to himself as Breeze nodded. "That's understandable. In that case, I want you to know I won't report a word of what I hear in this room. Nothing you say will get past me. But if I'm going to fix you, I need to know what's broken. So don't be afraid. Just tell me why you feel like you need to be different."
Breeze said nothing, still trying to process what he'd just been told to do.
The Re-educator sighed. "I know this must be intimidating for you. But I'm not the enemy here." He smiled. The show of emotion did not go unnoticed, but Breeze tried not to let surprise show on his face. "Listen, I'm not so different from you. Most of the time, I'm a guardsling as well. We speak with one voice; you, me and the rest of our caste. And we're more alike than that; I went through re-education myself, a few years ago. So let me assure you; anything you say, I've probably felt myself at some point in my life. I won't judge you."
"You went through this? So why are you still here?"
"The General thought I might have enough of an attitude left that it might be worth putting it to a positive use, helping those who are like I was. You know how he hates waste."
"So do you still have an attitude?"
His smile widened a touch. "I'm still here, aren't I? Now, I think it's your turn to tell a story."
Breeze shivered. That last reply was very un-changeling. It left a sour taste in his mouth, while at the same time giving him a strange thrill of excitement. "Well, I... I just don't think it's fair. To be treated as if we're identical, I mean."
"Why not? We're all drones, aren't we?"
"No. I mean, yes, we're all drones, but that doesn't make us identical at all. If we were, I wouldn't be here."
"Aberrations are bound to pop up from time to time."
"And what if I'm not an aberration? I've seen the others; sure, they act identically, but I know they're only doing it because they've been told that's how they're supposed to act. We all have! But I've seen half of my division making jokes! Jokes! And one of them didn't even get it! How can we all be of one mind, but not all have the same sense of humour!?"
By now Breeze was almost manic, animated by the release of years of bottled-up resentment. He only paused, his chest heaving, when he saw the raised brow-plate on the Re-educator's face.
"And just how is it," the Re-educator said carefully, "that you all came to know about jokes in the first place?"
Breeze blinked, the wind taken right out of his sails. He took a few deep, calming breaths, and settled himself before speaking again.
"Infiltrators," came his simple reply.
"Ah, of course..." muttered the Re-educator, closing his eyes.
That one word seemed to be the single source of so many problems within the hive. Particularly re-education problems.
The infiltrators were, in the eyes of the Royalty, a necessary evil. But they were also an inconvenient one. Charged, as their title might suggest, with the infiltration of the varying layers of a target society, a single infiltrator could spend weeks, sometimes even months at a time working from within the enemy, trusted to play their role so perfectly that no one and nothing knew who or what they really were. Sometimes they simply worked to collect love, stockpile it, and ship it back to the hive. Sometimes they laid the groundwork for larger operations.
Because of the unique nature of their duties, infiltrators themselves were unique. Not to mention unusual. Within their ranks, individuality was promoted, not suppressed, and each infiltrator had their own name, regardless of their station. Such unconventional allowances were deemed acceptable if they helped improve an infiltrator's ability to fall effortlessly into a role, to understand the enemy and their quirks so that they might better blend in. Generals had even started relying on particular infiltrators to take on particular types of tasks, matching the quirks and eccentricities of the infiltrator to those of a certain target. It was efficient. But it was also dangerous to the mental and spiritual well-being of the hive.
"Do you like jokes?"
Breeze hesitated, so the Re-educator went on. "Remember, nothing gets past me. Nothing leaves this room that you don't want to."
"Y-yes," Breeze said, his voice soft, eyes fixed on the floor. That sudden fire had died down to the embers, leaving him feeling vaguely ashamed. "I mean, I haven't really heard many, but there was one that I think was good. It made me feel happy. I like that. And the infiltrator who told it to me. He was...strange. But in a good way. I liked him, too."
Normally, the infiltrators were kept sequestered away from the rest of the general drones, shut away in private quarters on forbidden levels. But every so often either one of them, or one of their little quirks, escaped, leaking out and infecting the general populous. Sometimes it was music or art, often of a particular style. Once, an epidemic of Canterlot Bleu style cuisine had swept through the hive before it could be brought under control. This time, it seemed, the infection had taken the form of jokes.
Though such leaks were swiftly and efficiently dealt with, they were also, to some extent, tolerated. The only real way to control an escape of knowledge would be to immediately execute a mass purge of all drones who had come into contact with said knowledge. No General wanted to unleash that within the ranks of the drones, each for their own varying reasons. Some though it was needlessly cruel, morally unacceptable even. Others simply found the concept to be inefficient.
So the use of said knowledge was gently discouraged, and allowed to simply die in its own time.
The Re-educator nodded to himself, and the subject decided its time in this particular room was short indeed. Breeze pushed the question out of his head, and with another gentle nod from the Re-educator, he pushed forward.
"It's not just that, though. I can see it, sometimes. I can see that they're feeling what I am. They all know that they're different, they probably just think they're the only one. And I think I might be the only changeling who can see that."
"Is that why you act out? Because you feel alone?"
"I suppose. I just wish they could see it too. I wish everyling could see it. Why shouldn't we be allowed to like different things? Have a sense of humour?"
And just like that, with the memory of the joke and the strange infiltrator in his mind, Breeze found the fire flaring to life again. "I mean, I was destined to be a guardsling from the day I was hatched. I like it, and I'm glad I'm not a worker, but what if I wasn't? What if I'd wanted to do something else? Why shouldn't I be allowed to choose?"
"You don't think the Queen knows what's best for the hive?"
"Well, sometimes it doesn't feel like it."
Almost as soon as he'd spoken the words, he wished he could inhale them. His eyes flitted about the room, as if there might be some secret listening spot where a more loyal, normal changeling could have heard his words.
The other frowned. "That's dangerous talk, guardsling. Say that to anyling else, and you could be terminated on the spot."
He paced around behind Breeze, and with a flash of his horn he sealed the door, soundproofing the chamber. Breeze turned to watch him, confused.
"Luckily for you, I know exactly where you're coming from."
"Tell me, guardsling, how far are you willing to go to make things change?"
"I... I don't really know."
"If I told you I could get you out of the hive, would you follow me?"
"What are you saying, sir?"
Breeze's mind whirled. He knew he couldn't be hearing the words his mind kept telling him were there, it was impossible for a changeling to even suggest such a thing. There had to be something he wasn't seeing. The Re-educator surely couldn't have meant what he was saying. It was a test, a trick to determine his loyalty.
"I'm asking you if you want to start taking control of your own life. There's a reason I took this post, guardsling, and that's so I could find others that think the same as you do. So far, though, you're the only one. And I doubt any more are coming soon. The others are all to rigid, too scared of the hive to take real action. But you? You've got a spark in you. You want freedom, even if the only thing you do with that freedom is make a statement."
Every word was spoken as though it were a simple fact. The Re-educator spoke as calmly and precisely as though he announcing division sleep cycles, rather than shattering Breeze's little world brick by metaphorical brick.
"This isn't a test, is it?" Breeze said. "You really mean it."
The door unsealed itself.
"I do. If you want to turn me in, go ahead. I won't stop you." His tone was soft, reassuring. It was how Breeze had imagined a father's voice might be. "It might even prove to the General that you've learned your lesson already. But you'll be losing a chance to get what you've always wanted. Could you live with that?"
"But I... I thought you said you'd been through re-education!"
"I have. And it didn't change a thing. It just taught me how to smile and act as if everything were fine. Just as every other changeling in the hive does. Like you said, young one, we're all thinking the same thing. But only a few are brave enough to do anything about it."
Breeze hesitated, one hoof hanging in the air as he looked through the open door at the green, glistening wall beyond. The Re-educator was right; it would be so easy to just walk out of that door, down the corridor to the General, and tell him. He'd be welcomed back into the hive without a second thought. All his troubles would be gone.
So long as he remembered to forget everything he'd ever thought, go along with a regime he hated, knowing that he had this one chance to do something with his life, and he had refused.
A certainty of life, or a chance at death. In the end, there was never any real choice.
He set his hoof back on the ground, and swung the door closed again.
"Do you have a plan?"