"What are you thinking of doing with the guards?" Breeze asked, looking up from the crude map spread across his desk. "I mean, are you going to..."
The Re-educator, whom Breeze was now thinking of as the Renegade, paused in the study of his own map, but didn't bother looking up.
"I don't plan to kill them, young one. I've already thought about getting past them. With a little luck, we won't even have to deal with any guards. The idea is to be out of the hive before anyling realised we've gone."
"Right, fine. But what if things don't go to plan?"
Renegade motioned to his horn. "Simple kinetic blast. No offence, but the average guardsling isn't actually very good at their job."
"None taken," Breeze said. "You're insulting yourself, as well. So, your plan for dealing with them is to knock them over?"
"The cistern should only be lightly defended, with maybe two guards at the most. Knock them into a wall, get through the grate and under the wall, and keep another blast ready in case they come in after us. Simple plan..."
"...less to go wrong. I know."
He'd been through just shy of a week in 're-education' now, which meant he was seeing Renegade every day. In that time, Renegade had drilled a few constant mantras into Breeze's head with such dedication, he found himself finishing the mantras on reflex.
Most of the remaining time was spent planning the escape. How to get out of the hive quickly and quietly. How to get out undetected if it was possible, and what to do if it wasn't. Renegade had spent years running options through his mind, and had done most of the real thinking, but he wasn't about to leave without a partner, and if he didn't intend to leave, there was no point planning around the finer details, not when there was that much scope for them to change. But now, with a time scale in mind, the pair had finally been able to get down to the specifics. Where to go, when to do it, what route to take at any given time to avoid guards. It was all mind-numbing, but it all had to be known by heart. There wasn't room for mistakes. 'One mistake, and the plan falls apart', as another of Renegade's mantras went.
What little time they had left was used to cover their tracks. The General had been expecting a re-education, and a lack of progress would have arose suspicion. So, for a few minutes, at the end of each allotted period, Renegade had talked Breeze through the expectations of his commanders, and the rules he had to follow if he wanted to act like an acceptable guard drone. They were simple enough; don't answer back, don't speak unless spoken to, don't let too much emotion into your voice...
Simple enough to understand, at least; in reality, they were harder to actually follow. But, knowing now that he only had to pretend for a short while, with a real goal in sight, Breeze found it easier to pretend. Renegade was always careful to rein him in a little, though; show too much progress, and he'd be taken back out of re-education, and out of Renegade's easy reach.
He glanced back down at the map. "Right, so that's the route, and I suppose we know what we're doing if there are any guards at the cistern. What next? Where do we go from there?"
Renegade pushed himself to his hooves.
"From there, we find our way out of the Badlands, and find somewhere we can blend in. Somewhere with plenty of love, where the hive won't be able to find us."
"Sounds like a nice place. Anywhere in mind?" Breeze asked, before catching himself and shaking his head, as if to dislodge something that had taken root in his chitin.
"Yes." Thankfully, Renegade seemed to be taking the snarky comment at face value. He tapped the upper edge of Breeze's map. "North."
"There are a lot of places to the north. One place in particular I'd rather not see. You're not thinking of taking us there, are you?"
"It's the only place they won't come looking for us."
Breeze stood, backing up to the door. "No, there is no way we'll survive more than a day there. You know what they say about the Princess. It'd be better to just turn ourselves into the Queen here and now."
"Listen, young one, there's nowhere else we can go. The Queen has her best out there, and they're everywhere but Equestria. It's the one place she won't dare to go, not unless she has no choice, or something to take away their advantage."
"That's exactly why we shouldn't go! Don't you think it's a bit stupid to go rushing in where the Queen fears to tread? She won't even send the Infiltrators there! How are we supposed to make it more than a day?"
"We'll stick to the outskirts. Steer clear of the capital, find a nice, quiet town near one of the borders and lay low there. Then, we can do what we want, so long as we're careful."
"She'll still know we're there. You have to have heard the stories; she's practically a god!"
At that, Renegade chuckled. "Young one, I've heard far more stories that you have. And if Princess Celestia is half as powerful as they say she is, then by rights we shouldn't even be here. She'd have rained fire on us years ago."
Reluctantly, Breeze felt himself starting to come around. "Are you sure?"
"Sure as I can be. She's powerful, that's true, but she's not omnipotent."
Breeze took a breath, held it, then let out a long, drawn out sigh. "If she catches us, it's your fault."
Renegade smiled. "I can live with that." He held out a hoof. "Equestria?"
With only a little hesitation, Breeze reached out with his own hoof. "When do we go?"
"As soon as possible."
As soon as he heard the shout, Breeze knew everything had gone wrong.
It was a short yelp of surprise that gave way to a louder cry of panic, which was in turn brought to an abrupt end. The emerald flash and heavy thud left no illusions as to how it had been ended.
A few seconds later, Renegade came tearing around the corner, halfway into a set of saddlebags and trying to carry another in his mouth.
"What happened?" Breeze cried, matching his pace.
Renegade tossed the bags in his mouth over Breeze's back before replying.
"There's a canteen in each, a compass in yours, and a first aid kit in my bag. I'm sorry I couldn't pick up more, but we haven't got the time."
"Why? What happened?" repeated Breeze.
"Someling came wandering in. Not sure if they heard something, or if they were just picking something up for a patrol. Doesn't matter. We've been made."
"You just knocked them out, right?"
"Of course. But we only had a short window. Next guardsling to come through here will find him. Due in maybe five minutes."
Breeze swallowed, but his throat was dry and rough. "We'll never even make it out of the hive."
"We'll make it! Just need to go a little faster!"
His wings buzzed, and he skipped, launching himself about a foot into the air. After a moment, Breeze followed suit. Together, they sped through tight hallways, far faster than was safe or sane, but neither cared much for safety or sanity. Though it was forbidden to fly in the lower halls of the hive, they were already breaking all the rules that mattered. Who would really care if they broke one more?
They hurtled round a tight corner, skipping against the far wall for a moment before pushing themselves off and back into relatively open air. The cistern was only a few more halls away now. Another bend, then another, and it was in sight, at the end of one last, long corridor. Breeze pushed aching wings to their limit, tasting freedom.
Then, with a heart stopping lurch, they seized up and froze. Breeze felt himself drop as he -
Day 2 outside the hive
- slowly blinked his eyes open to see smudgy clouds behind a tangle of thorns.
Evening Breeze lay still for a moment, still too sleepy to think clearly. He blinked again, trying to clear his eyes, not only of the usual gritty feeling of sleep, but the actual grit and dust that filled them.
Then he remembered. He had been dreaming.
As awareness started to set in, so to did the pain. Every muscle ached, every joint lined with dust. His throat grated every time he took a breath, and the pain only spiked when he tried to swallow. Despite the hours of sleep, he felt just as tired as he had when he and Rising Sun had finally stopped their trek for the night, and huddled down under the thorns.
At least exhaustion had granted him a few hours of real sleep this time, rather than the fitful waking doze of the night before. Of course, every silver lining had a cloud. And sleep came with dreams.
It had been so real. Real enough that Breeze wasn't sure where the memory ended and the dream began. He hadn't crashed on the night, obviously, but other than that the dream had been as clear and correct as if he'd gone back in time to live through the moment again.
Beside him, Rising Sun was already waking as well, rolling his neck to a symphony of clicks and cracks. The pair nodded to each other, but said nothing. Instead, Sun just pulled out his canteen, taking a mouthful and passing it to Breeze.
It had become a sort of ritual; a simple swig-pass-swig motion between the two, but they'd done it enough times over the day before that Breeze could follow the motions with his eyes closed, holding his hoof out at exactly the right moment to take the canteen, savouring the all-too-brief feeling as he took his share, and hoofing it back. That moment, when the water hit his tongue, was always the hardest part. The temptation to just say "buck it all!" and take another mouthful, then another, then another... It was almost too strong to bear. But he didn't give in. That canteen, and the one he carried, was all that they had to sustain them through the baked-bone dust of the Badlands.
They were rationing it well, but water could only get them so far. Breeze was already starting to feel the pangs of hunger. It was early days yet, but before long the pain would become less and less bearable, until he either went mad and drained the next love-giving creature he found, or died.
Not that there was a single such creature here. No ponies, no griffons, no zebra... Heck, he would have settled for a fish, and eaten it raw. Or even some grass. It might be just a temporary measure, but physical food would at least stave off the hunger pangs for another few days.
But there was nothing. Just sand, dust, thorns and rocks. At least the rocks here were interesting to look at. Blasted by the wind, ground into all sorts of odd, top-heavy shapes by sand.
"How far until we're out of this place?" Breeze rasped as they pulled themselves from the thorns. Absently, he reached up to rub at his muzzle. Sun had spared a little water to clean out the gash, but it was already clogged with dust, and starting to itch.
"Another few day's travel. We'll come to a pass through the mountains. There's a town a little north of the pass, called Dodge. That's where we're headed."
"A few days..."
It seemed like an eternity. A few days to the pass, and probably a few more days until they hit this 'Dodge'. Maybe a week, all told. Could he last a week? In these conditions, it was doubtful.
But what else could he do? Lie down and die?
No. No, buck that. He put his head down, and took an unsteady step.
"A few days is nice, but not good enough. Got an appointment with not starving. Can't miss it."
Sun smiled, though Breeze couldn't see it.
"No, can't miss that. Really should pick up the pace."
With that in mind, he followed on behind Breeze, wings fluttering in the stirring air.
"Something's bothering me."
"Did we ever - argh, hold on..." Breeze broke off, falling back on his haunches to scratch at his muzzle with a hoof. Sun slowed his pace, but didn't stop, and didn't look back.
"Something wrong?" the older changeling asked, kicking up dust as he shuffled.
"No, I'm fine," replied Breeze. It might have hurt, scratching around the edge of a wound that was still scabbing over, but it was worth it just to get rid of that damned itch. Sighing as it faded, he trotted to catch up. "It's just, did we ever think how we'd get by in Equestria? It's not as if we can walk around looking like this." He gestured at his own chitin.
"Honestly, young one," Sun said in a long-suffering voice, "I'd concentrated more on how we'd get there. Better than distracting ourselves when we should be thinking about here and now."
"That's just my point! We've spent so much time thinking about 'here and now', but we've no idea if it's even possible for us to survive then and there. I mean, going into Equestria without a plan? We'd be as well just handing ourselves in. Besides..."
He kicked a loose pebble, watching it skitter out ahead of him. "Here and now is boring."
They walked on in silence, the minutes only broken by the occasional gritty surges of wind that lifted the dust and twisted it into delicate spirals that lingered, hanging in the air for a few brief seconds before the wind died down again and let the spirals break up, the dust drifting back to the ground.
"I always supposed," Sun said, brow plates furrowing, "we'd do what changelings are supposed to do. Take a pony's place, and gather love. That was the plan, wasn't it? Only we'd be saving it for ourselves, not taking it back to the hive."
"That's all very well, but do you plan on impersonating a single pony for the rest of our lives? Or maybe we'd just keep moving, constantly taking new forms every time we came to a new settlement, leaving a trail of confused, amnesiac ponies in our wake? I know you said we'd stick near the borders, but even out there, you really think they won't notice us sooner or later?"
Sun shrugged, so Breeze went on. "Besides, I don't know about you, but spending my life being forced to pretend I'm someling I'm not is exactly what I wanted to avoid. If..." He blinked, wrinkling his nose. It felt like his sinuses were starting to block up. The thrice-accursed dust must have been getting to him more than he knew.
"...if I'm going to spend the rest of my life harvesting somepony for love, I'd rather do it as myself. Or at least, with an identity I made, not one I stole from somepony else."
"So, you're saying you'd want somepony to fall in love with a pony version of you?"
He knew he wasn't making his point very clear, but hearing it put like that made Breeze feel more than a little silly.
"Well, I guess that's it. More or less."
"Of course, while you're trying to make this mysterious pony fall in love with you, you'll have to find something to eat from somewhere. Which means one of us is going to have to gather love the old fashioned way."
He smiled. "It's a nice idea. But nice ideas have to give way to smart ideas."
With a hollow clack, the tip of Sun's hoof met the black dome that was Breeze's head.
"And you have to think, young one! I don't intend to leave a trail of evidence, and I didn't trade one life of slavery just to risk my life trying to get into another one. But it'll give us time to make a better plan, if nothing else."
Breeze didn't have anything to say to that, so he rubbed his head, snorted to try and clear his sinuses, and kept walking in silence. In the meantime, the Badlands rolled by around them. Under them. Even over them. Bare, craggy horizons. Rough dust and sand. Blasts of gritty wind.
"Just...just suppose, though," Sun said, a thoughtful look on his face. "Just suppose you could do whatever you wanted out there. Be whatever you wanted to be. What would you do?"
After a while spent pursing his lips in though, Breeze replied:
"You mean, as in a job? You want me to choose a job?"
"If you like."
More silence, and more pursed lips. Breeze gave several false starts, then frowned, mouth tight.
"I don't know," he said finally. "I think you'd fit nicely in with the Royal Guard. Or whatever the pony version of the Royal Guard is."
"Do you know, I think they call it the Royal Guard."
"...I take it back. You should be one of those ponies that tells jokes for a living. A... What's the word, a commentator?"
"You mean a comedian?"
"Maybe. Pointless job either way, isn't it? What do they even do for the community?"
"Make ponies laugh?" Sun suggested.
"Hmm. Is that important?" Breeze said, eyes rolling.
Sun glanced up at the sky, brow plates tight with thought. "It might be. For ponies, at least. You know, if it makes them happy. Honestly, I'm not the changeling to ask."
Breeze sighed. "Why couldn't we have gotten one of the Infiltrators to come with us?"
More silence. More horizon. More dust, and more wind.
"You know," Sun said with a smile, "if you're still looking for a job, you could consider joining the Guard with me."
Breeze snorted. "Yeah, because I'd be so useful as a guardspony. And of course, I'd want to do exactly the same thing I did back at the hive."
"I wouldn't mind having you by my side. You did well that night."
"You consider almost getting myself killed to be 'doing well'?"
"Young one - Evening Breeze - that was the first time you'd ever fought. Really fought, I mean." There was a strange sincerity in Sun's eyes, the sort that was rare to find in the eyes of a changeling, where a strange blend of mistrust and conformity usually brewed. "You could have frozen up entirely, or turned tail and run, but you didn't. You stood and fought. Even if you didn't win, it still says a lot about you.
"Besides, he was Queen's Guard. The best we have to offer. Well, the best the hive has to offer."
"Had," said Breeze, his gaze dropping to the dust devils the wind had set swirling before his hooves. "He's not offering anything any more. Besides," he went on before Sun could interrupt, "it's all just talk anyway. We're not exactly Royal Guard material. I don't want to have anything to do with them. I'd rather be something other than a soldier."
"Listen, Evening Breeze, we may never wear a uniform again - at least, not rightfully - and you might not want to wear one. But courage like that is good for more than being a soldier. It's what's going to keep us alive."
Day 4 outside the hive
The first canteen was empty, and the pair had already moved onto Breeze's. That one was running out far quicker than it should have. Breeze found himself taking drinks more and more often as his throat began to rub itself raw. Of course, whenever he drank it was an automatic action to offer the canteen to Sun, for whom accepting it was just as automatic. It kept them both hydrated, at least, but the downside was obvious.
To add to his worries, Breeze had woken up that morning feeling stiffer than usual, his joints aching and his head cloudy. By midday, he was starting to lag behind Sun, head down, tongue out, chitin crawling. All he had to keep him going was the promise of civilisation beyond the waste, and a rapidly emptying canteen to ease his throat.
A few hours after midday, when Breeze was starting to think he might just drop where he stood, Sun called a rest. The pair trudged into the shade of an old tree with a bleached-white trunk. It was the largest piece of plant life they'd seen since leaving the hive, and it stood a scant few feet taller they they did.
As Breeze let his legs give way under him, collapsing under the meagre shade, Sun sat beside him and looked him over.
"Are you alright, young one?"
Breeze nodded, not trusting his voice or his throat. In truth, he felt anything but alright. His head ached worse than his legs, he was shivering despite the burning heat, and the side of his muzzle felt like it was on fire. But he nodded anyway. Time was of the essence, and with the hive no doubt still out there on their tails, they couldn't afford to slow, not even for him.
"If you say so. We'll get going in a few minutes. Just... Take some time to catch your breath."
Now that he wasn't focussed on getting his ever-weakening legs moving, Breeze caught his thoughts drifting. Had this been what he'd expected? Any changeling not in the infiltrators had to have wondered, even if they would never admit so, what life was life outside the hive, both literally and figuratively.
He'd had his expectations. They'd been shattered.
Through the fog descending on his mind, Breeze supposed he should have been disappointed. But for the moment, all he wanted was for the world to stop spinning and his chitin to stop prickling, and he would have been perfectly happy.
On second thoughts, he'd rather simply have more time to rest. Each morning for the past four days he'd woken feeling as tired as he had the night before, no matter how long or how deeply he'd slept. The idea of getting a chance, even for hour, to catch up on sleep was beyond enticing. He could feel his eyes starting to slip closed already, and not even the wild tilting of the world around him or the burning pain in his muzzle could keep him from laying his head down and...
"We should move on."
Rising Sun's voice cut through the dark haze and brought Breeze back to wakefulness with a jerk.
"We're not far from the border. Cross this last stretch, then get over the mountains, and we're there. If we keep up a good pace, we can be across by noon tomorrow. Hopefully before the hive manages to catch up with us."
Breeze nodded. "Alright, I'm moving," he said. Or at least, he tried to say. But his mouth and tongue both felt thick and clumsy, and what came out was more of an inarticulate mumble. He tried to push himself to his hooves, but his strength seemed to have left him. He half rose, legs trembling, then he fell back to the ground, stirring up a light cloud of dust.
"Are you alright?"
It was odd. Sun's voice seemed muted somehow. Everything was spinning, and Breeze felt something rise in the back of his throat.
He felt like he was going to be sick, he realised. A far off part of his mind wondered at the sensation, something he had heard about but never experienced first-hoof. The rest of him wished he never had to experience it again.
"Breeze? Evening Breeze? Can you move?"
He felt something touch the side of his muzzle. He hissed, flinching back, then retched as the movement set the world spinning even faster.
"Damn... Why didn't you say anything?"
He was rising from the dust, a hard force pushing beneath him. It settled around his belly. Whatever held him up was unsteady, swaying one way and then the other before it found some stability.
Breeze blinked as he began to sway again, more gently this time. A rush of clarity came to him, and he looked around with bleary eyes.
Somehow, Sun had managed to lift the smaller changeling onto his back, and was marching resolutely northwards. They'd already come a decent distance from the shade of the tree.
"R-rising..." he croaked. "Let me down. Rising Sun? Let me down."
"You can't walk, young one," Sun said.
"'Nd you can't carry me... 'M too heavy. Never make it too the border...in time..."
"We'll make it, young one." Even with the haze reclaiming his mind, Breeze could hear the uncertainty in Sun's voice. "We'll make it."
* * * * *
They weren't going to make it. Rising Sun knew that, academically and emotionally. He had tried keeping optimistic, if only for the sake of the barely conscious bundle slumped over his back, but with each passing moment, as his legs burned more and more with every step, his spirit dropped that little bit lower. Now, he couldn't muster up even a half-hearted smile. He just put his head down, buzzing his wings every so often to try and relieve the weight on his legs.
It was long since dark. With his pace cut down so dramatically, he found himself pushing on into the night in order to make up even a little distance.
But that wasn't enough. Sun was going to stop soon, be it by or choice or from sheer exhaustion, and by his reckoning he hadn't come close to where he needed to be. They might make it out of the Badlands, but there was no way they were going to outrun the hive. Already he found himself glancing back over his shoulder every other minute, expecting to hear the hellish buzzing of changeling wings.
All right. It was time to stop. Long past time to stop, in fact. Sun dragged himself a few paces off his imaginary path, before kneeling and gently rolling Breeze into the cover of a scrubby bush. There was one good thing, at least; the vegetation was becoming thicker, and a little more varied. Fewer thorns and more leaves. Sun plucked one from the tangle, chewing thoughtfully. He came to a quick conclusion; it was awful.
That being said, it was still food. And, in the absence of any love to speak of, it was the only thing that might keep him going long enough to get through this waking nightmare.
Beside him, Breeze murmured something and curled himself into a tight ball, shivering in the desert night. He'd fallen asleep, or gone unconscious, around sunset. There had been some poultices in one of the saddlebags, and if luck turned out to be on their side, that and some rest would at least get him back on his hooves until they could find some proper treatment. But this far, luck didn't seem to have been with them at all.
Sun let himself fall to the ground and reach out a hoof to inspect Breeze's muzzle. The gash had gone a nasty shade of yellow, and the chitin around it was hot to the touch.
Infected. No doubt about it. And the damn fool had let it go practically uncleaned and untreated after that first night. Sun just wished Breeze had said something.
No, that was a lie. The young guardsling had probably never been outside of the hive structure in his life, let alone in the Badlands outside the boundary. Breeze hadn't known the danger, and he hadn't wanted to cause trouble. No, in truth, Sun just wished he'd noticed what Breeze had been unwilling to say.
He pulled the canteen free from Breeze's saddlebag and took a short swallow. For Breeze, he poured a small measure into the cap, and helped the younger one drink it down.
Then, after turning the pros and cons of the choice over a few times, he plucked a few more leaves, forcing himself to chew and swallow despite the taste. He desperately wanted Breeze to eat something, but the younger one was in no fit state, and Sun wasn't about to force-feed him, if for no other reason than to avoid accidentally choking his friend.
Instead, he used his teeth to strip a few branches, and packed a saddlebag with leaves, and at long last, with Breeze given a last drink and the canteen back in a saddlebag, Sun curled up next to Breeze's huddled form, and let himself fall into a restless sleep.
He came back to consciousness to the gentle sound of buzzing somewhere in the distance. At first, he contemplated lying down and trying to fall back to sleep. The dead chill of a desert night had well and truly fallen now, but the ground where he'd been lying was still warm, and he wasn't inclined to leave it any time soon. Besides, his head was still thick and woolly, and the implications of the far-away buzz weren't getting through to him as they should have.
As it persisted, though, he sat up, stretching to poke his head through half-stripped branches and get a decent look around.
Against the dark line of the horizon, there was a darker mass moving towards them.
The ground seemed to drop out from beneath Sun.
He crouched beneath the leaves as a distant green pinprick of light illuminated the horizon, praying to the moon that they'd offer enough cover. That he hadn't eaten too many of them.
Because the hive had caught up with them at last.