• Published 30th Apr 2016
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MLA: Perihelion - Starscribe



Living in Equestria proves to be more dangerous for Second Chance than she could've possibly imagined. Now an old enemy has followed her from an Earth destroyed by war. Can she save Equestria from suffering the same fate?

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Chapter 5

Amber Sands had expected many things about the mission she had been created to serve. For many lonely hours she had sat in the dark, imagining what it might be like to impersonate the daughter of a princess.

Few in the swarm could have attempted such a feat, even among her sister queens. Amber hadn’t just stolen the young pony’s appearance, as any skilled changeling could’ve done. Even with all that was known about the pony she was impersonating, how could any of Amber’s sisters have known to do the things she had done?

How many would’ve known how to answer a cube of intelligent metal, explaining that her “nanophage transmitter” had been “shorted in the electrical discharge and would need time to repair?” How many of them would’ve known to refuse a booster shot, and known what to say?

Amber Sands knew all that and more. Her mind was so crammed full of knowledge she sometimes felt like she was going to burst. Strange visions waited in her dreams, visions of gray wastelands and rocks that never flew far enough. She looked up at evil skies in those dreams, and never knew what she was seeing.

Amber was restricted to the library the day they returned. She spent the day feasting on delicious love from the princess’s own hooves. It wasn’t anything like the love her own mother gave her, concentrated so sweet it made her head spin. Even so, Amber Sands found love from a pony far more satisfying because she had stolen it all on her own.

For the first time in her life, Amber was actually serving the swarm, instead of just wasting its resources.

Yet for all Amber had looked forward to this assignment, for all she had dreamed of it and all her mother had sacrificed to get her here, she felt one thing she had never imagined.

Guilt.

At first she dismissed the feeling, telling herself it was just the memories her creation had given her, stolen from the pony whose place she had taken. That worked the first day, as the princess she had been sent to betray rushed her to the pony hospital and saw to her needs.

Then came the second day, and her trip back to the pony’s home. Not allowed to leave the library, her friends had all come to her. Several young fillies and colts her age came to visit, each one with encouragement and congratulations for the disaster she had “prevented” in Fillydelphia.

Amber smiled and thanked them, enjoying the different flavors of love and appreciation each one brought.

Amber Sands shifted at her desk, staring down at the pile of books Twilight had brought her for “remedial study.” The words were very difficult for her—no thanks to the pony she had been made to copy.

“These too.” The Alicorn Twilight Sparkle seemed to tower over her, all long horn and feathery wings. It took great discipline for Amber not to shy away, cowering behind books or walls or anything else nearby. The Alicorn burned with a magic her senses could scarcely understand, enough magic to blast her off the planet and not even leave much of a stain.

As every previous time she saw her, Amber expected the Alicorn to be glaring at her with fierce anger, about to reveal that she had detected the deception and that the torture would begin for what she had done.

As in every previous time, Twilight only smiled. She levitated another stack of books beside the first. “I found a few more about safety for you, Chance.” She levitated something else down beside the books, another stack of blank paper.

A thought that could’ve come from the real Chance whispered that the torture had already begun. Of course, Amber would’ve tasted anger, or frustration, or vindictive revenge. She felt only love from the Alicorn, and sincere concern as pure as anything she had felt while living with her own kind.

No, more, Amber thought wistfully, as she levitated the first of the books down beside her stack of blank paper and squinted at the name. Mother loved me, but not the others. It seems like all the ponies love each other. Well, not just ponies. Spike the Dragon felt affection no less sincere than any of the equines, and if anything the sense of brotherhood and camaraderie she felt from him was even stronger.

“Well?” Twilight had been talking. Amber blinked, whimpering. But as in many other things, the ponies were softer when it came to correcting her. Twilight sighed, then sat down and proceeded to explain again. “I want at least a full page report on each book. So help me, you aren’t setting a hoof on that airship of yours until you finish these. I don’t care if it takes you all summer.”

Amber smiled up at Twilight in spite of herself. The Alicorn sounded stern, but she couldn’t hide the truth from a changeling. Amber tasted the sweet mercy in that tone, tempered with a kindness the Queen of all Changelings had never known. Twilight wasn’t really going to subject her to writing reports on a dozen books she could barely even read.

That didn’t mean she wouldn’t expect some good-faith effort on at least one, though. Amber nodded. “I’ll start right away!” She looked down at the cover, struggling over its title. “Electrical Safety-Related Work Practices. It sounds… exciting.” She feigned a smile, probably not better than the real Chance could’ve done.

This seemed to satisfy the Alicorn. “Good. You make it exciting, because it’s the first of many.” She rose, turning and walking from the room.

Amber read with no less difficulty than the real Chance would’ve, since after all her understanding of the pony language went exactly as far as the one whose memories she had stolen.

Each page crawled by, regaling her with things her memories told her were incredibly primitive and often dangerous. Something in her gut wanted her to go to Twilight and ask for a red pen so she could fix the book. She had a feeling that wasn’t quite what the Alicorn had in mind, though.

“Rough.” Spike came briefly into their room, stopping to look at her desk and the massive pile of books waiting for them. He set a little plate down beside her, a plate with three chocolate chip cookies and a single glittering red ruby. “Maybe these guys’ll make you feel better! Fresh out of the oven!”

Amber looked up, resisting annoyance at being interrupted. Spike had brought her food, though not the kind he probably thought he had. His savory sympathy went well with the hearty helping of concern and love Twilight had fed her for lunch.

Even so, she had to hastily stash what she had been writing under the many blank pages, concealing it so Spike couldn’t see. “Thanks, Spike. You’re the best.”

“Well, yeah. I think that’s established at this point.” He continued past her, to his bed. He rummaged around inside it, emerging with a stack of graphic novels.

You stole my life. Amber heard the words in her new voice, though the words had cold anger unlike anything Amber herself had used. She had felt such things from the filly though, in that strange time where memory melted into visions and came out the other side.

Amber ignored the words, instead levitating the ruby off the plate and in front of Spike. “You intend to give this one to me, too? I don’t think my teeth can handle it.”

“Whoops!” Spike caught the gem out of the air, tossing it into his mouth with a grin of sharp teeth. The gem splintered and broke like it had been made of ice, though the sound it made there was far closer to shattering glass. “Thanks! Must’ve snuck onto the plate by accident.”

He kept going to the open doorway. “Can’t stay, sorry. Twilight says I shouldn’t distract you.”

“Right.” Amber waved with one hoof, pulling the plate closer to where she sat. “You think Twilight would mind if I went for a walk in a few hours, say… right before dinner? So long as I didn’t go far?”

Spike shrugged. “Want me to ask?”

She nodded gratefully. “Please. If you ask, it means I can…” She groaned in the most exaggerated way she could. “Deal with this.” She levitated a cookie up towards her mouth, steam still rising from it. She didn’t actually take a bite, though.

“No problem!” He walked out the door. “I’ll ask once I get downstairs.”

Amber bit into the cookie, chewing with her best, happiest grin. “Thanks again, Spike! Best little brother ever!”

“Older brother!” he called back, though he was still smiling. “I was first!”

Amber didn’t argue, turning back towards the blank paper and pretending to enjoy the cookie. She kept pretending until Spike vanished down the stairs, before levitating up the little trash bin and the cookie up into it.

Pony food was vile and tasteless in her mouth, like chewing dirt. The cookie was particularly bad, with spots of melty, gooey, soggy stuff with a strange texture that stuck to her tongue and turned her mouth dark.

Whenever Amber found herself buying into the illusion of a happy pony society, she would eat some of the food and remember just how strange these creatures were.

She had disposed of the cookies before Twilight returned, granting conditional permission for “Chance” to go on a brief walk so long as she finished one of her reports first.

Amber returned to the painful exercise, but not so painful as the thought of what she had to do next. This stolen life was such a delicious illusion, even if the food was awful. The ponies here all loved each other, and she had slipped right into that love. They were soft, they were strange, but they were kind.

She shouldn't feel guilty that she had come to betray them. It wasn’t just the reason she had come, it was the whole reason she had been born. There was not even a possibility that Amber Sands wouldn’t carry out her mission, regardless of the consequences for Twilight Sparkle or any of the other members of her adopted family.

At least, that was what she kept telling herself. Amber finished her report, then took a few more minutes with her other task. With the other sheet of paper, she recreated a note with great precision, every curve and line coming out exactly as her memory recorded.

This was only the first part of the plan, of course. Amber didn’t know the whole thing, and she doubted anypony did. Changelings had survived so long, in part, because they were secretive. Their infighting and constant betrayals could never compromise more than a small number of their kind at once, with so many independent cells. Even the hives were independent this way, maintaining contact only through their queens.

Amber knew very little about her kind, though. She might die on this mission and never learn.

Forgery complete, Amber rolled up her fake note and stashed it in her replica of Chance’s saddlebags. None of the other objects she had gone to Fillydelphia with were inside of course, and excusing it had been harder than anything else she had needed to explain.

Amber was lucky Twilight had been so happy for her to be alive that she didn’t look too closely into her minor bouts of amnesia.

Amber felt like a lucky bug in many ways, though. Lucky as she headed down the stairs and gave her report to Twilight, and practically washed in the praise and joy. If anything, her guardian was impressed with her precision.

“You can go for ten minutes,” Twilight offered, in a tone that brooked no argument. “If you’re a second late, you don’t leave this library for a week. Your time starts now.”

Amber hurried from the entryway, though she didn’t move terribly quickly. Her body was sore all over from very real electrical burns. Amber thought about how she had gotten them as she walked purposefully through Ponyville. She could still see the tunnel under the warehouse, and feel the restraints her mother had tied her into.

“I’m sorry, daughter,” the queen had said. “All of us must sacrifice to serve the swarm.”

Amber had been frightened of course, though at the time she hadn’t had a clue what was about to happen to her. “I’m not afraid!”

Her mother would have sensed her lie, Amber wasn’t terribly good about lying. Even so, she didn't call her on it. That was the first sign something bad was about to happen—Chrysalis always punished her for bad lies, making her practice over and over until the ones she told came off believable.

She smelled something strange next, like a pegasus pony passing by very closely. The smell came with a strange crackling, one she had never heard before. “What’s that?”

Queen Chrysalis, Monarch of the Swarm, had drawn up two wires in her magic, their copper leads sparkling in the single candle. “When we exchange you for the princess’s filly, it will be under circumstances that would leave a weak pony in a state of injured shock. In order to preserve the illusion, you must be subjected to a similar pain.” She reached out, resting one hoof briefly around Amber’s neck. “Be strong, daughter. I will make it as quick as possible.”

It had been quick, but that hadn’t made it painless. Amber had never felt real pain in her life before that moment. Nothing in her true memories could prepare her for it, nor anything in the ones she had stolen. Kimberly Colven had experienced much pain in her time, but the transfer of memory and experience did not communicate the actual sensation of things.

Amber had heard Kimberly’s screams as her mother burned her all over, sending her whole body into painful spasms and charring the pony coat she had worked so diligently to recreate.

To Amber’s great personal pride, she hadn’t changed back into her true form during all that torture. She had been trained for nearly a year, and knew how to do that one task at least.

Eventually the pain had ended, and her mother had caressed her, showering her with love one last time before carrying her off to be dumped.

Now here she was, healed by pony magic and set to the most important task of her life. She felt quite justified in her pride at an existence given purpose at last. Her mother the queen had given her much of the swarm’s scarce food to get her to this point, and drones had starved because of it.

It was Amber’s turn to make good on the debt. So what if she felt a little guilty while she did it?

It had been a year since her creation now, and Amber had visited plenty of pony villages. Her mother had many contacts throughout the nation, and she took her along to visit with them all.

Never before had Amber felt such a friendly reaction from the ponies of anywhere she had visited. Everypony she passed waved cheerfully “Hey Chance!” they said, or “Enjoying the night?”

Healing magic had done for her mild burns, though it couldn’t do anything for her shorter mane and coat cut almost to the skin in places. A few ponies even noticed, and their concern was real as they asked after her health. “You didn’t get into too much trouble, did you? Those friends of yours…”

Amber was polite, though she didn’t know most of the ponies as well as they seemed to know her. Her own memories were almost a year behind, a year of friendships and adventures and time to learn the Equestrian written language.

It wasn’t as though her memories could’ve been updated, even if the real Chance could’ve been missing long enough to imprint again without attracting suspicion. A young queen could get new memories only once, so a new foalnapping would mean a new queen.

It would’ve meant her whole purpose for existing no longer mattered.

Amber straightened outside her destination, the Ponyville guardhouse. The building might look on the outside like any of the others around it, with its charming wood exterior and rustic thatched roof, but Amber knew better.

Through a thin veneer of wood was thick brick and concrete. The windows weren’t just shuttered, but thickly barred. One of the Solar Guard rested outside, unarmed but still armored and watching the streets with interest.

Amber had studied the way pony governments worked. She knew this small detachment of the guard were the only ones keeping order here in Ponyville, such as it was. The town was too rural to pay for its own police force, as other towns did.

In theory the guards also served for Twilight’s own guard, since she was far too new a princess to have her own. It was in both capacities her mother needed them.

Amber straightened, putting on the look of a pony with urgent business, a pony needed and expected. Her steps became more rigid, longer, her tail twitching about behind her as though she felt that any delay were too long.

If the Alicorn Twilight Sparkle had not detected her deception the instant she appeared, this was the next likely point of failure in the plan. The royal guard had been lax once, an easy target for her mother. Royal guards were a tougher bunch now, with techniques for detecting changeling infiltration.

Part of Amber’s act as she walked up to the guardhouse was to steel herself for the act. I’m a queen. I’m strong and brave.

Amber told herself that, but it wasn’t what she felt. She felt like a despicable pony who had no place in their town. The voice of Chance’s own memories was harsher than normal in her mind. They that sow the wind shall reap the whirlwind.

Amber wanted to argue, to defend herself. What am I supposed to do? You wouldn’t let your people starve! But there was no answer—Amber had stolen Chance’s appearance, but there was no other mind crammed inside her head. The voice of guilt was her own, even if it used Chance’s words.

The guard outside was a unicorn, his coat brown and his mane creamy yellow. He snapped to attention as she approached, no longer slumping or swaying with tiredness. Of course, that didn’t mean the respect was for her. She could taste differences like that—he felt only anxiety, though she couldn’t figure why and didn’t really care.

He needed only one look at her cutie mark. “Second Chance, right? You have business?”

She nodded, using the excuse of looking at the bag so he wouldn’t see how guilty she looked. Amber levitated her bag open, lifting her forged note into the air in front of him. “This is f-for the captain,” she squeaked.

The solar guard took the note from her, his expression relaxing. “Come on, filly. Aren’t we past this?” He glanced briefly at the instructions on the outside, which marked the note as for “Captain’s eyes only.”

Amber only blushed, tucking her tail between her legs. The taste of anxiety was gone, replaced with amusement and a sense of general fondness. Whoever this was, he apparently knew Chance.

“That serious, huh?” He turned. “Best come in, then. Captain may have questions for you.” He walked slowly in, levitating the door open behind him. As it opened, raucous laughter came rolling out, ponies joking and singing and generally enjoying themselves. Amber’s mouth started watering at the delicious camaraderie, the joy these guards felt in what they believed to be good work.

Turn yourself in. You know what your mother will do to them. Not in a year had the voice of her memories spoken louder. Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.

There’s no mercy for us. Amber followed. The guard waited at the doorway, holding it open for her. Ponies killed hundreds of us during the Canterlot invasion. They’ll kill me too.

I was a stranger and they took me in.

Amber shook her head, clearing away the memories. Maybe this was why queens were always made with the memories of other changelings; other creatures had alien thought-patterns, patterns that couldn’t be easily confined or controlled in her mind. Amber’s mind was a boiling soup of three races, and she was drowning.

The guardhouse was lit not with electric lights but a roaring fireplace, which cast flickering orange on a room of low tables. The half-dozen guards of Ponyville were all here, drinking and singing and sharing in a game with cards.

The smell of alcohol was strong on the air, but it didn’t revolt Amber more than any other kind of food. It was, rather, a distant sort of burning on her nostrils, one she knew without doubt wasn’t for her.

Not that these royal guards would help a minor to drink. They did turn and grin at her. “The apprentice is here!” somepony shouted.

“To the princess!” Somepony lifted their mug, and everyone else joined them, metal cups clinking together with raucous cheers and stomping hooves.

The guard in front of her, with a cutie mark covered with his armor and a name the real Chance would’ve known, ignored the shout, gesturing for her to follow him up the stairs. “Captain’s in his office. Between the two of us, I think it’s just that he’s horseapples at poker.”

Amber nodded, eyes on her hooves. There were so many ponies… so many eyes on her, eyes that might at any moment discover her secret. Guards like these had killed changelings before. It would be better if they did kill you.

The captain’s name was etched onto his door, right along with his cutie mark and the single blue star of the guard. At least Amber could pretend to know him.

Her guide knocked twice, standing alert again.

“I told you salt-lickers I don’t have time to waste on your rutting game!”

The stallion in front of her cleared his throat loudly. “Sir, uh… messenger from the princess. She has a scroll for you.”

“Really?” Amber heard a few more muffled obscenities, and the sound of glass and papers rustling.

Her guide winked, his voice a whisper. “The captain is more relaxed than he wants everypony to think. You don’t need to look so nervous.” He reached out, mussing her mane with one hoof. “You did something with your mane. Princess’s dragon sneeze on you?”

These ponies will die because of you.

Amber forced herself to smile. “You know Spike.” Then more privately, I’m not going to kill anypony!

Of course, she was only arguing with herself. Every man is guilty of the good he did not do.

A light came on under the crack in the door, and the sound of rummaging and rustling stopped. “Come in.”

The guard levitated the door open with a click, stepping inside. The office was a little bigger than Chance’s bedroom, but not much. Instead of a bed there was a desk against the far wall, with numerous medals and plaques mounted to all the walls. The trash-can was stuffed with refuse that looked freshly moved.

For all that, Captain Valiant looked nothing of disorder. His reddish mane was styled and a little reflective, streaked with grey around the edges from age. His yellow coat was clean, and concealed a few wrinkles of his years quite well. His uniform was pressed, shining with medals around his collar.

The guard levitated her scroll onto his desk, setting it there still tied. It’s your last chance. Tell him you’re lying.

Amber didn’t. She stood still, watching as he unrolled the scroll and read quickly over it. His face grew grim as he read the words, though there was something of satisfaction there too. “I knew she wasn’t half the fool everypony said she was.”

The captain looked up, gesturing curtly with one hoof. The guard saluted and left without a word, snapping the door shut behind her.

Amber gulped.

“How much did the princess tell you about this?” He held up the paper, though the back was facing her so she could read very little of the words.

She told you to turn yourself in and tell the guards your mother’s plan. “Not much.” Amber didn’t have to pretend to look uneasy and unsure. “Just that it was really important. She said it was so important it stay secret she couldn’t even tell me.”

Captain Valiant nodded gravely, rolling the scroll back up. “She’s asked me to act immediately, and to send any response through you before you left. Can you remember a simple message?”

Remember? Amber’s eyes widened. Her mother was right about how unprepared these ponies were to face opposition. They had trusted her message just because of who it came from, no seals or passwords or anything. Maybe they deserve to have changelings take over.

Blessed are the meek— Amber silenced the thought, nodding vigorously. “I can, sir.”

“Good.” He rose to his hooves. “You can let her know the guard will be deployed as she requested at once. Got it?”

Amber nodded. “Yes, sir.”

He smiled. “Very good. Best be delivering that right away, Miss Chance.” He advanced towards her, walking around the desk. He drew up a sword from where it leaned against the wall, slinging the scabbard around his neck.

Amber retreated, and very nearly squeaked in terror. Good riddance. Equestria is better off with one less monster.

He didn’t attack, though. Just opened the door for her, his voice low. “I know I can’t tell you what was in that letter, but… best be staying inside tonight. If you see any of your little friends, tell ‘em to stay home too, alright?”

She nodded, practically galloping away from him. She took the stairs two at a time. She tasted appreciation from Captain Valiant as she left, admiration for such a responsible child eager to do her duty. It was a sweet thing, but in her mouth just now it tasted like bile.

Those ponies die tonight because of you. She cried her way back to the library.

I know.

Author's Note:

Hey everypony! Just wanted to say I'm super grateful for those who are taking the time to comment-- I know I've said this before, but it's you and others in your position that keep me writing. I suppose my appreciation is even stronger than usual given there's been some kind of vote-troll in the comments. I don't respond to every single comment like I used to (just not enough time), but I will try and respond when comments address me specifically, to ask questions or whatever.

Thanks again for taking the time, and I hope you're enjoying the story so far.