• Published 12th Dec 2018
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Child of the Invasion - Starscribe

The changeling army has taken control of Canterlot. While their queen secures her grip over this newly captured territory, what happens to the drones who made up her army?

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Chapter 25: Supply Chain

Harlequin sat in an impossibly beautiful space, furnished more like a pony than any bug could’ve created. “The answer to your question is simple, Harlequin. I understand what creatures value. This is the secret that even our queen never mastered—the way to control ponies without conquering them.”

He set his empty glass down, then reached below his desk again. He dropped a bundle on the desk between them, wrapped in brown cloth and sounding like it was full of metal.

Harlequin reached down, pulling at the string until it opened wider. Little metal disks were inside, glittering in the pony light. “I don’t get it.”

“That’s money,” Codex offered helpfully. “Platinum bits. Each one is worth…”

“Worth,” Hydrus repeated, sounding pleased. “That’s the secret in one word, Harlequin. The reason the invasion was doomed to fail from the start. The reason we never needed it to succeed. I only recently understood the idea. But now that I do… everything is clear.

“Ponies aren’t like us, Harlequin. They don’t know how to work together. They don’t know how to sacrifice for the good of the collective. Their world is drowning in love, but they ignore all of it so they can gather up bits of metal. This is ‘worth’ to them. All that matters is the metal be made of the right material and in the right shape, and… well, you can get almost anything.”

Codex’s eyes got wider the longer he spoke. Harlequin could only imagine what he might’ve said if he could’ve spoken to her privately. But he couldn’t, and instead he said, “You’re talking about currency. Trade. Capitalism. The… ability to buy and sell.”

“You have so many different words,” Hydrus said, waving a dismissive wing. “We don’t need to get into the specifics. Here’s what matters, Harlequin. One of my bugs persuaded me that this invasion was doomed. He had fought against the Queen, trying to stop it… and he failed. But I did not ascend so high because I ignore good information when I hear it. Once those ponies fought past us to the palace… it was clear what would happen next.”

“But you’re still in prison,” Codex argued. “You’re down here with every other bug. Except…” He looked up again. There was still sunlight from up above. Not much, but… enough. “There’s a way out. And you’re… still here. Even when you could be free.”

“There’s an opening to the surface,” Hydrus agreed. “It leads to a specific location in the lower city, fairly near the monorail station. We, uh… paid, I think you call it? We paid for it in bits. We… pay… the ponies up there. But escape… no. Why would we run away from our food?”

We’re not all dying in the dark. Some bugs really did find a way to survive. To get love, somehow.

“Here’s what I learned about ‘worth.’ Ponies will give us metal in exchange for what they want. If they don’t understand that they’re also giving us something of real value, then the swarm can grow even stronger. I am pleased to have you both here. Codex, you have knowledge about us, knowledge that should belong to the Swarm. I wish you could’ve shared it with all… but we will have to copy your methods of teaching as well. And Harlequin—I saw your potential before, and I see I was not mistaken. The swarm is pleased to have you back. I can see you must be hungry—it’s been so long since you recruited Codex here, that love is long gone. Let me share with you.”

He got up, walked around the table. Harlequin accepted, meeting his mouth for a few faint drops of love. It would’ve been a fortune to one of those starving drones, but for her… He doesn’t realize I’ve been getting love from ponies. I saved ponies, the guards looked out for me, Azure Sigil stood up for me.

She accepted anyway. A day’s worth of love was a day more than she had. Besides, this was what she’d always done. This was how love was passed to the ranks, through their leaders. Accepting food from him was like being welcomed back into the swarm.

“And you, Codex. Will you join us? Or would you rather starve in the caves like the others who refuse my rule?”

“I want to live,” Codex said, eyes downcast. “I know I… shouldn’t help you. After what you did to my country. If I live… maybe one day I can see my wife and son again.”

“Wise,” Hydrus said. “And maybe. I am only beginning to understand this pony invention called ‘worth.’ I think it may even be possible to change their laws, change their opinions, get them to accept us. For enough pieces of metal, a pony will do almost anything. We may be able to trade some metal for your family again.”

“Maybe.” He didn’t sound like he believed it.

Even so, Hydrus opened his mouth to share a few drops of love with Codex too. In the days of the Swarm, a bug’s strongest connection was always to the one they’d last received food from. Now that it was gone… it was only ceremonial.

“I have important tasks to accomplish,” Hydrus said, as soon as he was finished. “Go up those stairs. You will find Thorax there. He can answer your mundane questions, and get you a place in the Swarm. We are… making many alterations now that we cannot share our thoughts. I will speak with you again tomorrow, Harlequin. I will hear of what has happened to you since the invasion.”

He waved his wings again, dismissive, and the two of them retreated up the stairs. Real stairs too, with steps a pony could actually walk. There are non-bugs down here sometimes. All those objects down there must be to impress his visitors.

Harlequin still wasn’t sure yet if she should be impressed with what Hydrus had managed to build down here, or upset that there were bugs outside his domain, hunting and killing each other in the caves.

Codex stopped her in the stairs, pulling on her fin painfully and yanking her to one side before they could fully reach the floor above. He lowered his voice to a whisper, leaning up to her.

“Does this whole thing feel wrong to you?”

Harlequin shrugged one shoulder. “You mean like…”

“Like I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop,” he said. “Hydrus didn’t tell us where the magic is coming from. We need it to survive, right?”

She nodded. “Does it… matter? Ponies didn’t share any with us. Lots more bugs would’ve starved already if someone didn’t do something. Do you really think your idea of… pretending to be ponies… would work better than this?”

“I don’t know.” He finally let go, pushing her away. “I need more time to get my bearings. I trust my gut though, Harlequin. My gut was screaming at me to keep my damn mouth shut trying to help you bugs, and see what it got me. I’m not going to ignore it again.”

She didn’t really know what he meant, so she didn’t bother trying to make sense of it. Just shrugged, and continued up the stairs.

This room was much larger, so big that it was built in a curve around the central shaft. Unlike the rooms below, the spire of white quartz was exposed here, and polished to a glittering shine. Real light shone in from up above, breaking into a thousand fractals as it passed through the rock.

The guardhouse had rooms like this—a cramped office with shelves and books and desks. Half a dozen bugs were here, most of them drones. Harlequin stepped off the stairs, which continued up into the ceiling, crossing the room towards the only one she recognized.

“Thorax!” she exclaimed, grinning at him.

The bug set down his quill, face lighting up in response. “H! You survived!” He leaned forward to embrace her, and Harlequin returned the gesture. There was no love exchanged, but it still felt nice to see someone she remembered. A bug who didn’t look down on her as an inferior he’d taught to think.

“You’re Thorax,” Codex said from behind her, his voice flat. “The one who… runs this place?”

“Runs,” Thorax repeated, sitting down. “I don’t have to run very often anymore, now that we connected the cavern to the prison. Now we have lots of drones for that kind of work. Before that I had to run.”

“I think you’re…” Codex rolled his eyes. “You can’t be serious. Harlequin, are all of you like this?”

“Harlequin,” Thorax repeated, grinning. “You got a name! That’s great!”

“Like what?” she asked, annoyed.

Codex muttered something under his breath, sitting down on his haunches. “Nevermind. We’re here because we’re trying to join. Apparently you’re the one to see.”

“All those books and papers are what you use instead of the Swarm?” Harlequin said. “You have to put us in your book?”

“I do,” he said, levitating one over from the shelf and shuffling through to the end. “Did Hydrus say what you’ll be doing? He must trust you if he sent you up by yourselves.”

“Codex is going to be a… teacher. And I’m… supposed to come back tomorrow for Hydrus to tell me. What does tomorrow even mean when you’re in a cave?”

Thorax nodded towards the crystal. “We get sunlight from up above. Not as much makes it down into the cave, but ponies spend a lot of time in this part, and they don’t like the dark so much.” He scribbled down a few things, then rose. “Usually I would have a drone take you, but… I can do it. You look worried about something.”

She glanced sidelong at Codex, but he looked away awkwardly. He didn’t trust this bug. Harlequin didn’t care much—she did. “We’re worried about where the love comes from,” she said. “There’s hundreds of bugs here, and all this building. Maybe more than we did at the old hive. That must take tons of magic. How are you doing it if the ponies don’t give us any food?”

“Oh.” Thorax nodded knowingly. “Every bug wants to know where the food comes from. I can show you before I get you a cell. You… won’t believe it. I know I didn’t. But… it’s real.” He gestured up above them, where a thin shaft climbed into the darkness.

Codex took one look, then shook his head. “You look, I’ll wait here.”

So she took off, following Thorax up. They passed above the ceiling, to where a series of glass windows were facing them. Thorax stopped in front of one, hovering in place and gesturing inside. “These are magic pony glass,” he said. “From the other side, they’re mirrors. Ponies can’t see through.”

Harlequin looked through the magical glass, and couldn’t tell what she was looking at. Like a little pony bedroom, with a large bed, a fancy painting on one wall, and a light. “Love comes from… here?”

“No.” Thorax lowered his voice to a whisper. “Don’t talk when we go higher. The walls are too thin. Just look.”

They flew, and she looked. Not all the rooms were empty. There were at least two creatures in each one, and she could feel the real emotions coming through the walls. Real ponies were in there, with bugs. Some rooms were fancier than others, like tiny pony houses. Others had more bugs in them, or less.

They dropped back down after they’d flown to the top. Harlequin’s eyes were wide, and her fangs sticking out of her mouth.

“So?” Codex asked, expression grim. “What did you see up there? Are they eating foals or something?”

Thorax’s eyes widened, horrified, but Harlequin answered first. “No. It’s just… ponies. There are a dozen of them up there, being harvested. But they’re not prisoners… some of the doors aren’t even shut. They looked like they liked it.”

“They do,” Thorax said. “They want to come here so bad they give us metal even though they’re already feeding us love. It’s not the best kind… but it’s better than starving, right?”

“I don’t understand,” Codex said. “Ponies pay you to come down here and get harvested?” Thorax nodded. “And they want that?” He nodded again. “Why?”

“I… don’t really understand it,” Thorax admitted. “I think it’s because… not every pony can have the love they want? But when they come here, they can. We have all kinds; we can look like whatever they want.”

“Oh.” Codex slumped back down, defeated. “You built a brothel.”

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