• 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 26: Intrusion

Thorax took them back into the cavern below, helping Harlequin carry Codex during the drop. “We have cells big enough for two bugs,” he said, as they landed in the honeycomb of an upper level, with only thin walkways between each section. “You’ll want to be together, right?”

“Yes,” Codex said, before she could even open her mouth. “Harlequin is one of the few bugs I trust so far. Not that… I’m sure you’re great. But she’s so guilty about me that I can trust she won’t betray me. Not so much with the rest.”

Thorax stared at him like he hadn’t even understood his language. “Right, you were a pony. I forget how confrontational with each other you can be.” He took them down a few twists and turns, until they were in a tiny side-cavern, near some running water. The entrance was tightly blocked-off with slime, so that they had to squeeze through the center. The interior had an adhesive section of wall, with enough room for a bug to spin the cocoon closed if they wanted to. No blankets, no pillows, not even a place for personal possessions. Bugs didn’t really have those things.

“You can probably talk to Hydrus tomorrow to figure out where you’ll be with food. Every bug doesn’t get it from him. I came up with this great system of shapes where each part of the cave has one, and they have harvesters that bring back…” He trailed off. “You don’t care.”

“This is… where bugs sleep?” Codex asked, climbing out from the tiny space. “I can barely stand up in here.”

“Why would you want to stand up while you sleep?” Thorax asked. Codex had no response to that, and ended up just staring stupidly at him as he walked away.

Harlequin climbed in past him, laying sideways against the wall and memorizing the scent. Every cell would have its own, and she would need to know how to find her way back to this one.

“These are worse conditions than we had you in,” Codex said, once Thorax was gone. “Do they really expect us to use this?”

“For sleeping,” she answered. “How often do we sleep?”

“Often enough that I… don’t want to feel like a pencil in somebody’s drawer while I do it,” he argued, but most of the energy was gone. “Guess I don’t have a choice. Got recruited to the faction, so… I just get what you give me at this point.”

“It’s better than starving,” she answered. “Maybe way better. Doesn’t even seem like ponies are hurt in keeping us fed. Hydrus basically saved the swarm.”

“Saved,” Codex repeated, doubt in his voice. “But for what? This brothel sure seems… efficient. What do the rest of us do? Or do you think he’s keeping hundreds of bugs out of charity. I’m pretty sure that concept doesn’t even exist in your culture.

Harlequin didn’t want to admit that she didn’t know what the word meant, so she couldn’t argue directly. “Hydrus was a leader. When our queen abandoned us, he was there. What does it matter what else he wants? If he wants to collect pony metal, so what? Do you think it’s worse than letting your prisoners die?”

From his silence, she could guess that he didn’t.

“Besides, ponies come here willingly. They aren’t getting foalnapped. They aren’t vanishing into the night never to come back. Seems like everyone gets something they want.”

“Until Equestria figures out what you’re doing down here,” he said. “The leader bugs in the Canterlot cell… ponies aren’t dumb. They’ll realize none of them are eating, that they’re all going insane. Maybe they’ll finally listen. When that happens, they’re going to feel terrible about what they did, and go down into the prison to try and fix their mistake. If they find this…”

Harlequin could only shrug. “When that happens, we tell them we ate what we could find. Let the ponies feel guilty for starving us.”

They didn’t argue for much longer. Codex seemed to want some privacy, so she went off to explore the colony, searching for more bugs she knew. Trouble was, she knew so few that she couldn’t find any.

She did get a chance to venture deeper, where the drones had been packed into cells not even half the size of their own.

Almost all of them were fully cocooned for hibernation, where they would require only drops of love to sustain them. What few drones she did see were all busy with manual labor, carrying water or cleaning away waste or doing other menial work.

“Hey bug,” she said to one she found, replacing a section of collapsed honeycomb. “Do you like being in Hydrus’s swarm?”

The bug wasn’t all that much smaller than Harlequin, but the eyes that looked up at her seemed barely comprehending. Even S had more life in her than this. “Work,” it said. “For the swarm.”

“For the swarm,” Harlequin repeated. “What’s your name?”

“Work,” it said again. Then it started regurgitating fresh slime, and it couldn’t say anything.

“Work,” she said, defeated. She tried a few more drones, with similar results. Many weren’t even able to speak, even to imitate her. They were just like S, shriveled and barely fed.

Hydrus isn’t giving you enough. He’s drowning in love up in the tower, while you’re all worked dry. He must not realize what he’s doing.

Nightfall came to the world above, and with it a diffuse blue glow that lit the cavern only faintly. It was still more than bright enough for her sensitive changeling eyes. Activity in the cave was completely unaffected by the darkness. And up above, it felt like there were even more ponies coming to visit.

I wonder if Equestria knows about this after all. Maybe this is the way they let us get food. We aren’t trying to escape, so they’ll look the other way.

Except there were plenty of bugs that weren’t being seen to, out in the rest of Canterlot Caverns. Bugs that were so far gone that there might not be anything that could be done for them.

By the time she made it back to their cell to rest, she found Codex already inside. He wasn’t asleep, just staring at her as she climbed in. He probably expects me to be like a pony and give him personal space.

She didn’t, climbing in right beside him as she would’ve done with any other member of her hive. She could feel him tense, and wondered briefly if he would climb out. But he didn’t.

The slimy entrance sealed closed, deadening the sounds from the cavern and blocking what little light might’ve penetrated. Her cell was damp, and she had another bug beside her that she trusted. Such relaxing conditions that she could feel herself start to drift.

She closed her eyes, and could almost imagine she was back in the real hive, long ago. When the world was simple, when she hadn’t had a name or even understood what that meant. When she still thought her queen loved her.

“How was it out there?” Codex asked, voice so quiet she almost thought she was hearing his thoughts. “Was it as good as you remember?”

“No,” she admitted. “He’s keeping most of the bugs asleep, and the drones that are awake are being worked too hard. It’s like… when I first got down here, I found a bug hauling water. She was badly hurt, probably from the fight against Equestria. I think maybe Hydrus is…”

After a minute or so, she still hadn’t answered, and Codex nudged her. His body wasn’t warm exactly, they didn’t have body heat the same way ponies did. It wasn’t soft either, since he had a shell. But it was comfortable to have him close. “You think Hydrus is what?”

“Oh.” She opened her eyes, forcing them to stay open this time so she wouldn’t drift. “I think he’s acting like the queen.”

Codex didn’t seem to understand that, but she wasn’t in a hurry to explain. Not with the memory of S’s desperate face fresh in her mind. Hydrus has so much love, he doesn’t need it all. We can make sure other drones get it too—then they can get their own names, their own futures and dreams.

She returned to the darkness. But despite what Codex said, Harlequin wasn’t alone there. Eyes watched her from the void, the eyes of a creature she could sometimes glimpse. So long as she didn’t look directly at her, the pony-shaped figure seemed distinct. When she tried to see her directly, she dissolved into smoke.

“You see the story before you, its threads unraveled. Do you know why?”

“No,” her sleeping self responded. “It shouldn’t be this way.”

“What is should and shouldn’t for a creature with no story? You have no mark, no string to weave. You failed because taking the world for yourselves would be a story. But failure only makes you a footnote in someone else’s.”

She woke after an hour or so of rest, about the same time that Codex did. She heard his breathing accelerate, right when hers did, even feel the twitch of one of his wings against her chest.

“I’ve been an insect for weeks,” Codex said, his voice still bleary from sleep. “It should be stranger to feel so rested after so little time. It must be… connected to our magic somehow. Maybe creating our own emotional energy is connected to sleep. Did any bug ever think that maybe you’d be able to do it too if you got eight hours like other creatures?”

“No,” Harlequin said. “I don’t think you could force a bug to take more. If you want, I’ll try to go back to sleep with you for another hour. We don’t have a job yet; no bug will notice.”

“Our plants will notice,” he said, obstinately. “And if we wait too long, scavengers will get into our colony.”

Harlequin shrugged. “Testing your idea was the best chance we had, but… this is a better one. Hydrus has love. Hundreds of bugs are living here. Changelings aren’t meant to live alone. This is better.”

“Maybe we can get them to see my way,” Codex said, climbing past her and towards the thin layer of slime. Without being told, he pierced it with his fangs, cut a line through it, then crawled out. “Hydrus seemed like a reasonable pony. He even knew pony artists. Wouldn’t a way for bugs to not depend on love be interesting to him?”

Told you we couldn’t sleep more. Harlequin followed him, sealing it back up on her way out. “Maybe. But he wasn’t a swarmlore expert. Those creatures were… back home, in the hive. They’re so old they can’t travel. I hope… I hope there’s enough bugs left behind to feed them.”

It was still night, but that didn’t really matter. Hydrus had said to see them tomorrow, and he would mean after they rested. It was time.

Still no guards following us. This means I can trust him, right? Besides, those monsters who killed S hated Hydrus. If they didn’t like him, it must mean he’s good. There were just a few little things about the drones for him to improve, that was all.

Together they hiked towards the tower, and the activity they could sense from within. Harlequin could see the faces of many hungry bugs looking up at it, their fangs exposed and drool dribbling down their mouths. Real food wasn’t something a hungry bug could miss.

How many scavengers are in the caves? Will they get desperate and come for this place?

There were guards at the base of the tower, and they weren’t allowed to climb up the way they’d gone the first time. They were pointed towards the back-exit Thorax had taken them through, which without flight involved a near ten-minute hike up the wall.

“I’m going to puke,” Codex kept saying. “All my fluids are going where they shouldn’t. I’m going to bucking puke.”

“Then learn to fly,” she countered. “Maybe we can ask for some lessons for you.”

“Not if I die on the way up,” he said. He couldn’t hold her, since he had to keep all but one limb on the wall at all times. Even so, he walked as close to her as he could.

“Quit looking behind you!” she said. “It’s only the wrong way if you think about it. Just… climb. Watch the path in front, pretend it’s the floor… and we’re there!” They climbed inside, standing in one of the upper hallways with its fancy carpets.

Harlequin was the first inside, and so she was first to come face-to-face with a Royal Guard.

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