• 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 30: Reunion

Harlequin couldn’t leave that hidden vault fast enough for her liking. Even as she hurried up the service stairwell and out onto Canterlot’s streets, she imagined she could still feel the eyes of Prince Blueblood watching the back of her head, just daring her to make a mistake.

If I can do this, I’ll be able to set the other bugs free. Or free to come back to us. They won’t have to starve.

She didn’t need to be told to hurry, or to treat the mission as urgently as she could. She couldn’t imagine they were getting any better care than when she’d been guarding their cell. How can ponies be so stupid? We don’t eat their food!

Even on her last day with Codex in the old prison, ponies had still been throwing plants down the mineshaft. She could only assume they were feeding the important prisoners’ food that was equally useless.

Harlequin was so twisted up in her own thoughts that she almost didn’t notice the freedom all around her. She stepped out onto the street, and ponies were suddenly giving her space. They walked around her spot in the center of the sidewalk, without needing to be told. They didn’t seem to care that she was even standing there.

More than that, she was free. There was no powerful unicorn watching over her shoulders for her to make a mistake. She could dodge into an alley, change into something with wings, and fly away for dear life. She’d never have to see this awful place again.

She didn’t, though. Maybe Blueblood was wrong to think the last bug had cared about the Swarm, and they’d just escaped instead of helping him. But Harlequin did care, at least about Codex. She wasn’t sure what to think about Hydrus yet, that would take more time.

But there were all those drones slaving away on the bottom of the colony, and so many more that slept. What kind of mercy was it to let the broken ones work to death?

Maybe I can save up enough love to feed them properly. S deserved better, the rest of them do too.

The ponies sure did know how to make a beautiful city. She didn’t know where to find the train station at first, so she just walked, holding her dress above the ground as Blueblood had taught her. Yet she wasn’t nearly as confident she would actually be able to pass as the pony who had gone missing. How well could she pretend?

At least the ponies around her didn’t make it very hard. Her presence on the street was enough for most of them to get out of her way, and what few didn’t also didn’t accost her.

Even if she might not be free to fly away and escape, she was still free to walk on the surface again. To feel nothing from the ponies around her but modest, casual interest. She searched for the glint of armor, and found a pony covered in gold on a street corner.

She was already halfway to him before she realized she recognized the earth pony. Apple Cinnamon looked a little worn down—his mane was cut short now, his armor not as polished as the last time. But he was still unmistakable.

She swiftly turned away, or tried to—but now he’d seen her. She was much too slow to get away as Apple Cinnamon hurried up beside her. “Here, ma’am. Let me help you. Are you not feeling well?”

“I’m fine,” she said. She didn’t worry about being recognized—her voice would change with the body. Indeed, Apple Cinnamon showed no sign of recognition. “Just realized I was going the wrong way. Got a little lost.”

He let go a moment later, straightening. “Well ma’am, I’ve been in Canterlot a few weeks now. Perhaps I can escort you to your destination. I’m only out on patrol, and there’s been nothing of consequence in the city since the invasion. Or a week after it, anyway…”

She should’ve told him no, should’ve walked away and made up some excuse. But she wanted to be near him, to find out what had happened in the Guard, maybe what he thought of her. Could she ask those questions without being thrown into prison as a changeling spy?

That sure wouldn’t impress Blueblood, if his spy gets captured before even leaving the city.

“I’m looking for the train station,” she said. “I think I’ve gotten turned around.”

“Oh.” He smiled weakly. “There’s a station in the upper city, it’s not far. The tickets are several times as much as the ones sold down below, but… I expect you don’t care about that, do you?”

She shook her head. “Closer is better, I think. I wouldn’t want to miss my train.” She didn’t know how to be a wealthy mare, but maybe she could imitate Blueblood. He seemed like the pony to copy on the subject.

“Well, follow me then. I’m Guardspony Cinnamon, by the way. Just a recruit for now, but everypony starts somewhere. Who are you?”

She followed him, at an appropriate distance. “I’m, uh… Lady Irongate.”

“Oh.” His ears flattened, and he looked away. “That sounds like a name I ought to know, miss, but you’ll forgive me if I don’t. I’m new in town and all. Or I could stop us by the guardhouse and get somepony more suited to yer tastes.”

“No Apple,” she snapped. “You can take me there. I’m just catching a train.”

His eyes widened. “The accent was that obvious? Gosh if I’m not a fool for thinking I could fit into this city.”

She winced, but couldn’t look away. She was a noble pony, she had to keep her back straight. It wasn’t just the guard watching her, but numerous other ponies from every side. If her behavior seemed strange to even one of them, stories would be whispered, and bugs would starve.

“I’m sorry,” she said. It was the only thing she could think of. “I’m sure you, uh… I’m sure you joined for good reason. You’re trying to protect Equestria, right? That’s noble.”

“Noble,” he repeated. “‘Bout the only thing about me that is, ma’am. But I suppose there’s something of nobility to it.” He trailed off, sounding like he regretted assisting her as much as she regretted asking for his help. “The train station is just another block this way. You’ll be able to see it as soon as we’re around the corner.”

Harlequin was running out of time. She couldn’t stay silent, or else she’d lose this chance. She had to do something! “So things have been quiet since the invasion?” she asked. She couldn’t even be bothered imitating Blueblood’s way of speaking. She didn’t know enough of his silly words to keep up a whole conversation that way. “No trouble in the city?”

He hesitated for a second, looking her over. Did he somehow suspect who she was? No—only a few seconds later, and he went on. “I suppose it can’t be any harm to tell a pony as important as you. You all… have better information than I do. Just asking to get the perspective on the ground, is that it?”

She nodded. She wasn’t going to refuse a gift-wrapped solution if he offered one.

“Nothing major since the attack. A few dozen stupid rumors started by ponies who should know better. Now that the changelings have attacked everypony seems to see them behind every corner. Guess it’s… better to be observant and see tons of false positives than to ignore the obvious evidence until it’s too late.”

“Yeah,” she said. “I, uh… yeah. I like it that ponies are observant. Were any of the rumors true?”

“A few…” He trailed off. “Infiltrations. Most of them weren’t terribly clever, or last very long. Changelings are good at looking like us, but most of them aren’t very good about acting like us. The one who impersonated Princess Cadance was their queen, their very best. All the others are worse at it than she is.”

He couldn’t even keep the pain from his voice, much less the emotions she could sense. Apple Cinnamon was personally hurt by what happened. There was only one bug he could be thinking off. “Did they attack you or something?” she asked. “The Guard, I mean.”

“They…” He looked away. “There’s the railroad station, ma’am. I should probably get back to my patrol.”

“Thank you,” she said. “And Cinnamon.” She stopped him, settling a hoof briefly on his shoulder. It was strange enough that it attracted the attention of a few nearby ponies. “Maybe the reason you were tricked was that she wasn’t pretending. Maybe she really was your friend.”

His mouth hung open. She didn’t wait to see what he would do next, just turned and walked away. No shouting followed her, no guards. She reached the railroad office without difficulty. Buying a ticket was a bit of a challenge, mostly because she couldn’t tell the difference between different kinds of metal.

In the end she faked a minor accident, dropping the bag directly onto the counter and spilling its contents. “Just sort it out,” she instructed, turning up her nose. “Private car for Ponyville, next train. The rest goes back into the bag.”

That worked—though annoyed, the unicorn behind the counter did as she was told, levitating the bag back out without some of the metal. She tucked it away in her pocket, along with the ticket marked with pony writing.

Writing. It wasn’t just something ponies did. Those symbols… meant something. She stared down at the ticket in her mouth, as though she were waking up to something for the first time.

Letters weren’t just sounds, they could be written! And just like letters could be combined to make names, they could also be put together into words.

Words like the ones on her ticket. A telepathic message from the swarm, but trapped in one little slice of space. She sat on the nearest bench, staring down at her ticket and thinking as hard as she could.

What secrets do you have? Tell me what you know. There was a picture of a train, a simple outline, along with a tiny patch of writing on one side and some big letters on the other. She knew those, somehow. C-3. But what words you made when you put them together, that was harder for her.

Codex would know! He can teach me how to make books work.

Then the train rolled into the station. It was so loud, so massive and threatening that she rose instantly from her seat, dropping the ticket in her haste to get away. Steam belched out from its nose, filling the air with heat and moisture and it squeaked loudly into place.

“Ma’am,” said a voice from in front of her. A pony in a black uniform, holding the ticket in his wing. “I think you dropped this?”

“Y-yes…” She took it, tucking it away into her dress in the hidden pocket. “I’m sorry. Just got flustered is all.”

The incredible beast didn’t attack her—instead, its sides opened, and ponies emerged from within. Once they’d all left, another pony started shouting. “Train for Manehattan! Stops in Ponyville, Appleloosa, Cherry Valley, and others. All aboard!”

She couldn’t read the sign hanging from the side of the train—but she knew the name. She rose, striding up to the open door on the front. The pony took one look at her ticket, then nodded.

“E-excuse me,” she said. “Do you, uh… where is this?”

“Third door,” he said. “Letters are on the windows.”

“Right.” She walked to the third door—counting she understood. It was critical for war in a way writing never had been. I think Hydrus knows how to steal secrets from books. He had them on his shelves.

There was the door with C-3, gold etching on frosted glass. She pushed it open, then walked inside. She shut it behind her, scooting all the way over to the window. She looked out on the city as afternoon turned to evening. The sky was bright orange by the time she felt the floor moving.

Her car slid open, and a pony wearing a simple black suit entered. She didn’t ask permission, but she did do something to the lock, twisting it until it clicked.

“I think you must have the wrong car,” Harlequin said. “This one’s mine.”

“No,” she said. “I think you’re somewhere you shouldn’t be.” The earth pony mare lowered her glasses, letting their eyes meet for a second. “Don’t run. Don’t try to get away, Changeling. I’m only here to talk.”

She swallowed, forcing her eyes back to the window. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“I’m sure you don’t.” The pony slid closer. “Just listen. I’m not here to fight you. We at S.M.I.L.E. understand the nuance as other ponies haven’t yet realized.”

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