• 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 36: Silent

Codex found her deep in the hive, several hours after Harlequin began. “I heard you were back. You didn’t even say hello?”

Harlequin stopped, turning away from the construction bugs constantly rebuilding the support to the central tower. They had to, or the weight above would tear the building right off the rock.

She noticed something else right then—there were dozens of drones all around her, a crowd of every one she’d fed and more that were hoping for food. It was a little like being back in the hive, the real one. Except she couldn’t feel all their minds around her. Just the names she’d given them, and their eyes watching her like a queen.

Finally she found Codex in the crowd. He was taller than all of these, though no longer larger than she was. Actually, they were probably the exact same height now, or close to it. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I was going to check on you, but I didn’t think you needed me back as quickly. These bugs, though…”

“You brought food for them,” he said flatly. “Has Hydrus been forcing you to…” He looked sick, turning away. “Have you been working for two days straight?”

Why was he suddenly so disgusted? At first he’d been just curious, but now she was having a hard time reconciling those emotions. She probably wouldn’t have been able to without her last feeding. But now all these layered feelings made sense to her. This was why ponies had seemed so alien—they weren’t just guided by their instincts to feel whatever made the most sense. There was a little storm inside each of them, including the ones that got changed into bugs.

She understood. “Not that kind of work,” she said, looking up the steep stone tower to the top. “I’m hoping never to work there again. But… there’s something else, I’m glad you’re here.” She reached forward, yanking him into the center of the group of drones. They all watched with unblinking eyes, curious.

Hydrus hadn’t even been right about them all being broken. Some were, but plenty of others just looked like they hadn’t had enough food. Harlequin had a sick feeling that she might know why. He’s probably replacing them as they die off. But why doesn’t he feed the new ones properly?

Of course, plenty were broken—limping, missing wings or eyes or legs. But that didn’t make them watch her any less attentively.

“Everyone, this is Codex. He taught me things.”

“Codex,” many repeated. Some were too weak to speak, or couldn’t manage to say they name correctly. But they all tried, and that was enough.

“What are you doing, Harlequin?” he snapped. “I don’t believe for two seconds that Hydrus sent you down here. He doesn’t care about these changelings.”

“He should,” she whispered, quiet enough that only he could hear. “They’re my brothers and sisters. They were part of the invasion. They did their part, they risked their lives. They fought. Shouldn’t they eat? Shouldn’t they get names?”

Codex pulled her in close, lowering his voice. “Harlequin, I don’t know what got into you… but there’s nothing you can do. You’re not the one in charge here. You don’t control where the food goes. I’ve been here longer than you now, and I’ve been up here most of the time. I saw the way this works. Hydrus is in charge of everything. He has all the food, and all the money.”

She shook her head. “You were teaching his harvesters, weren’t you?”

He nodded. “I thought you were dense. But they’ll learn. They’re very good at imitation, and for their job, that’s probably good enough. Nopony who comes to a place like this really cares what the entertainment has to say.”

“Could you teach them too?” she gestured out at the drones around them. “When they’re not working.”

“They’re not working now,” Codex pointed out. “How long until somepony notices? You can’t just… you can’t just gut this thing from underneath and expect to get away with it. There are consequences.”

He was probably right about that. They weren’t in a separate chamber, and on levels just above theirs bugs were watching. Bugs who would talk to Hydrus, eventually.

“Everyone,” Harlequin said, a little louder. “Go back to the jobs you were given before. But I’m going to come back here tomorrow. Meet me, uh… right here. When I come back.”

It wasn’t so easy. Plenty of the bugs didn’t seem to know how they’d got there, and she had to lead them back to their jobs. But once she did, they went back to the routine—looking far more alive than they had when she found them.

Finally they left the lower levels behind. Without a word exchanged between them, Harlequin knew where Codex wanted to go. They found their cell, tucked away among so many others, and climbed inside, sealing it behind them. It wasn’t that she needed sleep—she’d done that the night before, while she watched over Silver.

But once they were sealed inside, Harlequin no longer worried about being overheard. “What did you do out there? You’re… different, Harlequin. Going straight down to those bugs like you’re their mom. And… are you taller?”

She nodded absently. “A little, I think. That… happened last time too. Only this time it was from saving somepony, instead of just feeding on them like you.”

“Oh.” His ears flattened, his wings folding to his back. He pulled away from her, and she could taste his anger. “All this time, and you didn’t learn.”

“Don’t start!” she cut him off. “The pony was bleeding to death. Someone tried to kill him, and I stopped it from happening. You want to fly back with me and tell him he should be dead instead? Maybe you want to get a knife and kill him yourself!”

Codex’s eyes widened, and he spread his wings again in the tiny space, looking away from her. “Alright, alright! You’re… really defensive about this. This pony must mean a lot to you. Or… not pony anymore. This changeling.”

“Not really,” she answered honestly. “I did learn his name, and a little bit about him. But… does it matter? He would’ve died without my help, Codex. I was there and had the magic to save him. I used it, and now he’s still alive.”

“I guess it doesn’t.” Codex looked away from her, obviously concerned. Again she felt a complex mixture of emotions that wouldn’t have made sense only a short while ago. “That sounds an awful lot like… like you have morality. I didn’t think bugs had those. You just did what the Swarm told you. You obeyed, and you weren’t allowed to question. Is that not the way it is?”

“Not for me,” she answered. “Basically never was. I didn’t want ponies to die during the invasion, even you. And I think there are others like me. I can’t ask around without the Swarm.” But if there had still been a Swarm, everything Hydrus had done would be impossible. The collective will of every trapped bug would’ve found another way, probably to escape. Fighting in the open as the Queen had forced was uncomfortable and unnatural. Bugs belonged in the dark, where they could be safe.

Harlequin should probably have just kept her mouth shut, but she couldn’t help trusting Codex. In a way, he was the first member of her swarm. First of two. Or maybe a hundred, thanks to the drones. And S. Can’t forget her.

So she told him everything—what she’d been sent to do, and what she’d accomplished. His expression got more fearful the more she told him. Until eventually he had pushed into a sitting position against the stone wall on the far side, horrified. “Harlequin… do you have any idea what you’ve done?”

She watched his feelings, trying to guess. But whatever he was afraid of, it was still too complex for her to read. She shook her head.

“You played both sides. We were supposed to be working with the Charmings, but you gave even more help to Irongate. You brought him back to life—we can only hope that Blueblood wasn’t actually the one who wanted Silver Smith dead. Because you can bucking bet he’ll guess you had something to do with it.”

“I don’t think so,” Harlequin argued. “Not even you knew that bugs were able to make ponies into more bugs. You wouldn’t be in prison in the first place if anypony believed you. He’ll accept the story I gave about their assassin failing. And Silver is going to do everything he can to keep me out of the story. He has as much to lose as us.”

“Well yes, but… he’s also a second point of failure. Him being out there means that no matter how perfect we do things here, we could still have the guards crashing down on us tomorrow. If he’s revealed, he could compromise the whole thing.”

“I didn’t tell him where we were. I didn’t tell him what we did, or… Codex, ponies are coming here from all over the city. It isn’t going to be some noble stallion a city over who turns us in, it’ll be one of our clients. And even if he was a risk, he’s also a big important pony. He’s got lots of bits, he’s got somewhere safe far away. His farm is so huge, I bet hundreds of bugs could live there and never be seen. Isn’t making a new friend worth the risk?”

That shut him up. He looked her up and down, then closed his eyes. “That’s weird from you. You’ve grown… so much, since you left. I wonder if that’s how changeling queens come to be. Just steal enough magic from ponies until you’re more powerful than they are.”

“I don’t know Swarmlore, but maybe. My magic feels stronger. I think… I could probably learn real spells if I really tried. Instead of just moving things around. Guess you probably couldn’t… oh, but I want to learn something else!”

Her horn lit up, and she started drawing in the slime with her hoof. Recreating some of the letters she’d seen. “Could you teach me how to read? I wish I’d asked the Swarm how to do that before it died forever, but I never needed it, and now… now I can’t. Forever probably, if it doesn’t come back.”

“A changeling soldier, turned spy, turned charity worker. Why would you want to know how to read?”

She rolled to one side, embarrassed. “When I was out there, I saw so many secrets. Books, signs, scrolls, tickets. They all had secrets I couldn’t get to, because they were hidden with words. I want to learn to see them. Maybe to make some secrets of my own, one day.”

“I’ve never heard it put that way,” he said. “And I don’t know if I’ll ever teach those harvesters. They’re so set on learning things that can help with their work that nothing else sticks. But maybe you could. I’m not sure why I should.”

“Because if you do, I’ll share love with you, and you won’t have to harvest it yourself.” She shuddered at the thought, thinking back to those tiny rooms, and the stallion who’d looked at her like a thing and not a person. “I didn’t like it. You’ll like it even less.”

His face went green. “That sounds like… I can’t wait to teach you how to read.”

“And the drones too! Not how to read, but… help me teach them. I taught a bug for the first time yesterday, and I don’t think learning how to copy is the most important thing for those drones. Maybe talking would be a more important place to start.”

“Tall order,” he said. “But considering I could be starving to death in a cave, or cast into… sexual indentured servitude—I’ll take it.”

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