• 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 37: Hearts

Time passed in the secret swarm hidden beneath Canterlot. Harlequin couldn’t be sure exactly how long it was—time wasn’t something that bugs cared much about, even with the sun and the moon visible briefly through the crystals over her head.

Every day she learned a little more about how to read and write—it wasn’t nearly as hard as she thought. Each letter just stood for a sound, one she could replace in her mind to figure out what the word was supposed to be.

Learning how to write was much harder, since not every word she wanted to make used the letters she expected. Language was old and complicated, with layers of secrets that went back centuries. If she wanted to write her own story, she would need to study for far longer.

The other bugs learned… less well. For them, just communicating at all was a task often too difficult to complete. They showed their emotions in physical ways, buzzing their wings, or rubbing their legs together, or moving up and down when they wanted Harlequin to notice them.

But they were reacting. By her third visit, there weren’t any more open wounds, and the number of drones had stopped dropping. She knew their number, and had learned every possible letter she could use. There were enough bugs down here that she had to use two letters for some of them. But she never forgot a name, even if she only gave it casually. The very act of naming them seemed significant.

One thing Harlequin didn’t do was return to “harvest” love for the swarm. Doing so was a privilege to many of the other love-starved bugs, and so she wasn’t missed. When she was told it was her turn, she just didn’t go. I don’t know how you can stand it.

Harlequin was so occupied caring for her bugs that she barely even noticed the pair of Hydrus’s guards coming upon her one evening, armed with their spears and shields as before.

Her drones were more attentive to these details—they’d long come to associate the guards with danger, with hard duties and bad treatment, so they scattered, vanishing into the cracks and down the slope before Harlequin even realized what was happening. She turned slowly, feeling a growing dread in her chest.

There were only two, the same two she saw often loitering around where bugs harvested. She didn’t know their names. “Hydrus wants me?” she asked, rising to her hooves. “What’s the point of bringing weapons?”

“The drones are strange,” said one of them, casting about in the darkness around himself with the spear. Have you been guarding the brothel for so long that your eyes can’t adjust to the darkness?

“We thought you might be in danger,” said the other. “Heard there were several down here, that you’d gone into the dark. Didn’t come back.”

“I kept them at bay,” Harlequin said noncommittally. She glanced up briefly, eyes fixing on the crystal over their heads. A glow came down through it, telling her everything she needed to know about the time. “Is this just a rescue?”

“No. Hydrus needs you, up above.” He pointed. “No convert to slow you down. Fly straight to the office, and don’t hesitate. Very urgent.”

She obeyed, taking to the air. She spared one last glance for the dark crags and smaller corners of the cavern around her, where the drones she’d been speaking to had vanished at their approach. She could only hope they would stay hidden from Hydrus’s guards a little longer, or that they’d lose interest completely.

They’re still getting their work done. You have no reason to attack them.

She arrived in the office a few minutes later, landing outside and climbing up through the rear entrance. She was no longer intimidated by all the soldiers, or frightened out of going inside.

Hydrus wasn’t alone inside this time—there was a pony waiting there. She hesitated in the doorway, feeling a brief spike of fear in her chest. Ponies meant danger, didn’t they? Yet this one was looking directly at Hydrus, completely undisguised, and she felt only bored.

She was a tall unicorn, taller than Hydrus or Harlequin, with a sharply pointed horn and an angular face. She wore a simple vest, with a symbol along one side. A sun mark cast partway behind a pillar.

I’ve seen that before. It was on the inside of the building Blueblood had taken her.

Suddenly everything made sense.

“Harlequin, you’re here!” Hydrus didn’t stand for her, just pointed at the empty chair. “This is Marquesa, she’s, uh…”

“Supervisor to Charming’s corporate interests, among which include the prison contract he recently took on,” she supplied.

Harlequin had heard more love and affection in the voice of her old queen.

Great. Harlequin sat down, grateful that ponies at least couldn’t sense emotions. This one would have no way of knowing how unhappy she was to be here.

“This is the pony I was telling you about,” Hydrus went on. “She’s my finest. She completed that infiltration for your master so successfully last week.”

“My employer,” Marquesa corrected coldly. “Ponies do not have masters as insects do. Kindly remember that.”

“Yes yes.” Hydrus’s wings buzzed. “Whatever. She’s the pony I trust to accomplish this task. The only one.”

She rose from her seat. “Then you may explain it to her. I tire of the darkness and moisture. I’ll wait in the carriage.” She left without another word, vanishing up the stairs and out of sight.

Hydrus waited for her to retreat up the steps, seeming more relieved by her departure than anything. “Sometimes I regret cooperating with them,” he whispered. “Every one of these ponies acts like queen of their own swarm.”

You got that impression too. Harlequin almost asked him if he was going to change his mind about the way he treated the drones—but she resisted. For the moment, her own personal reserves hadn’t yet emptied. So long as she kept going on missions, she should be able to take care of them herself.

But will I be converting a new bug each time? The mysterious voice in her dreams hadn’t liked that, and it hadn’t returned since. Maybe it was punishing her.

“I guess you’re sending me out again?” she asked.

“Yes,” he answered. “You’ve seen the others down there. So few of my bugs can understand complex tasks. They only think of their next meal.” Maybe they wouldn’t if you fed them better.

“Regardless, it’s time for us to collect on our partnership with Blueblood. He’s taken the prison contract from Celestia, and with little time to spare. If those bugs starved, we would get awkward questions asked about the rest of the prison, and they might start investigating. We’re going to put an end to it.”

You don’t care if they starve? “We’re going to… what, bring them here?”

“Yes,” Hydrus said. For a second, Harlequin thought she felt something from him, a stir of more complex emotion. He’s not telling me everything. But he hurried forward so fast that she didn’t have the time to ask.

“Our goal is to eventually transition this establishment into something more… recognized. Accidental discovery would be our destruction at this stage. That need not be the case. First the prison will be established nearby—or so the paperwork will say. Then Blueblood’s guards will ‘discover’ our need for love and will look the other way while we try our solution. Which we’ve already done, but nopony will get too picky about the timeline.”

“That… makes sense,” Harlequin said. “But you brought me here. What do I do?”

“You’re going to go with the soldiers, and convince the prisoners that they’re being brought to safety. They’ve become accustomed to the trickle of love they can harvest from guards and visitors. Show them we have more.” He reached into his desk, removing a jar. It glowed bright green, completely filled. She recognized it well, since she’d had to fill one of these herself. So far, there’d been no consequence to her not returning to do so again.

“That sounds easy,” Harlequin said. “Good, even. I just have to go up there and… tell them how safe it is? Share this love with them?”

“That’s the idea,” Hydrus said. “Tell them how safe it is, how much better off they’ll be, and then let the guards get them down here. You’ll be in disguise the whole time, so make sure you stay with the guards.” He leaned across the table suddenly, expression intense. “It’s very important you stay with the pony guards at all times, is that clear?”

She nodded. “Why? They’re part of the swarm too, aren’t they? Are you afraid they’d…?” But she didn’t even finish.

Hydrus vanished from his side of the table, shoving her up against one wall. He was still taller than she was, and much stronger. Whatever emotion he’d been hiding before, it was coming out now. “They’ve been slowly losing their minds over the last two months. Have you seen what that looks like? No, of course you haven’t, you didn’t see anything before the invasion. Well, I have. Chrysalis used to do it to bugs who’d failed her, or were disloyal. Lock them away until they starved.”

He let go, turning towards the window and looking down through the slime into the dimly lit burrow. “The longer you go without food, the more the mind cannibalizes itself. Everything you’ve achieved in understanding the world goes backwards. You forget who you were, forget what you knew, eventually forget your name. Once that happens… you’re worse than a drone. I’ve never seen a bug come back from it.”

He met her eyes again, and she could feel his powerful worry for her safety. It wasn’t affectionate, wasn’t genuine the way she’d felt from Apple Cinnamon or Lord Irongate. Hydrus worried for her because of entirely selfish reasons, he didn’t want to lose a valuable tool.

He’s not betraying me. I’m too useful. The more she understood, the more she felt like everything in the world around her was becoming dangerous. “You think the guards can contain them?”

“Yes,” he answered. “Those bugs are the Queen’s most important, or they were. Her Obsidian court, her leaders. We need to separate the ones who have escaped with their sanity intact from those who haven’t—but that won’t be your job, it will be mine. Just get them here, Harlequin. Once we have our smartest bugs returned to us, what the swarm can do will be greatly expanded. We’ll only be missing a queen.”

She nodded. “Right away.” She made to leave, but Hydrus stopped her in the doorway. “I suggest playing that same unicorn you did last time. Every time you’re seen in the same body, you strengthen that body’s credibility. Ponies expect it to be real.”

He waited for her to change before he finally moved out of the way. “Good luck, Harlequin. Make it back alive, please. I wasn’t lying when I called you the most capable bug I have.”

I won’t be when I’m done with this mission, she realized. Accomplishing this would turn her from a vital bug in the colony to someone who could slip through the cracks. But maybe that was for the best. If she wasn’t so important, maybe she could go out on her own, harvest her own love for the drones. Visit Lord Irongate, maybe…

She stopped in the makeshift classroom on her way out, poking her head in to watch Codex with the harvesters. The space was cramped and uncomfortable by pony standards, with a low ceiling and little floorspace. Half the bugs clung to the walls to listen to him, with Codex and the blackboard the only things that had space on the ground.

He stopped his explanation of “tea etiquette” for a moment, hurrying over to the doorway. “Harlequin? What are you doing up here?”

“Not that,” she said, wrinkling her nose at what he was thinking. “Though I don’t see why you would care.”

“No reason,” he lied, looking quickly away. “Another mission then?”

She nodded. She wanted to tell him—but there were guards everywhere. Hydrus wouldn’t approve. “Not hurting anyone,” she said instead. “A rescue.”

“Good.” He patted her once on the shoulder. “Be safe out there.”

Harlequin blinked, staring at his retreating back as he turned away. A few faint drops of his concern for her slipped down her throat, tasting of warm hearths on snowy mornings.

She left a few moments later, before any other bug could notice her shock.

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