• 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 5: Famine

The process was neither swift nor pretty. But changelings were creatures of instinct, and H could do nothing if not follow them. Unlike when H wanted to know information about pony concepts that she had never seen, where the things she saw often didn’t make sense, the process of converting a pony into one of their own was something that came quickly.

Eventually the hours were over, and a few drones arrived to lift the new cocoon onto the ceiling to join the others. H bounced out of the cage with an energy she hadn’t had before. She hesitated near a bit of hard slime, staring at her own reflection.

She hadn’t been imagining things—she really was taller. Her wings seemed larger too, and her frills. There was magic flowing through her as she had never tasted in her life.

“That was…”

Hydrus had either waited for her, or known when to return—she couldn’t know, because while she fed she had been conscious of nothing else. But he’d been the one to let her out.

“I found this for you,” Hydrus said, offering a length of cloth. A scarf. The name came so easily to her now, without even thinking. It was quite long, made of squares of black, red, and white in alternating patterns. “You should have something. To go with the sword. Don’t forget it.”

She had hoped he would. But there it was, beside the cage where she had left it. It didn’t seem to hurt her any more as she levitated it up into the scabbard, but not any less either.

“Why did we need to come to the city?” she asked, wrapping the cloth around her neck as she imagined it should be done. Not too tight, or so loose it would slide off. “Just capture a few of them when we’re hungry, share this… wouldn’t it be easier?”

Hydrus laughed. “That glamour feels endless to you because you’ve never tasted it before. But think about this—when you’re done, you made another changeling. A few days stewing up there on the ceiling and he’ll be as hungry as you ever were. He’ll need food too. So we capture more… and after a great meal, the next meal we need is even bigger. Eventually we have to capture thousands of them just to eat a single meal, and you see why the queen forbids it.”

“The queen…” H’s wings folded close to her back, and she shuddered. “Did I just—”

“No, no!” He rested a leg on her shoulder. “Relax, H. The queen forbids harvesting ponies for food. She doesn’t forbid adding useful ponies to the swarm. The food you enjoyed just now, that wasn’t the purpose of your meal. That was just the bonus you receive from the queen as a reward for loyal service.”

He banged against her shell with one leg, grinning. “Don’t expect it often. Each feeding makes you more powerful, much faster than just eating emotions. This opportunity is granted by the queen, and can be given by the one who receives it to their inferiors. If you want to feel that way again, you will have to serve me well.”

He lowered his voice, waiting for the hauling drones to leave the way they’d come. “My other bugs, they have too many of their own ideas. Too much ambition. I want you to be a bug that I can trust. Do you know that word, H? Trust?”

She hadn’t before. It went into the same box as all the other things that didn’t have good pictures. Abstractions. It was an idea for something that couldn’t exist as an object. There were many of them. Emotions when felt were abstractions, even if they were concrete to a changeling. Trust was like loyalty, reliability. It was a little like love.

“Yes,” she said. “Now I do. That is… what you want from me? You don’t trust the others because… because of something.”

He shook his head. “Don’t worry about them, H. You’re here because I saw something in you. Because after your first meal, some part of you woke up and realized you didn’t want to be cannon fodder anymore. You felt the sun on your shell, the wind through your fins, and you realized there was more than just breathing, eating, and obeying the queen.”

She nodded, practically drooling. The queen really had picked the perfect bug to be in charge. Hydrus understood her in a way she didn’t think was possible. That was exactly how she felt. Because he went through it himself. He said he didn’t use to be a pony. That means he was a grub too, right?

“I can be loyal!” she exclaimed, without thinking. “I am grateful—that’s what you said, wasn’t it? The thing I would be. I am now. I can… it makes so much more sense now. The food we eat… it’s emotion. It isn’t even real, and I didn’t know!”

“There are many things you never knew,” Hydrus said. “Your first instruction, now that I think you’ll remember, is not to ask any other bug. If you need to know something, you come to me. In return, I promise always to answer. Agreed?”

“Agreed.” They knocked their hooves together, granting their words significance. Oath. Agreement. The very fundamental of changeling existence, and she hadn’t even known what they meant until that moment.

How much more is there to learn?

“But your vacation is over. You have more magic than others—you may not need to sleep for a week or more. I want you keeping the peace in the pens with the others. But I have a special instruction for you, one I didn’t give to them.” He leaned in close, and H craned her neck to listen.

“You must steal your name, H. More than just a letter—that sound is for a drone, and you’re more than that now. You still have the responsibility of keeping the peace here, and fighting beside us if the prisoners attempt an escape. But while you’re interacting with them, find a name and steal it. Then you will be ready for more.”

H felt so good she almost didn’t think about the pony she had left hanging on the ceiling. And if that’s all that happens, he really is lucky. Better to be up there than dead like the ones who fought us.

H wasn’t sure what “stealing a name” actually meant, but she knew where she would have to be to find one. She hurried to the top floor, and found Thorax waiting at the guard post.

“I’m… reporting,” she said, only stumbling over the word a little bit. “I guess I’m going to be helping you for a bit. Helping you with… this place.”

The guard post was located near the front of the building, past where any ponies would be allowed to go. That meant Thorax didn’t actually have to do any guarding, only handle administrative tasks as bugs came and went from their duties. But did Hydrus put you here to help you, or because you wormed your way in?

Even so, H wasn’t happy to see the building from the outside. It looked like it had been beautiful only recently, a single structure larger than the great hive would’ve been if taken above the ground. Or… maybe not quite that big.

But now that she was changed, H could smell the place, in more physical ways that had nothing to do with finding food. There were a lot of dirty, helpless ponies in there, and the malaise spread from the building into the streets.

Thorax had found himself some more clothes too since last she saw him—an oversized, fluffy jacket, with a bright pink hood and furry frills around where his head emerged. “You?” he exclaimed, stumbling back a little. “H? You’re so much taller! I don’t think I’ve ever seen a drone grow so fast. Don’t you want a… I guess you probably don’t.”

“Want what?” she asked, tilting her head slightly to one side. “Did I want to get bigger? Have you seen what happens to the drones?” There were plenty within sight at that very moment—sleeping lazily on buildings, or under awnings, or just sprawled out in black clouds in the street. “We can barely even think.”

“This isn’t how it’s supposed to be,” Thorax said, his voice distant. He seemed to be following her eyes, watching the endless crowd of drones. “Maybe the queen is a genius, but it seems… wrong. Using the young this way.”

“Young,” she repeated. It was another of those abstractions, one that had only meant ‘small’ to her before. But that wasn’t what Thorax meant when he said it. “Like I was. Before.”

“Yeah.” He slumped forward, resting his head on the table next to a pile of differently-colored bits of glass. There were two piles, actually, and his sole job seemed to be moving a single piece from one to the other whenever a changeling entered or left. “It’s supposed to take years and years to grow up. But that’s a lot of love, and little drones need almost nothing. They don’t even care if they have to eat meat instead.”

H knew what he meant. The night before, after the fighting was done… they had brought all the dead into another part of the city. It had been a little strange to her that none of the bigger changelings had wanted to be there—but it had taken so long to get full that way.

For some reason, the thought disgusted her now. She leaned forward, clutching at her stomach, and taking a few shallow breaths. “Don’t… talk about that.”

Thorax watched her, reaching out a concerned hoof. But he pulled it back again as another wave of guards passed out of the building, and he quickly straightened, moving the glass pieces around for a few seconds. The other changelings ignored H, passing beside her like she wasn’t even there.

“Real love helps us grow,” he went on, once he’d finished letting more bugs through. “I guess you must’ve got a lot.”

“I did,” she answered, shaking herself out like a wet cat. “Thanks to Hydrus. He…” She gestured towards her teeth. “I didn’t know so much. If I feed again, will I be able to think like the ponies do? Maybe… build things of my own?”

Thorax shook his head. “Sorry, H. Changelings don’t know how to make things. We take, sometimes we change, but… making something new is hard. We’ve been doing things this exact same way since… a really long time.”

She frowned. “Hydrus told me I had to steal a name. I guess that means I couldn’t just come up with my own.” She adjusted her scarf, straightening. “How do you know all this, anyway?” She moved right up to the counter, lowering her voice to a whisper. There were guards by the door, and she didn’t want them to overhear. “I think you must’ve been… important, once. Weren’t you?”

“I guess so,” Thorax muttered. “Drone has double meaning. I was… the other one.”

H thought about it, and something she’d never have understood before suddenly made sense. Her eyes widened. “You—were that close to the queen?”

He nodded. “Lots of you might be mine,” he said, voice wistful. “You might be, for all I know.” He raised a wing. “I know what you’re thinking. It’s because I didn’t like the idea of using you to fight. Drones have… helped defend the hive before, when monsters attacked. But that was an emergency. Maybe you’re right to want to grow up fast. It doesn’t look like the queen will give you a chance to grow up the other way.”

He looked away. “You’re probably not mine, with a spirit like yours. If I thought like you, I’d still be in the court.”

H left him behind then, hurrying into the building. Thorax hadn’t just been important, he’d been as important as any changeling could ever be. But despite all that, he’d fallen far enough that he had to move glass around and make sure there were enough guards in a food prison.

They can’t all be in there, right? Just one building for a whole city? But it wasn’t H’s problem what had happened to the others. Maybe there were lots of places for them to go. For now, she had a name to steal.

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