by QueenMoriarty

Chapter 1: 1 - The Difficulties Inherent in Equestrian Border Control

Probable Cause took a sip from his cup of coffee, trying his best not to gag. Necessary Force was many things, but an excellent brewer was not one of them; his cappuccino tasted like if a seapony had tried to invent dirt. Still, the chocolate drizzle at least made it possible to swallow, so he managed to avoid upsetting his pegasus partner.

Choking down the last of the swill, Probable Cause levitated his cup back onto the table, and cast a withering glare across it. Sitting in the chair opposite him was a changeling, the only species of creature crazy enough to come anywhere near the Badlands border crossing. This one had been brazen enough to approach without donning any sort of disguise, so its dark chitin was glistening under the dim lantern light. Unlike most of its species, this specimen had a far more pony-like face, with a rounded muzzle and snout and deceivingly fluffy-looking ears. Instead of clean baldness, the changeling sported an unruly mop of a green mane, which found a scraggly mirror in the tail. The beast's most striking feature, though, was its smile, which beamed with all the pride of a first-grader holding up an A+ on their first pop quiz ever.

Cause felt the overwhelming urge to punch this changeling in its smiling face.

Force came back into the shack, his right wing stretched out as far as it would go while the rest of his body seemed to be in a state of permanent flinching. Cause raised an eyebrow, and his partner responded by flicking something off of his wing and onto the table. It was some sort of fleshy bubble, glowing pink and oozing... well, Cause didn't know what it was oozing, but it would probably be tough to get out of feathers.

"There were a few hundred of these in the back of the cart," Force grunted, rubbing his wing against the sleeve of his uniform. "Aside from that, just a bunch of wood furniture. Some of it smells like blazing cedar, but you'll just have to scan for that."

"Good work, lieutenant." Cause turned back to the changeling, whose smile seemed to have grown even wider. He poked the bubble with his magic, and gestured with his hoof. "Mind telling us what those are? Flesh grenades, perhaps?"

The changeling burst out laughing, a childlike tittering that grated on Cause's nerves like his mother-in-law's voice. "Oh, that is rich. What classic ideas will you ponies think of next?" That voice was dripping with more distilled swagger than the whole of Upper Canterlot. "No, that's what we call food."

"I thought changelings fed on love." Force was scrubbing even harder now, but all that was doing was spreading the goo around his feathers.

"Oh, we do. How do you think we store the stuff?" The black lips parted to reveal the vicious fangs and sharp incisors that seemed out of place when twisted into a wide grin.

Force had stopped scrubbing, muttering something about using up all of the week's hot water later. Cause shrugged it off, being more focused on his interrogation.

"So that's it, then. A cartload of wooden furniture and food for the trip? Yeah, color me skeptical."

"Well, I would, but I didn't bring my paints." The changeling was actually leaning back in its seat now, swinging one leg over the back of the chair just to look even more cocky. "But you're right. There is a little bit more to ol' Shlakaswa than just some overgrown matchsticks and a week's worth of afternoon snacks."

"Ah, I thought so." Cause summoned a notebook from the other side of the room, also checking that the chain traps in the ceiling were still wound and ready. "You've been smuggling."

The changeling's face flickered with green fire as the grin began to spread around its head. "Oh, no, officer, I'm afraid you're quite mistaken. I am still Smugling."

That managed to distract Force from his grumbling. "And how are you planning to do that? You've been caught in the act."

"Yes, but it's not as if I'm going to completely change my identity over this whole thing. So no, I am still Smugling."

Cause's quill was flickering across his notebook. "Interesting. So, you define your identity by theft and evasion of the law?"

The grin, now almost completely surrounding the changeling's head, snapped back to a normal-sized frown of confusion for a few brief seconds. "What? No, I'm just Smugling."

Cause took a deep breath, and tried to remember where he had stashed his migraine pills. "Alright, we'll come back to that one. We have more important questions. What are you smuggling?"

"Well, I'm a changeling, sir."

"That tells us nothing," Force growled. "That cart could have anything from high-power explosives to undeclared stopwatches. You could save yourself, and us, a whole lot of trouble if you just come clean about what you've got in the cart."

"I've got changelings."

"Wait, I thought you said you were a changeling."

"Well, obviously." The changeling flickered between forms, changing from Princess Luna to Princess Twilight in a flash of green fire, then collapsing into the form of a silver filly with orange wings only to expand into a gorgeous orange mare with a rainbow streak in her mane.

Cause pondered the tactical merit in slamming his head against the table. He flipped through several empty pages of his notebook, more as something to do than to serve any greater purpose. Finally, he stared at the changeling, who had started randomly changing the color of his teeth. "Alright, level with me. Are we asking the wrong questions, or are you just being maddeningly unhelpful?"

The changeling's grin grew so huge that its teeth alone were as tall as Celestia. "Let's just say you're giving me a lot of opportunities to be unhelpful, and I've been taking every chance I can get."

Force made a big show of cracking his neck and gritting his teeth. "It's like you want us to throw you in jail."

"Well, not exactly that." The changeling's mouth snapped back to normal size. "Look, my name is Smugling. S-M-U-G-L-I-N-G. It's called a homonym."

Cause decided to forgo tactics, and did his best to break the table with his face. "You've just wasted at least five minutes of government time on a Clear Skies routine. And for what? A cheap laugh at our expense?"

"Think of it more as a brain teaser." The grin vanished, replaced by the tiniest upturning of the corners of the mouth. "Speaking of which, here's another one; how many trees are there in the Badlands?"

"None," Cause answered. "The Badlands are a barren wasteland that hasn't evolved a natural organism since before Celestia's reign."

"And here I am, cantering out of the Badlands with a cart full of wooden furniture. Isn't that a fine how-do-you-do?"

Force actually burst out laughing. "Since when can changelings be inanimate objects?"

Smugling's smile disappeared completely. "Since when could we not?"

The first thing Cause felt was the hoof locking around his neck. The second thing he felt was another hoof seizing the back of his head, then driving him forward into the desk. Then the hooves seemed to melt and flow across his body, and his horn began to ache as the strange goop covered it. A few grunts of surprise to his left confirmed that Force had been hit by the same ambush.

"Meet the Rainstorm Twins," Smugling announced, the swagger in his voice now replaced by an unquestionable air of authority. "Quite an ingenious find, really. They were born and raised in the Celestial Sea, and didn't even see equines until they were ten years old. They're barely even changelings anymore, more like sentient water that knows how to change shape."

Cause reached out with his magic, desperately trying to trigger the traps, but found nothing. The fluid-like chitin was spreading across his face, and as his vision started fading, Smugling leaned into view.

"Ever hear the legend of Nullstone Beach, Mister Probable Cause? Have you ever gazed upon those rolling black sands and felt your magic fade away to nothing? Watched the waves roll across the beach, and wonder if the water is poisoned by nullstone?"

Cause tried to shake his head, but only ended up twitching.

"Well, I'll spare your puny brain the trouble of imagining it. Suffice to say, it is a beautiful and horrifying sight. I think the only thing more beautiful is the moment when I found out that the twins had spent so long in the waters of that beach that they had grains of nullstone embedded inside of them. Picture the dirtiest water you can, filled with silt and muck, except the silt is made up of stone so black that it drains away all light. I shudder to think of what this feels like for you."

Cause summoned up all of his energy, raising his head and gritting his teeth. "You're not... gonna get away... with..."

Smugling's hoof slammed down on the table. "Let me stop you right there. Yes, I am going to get away with this. I have every contingency planned out. This isn't some amateur attack like the Green Wedding, this is coordinated infiltration. We are going to take over your pathetic little nation one weak-minded lovesack at a time, and nopony is ever going to come close to getting in our way. You two fools are the only ponies that will ever know what is really happening, and your higher brain functions will be soup by sundown."

The goop retreated partially, exposing just enough of Cause's face that he could stare Smugling right in the eye. The changeling grinned a sadistic animal grin. "I grant you one final moment of defiance. Gaze into the face of your future king, and show me the indomitable will of your species."

Cause took maybe two seconds to weigh his options before spitting in the changeling's face. To his dismay, that only made that insufferable grin grow wider.

"Exactly as expected. Goodbye, Probable Cause."

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