Twilight Sparkle looked up from her magazine. The mare had never read Paint Drying Monthly before, and with luck, she would never have to do it again. Unfortunately, no other reading material had appeared on any of the coffee tables arrayed about the waiting room, so she turned her attention back to the pages with a slow sigh. It was, at the very least, an excuse not to look at the beige walls or the generic landscape paintings that hung from them. If Twilight had been forced to guess the motivation of the interior designer, she would have gone with ‘sadism’. The carpet reeked of acrid cleaning products, and a sundial on one wall ticked loudly every few seconds, though the shadow never moved.
Twilight’s eye twitched.
At the reception desk, an old grey earth pony with her mane in a bun reclined in her chair as she ran a file over one of her hooves. Glowing lines on the front of the desk spelled out ‘Now Serving Number: 5’.
The unicorn glanced at the small slip of paper she held in a hoof. She was number seven hundred and forty three. The mare looked around the waiting room; every other seat was empty. She glared pointedly at the receptionist.
The other mare was levitating a mirror and filing her own horn. With a click, the lines on her desk changed.
‘Now Serving Number: 6’
Twilight sighed and looked down, trying to find her place in the July copy of The Grass Grow Reader. She found the name odd; the publication was all pictures. She had just reached the centerfold when she heard another click and looked up.
‘Now Serving Number: 744’
With a frown, Twilight dropped her copy of Us Weekly and stood. She walked up the the reception desk, her hooves clopping against the cheap linoleum floor, and coughed pointedly.
The pegasus behind the desk ignored the librarian, opting instead to continue preening her wings.
“Excuse me,” Twilight said, “but I think you forgot to call my number.”
The receptionist glared at the unicorn, then pointed to a sign on the wall behind her, which stated in no uncertain terms, ‘No Smoking.’
Twilight frowned at the other mare. “What?” she asked.
The receptionist rolled her eyes with a sigh. She jabbed her hoof toward the same sign, which proudly declared, ‘No Refunds.’
The librarian’s head tilted as she stared at the words. Her mouth opened and closed, but she found that there was nothing that she could say. She scratched her head with a hoof.
“Twilight Sparkle!” a voice cried out from across the room, where the only door had opened to reveal a smiling unicorn mare levitating a clipboard and waving. The newcomer’s red mane and tail stood out sharply against her white coat and matching lab cloak, but it clashed with the puce walls of the waiting room.
Then again, Twilight was reasonably certain that every color clashed with puce. Even puce.
The librarian took an instant liking to the other mare; Twilight wore the exact same type of cloak when experimenting with potions or chemistry. She grinned and called out a greeting as she trotted across the room.
The red-maned pony nodded. “Good afternoon. My name is Close Counts and I’ll be your tour guide. Right this way, Ms. Sparkle,” she said, disappearing through the door.
Twilight hurried to follow and found herself in a hallway. Close Counts was well ahead of her, but the librarian didn’t rush; she was quite content to study the other mare’s outfit, a schoolfilly uniform with a particularly short plaid shirt. She hummed softly to herself as a smile grew on her face.
“You’re very lucky Ms. Sparkle,” Close said without looking over her shoulder, “You’re the first pony outside the company to ever be given a tour of the U-Harmony facility. Our state-of-the-art dating technology is a trade secret, but I’m honored to be giving our best customer a peek behind the scenes.” She pressed a button beside the double doors at the end of the hall and stood, tapping a hoof impatiently.
Struck by a sudden inspiration, Twilight lowered her head and peeked under the hem of Close’s skirt. She was curious about the other mare’s cutie mark. Yes, that was definitely her motivation. The mark was a stylized ‘U’. The librarian supposed it made sense, but she studied the mark for a bit longer, just to be sure. Yep, definitely a ‘U’.
A bell rang and Twilight shot upright. She stared pointedly at the ceiling as the elevator doors slid open.
“Down we go, Ms. Sparkle,” Close Counts said as she stepped into the elevator.
Twilight followed, and the mares turned around to face the doors as they shut. The tour guide pressed a button and the conveyance hummed to life. The pair stood silently, staring at the closed doors. Twilight fidgeted impatiently. Close studied her hoof. The elevator shook lightly. The librarian sighed.
“So how are you today, Ms. Sparkle?” the tour guide asked.
“Just fine,” Twilight replied with a smile, “and how are you?”
The elevator continued and the mares fell silent again. Close Counts examined her clipboard. Twilight Sparkle looked up at the ceiling and counted the tiles. There were thirty-seven. She sighed and glanced over at the tour guide, who was adjusting the straps on a set of golden armor. The mare’s red mane fit the crest well; it looked much better on Close than the royal guards, to Twilight’s judgment.
The librarian frowned. Something seemed off. She spoke without thinking, “Weren’t you just wearing...?”
“Wearing what?” the other mare asked.
Twilight’s head drooped and her ears folded back. “...Something else,” she finished lamely.
Close Counts tilted her head and frowned in confusion. “Why would I be wearing anything other than this?”
No adequate response came to mind, so Twilight fell silent.
The elevator hummed.
“How long does this ride take?” Twilight Sparkle asked.
Close’s eyes widened. “Oh, I accidentally hit the ‘vibrate’ button instead of our destination floor. Force of habit, sorry.” She smiled apologetically as she pressed another button. A metallic groan resonated through the conveyance and after a few seconds a bell rang as the doors slid open. “After you, Ms. Sparkle,” the guide added with a bow.
Twilight stepped out of the elevator into another bland hall and nearly lost her balance before she realized that she’d stepped onto moving ground. The black rubber floor appeared to be a kind of conveyor belt. She turned to her guide, frowning as she tried to figure out which question to ask first.
Close Counts attached her clipboard to one of the loops on the toolbelt she was wearing, letting it hang between a hammer and a hacksaw. The mare’s mane spilled out from beneath a vibrantly orange helmet. She smiled at Twilight and said, “Please save all questions for the end of the tour.” She gestured toward one of the walls with a hoof as the floor stopped with a jolt. “On your right, you can see our Match Criteria Processing department.”
What had once been a decidedly opaque wall was now a window. The change revealed a small grey rectangular room, its four concrete walls bare of ornamentation aside from a few black patches. Twilight was surprised to note that no matter how she craned her neck, she could see neither a floor nor a ceiling.
“Match Criteria Processing is essential to correctly determining matches,” Close Counts said with the cheerful exactness that comes from long hours spent reading a script that one loathes with every fiber of their being. Her wide, toothy smile could not have been more fake if somepony had drawn it on. “It’s one of the first parts of the U-Harmony service that most users spend significant time on. Here, new question sets filled in by all the delightful mares and stallions seeking love are received and appropriately handled by our automated system.”
A flash from above heralded the arrival of a thick ream of paper, which fell through the room. As Twilight watched, it separated into a swarm of white pages that drifted slowly downward into the dark depths of the chute. When the last page disappeared from her view, flames burst upward with a roar. The mare recoiled, falling to her haunches even as the momentary heat dissipated.
“Wow!” Close Counts laughed, “What a flare! Somepony must have put a lot of effort into that one. Great timing, too.”
With a noticeable lurch, the conveyor belt started up again, leaving the odd room behind. Twilight Sparkle struggled to her hooves as her tour guide droned on.
“In U-Harmony’s six months of operation, we’ve sent over twenty thousand ponies on a half million dates and nearly ten ponies have found compatible long-term partners through our service! Our statisticians assure us that this ratio of success to failure is significantly better than that of normal methods for finding romance. Please note that U-Harmony is not responsible for the accuracy of any statement made by U-harmony employees.” Close Counts pointed behind Twilight, the sudden movement causing the feathers on the guide’s Buffalo headdress to shake. “Now, coming up behind you, Ms. Sparkle, you’ll see our accounting department.”
The librarian looked over her shoulder and gaped at the view. A window overlooked a huge room filled from cement wall to cement wall with a sea of bits. Two hills of shining gold rose out of the expanse. A blue unicorn stallion lounged on one, dozing peacefully.
“U-Harmony’s accounting department is responsible primarily for payment processing, payroll, denying expense requests, and informing customers that we do not offer refunds.”
The mound of gold across from the sleeping unicorn’s resting place began to shift. As Twilight watched, a green-maned mare poked her head out of the top of the stack, sending an audible avalanche of clinking coins cascading down the steep slope of the stack. The noise awoke the stallion, who levitated some bits, packed them into a ball, and lobbed them at his co-worker. The projectile barely missed the mare, and a wicked grin spread across her face as she levitated her own bitball.
The conveyor belt shuddered and hummed before starting up again. Twilight could only stare as the window drifted away. After a few seconds, the only evidence of its existence was a distant voice shouting, “Money fight!”
“On our right, you can see U-Harmony’s state of the art operations center,” Close Counts said, pointing to another of the sudden windows as the floor stopped again. Light from the room beyond cast a flickering illumination on the wall of the hall, its colors constantly shifting. “Our highly trained technicians ensure that U-Harmony’s services are available to everypony everywhere, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week! This department is ever-vigilant in its dedication to swift and decisive action in response to any disruption of our essential magic.”
The room fascinated Twilight in a way that even the gold in the previous room could not. She barely glanced at the pegasus mare sitting at a desk in the center of the space, her eyes instead drawn to the source of the light. The walls glowed with an ever-shifting array of words and numbers, all flashing into and out of existence or drifting across one wall only to appear on another, but she paid even them little mind. Her attention was focused on the graphs: bars, charts, lines, pies, scatterplots, even a web or two. There was something viscerally satisfying about them to the unicorn, as though they were little visual lists. Still, something nagged at the back of her mind, and she leaned in, squinting as she took in the details.
“Every day over seventeen thousand...,” Close Counts droned on, her eyes firmly fixed on the ceiling.
Twilight Sparkle frowned as she noticed that most of the graphs showed a lot of red. Red spaces, slices, and dots overshadowed all other colors, and many of the lines showed a precipitous downward trend. She turned her attention to the words and numbers that floated serenely around the room and noted that the vast majority were zeroes, when they weren’t phrases like ‘Error: Thaumaturgy Failed’ or ‘Critical: Miscast Threshold Exceeded’, and at least once Twilight thought she saw ‘Caution: Apocalypse’ somewhere in the mix. She wondered why the pony in the room wasn’t reacting or moving at all, for that matter.
The pegasus slumped forward, her head impacting the desk with a thud audible even through the thick glass of the window.
“Is she, uh,” Twiight paused, “dead?”
Close’s eyes flicked into the room for a moment even as she continued her speech. “...in the great bakery explosion. At that time, our founder was just--.” The mare’s eyes widened and she spun toward the window quickly enough that her blue policemare’s cap fell to the floor.
The unicorns stared into the room, their eyes fixed on the still form slumped over the desk. Neither mare dared to speak. Twilight leaned forward as she chewed on her lip. For a few heartbeats, the lights on the walls danced in silence.
The pegasus stirred, her mouth falling open and releasing a snore loud enough to rattle the window. Her eyes snapped open and she sat bolt upright, her head darting from side to side as her eyes scanned the information on the walls. With a powerful flap of her wings, she launched herself into the air. The mare hovered above her desk and grabbed her head in her hooves as she unleashed a bloodcurdling scream.
The numbers and graphs, blissfully unaware of the noise, continued to drop.
“Well!” Close Counts shouted as her horn flashed and the window disappeared. “Clearly that department is very busy. I’m sure you understand. Let’s continue, shall we?” Her horn lit up as she levitated her cap off the ground and set it back on her head.
With a buzz, the floor began moving again.
“U-Harmony is powered entirely by renewable resources,” Close said as she pointed to her left.
The entire wall of the moving hallway had changed to glass while Twilight wasn’t looking. She wished that she could have been surprised by that, but she wasn’t. Through the window, a vast expanse of fan blades spun, all suspended over another bottomless pit. Occasionally, in the depths below, a gout of flame rose, and the fans above it spun a bit faster for a moment.
Close counts yawned as she studied her clipboard. “Uharmony is the industry leader... blah blah blah... Oh, I guess this part is kind of interesting: the enchantment at the bottom of this bottomless pit is used to capture and transport all of the hot air released when stallions complain about their ex-fillyfriends. This heat rises and turns the turbines. As an added bonus, the air usually contains traces of alcohol, which are collected and burned for additional power.”
Twilight didn’t even know where to begin with what was wrong with that.
“And on our right,” Close continued, “is what you’ve been waiting for. The secret mechanism that determines U-Harmony matches. Are you ready to see the ultimate secret of U-Harmony?”
“Uh, I guess?” Twilight replied.
Close Counts pressed the big red button opposite the window and a section of the wall fell away, revealing a small room. A purple earth pony mare sat on the floor between two tophats filled to the brim with small scraps of paper.
The mare looked familiar to Twilight, but she couldn’t recall when she’d seen the pony. The swirling mane reminded her of Pinkie Pie, but the style wasn’t as poofy as her friend’s, and the white streaks were rather... unique. The oddest thing was the headgear: a cap with a spinner on top of it, the sort that usually adorned the heads of young colts in paintings made decades before Twilight was born. She leaned to the side to see the pony’s cutie mark; it was a screw and a ball. Twilight wondered what that had to do with U-Harmony.
The Screw-Ball pony reached behind her back, pulled out a bottle of glue, and proceeded to dump the contents all over the floor in front of her. She dipped both of her front hooves into the pile, then stuck one into each of the top hats. After a moment, she pulled her hooves out and studied the bits of paper stuck to them intently. Then she nodded and pronounced, “Twilight Sparkle and Close Counts. Seven o'clock tonight. Pony Joe’s Doughnuts, Canterlot. High social compatibility.”
“Now, Twilight, there’s one last thing I’ve got to show you,” Close said, walking into the room with Screw-Ball.
“What?” Twilight asked.
“What U-Harmony does to get rid of garbage!” the tour guide shouted. She laughed malevolently as she pulled a lever.
The floor under Twilight dropped away, and she began to scream as she fell into a black void. The rectangle of light above her disappeared, and she hung in blackness. Her perception grew hazy as she struggled to right herself and gather the concentration necessary for teleporation. She flailed, but found her movements sluggish and restricted, and soon she gave up. She ran out of breath, and decided to stop screaming.
The darkness spoke, but the words passed straight through Twilight, all meaning falling away as each syllable faded.
Thou art interfering with her dreams now, too?
Do you regret teaching me how, yet?
We are well beyond that point, to say the least. Dost thou have a plan, or dost thou just make it up as thou goest along?
What's a plan?
That is what we thought. Thou art too cruel to her, forsooth.
Maybe, but she’s cute when she’s flustered, isn’t she?
That, we must admit, is true.
Twilight’s mind filled with the sound of lightly chiming laughter.
Oh, you’ve got it bad.
Perhaps. Still, what didst thou expect? She is just our type.
And you’re just her type, even if she has no idea that she has a type, but it’s so boring if you two just get together.
We never should have let thou talk'st us into this.
You know you’re loving it. I’m just glad we were able to convince Rarity to help.
Do you think that what we are doing is... questionable? In a moral sense?
We do not find that evaluation reassuring.
I’m all about tough love.
We just hope this is worth it. We don’t know what we will do if Twilight Sparkle ever finds out about our hoof in these... shenanigans.
If she finds out, it will have all been worth it just to see the look on her face.
Twilight frowned just before she hit the bottom of the bottomless pit and awoke.
Twilight Sparkle, thoroughly tangled in her blanket, sat bolt upright in bed. Her heart pounded in her chest. For a moment, she stopped breathing, just listening. A snore from Spike reassured her, and she fell back onto her pillow. The memory of her dream was fading, but what she could recall was less than pleasant. “Well,” she sighed, “there’s another one for the therapist.”