THE GREY FACTOR
The Stars know everything, nothing hides from the Stars. You can fight, you can run, you can lie down and not move. Your every decision has already been foreseen by Them. The very essence of you is nothing but the effect of Their clairvoyance. Your every step is Their game, your work is Their vision, your coat and hair is a shard in Their mosaic, your Mark is Their seal. Look up, the Night will be here soon.
Peg the Wise
Crickets and cicadas busily accompanied the sun’s setting. The switch between the two royal sisters’ daily responsibilities was a specific ritual for most of Equestria’s life. Not only did it apply to the wild creatures. Even ponies in cities like Manehattan subconsciously celebrated the breaking point of every celestial cycle by quieting down a bit and slowing in the never ending rush of trying to be everywhere in the same time.
The great fiery ball falling on the west was magically hypnotizing. Not many ponies knew that it was nothing compared to every morning’s moon setting, especially since Princess Luna was back. The silver disk’s spectacle on the violet sky was art for the few who didn’t sleep at night.
The river frogs one after another started to add up to the evening performance.
Professor Jade put hooves behind his head and stared at the ceiling. “That’s a real good question, miss Sparkle. I wonder why I never asked it myself. And let me say that it hurts my pride a little bit that someone who isn’t that interested in genetics found something I should have long time ago.”
“Oh, I don’t think you should give me credit for this. It’s not exactly my discovery.” Twilight looked away with a weak smile.
“And here we go with the modesty again. I know you found the information in the book, but-”
“It’s not just that.” She lifted the book again before his face. “I got a hint, a rather big one to be honest. Look at the top of the page.”
“Well, I see a couple of small letters, pencil-written on the margin. It says SnF. I don’t see how this could be helpful though.”
“Where did you graduate, professor?”
The stallion narrowed his eyes a bit, not sure if the mare in front of him wanted to insult him for his lack of knowledge, which was a typical argument starter in the academic community. It was surprising how immature science geniuses could be when a university difference was mentioned. Sometimes a small insult coming from department of gastronomic magic from University of Bardingham against the Fillydelphia’s Institute of Medicine could turn a sophisticated lecture into a juvenile school squabble.
“Well, I finished this town’s university, but how is this relevant to the case?”
“Quite.” Twilight made a gesture like she was adjusting glasses on her nose. “I graduated from Celestia’s School for Gifted Unicorns. As you probably know, the school is a part of Canterlot’s castle. We were seeing guards every day, marching, changing shifts, performing drills… They were often made fun of because of how they acted. Always deadly serious, never smiling, hardly ever talking at all.
“When I first saw these letters,” she continued, “I got this feeling I’d seen them somewhere before. I tried to focus on the book’s content, but it kept pestering me. And then I remembered. This is what we called them in the school. Sparks n’ Feathers, respectively unicorn and pegasus guards.”
“I see…” Jade mused. “But before we go further, I’d like to note that maybe we’re starting to dig too deep at the very beginning? Maybe it’s not the case after all? What if, let’s say, there is some spell that changes their appearance when they’re in public?”
Twilight shook her head. “Highly improbable. It is possible to change how a pony looks like for a short period of time, but it requires a lot of magic and it’s very inefficient. I once tried to make a fake cutie mark for my friend’s little sister, but it would always vanish after a few seconds. I don’t claim to be an extremely powerful mage, but I think even the Princess wouldn’t bother to waste so much energy on just aesthetics. I definitely don’t buy the spell explanation.”
“What is your theory then?”
“I don’t have one,” she sighed. “And it really bothers me. I don’t even have a hypothesis. All I have is a discovery that my mind wants to investigate further. But I can’t just go and write 'Dear Princess Celestia, what’s up with the guards?' No, I can’t rest till I get to the bottom of this.”
Professor Jade laughed again. “And it’ll be a pleasure for me to help you.”
“Wouldn’t it interfere with your work?”
“I’m a professor.” He shrugged. “If I’m not around it’s their problem, not mine. But now we have a more important problem to solve. What do you think of pizza for dinner?”
* * *
“We need a foothold for all this first,” stated professor Jade, circling around the room. “My theory is the following: shades of white are the most popular in the ponykind. And the… quality of Pegasus guards depends mostly on their training. I don’t see a reason to focus on them. The unicorn guards is another thing. Not only grey coats are less common, but the inborn talent would be essential for them to get the job. That leads to a simple conclusion – it must be somehow connected. One thing results from another. I say it’s a rare mutation that causes strong magic potential in the foal.
“This would make perfect sense,” he continued, lighting up the fireplace. “Magical prodigies are… problematic, if you know what I mean. Their talent can show up literally days after they’re born. They can set your house on fire or spawn a little thunderstorm in their bedroom. As they get older, their power gets stronger but they can’t control it yet. This is the worst. And suddenly, when a child is old enough, a royal messenger knocks on your door, offers to tame the wild abilities and set the kid for life in a prestigious and well paid job, without really taking it from the mother, they’re free ponies after all. Who would say no?”
“I agree.” Twilight nodded energetically. Such divagations always gave her butterflies. Finally someone who shared her passion for science! “Even if it’s a miss, we have something to start with. But we also need to answer at least two other questions: why is this kept a secret and why someone cared so much about it to find out basic information in some old dusty book and specifically send it to me. There is still a chance that this is a coincidence, maybe even a prank, but the odds are melting, especially when we think of that SnF note. It’s almost impossible for someone outside the CSGU community to get it. I’m pretty sure it was meant to get in my hooves after all. But why me? I’m just a simple scholar living in a small town, not working for any specific academy and on top of it, specializing in astronomy!”
“I think that for every question there is an answer. And these answers are waiting for us. But again, before we step into more interesting studies, there is a more recent problem – do you have a hotel room booked for tonight?”
“Not really.” Twilight bit her lip. “I… didn’t expect you to be so eager to help me with the potential research, so I wanted to catch the late Friendship Express home…”
“Great!” The stallion clapped his hooves. “It’s been so long since I last had an excuse for my guilty pleasure of sleeping on couch. I’ll go make a bed for you.”
“Thank you, but I really don’t want to be a problem…” Twilight laid her ears back.
“Rarity mentioned you’re a bit… socially disabled.” He smirked and raised his hoof. “You need to rest well, because tomorrow… will you let me be pretentious for a while?”
Twilight nodded, confused.
“… Because tomorrow the Operation Grey Factor begins!”
* * *
It’s been quite a while since I last sent you a letter, hasn’t it. A not entirely expected turn of events made me stay in Manehattan for a couple of days. It seems you’ll have to be the head librarian for the time, I’m sorry. If you’re afraid you can’t handle it, ask Dash for some help, she spends quite a lot of her time there lately anyway.
If you need anything, or if there’s anything you think is important for me to know, don’t hesitate to write me. I’ll be available at this address.
Remember to feed Owlowiscious and water my ferns.
Thanks in advance,
Your faithful roommate
* * *
“There are two libraries in Manehattan which I personally would take into consideration. One is of course the University’s, and the second one would be the Public Library near the town square.”
Twilight Sparkle and Professor Jade were strolling down the Birch Avenue. It was one of the most beautiful times of the year, when the leaves started to slowly change their colors to red and orange, but the weather still suggested summer. A few fluffy clouds could be spotted on the morning sky, but they served no more and no less but aesthetic purposes. The sun shone strong and warm, painting mosaics on sidewalks as it trickled through the branches. It was almost a bad idea to spend most of the day locked up between stone walls with a bunch of books.
“Since I have full access to all of the Uni’s sets and collections of books and articles, I’ll try to look for something there.” The stallion scribbled something in his notepad. “You should take the public library, so we don’t bump into each other while scouring the literature. Don’t ignore any clues, even if you think I’d find them irrelevant. And I’ll try to do the same.”
“Sure.” Twilight liked the idea. Books were her element, and when she was studying there weren’t many things possible that annoyed her more than interruptions. She often wondered how her life would be possible without her number one assistant. Whenever she had an assignment, she used to lock herself up in her room and leave the whole library to Spike. For some time after she had settled in Ponyville, she had to deal with problems like Pinkie Pie bursting through the door despite Spike’s desperate attempts to stop her. But even Pinkie eventually learned not to do such things. Not once and not twice different ponies told Twilight that she looked terrifying when angry. And the anger reserved for interruptions seemed to be top-tier. “It’s rather early now, a couple of hours before lunchtime. How about we meet at the square at some hour for a break?”
“I’ll use it as an excuse to show you my favourite restaurant. You’re going to love it, everypony does. Let’s make it 2PM by the fountain. Meanwhile”- he pointed to a small alley -“I’m taking my turn here. We’ll see each other later.”
As she walked further down the avenue, Twilight continued to look around the city scenery. In the sunny morning everything looked different. Taxi carriages easily rolling on the streets, ponies seeming to be actually in good mood, elder stallions reading newspapers or playing chess in the trees’ shade… Maybe the city doesn’t really have to be as intimidating as she had suspected? It was still loud and fast, but maybe there was something… pleasant in the atmosphere?
Taken by the sudden attitude change, she made a decision to take a short walk around the town square, for something she had never done before: city sightseeing. She always loved to take long walks, especially as breaks in studying, but they almost exclusively meant strolling through parks or other means of contact with nature. She realized that although she spent most of her life in City of Canterlot, she barely remembered any of it. Libraries were all that mattered.
The town square, of course, was swarming. There were street musicians in every corner, with old, shabby hats in front of them Each was playing different music, but they kept the necessary distance to not create cacophony. One side was filled with lots of stands selling souvenirs and baked goods, with the shopkeepers tirelessly shouting superlatives about their merchandise. The fountain was hard to notice through herds of little fillies and colts playing by it (or even in it); shaded arcades gave shelter from the sun for the foals’ mothers, who relaxed with their morning coffee, while exchanging stories from their everyday lives.
“Ma’am! Excuse me, ma’am!” Twilight didn’t realize it was her who was called by a young voice, until she felt a polite tap to her shoulder.
“Excuse me, could you please take our picture for us?” The pony speaking was a young girl, accompanied by a group of other youngsters. Judging from hats and saddlebags, probably tourists.
“Oh, me? Well, um… yeah, yes, of course!” Twilight slightly blushed, as she was given a small simple camera, and the filly trotted to her friends.
The city. Thousands of ponies. You meet them and never see them again. A drop in the ocean. You walk unnoticed, interact unnoticed, leave unnoticed. Nopony to remember you, nopony to make acquaintances with… It’s like you’re invisible. What a strange feeling.
For a while, she wanted to join the city’s life, order a coffee with a muffin in some random café and simply inhale the atmosphere. She shook her head. No, things to do, later, lunchtime.
The Manehattan’s Public Library was huge. It was a wide, snow white, 3-floor building crowned with a large gilded dome and its famous gigantic windows. It was an architectural pearl and one of the landmarks of the city. Two large curved sets of stairs led to a massive ornate portal marking the entrance. The halls and corridors inside were almost as stunning as those inside the Canterlot Castle and even more overwhelming with the silence, so deep that it felt like pressing one’s ears. The library sets were no less astonishing. The amount of fiction books in their collections was probably the biggest in the whole Equestria. Rainbow Dash would call it an egghead heaven for sure.
As Twilight stepped into the reading room, she rubbed her hooves. Let’s do this.
* * *
She found Professor Jade lost in thought, stirring the water in the fountain with his hoof. All the little ponies disappeared due to lunchtime, and it was suddenly unnaturally quiet.
“Anything?” she asked standing next to him and watching her own reflection in the flickering tract.
“Not yet.” He sighed and turned to her. “You?”
“Nothing. I started looking for some other copy of this, but of course I failed. Then I focused on the topic. If there are any other handbooks or articles there mentioning the uniqueness of a pony’s hue but there’s nothing. I’m starting to question the authenticity of this. Maybe the content is falsified and that’s why the book was withdrawn?”
“Miss Sparkle, we’ve only just begun. I’d be surprised if we managed to find anything important after such short time. But before we continue on our quest, I promised to take you somewhere.”
The ‘somewhere’ lay on the river’s bend. It was a restaurant and a garden at the same time. The kitchen was placed inside a gazebo at the very center of the whole place, and the tables were scattered around in artistic disorder between old but beautifully groomed oaks. The tall trees served their purpose also as homes for countless squirrels, and the owners installed lots of nests and boxes for birds. It felt like a little fragment of a forest in the middle of the large city. Except for the smell. It didn’t smell like moss and mushrooms, but instead the air was filled with scent of fried eggplants, fresh celery stalks, baked tomatoes and full variety of herbs and spices.
“Welcome to The Harbor, miss Sparkle. I assure you that the food here is no worse than the décor.” Professor Jade proudly led to a free table on the terrace. It provided with a beautiful view on the riverside, where a bunch of ducks and swans were lazily soaking up in the sunlight of the little sanctuary far from the city’s turmoil. The Harbor’s birds showed their gratitude for shelter with soothing chirp.
“I’ve been meaning to ask you before,” the stallion started started after they’ve placed their orders. “But we were too busy talking about the guard issue. How is Rarity doing? If we don’t count the small note about your arrival, I haven’t heard from her in a very long time. And if I’m not mistaken, your adventures with the Elements of Harmony made you pretty close friends.”
“Oh yes, Rarity is like a sister to me.” Twilight stopped admiring the garden and smiled. “Just like the rest of our little group: Pinkie, Rainbow, AJ and Fluttershy. We really have to have a lot of work in our hooves to keep us from hanging out at least a few times a week. And Rarity? She’s doing great. I dare say she’s living the dream. Her work got recognized by some of the most important ponies in the fashion community, and Hoity Toity already has a contract with her for some of her designs. She’s quite famous. And I think she loves it.”
“I haven’t really spoken to my niece for such a long time…” A shade of sadness crawled into his smile. “I don’t blame her for hating me. I’m the one who almost destroyed her dreams with my stupid ambition when she was still a filly. I cringe when I think she could have followed the lifestyle that I tried to force on her for years.”
“Hating you?” Twilight’s eyes widened. “Professor, Rarity most definitely does not hate you. She admires you as a person devoted to his work, and I personally think you’re the one she learned her diligence from as I look at both of you. Actually, it seems that she misses you real bad, but she’s afraid you despise the life path she chose.”
“But…” The stallion suddenly seemed very confused. “How could I dislike it if it’s her true passion? She assumed that if she’s not a scientist, I don’t approve of her own choices? Do I really make such bad impressions?”
“Well, you did scare me a bit when I knocked on your door…”
“Horseapples.” Jade scratched his head, embarrassed. “I should really work on my social skills, you know?”
Twilight didn’t say anything.
* * *
After lunch Twilight returned to her research with doubled energy. Professor asked to borrow the book, because he ‘wanted to try a new strategy’, whatever that was supposed to mean. She didn’t need it anyway, because she managed to already memorize the more interesting parts of it. She still focused on finding any information about entangled color genes. The equinology and genetic sciences shelf was surprisingly big, and after some time she caught herself a few times skipping through lines.
There was nothing. Most of the books were academic compilations, often drawing from each other and they had already created a web of recurrent information in Twilight’s head. I’ll be able to do a PhD after this, she thought to herself.
She eventually managed to find her pace again and lost track of passing minutes and hours. She didn’t notice ponies slowly leaving the reading room one after another or the setting sun’s fading light, painting the whole chamber in deep orange as it poured through the massive windows.
When she felt a poke on her arm, she was sure it was the librarian that couldn’t wait to call it a day and finally go home. Instead, she saw Jade, grinning from ear to ear.
“I’ve found something.”