The Grey Factor

by Japko


Chapter Four

THE GREY FACTOR
(By Japko)
Chapter Four

All the source of information about our bodies must be stored somewhere inside us. Possibly, every cell has some core in which every bit of genetic material lies and tells the rest of the organism how to live, respond and develop. Our knowledge may be insufficient now, but maybe in the future we will be able to distinguish the source and examine it. Who knows what answers lie behind this mystery?
Duskwind, Philosophy of Biology


“Is something wrong, Miss Sparkle? You have barely touched your food.” Swanheart, Riverdaze’s wife looked seriously concerned.

After hours of exhausting search and then a horrifying discovery, the unicorns were visited in the library by their host. It turned out it was already late evening and they spent most of the day between the shelves. Now they were sitting in the dining room, invited for a dinner but Twilight, despite the burning hunger, could barely swallow a few bites. The children pretended to be interested only in plates in front of them but once every while they would exchange knowing glances or peek towards Twilight or Jade.

“I’m sorry,” the purple unicorn replied. “This is really delicious but I wasn’t expecting a dinner and I’m afraid I ate too many of your cookies.”

“The food is wonderful, I concur.” Jade, on the other hand, was cheerful. And he ate everything so fast he almost fell off the boundaries of good manners. Each time he met eyes with one of the foals, he would wink and disconcert them.

“Guessing you haven’t booked any place to stay for the night. We have prepared beds for both of you,” Riverdaze spoke eventually, for the first time since they had started the dinner. “Please feel free to use the room even if you want to stay for a couple of days. I hope my wife and I can provide you with everything a Canterlot’s top class hotel would have to offer.”

The unicorns unwittingly exchanged looks.

“I guess,” Jade started, “we really haven’t thought about a place to spend the night. I hope we won’t outstay our welcome.”

“Stay, stay!” shouted a little pink filly, the only girl in the little herd of Hazels’ children.

Riverdaze laughed.

“We rarely have any guests. It seems casual visits are not so trendy in high class societies as much as those boring receptions. It will be our pleasure, trust me.”

After the dinner Lady Swanheart took the foals to prepare them to sleep and Riverdaze walked the scientist ponies to their room.

Jade immediately grabbed a towel and went searching for a bathroom to take a shower. Twilight fell on her bed and stared at the snow-white, unfamiliar ceiling. She closed her eyes and focused on cicadas quietly chirping under the night sky. Somewhere away the never ending rush of Buffaloford Street was giving a background noise.

A gentle knock on the door picked her out from pensiveness. She opened it and met face to face with a serious-looking Riverdaze.

“I won’t be coming in,” he said quickly. “I just wanted to tell you something. I know who you are, Twilight Sparkle. I know a few stories about you and I am sure you wouldn’t be here without a serious reason, be it some investigation or just scientific research. And I’m not a fool, I can tell you found something, probably the thing you were looking for, and you didn’t like what you found. I want you to know that I am not intending to dig into it in any way. This is your private business, and we all, meaning my wife and myself, and even the kids, respect it. Stay for as long as you need. And I really mean it. I owe you something personally, but I would appreciate it if you didn’t ask what I mean. Have a good night, it looks like you could use some rest.”

That said, he turned and slowly walked away.

Twilight didn’t say a word; she waited for a while until the stallion walked away and closed the door.

A while later, Professor Jade returned with his mane and tail wet and a towel hung around his neck. He sat on the edge of his bed and stared for a while at Twilight, who lay still, looking out the window.

“Your gloom makes the air heavy to breathe.” He hung his tie on a chair. “I know our discovery was a bit… shocking, but it doesn’t mean you need to act like it’s the end of the world.”

“And how can you be so calm about it?” she asked with hoarse voice. “Our trusted princess performs genetic experiments on her subjects. Our military force is a bunch of artificially created ponies that serve who knows what purposes and who are possibly devoid of free will. And you act like it doesn’t matter.”

“Are you one hundred percent sure they actually are clones? No. It’s just something we suspect, basing on incomplete data and our own speculations. This is still a hypothesis, Miss Sparkle, and you look at it as if it was a fact. This is not how a scientist does her job. Until we don’t have a proof, we can’t jump to any conclusions. Also…” He stood up and sat beside her. “You’re thinking too much. Who told you that clones are unable to have their own will?”

“If they’re able to copy ponies, who knows what else can they do…”

Professor Jade gently touched her shoulder. “We don’t. And now, we have to ask ourselves if we really want to know anything more. This case doesn’t look healthy or safe, if you know what I mean. Maybe it’d be safer to consider our research over.”

Twilight pulled herself to a sitting position. When she looked at the stallion, her eyes burned with a purple flame. “Over? No, Professor, this is far from over, as far as it can be. I said I was going to get to the bottom of this, but I can feel I am still barely floating below the surface in the ocean of lies. I will find the proof, with or without any help. And I will expose those sick schemes if I have to, whatever they are.”

“It sounds like you’re directly accusing the Princess, and-”

“Of course I am!” she exclaimed, jumping down on the floor. “Do you think all this would be possible without her knowledge and permission?”

The stallion didn’t answer.

“There must be a reason” – she smacked her hoof to the floor – “that somepony sent me this Heredity Phenomenon with SnF scribbled on the margin. They must have known I’d search for the truth and probably find it somehow. And they must have known I’d be able to do something with the knowledge.”

For a while all that could be heard was Twilight’s heavy breathing.

Jade smiled. “What is life without a little risk to spice it up?” He looked her in the eyes. “At the very beginning of our adventure I told you I’d be happy to help you with your research. For now, it seems there’s still much to be done before it’s over and I’m still offering my services. But before we make even one step forward, we need one thing – a plan.”

“I know.” The purple unicorn sank a bit. “My brother is the captain of the Royal Guard, but you probably already know that. I can’t believe there is any possibility he has anything to do with it and I don’t want him to get involved. Besides, if I talked with him, Celestia would know and I want to avoid it. I think maybe-” she stopped, silenced by Jade’s sign. Someone was at the door.

“It’s here,” a voice whispered.

“Knock.”

“No, you knock.”

“Okay, but you’ll do the talking.”

“No way, he’ll do it.”

“Me? Why me?”

“Because you’re-”

Knock, knock.

The unicorns looked at each other.

“Come in,” Jade commanded.

The door half-opened and four little heads popped in one above the other.

“Aren’t you supposed to be in beds by now?” the stallion asked with stern tone.

“You read books,” said one of the colts.

“Yeah, books!” parroted another one.

“You must know stories!” squeaked the filly.

“Bedtime stories!”

The professor laughed loudly. “Come on in, I’ll tell you one, but you’ll have to promise me that you’ll go straight to bed afterwards.”

“We promise!” the foals said in unison and streamed into the room. The stallion seated them on his bed.

“Listen closely, little ones, for the story I’m about to tell you is not an old mare’s tale, it’s the truest of all truths…” He raised one hoof and described a circle. “Once upon a time, in a magical land of Equestria…”

Twilight didn’t hear anything more. She fell asleep.

* * *

If there was a list of peculiar feelings with no names, those few seconds of transition between sleep and reality would probably be somewhere on top of it. When all you can feel is warm sunlight falling on your face and your body wants to be one with the mattress. A short moment of conscious non-existence, perfect harmony with the whole universe…

And then the reality flows on top. Every problem you postponed with your sleep strikes again and you realize you’re more helpless than before going to bed the previous night.

Twilight cursed silently and dug herself back between the soft pillows. It wasn’t a dream. We found out the truth about the guards yesterday.

She opened her eyes. Professor Jade stood by the window, looking outside. In the bright morning sunlight, standing there lost in thought, he finally looked like… like a professor. Without his everyday smile, without the unfailing vigor, he shared with everypony. A playful colt on an adventure had become a worried stallion on a mission. A mission for what? she asked herself. What do we want to achieve? What is the purpose?

The truth, said Celestia’s voice in her head. It’s always the basic and ultimate reason of every search. You don’t have to know what the truth may serve. Every lie you see through makes the world a better place. Every veil you tear down makes a day brighter. Never forget that, my faithful student. How ironic, the voice added, how very ironic…

Jade budged. He noticed Twilight was awake and staring at him. Immediately his face turned back to its normal, energetic countenance.

“Good morning!” he exclaimed cheerfully. “A beautiful day in a beautiful city. I hope it’s going to be as good as it looks like.”

“I wish I could share your optimism. It’s tomorrow already and we still don’t have a plan.” Twilight hid under her quilt.

“Everything has to have its starting point. First of all, we have to ask three fundamental questions. Do you remember them?”

“Are you kidding?” Twilight leered from between the pillows. “This was probably the first thing they taught us in CSGU. Let’s go, children, after me: What, why, how, what, why, how…”

The stallion chuckled. “Precisely. Yesterday we hit the first milestone: what. We probably know what’s going on. I don’t see a point in wasting our time on answering how. We don’t need this knowledge unless we want to do some cloning too.” He sat on the edge of his bed. “What we do need to know is why. What’s the reason? Let’s say we are right – Celestia is making an army. Is she afraid of something? Maybe she needs it to strengthen her authority? Maybe she wants to conquer and needs a big, obedient army?”

“I don’t know anymore.” Twilight sat up straight as well. “If you asked me a week ago if I thought Celestia would want to invade some faraway lands, I would laugh. But now… how can I be sure?”

“The biggest lies often hide behind the most subtle veils. We can tell ourselves that we know our princess but we never care to think how ridiculous this sounds. She is thousands years old, she has seen more than we can imagine, and she has knowledge we can never dream of.”

“But I trusted her.” Twilight felt her eyes began to fill up with tears. “Not only with myself, I trusted her with the whole Equestria and every pony who lives here. And what does she do? Experiments on live ponies, genetic manipulations to create soldiers…” The rest of the words got stuck in her throat. Her body shivered and a few drops fell on the snow white bed sheets.

“I realize how it must hurt to find out such a thing,” Jade said after a long pause. “But trust is rewarded with trust, and maybe... we can turn it into our favor?”

The purple unicorn wiped her tears. “What do you mean? I won’t just go to her and demand more details.”

“No, of course not. But how about using your status to get closer to the truth without the risk of suspicion?”

Twilight took a deep breath. “I can think of one way. I feel awful for even thinking about it but this might be the only way.” She looked at him sheepishly. “Breaking in.”

“Breaking in,” Jade repeated after her. “But where?”

“Into Celestia’s private room.”

The professor rolled his eyes. “Really? That has to be the most heavily guarded room in all of Equestria. How are you going to pass the guards?”

The purple unicorn rubbed her chin for a while. And then she explained her little plan.

* * *

The express delivery system was one of the best practical features of friendship with a dragon. Spike, indispensable Spike once again had shown his diligence, and Twilight had the little package in less than half an hour. They had the whole day left for preparations, but they started as soon as possible so Jade could have enough time to practice the new spells. Once again Riverdaze gave them access to the library but this time they didn’t need it for the books. They just needed space. Luckily, the professor turned out to be a sharp student, and his magic capacity was well above the average.

After the early dinner all they had to do was wait.

They left the villa about half an hour before sunset. The castle’s walls and towers looked even taller while seen directly from below them, especially one tower. Jade swallowed nervously.

As planned, they passed the main gate without any trouble. After all, Twilight Sparkle was well known and recognized. No one was ever surprised to see her around. All they were worried about was avoiding the princesses and hoping that nopony would talk to Celestia about her faithful student visiting the castle. A cloaking spell would surely make everything easier, but the selected counterspells were always on and the True Vision was amongst them. Through one short hallway and a cloister they quickly made it to the castle’s gardens. And the one tall tower.

They hid in the bushes behind a hedge and waited. Eventually the trumpets would sound and two alicorns walked through portals on top of the eastern and western tower. The spectacle had begun.

Both princesses’ horns shone simultaneously and brightly. And while Luna spread her wings and flew into the air with her mane swirling on the rapidly dimming sky, Celestia bowed her head deeply, letting the sun rest beyond the western plains.

The night had started.

“Now we have no more than thirty minutes before they’re done with their dinner and Celestia comes back to her room.” Twilight looked up at the tower rising above them. “Can you do it?”

“I sure hope so.” Jade bit his lip.

“Let’s not waste any time then. And let’s pray no one sees that.”

Twilight’s horn started to glow and she began to shrink. Despite what it looked like, it was a hard and draining spell, like most of those which affected a pony’s body. She clenched her eyelids, holding herself from groaning and finally she achieved a size of a coffee cup. It was the sign for Jade to cast his spell. It was simple levitation magic but he had to split the weave between it and a masking sequence. Normally, every spell that affected another object made it glow with the caster’s aura but they had to limit every detail that could draw attention to absolute minimum. Without the magical light around her, shrunk Twilight was much less likely to get noticed. She was able to give him some of her own energy but keeping herself tiny was absorbing almost all of it.

Moving very fast at first, around half the way she felt she started to slow down. It was harder to levitate an object when the distance got bigger. Just before the balcony, she stopped. She could feel Jade was trying as hard as he could but he wasn’t able to lift her any more. Twilight focused all her strength and channeled another portion of her magic into the spell. Jade strained his horn to the limit.

With a short flash of weak light, Twilight felt a tug and she landed hard on the balcony surface. She immediately jumped on four hooves and looked down.

Do you think anyone noticed? she asked telepathically.

I think no, and even if they did, they would probably take it as a hallucination. Don’t worry, Jade replied inside her head.

Twilight nodded to herself and slowly dispelled the shrinking effect. She reached her saddlebags and took out a silver key – one of the treasures from her childhood, the spare key to Princess Celestia’s private chamber. The question was: did she or didn’t she change the lock? This key was the only way to open both doors leading to the room. One could ram them, burn them, blow them up with explosives or magic, but they wouldn’t budge a bit. Using the key was the only way. Luckily, it clicked quietly and the door opened. In her mind she thanked Spike again for the delivery.

I’m in, she sent a message to Jade. She could feel his relief like it was her own.

Magical light was out of the question. Luckily, practical magic was always her favorite class in school and she remembered a few alternatives like the always handy night vision. She used it at least once a week, when after staying up late she had to find her bed without the risk of waking up her dragon roommate.

Seeing the Princess’ chamber again stung her the heart. She would have never thought she’d be there in such circumstances. The cushions they used to sit on during private lessons, the fireplace helping against cold winds in winter. Would she ever be able to look at them the same way?

She slowly made her way across the room, soft carpet suppressing her hoofsteps. In the night vision everything was bathed in a silver glimmer similar to moonlight. Princess Celestia’s chamber was quite big and she managed to fill it with bookshelves rather tightly. But Twilight knew where to look. She was never told not to touch it but it was the only one her mentor wouldn’t share with her on their private meetings. It was entirely filled with manuscript books, binders and scrolls. Even as a foal, Twilight would feel a strange emotional aura coming from these shelves; now it was even more vivid.

Suddenly, she felt a shiver. She looked again at one of the binders. The letters on its back said TWILGHT SPARKLE. With shaking hooves she reached for it and opened. It was filled with her letters, every single one put in a transparent jacket:

(…)While friendship is about giving of ourselves to friends, it's also about accepting what our friends have to offer.

(…) Being a good friend means being able to keep a secret, but you should never be afraid to share your true feelings with a good friend.

(…) A good friend always has your best interests at heart.

Your faithful student,
Twilight Sparkle

She could feel tears filling her eyes again. What am I doing? she thought. I’m spying on my teacher, my princess, one of the ponies I love the most…

What’s going on? Jade asked. He must have felt a rebound of her sorrow.

Nothing, she replied, putting the binder back in its place. It wasn’t the best time for second-guessing her decisions. She had already crossed the line. It was time for action. She returned to her search. Some of the titles were hard to read even with the night vision spell, and most of them had blank covers. And then her eyes saw a thick book titled “Project Orphan”. She took a deep breath. She knew that this was it. Carefully, she grabbed the tome and opened to a random page.

It was all tables, every sheet of paper inside was filled with tiny text and numbers, mostly incomprehensible codes, but the one note recurred at the end of every row. Twilight was sure, it was Celestia’s style of writing.

U453/11 nu A13 T83 subject deceased
U453/12 nu A13 T14 subject deceased
P454/01 nu K05 T10 subject deceased

subject deceased
subject deceased

Deceased.

It was everywhere. She tried to pick different pages from the book but ‘subject deceased’ closed every row in the long tables. Suddenly, the writing ended with a big note:

Cont. MMSU4 E. 25.07.794 SE

The rest of the book was empty.

Twilight stood there for a while, trying to sort out the information, when a mental strike hit her brain. She staggered, dropping the book. The back of her mind exploded with dull pain and for a short while everything sank in white void. When she opened her eyes, she realized that Celestia’s chamber disappeared and she stood in the middle of infinite darkness, in the spotlight coming out of nowhere. She tried to move and made a few steps forward without an effort but the light followed her movement perfectly.

Professor? she sent a mental signal. No answer.

“Professor?” she repeated loud and cringed at the impression that the word got sucked away by the darkness.

“Jade?” Twilight shouted, trying to fight the panic which was slowly taking over her nervous system. “Hello! Anypony?”

She started to run, although the steady smudge of light made it feel like she wasn’t moving at all.

-ght!

What was that? Did she hear something?

-ight!

Yes, through the static, on the auditory threshold, something could be heard.

Twi-t do-ead me?

Professor? she tried to shout back through the telepathic link.

Miss Spa- Thank –ness I found you! You’ve been tr-d! I sent you a hacking dro- -ocus, you should see a tiny blue -ght dot!

Twilight squinted in search for any irregularity in the blackness. After a while she managed to make out a single, microscopic point of light.

I see it! she exclaimed in her mind. What now?

Run towards it and try to make it bigger with your energy. Professor’s voice pierced through the static and she could finally hear him normally. I can’t do anything more. Give it all you’ve got. You have to break through!

Twilight blew out towards the blue spot, lighting up her horn. She had no idea what she was doing. She tried to unleash magic in its pure form, hoping it would work.

And it did. The spot budged and started to grow. It was a size of a pea, a plum, an apple, a pumpkin… Twilight’s horn burned from the voltage but she overcame the pain and kept sending the energy. The blue stain was almost as big as a pony…

Jump! Her skull resonated with Jade’s suddenly loud voice. She jumped.

The light blinded her as she passed the hole. She felt a hard blow to her shoulder, strong as Applejack’s buck. At first she tried to stand on her own hooves but she quickly realized there was no ground to stand on. She was falling down.

Not only was she falling, she was falling fast and constantly gaining momentum. She tried to scream but the wind pushed the voice back to her throat. No, nonononono…

Suddenly she felt her heart pulled downwards as she slowed down and started to float easily. When she opened her eyes, she could see a glowing horn between the bushes.

“Quickly, here!” It was Jade, whispering nervously. He was pointing to some hole in the ground. A sewer entrance?

“Hurry!” He pulled her by her hoof.

“You saved my life…” she barely muttered.

“You’ll thank me later.” The professor pushed her down and jumped down himself, pulling the lid back. “They’ll come here after us. Everyone must have seen you falling down from the tower. We need to hide. Go, go!”

Twilight wasn’t in the state of mind that could let her argue. She followed the stallion, trying to ignore the pain.

They ran through darkness and the choking stench of the sewers. After a few turns they could hear echo of the lid being drawn aside. Someone was chasing them. Twilight felt a twist in her stomach. The pain in her arm filled the world with red mist. She barely saw a spot of faint glowing they passed by.

“Wait!” Her voice was so weak that Jade couldn’t hear her. She pulled his tail.

“Wait,” she gasped, taking a few steps back, despite his silent protest. In response, she pointed to a small hole just above the sewer floor, from which a subtle stain of pink light poured out.

Before Jade could say anything, the purple unicorn started to shrink again. He ran towards her but she already jumped inside. With a moan of disappointment he fell on the floor and tried to peer inside the hole. On the other side of a short tunnel, probably eluted by the water, normal-sized Twilight was shaking her head.

“What about me?” he whined, terrified.

“Close your eyes!” commanded Twilight, grimacing from the pain.

“Wha-”

“Do it! If you don’t, your brain will turn into pudding for hours!”

She used her last reserves to perform the spell again. She realized she was playing with the stallion’s life. If the pool ran dry in the middle of his way through the hole… she shuffled the thought off. Action, not thinking!

A few seconds later both unicorns sat on the same side, panting heavily and covering the hole with their hooves while the pursuit’s gallop slowly faded away.