Heading down into the depths of the Census building on an industrial cargo elevator, Twilight Sparkle went over the plan in her head once more. She had been temporarily registered as a member of the guard and was being moved to the Hazard Wing’s security force under the pretense of exceptional service. Her human collaborator had pulled a few strings to get her files and history altered for the mission. Once inside, she would need to slip away and find the lab where the experiment was taking place. Anything she could find out inside the lab would be useful in furthering their case, and any other data that could be recorded along the way would be icing on the cake. The file alterations could be noticed at any time, so she needed to get in and out of the wing as quickly as possible without arousing suspicion.
The Hazard Wing was located on the bottom floor of the Census building, or at least if there was anything further down the council had that hushed up too. Most ponies never saw more than the checkpoint at the bottom of the elevator. Twilight shuffled a little, trying to get used to the weight of the armor that she had borrowed from a supply locker upstairs. She couldn’t afford to look like a greenhorn when she had supposedly been vetted from amongst the best of the Census guard. The hope was that the lack of communication between the guard and the wing’s private security force would help mask her identity.
The nervous mare blinked a few times to keep her left eye watered. The human Twilight knew a pony researcher who had been working on a contact lens with a camera implanted in the center. She had been volunteered as a tester for one of the prototypes, which was proving a little itchy but otherwise worked fine. This invention had been made possible through the combination of human technology, unicorn magic, and, curiously enough, hawk optometry. Twilight couldn’t help but wonder how many different species made up the Census.
They had managed to fit a sound-recording spell into the matrices as well, which could be activated with a specific order of winks and blinks. The two conspirators had made sure to test it in the office first, and the video feed was being streamed directly to the glow-box upstairs. If anything went wrong the other Twilight would try her best to help from outside.
The elevator came to a stop and the doors clattered open, revealing a small white room. An imposing metal door took up most of the far wall, and in front of it stood two guards wearing well-pressed suits and sunglasses. One was a unicorn, with her indigo mane sleeked down on one side; the other a lavender griffon. Both gave off an aura of intense professionalism. Twilight gulped and stepped out of the lift as the griffon came up to meet her.
“Designation MR-4T^W?” She asked without preface.
“Uh, yes ma’am, that’s me.”
“Please step towards the platform.” She motioned to a metal plate embedded in the floor by the door. Cautiously, Twilight stepped on, feeling the same unnerving sweep of energy through her body and soul. A light above the door turned green, and the thick metal slab liquefied and was sucked away into the surrounding walls. She watched in awe for a moment before realizing that the guards had expected her to head inside immediately. Rectifying her mistake, she walked through the gateway and came to an intersection of three halls. Twilight hesitated, uncertain which path to take.
“You’re on patrol in Sector 8.” The griffon remarked. “Try reading your briefing and changing into your uniform before you get to work next time.”
“Right, won’t happen again.” Twilight walked off to the left at random, having no idea where Sector 8 was supposed to be and hoping desperately that she hadn’t blown her cover already.
The door resealed itself and the griffon resumed her post with an audible sigh. The unicorn guard watched her companion return before shaking her head and muttering ‘Rookies’ under her breath.
Meanwhile, Twilight pressed onward, taking in her surroundings while hoping once more to bump into a map. The halls here were taller and wider than anywhere else in the Census, likely to accommodate for the large variety of species that worked within. The floor, ceiling, and walls were all painted a drab, metallic gray, making it difficult to keep track of where she had been. Twilight tried peeking in a few windows, but most were shuttered in the same way that the abandoned lab upstairs had been.
After a half hour of wandering Twilight was feeling hopelessly lost. The Hazard Wing was impossible to navigate without directions; the doors weren’t numbered and despite her best efforts to keep a tally of how many turns she had made she was still occasionally going around in circles. The place was an absolute labyrinth, and she had the sneaking suspicion that the hallways were changing when she wasn’t looking.
While she hadn’t yet found what she was looking for, Twilight couldn’t deny that she had seen some interesting and unusual stuff in the Hazard Wing. Every so often one of the shutters would be partially open, allowing her to covertly glance inside while pretending to tighten her armor. One lab had been packed to the brim with poison joke flowers. Of all of the things that Twilight had expected to find weaponized this would have been it, yet strangely enough the researchers were just sitting around inside drinking tea. Perplexed, she had moved on. Another room had been filled with chessboards and various dice based games. Kneeling down, she had managed to spot a large chalkboard on the far wall with the words “Celestia – 1, Universe – 0” scratched across. Twilight found this especially absurd: everyone knew that Celestia’s game of choice was actually Double Cranko. She had doubled back to look at a third room several times, but try as she might she couldn’t remember what she saw inside other than that musical instruments were involved. That and a pretty swell hoodie. Spike might like something similar for Hearthswarming next year, she thought to herself. The bookish princess facetiously considered whether the projects in the Hazard Wing were classified simply because the council was too embarrassed to try to explain any of them.
By far the most unusual thing Twilight had encountered was an exceptionally dusty hallway which ended at an ornate wooden door. The door had several planks haphazardly nailed across it and a ludicrous quantity of yellow caution tape stretching out in front, tied off in a little bow. The letters ‘P.R.I.’ could just be made out from behind one of the boards, and a ‘Condemned’ sign hung crookedly from the handle. Most curiously of all, the air in the hall was thick with the scent of cotton candy, and Twilight thought she heard the faint echo of song coming from inside. The purple mare didn’t know what to make of any of this, and being on an important mission she didn’t have time to worry about it either.
As she was trudging down yet another nondescript hallway a door flew open in her face. Twilight staggered backward and then had to hold in a gasp as a familiar pony peered around the door. The researcher from the bio lab was staring down at her, and apparently the coffee she had gone searching for earlier had done nothing to improve her mood.
She fixed Twilight with a sour glare before spouting, “Finally you’re here. Get inside so I can start working already!” The ill-mannered mare turned and headed inside, Twilight hot on her heels. If the multi-verse was going to throw her a bone she would happily take it.
As she stepped through the doorway Twilight considered that the new laboratory looked a lot like the old, albeit it was a lot cleaner and had a few more pieces of equipment inside. The researcher, whose bun was starting to come undone from stress, walked over to her desk and began sorting through a massive pile of papers. Uncertain of what she was supposed to be doing exactly, Twilight opted to stand nearby and observe the room. Several EEG machines were hooked up along one wall, with a table, chair, and plate situated in front of each. The chairs came in different sizes and proportions, and each featured a set of restraining cuffs on the arms. The kitchenette had been expanded as well, with several stoves, a large refrigerator, and ample counter space all installed along the back wall.
Twilight captured everything with her ocular camera, but the room’s layout wasn’t providing the answers that she was looking for. She would need to draw the information out of the pony on her left if the plan were to succeed. Making the necessary eye-flaps to trigger the audio-recording spell, Twilight struck up a conversation.
“So, what are you working on exactly?”
The researcher sighed before looking up. “You know that you’re not supposed to ask me that. Compartmentalization of information and such?”
“Oh, sorry!” Twilight began, trying desperately to keep her cool. “I know I’m not supposed to, but you know how it is. No Twilight can resist learning about new and exciting research.”
Luckily, this seemed to placate the mare. For the first time the shade of a smile touched her lips. “Believe me, I know all about that. The similarities and differences between Sparkles has been the focus of my research for some time now. It’s what got me stuck down here actually.”
“Really, how so?” Twilight inquired, hoping she wasn’t pushing her luck.
“Right now I’m studying turophobia: the fear of cheese. It’s a condition that is present in 98% of all Sparkles and yet the Census has almost no research on the subject. Probably because nopony wants to touch the stuff. I had originally hired a Pinkie Pie to make the food for the testing, but as she’s eternally banned from entering the Hazard Wing I’ll have to find a new solution.”
“So, why were you moved down here? I mean, I don’t care much for cheese but it isn’t exactly dangerous.” Twilight stated, trying to keep her talking.
“That’s where you’re wrong. It turns out there is a lot more to the cheese phobia than we thought. When processed differently and combined with various ingredients the effect is multiplied exponentially. The fear becomes uncontrollable and Sparkles become irrational. The last test subject freaked out so badly after taking a bite out of a quesadilla that she teleported straight across the Equine Division. Technically the wards had been deactivated in order to set up the accident, but hey, I didn’t know that at the time, and it was still impressive either way.”
She shifted though the stack of papers before continuing. “The Council realized that if the data got out it could be weaponized and used against them. I’m trying to perfect the recipe right now, and then potentially develop a countermeasure for it afterward.”
“So, the council is developing a quesadilla-based weapon that could be used against other Sparkles?” Twilight asked, wanting confirmation of this fact on the audio feed.
“We’re actually finding Hayburgers with cheese more effective at this point. But yes, I am developing a weapon that could, in theory, be used against other members of the Census, under the close supervision of the council. Which is what you’re supposed to be doing right now: keeping an eye on me to make sure that I don’t decide to go rogue.”
She turned back to her work briefly before adding, “For the record, if it gets out that you know any of this it’s on your head, not mine. The upper management won’t mess with me; I shouted the Nightmare out of Princess Luna once.”
Twilight gulped, lapsing into silence once more. She had what she needed, but left the spell running just in case something interesting came up. She wasn’t sure how much longer she’d be stuck in the lab, but getting out of the Hazard Wing was now her top priority. In the meantime, she glanced around the room looking for any evidence that might have been missed. A few ingredients had been dumped unceremoniously on the counter: hay, bread, onions, peppers, a jar of Worcestershire sauce, and blocks of that most heinous of substances, cheese. Cheddar, Monterey Jack, Parmesan; the grotesque sight made her gut clench, forcing her to look away. This drew a faint snicker from the unicorn at the desk.
The door to the lab opened and two black-suited security ponies made their way inside. The first, a pegasus, raised an eyebrow before addressing Twilight.
“What are you doing in here rookie? You’re supposed to be on patrol right now.”
“Oh, um, I–” She began sweating a bit under her helmet as she searched for an excuse.
“Seriously? Can’t you bozos even keep a schedule straight?” Twilight was saved from coming up with a cover by the researcher’s outburst. “If you’re here to change shifts make it quick, I’m tired of being interrupted.”
The second guard, a crystal pony, spoke up. “Actually, we were just looking for 4T. Her help is needed in one of the other facilities. Your guard will be here briefly with the test subjects you requested in tow.”
“Fine, take her. It’s not like I have work to get done today or anything.” She huffed, crossing her forelegs. Twilight stepped in line with the guards and made her way back into the hall. The pegasus gave a quick nod before heading off to the right, while the princess followed the other guard to the left.
“Don’t go poking around rookie.” The security pony’s voice was as firm as steel. “The rules might have been flexible on the upper floors but down here we run a tight ship. You’ll find yourself out of the Hazard Wing very quickly if you keep putting hooves out of line. Are we clear?”
“Crystal, ma’am.” Twilight squeaked, though outside of the Hazard Wing was exactly where she wanted to be right now. She had no idea where they were going, but hoped that the guard would leave her alone again soon. Making it through the whole day without giving herself away was getting tougher and tougher.
The suited Sparkle turned down a new passageway before speaking again. “We’ve been looking for someone with your experience since 3G left a while back. I saw your file and I’m impressed with your work; the way you took down that harpy was impressive. You’ll probably notice a few familiar faces inside.”
The guard stopped before a thick metal door, holding up a hoof to the sensor on the wall. It slid open and she gestured for Twilight to step through into a small space with another door on the other side. The confused mare squeezed inside and the door closed behind her. After a moment a red light came on and a buzzer went off. The second door opened up, ushering her into a long room filled with shimmering magenta light. Curtains of purple energy were falling from the ceiling, blocking off small nooks that contained – Twilight’s mind froze up. Shock racked her body and mind as she tried to take in what she was seeing. The nooks behind the energy fields were cell blocks, and there were over a dozen of them on either side of the room. Her legs moving on their own initiative, Twilight stepped forward, fearfully looking at the contents of the cells. Each contained one prisoner: some were ponies, others humans or another foreign species. All were unmistakably Twilight Sparkle.
Petrified, Twilight didn’t even react as a third guard stood up from her desk and walked over.
“No problems to report. 5C was whining a bit but what else is new? Meal time is in a half hour; somepony will be by to deliver it soon. Have a good shift, if you need anything just holler for a guard through the intercom.”
The pony left Twilight standing there, slack jawed, as she headed out through the checkpoint. The revelation that Inter-Dimensional Space Prison was a real place had shaken her to the core. What could any Sparkle have done to have ended up in here? Try as she might, Twilight couldn’t imagine any world in which she had turned out bad enough to need to be held against her will. Glad that the camera was still running, she glanced purposefully into each cell, documenting it all. Many of the Sparkles looked angry, though most simply looked defeated. In one cell a human girl with a spiked purple mohawk sat with her head resting against the side of her fold-down bed. In another, a lavender harpy was sharpening her talons with her teeth. She gave Twilight a dark and purposeful glare that made her equine heart skip a beat.
Her nerves still in tatters from the discovery of the prison, Twilight jumped when she heard a small sound behind her. Making an about face, the Princess of Friendship cringed at the sight that met her eyes. Lying on the floor of one of the cells was a waiflike alicorn. Her ribs were showing far too much, and several recent bruises were swelling along her right side. Her eyes were only partially open, but they were feasting on Twilight as one would look at water in the desert. The mare’s mouth opened ever so slightly, and Twilight was able to make out the faint words she uttered this time.
“Please. Help me, please.”
She walked over to the edge of the magenta energy barrier and crouched down, trying not the intimidate the poor thing.
“Are you alright? You look injured and malnourished. When was the last time you ate?”
The prisoner coughed a bit before responding. It was clear that her voice hadn’t been used in a long time. “They stopped giving me food after the last time I spoke out of turn. They were taking some of the others away for testing, to run experiments on them in the labs. I spoke out against the guards and they beat me until I stayed quiet. They said that if I was going to use my muzzle to talk, I wouldn’t need to use it to eat. I don’t remember when that happened, but it was a while ago.”
Horrified, Twilight felt rage swell in her heart, but it was quickly doused by pity for the damaged mare before her. It would have pained her to see any pony suffering this way, but to know that another version of herself had been beaten, starved, and forced to live in a cage… it wracked her whole being with grief. Tears flushed from her eyes as she grappled with the injustice of it all.
“Why are you in here?” She nearly sobbed. “Who could have been so cruel as to hurt you this way?”
“The Council had me locked up. I disobeyed them, went against their wishes. They came to my world and dragged me away for not stepping down and letting them take power. Celestia, Luna, Cadence – they’re all gone. There was an accident, I was the only one left to lead, to keep the peace. I don’t know what is happening to my people without me there to protect them. They need me, I–” She lapsed into a coughing fit, unable to continue.
This was beyond unacceptable, and the Council would pay dearly for their crimes, but right now she had to figure out how to get her maligned doppelganger out of this cell. She tried to push against the barrier but found it impassable. The bruised alicorn looked up, confusion and despair on her face.
“Why are you helping me? All of the others, they said I was a bad pony, that I deserved to be in here. I must be a bad pony; they wouldn’t have locked me up otherwise.”
“Don’t talk like that!” Twilight swallowed, a fierce look in her eye. “Never tell yourself that you deserved this! You don’t. I don’t care what you might have done, you’re still a pony. You’re still Twilight Sparkle, not a number or a prisoner. To Tartarus with the Council or the Census, I’m getting you out of here, now!”
Twilight looked around until she found the aura sensor for the cell and pressed her hoof against it, but nothing happened. She tried again to the same effect. Venting some frustration, she aimed a spell at the wall of light, but it fizzled on contact.
“That won’t work. This barrier blocks most forms of magic, and it takes dual-authentication to open a cell. I can’t use my own magic while I’m inside, and you’d need another guard to open the door with you.”
Undeterred, the wily princess rethought her strategy. She needed to get the cell opened, which would require the cooperation of a guard. That would be difficult, but not as difficult as somehow sneaking the frail prisoner out of the Hazard Wing and all of the way back to the Equine Atrium. Looking for a weak point on the cell, Twilight noticed a small hatch on the wall. Opening it, she saw that it was a system for moving items in and out of the cell. The opposite side also had a hatch, and only one could be open at any time to prevent an attack from being aimed through. The pieces clicked together in her head as she hatched a plan.
“I’ve got an idea. Do you think you can stand? I’m going to need you to do something for me and then we’re going to try and walk out of here.”
The prisoner struggled to her feet, looking a little stronger already. Twilight reasoned that this was the first time she had felt hope in a very long while, and that it was acting as a stimulant. Marching back to the desk, Twilight pulled out a paper cup and filled it from the water cooler. Setting it down, she concentrated on it with all of her might, causing the cup to glow for a moment as her magic did its work. Finishing the spell, she glanced into the cup; the contents had gained a silvery sheen and were swirling around of their own accord. Housing a spell in an object was not particularly easy and generally made it less powerful, but Twilight figured she could reapply it after she got her companion out of jail. Floating the cup carefully in her magic Twilight opened the hatch and set it inside.
“I want you to drink this. I’ve cast an invisibility spell using the water as a conduit. It should pass the effect on to you for a short time, giving us a window of opportunity to escape. When I get the door open you sneak out and head for the exit; I’ll lock the other pony in and follow soon after.”
The prisoner opened the hatch and guzzled down the liquid. Twilight cringed as she wondered just how long it had been since the mare had been allowed anything to drink. She watched carefully as the invisibility took hold, leaving the cell looking barren. Running over to the door, she pressed the button for the intercom and asked for assistance. The door opened almost immediately and the guard trotted inside looking alert.
“What’s the situation?” She asked with authority.
“One of the prisoners disappeared! I was walking by when I saw that the cell over there was empty, and it wasn’t just a few minutes ago!”
Ears perking, the guard walked over to the block in question. She squinted her eyes as she gazed through the energy curtain, as if trying to catch sight of something elusive. After a few moments Twilight saw a bead of sweat form on her forehead and she motioned for Twilight to help her open the gate. Elated at the plan’s success, she held her hoof out and watched as the magenta field faded away. The guard immediately ran inside, looking every which way and feeling around the corners. When nothing appeared she turned around, looking panicked.
“No, no, no, this can’t be happening!” She shrieked, dropping all pretense of professionality. “Oh dear, oh my, I can’t believe this! We need to sound the alarm now!”
Twilight had been about to close the gate, but the frantic reaction caught her off guard.
“Why are you freaking out so badly? Is this really something to worry the whole facility about?”
The guard’s eye twitched as she looked at Twilight like she was a mad-pony. “Are you insane? This cell held the most notorious criminal that the Census has ever captured, and now she’s loose in the most dangerous wing of the building. Why aren’t you panicking?”
“I don’t understand, the pony in this cell had been beaten within an inch of her life. She wasn’t a threat; heck, she didn’t look dangerous at all!”
“That, my dear, is because a changeling can look like whatever she wants.”
The raspy voice stung Twilight’s ears as she turned her head toward the door. Standing by the desk was not the pathetic mare who had been languishing in the cell, but a large and imposing changeling queen. Her long, eggplant colored legs were riddled with holes, and her muzzle sported a pair of pearly fangs. Large insectoid wings spread out on either side of her back, and in the bedraggled mess of violet hair that hung about her eyes a stripe of pink was visible.
Mouth agape, Twilight realized that for at least the second time that day she had been expertly played. The changeling Sparkle flashed the princess a wicked grin before charging her horn. Acting on instinct, Twilight grabbed the guard and dove headfirst into the cell, narrowly avoiding an energy blast that tore down the aisle. Plaster and bits of metal crashed down from the ceiling, forcing her to cover her head while the she kept her companion safe with the rest of her body. When the dust settled, Twilight got up and made her way back out into the room, leaving the now unconscious guard in the open cell. Miraculously the other cells were all still shut, though most of the prisoners were watching the situation avidly for a chance to escape.
The sound of writhing metal brought her attention back to the front of the prison. Turning, she saw that both security doors had been blasted into the hallway. Sirens began blaring as an explosion ripped through the wing. Steeling her rattled nerves, Twilight made a leap over the shattered doors and began galloping after the villain, hoping that it was not too late to stop the events she had set in motion.