In a brilliant flash of magenta light, Twilight Sparkle popped back into existence. A fore-hoof was raised in the air and her mouth was open, as she had been about to ask for directions to the Grand Secretariat’s office. Taking in her surroundings she realized two things: that her question would not be heard, as she appeared to be alone, and that it no longer needed to be asked, as she was sitting before said council member’s desk. It was taller than the average pony’s furniture, more akin to those used by humans, and it had intricate carvings of vines running along its sides. Vines with books growing off of them. Somehow Twilight wasn’t surprised.
“Well, I suppose that could have gone better, but all in all I’d still call it a successful mission.”
The pony princess jumped, caught off guard by the unexpected voice. Turning her head, she saw a human Sparkle standing in the corner, the same one who had helped her plan the ill-fated foray into the Hazard Wing. Despite the disastrous events that had taken place over the last few hours the girl was smiling radiantly.
“What are you doing here, did the Council find out that you were connected somehow? And what do you mean successful, I freed a prisoner who nearly annihilated the entire Census!”
The human shrugged. “I said it could have gone better, didn’t I? Still it wasn’t so bad all in all: no one was too badly hurt, the prisoner got caught, and the fires in the Hazard Wing are being put out as we speak. Relax, nothing was broken that can’t be fixed.”
Twilight stared at the girl for a moment before her frustration began to show. “Alright, what’s actually going on here? I’ve been manipulated enough today to know when I’m not being told something, so spill it.”
Incredulously, this seemed to make the human Twilight even happier. “Excellent, I was hoping you would catch on soon! You’re really showing a lot of promise today Ms. Sparkle.”
Standing up straighter, she took on a more formal air. “My designation is MB-2K&J, 2K for short. I am one of the members of the council’s security board. We are tasked with assessing potential risks to the Census and finding ways to prevent them. Today, you helped me to prove a point that I have been trying to make for a very long time.”
“…And that point is?” Twilight asked, thoroughly confused.
“That the existence of the Hazard Wing itself is a security risk, one with potentially catastrophic consequences. I’ve been arguing for its removal for years, but I never had the evidence to back up my assertions. Now, I have all of the evidence I could ever need.”
2K walked over to the formal desk, turned around, and planted her keister right on its polished surface. Looking down at the pony in the chair, she continued with her explanation.
“When I found out that you knew about the transfer of the Turophobia project down to the HW (the board hates when I call it that by the way), I realized that I had a shot at proving my hypothesis–”
“So, what, you lied to me when you said that you wanted to see the information exposed? I thought all Sparkles deserved to know what was going on?” The mare interrupted in a huff.
“I didn’t lie to you, though I suppose I didn’t reveal my full motivation for feeling that way either. Let me continue and all will be explained in due time.”
Twilight crossed her forelimbs but said nothing more, allowing the human to speak.
“I’ve never liked the idea of the Hazard Wing. Secrets always lead to someone trying to uncover them, and by putting all of our eggs in one basket we had a big classified bomb just waiting to go off in our face. We found out today just what that would look like.” She cringed a bit before continuing. “When you found that letter it proved that keeping the projects in the Wing hushed up forever wasn’t viable. I knew that if I could convince you to infiltrate the lab it would prove both that the Hazard Wing was not impenetrable, as the board likes to believe, and that there were Sparkles out there willing to sneak in for the right reasons. Together we showed everyone just how fallible the system was, and that’s the first step that must be taken before we can fix it.”
Twilight thought about all of this and shifted in her seat. Despite the nearly ruinous consequences she supposed that they had accomplished what they had set out to do originally.
“So, the video I was recording was going to be used as evidence of how the Hazard Wing could be infiltrated, not as a way to expose the experiments inside?”
“Precisely, though I do hope to see all of those declassified soon enough as well. I was watching the entire time and I was impressed by how you weaseled the information out of Z9. I imagine she’s in a particularly fine mood right now, probably being lectured about giving away confidential information to the guards.”
“So, you saw what happened in the prison as well?” Twilight asked hesitantly.
The girl readjusted her glassed before speaking. “Yeah, I definitely was not intending for that to happen. I put some stuff about police work onto your resume, just as a way to give you credence in the Wing. When I realized what that prisoner was up to I phoned the Grand Secretariat immediately and explained the situation. I was planning on confronting her with the video after you got back, but I knew things were getting too dangerous to continue. By the time she got to my office the queen had broken out and was tearing up the sector. We took a secret tunnel (yes, we do have those) down to help contain the most dangerous experiments, then followed up the shaft a little while after you flew up.”
“Wait, how did you get up? You don’t have wings.” Twilight asked.
2K took off her glasses entirely and looked away while polishing them.
“I, uh, got a ride. Please don’t talk about that when the boss comes back, it was embarrassing enough for us both.”
The two sat in silence for a little while. Twilight considered all that had happened so far today and then hastily stopped. There was way too much information clogging up her brain, a feat that the bookish princess rarely achieved. She set her head down on the desk and let out a low groan.
“Hey, you did good today. You’ve helped me out more than you even realize with all of this. Most Sparkles would have cracked under the pressure pretty early, but you kept soldiering on. That’s something to be proud of.”
“Thanks.” Twilight replied, feeling just a little bit better.
“You know, there was a second reason I sent you on that mission.” Twilight looked up curiously, prompting her human companion to continue. “I wanted to see what you were capable of. It’s like I said, most Sparkles are content to sit around and do research or talk about their feelings all day. When an ultra-powerful changeling queen burst into the atrium almost everypony ran screaming. You chased her up an elevator shaft, insulted her to her face, and shoved a block of cheese down her throat. You are no normal Sparkle, 4T.”
It was strange to hear her designation used, but Twilight took it as a symbol that the human considered her a friend now, not just another pony in the herd. She smiled for the first time in hours, finally starting to feel good about all that she had accomplished.
“Thanks 2K. How did you get all of the details on what happened in the atrium by the way?”
“The audio spell: you forgot to turn it off after leaving the lab. I’m actually getting some feedback with you talking to me from the same room.”
“Oh, sorry!” Twilight blinked, winked, and flapped her eyelids around until the audio cue played, letting her know that the spell was inactive.
“So, what now?”
“Now? We wait for the GS to get her chubby flanks in here.”
“Can it 2K, I’ve had more than enough to deal with today because of your antics. And you can get your flabby toosh off of my desk first!”
Twilight turned to see the massive alicorn walking through the doorway. Her professional demeanor had all but dropped, leaving her looked tired and a bit angry. 2K slipped off of the desk and stood beside the princess’s chair. The Grand Secretariat walked around the desk and slumped down in her own much larger office recliner. She took a deep, calming breath before addressing the human.
“Before you even get started, yes I know why you did this and yes you are still in trouble for it.”
“So, you admit that I was right all along?” 2K asked with thinly masked glee.
“I… will agree that something has to change. Some of the Parasprites escaped into the Lemur Division, and everyone knows that there is a Census-wide ban on their study. The story will have spread everywhere by tomorrow, so we’ll have to come clean one way or another. Because no one else had access to the data on the creatures we were the only ones who could stop them, which forced me to let the prisoner run rampant for far too long. It’s something that will need to be brought up at the next board meeting for sure.”
The girl was elated. “Yes! I knew this would work.”
“Yeah, well, you’re going to be spending the next week helping the cleanup crew fix the damages to the Hazard Wing and to the Equine Division’s atrium. Consider that your recompense for the headache you’ve caused me today.”
The girl leaned back against the wall before turning to Twilight and mouthing, “Totally worth it.”
Shifting her gaze to the other pony in the room, the Grand Secretariat let out a sigh. “Well, you certainly had an interesting first day. I’m not going to charge you for anything since you were acting under 2K’s orders for the most part, and since you helped to fix the mess you caused. It might seem odd being asked this, but how do you feel about the Census after today?”
Twilight thought for a moment before quickly settling on her answer. “This is by far the weirdest, most messed up day I’ve ever had, including the day that I first met Discord.”
The majestic pony threw back her head and laughed, a surprisingly pure and joyous sound. Her ethereal mane waved nonchalantly as the Council member let out a long, continuous stream of amusement.
“Oh I needed that! You don’t know the half of it yet dear. Trying to keep a boundless number of Sparkles happy is neigh impossible. The Discords of the multiverse absolutely refuse to come near the Census; they say that it’s the most disgusting thing that they have ever seen done with magic. Frankly, I think they are just jealous that they can’t achieve quite the same level of chaos that we do here on a daily basis.”
Twilight chuckled, her nerves evaporating now that the larger alicorn was speaking casually. She allowed her superior to finish laughing before responding, “So, I have a few questions about the Census, if you don’t mind me asking.”
“Ask away.” She said. “I can’t promise that I will answer all of your queries, but I will not lie to you.”
Twilight began with her most pressing concern. “The prison: can you explain why it exists, what a Sparkle has to do to end up in jail?”
The matriarch’s expression became serious once more. “The detention block is only for the absolute worst offenders of intra-universal law. A Sparkle must pose a threat not only to her own world, but to other worlds or to the Census at large in order to be detained. I knew what the queen was when she first arrived, and gave her a chance to renounce her heinous ways. Her world was very different from most, but legally we couldn’t do anything unless she began attacking others.”
The alicorn paused and looked at Twilight with sadness in her eyes. “It’s our last resort; a means of protecting Sparkles when nothing else can be done for them. We treat them well and give them every opportunity to better themselves, to reform. A few have made the effort so far, and are now reintegrated as members of the Census and their own worlds. Before you ask, we do not ever run experiments on the prisoners; that was a lie the queen told you to garner empathy.”
“The researcher I was guarding mentioned that there were test subjects being brought to her lab though?” Twilight pondered.
“The Hazard Wing maintains a staff of volunteers for when live testing is needed. Their work can be dangerous but they are recompensed very well for it, and quitting is allowed at any time.”
“I see. I suppose I can accept that. What will happen to the prison now that the Hazard Wing is changing?” She asked.
“That remains to be seen. Perhaps it will be moved to its own wing, one where we can keep the prisoners separate from the experiments. If we have another breakout we want to keep the risks to a minimum next time. I think we might also open up visiting hours. Keeping the public informed will help prevent situations like the one you wandered into from happening again, and I think it might be good for the prisoners to socialize, to let them see the value of cooperation and friendship up close and personal.”
Twilight considered this a step in the right direction. Moving on, she asked her second question. “What happens if a Sparkle wants nothing to do with the Census, or what if there is an emergency when she is transported? Can she choose to leave in the middle of the registration process.”
“We do generally try to persuade new members to at least stay through the orientation. Our methods of doing so can be a tad abrasive or inconsiderate at times, but we feel it is important to gather all the data we can and at least let the Sparkles in question know who we are. If there is an emergency we make exceptions of course, and sometimes we even lend aid in the member’s home dimension as needed. Now, do you have any further questions?”
“Um, just one more.” Twilight spoke with a little trepidation. “I, uh, was wondering how you got your mane to do that. Does it just take time to develop, or is there a spell involved?”
The pony glanced at her fantastic hair, which turned on its own like a spiral galaxy, before looking back down at her smaller counterpart and smiling.
“I’ve been borrowing Luna’s conditioner actually. You should ask about it when you get home.” She finished with a wink.
Finally, Twilight thought, one of the great mysteries of the universe has been solved.
The grand mare waited, but it seemed that Twilight had no more major concerns for the moment. Sitting up straight in her chair, she fixed the princess with another piercing gaze.
“Now, I have a question for you. You’ve shown an incredible amount of bravery today, as well as a penchant for rule breaking. You may be new to us, but you now know more about the Census than some who have worked here for years. Those are traits that we would rather have working for us rather than against us in the future.”
“What are you saying?” Twilight asked, though she thought she could see where this was headed.
“I would like for you to become an official employee of the Census; not just a member, but an active part of our everyday operations. You would serve as an agent under the security board, answering to 2K in particular. She would set tasks for you to complete, such as tracking down potential security threats and patching them up before they become a problem. You would be compensated for your efforts generously. When not on a task you would be able to pursue research opportunities like any other member of the Census, of course. Do you accept?”
The lavender mare sat back in her chair, considering her options. Her day in the Census had been equal parts exciting and infuriating, and yet she felt a distinct sense of satisfaction having made an impact on such a massive organization. This position would let her do more like that, and would mean spending more time working with 2K. The mare who had nearly collapsed coming out of the oaken doors this morning would have hesitated and stammered, but Twilight was not that mare any longer.
Fire burning in her eyes, she proclaimed loudly, “I accept! I think that I can do a lot of good around here, and I want to help make the Census a better place for all Sparkles.”
The other two women in the room beamed at this announcement. 2K started blathering on about how much fun this would be and how she was so excited to have a pony intern who could get her coffee now. The Grand Secretariat shot her a stern look before opening a drawer and levitating out a small, watch-like token.
“We’re glad to have you onboard 4T. Here is your transfer key, the item that allows you to get in and out of the Census pocket dimension. You would have been given one at the end of the orientation tour, but as it concluded several hours ago you can take this one from me instead. Don’t lose it, it also serves as a way for 2K or myself to contact you when there is work that needs to be done.”
Twilight took the key and wrapped the straps around her foreleg. The binding was sturdy and the magical fastener clicked in a satisfying way, giving Twilight the impression that it would not slip off by accident.
“For your first assignment, you will be working Census duty to help pay off the damages you caused this afternoon. This will also help you learn our protocol and give you experience dealing with our members at their most troublesome state. You should head home and take care of any business you might need to attend to, then get a good night’s sleep. We don’t want to be dozing on the job, do we?”
Twilight sighed but accepted the punishment with grace. Recalling that it had been breakfast when she had left, and that time moved very slowly while inside the Census, she hoped that the day would pass without incident. Starlight would be gone for the week visiting her old village with Trixie, so that would give her plenty of free time to put her hooves up. Hopefully she wouldn’t get tied up in any end-of-the-world scenarios in the near future.
Exhaustion finally catching up with her, Twilight let out a huge yawn before hopping off of the chair and heading for the door. She had the handle in her grasp when the other alicorn spoke one last time.
“Oh, I almost forgot!” The drawer was re-opened and another item was floated over to her. “Here is your complementary bookmark.”
Twilight accepted the gift and, with a final wave to both of her bosses, she left the office and began trekking towards the atrium and the exit portals.
2K walked over and closed the door behind her. Waiting a few moments to ensure that they would not be overheard, she turned back to the grandiose alicorn and asked the question she had been holding back.
“So, with the Hazard Wing out in the open now, does that mean we’re finally going to deal with you-know-what?”
“Yes.” The mare nodded at her bipedal counterpart. Reaching for a drawer on the bottom of the desk, she punched in a combination and the lock clicked. Pulling it open, a loosely bound stack of papers was visible inside. “When other Sparkles find out about it there will be no end of difficult questions posed, and right now we don’t have the answers for any of them. It’s time to deal with the elephant in the room, and no, I don’t mean 7G from logistics.” She took the contents of the drawer and slapped them down upon the desk.
The human girl walked forward, looking with worry at the thick document. ‘Classified’ notices dotted most of the hot pink cover, along with a warning that the information within pertained to a tier-5 hazard. Turning to the first page, she read the introductory sentence: