The Sparkle Census

by Skyward Shoe


Chapters


Chapter 1 - Name

“Name?”

Twilight Sparkle jumped at the noise. Moments ago she had found herself enveloped in a brilliant white light, which had left her vision a little blurry and her hooves unsteady. She sat down to avoid falling over, giving her head a little shake in an attempt to throw off her disorientation. When she opened her eyes she found herself standing not in her castle’s dining hall but in a small, square room. Gritty, beige tiling ran across the floor beneath her hooves, while green-and-white striped wall paper adorned the distant walls. The reassuring smell of ink hung in the air, calming the mare enough to make a response.

“Where am I, how did I…” Twilight began.

“Your name please, miss,” an oddly familiar voice cut her off from above.

The purple pony looked up to address the speaker, “Sorry, I’m just a little uncertain how I-”

This was as far as Twilight got before her mind was forced to contend with a new source of bewilderment. Standing in front of her behind a raised wooden podium was a young alicorn mare with a lavender coat, an indigo mane, and brilliant purple eyes. Granted, the mane was wrapped into a tight bun and the eyes were behind a pair of reading glasses, but the mare in question was still unmistakably Twilight Sparkle, a prospect which left the normally loquacious Princess of Friendship grasping for words. As she grappled with the impossibility of her current situation, the mare at the podium set down her quill and looked her in the eye.

“Please miss, I’m on a tight schedule. I need a name to put on your form before you can proceed to the next step in the process.”

Language failed Twilight (the one whose brain was quickly being reduced to oatmeal, not the calm, collected one who was now patiently staring at her clipboard) for several seconds before she blurted out, “But… you’re ME! How can you not know my name? Furthermore, why are there two of me, and how did I get here? The last thing I remember is reading through my mail at breakfast before I was… I was….” Twilight paused to catch her breath and perform her signature breathing technique, noticing as she did so that said mail was still clutched in her front-right hoof.

The mare at the podium gave a brief sigh before responding. “You are here because you received the council’s summons requesting your participation in the census. Relevant information can be found enclosed within your summons.”

The other Twilight adjusted her glasses with magic and picked her quill back up. “Now, I am required by law to record the given name of any and all valid participants. I have a quota to reach today, so if you would be so kind as to state your name for the official record?”

Steadied by the words “official record” and urged on by the growing impatience of her twin, she stated the words, “Twilight Sparkle.”

The secretarial Twilight scratched the point of her quill across the page before tearing it off the top of a stack of similar forms. Handing it over to the rather flustered princess, she directed her to an open door behind the podium. Twilight walked through the doorway, then turned to close it with her magic. Right before it closed she heard a muffled “Next!” shouted from behind, followed by a pop and several seconds of silence. Twilight headed for the door at the far end of the hall, listening as another familiar voice began to scream out questions from the room she had just departed.

Opening the door, Twilight entered into a more spacious chamber filled with chairs, lamp stands, and cabinets. The cabinets appeared to contain extra quills and ink; the lamp stands, lamps. It was the contents of the chairs, however, that were of prime interest to the young alicorn. Seated around the room were a dozen or so Twilight Sparkles. Some were filling out forms, others were reading letters, and others still were staring off into space with dumbstruck looks across their muzzles. Feeling a bit lightheaded, it took all that Twilight could muster just to waddle over a few feet and plop down into the nearest vacant chair.

This was turning out to be one of those kind of mornings, she decided.

After a few minutes of waiting, she turned to her left and opened her mouth to ask the mare sitting next to- no, to ask herself if she knew what was going on. Before she could utter more than a syllable however, the doppelganger interrupted her.

“Read the rest of your letter… and please, don’t talk to me right now. I need time to process this.”

Taken aback by her own bluntness, Twilight turned her attention to the envelopes in her hoof. The first was a rather hefty water bill (she took down a mental note to talk to Spike about his 7-hour bubble baths later.) The second was a political advertisement from Mayor Mare, reminding her that voting season was coming up and also decrying the environmental practices of her competitor, Filthy Rich. Finally, she found what she was looking for: a plain white envelope that had been sealed with a wax representation of her cutie mark. She vaguely remembered breaking the seal some minutes ago before finding herself in her current predicament. Removing and unfolding the document inside, the bookish princess began to read:  

This is a mandatory summons by the Inter-Universal Council of Sparkle.

You have been called upon to participate in a trans-dimensional census of all possible entities falling under the designation of “Twilight Sparkle.” Upon breaking the seal on this envelope, you will be teleported into pocket dimension 5P-4RKL3. Please follow any and all instructions given by workers during the registration process. After registration is complete you will be returned to your home dimension with a token that can be used to return to this pocket of reality at any time, as well as a complimentary bookmark. We will contact you again if any additional information is required, or if you have been selected for census duty.

We thank you for your cooperation in ensuring the efficiency of this operation.

Twilight Sparkle

Designation: DB-9K>Z

Grand Secretariat of Equine Resources


Thoughts raced through Twilight’s brain, battling for supremacy. Finally, one emerged victorious and made it into her conscious mind: How could a council of alternate versions of herself have been stupid enough to have the spell activate upon breaking the seal instead of after reading the letter!? She groaned as she read it over a second time, trying to wrap her tired and caffeine-deprived mind around her current circumstance.

So flustered was she that she hardly noticed when another distraught lavender pony wandered into the room and sat down next to her. The new arrival turned her head with a questioning and desperate look, but before she could make as much as a peep Twilight raised a hoof to the mare’s mouth and mumbled, “Please… just read your letter. I can’t even explain this to myself right now, let alone to somepony els- I mean… forget it.”

The identical pony jerked back in surprise, then, with the resigned look of an alicorn princess stuck in a room full of herself, she pulled out a beige envelope of her own and fell into thoughtful silence.


Chapter 2 - Paperwork

One hour later, Twilight was staring listlessly around the room. In that hour she had learned many important things. Firstly, she had learned that the green-and-white striped wall paper actually had little books and hearts embossed on it if one looked closely enough. She had also learned that the inkwells in the nearby cabinets were self-refilling, and that tipping one out onto the floor could have disastrous consequences. Immediately after that she had learned where to find a mop. Most importantly however, Twilight Sparkle had learned that there existed written words that even she, the veritable ‘Princess of Books’ herself, could not enjoying reading. The forms she was supposed to be filling out sat abandoned at her side, and the young mare was trying desperately to focus on anything else.

Twilight slumped her head down on her hoof with a sigh and took to watching the other inhabitants of the waiting room. The scene before her would have been exceedingly mundane if not for the fact that roughly half of the chairs in the room were occupied by the exact same purple pony. Most of the occupants sported the same look of frustration and tedium that the deflated princess bore, though a few of the new arrivals looked rather perplexed by the bizarre nature of the situation. Twilight had watched five or six more Sparkles wander in through the door since she had arrived, each one eventually settling down to work on the forms she had brought with her.

Shifting her gaze to the far end of the room, Twilight stared once more at the receptionist’s desk, where sat a content looking copy of herself with a little silver badge pinned to her shoulder. Every so often, another Twilight would stand up and hand her clipboard over to the secretary before proceeding around the desk and down the far hallway. Twilight had gotten up at one point and had begun to walk around the desk, but the stern look she received from the receptionist was enough to send her back to her chair with her head held low. She wondered if this was how Spike felt whenever she reprimanded him? Teleportation had come to mind as a possible way out of this predicament, but before she could try it a harried and wild-eyed Sparkle had appeared in a flash of light, asking what day it was before passing out in the corner. This had driven all thought of escape out of her weary mind, leaving only one option: completing the paperwork.

Twilight willed herself to return to the task at hand. Certainly it hadn’t been all bad so far; filling out her address, height, weight, and other facts about herself had all been easy enough. The short summary of her life had even been quite enjoyable to recount. Upon reaching the preferences section however, progress had ground to a halt.

“What is your favorite color?” The aggravated mare grumbled to herself, quietly enough so that no other pony in the room whom she might consider ‘herself’ could hear. The subjectivity of the question exasperated her to no end. She had spent the past 15 minutes or so (it was hard to be sure, as there were no clocks in the room and no guarantee that time worked the same way in this pocket of reality) trying to come up with an objective argument for one color over another, but try as she might she could not come to a logical conclusion. She had briefly considered taking a peek at the form that the next Twilight over was filling out, but the very thought of cheating on a test made her sick to her stomach, even if it was technically from ‘her’ own paper. With a resounding sigh, the young alicorn finally submitted and picked a color. Bringing her quill tip to rest along the page she scratched out a single-word answer:

“Purple.” She mumbled.

Feeling distinctly uncreative, she flipped over the page and continued onward through the muddy waters of subjectivity.

As she progressed through the list, Twilight began to have misgivings about the intelligence of her alternate universe counterparts. After finally coming to a conclusion on the section detailing per capita defeat of major and/ or minor villains, she was now required to give an estimate on her total magical output over the last six months. For an alicorn who used magic for everything from major battles with otherworldly foes to lifting a teacup while out to lunch with friends, this was an impossible statistic to track from memory. Steaming from the ears and deciding that this was more than enough frustration for a Thursday morning, Twilight approached the receptionist’s desk and cleared her throat.

“Have you finished your registration forms ma’am?” The look-alike receptionist asked, a chipper note to her voice.

“Actually, I had a few concerns regarding question 27-B sub-section 3,” Twilight began, her voice dripping with the formality and presumption of an academic veteran, “You see, due to the inconsistent nature of thaumic drain while manipulating objects via telekinesis, it is impossible to make an accurate assessment of my total magical output without having spent the past several months actively tracking the fluctuations. This question, then, simply cannot be accurately answered at this time, wouldn’t you agree?” She raised one eyebrow for good measure, hoping to have adequately flustered her smarmy doppelgänger.

The lavender mare’s expression stayed perfectly calm as she replied, “That’s fine dear, we’re not expecting an exact measurement. Just an estimate.”

Annoyance kicked in once more. “Yes of course, but without any form of tracking how am I to begin answering this? To get even a ballpark figure I’d need several weeks of data to parse through!”

“Just do your best ma’am.” The receptionist replied in a chipper tone.

“But I…”

“Just do your best.”

Twilight stared daggers at her mirror image. The amicable façade, forged in the fires of a thousand exasperated pony princesses, showed nary a crack. She decided to change her approach.

“Is there somepony else I could talk to about this?” she asked with as much authority as she could muster.

“No.” The receptionist stated with an element of finality.

After a moment of consideration, it occurred to Twilight that phrasing was going to be important in her immediate future.

“Is there some-Twilight else I could talk to about this?” she tried again.

“Yes. I can arrange a meeting for you with the head of the registration committee if you are interested?”

“That would be perfect, thank you miss…”

“Sparkle.” The receptionist deadpanned.

“Right.” Twilight waited as her twin penned a short memo, which she dropped into a small chute labelled ‘Out-Spike.’

“The committee member will be available to see you in her office in about an hour. Now, if there is nothing else please return to your seat.”

Twilight sat down with a triumphant grin spreading across her muzzle, confident that she would be able to find an answer during her meeting. Looking about the room, she noticed that several of the ponies who had arrived before her were staring her way. One of them was even giggling into her hoof. Looking back down at her paper and then back towards the receptionist, it dawned on her that unless she quickly finished the form she would not be able to leave for the scheduled meeting, running the risk of being…

“Tardy.” Twilight whispered shrilly, a chill running down her spine. The giggling duplicate caught her eye, and Twilight saw that she now had a broad smirk on her face.

“She got another Sparkle with that one just a few minutes before you showed up. Better get cracking, Smarty-Pants.” She said in a sing-song voice, vaguely reminiscent of a certain pink pony.

Feeling a mixture of panic at the possibility of being unpunctual and irritation at her alternate self’s levity, she jotted down short answers for the remaining few questions. Replacing her ink and quill, she approached the desk for a third time. The Twilight who had passed out in the corner stirred as she crossed the room, mumbling something under her breath that sounded disturbingly like “Quesadillas.” Quickening her pace, Twilight dropped off her clipboard and was finally allowed to pass the desk and into the hallway.

At the far end of the hall she passed through another door into the smallest room so far, this one circular and hardly 3 meters in diameter. She spied a set of large oaken doors in front of her, but before she could investigate the door behind her shut with a click, locking her inside. Looking around the small space, Twilight noticed that the tiling in the center of the floor had been set in the starburst shape of her cutie mark. A plaque at her hooves directed her to stand on it until the ‘Tagging’ process was complete. Hesitantly, she stepped out onto the center of the floor and waited.

A few moments passed in silence before Twilight felt it: a powerful magical aura was forming from below, keeping her hooves locked to the ground. She struggled at her bonds to no avail as the aura grew stronger, threatening to overwhelm her senses. The entire world seemed to shake as powerful waves of energy passed through her body. Reaching its crescendo, Twilight gasped as she felt an incredible magical-emotional surge wrack her body, as if the power surrounding her was writing upon her very soul. As quickly as it started it was over, leaving the lavender mare feeling woozy, off-balance, and undeniably, unmistakably certain that her designation was MR-4T^W. She had no idea where this string of symbols had come from or why they applied to her, but it was as clear to her as Celestia’s blue sky that this was the case.

Hearing the lock click open in front of her, Twilight staggered forward out the great oaken doors. The bright light disoriented her for a moment, obscuring her view. Putting a foreleg above her eyes, she let out a gasp at the sight sprawling out before her. After sitting in a room with a dozen of herself for the better part of the morning, Twilight had felt prepared for anything she might see. Amongst her feelings of astonishment and wonder was a tinge of annoyance at being wrong about that.

A veritable sea of purple and indigo washed through the grand hall before her, as Twilight Sparkles trotted and flapped in every direction. An archway reared above her, with a single word etched onto its marble surface: 'Atrium'. Awed at the size of the spacious room and overwhelmed by the vast herds of herself, one very important question swam to the surface of the poor mare’s befuddled brain:

“Where am I going to find a little filly’s room in all of this?”


Chapter 3 - Atrium

Twilight Sparkle traipsed her way through the grandiose chamber, parting the waves of indigo and lavender that brushed against her on either side. Her many analogues trotted hither and thither across the great wooden floor, most appearing unconcerned about the peculiar nature of the situation. The current Princess of Friendship, and soon to be Princess of Headaches if she didn’t find a coffee in the near future, was impressed that in a room containing thousands of herself there was not one pony freaking out or causing a scene. While her first sight of the vast atrium full of Sparkles had nearly caused her to pass out, she was beginning to appreciate what a unique opportunity it was to study herself from an outside perspective, especially with so many data points to work with! She would have to get a notebook and start writing down her observations.

After she took care of one very important piece of business.

Extending her wings, she waited a moment as other nearby Sparkles gave her a wide berth before taking off and hovering a few meters above the ground. She had picked this behavior up from other Twilights, observing as they signaled and gave other Sparkles time to move.  Twilight found this accommodating social custom a breath of fresh air after having experienced countless impromptu close-quarter takeoffs in her hometown, courtesy of Rainbow Dash. Now able to see over the mass of mares, Twilight took in a 360º view of her surroundings, searching frantically for her current objective. Behind her were a number of oaken doors similar to the ones she had exited from. As she watched a pair of doors opened, depositing a light-headed pony onto the doorstep before snapping closed once more. Curiously enough the Twilight who stepped into the room was a unicorn, not an alicorn like herself. Glancing about below her airborne hooves, she noticed that not all of the mares in the room were exact duplicates. A number of unicorn Twilights wandered through the mix, and even the occasional earth pony. Looking back up, Twilight noticed a number of her winged sisters lacked horns, and she thought that she might have seen a purple griffon out of the corner of her eye.

Building pain and pressure brought her back to the task at hand. She began zipping around the massive, elliptical room, gleaning a few glares from other airborne Sparkles. Above her stretched a massive skylight that lit the entire space. The stores on the far side of the atrium were too distant to see clearly, but she did notice a large obelisk near its center. Hastily soaring over, Twilight found a few hundred of herself standing or hovering around the structure, which upon closer inspection was a monumental directory. While immensely curious about every nook and cranny of this astonishing locale, finding one particular location had priority over everything else at the moment.

“Come on, come on!” The purple pony whined in distress, beginning to dance about in midair. Recognizing this trans-universal sign of a dangerously over-extended bladder, a pegasus whispered in her ear that there was a restroom at a nearby Hayburger, pointing towards the nearest wall. With a squeaky thank you, Twilight accelerated off towards the restaurant and straight into the filly’s room.

A few minutes later, Twilight found herself sitting on a stool eating an order of hay fries. This particular ‘herself’ looked friendly enough, and deciding that she needed to relax for a moment she joined her lunching counterpart. Trying to take her mind off of the fact that there had been a stallion’s room in the facility, she turned to her likeness and struck up a conversation.

“So… come here often?” she asked awkwardly.

The identical mare looked away from her fries and smiled. “You know, if I didn’t know myself so well I’d have thought you were trying to hit on me.”

Twilight blushed profusely, but before she could do more than blather incoherently for a moment she heard the other Sparkle chuckle amicably. “I’m just teasing. I get the feeling you’re a new arrival to the Census, huh?”

“Yeah, I just got here. Wait, how did you know that?” Twilight inquired.

“It’s the suppressed panic in your expression. All of the newbies have that look for the first couple of hours.” She dipped a fry into a large tub of ketchup before levitating it into her mouth.

“Oh… right.” Twilight mumbled.

“Hay, don’t worry about it,” she said through a mouthful of hay, “every Twilight goes through this at the start and nearly all of us get over it. If you're still having trouble later you should check out one of the ‘coping with anxiety’ classes offered over in quadrant 4. You can learn a lot more than just that old breathing technique that Cadence probably taught you.”

Twilight looked off in the direction that her double was pointing, straining her vision to see the various storefronts though the sea of purple.

“What else is in this place?” She asked, “I didn’t get a lot of time to look at the directory before rushing to use the bathroom.”

“Oh there’s a lot to see and do around here: Cafes, Hayburger joints, quill emporiums (just quills, no sofas), and study rooms for when you need some quiet. There are a lot of great seminars to attend as well; I’m heading to one on advanced checklist management in a few minutes.”

She took a quick sip of her soda as her eyes lit up with glee. “Oh, and of course there are tons of bookstores. There are probably more of those than everything else combined. Why do you think there are so many of us wandering around? Trick question, it’s the bookstores.”

Twilight marveled as she looked out at the far walls. “This place sounds like a paradise.”

“Heh, yeah, though you won’t be saying that after an eight hour shift on census duty. I thought my mane was going to catch on fire during my last shift directing new arrivals. Um, no offense.”

“None taken, I can’t imagine I was making things easy for anyone this morning. Do we have mornings here?” she added.

“The artificial light coming through the skylight changes on a rough day-night cycle that you learn to keep track of, but otherwise time doesn’t flow normally here in relation to your own world. When you get back you’ll find that almost no time has passed.”

“Great, so when I get home I’ll be tired and have a headache at 7 AM.” Twilight grumbled.

“You should grab yourself a latte before you head over to orientation. The staff here are super helpful and everything is payed for by the Council… from our taxes of course.” She finished with a roll of her eyes. “Oh, the entry to the orientation hall is at the near end of the atrium, not too far from here. You should head over soon and catch a tour.”

“Thanks, though I actually have a meeting coming up with the Head of the Registration Committee, so the tour will have to wait.”

“The Head of the Registration Committee, huh?” Her lookalike spoke sardonically and acquired a mischievous grin. “I remember meeting her when I first showed up a few months ago. Make sure to give her my regards.”

She gave Twilight a wink, leaving the lavender mare flummoxed. “You’ll find her office in the same area, and there should be adequate signage. My seminar is starting so I need to be off. It was nice meeting you Miss Sparkle.”

She reached out for a hoof shake. Twilight took it, and upon making contact she abruptly became aware that this Twilight’s designation was LT-7Q&D. The other mare got up from her stool and turned to leave. She stopped in the doorway and looked back towards the counter.

“Waiter, can you make sure that Miss Sparkle receives an iced choca latte before she leaves?”

“Yessiroonie, boss lady ma’am!” A remarkably chipper voice cried from the back room. There was a brief grinding and the sound of sloshing liquid before a door opened behind the counter, revealing a delectable looking blend of coffee, chocolate, and creamer, as well as a bright pink earth pony.

“Pinkie Pie!” Twilight gasped. It had been over an hour since she had seen a pony that wasn’t her in some capacity or another, making the bubblegum mare stand out even more than usual.

“Biya Twilight!” She cried as the duplicate left the restaurant. “Hiya Twilight! Enjoy the latte!” She repeated with equal glee, as if she hadn’t seen her mere moments ago.

“What are you doing in here? I thought it was only me in this world?”

“Well of course it’s not only you, silly! There are thousands of ponies in here every day! There’s Twilight, Twilight, Twilight, Ms. Sparkle, Mrs. Sparkle, the occasional Mr. Sparkle, tiny Twilights, big ginormous Twilights with crazy flowy manes, griffon Twilights, manticore Twilight (I’m pretty sure I’ve only seen one of those so far), and YOU of course, the very newest Twilight Sparkle in this fine establishment! Well, except for that one of course.” Pinkie pointed at a new Twilight Sparkle who had just walked inside, and who looked equally surprised to be seeing Pinkie here. Before she could begin the conversation over, however, another Pinkie Pie came out of the back room with a plate of hay fries and engaged the new arrival.

The first Pinkie gave her co-worker a wink before returning to her charge. “The ‘Intra-Somethingal Collection of Sparkley Ponies Named Twilight’ contacted me and asked if I wanted to make a few extra bits while helping out a friend. I yelled ‘Sign me up!’ and I ended up here a few moments later, making hay burgers and shakes for hungry Twilights! After a few hours on shift I usually end up back home with a big bag of bits. No one ever notices that I’ve been gone and all of the clocks are always wrong, which is kind of rude but I got used to it. I can’t stay mad at those clocks.”

Twilight stared at her friend for a moment before doing the most logical thing she had done all day: taking a long, steady sip of her coffee. It occurred to her that the Pinkie she knew often talked about her job at the Hayburger, yet she had never actually seen the mare working at the one in Ponyville. The inexplicable amount of party supplies she could afford while working part-time at a bakery also came to mind. Deciding that the last thing she needed to be doing right now was trying to unravel the mysteries of Pinkie Pie, Twilight shrugged and went back to sipping her much-needed beverage.

Still a bit confused about the passage of time, Twilight decided it was best to be off so as not to miss her meeting. She thanked the Pinkie behind the counter for the drink and received an impassioned goodbye from both of the ones on shift. Turning back towards the entry doors, she spotted a large hallway leading off from the main room. The word ‘Orientation’ was spelled out above it in arching blue letters. Approaching the hall, she noticed a smaller door just off to the right with a small sign next to it that read  ‘Office of Head of Registration Committee This Way.’ Happy to have had something go right today, Twilight pulled it open and stepped inside.

Following the door was a long and twisting corridor. After the first ten turns without seeing another door, or anything aside from the same tacky wallpaper, Twilight began to get annoyed. Everything else about this world had been quite practical in its design so far, but this passageway seemed to follow no logic at all, as if it had been designed purely to frustrate and disorient her. After several minutes of meandering she finally came to a highly polished and important looking black door. Steeling herself for a conference with a prestigious member of the Census, Twilight turned the handle with her magic and walked through the door with her head held high. She looked around with wide eyes, expecting to see immaculate furniture surrounding a pristine wooden desk, behind which would sit a well-groomed and professional looking Twilight Sparkle.

What she saw instead was the Orientation Hall.

Bewildered once more, Twilight turned her head right and found herself looking back out into the Atrium that she had so recently departed. Turning left, she saw a group of about twenty purple mares gathered a little way down the passage. There was a clatter of hooves as the head of the group came up to meet her. She was wearing a friendly smile across her muzzle but was also clearly trying her hardest not to roll her eyes.

“Hello Ms. Sparkle. If you’re done meeting the ‘Head of the Reconciliation Consensus’ we can proceed with the orientation.”

The guide took a few steps before the sound of a sputtering motor caught her attention. Turning back, she saw smoke pouring out of the ears of a stalling alicorn princess. As a few cylinders came back online and managed to begin pumping fuel to her brain, Twilight broke the silence.

“You… you mean the Head of the Registration Committee?” She muttered meekly.

The guide smiled kindly as she addressed the poor mare. “Yes, of course dear. Now come along, we have a lot to go over.”

As the guide pony returned to her group and began speaking, Twilight stared onwards blankly. After a few moments of contemplating just how thoroughly she had been duped, the newly-crowned ‘Princess of Gullibility’ downed the rest of her coffee in one big gulp, sighed in resignation, and begrudgingly followed the crowd.


Chapter 4 - Orientation

A small herd of equines wandered down the arched corridor, their amethyst coats shimmering in the glow of incandescent light. Heads, horned and hornless alike, turned left and right as they marched onward, engaging in casual conversation with their peers. At the head of the pack walked an official-looking pony, identical to the others in most every way except for the silver ‘Orientation Leader’ pin stuck to her left shoulder. She smiled as she addressed her followers, enticing them with promises of the fascinating time they would have today, learning about the facilities and meeting with important members of the staff. A few mares let out squeals of excitement, while others were chatting animatedly about theories that they had been working on since their arrival. All were equally eager to continue on with what had been an unusual, yet highly enjoyable day so far.

All except for one rather frazzled alicorn, who was hanging near the back and muttering synonyms for ‘Frustration’ under her breath as she walked.

This particular Twilight Sparkle, amongst the twenty or so who made up present company, was in an especially sullen mood. She had not appreciated the trick that had been played on her in order to ensure that she ended up at Orientation on time. She had fully intended to take part in the tour, and putting her punctuality into question was a stinging insult. None of the other Sparkles in the group appeared to have suffered the same embarrassing fate, which made the princess feel ostracized and even grumpier than before. She simply could not understand why a council comprised of alternate-universe variants of herself had to stoop to such underhanded tactics. She had never been dishonest in her approach when dealing with her friends or neighbors.

Well, discounting the time that she had enchanted her old doll with an attraction spell in the hopes of creating, and subsequently solving, a friend’s problem. But that had been an isolated incident, really.

Despite her annoyance, Twilight Sparkle was still a pony of higher learning, and she was not about to let a little irritation get in the way of absorbing as much information as she could about this strange new world. The academic in her had boundless questions about the history and structure of the building she had spent her day in. Did the pocket dimension end at the walls of the building, or extend further to form some sort of exterior space? What had her counterparts managed to accomplish so far, and how might it impact her own studies on magic and friendship? Had the ultimate book-reading position been determined, or was it still one of life’s greatest mysteries? Itching for answers, she attempted to put her grievances aside before catching up with the herd. The leader came to an abrupt stop at an intersection of four hallways, standing below a bronze plaque which hung suspended from the ceiling.

“Hello every-Twilight, and thank you for taking the time out of your busy day to learn about our prestigious organization!” The leader gave a well-practiced smile to her attentive cluster of listeners. Twilight couldn’t help but roll her eyes at that; as if it had been her choice to come here. She re-focused, trying to ignore her lingering resentment.

“Since its inception, the Census has strived to connect Sparkles from across the multiverse; to better our understanding of ourselves, and to better the worlds we call home. The data we collect serves to benefit each of us by tracking trends across a near-infinite span of dimensions and timelines.”

“Near-infinite or truly infinite?” a pony near the front inquired, hoof held aloft.

“Heh, now isn’t that a hot topic? The jury is still out I’m afraid, though I hear arguments back and forth each day for one side or the other. If you wait until the end of the tour I can give you more information about the debate halls.”

Clearing her throat, she continued, “Over the next few hours, we will be visiting many of the departments and facilities that make up the Census, as well as exploring the relationship between you, the individual Twilight, and the greater assemblage of Sparkles. If you look above me you can see our motto, “Ex Pluribus, Scientia.” This plaque serves as a reminder of our promise: to work in unity and to follow the scientific process in the pursuit of our goals.”

After giving the group a moment to admire the shining bronze plaque, the head Twilight broke the silence once more, “Now, if you will follow me, we can begin the tour proper.”

The herd began to saunter down the left-side hallway. While still sulking a bit about her earlier treatment, Twilight was eager to see what was in store for her as she followed the amaranthine assembly of her analogues onward.

*     *     *     *     *

Little though she wanted to admit it, Twilight was impressed. The operations that the Census oversaw were as grandiose as they were numerous, ranging from committees discussing theories and hypotheticals to departments dedicated to more practical matters. A bureau known as Friendship Problems Interdimensional had caught her attention in particular. One of the oldest organizations within the Census, it had started as a means for the various princesses and students of friendship to share their experiences, helping Sparkles prepare for problems they may not have encountered yet. Lessons and letters were pinned across the many walls, a few of which were very similar to ones she had written herself in correspondence with Celestia. She made a mental note to cross reference her own friendship reports with the ones on display, a practice that was strongly encouraged amongst members.

Upon entering the research wing Twilight had gone slack jawed. Her eyes feasted on the vast array of scientific equipment and alchemical apparatus, a few pieces of which she had never seen before. It had taken a few minutes to coax her from her stupor and back out of the laboratory, along with several other overwhelmed mares. She had been assured that the labs were available for free usage at any hour of the day, and also that the drool stains she had left would most certainly come out of the carpet.

The Census also offered various utilities that its members could make use of. The Department of Spike Services would keep an eye on any #1 assistants while their guardians were at work. Some Spikes also worked full time in the facility, delivering mail or performing other small but necessary tasks. Though the Census was primarily for the Twilights of the multiverse, it wasn’t uncommon to see a little purple dragon scampering by on some duty or another. There had also been a run in with an alternate Rainbow Dash, who was visiting to participate in an experiment. She had tagged along with the tour for a bit, bragging about how, “even the collective eggheads of the universe can’t produce a sonic rainboom on their own.”

Nearly two hours had passed and the tour was nearing its conclusion. Twilight had managed to get most of her major questions answered thus far, but she was coming up with new ones at an even faster rate. There was just too much to see here for one pony alone to comprehend. She felt as though she would need a thousand pairs of eyes to soak all of it in.

While considering the ethical implications of inserting cameras into her counterpart’s retinas, Twilight spotted something unusual with her own. A small group of Sparkles were gathered around an open doorway further down the hall, and they were making quite a racket. Several of her twins looked quite angry, and one of them looked distinctly disheveled with her mane sticking out at odd angles. As the group came closer Twilight glanced onto the room through the large windows, but heavy metal shutters blocked her view inside. The tour stopped, unable to move around the gathered ponies. A loud yell brought her attention to the front, and to one unicorn mare standing in the doorway in particular. Unlike her colleagues she was wearing a full lab coat with safety goggles, which were currently resting between her ears. Fuming, she began to address the crowd.

“Would you please let me speak! Look, I’m just as upset as the rest of you about this. This was MY project from the get go, so it’s hitting me hard personally to see it shut down.” She took a breath, regaining some of her composure. “I know how hard you’ve all been working, but I got an official cease & desist from The Council earlier today. I can’t even legally let any of you back in this room. I apologize for the inconvenience. Let me know if you left anything inside and I will retrieve it for you.”

“This is complete horse apples Z9! How can they shut us down after all of the progress we’ve been making? I did not volunteer to be exposed to lactose-based food products on a regular basis just to find out that it was all for nothing!” The unkempt Sparkle cried.

“I’m sorry J7, but this is completely out of my hooves. That last experiment was a disaster. You freaked out so badly that you teleported halfway across the facility through some reasonably powerful wards. You might have gotten badly injured, or worse, you could have hurt one of the new recruits in that waiting room in your panic. We’ve had too many incidents like this, and this one just happened to be the straw that broke the earth pony’s back. Now I’m sorry, but if there’s nothing anypony else needs I have to ask you all to leave.”

J7 still looked furious, but now with an added tinge of embarrassment. The other researchers began to clear out, allowing the tour group to pass. She shot one last look of indignation at her superior before turning aside, leaving the white-coated mare looking both annoyed and tired as she headed back into the lab. Trotting past the group, Twilight heard the frazzled mare mutter “That wasn’t my fault, I have no idea how that even happened.”

Twilight watched silently as J7 made her way down the hall and out of sight. Turning back, she found the group was a little way ahead of her, stopped around a grandiose statue of an alicorn. She began to step forward when the researcher re-emerged from the room and bumped into her. The flustered pony apologized brusquely, then set off past the crowd in search of a coffee. Twilight nearly completed her step this time before freezing up. Out of the corner of her eye, she noticed that the door to the shuttered lab had been left ajar. Her curiosity boiled as a battle of wills raged inside of Twilight’s mind. On the one hoof, sneaking into an off-limits part of the Census was something that a horrible, no-good rule breaker would do. It was her first day here and she would already have a black mark on her record. There probably wasn’t anything worth seeing anyway, it was just one lab out of the many available for her to legally visit. Nope, definitely not worth it.

On the other, the thirst for knowledge was a powerful drug. Twilight was dying to know more about what had gone on in this lab, and about what had gotten it closed down. She glanced over at the tour group and saw that the leader was heading deep into a historical lecture of some kind. As much as it pained her to miss out on history, this would be the perfect opportunity to slip away. Twilight knew that she could look up the statue later, while she might never get another chance to see what was in this room. It would only take a moment after all; nopony would even know that she had left.

Twilight took a few casual steps forward and then surreptitiously slipped through the open door, making sure to close it partially behind her. Turning around, she quickly took in its layout: It was a large, rectangular space with a series of desks placed breadthwise along the room. Beakers and chemistry equipment sat along one side, while the other held expensive looking machinery. Oddly enough, a small kitchenette was tucked away in the far corner. The desks had been cleared away from the center of the room, leaving an open space on the tile that bore some recent scorch marks. Stepping closer, Twilight felt her hoof sink into something gooey.

“Blech!” She cried, pulling away from the mess. There was a goopy brown pile of something on the floor in front of her. After giving it a very cautious sniff she was relieved, if a bit confused, to find that it was only refried beans. Wiping some of the muck off on the floor, she continued her search of the room.

Twilight began poking around the various devices. One she recognized as an EEG. A string of paper readings was still hanging off of the side, though Twilight didn’t have time to interpret them. A heating rack sat on one of the desks, along with a few serving trays, and otherwise the room looked fairly empty. Feeling a little underwhelmed, Twilight began to head back towards the door when she noticed a piece of paper sitting in waste bin. Unfolding it revealed it as a piece of formal stationary, addressed to a researcher. Listening intently for the sound of approaching hoof steps, she took it out and began to read.


To Senior Researcher HZ-Z9’ZA,

Upon recent inspection of your experiments involving universally shared phobias, it has been determined that your current facilities are inadequate. The sensitive nature of the data that your research is outputting requires it be kept confidential until the subject matter is more fully understood. We will be providing you with a more advanced laboratory where you may continue your investigations in private. Your previous staff should be informed that the project has been scrapped due to dangerous working conditions and then dismissed. Please report to the Hazard Wing at 1200 hours today for further instruction.

P.S. Make sure to promptly destroy this letter and not leave it sitting around like you did last time. I know you can get a little addlebrained when you’re stressed.

Sincerely, Grand Secretariat Twilight Sparkle


Both Twilight’s jaw and flanks had sunk to the floor while she was reading. She had known that the Census could be bureaucratic, and perhaps a little manipulative, but she had never expected them to be involved in anything nefarious. Why would her alternate universe counterparts need to keep information hidden from one another; weren’t they supposed to be working for the common good of all Sparkles? This kind of activity was what she expected from a secret organization in a Daring Doo novel. It occurred to her that, in such novels, the heroine would usually be ambushed by henchponies right after learning this kind of information.

Twilight suddenly felt very vulnerable sitting in an out-of-bounds room next to a confidential document. She hastily crumpled the paper and tried to make it look exactly like it did when she found it. Setting it in the bin, she began tip-hoofing back towards the door. The nervous mare was about halfway back across the room when the door opened, forcing her to crouch down behind one of the desks. Instead of the loud clatter of hooves that she had expected, however, she instead heard the soft patter of claws on the tile.

“Next on the list, clean bio-lab 0451.” A young, rough voice muttered to itself. “Figures, I’m always cleaning up after Twilight’s messes, even when they aren’t made by my Twilight. Ah well, a dragon’s work is never done.”

The sound of a sweeping broom and a whistling baby dragon masked the quiet tapping of Twilight’s hooves as she snuck out the door. Looking down the hall, she saw that the group had already moved on. Since the passage split off in two directions it was impossible for her to tell which way the tour had gone. Cursing herself for leaving in the first place, Twilight, once more, raised a foreleg to take a step down the hallway.

“Hey, hold on a second!” came a shout behind her. Heart racing, Twilight turned just enough to see that the Spike who had been cleaning was now out of the room and standing right behind her. Claws on his hips, he was fixing Twilight with a scalding stare. This was it, she had been caught.

Spooked and panicking over the potential consequences of her crimes, Twilight spread her wings and bolted down the left-side hallway. Uncertain if she was being pursued, the alicorn began taking rapid turns to try and shake them off. Noticing an elevator, she quickly ducked inside and slammed a random button. Twilight let out a huge sigh of relief as the doors closed and the box jerked upward, taking her away from danger and into unknown territory.

Spike stood in the hallway scratching his scaly head. “Honestly, she can be so weird some days.” The young dragon turned around and began cleaning up the line of brown, goopy hoof-prints that led back into the laboratory, muttering to himself about inconsiderate mares and the plight of the blue collar dragon.


Chapter 5 - Chase

Sitting on the cold metal floor of a rapidly ascending elevator, Twilight Sparkle pondered what she had discovered during her unauthorized investigation of the laboratory. She had been astonished by the revelation that the Census was lying to its own employees about its research. It was one thing to lose trust in a major organization that one was a part of, but quite another to lose trust in one’s alternate universe selves. She wondered what else might have been a deception; was the accident that had supposedly shut down the lab real, or was it set up to add legitimacy to the closure? Twilight wasn’t sure who could be trusted anymore, especially now that the Census knew that she had been snooping around.

The elevator clicked to a stop and the doors opened. A series of strange, guttural noises played out of the speaker, thankfully interrupting the slow, repetitive tune that had been boring into her skull. Twilight peeked her head out into the hallway, checking for guards. She found the corridor deserted, but something was off about its design. The ceiling was much higher than before while the width of the passage was skinnier, hardly wide enough to accommodate two ponies side by side. The walls were still plastered with the same tacky wallpaper however, so she figured that she must still be somewhere in the Census building. Taking one last look both directions, Twilight headed off to the right, hoping to bump into a directory of some kind. It wouldn’t be safe to head back down the way she came, and she needed to know where she had been dumped out in case she got lost.

After several minutes of wandering Twilight came across an open door. Inside was a small office filled with over-large furniture, including a desk, a chair, and, unsurprisingly, a bookshelf. Sitting next to the desk was a large metal box with several irregular holes in its side. Twilight recognized the device but couldn’t put her hoof on its name right now. Compiler perhaps? That would have to do. It was attached to another much thinner sheet of metal… or plastic? She couldn’t tell from a distance, but it was standing upright and glowing, which made it by far the more important of the two objects. Anything that glowed that brightly had to be magical. Twilight put her hooves up on the desk to take a closer look at the compiler’s glow-box. She remembered using one of these to do research on her first trip through the mirror to Canterlot High. Though she appreciated the compact nature of the machine, she preferred the smoothness of paper and the smell of ink too much to want such a device back home. She shuddered to think of the implications of these inventions making physical libraries obsolete.

Searching the desk, she found the little plastic paperweight that would let her control parts of the glow-box. Twilight was pretty sure that Ms. Cheerilee had called this the compiler’s ‘Chipmunk.’ Or was it ‘Rat?’ Maneuvering it carefully with her magic, she aligned the little arrow with an image of a fox wrapped around a globe and applied pressure, receiving a satisfying click in response. A multicolored box appeared, filling the space with text. Twilight was startled to find that she recognized neither the words nor the alphabet that they belonged to. Glancing down, she noticed that the keys on the compiler’s typewriter were also foreign. Looking back at the images on display, Twilight searched around until she found one that looked like a map. Clicking once more, she found herself looking at a mesh of white lines and gray boxes, with more unintelligible gibberish written all over.

“If this is supposed to show where I am in the Census then I am more lost than I had realized.” Twilight mumbled to herself.

The loud crack of shattering china made Twilight’s head whir ninety degrees to the left, nearly toppling the rest of her body out of the chair in the process. Standing in the doorway was a human girl who bore a striking resemblance to the Twilight who had been attending Crystal Prep Academy. The tea from her broken cup was seeping across the floor and into her shoes, and by the dumbstruck look on the girl’s face this particular Twilight Sparkle had never encountered a sapient pony before.

“Oh! Um… hi there! I’m sorry I barged into your office, I’m just a little lost and I was hoping to find a map. You wouldn’t happen to know the way to the atrium, would you?” Twilight smiled as she spoke, hoping to keep from causing a scene.

The human stared at the strangely proportioned horse for a few seconds before beginning to scream at the top of her lungs, gripping the doorframe to keep from falling over.

“Wait-no-stop!” Twilight yelled all at once, moving closer to her terror stricken counterpart. “I get that this is probably strange to you but can’t we talk about this civilly?”

The other Twilight responded to this request by falling over onto her back and beginning to hyperventilate. Twilight could hear footsteps crashing down the hallway in her direction and did the only sensible thing she could think of: run.

Galloping down the narrow passageway, Twilight began making turns at random to try to shake off her pursuers. She was much faster on the straightaways but had to slow down to make sharp turns. Heading down a hall at full speed, she was nearly blocked by another human Twilight who was exiting a bathroom. The girl yelled something unintelligible before flattening herself against the wall as a purple blur catapulted past her at Mach 1.

Rounding a few more corners, the panicking alicorn found that her pursuers had looped around somehow and were now coming at her from the front, forcing her to make a sharp left down a side hall to escape. A few raucous cries were shouted out from behind, but Twilight couldn’t recognize anything that was being said. She was lost, confused, and rapidly becoming dehydrated from all of the running, and the coffee she had downed hours ago was now sloshing around in her gut. Desperate to escape capture, she put on an extra burst of speed and rounded the next corner a little too quickly, losing her balance and tumbling right into a human who was coming from the other direction.

Dazed and still rather distressed, Twilight tried to right herself but found that she was tangled up in a long stream of soft, pink hair. Papers were fluttering down through the air around her as she lay on her back. The mare convulsed when a long pair of arms suddenly grasped her around the barrel, squeezing the air out of her already overtaxed lungs. The girl clutching her was letting out a steady verbal bombardment into her left ear, and while the words were still incomprehensible the tone was unmistakably that of sheer, unbridled joy. Twisting her neck round, Twilight saw the face of a girl enthralled with happiness.

“Fluttershy, is that you?” Twilight asked with what little air she had left.

“OCH JLAMONSTRAT ABACAT NOVAM SINGUPUEI ABTASH ELLANTEN–”

Twilight stared nonplussed as the girl continued to spit gibberish at a mile per minute. A group of human Sparkles came running around the corner, looking strapped for air themselves. Ignoring the mad-woman on the floor, one of them came over to Twilight and stuck a small, looping device over her right ear.

“–AND YOUR COAT IS SO SOFT AND YOUR MANE IS SO PRETTY AND OH MY GOODNESS I COULD JUST STAY LIKE THIS FOREVER!” The jubilant young woman finally had to come up for air herself, taking a deep breath before collapsing into a fit of ecstatic giggles. Twilight shifted into a loaf position, adjusting to the abrupt transition from nonsense to legible speech. The girl who had given her the translator seemed to be recovering quickly, while a few of the others were still gasping for air or pulling out inhalers.

“I know you couldn’t understand what we were saying earlier, so I’ll give you a quick re-cap: Stop! Wait! Slow down! Ugh, I really need to hit the gym more often!” The other Twilight panted out. Finally collecting herself, she reached down and tapped Fluttershy on the shoulder, who was still petting and hugging every inch of the princess that she could reach.

“Hey Shy, can I borrow my pony counterpart for a little while?”

“Oh!” The demure girl gasped. Her grip loosened as she stood up, her cheeks taking on a reddish hue. “I’m sorry, I got a little carried away there. I’ve just never seen the pony version of you before and it made me feel so, um… good.”

Fluttershy backed up against the wall and stared down at her shoes, unable to resist glancing back at the alicorn on the floor every few seconds. Twilight got back on her hooves and shook her mane out of her face. The human Sparkle yelled to her colleagues that they could go back to whatever they had been doing before. She then motioned for Twilight to follow her and they began making their way in reverse back down the route of the chase. Fluttershy gave a sad wave and a look of longing before picking up her dropped paperwork and heading off in the other direction.

“So what was that all about? I get that you didn’t have your translator but did you really need to go charging off like that?”

“Sorry,” Twilight began, “This is my first day here, and I got a little spooked when the other girl started screaming.”

“I understand; this was BB-5D¢T’s first day as well. Hopefully someone is helping her recover right now. Still, I suppose there are worse ways to be introduced to a Twilight of differing biology. My first encounter was with a large purple manticore whose first words to me were ‘Stay calm, I promise I’m not going to eat you!’”

The princess shuddered, making a mental note to learn which floor the Manticore Division was housed on so that she could never, ever visit it.

“So why do I need this translation device anyway?" she asked, "Whenever I’ve gone through the mirror in my world I can understand everything on the other side like I’ve lived there my whole life.”

“A lot of us who come from worlds with mirror connections have that question. We’re pretty sure that when the portal restructures our bodies it also implants into our minds an inherent understanding of the dominant language on the other side. These mirrors seem to exist largely to ease the transition between worlds, allowing for connections to be made immediately that might take years with the barriers of language and biology.”

“That’s fascinating.” Twilight said, her eyes widening. Despite her current suspicions about the morality of her new employers she still found information like this incredibly enticing.

“Indeed it is.” Her human counterpart fell silent for a time, allowing Twilight to follow alongside her in peace. The two eventually turned into another office, this one slightly larger than the previous one. This Twilight also had a compiler, but its glow-box was dark right now. The lavender mare wondered how humans powered these machines without horns. She sat down on the floor as the human Twilight shut the door and seated herself behind her desk.

“So, technically I’m supposed to be filling out an incident report right now, detailing why there was an equine Twilight rampaging through the proof-reading wing of the Human Division. I’m the supervisor for this department so I’d be the one held accountable.” She briefly pulled a large stack of papers out of a drawer before tucking them back inside. “Since it’s your first day however, and since there wasn’t any real damage done, I’m just going to talk to you about it and then we can pretend that this never happened.”

“Wait, really?” Twilight questioned, raising an eyebrow to a height that would have made Applejack proud.

“Really. That and I fill out enough paperwork as it is. So what brings you up from your own division in the first place?”

“Well…” Twilight began, trying to determine how much of the truth she should give away, “I was touring the various facilities on orientation when I got distracted by an experiment. By the time I came back to my senses the group had moved on, and I ended up wandering up here.”

“So you took an elevator? It doesn’t make much sense for an entire tour group to have taken a small elevator; it would probably have taken ten trips. For that matter, you could have asked anyone you bumped into if they had seen a group go by, or you could have been escorted back to the Equine Atrium to wait for them.” The human Twilight was giving her a knowing stare. It was clear to both girls that the foundation of the story had enough cracks in it to make a civil engineer cringe.

“The thing is… you see, I…” Twilight struggled to come up with a reason why she hadn’t taken any of these obvious routes in solving her problem.

“Look, I’m not writing any of this down. This is an off the record conversation and you won’t get in trouble for it. Speak your mind.” The human said.

Twilight gulped, taking a moment to compose herself. It seemed that her analogue would be able to tell if she was lying, so she might as well not make things worse for herself. “Ok… so I might have slipped away from the tour on purpose. I snuck into an off-limits laboratory to investigate, and when the cleaning crew discovered me I ran for it. I came up here trying to give the slip to anyone who might have been following me.”

“Wow… ok, before you go any further, you didn’t take or break anything that was in the room, did you?”

“No, I put everything back the way I found it.”

The other Twilight sighed in relief. “Ok, good. It would have been a lot harder to keep this hushed up if you had caused any property damage. I doubt that the cleaners will even care that you were in there, so you needn’t to worry about being tracked down by anyone.”

“So, you’re not going to tell the Council and send me to inter-dimensional space prison?” Twilight squeaked.

“Heh, definitely not. I’m pretty sure that doesn’t exist, and this was such a minor offense I doubt you would get more than a slap on the fetlock. I do have to ask though, why did you sneak away in the first place?”

Twilight relaxed a bit now that she knew that she wasn’t about to be gagged, shoved in a sack, and shipped off to a high security prison where she would never see her friends and family again. In retrospect, the odds of that happening weren’t very high, but that had never stopped her from blowing things out of proportion before.

Returning to the topic at hoof, Twilight informed her compatriot about all that she had seen and heard outside the bio lab: the argument between the lead researcher and her assistants, the equipment and food-related items in the lab proper, and finally the cryptic note from a Council member that had been left in the desk. The human girl’s eyes went wide when this part was reached, and her fingers immediately moved to the keys of her compiler’s typewriter. After a few frantic minutes of searching, she returned her gaze to the pony princess before her.

“I tried to find some information about the experiments in Equine Bio Lab 0451 in the database, but there is nothing there. They’ve already scrubbed all data related to it from the system. I’ve noticed missing data before, but I always attributed that to an accident or to a lazy researcher. I never expected that they were shutting down projects only to move them into the Hazard Wing.”

“What is the Hazard Wing exactly?” Twilight asked.

“It’s a high-security part of the Census. I know that everything done inside is classified, and that very few people are allowed in. Only the Council and involved researchers have clearance. They even have their own dedicated group of guards so that no information gets out.”

Twilight considered this for a moment and found that it made her angry. “Why are there even classified experiments in the first place? Shouldn’t we be sharing knowledge between researchers to check each other’s work? That’s just bad science to keep it locked away from everypony else!”

Her human counterpart looked uncomfortable for a moment before responding. “I do agree with you, but I also sort of understand the logic behind it.”

“Huh, what do you mean?” Twilight inquired, feeling perplexed.

“Not every Twilight in the multiverse is exactly altruistic Ms. Sparkle. It might be strange to hear, but there are some members of the Census who might use dangerous information for their own benefit, and to others detriment. That’s the reason that most members put up with the Hazard Wing’s existence: it’s accepted as a bit of a necessary evil to keep everyone safe.”

“But… but I would never do something like that! No version of me would” Twilight exclaimed.

“You might not, but despite how similar the other ponies you’ve met might seem they aren’t actually you. Every Twilight comes from a slightly different world, and their differing experiences shape them into who they are today.” The girl replied. “We are variations on a form Ms. Sparkle, not simple copies. There are some elements of our psychology that are mostly constant, such as our love of learning, but how those elements affect our behavior varies greatly. It’s part of the underlying reason that the Census works: if we were all exactly the same it would just be a giant echo chamber.”

Twilight considered all of the ponies, and humans for that matter, that she had met so far today and came to the conclusion that this was true. Every Sparkle had small differences that made her unique, even if they all looked very similar and spoke with the same voice.

“Your actions earlier prove this,” the girl continued, “your entire tour group saw and heard the same argument, but only you chose to investigate. Your average Twilight would have let her fear of getting into trouble overwhelm her curiosity and suspicion, while you overcame that difficulty. I’m actually a little impressed right now. We need more researchers with that kind of initiative.”

The lavender mare flushed at the unexpected praise. Getting back on track, Twilight asked, “So, what should we do with this information? I understand the reason for the secrecy, but it’s neither right nor scientifically sound to hide data away from everypony else. I don’t like that they are being lied to, and I don’t like the idea of the Council having that much power over the rest of us.”

“I agree, but we don’t exactly have much to go on right now. If we confronted the council about this they would just deny it, and then we’d both have to watch our flanks from here on out. Even if we had the note we can’t prove that it’s not a forgery.” The human Twilight said.

“So we’re just going to let them get away with it?” Twilight sighed in frustration.

“Hold your horses, I didn’t say that. This needs to be exposed, but we need more information first, otherwise we won’t be taken seriously. I have an idea about how we can find out more, but it’s going to require a lot more rule breaking on both of our parts. If it works though, we could change the Census for the benefit of everyone. Are you interested?”

Twilight hesitated; the prospect of putting herself back in harm’s way was not one that appealed to her. She could back out of the situation right now and head back downstairs, leaving the problem in more capable hooves, or hands to be more precise. This would be the most logical path, the safest path… and yet the more she tried to justify it the more wrong it seemed. There was a fire smoldering in her gut, one that had always been there but that now burned with newfound purpose. As she sat there, balancing on the line between idleness and action, Twilight came to a new understanding of herself. Some Twilights were meant to sit in a lab and uncover the secrets of physics, or friendship, or the Dewey-decimal system, but she was meant for more. She could unravel the truths that others had tried to hide, and bring forth knowledge that some didn’t want found.

Looking her human analogue in the eye, she responded with a strong, resolute voice. “I’m in. I want to uncover what’s really going on here, and I’m willing to do what is necessary to make that happen.”

The human girl smiled and nodded in approval. Pulling out a pen and several sheets of blank paper, she replied, “Alright then, let’s get this plan together. I’ll have to swing a few big favors, but with the number of papers I’ve edited for co-workers at the last minute that shouldn’t be a problem. First things first though, we’re going to need to put a camera in your eye.”

“Wait, what?” Twilight stammered.

“You want to get proof of what’s going on don’t you? We’ll need to be recording everything and we need to do it surreptitiously. Now hold still.”

It seems fate does have a sense of humor, Twilight thought to herself.


Chapter 6 - Hazard

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.


Chapter 7 - Publish

The Hazard Wing was in chaos. The Changeling Queen Sparkle was wreaking havoc on the facility, leaving entire labs in shambles. The upside of this was that it was very easy to keep track of where she had gone; the downside was that she had left a trail of disastrous experiments in her wake that Twilight was having to dodge around. Liquid rainbow was gushing down the hall from a broken pipe in the ceiling, stinging her hooves and legs as she splashed through it. Fires had broken out all over the place and guards were scrambling to put them out before they spread. Worst of all, a swarm of modified Parasprites had gotten free from somewhere, and they were now doing their best to eat the fur off of every creature that they could find. Twilight gave another one a zap with her horn, not slowing down in the pursuit of her foe. She was royally peeved; a day’s worth of connivance, bureaucracy, and far too much running fueled the rage in her heart. All thoughts relating to her previous plans had vanished; she was going to catch that prisoner and give her a piece of her mind, and maybe a piece of her hoof as well.

Coming around the bend, Twilight found that the checkpoint had been torn apart, leaving nothing but a hole where the magical doors had once stood. The griffon and unicorn guards were lying comatose on the floor. She checked them both for a pulse before turning towards the entryway. The cargo elevator was gone entirely, its doors ripped apart and cables snapped. Taking a breath to clear her head, Twilight unfurled her wings and took off up the shaft. The warm air rising from below provided lift for her wings to catch, rocketing her body skyward.

Spying a light further up the shaft Twilight furled her wings and slowed. A part of the wall had been blown open, providing her a place to land. The princess was forced to leap back into the air almost immediately as a crowd of Sparkles stampeded down the hallway.  Hovering over the mass of hysteric mares, she began making her way upstream towards the source of the panic.

The crowds had thinned out by the time she reached the atrium, with only a few stragglers cantering past. The massive expanse was eerily empty compared to earlier, with only a few guard ponies running or flying about. Hovering in the center of the grand atrium straight above the directory was the prisoner. The huge changeling threw her head back and laughed as several Sparkles aimed beams of offensive magic her way. All three blasts caught in midair and reflected back at their casters, forcing the guards the run for cover as the tile shattered under their hooves. Twilight ran forward to help, watching as the dark queen charged her horn with pulsating green magic. Before she had crossed half of the vast room the changeling let loose a magical shockwave that knocked the aerial guards to the floor, and then sent the grounded ponies tumbling back in a second blinding flash. When her eyes readjusted, Twilight saw that none were left standing and that the queen had turned her attention to a series of large portals along the far wall. Wings buzzing, she promptly flew over and began bashing at the blast shields with her hooves and magic. The metal began to buckle under the weight of her blows, but was holding better than anything else had so far. Twilight took this opportunity to extend her own wings and take off after her foe. Closing the gap, she let loose with a powerful magical attack. The queen turned and easily deflected the beam, forcing Twilight to spin out of its path. When she came to a stop the changeling was giving her a malicious grin.

“I must say, friend, your escape plan went flawlessly. Why, without your help I’d have been stuck in that little cell forever, and isn’t it so much more fun now that I’m free?” She gestured around the room at the smoke and the ruin.

“You awful fiend, you took advantage of my kindness!” Twilight shrieked, launching another volley of attacks. The queen smiled even wider as she dexterously blocked every shot.

“Why, you just looked so appalled when you walked into that prison. I simply had to do something to lift your spirits, and I thought that giving you a chance to rebel against the system would do the trick. Seems like it worked at any rate.”

Twilight dodged a retaliatory blast from her adversary while the latter continued speaking. “Thank you ever so much for the little snack earlier by the way. The pity dripping off of you was positively delicious, and more importantly it helped to refuel my magical reserves. Hay might fill the stomach but there’s nothing quite so delectable as raw emotion.”

“You horrid brute, I’m not letting you leave this room!” Twilight dived towards the changeling but was forced to doge by another powerful blast. She overcorrected and crashed onto the ground behind a broken pillar.

The queen rolled her eyes before turning back to the sealed door. “You’re adorable, but I really do need to get back to work before anyone who might pose an actual threat to me shows up.”

She began pounding away at the metal once more, leaving large dents in the magically reinforced steel plating. Twilight peeked around the rubble and aimed another blast from her horn, but it ricocheted off the queen’s shield and shattered a nearby light fixture instead. The changeling threw back her head and laughed with devilish mirth as the metal began to give way, revealing a spiral of pink energy through the cracks.

The Princess of Friendship bunkered down behind the broken column to think. Magical attacks had no effect, and there was no way she could get close enough to get a good buck in. The villainous Sparkle was moments away from breaking back out into the multi-verse, where she would be free to spread chaos and destruction. There had to be some other way to fight her, some weakness she could exploit.

Fighting her despair, Twilight performed her breathing technique to clear her mind, which jarred a memory. She had been sitting with another Sparkle in a Hayburger joint earlier that day when she’d last done that. Her twin had mentioned that a lot of Sparkles used this same breathing technique to keep calm. The researcher down in the Hazard Wing had also talked at length about how almost all Sparkles shared the same phobias. Different though she might be from her alternate universe counterparts, every Twilight still shared core universal traits. If she was going to keep the queen from breaking free, she needed to stop thinking of her as a monster and start thinking of her as herself. Stepping all the way out of the rubble and making herself visible, Twilight bellowed at the top of her lungs.

“Hey, you! Your research methodology is abysmal!”

The changeling’s hooves caught in midair as she was about to deliver the finishing blow to the door. She turned her head and gave Twilight a petulant stare through her matted locks.

“What did you just say to me, you little punk?”

“You heard me, your methodology is poor and your documentation is despicable. I bet you rebelled against the Census because when you showed the Council your dissertation they laughed and told you to start over!” Twilight raved, a manic grin on her face.

The queen had turned her whole body away from the door, looking furious and pawing at the ground. “That’s not true, you probably haven’t even read any of my work you little cretin! I could have published a stronger editorial in that cell than you could with all of the libraries of your universe at your disposal!”

“Are you kidding me? You couldn’t even get published in the Sunday comics let alone any minor scientific journal. Your data points are dubious at best and pull from obviously biased sources, and don’t even get me started on your grammar–”

Twilight was not able to get started on her grammar however, as the queen’s scowl had shifted to full blown indignation. Letting out a battle cry, she charged towards the princess with murder in her eyes. Spreading her wings, the alicorn took off towards the other end of the room, a loud buzzing in her ears from the insectoid wings of her pursuer. Twilight dipped and dived to avoid the barrage of green lasers that followed. Zig zagging across the atrium, she made her way towards the orientation hall, hoping to get them both lost in the maze of passages beyond. If help was available it would be coming from that direction, and Twilight hoped she might meet them halfway with the queen in tow. A hundred meters out from the archway, however, a massive thaumic blast caught her from behind, grazing her wing and sending her crashing to the floor. The shot went on to hit the orientation sign, causing the arch to collapse and block both her escape and any chance of reinforcements.

Rapidly getting back on her hooves, Twilight sprinted for the line of stores and restaurants along the nearest wall. The Hayburger was closest, so she barreled through the door with the queen hot on her heels. With only moments to hide, Twilight plunged into the kitchen and ducked down behind the counter. She tried to fit herself into the tight space, but was rebuffed by a large mass of pink hair. Staring out from the cramped nook was a very frightened Pinkie Pie, still in her work apron and hat.

“Twilight, what’s going on out there?” She asked, shaking. “I heard a big explosion and evil laughter and decided to hide. Don’t get me wrong, I’m usually all for laughter and blowing things up, but this is way too intense for me!”

“Shh, Pinkie, stay quiet and don’t move!” Twilight whispered as the door to the restaurant slammed open. She crouched as low as she could to avoid detection.

“Show yourself, you miserable little cockroach! I’m going to publish your body across the floor when I find you! Your suffering will be great, and it will be thoroughly documented so that I might reference back to it when I am conquering your world!”

There was an immense clatter as a booth and table were blasted into smithereens. Twilight barely held in a squeak of fright. She could hear the changeling panting in the other room as she searched, and then abruptly the heavy breaths turned into a manic laughter. The whole restaurant suddenly darkened as the store’s metal gate clashed against the hard tile floor.

“You are truly dense, aren’t you?” The queen crooned. “The roach has cornered itself in fear. Well, let’s just see how long it takes to root it out.”

The footsteps became slow and paced. This had become a hunt for the predatory queen, and, having cornered her prey, she was going to have some fun before the end of the game.

“Do you want to know the real reason I was in that blasted cell?” The raspy drawl of the queen echoed through the space. It was impossible to tell exactly where she was. A second later a thunderous calamity shook the building as another booth was reduced to rubble.

“It seems that the council didn’t agree with how I ruled my own kingdom. I had struck down those foolish alicorns and locked them away in Tartarus. My swarm roamed free, no longer forced into seclusion by ponykind. We had a pretty good system set up for feeding too: I would disguise myself and instigate a rebellion, spreading hope and love amongst those stupid enough to resist my reign. My children would feed on these emotions, then use their strength to crush the rebels. I was fair: I allowed the scum to live afterward so long as they submitted to my will. Most chose that fate over the alternative.”

Another crescendo of shattering wood sounded. It seemed that the changeling queen was going to work her way through the booths before checking elsewhere. Twilight needed to get a plan together before that happened; if only she had a weapon of some sort, something that could harm a Sparkle no matter how powerful. She cursed herself for not grabbing something from the Hazard Wing on her way out. Surely somepony down there was working on something that could… that could…

Three little words erupted into Twilight’s mind: universally shared phobias. That was it. Tapping Pinkie with her hoof, she spoke in less than a whisper directly into the mare’s ear.

“Pinkie, does this Hayburger keep any cheese in stock?”

“What?” She responded in an unusually muted voice. “Twilight this is no time for a snack, that mean lady out there wants to gobble you up!”

“Well, I intend to give her something else to chew on. So do you have any or not?”

The pink pony gulped. “Yeah, we have to keep a small supply available at all times, even if nopony eats the stuff. It’s standard regulation for all branches of Hayburger Incorporated.”

“Great. I need you to sneak over to the pantry and grab the strongest cheese you’ve got. I’ll also need some rolls, a hay patty, onion, peppers, and a bottle of Worcestershire sauce. Oh, and some peanut butter, just to contrast horribly with everything else. Wait until she blows up another booth before you open the door.”

Pinkie gulped, then nodded and gave a little salute. Like a mouse, she slunk across the floor to the pantry, keeping as low as possible. Her hoof above the handle, the pink mare waited until the next blast went off before opening the door and sneaking inside.

“When the council contacted me I made sure to keep certain details of my world under wraps.” The sneering queen continued. “I learned what I could from those imbeciles, blending in with the crowd. I knew it wouldn’t last, so when I got the chance I used the technology here to open a portal into a neighboring world, leading my hive to conquer new lands. We had swarmed the palace and were laying waste to the throne room when She showed up: that Grand Secretariat. She ruined everything, putting me in prison, scattering my children, and setting that puppet Celestia back on my throne. I’ll be rectifying that mistake soon enough.”

Another cacophony wracked the room as Pinkie snuck back out of the pantry. She quickly scurried over and hoofed the various foodstuffs towards Twilight. Hoping that there were still a few booths left to be destroyed, the princess hastily got to work spreading the various foul ingredients across the bread. As each was added the cumulative grossness of the concoction began to repulse her more and more, but the worst was yet to come. Reaching the final item, Twilight had to hold back a gag. Pinkie had managed to acquire a block of Roquefort, the stench of which was making her nauseous. She scooped a massive wedge on top of the frozen hay patty before burying it with the top bun. The final product sent a chill up her spine from sight and smell alone. It was ready.

Trying desperately not to think about what she had between her hooves, Twilight crept over to the door. She pushed it open a fraction, peeking out at the demolished room. Nearly every piece of furniture was in ruin, and the changeling was stomping around in agitation. The game was nearing its end, and yet still the prey hadn’t been caught. Looking back inside she saw that Pinkie was sitting in the middle of the room with her hooves over her head. Hoping that her plan worked, Twilight threw caution to the wind as she let out a piercing whistle.

“So that’s where the roach hides.” The queen cried, turning towards the kitchen. “Come out and face me coward, so that I may put you down like I intend to do with that meddling matron of yours later.”

When no response was given the changeling let out a roar of frustration.

“So be it, I will drag you from your hole!”

Her hooves shattered the cheap flooring with each step as she approached the kitchen. Rising up to her full height, her royal highness Queen Twilight Sparkle smote the door with her magic, scattering dust everywhere. Banishing the darkness with the light of her gnarled horn, she saw the silhouette of a magenta pony in the dust cloud.

“Any last words, my foolish little friend?” She smiled hungrily as her horn charged a powerful blast.

“Um… a few actually.” A shrill voice squeaked. As the dust settled, the queen was shocked to see that the pony sitting before her was pink and sporting an outrageously curly mane. She smiled meekly before slipping into a well-practiced routine.

“Welcome to Hayburger, may I take your order?”

The queen’s mouth hung open in shock for a moment. “Excuse me? Where did the idiot whom I chased in here g–HURG!”

With all of the force that she could muster, Twilight rammed the nightmarish sandwich into her adversary’s mouth. She was quickly knocked aside, and the villain was about to direct the might of her magic against the princess when it happened. The queen’s pupils dilated and all motor functions ceased for a moment. An eye began to twitch, followed soon after by a leg, and then her entire body began to jitter. The cogs in her brain restarted and slowly began to process the item that her teeth were currently sinking in to.  

Then she started screaming.

“AH WHAT IS THIS? WHAT DID YOU DO!?” The changeling was breaking out in a cold sweat now, shaking uncontrollably. “OH SWEET ANCESTORS ABOVE I SWALLOWED SOME OF IT! I CAN FEEL IT STUCK TO THE ROOF OF MY MOUTH! I NEED WATER, WATER!!”

The queen began running around the room, searching for a faucet. In her panic she was having trouble operating the simple knob. Pressing her advantage, Twilight lifted the rest of the cheese block in her telekinesis. Trying not to puke herself, she took aim, lobbing the mass of creamy horror at her opponent. The dairy product soared through the air before making contact with a splat, sticking directly onto her horn. The queen gave another raucous cry, backing up furiously towards the counter.

“SWEET BABY CARROTS GET IT OFF OF ME, GET IT AWAY! OH ANCESTORS I’M TOUCHING IT! WHY HAVE YOU FORSAKEN ME, GODS?”

Losing the last of her grip on sanity, the changeling began scrambling, firing off blasts of magic in every direction. Twilight pulled Pinkie down to the ground as the queen went into a rampage. The counter was smashed as the hysterical Sparkle tore her way through the restaurant. She shattered the metal gate on her way out, running into the atrium and piercing the air with her booming voice.

“IT HAS AN AFTERTASTE, GODS IT HAS AN AFTERTASTE! MERCIFUL HEAVENS, TAKE AWAY MY TASTEBUDS!”

She fell to the floor in a convulsing heap. Twilight and Pinkie followed cautiously out into the room, watching with unfeigned disgust as the changeling queen scraped her tongue with all four hooves. Tears leaked from her eyes and she seemed utterly traumatized. Twilight was beginning to wonder whether she had gone too far by throwing the rest of the block. Then again, the villain had called her an imbecile, not to mention she had manipulated and then tried to kill her. All’s fair in love and war, though the princess wasn’t feeling much of the former at this moment.

As the mares sat by, wondering if they should do anything more, a magenta glow suddenly engulfed the retching queen. Fine silver chains snaked along her body out of nowhere, leaving her bound upon the floor. Looking around for the source of the magic, Twilight let out a gasp. Walking towards them was a towering lavender alicorn. Her mane appeared as a swirling indigo galaxy spilling out from the back of her skull, and her entire being radiated pure thaumic energy. Looking up at the pony twice her size, Twilight spied a badge pinned just below her left shoulder. Peering closer she read the following words:

Grand Secretariat Twilight Sparkle

Head of Equine Resources

Council Member

The smaller alicorn sat in awe as her much larger self began dishing out orders to the nearby guards.

“You three, grab her and bring her back down to the prison. The chains should hold but I want to be sure that no more damage is caused today. When you get back help the others finish excavating the hallway.”

The three guards saluted, taking the still-babbling changeling in their collective magical grasp before trotting off. The magnificent mare turned towards the two ponies on the floor. Twilight realized that she recognized this pony: her statue had been distracting the tour group when she had first snuck away.

“Miss Pie, you may have the rest of the day off. Please don’t worry about damages to the restaurant, we will take care of them. You’ll find a week’s pay has been added to your account to compensate for this traumatic experience.”

“O-okie dokie lokie.” Pinkie squeaked, still in a state of shock.

The grand alicorn finally turned her shrewd gaze towards the much smaller Twilight Sparkle. The young mare gulped before cautiously meeting eyes with her superior.

“We need to talk. I will see you in my office in 15 minutes, I need to take care of a few matters beforehand. Don’t try to run.”

Before Twilight could so much as open her muzzle she was enveloped in a blinding pink glow. With a resounding pop she vanished from the atrium and into the aether.


Chapter 8 - Conference

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:

The following is a detailed account of all known information relating to the anomalous Pinkamena Research Institute.


Epilogue

Twilight sat at her podium in the small, square room. The ceiling, made from cheap tiling and the tacky, stripped wallpaper that adorned every wall were both eyesores, and the lavender pony had grown quite tired of staring at them. The floor was lined with beige tiling and was quite nondescript. The only interesting thing in the bland room was the angry alicorn standing resolutely in its center, who was the current source of the princess’s ire.

“Ma’am, please, I just need your name and then you can move on to the next room.”

“No!” the mare shrieked, eying her suspiciously. “I know what this is: it’s another scam by those Flim-Flam brothers, trying to steal my identity. Well it’s not going to work I tell ya!”

The overworked alicorn gave a sigh of annoyance. She was supposed to get through one new entrant roughly every five minutes, and this one had taken over twenty so far. She was paranoid to a ludicrous degree, and was certain that the Census was actually a ploy to steal her rights. She had accused everyone from Sapphire Shores to Scootaloo of being involved in the conspiracy.

It was exceedingly rare that anypony called into the Census identified as anything other than Twilight Sparkle, but there had been enough edge cases for it to become mandatory to ask for a name each time. Twilight still felt that the jarring dimensional shift that occurred upon opening the letter wasn’t helping matters, but years of data showed it to be the most effective method of getting new Sparkles to show up. Gearing for another attempt, the princess put on her most diplomatic façade.

“I know this is sudden and probably quite difficult, but the sooner you give me your name the sooner you will be able to go home.”

“Yeah, right. And when I get home there will be another pony calling herself Twilight Sparkle already there, and all of my friends will believe she’s the real one. I know your game; I won’t be replaced!”

“Oh, so your name is Twilight Sparkle! Very good, please take these papers with you on your way out.”

The pony gawked for a moment before angrily grabbing the papers in her teeth. She grumbled to herself as the door opened and let her out of the room. Twilight let out a sigh of relief, glad to be through with the tricky customer. She still had several days-worth of entry duty to complete, and it was taking a toll on her patience. She wanted to get back to working in a real laboratory, or start sniffing out potential security issues with 2K. This kind of busywork drove her up the wall.

There had been much discussion amongst the numerous members of the Census over the past few weeks. Spurred by the recent breakout and the damages to the Equine atrium, the popularity of having a classified section of the Census had fallen to an all-time low. While some of the Council still felt it was too dangerous to open the Wing up to the public, they had agreed to a few reforms thus far. For example, the most dangerous projects had been moved to secure labs far away from one another in order to minimize the risk of another total catastrophe, and the prison now had a few more guards posted at all times. The turophobia lab had been made public as well in order to expedite research on a countermeasure. The former researchers had been shocked when they found that the project hadn't been scrapped after all, but most were willing to accept the sincere apology from the Grand Secretariat and their former lead. After all, most of them were Princesses of Friendship, and forgiveness is a very important part of any relationship.

Getting back to work, Twilight pulled her intercom close and said, “Next!”

The center of the room distorted as another lavender alicorn was pulled through the fabric of space and time. She landed with a small thud, her head spinning and a mug of coffee held in her hoof. At least she had a pick-me-up for later, Twilight thought. Pulling out another stack of forms from beneath her podium, Twilight looked the dazed mare in the eyes and repeated the word for what felt like the hundredth time today.

“Name?”