• Published 5th May 2012
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The Grey Factor - Japko



Mystery and adventure, Now with books!

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Chapter One

THE GREY FACTOR

(By Japko)

Chapter One

While comparing ourselves to other intelligent species inhabiting this world, it is hard to overlook one distinctive attribute. Ponies exist in four basic races: earth ponies, pegasi, unicorns and alicorns. If we exclude rare and godlike alicorns, we still have three basic types that the whole society consists of. Each race has their features and flaws that make them different, and from an objective scientist point of view we have to say unicorns and pegasi are more likely to survive and provide development to their communities. The interesting fact is that even with this, we still manage to live in a non-caste society, where everyone is equal and free of extreme economical or social disproportions.
Professor Jade, Equestrian Collective
MUSP, 998 SE, Manehattan


“Why do you even keep doing that?!”

“Because I wanna finally learn how to do it!”

“But you never learn anything from your mistakes!”

“What is there even to learn? I just have to keep trying.”

“No. This is not just some experimental science. This is true art… It’s something that comes from within. You have to picture the result in your head and-”

Twilight Sparkle stood by the door with her hoof half-raised to knock. This was one of the infamous social situations she wasn’t comfortable with yet and she wasn’t sure what to do. Maybe I’ll try some other time…

“Yadda yadda yadda, it’s always like this. You complicate what’s meant to be simple.”

“Nothing is simple, dear. Only fools assume-”

“Oh, give me a break!”

“And where do you think you’re going? If you think I’m going to clean up your mess again, you’re highly mistaken!”

Twilight was just about to turn around and leave, when the ornate door slammed open, and a huge cloud of black smoke poured outside.

“I will clean it up myself once you stop being overly obsessed with- oh hi, Twilight!”

A pony shaped frazzle of smoke finally dissipated, and a little silhouette of a filly stepped outside. She was entirely covered with some gluey yellow substance, and her coat was singed in several spots.

“Hello, Sweetie Belle.” The purple unicorn did her best to not look shocked and terrified with what she just saw. “Trying to learn cooking again I presume?”

“Yep! Scrambled eggs.” A frown returned to white filly’s face. “Rarity says I should give it up and that it’s a lost cause but I really think this might be my special talent… Well, sorry, Twilight.” she brightened up again. “But I gotta go clean myself up a bit and meet with Scootaloo and Applebloom. We’ve got a lot of crusading scheduled for today. See ya!”

Twilight waited for the remains of the cloud to fade, as she watched Sweetie trot away.

“Apple pie my flank,” grumbled Rarity as she stood beside Twilight, shaking her head. “Can you believe it? She used all of my kitchen gear to make scrambled eggs, managed to get some of it on the ceiling, and left me with the whole mess. I wonder how mom and dad put up with her on daily basis…”

“So, what brings you here on Saturday morning, darling?” asked the white unicorn ten minutes later in clean and shiny dining room, putting two cups of coffee on the table for a box of Pinkie’s muffins which Twilight luckily grabbed on her way to the Boutique.

“Like every Friday,” Twilight started, leaning forward. “Derpy and Raindrops brought me my weekly portion of books to the library, since I order them from basically every corner of Equestria. For this week I had no more and no less but five books ordered. However…” Her horn lit up and one quite heavy tome flew out of her saddlebags. “This time I apparently got something extra. You see, I’ve got this… agreement with our post office, so they put everything addressed to me together, and send it further to me via postmares in one big package. I naturally asked Derpy if she knew anything about it, since it’s obviously a mistake, but she said no. I wanted to return the book as soon as possible, since they should have all the addresses of all the mail – at least I hope so – but the office is closed on weekends.”

“And I thought,” she continued, after having a sip of coffee. “That if the book is stuck in my hooves for at least two days, what’s wrong with me checking what it’s about? Turns out it’s a pretty old copy of study on pony genetics.”

Rarity gave her a long stare as she expected her friend to continue. “… and?”

“Oh well, I didn’t expect that, because the remaining five were just fiction books, so it immediately gained my attention. And it turns out it contains some interesting hypothesis… not even really a hypothesis if I may say, since it has quite a lot of substantial data to back it up. It’s about some genetic phenomenon that I’ve never personally paid attention to. It can be pretty meaningful, while being totally neglected in all school handbooks I encountered…”


“Let me guess,” the fashion pony interrupted. “The stuff you found keeps pestering you, and you have to get to the bottom of it.”

Twilight gave her a smile. “Exactly.”

“And you want me to… to what? Help you find the author? I don’t think I qualify, you know way more than me when it comes to books, especially the science ones”

“That’s the problem.” The purple unicorn bit her lip. “There is no author. At first I thought that the author page might have been torn away, but I see no signs of it. It’s almost like it was written anonymously.”

Rarity chuckled. “And of course, it makes it less legit.”

“You know me too well.” Twilight nodded with another smile.

“Then again, why me?”

“Well… Remember that time when you mentioned something about your uncle?”

Rarity’s face slightly froze. “Yes. Yes I do.”

“He’s an equinologist, right?”

“Correct.”

“Can you maybe… help me get in contact with him?” Twilight asked timidly, watching smile slowly fade from her friend’s face.

“We haven’t talked for quite a while.”

“Oh… Well, if it’s a problem…”

“No no no!” Rarity waggled her hoof. “It’s not that much of a problem. It’s just that my uncle sees me as, let’s say, a black sheep of the family. You see, we’re almost exclusively unicorns, and pretty high magical talent runs in the family. And it happens that being scientists is kind of a home business. It’s just what we do.”

“You never told us about it.”

“What’s there to talk about?” The white unicorn sighed. “From what my dad told me, Uncle was so happy to have a niece. He has two sons, but he believes that boys, while generally having bigger potential, lack the finesse that we have to properly control it. He wanted me to be the head successor of his work. Too bad I turned out to be a disappointment.”

Twilight didn’t say anything, just nodded.

“When he learned I wanted to become a fashionista, he refused to give up. He kept giving me books about astronomy and mysterious creatures of this world, anything that a little pony could find interesting. My parents didn’t interfere. Sure they wanted me to have multiple interests, but I know they always wanted me to be who I wanted to be.

“The day I finally got my cutie mark,” she continued after a short pause, “he finally surrendered. And he lost all interest in my growing up. We still meet from time to time, on family meetings and such, but he doesn’t talk to me. He’s given up hope for me. Well… maybe it’s for the best of both of us. I don’t even know where he lives right now. I think somewhere in Manehattan.”

For a while both unicorns sat in silence disturbed only by chirping birds. Twilight slowly finished her coffee.

“Rarity,” she started, “I don’t want to reopen your wounds. If it’s hard for you, I can really look for-”

“No,” the white pony cut in. “What kind of Element of Generosity would I be if I turned down my dear friend because of such trivial matter? Drop by in two days. I should have all necessary information by then.”

“Then I can’t do anything but sincerely thank you.” Twilight stood up.

“It’s always my pleasure, darling. And by the way… Twilight?”

“Yes?”

“Is there a n y science field you’re not interested with?”

“Ophiology.”

“Snakes, huh?”

“Yes. They freak me the hay out.”

* * *

Ponyville’s Post Office was a small building with a shape of a low cylinder and whole overgrown with ivy. It was made of stone and was one of the first government buildings in the whole town, remembering times when Ponyville was nothing but a farmers’ village.

It didn’t hire many ponies. As far as Twilight knew, there were just two ponies managing all the letters and packages, plus two diligent postmares and best friends forever, who were of course Raindrops and Derpy.

Despite having so little staff, the office was always tidy and in the best possible shape. Twilight was always pleased with the place’s organization.

As she stepped into the hall, she was at once greeted by the shiny smile of the agency’s senior, elder earth pony, Mr. Stamper. He was an ever lively old man that was never spotted sad or gloomy. He could be Pinkie’s grandpa, Twilight stated not once.

“Ahh, Miss Sparkle, what a nice surprise for a Monday morning! How may I be of your service today?”

“Good morning. I am, in fact, here to report a tiny mistake that has been made. It seems you’ve packed me one book too much last week.”

“Miss Sparkle!” The Stallion pretended affliction. “You know there is no place for things like mistakes in our agency. I even have the full history of last month’s letters and packages here. Take a look.” He pointed to a huge sheet of paper hanging on the wall. It was filled with nicely arranged tables and numbers.
“Six books arrived.” he placed his forehooves on the desk. “Six books re-packed and sent to library.”

“That’s the point. I only ordered five. The sixth one must have been misaddressed. Can I see the return addresses?”

“Why of course! The original packaging is yours after all.” He dived between the crates and took out a little bundle. “Hmmm… three from Fillydelphia, one from Canterlot, one from Hoofington… and one without a return address, unfortunately.”

“That’s what I was afraid of.” The purple unicorn sighed. “The first five match towns from which I ordered them. What does the postmark say?”

“City of Canterlot. Do you want the envelope?”

“Yes, please.” Twilight took the parcel from the stallion and threw it to her saddlebags. Is this strange or is it just me, she thought to herself as she thanked Mr. Stamper and left the office.

* * *

“Dad was rather surprised when I asked about Uncle’s whereabouts.” Rarity threw a leaf off a chair, sitting herself by her garden table. “Turns out I was right. He lives in Manehattan. I haven’t managed to talk to him, but I sent him a note that you might be interested in seeing him. I didn’t try to appoint you, because I couldn’t get his job address, only the home one. If you want to talk to the man, you’re going to have to catch him after work.”

“Wouldn’t it be rude?” Twilight asked, uncomfortable with the vision of another uneasy situation to deal with. “I haven’t met him ever in my life, and I would be invading privacy of his home…”

“Oh I don’t know.” The fashion pony shrugged. “You have your inborn charm, it’s impossible to be angry at you. Besides-”

“I have WHAT?” Twilight’s stomach froze for a moment.

“Besides,” Rarity continued, unmoved, “you are a female magic scientist. He’ll be delighted to meet you no matter what.”

“By the way,” she spoke again while Twilight was mulling over strategies, “why don’t you just write him? Is it so important that you have to see him in person?”

“Not really, no. Quite the contrary, I would say. But I’d prefer him to see all the data. And since the book isn’t technically mine, I wouldn’t feel comfortable sending it to somepony else, if you know what I mean. Also, Manehattan isn’t far away. I can arrange everything and return the same day.”

“What is this interesting thing anyway?”

“I don’t want to jump into any conclusions before I consult my thoughts with some specialist.” Twilight winked playfully. “Call it… the scientist’s curiosity.”

* * *

The Friendship Express wasn’t exactly an express train. It was more of a cruise train, a tourist attraction of this area of Equestria. The locomotive was retro-style, equipped with a steam engine, and it moved rather slowly. However, it was the only train that shuttled between Ponyville and Manehattan, so it was still the best possible option.

Spike was, like always, more than happy to become the library headmaster for a short period of time. Proud of his responsibility, he walked around with his head up high, especially within reach of Owlowiscious, and overly sensitive about anything that was even slightly against the rules. If only he was so eager to keep everything in order every day…

Twilight had been to Manehattan a couple times before but she always found it hard to adapt to the big city atmosphere. Sure, she spent most of her life in the City of Canterlot, but even there she rarely stepped outside the castle’s walls, where she had everything she wanted – libraries, labs and peace of mind. Moving to Ponyville turned out to be even better. The peace of the little town (except for things like parasprite infestations, ursa assaults or dragon threats), combined with easy access to her closest friends made life and work really enjoyable and convenient.

Given this, the first step in Manehattan was always somewhat a cultural shock for Twilight. Ponies streaming on the streets, tall skyscrapers, street performers, the overwhelming noise of so much life condensed on so little space.
Not wanting to waste any time, she grabbed a map to locate her destination and waved at a passing taxi.

Rarity’s uncle, Professor Jade, lived in an elegant tenement near the river. It was one of the most sophisticated districts, inhabited mostly by celebrities and businessponies. The neighborhood was really well maintained, full of flower patches and shaded alleys. Inside of the building was no worse with an oakwood stairwell and colorful floor tiles. Every door had the same design, differing only in apartment numbers. Twilight checked the time – it was definitely late enough for most ponies to have finished their daily work. After a short hesitation she decided to knock on the door.

If there was a sight she was expecting, it would be a rather short and floppy grayish pony with tired eyes behind strong glasses. What she didn’t expect was a buff stallion, reminding her rather of Big Macintosh, but with ice-blue coat and black hair on mane and tail. He also wore a loose and chaotically hanging tie and smoked a scrap of a cigar. They stared at each other for a couple of seconds before he finally spoke.

“Yes?”

“I…” Twilight cleared her throat “Good afternoon, professor-”

“I would rather call it evening.” He furrowed his brow. His voice was as cold as his coat.

“Yes… evening. My name is Twi-”

“I know who you are,” he cut in again, not letting his eye off her. “My niece sent me a note about someone wanting to pay me a visit. And I didn’t expect it to be this late.”

Twilight felt that she was starting to sweat, but forced herself to regain posture. She had dealt with many professors before and she knew how they ticked.

“I just wanted to take a few minutes of your time. It won’t be long.”

“My time is very valuable if you don’t know it yet. And this applies to my rest as well, so I don’t really think-”

“Just for the moment, please?” She tried to flutter her eyelids like Rarity often did when she wanted something, but it came out horrible.

The stallion sighed. “Come in.”

Seeing the interior of Professor’s apartment left no doubt that he was related to Rarity. While it wasn’t ‘marvelous’, Twilight could clearly see that the stallion had to put quite some effort into creating his nest. The style was rather minimalistic: beige painted walls, half built-up with dark brown wooden panels, deep monochromatic carpet and matching leather armchairs. Deep in the guest room lurked a small fireplace, and here and there hung a few collage paintings. Nothing to add, nothing to take. Rarity would be proud.

“What is it?” he asked immediately as he closed the door behind her.

“I’ve got this book and…”

“Show it to me.”

“So you’re going to help me?” Twilight lit up, her voice beaming with hope.

The stallion burst with sincere laugh. When he looked back at her, he was smiling for the first time.

“Of course I will help you. How could I say no to Twilight Sparkle?”

Twilight budged, surprised. “Have you heard of me?”

“Have I heard of you? Are you serious?” Jade tilted his head a bit. “Who hasn’t heard of Twilight Sparkle? Not only are you the god princess’ personal protégée, but, let me remind you, you are one of the wielders of the legendary Elements of Harmony and you saved Equestria twice. Being too modest doesn’t pay off, especially if you’re planning any serious scientific career in the future.”

“No, I have really never thought of it this way. Am I really so recognized?” She scratched her head with voice full of concern.

“I’m afraid so,” he chuckled again. “Would you like something to drink? Oh, and sorry about the little scene. I’m so tired of these cowardly pests that flinch whenever a professor looks at them. Let’s say you passed my first impression test.”

* * *

“Thus far all this sounds like a beginning of some detective story, miss Sparkle. Or someone devoted some of their time to treat you with a bit of entertainment. However, although I haven’t seen this book before, it looks like a real thing to me.” Professor Jade sat back in his armchair and took a sip of apple brandy. “But I’m dying of curiosity what was the thing you found in it, so you decided to contact a specialist.”

“I was just about to get to it.” Twilight dropped two sugar cubes to her tea. “I got to the chapter about color inheritance. It looks like it’s a way more complicated issue than I thought.”

“Oh yes, colors, of course. Indeed it is quite complicated and after all these years still not entirely examined and explained. The current theory says that there are multiple genes involved in determining the color, and there was no gene distinguished so far that would be considered either dominant or recessive. What’s more, some studies have proven that some of them remain dormant for many generations before sprouting again. Even the monozygotic twins often hold completely different colors. Actually some of my colleagues state that genetic influence is a secondary factor, while the magical aura is the actual agent that determines the final hue of the foal.”

“Yes.” Twilight nodded slowly. “The book says pretty much the same. However, I meant some other thing. It says here,” she opened the book on the proper page and pointed to a line of text, “that the presumed genes cross over in a complex way, creating shades of countless combinations. The thesis says that it’s virtually impossible to get the same coat color anytime in the known history of ponykind. We do have cognitive restrictions,” she continued quickly as she saw the professor opened his mouth to say something. “Coats may be so similar that we can’t tell the difference that exists between them. But combine it with also chaotically inherited manes, and the probability of finding a matching set tends to zero.”

“Correct,” Jade agreed, putting the glass on a table before him. “The same thing goes to cutie marks, which is out of my field, but I read a couple of papers about them too. Special talents are repetitive and so are the cutie mark themes. Mine is rather popular.” He pointed to an image of a quill on his flank. “But I’ve never seen an identical one. And most probably I never will. There are always some differences. But it’s a thing that a skilled and inquisitive enough observer would have no bigger problem to notice. So, where are we headed with this topic?”

“Professor Jade…” Twilight sparkle put her forehooves on the table and looked the stallion in the eyes. “What about the Royal Guard?”