• Published 5th May 2012
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The Grey Factor - Japko



Mystery and adventure, Now with books!

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Chapter Six

THE GREY FACTOR
(By Japko)
Chapter Six


A low pitch on a future scale
It is a sunless winter day's tale
It suits you well

I wish this would be your color
I wish this would be your color
I wish this would be your color
Your color, I wish

Castlewrecker, The Ode*



The navy blue alicorn slowly approached Celestia and stood beside her.

“Princess Luna?” Twilight’s eyes wandered from one princess to another as she tried to comprehend what was going on. “You sent the book to me? But why?”

“I would like to ask the same question, sister.” Celestia furled her wings. “I thought we agreed this project is top secret. Why did you compromise it so foolishly?”

The moon princess’ eyes narrowed. “Don’t call me a fool, sister. I didn’t give the secret away on accident. I wanted her to know the truth.”

“Then why? What was your goal?”

“I will explain everything.” Luna turned to the unicorns. “But not here and not now.” She raised her hoof when Professor Jade opened his mouth. “You’re tired, hurt and probably starving. Also, you don’t smell too good after your… trip to the sewers. Will you accept the offer of being our guests?”

“Guests?” The purple unicorn looked at her in disbelief. “Now wait just a minute-”

“No one is standing between you and the answers, Twilight Sparkle,” the moon princess interrupted. “I offer our hospitality as an act of good will. You can ask now, or you can ask clean, healed and rested. The choice is yours.”

“Come on, Miss Sparkle,” Jade whispered to her ear. “There is no rush, and she has a point.”

Twilight stood silent, looking deep into the princess’ eyes. “Okay,” she spoke, “lead the way.”

* * *

A hot bath had never felt that good before in her life. The steaming water filled with ethereal oils, the thick foam smelling of soap and flowers, the relaxing sound effects coming from holes in the walls… Twilight felt her painfully strained muscles finally loosen up. The exhaustion turned into bliss. For a while, the problems didn’t seem to matter. The guards were just monochromatic ponies, and the royal secrets were just a distant problem for someone else. The incidents of the past few hours felt like a fictional story she had read years ago. She could have stayed like that for the rest of her days.

After the bath, both unicorns were treated with an elegant, distinguished dinner. But Twilight could hardly notice the quality. She barely even recognized any taste. Only when the first symptoms of sugar in her veins reached her brain, she let herself slow up a bit and enjoy the food. Her horn thanked her with soothing warmth. Jade seemed to be having the same problem with holding back his primal instincts. Neither of them talked. They both silently agreed the conversation could wait.

The doctor who was sent to her private room afterwards diagnosed her with a cracked bone after all. But before she started to panic, he assured her, that fixing the problem would be painless and easy and that she shouldn’t have any problems with it in the future. He casted a few spells which Twilight didn’t know, and left, letting her rest. She suddenly wanted to have a word with the professor, but she realized that she was too tired to even get up from bed. She laughed at her helplessness.
Quickly after, she fell asleep.

* * *

“Good evening, Miss Sparkle,” Professor Jade spoke indistinctly with his mouth full. “Did you sleep well?”

Twilight couldn’t believe that she had spent over twenty hours in bed. She remembered waking up a few times and falling right back asleep, but she wouldn’t have guessed that overall it had taken so long. The doctor from the previous night had to be a good one, because after waking up she felt like a new pony.

Not sure what to do with herself, since it was already long after dark, she left her room and walked down the stairs to the guests’ dining room, where she met Professor Jade, as cheerful as ever, gorging a carrot tart.

“These royal chefs are amazing.” He cut himself another huge portion of the cake. “We should let ourselves get captured more often. Come on, sit down. Princess Luna visited earlier and said that we should inform this young gentlecolt”- he pointed to a young page -“whenever we wanted to speak with them.”

Twilight sighed, and grabbed a slice of the tart for herself. “I wonder what Princess Luna wants with us…”

“With you,” Jade corrected. “It was you she sent the book to. I’m just a guy who tagged along, remember?”

“I’m sorry I mixed you up into this.”

“Oh come on, lighten up! I’m really grateful for all this, especially since Celestia made it clear she has no intention of killing us.” The stallion grinned. His smile had something strange about it. It was hard not to get infected.

Twilight snorted with laughter. “Whatever. Even if the sky was falling, you would drag everypony out to admire the unique scenery.”

* * *

The meeting was far less formal than she expected. The two princesses sat on cushions by a low table with nothing but four glasses and a jug of wine on it.

As the two unicorn scientists stepped in, a Pegasus guard closed the door behind them.

“Please sit down.” Celestia nodded.

“We are sorry it took so long,” Jade said with a weak smile. “The castle beds are so comfortable.”

“Not a problem.” The sun princess smiled too. “In fact, these hours are usually the calmest in the castle’s day cycle. By the way, I apologize for yesterday. We haven’t had the opportunity to properly introduce ourselves. Pleased to meet you, Professor Jade. I must say I enjoyed all your work that I have had the pleasure to encounter.”

“It’s an honor, Princess Celestia, Princess Luna.” He bowed his head towards both of them. “And I can only hope that I will be able to write more to please your tastes.”

“Okay, enough small talk,” Twilight interrupted. “If I recall correctly, the purpose of this meeting was to explain some things to each other.”

“That is true,” Princess Luna spoke for the first time. “And before we get to the heart of the matter, I want to deeply apologize for all the danger I put you both in with my carelessness. To be honest, when I sent you The Heredity Phenomenon, I was sure you would just storm the castle, demanding answers. I had no idea that you would be able to get this far, and it relieves me that the worst thing that happened was no more than a crack of a bone.”

“Speaking of which”- Twilight hit the table with her hoof -“who uses rolling boulder traps to secure the data? Without the professor’s help, I would be dead by now!”

“I’m sorry.” Celestia’s voice was quiet and soft. “That precaution exists because it was already there when I discovered that secret corridor.”

“What do you mean: ‘discovered’?” Jade couldn’t withhold his curiosity.

“Those tunnels had been there long before Canterlot was built,” Luna explained. “We used them as mines for valuable resources, but after one magical epidemic, we decided to abandon them. But that’s a long and irrelevant story. We are here to answer your questions, Twilight Sparkle. Ask them.”

“All right,” Twilight started hesitantly. “First of all, if you wanted me to know the truth, why did you send me this obscure information by Duskwind, and not the more straightforward book by Glass Coat?”

“Two reasons. One: Because I didn’t know anything by Glass Coat still existed.” The moon princess smiled. “Two: More importantly – in fact I am… more emotionally attached to Duskwind’s publications.”

“Emotionally attached?” Twilight raised her eyebrow. “But you couldn’t even have known him!”

“Quite the contrary, my faithful student.” Celestia filled her glass with wine.

“Huh?”

Twilight Sparkle…” Princess Luna put her hooves on the table. “I a m Duskwind.”

A long silence hung over the room. The unicorns’ jaws dropped.

“Scientific work is too important to let any potential bias spoil the judgment of the community. That’s why I decided to use the pseudonym.”

“But…” Twilight tried to collect her thoughts. “Wasn’t Duskwind supposed to be a stallion?”

“If you create a fake identity, why not make it a male one?” Luna shrugged.

“It’s impossible.” Professor Jade leaned forward. “During our research I found that Advanced Genetics was published after the year 500, and Duskwind mentioned Glass Coat more than once in The Heredity Phenomenon. Forgive the indelicacy, but did you write that book on the moon? That just doesn’t add up, unless…” He stopped.

“Unless…” Twilight looked at Celestia. “Glass Coat also lived over a thousand years ago.”

“Well done.” The white alicorn clapped her hooves. “It is true. Glass Coat is my pseudonym. It was Luna who first discovered the biological patterns on which the genetic studies were built. After the… Nightmare Moon incident, I continued the research on my own. To be honest, at first I had no idea I would be successful in developing the knowledge so far.”

“And that leads us to the most important question: Why, Princess? Why would you do such a thing?” The purple unicorn stared into the deep red of wine and tried not to picture all the blood on the ruler’s hooves.

The princess sighed. “Tell me, my faithful student, what do you know about the history of Equestria? And I specifically mean the founding of the kingdom.”

“Well…” Twilight hesitated. “There is the legend about the Hearth’s Warming Eve, right?”

“Correct. And you used a right word: ‘legend’. Do you know when a legend is formed? When the truth about an important event is too prosaic to keep it in its original state for the next generations. The folk loves mysticism, so they create their own version of the story. However, there is always some truth in every legend. You just have to know how to separate the wheat from the chaff.”

“What is the truth then?” Jade asked. “If there was anyone that knows, who would it be if not the two immortal princesses?”

“It’s not that simple,” Luna took the floor. “We may not age, but we haven’t been on this world since the very beginning. As a matter of fact, Celestia and I were born after the founding of Equestria. It had been foretold that we would come, but we will explain that later.”

“Now who’s playing with mysticism?” Twilight grimaced.

The sun princess smirked. “I was lucky to have found you. Your skepticism makes you a much better scientist than many of my other students. Our birth was foretold like a few other things. You may not believe us now, but I hope we will be able to convince you that they are true.

“And to answer the professor’s question: the most basic truth in this legend is winter. What’s false is that it was caused by the hatred between the pony tribes and the mythical Windigos. And until we have heard the prophecies for ourselves, my sister and I had no idea what the cause of that terrible, deadly cold was…”

Princess Celestia hung her voice.

“Well?” Twilight couldn’t help her heart pounding in her chest. “What was it?”

The white alicorn took a nervous sip from her glass. “Draconequi.”

“What?!” Both unicorns exclaimed simultaneously.

“May I?” Princess Luna raised her hoof. “It is hard to believe, but this world knows more than one draconequus. In fact, there used to be a lot of them. My studies have almost clearly shown that they are not creatures of this world. If they had evolved here, they would have turned all the flora and fauna into ruins. Not to mention evolutional competition with other intelligent species like us.

“A draconequus is a creature which loves chaos more than any other thing. And it wields powerful magic that lets it make that chaos reality. Wherever they roamed, the land was turned upside down. Ponies, who lived a colonization lifestyle, suddenly had to turn into nomads; especially since the monsters found out about the most destructive method against farming-based life: winter.”

“If there was any bright side,” Celestia followed, “it was that to survive, all three tribes had to learn to work together. And as a result, they even managed to form a semi-stable society. We could say that it was how Equestria was made, but technically it was founded when they discovered this land. The land, to which, surprisingly, the winter wouldn’t come after them. Relieved, ponies finally settled after decades of exile, not even aware that they were saved by someone.”

“By whom?” Twilight conquered her feelings, and poured some wine for herself. “I’ve never heard of anyone meddling in Equestria’s history.”

“Of course you haven’t.” Luna smiled triumphantly. “It was Discord.”

Twilight almost sprayed her with wine. “Discord? The Discord?”

“The same you met about a year ago.”

“But how? Why?” The longer the story went, the more confused Twilight became. The maniac that almost destroyed Equestria and turned Ponyville into a fever hallucination was the savior of the ponykind?

“I’ll explain.” Celestia leaned forward. “The ponies didn’t know that the draconequi had a leader, who was much more powerful than the rest. And, as it turned out, that leader had a slightly different philosophy of life. You see, we can safely say that the draconequi were, well… evil. With their actions all they achieved was suffering of others. They wanted to slowly destroy us. Starve us to death. Discord was different. You have met him personally, Twilight. He is not evil in a typical way. He is just… crazy.”

Twilight replied with a nod.

“Seeing the actions of his subjects, he eventually said no,” Celestia continued. “He wanted to rule and adjust harmony to chaos, not destroy. It’s not hard to guess that they rebelled against him. In response, he got rid of them.” She spread her arms. “How? We don’t know. My theory is that he sent them back to where they had come from – some other world.

“As for himself, he stayed here. But without his subjects he found himself lost. He lost track of us and went his way, probably to harass some other lands. Before he found Equestria, decades had already passed. And during that time, two prophecies had come true. Two alicorn princesses were born, and the ponies found some extremely powerful objects called the Elements of Harmony. The rest of the story you already know. We used the magic of the Elements to imprison Discord in stone. The history would say that the ponies lived happily ever after, at least until Nightmare Moon took control over Princess Luna. But there is another prophecy that only a few know about. “

“The draconequi will return.” The moon princess closed her eyes. “And we have to be prepared.”

“What about the Elements then?” Twilight asked. “If they were able to defeat Discord, who turned out to be much more powerful than the rest of his kind, maybe they could save us from them as well?”

“Would you base your defense strategies on guesses?” Luna shook her head. “The effect of the Elements is unpredictable, and it usually lets you focus on one target. We had to look for another solution.”

“The loss of my sister for a thousand years,” Celestia sighed, breaking the silence, “was not just a personal blow, and not just a blow to Equestria’s stability. We lost a wonderful researcher that day. Preparing ourselves for the attack was our top priority. I searched for answers in magic, she in engineering and biology. With Duskwind gone, Glass Coat had to take care of everything. I published a lot under that pseudonym, trying to get help from the academic community’s responses. That’s how, after hundreds of years, I discovered the ability of… of cloning. I had no idea when the draconequi would return and I still don’t know when it’s going to happen. I made this research top priority, because I might not get another chance.

“For pegasus guards I used the DNA of Cloudfist. He was an absolute prodigy in flying, like your friend Rainbow Dash. Finding a model for the unicorn guards was harder. There were many good unicorns back then, but I couldn’t specify any that would be ideal. Except…” She swallowed nervously. “Except Dawnstrike.”

“No way…” Professor Jade’s eyes widened. “You’re telling me that the order in Equestria is kept by the copies of the most dangerous rogue mage in pony history?”

“There is no evil written in genes, Professor. Everypony is the master of their own destiny.” Luna turned to the stallion. “I understand your worries, but there was no better choice.”

“Unfortunately,” Celestia said, “the problems had just started then. On paper it looks easy, but to actually clone a pony, you have to try thousands of different approaches. It took years…” Her voice waned. “Years of failed attempts with different sequences and nutrients to achieve anything. I often can’t sleep at night when I think of how many lives disappeared before my eyes.” The princess’ eyes glistened with tears. “Every time a… a subject died, I felt like I had lost a foal. Another colt, I could watch growing, died in my tanks day after day. But I had to keep going. I had to do everything I could to protect my subjects…”

A few tears dropped on the table. Nopony dared to break the silence that fell in the room. Princess Celestia sat still on her cushion with her head bent down.

“The first breakthrough occurred in 812,” she spoke eventually.” It was subject U936/05, a unicorn that not only survived the prenatal state, but developed like a normal pony. After that, successful outcomes became regular. But the real successes were only pegasi. Even if alive and healthy, the unicorns were still incomplete. They resembled Dawnstrike physically, but their magic potential rarely exceeded the average for a unicorn. It kept happening until-”

“Until U1015/01, right?” Jade interrupted.

“Yes. In 824 the first real successor of Dawnstrike was born.” Celestia bit her lip. “But, unfortunately, the last one.”

“What do you mean?” Twilight frowned. “What about the guards all around Canterlot?”

The princess shook her head. “They’re incomplete as well. You see, to fully unveil the magical pattern, a unicorn must mature first. Until then, everything is unreadable. And U1015/01, well…”

“Fled,” Princess Luna finished for her. “The only subject that was a hundred percent success, escaped from the castle, never to be found. The only one to have the Grey Factor.”

“What’s the Grey Factor?” the professor asked.

“It’s what we call the unique gene sequence of Dawnstrike,” Luna replied. “His magical power was genetically coupled with his coat hue, as it turned out.”

“So the experiments still continue?” Jade scratched his head.

“Yes.” Celestia nodded. “Some time ago I even managed to create a batch of white unicorn guards, but they’re weaker and we rarely use them if we don’t have to. Twilight, you could have seen them during your brother’s wedding. We mobilized all our forces to protect Canterlot then.

“But there was another problem. I had to erase all the traces leading to the secret. I devoted a lot of time to get rid of all of Duskwind’s and Glass Coat’s publications, so nopony could ever know that I had performed the experiments and that the guards are copies. You’ve proven that I didn’t do well enough. But there is always some way for truth to come out on top. Either way, that’s all I can think of what might be interesting to you. Now it’s time for me to ask.” She turned to her sister. “Why did you think all this was necessary? Why did you mix my protégée up into this?”

“Yes, this is a good moment to explain.” Princess Luna stood up. “When the Elements of Harmony freed me from the Nightmare Moon curse, I had a lot to catch up on with the project. But also I had a clear head, which allowed me to notice more possibilities. The Element of Magic couldn’t have chosen just any pony to be its wielder. I knew Twilight Sparkle was not just a regular unicorn. So, during my visit to Ponyville on Nightmare Night, I decided to grab some genetic material for study. I wouldn’t dare assuming that I had found a connection, but the research has proven it.”

“Proven what?” Twilight felt like her heart slowly turned into a lump of ice. She already knew the answer.

“You are the descendant of U1015/01.” The moon princess pointed her hoof at her. “You are the missing link.”

Twilight vision became blurry. This is not happening, this is not happening, she repeated in her mind.

“Are you sure about this…?” Princess Celestia was no less shocked.

“Believe me, sister.” Luna frowned. “If I wasn’t sure, I wouldn’t care to organize all this.”

“But my coat isn’t even grey,” Twilight said, looking at her hooves. “It’s bright purple.”

“Your coat color is irrelevant,” the older princess spoke softly. “I made a sub-experiment some time ago, and the results show that the gene we are looking for doesn’t pass normally. I let a few guards have normal families, and tracked the outcomes. Their children’s coats didn’t match the fathers’. And sons of their sons also never wielded the Grey Factor. Only male foals of their daughters sometimes had the gene.”

“In other words…” Princess Luna sat down again. “You don’t have the Grey Factor that we need. But your son will have it.”

“My… my son? But…”

Princess Celestia turned her head away, and looked through a window at the night sky.

“I see what you mean, sister.” She walked towards the window, not looking at anyone. “But would it be too much to ask?”

Luna sighed. “This may be our only hope. We might not get another chance. I know it’s much to ask, Twilight Sparkle.” She turned to the unicorn, nervously looking her in the eyes. “Will you help us?”

“What if…” Twilight hesitated. “What if I said no?”

Princess Celestia took a deep breath. “In every ruler’s life, sooner or later, comes that time, when they have to make an uneasy choice. Do I want to sacrifice something important for the good of my subjects? Or do I prefer to take a bigger risk, but not get my hooves dirty? My biggest problem is that my hooves have been dirty for years now…”

She stepped away from the window, and took her seat by the table again. “A ruler must remember that the good of her subjects comes first. The needs of the many are the greater ideal. The ideal, for which the ruler sometimes has to make sacrifices.” She looked deep into Twilight’s eyes. “And that’s how tyrants are born. Those, who forget that what they love is as important as anything else that the kingdom consists of. One sacrifice leads to another, and suddenly there is nothing worth fighting for. Twilight, you have your parents, and even if I’m not a mother to you, you are a daughter to me. And I would never, ever force anything on my daughter. If you say no, we have other options. An army of incomplete clones is still an army, and we have the Elements of Harmony. And maybe in the future we will be able to discover the Grey Factor again. All I can promise is that, with your son, there will be no need for further experiments. Project Orphan will be complete.

“The choice is yours.”


* Based on Sabrina by Einstürzende Neubauten