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.