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.