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.