Stephanie's face was set in stone, eyes moving from left to right, scanning the computer screen's displayed diagnostics with every ounce of her attention. "I don't get it." She exhaled a breath she'd been holding without realizing it and fell back into the chair. Her arms flopped out to either side of the seat, where she languished, staring at the useless monitor before her.
Hal answered its owner, despite not being addressed. "Is there anything I can do to help you, Stephanie?" he drawled.
Stephanie blinked, trying to work out the tiredness beginning to affect her and weighing down her eyelids. "No," she said absently, still staring at the computer screen. "I think I'm done for now, Hal. Thanks for the help. I'm going to power Sweetie down, then go to bed." She hadn't found any explanation, despite her hours of searching.
Hal's periphery studied its master carefully, taking note of things, but coming up with little else it could do. "Very well, Stephanie. I agree that you should sleep soon. You have been awake for approximately twenty-two hours, as of now. If you change your mind, please, ask if you require any other assistance from me with your current project."
Stephanie saw the red orb blink out from the corner of her eye a moment after he finished speaking to her. She hesitated to look from the screen over to the subject of conversation, Sweetie Belle. Over in the center of the room was the shell of what used to be the adorable little robot. It sat there contentedly, watching her.
Quietly, Stephanie finally glanced over.
The machine re-began its never ending staring contest with her; which it seemed all too happy to engage in at every opportunity. Other than slight movements of its head and eyes, the little filly had yet to move much at all.
Stephanie furrowed her brow in thought. What is wrong with her? Her eyes studied the scalded little robot carefully, thinking if there were something obvious she had missed.
Besides all of the physical damage, there was surprisingly little sign of anything damaged at all on the inside. The shielding and temperature control had performed well, it seemed. Nothing but a few, small bits and bobs in Sweetie were fried by the fire itself. They were things that could be replaced with ease.
So it was that everything that could be looked over by her careful eye without completely disassembling Sweetie had been, leaving Stephanie at a loss for ideas of what was causing the problems. Nothing I've said to her, verbally or through the computer registered at all. And what was with... what she said?
Hours ago, Sweetie had asked something. Sweetie was Steph's first attempt at a robot. It had been a pretty ambitious first attempt, too. In the end though, she was maybe only a fraction as advanced as either Glados or Hal. Inexperienced as Stephanie had been, Sweetie ended up only being able to state certain things, but not carry on a conversation like the other machines.
She asked me who I was. Is her vision damaged? No, she still wouldn't ask something. A glitch? Stephanie's finger tapped thoughtfully on the desk, considering the possibilities. The way she just looked around, it was almost as if the bot were a blank slate. The diagnostic said otherwise, though, so it was still a mystery. All of its data seemed intact; the hard drives still functioning and holding files, with no more corruption or disorder than your typical de-fragmentation could fix. Sweetie wasn't a blank slate, that much was certain.
The conundrum, Stephanie concluded, must lay on a smaller scale. Namely, Sweetie's programming or software.
While all this was going on in Stephanie's head, Sweetie just stared at her contentedly, the smile growing or shrinking slightly when Steph looked in that direction.
That was another oddity; Sweetie looked contented, happy, but for no reason. She stayed that way, too, rather than resetting its expression for different prompts. Nothing Steph said seemed to get a different response, which although creepy, mostly just seemed random.
Stephanie ran a hand over her mouth and pushed her lab chair back quickly, standing up and striding over to Sweetie in just two steps that were almost jumps. She was at the end of her patience.
I want to call it a night, but it feels like I've wasted my time thus far. I want something out of this. Stephanie lifted the nearby remains of her bot's power cord, which had melted and bubbled from the incident. The ruined cord still lay on the table, forgotten and destined for the garbage. A new one was now attached to the bot's side.
Earlier, Stephanie had attached the replacement for the ruined peripheral quickly, and before Sweetie's power had a chance to run out again. That, at least, had proved to be an easy fix for her. With Sweetie's power problem solved, she had been able to work on fixing things well into the night; not that any of that hard work had paid off.
Stephanie shook her head and dropped the cord back onto the table. "Sweetie," she began, repeating the ancient method by which she had given her machine verbal commands. "Offline."
As anticipated, Sweetie just stared back at Stephanie, the mechanical eyes it used to see focusing and panning slightly to observe its owner's face. Her eyes' lights still worked, but were off, despite Stephanie trying to reactivate them. They were just decoration, but it was another thing the diagnostic was unable to answer for.
Nothing had changed with Sweetie's systems, but nothing seemed to work, such as the voice command that had just been given to the machine.
"Sweetie Belle," Stephanie tried again in a desperate tone. "Offline." She mouthed the words as one might to a foreigner, trying desperately to convey meaning.
Sweetie Belle's smile widened a bit, her mouth opening slightly, but that was all.
Stephanie growled in frustration, it very much seemed to her as if Sweetie had forgotten the very meaning of words themselves.
"Did you forget how to talk or something?" Stephanie all but yelled. "There's nothing wrong with you, so why?" She spun around on one boot and shook her head, pacing around the table in a wide circle. Her eyes kept themselves trained angrily on the machine that defied her.
Meanwhile, the little robot filly's head craned around to follow her, switching to look over its opposite shoulder when it couldn't follow Steph anymore because she moved too far in one direction.
Stephanie stopped walking, taking notice of this. Curious, she went in the other direction behind Sweetie.
The little robot repeated the prior action, switching its head's position by rotating back to the opposite shoulder. It seemed to want to stare more at the moving target of its attention.
Curious, and mildly entertained, Stephanie took a single step back to the right, putting herself directly behind Sweetie.
The damaged little thing attempted to turn its head the other way again, then back the way it had moved from when it found that didn't work. After just a moment, it seemed distressed that neither action could put Stephanie in sight.
In her exhausted state, Stephanie smirked, finding her troubled machine amusing.
After a moment more, Sweetie stood up very slowly, its back legs whirring noisily. This was the first sign of movement beside its head or eyes that Stephanie had seen.
The robot stopped where it was standing though, except for its head still trying to rotate around. "Steph-anie?" it called. Like earlier, it spoke Steph's name oddly.
Stephanie scrunched her face up, confused as to why her machine said her name like that, like it was unfamiliar with the pronunciation. The bot continued to turn its head side to side, trying to look at her. It sat again after half a minute. When it still couldn't see her by trying to turn its head twice more in either direction, it stood up a second time.
The machine froze, and Steph began to think it had given up. Just before she stepped around to its front again, it began emitting static from its speaker, loudly. The screech was sudden and bounced off every wall in the basement.
"Gah!" Stephanie's hands flew up to her ears. "Hal, kill her voice!"
The static ended.
Stephanie let out a breath of relief, then angrily turned to face Hal. "What was that!?" She turned back to the filly on the work bench, it had begun trying to look at her again.
Hal answered dryly. "Static: a crackling or hissing noise on a telephone, radio, or other telecommunications system. Would you like to know mo-?"
"Uggh, Hal, never mind." Stephanie rubbed her temple while in thought, glaring at the metal pony.
On the workbench, Sweetie did something else different. Its front right legged raised up, then lowered again into the same spot.
Stephanie stared flatly at the new development. "Alright, now what's she doing?" She watched as Sweetie raised the same leg again, but moved it slightly to the side this time.
Hal replied slowly this time. "The project seems to be randomly firing commands to its systems. Other than that, I can hardly say, Stephanie. It does not seem to be acting in accordance with the programs stored in the host files. It ignores them. I recommend an immediate purge of the project's systems, and a full restore. Would you like to execute?"
Stephanie frowned at the table beneath Sweetie, then at her A.I. assistant attached to the wall. "No, I would like to—" The frown turned into a gasp as the bot pitched forward off the table. "Hey! No—!" She dove forward and flung herself atop the work table in an attempt to grab the robot's back legs, just barely clearing the distance to snag them in time.
Steph's expression made an 'o' as her breath was half knocked out of her, but she'd caught Sweetie successfully.
Stephanie angrily addressed Hal again, teeth clenched. "I. thought. That everything was still intact? She's a complete mess!" She dragged Sweetie back onto the table and walked around it to inspect the front. It was still scarred, and burnt, but seemed no worse for wear from the fall.
Steph glared at it. "Is the problem with the host files that you have or something?" A small smile appeared back on Sweetie's expression, staring back pleasantly, but not answering.
Hal answered without pause. "It is not. System files present in unit designation 'Sweetie Belle' match those stored in your computer, Stephanie. No changes been detected within host files."
"Hal, there's something wrong with them, even if the files still match the back ups. Unless there's something seriously mechanically wrong that we missed." Stephanie frowned at the legs of her creation. They hadn't shown any damage after opening each one up for a quick inspection, but maybe there had been something. "Hal, was Sweetie Belle trying to walk off the table?"
The robotic assistant answered without pause again. "Yes."
Stephanie watched as Sweetie began to stand once again, robotic eyes locked with her own. Is there some short or block between her and her basic functions? This is some malfunction alright... But what if... She was eager to see if an idea she'd had would play out.
Walking quickly, eagerly, Stephanie paced around behind Sweetie again, where the woman watched, and waited.
On the bench, Sweetie began moving, but skipped trying to turn her head. First, she stood up; next her mouth opened, then closed.
Stephanie looked at her assistant's camera fast enough to fling her tussled mop of brown hair. "Hal, did she just try making that racket again?"
"Yes," he answered.
Stephanie looked back in time to see Sweetie Belle begin shifting her legs, one after the other, without lifting them as she had the first time. Instead, the movement resembled a shuffle. Slowly but surely, the filly turned around—the metal soles of her hooves scraping slightly on the table—then sat again, now facing Steph.
Sweetie looked up from watching its own legs and up at Stephanie once finished with the painstakingly slow movement. Its smile grew once more.
Amused, Stephanie let out a fit of giggling. "Okay, I am way too tired for this." She put a hand to her head, watching her old pet project with a hysteric sort of glee in her eye. "I mean— Uggh."
None of it made sense. What she had just seen, its behavior up until that; none of it.
Steph pressed the hand over her face and winced. She let out an annoyed breath and crouched in front of Sweetie, close enough to see the inner workings of the machine's eyes. "Now, I need to sleep, you, as fascinating as this is or not. So, I guess I'll have to turn you off the old fashioned way, hm?"
Stephanie placed a hand inside the still open side compartment. "In the morning, or afternoon, I guess..." A short laugh escaped her as she watched Sweetie's smile-stare and spoke to it. "I'll take you apart again, and then we can see what's wrong with you. Hopefully it's fixable. How does that sound?"
Sweetie Belle blinked back, but otherwise didn't move right away, and certainly didn't answer the question.
Just before Steph made to deactivate the robot, it did begin moving its mouth up and down. She paused, watching the oddity and listening to the soft sounds of her machine's gizmos working. The volume was muted, but regardless of that, it didn't usually move its mouth to speak.
Hesitating, Stephanie squinted her eyes. What is it doing now?
After Sweetie moved its jaw in what was likely every possible way it could, it stopped and straightened slightly.
In response, Stephanie leaned on one hip, waiting to see if it would do more. When it didn't, she shut her eyes and shook her head. "Well alright. Time for bed, kiddo." Her hand raised and clicked the switch to power it down.
Sweetie Belle turned its head to watch her arm, then looked back at Steph's face. When it didn't power down, that raised Steph's eyebrows.
Stephanie let out a groan of frustration. "You're kidding me— Everything mechanical was supposed to be fine..." She strode back to the computer and tried to study the monitor again. "I just checked the hardware, this is— Holy crow, I'm too tired for this."
The sound of the machine standing and turning around again clanked in the background.
"This is hopeless." Steph couldn't focus on the screen, and she knew that none of the data would be any different. "Well, I guess that settles it." She straightened up, then walked up to Sweetie. "The program's so borked I can't tell that it's borked." Her expression lit up with a lopsided, crazy smile.
Sweetie Belle seemed all to eager to return the smirk to its owner, lowering one side of its expression a little.
It took Stephanie a moment to realize what the machine had just done. "Did— Did you just copy me?" She tilted her head out of pure incredulity. Perhaps it's taking input visually rather than with audio... somehow?
Surprising the woman again, Sweetie Belle tilted her head to the side, back at her.
Steph's eyes widened a fraction at that. She paused a moment, then ran a hand over Sweetie's head, feeling the singed remains of her mane. "You are copying me," she breathed. I never programmed that. Why is it doing that?
Sweetie Belle blinked in response.
Stephanie put a hand to her chin, more ideas circling an explanation for what was going on, or what was making Sweetie act so differently. She knew the robotic creation was little more than an interactive, talking pet; one she hadn't tinkered with in years other than adding different soundtracks for her to play on command.
Whatever the case, it was clear she would have to look deeper to know anything for sure. "At the very least, this is as good an excuse to make you better than ever, huh? We'll take you apart, look at everything close up..." Her finger booped Sweetie on the nose.
Rather than the usual giggle or laugh that was programmed as the response for nose booping—one of the first things Stephanie had done for Sweetie because it was adorable—the robot instead crossed its eyes and began staring at its nose blankly. After inspecting it for a moment, it looked back up at its owner.
Steph stared back with a wan, unsure smile. "And we'll fix your power switch..."
The robot continued to stare.
"But..." Stephanie added, walking to the side of the bench. "You're staying on the floor. I don't need you falling off the bench... again." She lifted the robot and grunted from the effort—both from her overall extreme tiredness and her property's sheer weight. "There you go, safe and sound." She let out a breath of air.
Sweetie Belle, meanwhile looked around the room from the floor, inspecting its entirety, then looked up at its owner again. It sat down abruptly, then its tail began to brush the floor slowly. Although, without the pink and purple hair it once possessed, it made a loud scraping sound.
"Well that's adorab— adorable." Unable to hold the urge back any longer, Stephanie yawned, and began to leave. She stepped around Sweetie. "You be good now!" She called back to the filly-bot. It hadn't moved at all, and maybe she couldn't turn it off, but there wasn't much else she could do without another ten minutes of work to do something drastic to unhook individual parts manually.
Still, Stephanie took some precaution. "Hey, Hal?" She addressed the camera at the foot of the stairs, which blinked on. "Let me know if something goes wrong, okay? If you have to, try to force her to shut down again with the computer. For now, just record what she does."
"If your project does misbehave, should I wake you up, Stephanie?" Hal responded. The machine recalled that it had been told the same thing for other projects, and it had every instance of its notifications being ignored carefully archived. So, it clarified what exactly its owner wanted it to do.
Stephanie yawned again, and spoke through the middle of it. "Aah— Yeah, only if it's dangerous or she breaks something, including herself. And while you're at it... excuse me." The yawns were fighting to put her to sleep right there on her feet. "While you're at it, run another diagnostic, maybe something will turn up."
"Certainly, Stephanie." The sound of the computers doing just that began, and Hal re-re-re-inspected Stephanie's old creation.
"Thank you." Stephanie halfheartedly waved a hand and trudged up the stairs. She was so tired she thought she could actually hear her bed calling to her. "Night, Hal."
"Good night, Stephanie," came Hal's gentle reply.
It didn't escape Stephanie that she sometimes spoke to her machines as though they were people. The habit had just grown over the years. All of them seemed rather uncanny in their responses to her, generated randomly, scripted, or not. She had outdone herself tinkering with each new toy. They didn't compare so much to the accomplishments that had begun to storm the market in recent years; it was the year twenty-twenty-three, after all. Still, they made her happy, and if Sweetie was lost, that would be a blow to Steph.
Once Stephanie had successfully climbed the stairs, she shut the door to the basement. After a thought, she locked it, too. I don't get it. She stood there, frowning slightly at the door. Sweetie's hardware, power cells, nearly everything checked out. How is her behavior such a mess when her programming looks fine? The fact that the diagnostics had revealed very little outwardly wrong with the bot was strange enough after a fire. Stranger than that, was Stephanie hadn't been able to find what could even be causing the unexplainable phenomena with Sweetie. It was like something was controlling her.
Stephanie let that thought hang as she walked back to her room. Could Hal or Glados be playing a trick? She knew they couldn't be. Maybe it was possible, but their jokes shouldn't go past being verbal or snarky. Then again, they both surprised her every now and then, too.
The charred smell from Sweetie's room tickled her nose unpleasantly as she walked passed it.
Stephanie groaned in dismay. And I'm going to have to get that fixed, too. Her eyes caught the time as she half stumbled into her room; it was nearly eight in the morning. At least her batteries weren't ruined... Another yawn cracked her jaw.
The beleaguered inventor had energy and thought left for one, final word as she collapsed full on into bed.
"Sleeeeeep..." Stephanie's head slammed into the pillow with a loud pomph, and she was out like a light immediately.
Saturday September 30th
Later That Afternoon
"Oo. Oo. Oo. Lady. Oo. Lady. Oo. Let's go to space."
Stephanie groaned and rolled over, pulling a pillow over her head to shut out the screeching voice of the thing she used as a scarily effective alarm clock.
"Wait wait wait wait. I know I know I know. Lady wait. Wait. I know. Wait. Space." The core bounced in the gantry arm happily; at least, it gave the impression of being happy with its recorded message.
Stephanie growled and pulled the pillow around her head tighter, pushing herself into the corner between the wall and mattress in a feeble attempt to hide from the ear piercing noise being projected at her. She waved one hand in its vague direction as a final bid to discourage the attack being committed on her person.
Undeterred, the core's yellow eye circled and bobbed randomly in increasingly enthusiastic ways as it rambled about space.
Glados lowered the core down closer to its owner's ear. "Wanna go to earth wanna go to earth wanna go to earth wanna go to earth. Don't like space. Don't like space. It's too big. Too big. Wanna go home. Wanna go to earth." Suddenly, it stopped.
The room was quiet, for just a moment, until the core whispered, "Lady... Hey lady. Lady."
Stephanie braced herself.
"SPAAACCCCCE! SPAAACE! YEEEHAAAAAW!"
Groaning, rolling over, and slapping both hands to her face at once, Stephanie admitted defeat. "Alright! I'm up, getting up now. You can turn him off." She begged Glados, waving one arm in a circle as a frantic gesture. Tiredness kept her from getting up right away, so she laid back on the pillow to stare up at the ceiling.
Glados extended her form over Steph's head, still holding Space Core in one robotic arm. "As much as I would like to, which I wouldn't, what would that accomplish? Simply put, you need to get out of bed before I can deactivate it, Stephanie."
The core continued to spin its eye randomly while spouting words in the painful tone of voice it used. "Space. Space. Space. Space. Comets. Stars. Galaxies. Orion."
Glados continued over it. "I realize it must be difficult for someone as large as you to climb out of bed, but do try."
Stephanie coughed out some laughter, then sat up and rolled out of bed, pushing the invasive Glados and Space Core aside as she did.
As if on command, the two wheeled out of the room, Space Core now silent. It had been important for Stephanie to get up when she did; the way she had programmed them, they would just get worse if she tried to ignore them. They were very effective alarm clocks considering her penchant to sleep in if she could, even if she would regret sleeping so much later in the day.
Stephanie inhaled deep, stretching this way and that in order to wake up. Her eyes still stuck closed, as though refusing to let her try and be awake to begin with. After being conscious for nearly twenty-four hours the day before, a mere eight hour rest felt insufficient to her. She felt she could fall back asleep again, and for another eight hours, too, now that she had dispatched the two robot team. Unfortunately, there was a lot that needed to be done.
After a quick shower, a disorderly breakfast courtesy of Glados, and getting dressed in a fresh pair of jeans and shirt more suited to working, Steph began her day.
"So, what's first?" Stephanie unlocked the basement door and stepped into the basement. It would still be a mess, she recalled, from the scattered broken lighting and late night robot tinkering she had done. Ignoring that for now, she addressed Hal. "Hey, wake up."
"I cannot 'wake up'. I do not sleep." The machine mind replied dryly to her with the reminder.
Without so much as saying hello, first. Stephanie thought, making her way down into the half ruined lab. It was worse than she remembered it, though she had been less than observant last night. Once she reached the bottom of the stairs, she could see Sweetie Belle, still sitting on the floor beside the bench; two cords stringing out of her back hooked up to the charger and computer respectively. Along with her were the half destroyed lights and scattered spare parts around the room. Wow, I really did tear the place apart, didn't I?
Hal continued speaking. "How did you sleep, Stephanie?"
Stephanie approached Sweetie, and with her refreshed mind was already filled with thoughts and ideas of what to do. "Fine. Hal, did she do anything last night? You didn't wake me, so I assume everything was alright." First thing she checked Sweetie's power; her new battery was now fully charged, as it should be.
"Better than fine, so to speak," Hal replied.
Stephanie unhooked Sweetie from the bench and slid into her work chair. "Oh?" she asked absently, then stopped and looked at one of Hal's camera. "What do you mean by that?"
Hal drawled on in the same drab tone he always used. "I merely mean to say that since last night, things have improved. You asked that I notify you if anything should go wrong, but nothing did." It repeated what its orders had been, seeking clarification. "That is not to say things have not changed, however." The program running Hal called on historical instances of confusing dialogue prompts with designation 'Stephanie'; it often noted that she would act as though Unit Hal had not fulfilled what it had been told. Quite often this made things confusing for it.
Stephanie had been about to ask what Hal had meant, but was distracted by the familiar sound of little metallic hoofsteps. Something tugged on the pants leg to her jeans. Looking down, sure enough, Sweetie Belle had a mouthful of denim, and was pulling whilst looking back up at her.
"She started walking again?" The moment Stephanie said the words, she knew everything about them was wrong. Figured out. What am I saying? "Hal, what did you do to get her working?" She turned to regard the red camera watching from the nearby wall.
"I took no action while you slept. I was merely an observer, Stephanie." Hal replied promptly.
Stephanie pushed Sweetie Belle off her leg and walked up to the camera she was speaking to. "Alright, what changed last night then!? Answer me that. Sweetie's walking now, when she couldn't take a step without tumbling forward like a slinky last night. What. Happened?"
A small girl's voice chimed into the room, breaking the seriousness of the atmosphere. "Steph-anie."
The woman whirled to face her pet creation. It took careful step after step towards her, looking down occasionally as if unsure of its own hoof-falls.
"Hal," Stephanie spoke hesitantly.
Hal responded flatly. "Yes, Stephanie?"
Sweetie Belle looked up again, almost grinning. "Stephanie!" It moved its mouth in a strange, exaggerated way.
"Did you reactivate her voice?" Stephanie locked eyes with Sweetie and swallowed; the little filly sat at her feet and continued to smile broadly.
Hal was quiet a moment, before responding slowly. "No. I did not."