Confused, Stephanie stared down for a long time at the little robotic filly which had just spoken to her again. It shouldn't have been able to do that.
The machine tilted its head to the right side.
That was a little familiar, not that it calmed Steph down any.
After perhaps a minute of silence and motionlessness passed between the two, the robot sat, as if saying it was ready to wait patiently.
Steph just kept watching in a daze, busily trying to piece together an explanation for the unsolvable problems and questions she was quickly coming up with. Unfortunately, she was still short of that explanation.
The filly leaned forward, eyes looking down to lock onto Steph's pants leg.
Stephanie pulled her leg back just as the bot tried to grab it with its mouth. The metal jaws clicked shut on empty air.
"This is nuts," Stephanie finally said, and immediately began pacing, eyes watching the machine as it let out a whining cry that somehow managed to sound genuinely disappointed. Her eyes bugged slightly as the filly craned its head up to look at her. It wasn't acting superbly out of the ordinary, but enough to make her frustrated, annoyed and worst of all, confused.
Well what then? What is going on!? She echoed the thought to her assistant. "Hal, precisely what is going on— Scratch that, how exactly did she manage to talk just now?" Stephanie waited in front of Hal's camera for a response and crossed her arms.
In the mean time, the machine causing all the trouble sat down on the floor and tilted its head again at its maker.
Hal responded. "I do not know, Stephanie. I am unsure how your 'Sweetie Belle' was able to do this. During the night, it was able to restructure its programming, and circumvent my control over it. Changes were recorded, and archived as they occurred, until finally the link to the unit was cut at approximately five past ten o' clock this morning, by the unit itself."
"And how does that not qualify as something going wrong to you?" Stephanie's scowl at the camera deepened until her mouth twisted open in confusion at what she was hearing.
Hal seemed to hesitate, then began with an apology. "I am sorry. Perhaps I was mistaken, but you specified physical damage, Stephanie."
Steph thumped her forehead with a palm. "Of course I did." New questions in her head fought so fiercely to be the first one out of her mouth that she couldn't manage to say any of them. She turned her scowl back towards the other, more defiant machine in the room, which was sitting on the floor as though it were the most well behaved little robot equine on the planet.
Hal continued to drone on. "The changes logged were not found to cause jeopardy to property, per your request. However, judging by your heart rate, and blood pressure, I have determined that you find this unfavorable. Should I move this development under the category of 'something going wrong'? It can be added to the file index of—"
Stephanie let out an exasperated breath and waved a hand, interrupting her less-than-helpful lab assistant. "Hal, pipe down for a minute and let me think."
She eyeballed the little machine on the floor a moment while shifting her body to the left, then the right, and watching it track her movement. Abruptly, she stopped and shook her head. What am I doing? It's just a robot. Why am I acting so suspicious of it? Obviously, something is just seriously wrong. Something... serious enough to make Hal think that it reprogrammed itself through the night, then coincidentally locked him out and reactivated its speaker, too... somehow.
That all sounded a bit too crazy and improbable to swallow.
Steph stared at the machine smiling happily at her a moment longer, then slapped her hands to her face and let out a scream of frustration. "This. Is. The. Worst!" She had taken a few steps away, glaring up at the ceiling, when she froze where she stood, mid-step walking towards her computer screens.
The sound of a machine emulating her words, and apparently, her gestures, filled the basement. She turned around.
Behind her, Sweetie Belle was standing on two legs, her front hooves clasped over her eyes. "This. Is. The. Worst!" After the filly robot cried out the words in its old, squeaky Sweetie Belle voice, it lowered its front hooves and smiled at Stephanie. Its gears were the only sound in the basement; whirring absently to maintain its two legged stability.
Ignoring the strangeness, and fascinated for the moment, Stephanie dashed over to Sweetie and knelt down.
The machine didn't move—it merely smiled back—though it turned its head to scan around the room before looking back at its owner.
"Hal, did you say what caused the processors to... reprogram themselves?" Stephanie put her hands on either side of Sweetie's soot covered head. I need to replace her mane and tail... The singed remnants of its mane were well frazzled.
Hal's red tinged camera pulsed with life as he responded. "The source of the changes were traced to the unit's own processor, moments before connection to the unit was lost, Stephanie."
"But you don't know why it did that? And you're sure that's what happened?" Stephanie stood up and looked at Hal. "It isn't possible the storm damaged you, as well?" She trusted the diagnosis Hal would make. He was her creation, after all. Although, if Hal was malfunctioning, too, she supposed its diagnosis couldn't be trusted.
"I was in no danger from the storm, Stephanie—" Hal was interrupted again.
"Alright, then what about..." Stephanie looked back and frowned when she felt what she knew was Sweetie Belle tugging on her pant leg again. "Hey, Sweetie, stop that." She jabbed a finger down at the little bot on reflex.
The machine blinked up at her, staring. After a few moments passed, and a few annoyed thoughts from Stephanie, Sweetie jabbed a hoof back up at Stephanie, but didn't relinquish the pants leg. At the same time, it replied back in its own voice, "Hey, Sweetie, stop that."
Stephanie growled in annoyance; not just from having yet to get started on cleaning up, but because the confusion situation was just getting worse. Why is she just copying me. That's fine. But why? I never programmed any part of her to do that. She pulled her leg out from the filly-bot's grasp and strode to the computer. One thing was certain to her, she needed to find a way to figure out what was wrong before she lost her marbles.
"Hal," Stephanie said with conviction in her tone as she sat at the computer chair. "What you said before, about Sweetie locking you out, do you know if you would be able to get back in?" She began piecing through the data logs from the night before, and the last diagnostic that she'd run before bed. If I can't get access to her administrative functions, then... well, I'll have to take out the hard drives and wipe them, or hope a new processor will work.
"No, I do not know," Hal responded quickly. "But it seems unlikely. I had been attempting to regain the connection you set in place since the change occurred." There was a brief pause in its voice, before speaking up again. "Perhaps, if you had listened to me and purged the unit immediately, Stephanie, this would not be happening."
Stephanie glanced over from her hurried typing with a dismal expression. "Oh, haha, very funny Hal. Stick to business right now, okay? I'm going to plug Sweetie back into the computer and we'll see what we can do."
Hal responded in a neutral tone. "Understood, Stephanie."
Stephanie stood up, then almost tripped over Sweetie. "Wha—!?"
Sweetie Belle wasn't where the inventor had left it, but instead had donned to sit beside the chair.
Stephanie let out an exasperated breath and stepped over the filly. "Alright, you, come over here." She stepped up next to the work bench and looked back at her malfunctioning creation.
The machine sitting across the room from her stared back, smiling innocently.
Stephanie's shoulders sagged slightly in defeat. "Sweetie Belle." She pointed a finger at the machine in question. "Come. Over. Here." Then pointed another finger in front of herself.
Sweetie Belle responded by tilting its head, ears whirring around in a circle to face backwards.
At a loss, Stephanie flapped her arms against her sides. "I don't believe it," she said, before then addressing her prized creation again. "Do you remember anything?" She knew that was the wrong way to put it, but it was clear the bot couldn't function correctly any longer, so in a way it fit.
Sweetie Belle's smile got bigger, the eyes studying the motion from Stephanie. It lifted one of its legs and pointed out in front of itself.
"March." Stephanie tried the alternative word.
Sweetie Belle put its leg back down, which seemed like progress, but held its head back slightly rather than walk.
"Uhm, heel." Stephanie tried again. "Giddy up? Walk?" She started trying to motion Sweetie Belle forward with her arms.
The bot tilted its head again, smile shrinking, then looked down at its own legs. Once it looked back up it sat on its metal rump and began emulating Stephanie's arm motions with both hooves.
Stephanie, for her part, was ready to give up. "Unbelievable..." She held a hand to her head and shut her eyes, feeling a headache coming on already.
When she opened them again, she found Sweetie Belle holding a hoof to her head, eyes shut and head shaking slightly. "I..." Her frown slowly split into a disbelieving grin. Some laughter followed, which prompted the machine to look up again, then resume smiling. "Well, I don't know what's wrong with you, Sweetie, but you're lucky it's cute."
The filly sitting by her desk began wagging its tail again.
"Alright then, I'll just come get you." Stephanie sighed and approached her old project. "Still, I can't believe you forgot how to move forward."
"Forward!" Sweetie Belle's cheerful voice sang into the basement area as the bot began trotting forward. Looking straight ahead, it continued on.
Stephanie stared while it traipsed on by, seemingly without a care in the world. "Okay, well, that works. Forward it is then. Whoa, Sweetie, stop."
The machine ceased moving just before walking headlong into the workbench.
"Alright, well, sit there and don't move." Stephanie felt a little odd, telling her not to move when she wasn't sure if the machine would actually listen.
The machine seemed to comply; at least, it sat and didn't move.
Stephanie plugged Sweetie back into the main computer, then turned to Hal. "Alright, try and gain access again."
"Of course, Stephanie." Hal responded calmly.
Meanwhile, Steph strode back to her desk and kept her attention on Sweetie from the corner of her eye.
Oddly enough, Sweetie seemed to be staring at the cord adorning her flank.
Stephanie shook her head and focused back on the folders and information in front of her. Sweetie's hard drives and icons appeared in the diagnostic screen quickly.
Hal piped up at the same time. "...A link has been established, Stephanie."
Stephanie turned to face Hal, or, one of Hal. The red camera glowed quietly on the wall.
"What, just like that?" Steph asked the simple A.I. "I thought..." She laughed in relief and turned back to her screen. I knew it, there's just some kind of connection error or something. I'm letting my imagination get the best of me. For a second there, I was starting to think that... Slowly, she turned to look at Sweetie again. Well, this is still weird. There's not much that could explain behavior like this.
"How would you like me to proceed, Stephanie?" Hal asked its owner.
Stephanie wrapped up double checking everything she had looked over the night before. There still didn't seem to be anything out of place, something she had hoped to find. After waking up it was a comforting thought to figure that in her tiredness she had just missed something obvious.
"Just shut her down, Hal. I'm going to take out her hard drives and roll back the information and her processors. Hopefully there won't be anymore strangeness after that." Stephanie stood up and walked over to Sweetie again, smiling. "Sometimes the simplest solution is the easiest." She knelt down beside the machine on the basement floor.
Sweetie Belle smiled again once Steph approached it. "Stephanie!" it chirped happily.
Stephanie nodded, "That's right, I'm Stephanie. I built you." She laughed and ran a hand over the filly's cheek with a thumb, rubbing off some of the soot. "You've been a bad girl, Sweetie. You're supposed to do what I say, you know." She licked her thumb and went back to wiping clean her creation's face.
The filly's smile disappeared abruptly, leaving its mouth partially opened, creating a slight look of confusion on its simple face.
Steph scrunched her face up some at that, but continued her ministrations. "Hal? What's the hold up, she's still active. How's that wipe going?"
Sweetie Belle spoke up, instead, after staying quiet for nearly a minute. "I don't..." It paused.
Stephanie looked down at the bot, her attention gained.
"...understand," Sweetie continued, then looked up at Stephanie and blinked. Stranger still, its mouth moved up and down when it spoke, rather than opening and staying open as was programmed. The motors weren't sophisticated enough to give a very convincing appearance of speaking. Steph had always meant to upgrade them, but never had.
Stephanie's expression was flat for a moment, then she laughed at the strangeness. "Uhm, you don't understand? What don't you understand?"
Sweetie's ears rolled back to face away, while its eyes blinked. Then, it looked around the room, before settling back on Stephanie. "I don't understand," it repeated. "Why do I do what you say?" The filly's head tilted again.
Stephanie's own mouth worked for a second. "Uhm, because your program says to?" She shook her head after answering the machine as if it were a person. She wanted to know why Sweetie was talking like that, but a more worrying thought came after she realized Hal still hadn't answered her yet. "Hey, Hal?"
Sweetie Belle surprised Stephanie by responding again, still using its cute little filly voice.
"Program: several meanings found. One match. To provide a computer or other machine with coded instructions for the automatic performance of a particular task." It paused a second, blinking, then continued on more normally. "I don't understand, Stephanie." It began shuffling its hooves around. "There are..." It paused. "Words, and definitions, and..." It paused a second time. "Are they 'program'? They all conflict, argue and make no sense."
Stephanie had to put a hand on the work bench beside herself to keep from falling over. Her head felt dizzy. "How are you...?" Meanwhile, the words her own simple machine had spoken to her bounced around with the other occurrences into a medley of nonsense that had no clear conclusion; except one that, like Sweetie had ironically said, made no sense.
"Sweetie." Stephanie licked her lips, swallowing when the machine moved slightly upon being addressed, another thing that she just wasn't programmed to do. "What is your favorite thing?"
It was the first question that came to Stephanie's mind. There was too much happening at once, and if she'd been asked she wouldn't have been able to explain why she was acting on the little hunch that had sprung into her head. The simple test for a unique response seemed logical, for the moment. Hal and Glados were programmed for the artificiality of intelligence, even if they weren't that sophisticated. Sweetie, however, never had been.
Sweetie Belle blinked. "Your favorite thing?" she answered.
Stephanie frowned. "No, Sweetie, your favorite thing."
"No, Stephanie, your favorite thing." Sweetie Belle smiled and sat up, legs whirring to make her bounce slightly.
Stephanie, for her part heaved a breath. She thought hard on the response she'd gotten.
From the floor, Sweetie Belle did the same thing, making a sound that was similar, but in her lighter pitch of voice.
Well that told me nothing. Whatever, that was a stupid idea anyway. Why is it copying me, though? Stephanie frowned more at her creation. She kept going and tried a different approach.
"Alright, my favorite thing," she began humoring the stubborn droid. "Is you, Sweetie, you're my favorite thing." She waited patiently for her machine to copy her again.
Sweetie stopped her rhythmic bouncing on her hooves, and became quiet.
Steph frowned again, and made to address her project. "Swe—" Before she could speak the bot spoke up instead.
"Stephanie," Sweetie said, in a somewhat flat version of its voice. It said the name simply, as though it were addressing Steph in a way that wasn't out of the ordinary.
Stephanie began to smirk in victory.
Sweetie Bot went on to say more. "Stephanie is my favorite thing!" The little machine's smile got bigger as it sat back, looking up happily at its owner.
Stephanie smirk melted and she put a hand over her mouth. She knew what Sweetie was programmed to do, say, and respond to. Thus far, everything had been new. This has got to be a prank. But who? Turning away from the floor-bound filly she faced Hal's camera, painfully aware that he still hadn't answered her. "Hal, what's going on. Explain what its logic center is doing right now."
Stephanie blinked and strode closer to the red camera, currently dim and lifeless. "Hal?" She tapped a finger on the glass, mouth slightly open in confusion. Confusion had been like an ever present annoying friend the last twenty four hours; one that wouldn't take the hint to leave. "Hal. Online." The assistant refused to respond to her command prompt.
"Hal?" Sweetie Belle echoed from behind Steph.
Surprised, but no less off-put by her run-away creation, Stephanie turned and hesitantly answered the question.
"Yes, Sweetie, Hal. He's my assistant, and for some reason it seems he's malfunctioning, too. GLADOS!" Stephanie snapped her head to the staircase, summoning her third and final assistant. "Get down here!" She walked over to Hal's control panel beside her work station.
The disinterested, reproachful voice Glados employed rang out from the top of the staircase. "Oh, it's you. What do y—"
Stephanie interjected. "Can it. I'm glad you're still working, at least. Get down here and help me get Hal back online. I need to figure out what's wrong with him and then... and then I'll figure out what's wrong with Sweetie."
"Wrong with me?" Sweetie Belle's ears whirred around in a circle, possibly at hearing its name linked with something of negative connotations.
Stephanie's hands typed furiously on the keyboard. The first, simple things she attempted to do to bring Hal back, didn't work. "Did the storm do something to his power? I've been pretty distracted, I might have missed something..." She spoke her thoughts aloud to herself absently, trying to concentrate over everything else.
Glados wheeled down the gantry into the basement as far as she could go, which was the foot of the stairs by a table that often bore Stephanie's dinner or lunch, or midnight snack, or breakfast...
"Hal? Is he malfunctioning as well?" Glados was appraised of the situation merely by overhearing things as they occurred, but it did not understand what exactly was going on. Its logic center and processes had decided that it hadn't been important. The complications had been well outside of its own protocol. Now, however, they were a problem it was being tasked with, it seemed. It began investigating, finding immediately that Hal was offline, and refused to reactivate. Because Stephanie had not responded, Glados took the initiative and reported its findings, according to protocol. "Hal is inactive, Stephanie, and will not reactivate."
"I know that, but why?" Stephanie growled back at the other machine. "Figure it out."
Glados' eye bobbed up and down, scanning Stephanie absently, then began searching for a solution to the problem it had been given.
The inventor focused on the screen which contained nothing but data that didn't add up, not noticing the white and soot covered filly walking up beside her. Behind the robot, the cord attaching it to the computer dragged along too, until it was pulled taut.
Sweetie turned around, and for once, its ever present smile shifted to a frown. Then, just as quick, it smiled again. "Oh." Sweetie Belle said in a happy tone and in understanding. "I understand, now."
Stephanie froze in her work, and turned to look down in surprise at Sweetie Belle standing by her feet. She spotted the data cord strung from the work bench hanging above the floor, too. "You what?" she asked, bending down to disconnect the cord before it could be broken by her mischievous robot.
"Your face." Sweetie Belle frowned with its primitive face at Stephanie, making her pause. "You do this a lot, but not this." Briefly, she frowned again, then smiled instead. "Is it because something is..." It paused, the sound of its motors whirring making the only noise for a second. "Bad? Or wrong?" it finally said.
Stephanie's leg shook beneath her while she spoke back to her own machine. "Uhm, yeah." She decided to pick up Sweetie instead of unplugging it, then carried it back to the bench. "You frown when you're unhappy or upset, and smile when something good happens, instead. And it's pointless of me to explain this but, anyway..." After a moment, and straightening back up, she added, "Now stop moving, you're not supposed to move when you're plugged in. Okay?"
Sweetie Belle stood still, then went rigid. "Okay." The voice responded, this time, without the mouth moving with it, as was normal.
Stephanie squinted her eyes slightly. Maybe someone hacked my system. The storm must have been a coincidence. I don't leave these guys hooked up to the internet, though. They don't have wireless connections, either. Burglars maybe? She turned back to her workstation. "Glados, what's the news, anything? I need to know what happened, first."
Glados' mocking voice sighed before answering its owner. "I can't say, yet. However, it seems the fool simply isn't getting power. Are you sure you did not deactivate him and simply forgot? I know you're mildly intelligent for a human, but—"
Stephanie balled up her fists a moment in frustration. "Glados," she interrupted. "None of that right now, activate Caroline."
The orange eye on Glados' body shifted to instead glow pink. Its voice rang out in a more pleasant tone now. "Good afternoon, Stephanie."
Stephanie felt a small pang of accomplishment that something she had made had decided to work the way it was supposed to. At this rate, I'm going to have to take time off from work to fix everything. "Good afternoon, Caroline. I need you to figure out something for me. What. Deactivated. Hal?"
Stephanie and the robot that was currently designated 'Caroline' looked down at the speaker.
Sweetie Belle looked from Glados to Stephanie, gears whirring its head back and forth slightly. "Did I do a 'wrong'?" it asked, very quietly.
It also made a very, very sad look.
Caroline then spoke up in her soothingly pleasant voice. "Solution found, Stephanie. Your machine, Sweetie Belle, claims to be the—"
"Yes, thank you for that, Caroline." Stephanie cupped her hands over her face and groaned.