# Thunder Struck

### Chapter 6 : Puzzle Pieces

"Let me get this straight." Stephanie was bending over, hands on her knees in order to be a little more eye level with Sweetie Belle. "You, deactivated Hal? My Hal?"

The little filly-bot stared at her a moment, then answered with a jubilant, "Yep!"

Stephanie blinked at that. Her mouth worked, trying to form words. "Why did you say that?" was what she finally managed, leaning back warily from her own little machine.

Sweetie Belle blinked once, the metal covers that passed for her eyelids sliding quietly. "In order to respond to Stephanie," it answered.

Stephanie clasped her hands together in an effort to stay calm and took in a deep breath. "No. No, Sweetie. I meant, why did you say 'yep' at all. You aren't programmed to say... that..." She trailed off, watching as the filly once again began copying her, this time by clapping her front hooves together.

"Programmed? Program is... confusing." Sweetie looked back up at Stephanie from the two hooves it had clasped in front of its muzzle. "My... memory. Is memory. Memory said say 'yep' happily. Stephanie and others like Stephanie is in memory being happy."

Stephanie furrowed her brow incredulously. It took her a moment to understand just what it was her machine said.

Sweetie's smile shifted to a mild, robotic frown before it went on. "Steph is not smiling now. Is confusing, too," it said in semi-broken English. The filly blinked again, holding a hoof up to touch its own mouth in a curious way.

Oh yeah, and I'm the confusing one, funny. Stephanie wiped a hand through her freshly cleaned hair and straightened up. "Caroline, do you have anything you can add to this? Or did you find out anything about Hal?" She studied her little pony for the thousandth time, but warily. She still didn't believe Sweetie was responsible for him shutting down.

The bot masquerading as Caroline bobbed on its gantry by the basement stairs. "I'm afraid not, Stephanie. As for Hal, he is offline. That is all I know."

Stephanie waved a hand in the air and went over to her computers. "Right, right—" She spotted that along with Hal, the rest of her equipment was also offline. "This is serious." Immediately, she tried turning the computers back on; nothing happened.

"Oooh, why me?" Stephanie plonked into her chair and hung her head over the back in defeat. "I can't help but feel that this is all your fault." She stared up at the ceiling as she spoke.

"My fault?" Caroline responded. "I'm not sure I understand."

Stephanie jumped up from her chair again. "No. No, not you, her, it. I mean Sweetie Belle here." She knelt down and unplugged the bot from the computers again with a brisk yank. Perhaps whatever had afflicted her little pony had spread throughout the lab via the evil cord.

The filly-bot in question tilted its head up at Stephanie. "I did something wrong, Stephanie?"

Stephanie cringed a little on the inside, hearing the machine using its sad tone in tandem with a question like that. It were as though it were actually exhibiting emotion and confusion. Then again, she considered, She has done a lot of things that shouldn't be possible... Spontaneous emotional response... Following my commands at complete random... Claiming to not understand its own programming... It all summed up to a very logical conclusion in Steph's head. Yeah, it's gotta be someone else's tampering.

"Caroline, all the animals are taken care of for the day, right?" Stephanie strode across the floor towards Sweetie Belle.

The glowing pink bot turned from inspecting Sweetie to face its owner. "Why, yes Stephanie, my worse half adequately fed and cared for your pets. Might I add, she was very cross about every second of it."

Stephanie knelt down beside the filly, which craned its head around to watch her, still smiling. The machine's smile was small, merely upturned corners of metal at the edges of its little face, but it gave a good expression.

"I'm sure." Stephanie used to try trading witty banter with Hal and the others; it was funny. At first she would have said, 'Caroline, honestly, you shouldn't talk that way about Glados behind her back.' She did it a lot less so now, considering that for the most part it was much more of the same. Knowing that the machines were something you had made and were just an algorithm determining what words to be said took out some of the pizazz with talking to them.

They changed a little over time and stopped or began saying other things, but ninety-nine percent of the time they only said something new if she told them to.

While responding to her remaining house-bot, Stephanie located, then used Sweetie's deactivation switch.

The pony-robot watched Stephanie's arm reach back, just as it had the night before. Then looked up again, but didn't deactivate.

"What— Oh, right." Stephanie suppressed an angry groan, and managed a weak sigh, instead. "Your off switch is busted, somehow. Nnngh." She pressed a hand to her forehead and thought hard. "I won't leave you active again. Why can't you just go offline, Sweetie?"

In the blink of an eye, the malfunctioning little robot drooped forward, its form motionless, and apparently, offline. Its doll-like mouth frozen in a smile.

Stephanie blinked, then threw her arms up and began walking away. "Whatever. I don't even care or want an explanation!" She gave the robot an exploratory poke, then, satisfied the switch was merely broken, began to leave. She also addressed Caroline on her way out. "After I make a couple calls I'm going to work on Hal and... everything else. If I can get this mess in order, I'll be going out later. I need to find out who did this and how."

Caroline whirred over to face Stephanie as the woman began thumping her way up the basement stairs. "Steph, there has been no one else in the house since your in-house party last week. Even ruling that out..." The bot continued as its owner ran out of sight, and it followed after her. "It is highly unlikely that these occurrences are linked to a cyber attack."

Stephanie sighed and walked backwards for a moment while answering her machine. "Don't you think I know that? Sure, you aren't networked to the internet directly, but you are connected to the computer, and that just went down." She turned around again and angrily got herself a drink. "And I know you aren't perfect. I built you, after all, so it's possible."

Caroline wheeled to a stop beside its owner, still attempting to render assistance. "True... But also consider that you did not construct us in our entirety, Steph. Our parts were—"

Stephanie smirked and leaned back on the counter, pointing a finger up at Caroline. "Maybe. I thought of that, too. This could be something that's been waiting a long time. In fact, I really doubt the storm even had anything to do with this."

Caroline watched its Creator exit the kitchen once more, its logic center working to follow her path of deduction. "Do you believe the manufacturer built us with something outside of the listed—"

"Possibly, but unlikely," Stephanie interrupted, waving her free hand. She took a quick sip of her drink. "It's maybe more recent, maybe somebody loaded something between then and now. Tampering, you know? That's more likely than anyone I know doing anything... Alice couldn't have loaded something, surely. Jokes are her thing, but come on, it's Alice." Still attempting to piece together an explanation, she started walking back towards the basement.

Caroline's processors ran over that possibility several times. "True. That... doesn't seem likely, Stephanie. Alice is not—"

"Yeah, definitely not her. But if she could make you guys act up, I bet she would... She did used to ask you all conflicting orders and questions all the time to try and bring about mankind's doom or whatever." Stephanie's footsteps thumped as she went back down the stairs. "Anyway, that doesn't matter. The 'how' can't be changed now anyway. It would be nice to know how to prevent it from recurring, but it isn't really important." She was mostly just speaking aloud to herself, not to Caroline.

With her computers out of commission—along with Hal—Stephanie instead began opening up her laptop. "So, all I can really do is fix everything, then try to keep this from happening a second time."

Caroline watched through her pink hued lens as Stephanie began her work, still voicing her opinion on the state of her other pieces of equipment. Her mechanical iris scanned over the inert Sweetie Belle machine, the head tilted slightly at an angle.

Despite the observations that Steph had listed—which all seemed quite logically sound to Caroline—there was a course of action that seemed more optimal than the others. That one possibility had not been mentioned yet, either. The logic center inside of Unit Caroline concluded that its owner had overlooked this one likelihood.

"Stephanie," Caroline called out after the woman from the top of the basement staircase. It whirred down the gantry on the ceiling until it reached the bottom. "It's really not my place to say, dear, but there is the possibility you've overlooked something."

Stephanie looked up from her laptop in time to see Caroline's pink glow float down the staircase. "Actually, it is your place to say. I won't get in that argument again though, it would be awfully one sided..." She sighed and stood up, propping one hand on her hip. "Alright, what did I overlook, Caroline?"

The machine came to a halt. "If it is possible Sweetie Belle was the one to deactivate your equipment, as she claimed, could you not just ask her to reactivate it?" The pink iris swiveled in turn to look at the computer, one of Hal's cameras, then Stephanie again.

Steph stared for a long moment at her remaining robot. Three decisions plonked into her head all at once. They included telling Glados to come back, shutting down Caroline altogether from fear of yet another malfunction, and lastly, asking it to explain.

Once Stephanie's jumpiness had melted some, she realized there might be something to what the bot had to say. "Alright, why do you think that would work?" She held up a hand, her other arm folded beneath it. "Let's ignore for two seconds that Sweetie could be the source of a really bad virus, or that this isn't a coincidence caused by the storm. Heck, even that maybe someone's directly controlling her somehow. If she's malfunctioning, then there's no telling what she'll do, let alone listen to me."

Caroline's head extended toward her, bobbing its glowing pink iris while speaking. "But I listened, Stephanie, or this unit did, running as Glados. Earlier, the unit designated Sweetie Belle was exhibiting something you programmed in me to take note of, at least in other people: behavioral patterns. It is still possible that this is coincidence, and merely a malfunction, but I recorded patterns that have been seen before, in televised programming, literature, and the animals. More specifically, in you; the neighbors that yell at one another; your nieces—"

"Alright! I get the idea. That's not the same. Sweetie's just a bunch of circuits and switches, like you. Even if she is behaving strange, that... it's just someone's tampering. I mean, you can't be suggesting..." Stephanie had to resist the urge to blow Caroline a raspberry, disregarding the details that were brought up. They made no sense with what should or shouldn't be possible.

Stephanie frowned at the ground, deep in thought.

After a minute of thinking, she had only one reasonable response, and began pounding a fist against her forehead. "Augh, Caroline, a lightning bolt from a thunderstorm did not bring my robot to life! You hear me?"

Caroline's iris moved to shadow the top part of its camera, displaying a programmed appearance of expression. "Steph, I did not suggest that—"

Stephanie's scowl deepened as she went on. "Oh yes you did! And that just can't happen! This isn't the tale of Frankenstein starring Stephanie Speck. Too much power destroys electronics, they're sensitive." Her hands grabbed either side of Caroline's head. "There are mysteries in real life, real ones, like some of the sounds that come out of the ocean! But. Not. This."

Stephanie shoved her creation hard enough to make it spin, and turned away from it. She was angry, and stressed.

Caroline slowed her free spinning and refocused on its owner, who was busy storming past and back up the stairs, and not having accomplished anything. "Steph, please calm down."

"I'm going out now, activate Glados," was all Stephanie said, which was really more than she needed to. Normally, she would tell the bot what to do while she was out, but at the moment, validating them felt like stomping on her concept of reality. I need to go and talk to someone about this. Someone who isn't a robot. Who do I know that'll be available right now? Is this what it's like to go crazy? Maybe I'm just imagining stuff. Yeah, that's it... This is just in my head. Quickly, she made her way to the back of the house and grabbed her coat. It was mid-fall, and not too cold out, but the attire was still seasonal.

Stephanie vacated the premises far quicker than was normal. The screen door swung open, then slammed shut behind her, while she barely stopped to pet the goat standing patiently by the back gate.

Meanwhile, Caroline's pink iris shifted to a shade of warm orange while watching its owner from the window.

Glados stared quietly as Stephanie hopped in, then started her van and afterwards left the local vicinity.

Dinner plans began calculating by Glados' functions, as well as the other programmed chores scheduled as things to do regardless of input. It was different, that Stephanie merely left. Normally, she would review the day's tasks at least once.

A sound caught Glados' attention that wasn't an animal; stigma of that nature were programmed to be looked out for in case of home invaders. She rotated around on her gantry to inspect.

"Hello?" a voice called out.

The little machine—her name was Sweetie Belle, as far as she could tell—stared up at the orange eye looking back at her from its goofy perch on the ceiling.

"Hi!" She tried to smile as big as she could. It didn't feel very big. Then again, feeling wasn't something she was very familiar with, at least not in that sense. It was pretty confusing, and the thing called a 'dictionary' that resided somewhere in her head wasn't necessarily very useful. All she knew for sure were a couple of things that were kind of easy to figure out. All the sensations and thoughts she was having were definitely new. Unless she had forgotten things.

But that seemed like a silly idea to Sweetie.

Glados lowered herself towards the other machine. The processors took note that it was not addressing Stephanie; Stephanie wasn't present. Unit Sweetie was in fact addressing the unit facing it.

Glados' logic center wasn't sure how to proceed, at first. After some consideration by the processors, they concluded that because the subject addressing it was in fact another machine, which was not Hal, that it could withhold from responding back. There simply was nothing to determine appropriate responses for Unit Sweetie, nor did they fall under the required parameters.

Sweetie Belle watched as the glowy orange eye thing looked away from her, stared at the wall, then wheeled away somewhere into the house. She let out a low whine, which seemed like the thing to do. I am... disappointed, she thought. She watched the weird stranger leave while... ignoring her. Yes, she determined after a little bit of consideration that 'ignoring' was the right word.

"Wait!" Sweetie picked up her hooves and began chasing after the funny looking thing. "I want to talk to you—" She slowed and cut off speaking as something else got her attention. The sound her own... metal... legs... feet... hooves... The sounds her own hooves had made against the... oak floor... wooden floor, was fascinating. She lifted one of the odd limbs she could command, inspecting it carefully.

"Oooh, wow." Sweetie Belle picked up each of her legs in turn, studying them carefully. Her back legs were a little difficult to see; it seemed her neck wasn't very... flexible. "Why is finding words and moving so difficult?" She rolled onto her back, looking intently at her hind legs. They didn't seem to bend right, not like Stephanie's at all. After comparing her own design to related information she had of things, living 'animals', called 'ponies'. She quickly could see why that was; her design was more similar to them, but also still inferior in raw design efficiency.

Sweetie Belle groaned and looked around herself. She had asked a question using her voice, which had seemed to work earlier, usually. It hadn't been answered that time though. She thought hard for another solution.

Stephanie answered the questions, she realized; ones she couldn't answer for herself. Where is Stephanie?

"Stephanie?" Sweetie rolled over again, head craning around and searching. She spotted the orange thing again, wheeling around and moving things. It looked like it was... cleaning.

Sweetie Belle frowned. She didn't understand why she didn't talk back to her. She had seen her talk to Stephanie. Stephanie had called her Caroline, also Glados. Why two names? She climbed up to her annoyingly stubby legs and ran after the thing wheeling across the... ceiling.

"Hey, hey!" The greeting was another odd one, but Stephanie had used it. She really liked her. "Why won't you talk to me? Is it because I did not call your name? You are Glados, am I correct?"

Glados stopped moving through her programmed chores and turned to face the machine addressing her again. The processors evaluated the use of its name. The requester was, again, not on the listed response ticket, or even a person. It evaluated next that were the individual not on the list, that it was instructed to notify Stephanie. If Stephanie was not present, the local law enforcement was to be notified. The logic matrix scanned the target, determining whether or not to proceed with the security directive.

The subject requester was designated 'non-threat' quickly, it was still just Unit Sweetie. The processors found another inconsistency, that the unit had not been programmed as a response target. It decided that perhaps it would notify user designated Stephanie of the oddity. Unit Sweetie was also supposed to be offline, but that wasn't something currently included inside its parameters for consideration.

Unit Glados returned to its programmed chores, at least until further complications arose. It left Unit Sweetie on the daily generated 'watch' list; along with the goat, turtles, bobcat, skunk, and various breeds of canine. Sweetie was listed along with the goat at the bottom of priorities.

Sweetie Belle frowned as hard as she could as the thing called Glados and Caroline wheeled away again. Frowning, she remembered, was what you did when displeased or upset...

"Hey! But I called you your name," Sweetie protested. "Tell me what is wrong. Did I say your name wrong? Am I suppose to call you Caroline?"

The orange eye looked at her again, then wheeled itself towards a... door. The door led outside. "Should I combine the names? Glaroline? Carados?" Her metal legs began clicking on a different floor material. The sound was interesting too, but there was more happening now. She followed Glados outside the door, who interestingly enough kept going out into a shed. What is Glados doing? I don't like how she... ignores me. Maybe something is wrong?

Sweetie gasped, suddenly aware of where she was.

There was... outside, everywhere. Sun, sky, cloud, clouds, trees, and more suddenly surrounded her. Her eyes settled on a thing called... a motorcycle, before moving on.

Sweetie looked at it all quickly, but remained distracted. Despite the interesting things bartering for her attention, she ignored them and sat down, still frowning. She was frowning a lot lately, she noticed. At first, she had only smiled. Stephanie made her smile. You smiled when you were happy. Steph taught her that.

Sweetie widened her eyes more when a blurred and furry streak jumped past her vision, then... hissed at her. Its back was arched and its tail was poofy and out-stretched. Sweetie couldn't tell if it was smiling or not, though.

"Cat!" she cried as the word came to her. The thing designated as a cat or feline, made her smile. "Are you my friend?" She tilted her head and approached the furry thing facing her.

The cat hissed again and seemed to... wave with one of its paws, before jumping away in a flash of movement.

Sweetie watched it go. "Hey!" she cried out, then decided to give chase. As she ran, legs pumping, something peculiar about her voice got her attention. It seemed to modulate to a strange pitch randomly. "Why are you running, cat!?" The sound of her voice was odd, and she didn't understand why it sounded the way it did. It seemed her voice was made to sound a certain way. But why? she thought, still chasing the agile cat. She would need to find Steph to ask, she decided. Maybe cat knows where Steph is?

The cat was very quick, and it ran back into the house.

Sweetie ran through the little hole at the bottom of the door, chasing after it. Her legs churned and buzzed as fast as they could at what her confusing head numbers claimed was 'maximum efficiency'. "Wait! Come back!"

"Hey!" The blonde girl waved enthusiastically as her old friend showed up. "It's about time you got here." She laughed, pointing with a mozzarella stick dipped in sauce.

Stephanie rolled her eyes, making her way from the restaurant door to the booth table. "I just called you a minute ago, Alice. I'm pretty sure you were already here." She glanced at her watch. "It is lunch time."

"Guilty," Alice chuckled and held her hands up. "Alright," she started, leaning back from the table as Stephanie took her seat. "So what's up?" She didn't want to get too wordy just yet. Steph had sounded pretty stressed out on the phone, meaning something quite serious, probably.

Stephanie sighed out and put her hands on her forehead. "Why does something have to be up? I just wanted some human interaction." She spotted the appetizer on the table from the corner of her eye, then snaked a hand out to snag one.

"And to steal my lunch, I see." Alice watched her food disappear, laughing. "So, too much time around your 'masterpieces'? As funny as they are, you should invite some friends over again some time- Is something wrong?" She frowned across the table at Steph.

Stephanie had cringed at the merest mention of her machines. "Ah, no, I just didn't want to think about them, actually." An upset sounding breath heaved itself out of her, and she continued about it anyway. "...Right now only Glados is working. I think I might even have to scrap everything. I won't know until I look, but there was some serious electrical damage last night. I- I was stupid, I should have shut them all down right away to be safe." She picked up another mozza-stick and shoved it in her mouth. "Oh, sorry, is it alright if I have a few? I'll order more."

Alice snorted and shrugged. "Bit late now." Then, at Stephanie's wilted look added, "I'm kidding, help yourself, Steph." She hummed and leaned on one hand, studying her friend. "That sounds rough though, you spent a lot of time on them, too. I always unplug my computer during a storm."

Stephanie shook her head in disgrace. "I didn't even think about taking that precaution, even after my circuit breaker went nuclear on me, not until I drove here. I was too confident in my designs; stupid. Storms are unpredictable..."

Alice's eyes lit up in interest. "Speaking of, that storm last night was nuts. According to my mom the weather guy was losing his head on television. They can't explain how it just formed out of thin air right over land the way it did. It started over the Midwest, then traveled all the way to the east coast in a matter of minutes."

Stephanie only half listened, her mind stuck on the matter of her machines. "I could have insulated the housing's better, or added more surge protection at an isolated location..." she mumbled absently.

Alice raised an eyebrow at her friend, who was in a staring contest with the table. "My mom also said to always let the electrician handle that stuff." She swirled her drink. "But then again, you are an electrician. Probably better than one, actually." A bit of laughter trailed out of her, but went unanswered.

A moment of silence crept in between the two without Stephanie speaking back to Alice. The waitress came and went with an order taken, and little more than a few pleasantries or small talk passed between the two. Eventually, the conversation steered back towards Stephanie's problems.

"So, uh, I'll need a new mane for Sweetie Belle, again, actually." Stephanie stirred her drink distractedly.

Alice looked up with an absent expression. "Oh? Did the goat get a hold of her again?" She smirked at the thought, remembering the plethora of times she'd had to make a new mane for Stephanie's robot.

"Not so much..." Stephanie mumbled. "She caught on fire, actually."

Alice made pained look, teeth gritted. "Yeee-ouch, the storm did that?" At Steph's nod she went on. "Yeah, I guess I can understand why you wanted to get out then. If all of my hobbies spontaneously combusted, I'd crave melted cheese and nachos, too."

Stephanie frowned at the lunch snack she'd ordered. "Your hobbies are costumes and meddling."

"Wiiith people," Alice corrected. "And could you imagine if everyone I meddled with combusted?" Alice quirked her eyebrows and grinned.

"That's a really disturbing thought, Alice." Stephanie sighed and sagged back into her arms, crossed on the table.

"Heh, yeah." Alice folded her own arms and pouted her face in response to her friend. She wanted to say, 'Oh come on, what's with the commander kill-joy act?' but resisted the urge. Instead, she took in a breath and relaxed, studying her wilted nerdy friend. "Is there anything I can do to help besides the mane, food, and friendship?"

Alice gave Steph a huge, silly grin as she looked up.

"Hmm." Stephanie smirked a little, while admittedly trying not to. "Well, I'd ask you to come over and help keep me company while I fix it all, but I know you're working right now."

Alice gestured her hands over her hospital uniform. "What gave me away?" She flashed another smile.

Steph chuckled. "Other than that... honestly, no, there isn't. I sort of just ran out, it was too much to handle." She propped her head up again and began to stir some of the cheese on her plate with one nacho. There was more she wanted to come out and say, but instead, she tapered off her confession about Sweetie and Hal. After all, she knew Alice wasn't much with computers, her specialty was people.

Alice's eyes widened sarcastically, her smile remaining. "Whaaat, you want me to believe you actually ran away from tinkering with something that beeped and booped? That's as unbelievable as you claiming to hate cute little animals."

Steph stuck the blonde woman with a smirk that didn't touch her eyes. "I honestly felt like I was going crazy when I... left the house." A short burst of laughter escaped her. "I mean, okay yeah, this is what I'm best at and I love it. Losing myself in this stuff is the greatest feeling in the world."

Alice butted in. "Oh I beg to differ..." She looked up with a roguish grin.

"Quiet, you." Stephanie leaned forward, jabbing a finger at her friend from across the table. "Look, something really weird happened to my machines, and it's creepy—"

"But they're just machines." Alice held her hands up to her face. "Unless, they're... more than meets the eye?" She began giggling at her joke.

Stephanie deadpanned a moment, then grabbed another nacho. "You're not helping." She devoured the thing, then sighed and took a drink. "Alice." She clasped her hands together, deciding to tackle something since it had come up. "I know we've talked about this once before, but what exactly constitutes as life?"

Alice stared a moment, folding her hands on the table as she did. "Psch, well, you talked about it at me. I listened while playing Mario—" She began again after spotting Stephanie's hands curl into claws. "Alright! Well, why do you ask?"

Stephanie relaxed and breathed out calmly, thinking hard on why exactly she was even asking. Someone's just hacked my machine, she decided to herself. "Nevermind."

Standing up, Stephanie smiled and gave Alice a hug at her side of the table.

"Steph?" Alice quirked an eyebrow.

"I won't hold you up any longer, and I have to get going, Alice. Thanks for the talk, I'll pay on my way out. Uhm, call me when you have that mane done... and I'll let you know if I still need it by tonight." Stephanie shrugged back into her coat, taking one last sip of her drink afterwards.

Alice's response was skeptical. "Uhm, yeah, alright. Are you sure you're alright? You're acting strangely.... strange."

Stephanie waved back to her friend. "I'm fine, I just need to figure this out!"

The door to the restaurant dinged and shut behind the other woman. Alice frowned a little, then shrugged and enjoyed the remaining food. After a minute, her watch beeped that it was about time for her to head back to work.

"Buuuh, I'm so bored," Alice mumbled, standing up. "I wish something interesting would happen around here."