• Published 4th Apr 2015
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The Iron Horse: Everything's Better With Robots! - The Hat Man



A cute robot pony. A mysterious origin. A princess who believes anyone can learn friendship, even a cold, logical machine. A journey begins...

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The Machine Awakes

Twilight got up, moaning contentedly and stretching after a restful night’s sleep. What Vanderbull had told her had weighed on her mind, but she felt refreshed nonetheless. She woke up to find Spike had made her a cup of tea and left it on a tray on her nightstand. She smiled as she made a mental note to thank him later. She made her way to the castle balcony, levitating the cup of tea with her. There she stood by the railing and looked out at Ponyville as it was bathed in the gentle golden glow of the dawn. She took a breath of the cool, fresh morning air. Giving a satisfied sigh, she took a sip of her tea.

“GOOD MORNING PRINCESS TWILIGHT!” Gadget said, bursting into full view suddenly.

“Gah!” Twilight screamed, nearly dropping her tea. “Gadget? What are you--”

“I thought you might want somepony to wash the windows so I decided to help as a way of saying thank you for letting me stay here and everything so I hope you like it!” she said, talking just a little bit too loudly.

“I… wait, windows?”

“I did it with these!” Gadget was again wearing the harness with the mechanical arms and Twilight could see that three of the hands had a cloth in them while the last one contained a spray bottle with window cleaner.

Twilight smiled, but raised her hoof. “That’s nice, Gadget, really, but…"

She stopped finally noticing that Gadget was actually standing just beyond the railing, and they were several stories up. "Wait, what are you standing on?!" She rushed over, wondering what sorcery was keeping her from falling.

“Oh, that," Gadget replied nonchalantly. "I brought out another one of my inventions to help me reach the windows. See?”

Twilight looked over the rail and saw that Gadget was standing on what looked like stilts, only these had a strange, accordion-like mechanism to them.

“My extendable platform boots! I just move my hooves a little, see, and…” Gadget bent her knees slightly to shift her weight and all four of the stilts lowered her simultaneously. Just for good measure, she raised and lowered them several times, elevating herself and coming back down like a yo-yo, the boots making a click-clack sound as they telescoped up and down.

“Ta-da!" Gadget said, waving her mechanical hands theatrically. "You know, I should really sell this to window-cleaners. Although I need to make an anchoring mechanism. One stiff breeze and these could topple--”

Apparently this was tempting the Fates, because a strong breeze did come by and Gadget started to tip over, losing her balance. In her moment of fear and panic, even her mechanical limbs began to flail wildly, dropping her bottle and cleaning rags.

“Whoa!” Twilight shouted, activating her magic in an instant. The magenta glow of the magic enveloped the young mare, momentarily holding her and then pushing her back into place.

“Ahahaha… th-thanks, Princess." She was panting and shaking. "Wow... I could have just died there. Guess I owe you even more now, huh?” She lowered her head, hiding her face behind her mane as she looked away. Her mechanical limbs, Twilight noticed, also worked in reflection of her mood, as she again hid her face behind one set of hands.

But Twilight just smiled. “It’s okay. Besides, you and Mr. Vanderbull are the ones helping me remember? Now, I’m glad you helped clean my windows, and that was very sweet of you, but why don’t you come back inside? Spike’s making waffles!" She rested her forelegs on the railing to look at her slyly. "And since you’re from Vanhoover, I’m sure you’ll be glad to know we have real maple syrup.”

She raised her head instantly and her eyes lit up. “I’ll be right down!” she exclaimed as she descended back to the ground below.

***

Hours later, Twilight was on her own working on a single piece of the automaton. The strange bulbs on the thing, she’d found, could absorb magic and turn it into an electric charge. There was something familiar about that, though she couldn’t quite place where she’d last seen it. She’d been practicing casting magic on it and then running it through a multimeter to see how much voltage, current, and resistance went through it.

She was happy to make a contribution, especially in light of how masterful Vanderbull and Gadget were. Her own specialty of magic-related technology was still proving useful. Several more pieces of machinery were on a table alongside some reference books. The headway she was making should speed up repairs if the other two were having as much success as she was.

“Excuse me, Princess Twilight?” Vanderbull asked as he peeked through the door.

“Oh, good, Mr. Vanderbull!” she exclaimed, picking up the device she'd been working with. “I have the measurements from this… thing. You see, I can cast magic on it and it converts it into an electric charge. It loses a little bit in the process and I’ve seen some technology like this before, but wow! This is really efficient! Who could have designed this?”

He bent down, adjusting his spectacles as he looked at it. “Hm. I’m afraid I’m no closer to discovering that either,” Vanderbull said. Then he stood up straight and grinned. “However, Gadget and I have something to show you. I think you will find it just as impressive as we do.”

Twilight's curiosity was piqued and she nodded eagerly. “Ooh, that sounds interesting! Let me bring these other devices and my data and head back to the main room.”

Shortly thereafter, she entered the room where the automaton had once been in one piece. Now it was completely disassembled. The legs, barrel, and even the head were all in separate pieces, though labelled and kept in distinct groups to keep them organized. But on the center table were three distinct groups of machinery and they were all hooked up to a large chemical battery.

"Is this what you wanted to show me?" Twilight asked, pointing to the objects on the table.

“Your Highness!” Gadget exclaimed. She was using her mechanical limbs to hoist a heavy-looking crate of gears and cogs and move it to the side of the room. “You are not going to believe this!” She jumped into the air, practically dancing with excitement.

“Easy now, Gadget,” Vanderbull said, holding out his hands in a calming motion. “Please operate the switching mechanism and control the subsystems as we practiced. I will take the liberty of explaining our find to Her Highness.”

Gadget saluted (again with her mechanical hand, not with her hoof, Twilight noted), and went to the other end of the table, pulling out a small console with a few switches on it. They were wired to a round, black triangular thing in the middle of the table. It, in turn, was connected to the three surrounding clusters of machinery.

“Princess,” Vanderbull began, “you will recall that the machine you found was in the shape of an earth pony?”

“Yes, it was. I mean, it is.” She hesitated, seeing Vanderbull smile slightly. “Isn’t it?”

“Oh, indeed. But look at this here,” he said pointing to the first group of machinery. “This is the automaton’s leg, now opened so we can see its workings.”

Twilight looked at it. She could see the gears and ball bearings that made up the knee, but the leg mostly just seemed to be a couple of poles inside a skeletal frame. However…

“Are those… pistons on the side of the main leg?” she asked, leaning in closer.

“Yes, very observant, Princess!” Vanderbull replied. “But watch this. Gadget, Stomp Test A, please.”

“Yes, Commodore!” she said, pulling a switch. There was a hum of electricity and the leg twitched slightly. "Power has been routed to the leg!"

“Now, this is a chunk of granite I purchased from the local quarry,” Vanderbull said, holding up a sizable rock, grunting at its weight. “Quite strong, actually. Now, if I place it on the ground and hold the leg over it like so,” he continued, hefting the leg into position at the edge of the table and holding it in place, “then watch what happens. Gadget?”

“Stomp Test A in 3… 2… 1…” She pulled a lever and the mechanical leg stomped downward onto the rock with its brass hoof.

The rock was totally unscathed.

“Well…” Twilight said. “That’s… what was it supposed to do?” She cocked her head to the side, raising an eyebrow.

“Nothing, actually,” Vanderbull said. Then he held up a finger before Twilight could ask further questions. “You'll understand in a moment, Your Highness, after we engage the subsystem. Gadget?”

His young assistant pressed a button and sparks of electricity flew from the black triangular device. A green light on the corner connected to the leg blinked on, and then Twilight jumped at the sudden metallic clank and the slow hiss of steam that came from the leg.

“What was that?” she asked.

“The pistons engaged!” Gadget exclaimed. Then she covered her mouth. “Oh, sorry, Mr. Vanderbull, I…”

“Oh, it’s fine, Gadget,” Vanderbull said with smile as he waved a hand. “I understand your enthusiasm. But first, Test B.” He again held the leg in place.

“Right! Stomp Test B in 3… 2… 1!”

She pulled the lever a second time and again the leg stomped on the rock. But this time the rock shattered into tiny pieces that flew all over, scattering the room with gravel and dust as the recoil forced Vanderbull backward. They all coughed at the sudden cloud of dust.

“Oops,” Gadget said, looking down. “I think I used too much force.”

“Not a problem, we’ll just be sure to clean the supplies and parts after this,” Vanderbull said, brushing the dust from his sleeves. “Now, then, Princess, what you saw in the first test was the leg working in a low-power neutral state. But we have found that the automaton has three distinct subsystems that it can utilize for extra abilities.”

Gadget couldn’t contain herself any longer. “It can imitate all three types of ponies!” she cried, leaping up on to her hind legs. “And that was its ‘earth pony’ mode!”

Vanderbull rolled his eyes, but he was obviously excited about the discovery as well. “That is correct," he said. "By engaging what we call ‘E-Mode,’ it can drastically increase the power in its legs as well as augment the body’s sturdiness and pulling power. Not only that, it even activates sensors in the hooves that allow it to detect earth energies. Thus it can simulate earth pony strength and possibly the similar abilities that allow them to tend and grow plants.”

Twilight was listening intently, but then turned to the other machines on the table. “Wait a minute. If what you’re saying is right, then these other two things can let it simulate pegasi and unicorns?!”

“Exactly,” Vanderbull said. He went around to a strange, trapezoidal box. “We found this hidden in a compartment in the automaton’s back.” It was silver and had two slots, one on each side. “Gadget, engage P-Mode.”

She pressed a button and the green light went out, followed by a blue light on another corner turning on. The trapezoidal box in turn began to hum and then there was a loud rattling from inside it. A moment later, a pair of bright, brass-colored wings shot out from the sides, then raised into a ‘V’ shape. They were skeletal, still totally metallic, but a series of what looked like brass feathers ran down their length.

“It has wings? With feathers?” Twilight asked. She cocked her head. “How? Why? Is it supposed to flap with those things?”

“Actually, no,” Vanderbull replied. He pointed at the 'feathers' and said “These are not really feathers, though they were obviously meant to mimic their shape. Instead, they are miniature jets. They fire streams of air to provide the machine with lift.”

“Jets? You mean they can propel the machine using nothing but air?!” Twilight was becoming more and more impressed by the second. Primitive jets were an old invention that had been around for a while and rockets on fireworks were a kind of jet, and she’d studied enough science to know that some ponies believed they might one day be used for transportation. Still, something like this…

“Observe, please,” Vanderbull said, motioning for Twilight to step back. “This will get a bit noisy. Gadget, if you please?”

“Roger, Commodore!” She pressed a few more buttons and a low wheezing came from the device. Then it slowly built to a high-pitched whine, then grew to a full-blown roar. Slowly, the trapezoidal box, held up by the wings, floated into the air and began hovering, tethered down with ropes and its own wires. Twilight could see the slight distortion coming from the hot air blowing from the tips of the feather-shaped jets. It hovered there for a good minute, wobbling slightly and whipping up a powerful wind around the room and blowing their manes all over.

Finally, Vanderbull gave the signal to cut the engine and Gadget reduced the power, letting it slowly return to the table before cutting the power entirely. The wings folded up and retracted back into the box like snakes returning to their burrow.

“That’s amazing!” Twilight exclaimed, still shouting. She rubbed her ears when Gadget and Vanderbull winced. “Oh, sorry, my ears are still ringing!”

“Quite all right.” Vanderbull was rubbing his own ears.

“Well, at least all that wind probably cleared away the dust from the last test off the equipment,” Gadget commented with a shrug of her shoulders.

“I suppose that’s something,” Vanderbull sighed, rolling his eyes. “Now, onto the last mode. We won’t actually test it because honestly we don’t know how to make it work correctly.” He motioned to the third subsystem. The last wire from the triangular device led to a tray filled with six different glass jars, each one sealed with a glass lid that had been made airtight with a translucent substance. A wire ran into each one through the lids and then out the bottom of the tray before mingling back into a braid of wires that eventually terminated in some strange conical metal shape.

“This is… what, the unicorn mode? ‘U-Mode,’ I guess?”

“Yes,” Vanderbull replied. “You see, we discovered that the machine runs an electrical current through these jars and carries an electrochemical signal to this small cone. It was found in the head, just under a hidden panel in the forehead. It can telescopically extend outward when activated.” He picked it up and extended it manually, pulling it out with his fingers and showing her its true shape.

“Oh my gosh," Twilight said, her eyes lighting up. "It’s a horn!”

“Well, the mechanical equivalent of a unicorn horn, yes.” Vanderbull tapped it, letting her hear it ring. It was definitely metallic, but it had a strange reverberating quality to it.

“May I see that?” she asked.

“Of course,” he said, holding it out. She levitated the bright, golden object over to herself and looked at it carefully, noting the strange colors of it as it shined in the light. She gasped. “This horn is made of an orichalcum alloy! Orichalcum is a highly conductive element for channeling magic energy, but it’s also rare and expensive! Whoever made this must have been very rich to get so much of it!”

Gadget coughed, getting Twilight’s attention. “Please check the jars as well, Princess Twilight,” she said. She gently pushed the jars over to her. “We think we know what they are, but we need you to confirm our theory.”

Twilight looked to the tray of jars curiously. Each jar contained a different color liquid. They were sealed shut and secured to the tray. The glass of the jars also had a strange green tint to it. “Magically reinforced glass. They’d be very hard to break. The liquid inside is…” She levitated the tray and moved it from side to side. The liquid inside barely moved. “It looks like it’s not really liquid. It's more like a hardened, high-viscosity gel. But if it’s connected to the horn… then it must be part of something that can produce magic artificially!” She paused and narrowed her eyes as she looked at them closely. She placed a hoof to her chin.

“Is something wrong, Princess?” Vanderbull asked.

Twilight didn’t respond at first, but suddenly cast a spell, firing a beam of magic at the jars, startling both of her guests. The jars each lit up and glowed brightly in sequence before dimming again.

“Just as I thought,” Twilight said. “It’s thaumatrium gel. Concentrated mana.”

Vanderbull tilted his head. He looked to Gadget who only seemed slightly less confused.

“Mana,” Gadget murmured. “That basically what magic is made of, right?”

Twilight smiled, glad to be in more familiar territory. “Yes, that’s pretty close. Mana is the ethereal energy that ponies use to cast magic. It’s everywhere and any living thing can create it, but each pony has an individual manafont. It’s like a storehouse of energy. You can run out if you cast too much, but you can also increase its potential with practice. Usually mana is inert, and just sort of hanging around. But you can capture and collect it as solid matter with some chemicals and practice and a lot of time. We call that solid matter ‘thaumatrium.’”

Vanderbull nodded, listening intently. “So, the automaton uses this material as a kind of magical fuel?”

“Exactly. What I’m thinking is that these jars of thaumatrium gel are meant to substitute for the automaton’s manafont, since it’s not an organic being. That’s how it could cast magic, at least theoretically.” Twilight considered this and peered at the jars very closely. “This much gel would last a long time, but I’m not sure how powerful it could be. Most unicorns can do a lot of ordinary magic, levitate some light objects, not to mention a few other things like light manipulation…"

Then her eyes went wide and she stood up straight. "Wait: if the automaton has all three types of pony abilities, wouldn’t it be like an alicorn?”

Vanderbull shook his head. “No, Princess.” He pointed at the triangular object again. “And it’s because of this device. We’re calling it the Mode Switch because it seems to regulate and prevent the activation of more than one mode at a time. The automaton could fly or cast magic or break through a brick wall, but not all three at the same time.”

“If it could imitate an alicorn,” Gadget added, “that would make it an overpowered OC.”

Twilight raised an eyebrow. “OC?”

“Operational Construct.”

“Ah, I see. So, overpowering it would be bad?”

“Very bad.” Gadget shut the entire system down, the electric hum fading. “Here, put your hoof over the Switch. Er, if you don’t mind, Your Highness?” She winced, realizing she’d just been ordering around royalty.

“It’s all right, Gadget,” Twilight laughed. She did as Gadget asked and felt a strong heat coming from the Switch even when her hoof was half a meter away. “Whoa. That really warmed up fast.”

“We believe that the Mode Switch was added late into the construction,” Vanderbull said. “The subsystems already consume a lot of energy and thus produce a lot of heat. That heat could damage the machinery, and having all three subsystems activate at once would wreak havoc on the entire thing. It would run itself down in a matter of minutes.”

Twilight considered this. “It’s a good thing the designer came up with something to prevent that but still use different abilities, I suppose.”

“It also explains the mane,” Gadget quipped as she sifted through some of the other parts lying around the room, holding up one to examine it.

“Huh?” Twilight asked. “The mane? Why, what is it? I thought it was just for decoration.”

“Oh, no no no, Princess Twilight, it’s so much more than that!” she cried excitedly. She set down the part she held and went to another box labelled “MANE” and removed it, holding it out gently with all four hands.

Now removed from the automaton, Twilight saw it actually ran from the head, down the length of the body, and continued outward to the tail in one long continuous strand of hollow, conical coils. “Wait, so, it’s the mane and the tail?”

“Yes! And it’s made of some light, flexible polymer that Mr. Vanderbull and I can’t even identify! It's very soft too, almost like some sort of fabric. But see, the strands run along all the main systems in the torso here in the middle. The battery, the, um manafont tray I guess, the wings, and so on. The mane and tail act as a heat sink! They pick up heat and draw it away from the systems and outside, dissipating the heat in the cooler outside air in front or back of the body. Form and function together! It’s really quite brilliant!”

“Yes,” Vanderbull said, almost begrudgingly, as he folded his arms. “I’m a little jealous of the mind that built this magnificent mechanical mare. This incorporates so much advanced technology. This isn’t merely more advanced than the old automatons; it is a new machine entirely!” He sighed, but then grew calmer as he recomposed himself. “Still, we think we have everything we need. We have fixed the parts that were broken and identified all the others and learned their functions, even if we don’t understand how those functions operate. Your Highness, with your permission, Gadget and I will begin reconstructing it. We should have it ready to activate by early evening.”

“By this evening? So soon?!” Twilight exclaimed.

“Unless you don’t wish to,” Vanderbull said. “I honestly would understand if you hesitated. This machine is so much more sophisticated than I even thought possible. It could, in fact, be dangerous. And we still have no idea why it journeyed to Ponyville or why it was seeking you out.”

“But if we don’t activate it,” Gadget interjected, eyes going wide, “we’ll never get to see all the awesome stuff it can do! I even got an anemometer to test its wing power and--”

“Gadget!” Vanderbull snapped, silencing his over-eager protégée. “While it is true that there is much we can learn by activating it, Princess Twilight Sparkle knows this and we will abide by her decision.” He leaned closer to her, looking down at her sternly.

“Y-yes, sir,” she replied, bowing her head.

Twilight considered the matter. If we activate it, it could be dangerous. But if we don’t, we might never know why it was built in the first place! What should I do?

She mulled it over, rubbing her chin, and finally made a decision: she was a princess now, but she had always been a student and seeker of knowledge since the day she was born. To shy away from learning more about this machine just wasn’t her way of doing things.

“Okay, we’ll activate it,” she said. She then smiled as Gadget reared up, kicking her legs happily, the mechanical limbs on her back giving triumphant fist pumps as well. “But I want to bring my friends here. Not just because I want to share the discovery with them, but also for extra protection. If something goes wrong, we need to be ready to stop it.”

Vanderbull also smiled, clearly pleased and likewise eager to learn more. “We’ll get right on it, Your Highness.” He also took a note from his pocket and handed it to her. “This is a short list of the other systems we found and what they do. This may be of help to you in the future.”

Twilight nodded and left to begin gathering her friends. She was practically bristling with excitement and broke into a trot as she made her way to the front door.

How wonderful! Tonight! she thought. I’m going to get to see a working independent automaton tonight!

***

The small room was growing crowded, Twilight noticed, now that everypony had gathered. It was in the early evening and the light from the sunset was still shining through the nearby window into the room where the newly reassembled automaton was laid on the table. The machine looked like some broken thing or an assortment of parts and bric-a-brac. It was now like some sleeping creature, something that could be awoken with the slightest word. It had been placed prone on the table, its hooves at rest, its head down.

“Does this thing really move?” Rainbow Dash asked, prodding the silent automaton. She narrowed her eyes, looking it up and down. “It doesn’t look like it would.” She tapped it with her hoof once, then again a bit harder, knocking on its head to produce a loud clanging.

“Ah, Miss Rainbow Dash, please!” Gadget cried as she rushed over. “You might damage it!”

“What? How?!” Rainbow asked, gesturing to it. “I thought you guys said this thing was so tough that it could break through a brick wall if it needed to!”

“W-well, that’s true, but--”

“Oh, Rainbow Dash, just leave it alone for her sake until we know what it can do.” Twilight rolled her eyes and Rainbow Dash backed off, shrugging as she took back to the air and hovered nearby Applejack. Twilight herself was now wearing her crown and had her other five friends gathered in a semicircle around the room. In addition, the Mayor had arrived with her aide and there were a few reporters from the local newspaper. Vanderbull was back in his waistcoat and jacket, looking patient and dignified. Gadget was no longer wearing the Point Dexter and was back in her oversized coat. Rarity, by contrast, was dressed up as if attending an opera, her elegant magenta gown rustling just loud enough to be heard over the light conversation.

“Rarity, you look amazing!” Spike was practically floating at the sight of her in the elegant dress. “But then you always look amazing.”

“Oh, aren’t you sweet, Spikey Wikey!” she said, beaming at him. She turned her attention to Gadget and frowned when she saw her in her simple jacket. “Ah, but Gadget, I do wish you’d taken me up on my offer to take you to the stylist and see about taking some of your mane out of your eyes and maybe a simple dress for the occasion.”

Gadget gulped and eyed the reporters, her eyes darting from one to another and focusing especially on the photographer. “Th-that was very kind of you, but there wasn’t time with the repairs, and I, um, didn’t know Princess Twilight was going to bring the press. I hope they aren’t going to take too many pictures.”

“I know what you mean,” Fluttershy said. “I really don’t want everypony talking about how I look in the paper tomorrow.” The two of them huddled together, shrinking into themselves and putting Rarity between themselves and the newsponies.

Pinkie Pie, on the other hand, was bubbling with her usual energy, bouncing up and down in place. “Oh my gosh, oh my gosh, we should have made this an ‘Automaton Activation Party!’ In fact, isn’t that like a birthday for a machine? We should have had cake! At least I brought my party cannon!” She brought it out (seemingly from nowhere, as usual) and patted it with her hoof for emphasis.

“Honestly, I don’t think it’s quite the same thing as a birthday, Pinkie,” Applejack said. She was eyeing the automaton even more suspiciously than before, narrowing her gaze and putting on a sour-looking frown. “It ain’t like that thing’s even alive. And who knows what’ll happen when it turns on!” She turned to Twilight at that. “Ya sure we even wanna try? I still say we shoulda brought more protection.”

“I doubt we’ll need it,” Twilight assured her. “But just the same, we should be prepared. You and Rainbow Dash brought some things," she gestured to the large wrench Dash had set aside as well as the sack of horseshoes Applejack brought, "Mr. Vanderbull said he has an emergency shutdown plan," she looked to Vanderbull, who had readied some strange device with a large magnet on the end, "and if we really need to, we can use our Rainbow Power to stop it! We should be just fine.”

Applejack was only slightly comforted by this. “I guess,” she muttered.

The Mayor walked over to the pair of them. “Is everything all right, Princess Twilight?” she asked, her expression calm, but her eyes giving away her apprehension. She leaned forward and her tone was slightly strained although her smile stayed in place. “I was told this could be an impressive and historic night for Ponyville. The reporters are expecting this to go smoothly as well, and they will be documenting the whole event.”

Twilight understood that the Mayor’s concern was not just everypony’s safety, but also the image this would project for the town.

“Don’t worry, Your Honor,” Twilight said. For emphasis, she placed her hoof on her chest as if taking a vow. “I guarantee that this will be something brand new and maybe even become the talk of all Equestria!”

The Mayor’s eyes sparkled and she smiled. She kept that smile as she turned her head slightly, allowing the photographer to take a perfect snapshot of her standing next to Twilight.

Vanderbull coughed to get everypony’s attention. “Ah, Your Highness, Your Honor? I believe we are ready to begin.”

“Oh, yes, of course,” Twilight said. “Miss Mayor, would you like to begin?”

“Yes, thank you, Princess Twilight!” She stepped before the automaton, looking to her aide, who was nodding with approval or shaking her head to give feedback with each thing she did. Currently she was nodding, so the Mayor smiled and addressed those gathered. “Ahem. Fillies and gentlecolts!" she began, sweeping her arm out dramatically. "Our most esteemed Princess Twilight Sparkle has brought a strange new scientific discovery to our attention. Tonight, we may find out the strange origin and the true nature of this mysterious... Iron Horse!” The reporters scribbled this down and she smiled, satisfied that she’d struck the right chord. “And now, Her Highness will explain more about tonight’s proceedings.”

“Thank you, Miss Mayor,” Twilight said, stepping forward and levitating a lengthy speech in front of her. “My friends, Miss Mayor, and members of the scientific and journalistic community. It is my great pleasure to unveil the great achievement of Mr. Cornelius Vanderbull--”

Vanderbull puffed his chest out, smiling calmly as several camera flashes captured his image.

“--and Miss Gadgette F. Giroux--”

“Eep!” the young mare cried, diving back behind Rarity as the photographers tried to photograph her.

“Er, as I was saying, with their efforts and the help of my friends, we have managed to put this broken automaton back together. Unlike automata of the past, this machine can reportedly operate totally independently, may be capable of speech, and has a variety of amazing abilities, which I look forward to exploring. You may be curious to know the history of modern automata, which begins with the revolutionary creations of inventor and clockmaker Henriette Marellardet...”

“Just turn it on for pony’s sake!” Rainbow Dash exploded, launching herself into the air.

“Rainbow Dash!” Twilight cried, scowling at her. “I’m trying to give some historical background so everypony can appreciate this event!”

“Yeah, well, you’re putting Pinkie Pie to sleep,” she said, rolling her eyes as she hovered.

They all looked and saw Pinkie was, in fact, asleep, leaning on a very annoyed Applejack.

“Psst, Pinkie!” Applejack hissed, rousing the sleeping pink pony.

“And she’s not the only one who’s bored. Heck, one of the reporters is drawing stick figures on his notepad.” She turned and smirked at one of the reporters, who sheepishly put the notepad in his pocket. “Yeah, that’s right, I noticed."

“Oh fine!” Twilight groaned. With a sigh, she turned to Vanderbull. “Mr. Vanderbull, can we begin?”

“Yes, Princess. Allow me,” Vanderbull said. He went to the automaton and gently lifted a tiny panel on the thing’s back. “There is a button here. My assistant and I have already charged its battery, which should hold a charge for 24 to 48 hours depending on activity. I merely need to press this button to activate it.” He cleared his throat. “In the name of Her Highness, Princess Twilight Sparkle, the town of Ponyville, and our great nation of Equestria, I do hereby activate this machine!” He pressed the button and stepped back as an electric hum was heard growing from inside the automaton.

“Ya ready, Rainbow Dash?” Applejack whispered.

“Ready, AJ,” Dash whispered back. Applejack pulled a few steel horseshoes out of her pack and held them in one hoof, ready to toss or buck them at the automaton if it made any false moves. Rainbow Dash held up her large wrench and hefted the weighty thing like a baseball bat. Vanderbull, for his own part, was holding up his device.

“Should it be necessary,” he said to the nervous-looking press and everypony else gathered, “this device will emit an electronic pulse that will scramble and disable the automaton's systems... as a last resort.”

The automaton continued to hum for a few more moments, but did not move. Various other noises from inside it were heard as systems switched on one-by-one. Clangs and hisses and the slow whir of clockwork formed a tiny symphony as the inner workings came to life individually. And then, surprising them all, the eyes suddenly came on, going from completely black to a bright, vibrant purple.

“Booting main systems,” it intoned electronically. It rose to its hooves, re-positioning itself as it stood on the table. The sound of brass hooves hitting the crystalline table rang out and everyone stared at it, eyes wide and mouths hanging open.

The machine was covered in metallic plates that were welded or bolted together. The hooves were of brass, and flexible rubber at its knees and midsection allowed it to move smoothly. The polymer coils that made up the mane and tail swayed slightly as it stood. Its ears were connected with hinges and they squeaked slightly as they moved and twitched, seemingly to take in the sounds of the room. It had no mouth to speak of, but its electronic voice came from a speaker behind a series of thin, vertical openings in the rounded lower jaw where the mouth would have been. It even had a slight nose, although it clearly didn’t need to breathe and nopony was sure if it could even smell.

Lastly, there were the eyes. Twilight knew they’d been crafted out of some magic-enhanced amethyst lenses, which explained the purple color. It stared outwards with those eyes; without eyelids it was incapable of blinking, and the effect of that glowing stare was mesmerizing to some of those gathered and unnerving to the others.

“Amazing,” the Mayor breathed, never taking her eyes off it.

“By Celestia, what a story this will make!” a reporter said. “Get a picture, get a picture!” he said to his photographer, elbowing him.

The automaton paid no heed, but continued speaking in its artificial but distinctly feminine voice. “System has recovered from failure. Mechanical function restored to 100% capability. Lower cognitive function at 100%. Now loading memory and higher function. 20 percent… 40 percent… 75 percent…” The thing’s eyes narrowed, then returned to their full size. “Error. Damage to memory detected. Unable to recover. Restoring to system defaults. Continuing boot-up sequence. Higher cognitive function restored.”

Rarity leaned over to Gadget who had stepped out from behind her to stare at the mechanical pony. “Um, is it just going to talk to itself all night?” she asked nervously.

“Huh?” Gadget asked, barely hearing Rarity. She had stepped out, no longer concerned with being seen or photographed. Instead, she was awestruck, her eyes wide as the others', but she was also trembling and her mouth was brought up into a joyous smile. “Oh, uh... no, I don’t think so. It’s just reporting its status as it turns itself on.” She turned back to the sight in front of her. "Wow," she whispered, and Rarity noticed she even had the hint of tears in her eyes. "This is... it's incredible."

“Sure is taking its sweet time,” Rainbow Dash said, crossing her forelegs and rolling her eyes.

The automaton raised its head slightly. “Unit 003M is now online. Scanning environment.” It turned its head slowly, taking in its surroundings, getting a good look at all of them.

Without warning, it jumped back, lowering its head and arching its back, eyes going from purple to a very menacing red. “Potential threats detected. Activating emergency self defense measures. E-mode activated.”

Breaking out of her stupor, Gadget yelled “Everypony stand back! It’s turning on its earth pony mode to boost its strength before it attacks!” The reporters and the others backed away as Applejack and Rainbow Dash rushed forward.

“I knew it was up to no good!” Applejack shouted, preparing to start throwing horseshoes. Rainbow Dash took up her wrench while Vanderbull readied the electromagnetic device.

“NO!” Twilight shouted, putting herself between the automaton and the others. She held her forelegs and wings wide, forming a barrier to block any attack.

“Twilight, be careful!” Fluttershy cried as she recoiled, reaching out with one hoof. Spike made to run over to her, but Twilight held up a hoof, making it clear he was not to move.

“It’s okay, everypony, it’s okay!” Twilight exclaimed. She looked over her shoulder. The machine was still in its defensive posture, but hadn’t moved any further. She looked back to her friends. “Applejack, Rainbow Dash, Mr. Vanderbull, please put down your weapons!”

“Are you outta yer mind, Twilight?!” Applejack shouted. She swept a foreleg at her. “Get away from that thing!”

“Yeah, Twilight, you could get hurt!” Rainbow Dash was still holding the wrench, her eyes rapidly going from Twilight to the monstrosity behind her as she tried to find an opening.

“No, listen!” Twilight shot back, growing more confident. “It scanned the environment and it thinks it’s in danger! It’s only trying to protect itself! Just put those things down!”

The others looked to each other. “Are you sure about this, Twilight?” Rainbow asked slowly. “That thing doesn’t look too friendly!”

“I… yes, I’m sure,” she replied, though she kept looking over her shoulder. "If it was trying to hurt us, then it would have already attacked. Please, just put your weapons down!"

Applejack, Rainbow Dash, and Vanderbull all shared a glance, then slowly each one set their weapons down on the floor and backed away.

Twilight looked back at the automaton, but it didn’t budge and still looked like it was ready to attack. Scanning the room again, she tried to think to herself, Okay, if I had just woken up and was surrounded by strange ponies, what would I find threatening? Then she saw.

“Pinkie!” she shouted. “The party cannon! Turn it the other way!”

“Huh? Aww,” Pinkie said, though she complied.

Satisfied, Twilight turned back to the machine.

“Oh, be careful, Twilight!” Rarity cried, raising her hooves to her face.

“It’s okay, it’s okay,” Twilight said quietly, still holding out a hoof behind her to make sure they all stayed in place. At first, everypony thought she was still talking to them. Then they realized she was talking to the automaton. “It's okay. See? Nopony is armed." She smiled and backed away, holding out a hoof as she gestured to the others. "We don’t want to harm you. Please stand down. You're safe.”

The machine looked around the room a second time, then stood back to its normal position, its eyes returning to their purple color. “Confirmed. Scans reveal no threats. Emergency self-defence deactivated. Cancelling E-Mode. Resuming normal operation.”

Everypony breathed a sigh of relief.

“Well, Princess,” Vanderbull said, gingerly stepping forward, “it appears that we can talk to it now, if you wish.”

Twilight nodded to him, then turned back to the machine. “Um, excuse me… hello?”

The automaton looked to her, staring straight at her. “No end user has been specified. Do you wish to register as my end user?”

Twilight was taken aback. “I… huh?”

“Princess, it’s asking if you’re its master! Er, mistress!” Gadget exclaimed, practically bouncing on her hooves.

“M-master?” Twilight asked, looking back at her.

“If you do, it will follow your orders. And answer any questions you have.” She looked at her with a grin, wiggling her eyebrows.

“Oh!” Twilight cried, realizing that this would be a great way to get some answers about its origins and intent. She turned back to the automaton. “Yes. I will be your end user.”

“Registering. Please identify yourself.”

Twilight paused. “Um… my name is Twilight Sparkle."

"Understood. Beginning registration..."

"Um... does that name have any meaning to you?” Twilight asked slowly. "That is, do you know who I am?" This was the moment of truth. The thing had been found in Applejack’s orchard and it had asked for her name. They might find out for certain why it had been seeking her in the first place. Everypony leaned in, holding their breath as they awaited her answer.

“Scanning memory…” it intoned. It was silent for a few moments. “No results found. Subject ‘Twilight Sparkle’ is unknown.”

“What?!” Twilight cried. “But… you were looking for me before we fixed you!”

“Unable to determine. No data prior to this activation is available.”

Vanderbull came in closer. “It might have lost its memory from the lightning strike,” he suggested, letting out a sigh. “We had to replace a lot of its parts, but we couldn’t get into its memory unit without the risk of breaking it. It could have easily been wiped due to the electrical discharge.”

“That,” Applejack said, likewise stepping closer, “or whoever sent it made it lie to ya, Twilight.”

They all looked to the automaton, some giving sideways glances and raising an eyebrow, but it made no reaction whatsoever.

“Why isn’t it saying anything?” Fluttershy asked, looking up at it.

“Oh my, it is a bit unnerving,” Rarity agreed. “It’s just… standing there.”

Twilight made a face. “Relax, everypony, please. She’s not hurting anyone.”

“Wait, ‘she?’” Rainbow Dash echoed Twilight’s phrasing.

“Yeah, she sounds like a mare to me,” Twilight said with a shrug.

“This unit is modeled to simulate the female form,” the automaton said, startling everyone as it joined in the conversation. “I am designated Unit 003M. The M designates me as a ‘mare’ type model. No data about my origin and original directive is available." Its eyes shrank momentarily and it said, "This unit is now registered to end user Twilight Sparkle and will obey her commands. Twilight Sparkle, please designate my Primary Directive.”

Twilight was again confused by the machine’s request and tilted her head. “Your… Directive?”

“I believe,” Vanderbull said, stroking his tuft of beard, “that it wants to know what its purpose is. It is capable of so much, so whatever you tell it to do, it will make that its priority!”

“Oh!" Gadget cried, rushing over to her and placing her hoof on her shoulder. "Princess, if you tell it that it’s purpose is research,” she said with a grin, “we could have it run a bunch of tests back in Manehatten!”

Twilight stood there before this mechanical wonder, barely registering what Gadget had said. She stared at the automaton, eyes wide with amazement and it only stared back with unblinking eyes. Still, that it innately trusted her, directly asked her to tell it what it should do with its existence was both daunting and tantalizing. She could determine a new course for this strange new discovery.

Then she remembered what Vanderbull had told her. Celestia would no doubt find out the machine had been activated, if not from Twilight then from the newspapers. The machine that stood before her had just been activated and already it could be in jeopardy if Princess Celestia ordered it seized or destroyed. This thing, this new wondrous entity was there because of her and now she had taken responsibility for it, but because it had offered up no information about who had created it or sent it, destruction was a distinct possibility. And yet she had no way to protect it, unless it was doing something related to Twilight’s purpose, of course…

The answer dawned on her and she smiled.

“All right, I know what to do,” Twilight said. She pointed a hoof directly at it. “Listen, um, Unit 003M. Here is your new Primary Directive.” The crowd of them stood silent, awaiting to hear what Twilight would order the machine to do.

“Your new Primary Directive is to make friends.”

One could almost feel the change in tone in the air with this strange request and they all looked first to Twilight, and then to the automaton. And then it did something curious.

It actually cocked its head, as if it was just as confused by the request as everypony else. “Please confirm. This unit's primary directive is to ‘make friends’?”

Twilight looked around nervously, but decided to continue. “Yes. I want you to find other ponies and befriend them. Do you understand?”

It righted its head, twitching its ears on its hinges, and said “Understood. Primary Directive ‘Make friends,’ has been engaged.”

It hopped off the table suddenly with a mighty sound as its metallic hooves hit the floor at once, causing them all to jump. Scanning the room, it settled its gaze on Fluttershy and trotted over to her, hooves clanking all the while. Fluttershy regarded its approach with wide-eyed horror and she curled herself into a ball as she backed up against the wall. She looked left and right for escape routes as it closed in on her. The automaton did not halt and went right up to her.

“Yellow pegasus,” it said, pointing at her with one metallic hoof, “what is your designation?”

“W-what?” she asked, flinching from the outstretched metal limb.

“Identify yourself immediately.”

The sternness of this command caused Fluttershy to cower even more, but she managed to croak out "F-Fluttershy."

“Fluttershy, you are hereby designated as a friend. You have 20 seconds to comply.”

“W-what?” She looked to the others for help.

“15 seconds.”

“Eep! Okay, sure, greatseeyoulater!” And with that, she flew to Twilight’s window, propped it open, wriggled through it, and fled out into the night, leaving them all behind.

“Mission successful,” the automaton said, turning back to Twilight. “Twilight Sparkle, shall I proceed to my next target?”

Twilight put a hoof to her forehead, then addressed the doubtful looks from everypony else there. “Um… well, I do love a challenge! Ha ha… heh…”

It was going to be the start of a long process, but Twilight had already made up her mind, no matter what anyone else thought. She was the Princess of Friendship and if anypony could teach friendship to a machine, it was her.

To be continued...

Author's Note:

First, let me say thank you to everyone who has commented or left feedback so far.

This chapter's title is a more obscure reference. Specifically, it shares its name with a beautiful symphonic piece by Steven Bryant. It can be found here. I found it relevant to the themes I was going for, since it is about "something not human (but of humans hands) - something not entirely organic, but most definitely alive - waking up for the first time."

One more small historical reference is when Twilight mentions "Henriette Marellardet," who is a ponified reference to the great automaton builder Henri Maillardet, truly one of the great masters of early automata.

Thank you very much for reading!

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