Thunder Struck

by MerlosTheMad

First published

Stephanie's greatest home invention is named Sweetie Belle. It's a very advanced piece of machinery, as well as adorable. And it thinks it's alive!?

A Sweetie Bot Story

Stephanie enjoys a lot of things: reading, engineering, programming, advanced physics, and, of course, My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic. The result of these hobbies and habits is a little robotic filly, named Sweetie Belle. It was a pet project, something she started for herself on a whim one night, and worked on since before she started college. She has a job now, and is a young adult with everything in order the way it should be.

That is, until something unexpected happens.

Author's Warning
I have been informed this story contains deadly levels of cute. Continue at your own risk. Those with weak hearts may wish to avoid.

Fan-art contributed to the story.
Sweetie Bot does not like cats! by Cannibalus

Author's Note

Greetings one, greetings all, greetings none, and some; greetings, everyone.

So, new story, folks. It's not a Madverse fic, just another little story I cooked up. It's sort of like an old movie called 'Short Circuit', but isn't a crossover or a remake. The only real similarities are of course there's a robot and a girl named Stephanie. Of course it is centered around Sweetie Bot. Please do enjoy!


Art is by the illustrious Cannibalus. Thank you for allowing me to base this story off your wonderful art, sire! By all means, I owe you.

Chapter 1 : Power Acquisition Request

View Online

Friday Night
September 29th

The machine's motors whirred, moving it in a rhythmic way through the house. The alloy base of its legs, designated 'hooves', clopped softly on the bare wooden flooring. The logic center of the unit's processors had determined a long time ago, approximately nine years, rounded, that it was due to their appearance. The bases of its legs were not, in fact, real hooves at all. It did not make sense then for them to be designated 'hooves'.

The unit knew many things. It knew that its full designation was 'Sweetie Belle', that it could hop approximately three feet vertically with an error range of two inches, and of course, that its maker was the keeper of the power outlet.

It often, however, did not understand its maker, just like so many other things. Unlike many of those things, Creator would often go against the very logic program she had given Unit Sweetie. One such oddity was that it was programmed to request power, despite the presence of a storm in the area. It determined that could be dangerous to its systems, something it was also programmed to protect. It could not act out against Creator's directive, though.

Still, that was not a concern of Unit Sweetie's at the moment. It typically spent very little power or time processing Creator or her decisions. Creator was simply, Creator. For the time being, obtaining power was the unit's only primary directive. Without the power outlet, Unit Sweetie would shut down. Without the power outlet, it would fail a primary directive; that directive simply being to remain active at all times.

Perhaps odder still, Unit Sweetie was not allowed to fulfill the powering action itself, and was unsure why its maker had made that so. The processor's logic matrix could think of several things it could do to obtain power by itself through some means, whether by using something as advanced as various articles around Creator's house, or just utilizing its mouth.

Despite this, Unit Sweetie was programmed to always request its maker to plug it in, rather than use its designs and plans; things it made during its processor's periods of low activity. It wasn't a part of the logic matrix to second guess or resent, or even object to this. It was just a program, no more alive than any other computer or software.

The twin cameras that Unit Sweetie used for vision registered the darkness filling the house. It was difficult to see with the lack of normal light parameters, but that was acceptable; it could still make out obstacles.

There were various other shapes moving in the building's darkness. They were designated 'real animals' within the memory storage. It was important to avoid them. If necessary, programming allowed discouraging them from interference with the unit.

The cameras tracked a small shape flitting through the shadow; it was a 'cat', and one of the unit's targets designated 'nuisance'.

The cats especially liked to mewl and pester the unit. It did not care, it could not care, but it was often necessary to discourage the felines from getting too bold as they played with the unit's pretty mane or tail.

Unit Sweetie wasn't entirely sure why she was programmed to protect her 'adorable and cute widdle mane and tail', but that was what the Creator desired. And protecting such things required power. There wasn't much power left, now. Its processor's logic matrix often worked hard to decide on effective methods of gently discouraging the cats efficiently.

For now, the cats made no move against the unit, which was fortunate. The unit did not have power to spare chasing cats or utilizing the 4 mW laser diodes which they would chase without pause. The equipment designated 'laser pointers' were often kept near the top of the logic matrix's priority systems list, but they had to be dropped this time out of necessity to reach Creator's room with the scant power remaining.

Unit Sweetie's logic matrix quickly calculated the distance remaining to Creator's room; it was determined there would be time still to request power. It knew the distance separating itself from the room well, but busily recalculated the floor length to ensure success of power acquisition. The memory storage backups were refreshed with the new measurement, though it was the same.

The little processors contained within the unit's chassis were filled with information of every sort; behavioral parameters, temperature, movement data, the surroundings, vast amounts of trivia, power levels, structural statistics, and one more thing, its creator. The Creator was the key to everything, and the unit was very familiar with her; even if it didn't understand her.

Unit Sweetie nudged the door to its maker's room open with its nose apparatus, then walked in slowly. It monitored its power dwindling by the second. It had waited approximately one hour; forty-seven minutes; twelve seconds and fourteen nano-seconds longer than usual to request power. That wasn't normal. The processor cores could not come up with an explanation for Unit Sweetie upon request.

Unit Sweetie's 'eyes' spotted its first goal; Creator, sitting idly on a unit designated 'furniture: couch'. The processors moved onto step two of power acquisition, which was to drop the power cord linked to its left flank from its mouth, onto the ground.

Neither Unit Sweetie nor its stored memory understood the point of this action, the unit's speaker system could function fine with the cord in its mouth, why did it need to drop the cord and nudge it precisely three times with its nose apparatus?

Despite the bizarre nature of the order Creator herself had programmed, Unit Sweetie carried it out, nudging the power cord gently. It then moved onto phase three.

"Steph," Unit Sweetie said aloud, the speaker in its mouth cooing the words in the gentle voice of a young child.

It walked up, legs clinking softly in the night, then sat at the side of Creator's couch.

"Steeeeph," Unit Sweetie whined aloud again. Its eyes scanned and ran over Creator's form, shrouded slightly by the night time darkness, and only slightly illuminated by the glow of the television.

Creator, designation Stephanie, snorted loudly on the couch, but did not rise or react outwardly.

Unit Sweetie studied Creator's motionless form a moment, processing idly. Once apparent she would not, in fact be waking up, it began initiating the fourth, and final phase of power acquisition. In the case of Creator Stephanie undergoing nightly sleep phase, it was programmed to bite and pull on cloth in the near vicinity of Creator Stephanie for approximately ten seconds. If Stephanie did not awaken after allotted time had passed, Unit Sweetie was to enter low power-mode until inevitable shutdown.

Shutdown was fine, of course, to something that lacked emotion; but it was still empty.

Unit Sweetie could find no cloth in reach. Its vision did not detect the objective laid down by its maker. Quickly, it began seeking out what was required to fulfill its programming.

The motors in the rear leg joints whirred tiredly, barely fueled by the remaining two percent of power stored in the primary battery. Unit Sweetie couldn't feel tired, or pain, but the processor's activity while recalculating power drain continued at a rate 50% higher than normal for a full four seconds.

Warning : Shutdown Imminent.

The warning from the chassis' secondary computing unit was received by the central processors. They were not distressed, they couldn't be, but they did recalculate whether they could meet their objective with the power remaining to them, again, and then again.

The secondary computing unit complained a second time, repeating its message to the central processors without fail.

Warning : Shutdown Imminent.

Unit Sweetie chose to deactivate the secondary computer. It would save power. Secondary computer was unnecessary.

After five seconds, Unit Sweetie had managed to stand up on its hind legs beside Creator Stephanie's legs. The only cloth in sight was encircling Creator's waist. Without wasting anymore time, as time was of the essence, Unit Sweetie pulled itself up onto the couch. Its front legs reached up and began to pull the rest of its chassis up slowly. A jump was no longer feasible under current situational conditions.

There was little more than one-point one percent of power left, and by proxy, low power-mode.

Unit Sweetie leaned down a full point-seven seconds faster than protocol allowed, and bit into the objective as programmed, then initiated pulling for the called for ten seconds. The breech of parameters was archived as an unforeseen error.

The processor's logic matrix understood that it would be unlikely that Creator Stephanie would be able to rouse herself from rest in order to provide power before low power-mode, or perhaps even shutdown, but it carried out the orders still. It calculated twenty eight seconds of full power-mode remaining once the power acquisition request was complete.

It would use that time to remove itself from the furniture.

Unit Sweetie was not allowed on the furniture.

The processors had failed to remember that.

Chapter 2 : Short Circuit

View Online

Stephanie hummed contentedly in her sleep. Her dream was pleasant, more so than normal. There was a cute guy in it that was nice and witty, and not overly muscly or too skinny, either. He was being awfully forward, which was a bit strange.

Stephanie hummed again, smiling... then frowned, instead. The pulling at her clothes felt awfully real to her.

"Wha-? AH!" Stephanie opened her eyes quickly, arms jerking slightly from the sudden realization someone really was pulling on her underwear. She pushed back at that someone in the darkness. The unmistakable feeling of the elastic waist band being released, then striking her side with a good thwap made her yelp. She scurried backwards on the couch as fast as lightning to the other end, fists raised against the home invader. "What do y—!? Oh geez, Sweetie?"

Stephanie recognized immediately what had happened from the bang of metal on the wood floor. Sweetie Belle had tumbled sideways, then slid slowly onto the ground from the couch.

After a quick look around the room, Stephanie held a hand up to her chest and exhaled the panicked breath she'd been holding. "Oh thank goodness. You scared me, Sweetie. Hey, are you alright?" Swallowing hard, she laid over the couch and peered down at Sweetie.

"Are you alri— Uhm, Status?" she asked, with just a twinge of worry. The bot's eyes slowly blinked up at her.

"Statu-u-us... Systems. Normal. Chassis. Normal. Power. One-point one percent." Sweetie's voice when reporting was similar to her roots from an old web series.

Stephanie let out a sigh of relief. She knew her bot was tough, but she cared for the little machine as much as any of her real animals, or family for that matter. Actually, my family is full of jerks now that I think about it... Whether tired or not, she would probably decide she cared for Sweetie a little more.

Sweetie's normal voice kicked back in. "Steeeph, I'm hungry." It was tuned to sound quite a bit like the voice actress that had played as the original Sweetie Belle from the TV show the character originated from. "I'm boooored, too." The bot pulled its legs beneath itself, then rolled up to a sitting position and stared up at its creator.

"Is it that time of the week already?" Stephanie laughed at Sweetie's request, then sighed and readjusted her skewed underwear. "I guess I should start sleeping in pajamas or just let you plug yourself in, hm?" She stood up from the couch and planted a fist on her hip, taking up a mock stance of challenge.

The unit continued to stare up at her.

"But, you are just too cute. I don't think I could bear that at all." Stephanie bent down and patted Sweetie's head, causing her tail to wag slowly.

It was slow, a sign that she would need power soon.

"Alright, let's go. Upsie-daisy!" Stephanie picked up Sweetie, chuckling slightly at her little friend. At least, she laughed until she got her arms underneath her. She oofed instead, then; Sweetie was a good forty or so pounds of metal and plastic. "You need to go on a diet, you."

Luckily, Stephanie only had to carry her little friend across the hallway to where Sweetie's power station sat in its own little room. It was just a walk in closet, really, and maybe Stephanie was weird for decorating it like an actual bedroom, but that didn't really register to her unless she had guests that might make an odd comment over it.

Stephanie flicked on the lights to the little room with one hand, then quickly laid her little bot in its charging cradle.

Now on the floor, Sweetie Belle suddenly began counting down in the robotic, modulated tone she used for a few base functions, or possibly for the rare guest that might get the reference. "Low power-mode entering in five, four, thre— Battery is charging." There was a pause, then Sweetie looked up at Stephanie and smiled. "Yay! Thanks, Steph!" Her eyes shut in a complimentary manner, ears whirring back against her head and tail brushing the floor in an energetic way.

Stephanie let out a tired breath from carrying the machine and shut off the light, then left the room promptly. The door to the closet clicked shut behind her.

I should let her power herself, this is getting to be bothersome. She's a big girl now certainly, after all, right? She giggled to herself, thinking about how long she had owned Sweetie for. Heck, she's much older than the others. I should probably upgrade her, too. The idea of changing her first and favorite little creation wasn't a very enticing one. Over the years she had made Sweetie sturdier, tougher, more flexible and dynamic, but the idea of changing the way she acted didn't seem right.

Steph liked the simplicity of her. Her other hobby projects were the complicated ones. "Wow, how long's it been? Eight years?" It seemed like Sweetie had been around a much shorter time than that to her.

As she spoke, Stephanie did not register the bright flash of light from outside her window. Instead, she covered her mouth with a hand and yawned big enough that she saw stars beneath her eyelids. "How long was I asleep for?" She patted her cheeks as she walked down the hallway, then stretched with one arm over her head in an effort to work out the stiffness from sitting still too long.

A clock hanging on the wall told her it was almost ten. "Twenty minutes!? Was that it? I feel like I was asleep all night or-"

A cracking noise boomed loud enough to make her house shake.

"AAAAAaaaahhhh..." Steph wailed out the scream of surprise and fear, which died slowly as the situation dawned on her. Immediately after, she felt ashamed that the boom had gotten her the way it had. Her arms lowered themselves from clutching at one another as she turned to glare out the paned glass window.

"Really!?" Stephanie yelled, addressing the rude weather, as if it could answer her back. Surprising her again, it did so with a second crack of lightning. After flinching, her only response was another glare directed back.

The sounds of Stephanie's animals distressing over the storm bothered her more than the storm itself. She found herself thinking worriedly if she had put all of her strays and various critters away in their homes earlier.

Stephanie clicked on the lights in the hall.

Immediately, four of five cats, kittens, a skunk, one raccoon, two rabbits and a plethora of other animals looked up from cages or scurried about, surprised by the light and already skittish from the storm.

Steph ran a hand through her hair and walked through the living room towards the kitchen, nimbly stepping over her adopted charges. Her home wasn't a shelter, not legitimately, but the upstairs areas certainly served as one. The seclusion of her basement was in fact where she tinkered and practiced her tech hobbies.

"Hey, Glados, make some toast would you?" Stephanie said to the empty room. She sat at the kitchen's breakfast counter and turned on the television, picking up and moving a cat that had donned to sit in front of it.

A robotic figure, which had previously been motionless, whirred to life where it had been curled silently in a far corner of the ceiling. Obediently, it wheeled over on its ceiling track from the next room and into the kitchen. The optical 'eye' it sported at its front lit up in a rich orange, then panned over to focus on Stephanie.

It spoke in the typical, smarmy tone of a certain A.I. from an old puzzle video-game.

"Are you sure you wouldn't rather have some cake?" Glados asked its owner wryly. "You're not that over weight after a—"

Glados was, however, not a true A.I. like its namesake, despite the wide range of interesting dialogue and insults in her repertoire.

Stephanie didn't bother looking up. "Glados, toast. Save the act for when company's over." It must have been twenty four hours since she last woke Glados up; it couldn't make more than one fat joke a day. That could get old pretty quickly, otherwise.

"Of course, toast, right away." Glados droned back in a half disinterested tone. Its glowing optic bathed the room in orange light as it turned around to make use of the kitchen's appliances.

The gadget's voice was refreshing to Stephanie to hear, actually. Something about the way her creations acted always picked up her mood. It probably had a lot to do with the fact they were icons of her youth.

Stephanie's eyes drifted over to the birthday cake that really was in the room. It was sitting on top of the counter, left out and half eaten from the get together she'd had the week before. Can't believe I'm twenty six already. She shut her eyes for a minute and thought on that, or tried not to think on that. Tiredly, she tried just listening to the rain beating against the windows and the wind pushing the branches of trees against her home's siding.

The loud clatter of a ceramic plate in front of Stephanie made her jump.

"Glados!?" Stephanie looked with a glare from the plate spinning to a stop, and up at the machine wheeling across the ceiling away from her. "What exactly was that for, huh?"

The moody sounding contraption turned around again. "The weather report has posted a severe storm warning, Stephanie. I placed the plate before you under acceptable parameters in order to expedite my shut down. It would be ill-advised of me to remain active. Of course, you're usually full of bright ideas, so maybe I shou—"

Stephanie rolled her eyes while Glados spoke. "Glados, switch to solitary battery power, then go offline."

The robotic head bounced up, then down once in a mockery of a nod. "Oh, alright then."

Glados wasn't true artificial intelligence, just clever programming and an advanced voice synthesizer. She had taken Stephanie five years to build and perfect, however.

Stephanie looked up at the machine for a moment, wondering if she was forgetting anything else.

"Oh!" Something caught Stephanie's eye and distracted her from whatever it was she had tried to remember. She smirked and turned the volume of the television up louder.

"Awesome, 'A New Hope' is on." Stephanie grinned and leaned in closer towards the television; the intro to the iconic episode IV of the franchise was only five minutes in. Nothing beats this, although, I didn't mind the new ones Disney made. Then again, anything's better than Jar Jar... The memory made her shudder.

Without warning, the television chose that moment to flicker several times, then shut off, as did the lights, and everything else in the room.

Stephanie sighed, the darkness purveying the room completely. "Great."

Another second later, and her exasperation was shattered by an unexpected, earth shaking boom that shook and rattled her home. She thought she heard something shatter somewhere, as well as the scurry of dozens of little feet scattering across the floor and furniture. It seemed reasonable to her that there was about a fifty-fifty chance the thunder had been the one to break something.

Despite half standing out of her seat, she managed to not scream again.

Once calmed down, Steph muttered, "Just what my home needs." Now I've got to reset the breaker and clean up a mess... She grunted angrily over the realization, then felt around for her toast and took a bite. Beginning to stand up in order to go flip the circuit breaker, she chewed the toast slower and slower, noticing a funny taste to the midnight snack.

"What the-" The toast indeed tasted a little funny. "Bluhg! You— Icing?! Who puts icing on toast, Glados!?"

Unit Sweetie watched the door to its power station swing closed behind Creator. It continued with its tail wagging subroutine for approximately five more seconds, in case Creator returned. The action was another mystery to Unit Sweetie. There was much its logic matrix could not understand. Creator took pleasure in thinking of it as 'cute', but why? What was cute? Why was it important?

The processors re-filed the question away, as unable to come up with an answer as it had ever been. Instead, it idled and paid close attention to its systems and the slow stream of power gently working its way to recharging its battery back to full. It would take approximately ten hours, rounded generously down.

The logic matrix in Unit Sweetie observed the secondary computer's offline status. Without it, certain control functions were offline, as well as many secondary safety net programs. It would only take three-point two seconds to bring the secondary computer and its warning systems online, but Unit Sweetie decided to leave it off until charging was complete. Activating it while stationary wasn't logical. Nothing could happen while stationary.

Unit Sweetie's ears rotated, whirring softly. It was a purely aesthetic function, its ears didn't need to move to hear any better. The sound of thunder crashing outside the door and Creator yelling in fear were plain, either way. It waited for another yell, in which case it could be authorized to render assistance.

None came.

Unit Sweetie relaxed its motors and eased back into the power cradle once again, listening, waiting.

The sound of Glados, another automaton that resided in the house, came through the door. Glados was almost as confusing as Creator. It seemed to be communicating with Creator. Or perhaps Glados was a she? Unit Sweetie wasn't very good at assigning pronouns. That, and Glados was irritatingly only designated as 'Glados'.

Their dialogue was difficult to make out; both of their voices were garbled by sound pollution from the rain storm taking place outside.

The logic matrix multi-tasked constantly while taking note of these small things, as it always did. The way it was programmed dictated that learning and remaining busy were important.

It studied the wall idly with its optics; continued to calculate the true extent of pi; and at the moment was deciding whether or not to force a disconnect from the power station. There was that storm to consider, after all. Still, doing so seemed illogical.

Creator Stephanie had hooked it up, then left. If Unit Sweetie disconnected, it would be dictated to seek a reconnection in its current power state. It was, however, simultaneously dictated to seek self preservation. The secondary processor would have forced a disconnection, but it was offline because Unit Sweetie had already determined that its being online wasn't necessary at the moment.

After much deliberation, the twelve-point three percent chance of an electrical surge occurring which could maybe damage Unit Sweetie was determined to be within acceptable risk levels. Secondary processor could remain offline.

Unit Sweetie began to close its eyes, deciding finally to maximize the charging rate of its energy cells.

Just before Unit Sweetie deactivated its optics and entered voluntary low power-mode, the lights in its small room flashed and flickered, until finally going out completely.

Just after, warnings began flashing for precisely two point-seven nano seconds before—

Stephanie finally found the trashcan in the kitchen, cursing as if she had just stubbed both big toes. She tossed out her ruined midnight snack and set about with finding the basement door in the dark; the power still needed resetting, after all. Whatever had glitched in Glados for her to mix up toast spreads would have to wait.

Meanwhile, there were about half a dozen small furry animals running around the house at the same time and they were proving to be an even bigger obstacle than usual.

"I gotta get you guys homes, you know that?" Stephanie groaned, and after stumbling across the floor, guiding herself with the wall, finally closed her hand around the basement door's knob.

The sounds and squawks of animals answering her followed her down the stairs as she quickly closed the door behind herself; hopefully it would keep any of them from following. Carefully, she began stepping downstairs, one step at a time.

Stephanie paused about midway down the stairs. "Hal? Are you there? Come on, turn on the lights." There wasn't an answer. "Alright, I know you have your own power, playing dead won't work."

A series of small, glowing bars partially lit the basement in a blue glow.

"It was you that programmed me to be coy, wasn't it, Stephanie?" Hal's own orb of red light glowed to life at the crest of the staircase, staring at her.

Steph began walking downstairs quickly now that she could see. "I programmed you, yes, but if you keep taking advantage of the clever-bot files for conversation then I'll un-program you just as fast."

Hal chuckled, his robotic tone echoing slightly in the basement. He was programmed to trade witty banter. It wasn't real, though. "I see. I'll tread lightly, then. Stephanie, is something wrong?"

Steph spotted the circuit breaker on the far wall, opposite from the staircase. Between her and it were numerous work benches, circuit testers and a collection of tools she had acquired or gathered over the years. "No, nothing's wrong. Why would anything be wrong?" Her voice held a hint of sarcasm and heat.

Another of Hal's eyes in her lab lit up. "I usually equate a rise in your body's heart rate with something being wrong. It tends to happen after you have a date and things don't go accordi—"

"Hal, offline." Stephanie scowled at the eye, which blinked off abruptly. She sighed, then stepped over a pile of spare parts and various raw materials to reach over at the circuit breaker. Her hand gave the box a flip.

The main lights came back on, bathing the basement in a normal, white light..

"Ah, much better—" Stephanie screamed as the circuit box burst into sparks.

Fluorescent light bulbs all around the basement room burst, each making crackling sounds as glass was pulverized. She dove away from the circuit box, moving this way and that to avoid the sparks, until finally it stopped.

"Son of a— What!? Hal!"

There wasn't an answer.

Stephanie took a deep breath, a hand over her heart. "Hal, online."

A red light glowed to life on the wall once more. The voice he used was as slow and monotone as ever, but held a hint of question for once. "Good heavens, what happened in here?"

Stephanie groaned over whatever her ill-advised home project was saying. "I don't know, I'm hoping you can tell me."

The red orb remained silent for a moment before speaking. "There was a power surge. A large amount of electricity came back through the house's grid, circumventing the surge protectors."

Stephanie's face worked into an expression of confusion, still a little too tired and slow to figure out right away what could have happened. "That doesn't make any sense. I—" A possibility emerged in her thoughts. After a blink of realization, she flung her hand up to her forehead. "Sweetie Belle!"

Stephanie dashed towards and up the stairs of the basement immediately, her retreat only partially lit by the glow of the scant remaining lights.

Hal's camera swiveled inside its lens, studying the debris and ruin of its subterranean home. "I'll just stay here and clean up then?" it asked no one. The computer's logic center evaluated that if it could feel exasperated, it would, right then.

Chapter 3 : Sweetie Bot

View Online

Stephanie nearly tripped on every other step trying to get back upstairs. Angry words were muttered until she finally crested the obstacle. Once she was out of the basement, however, it just got worse. The lights were all out again. The yowl of a cat screeched through the house after she accidentally tripped over the underfoot animal.

"Sorry! So sorry." Stephanie winced and gave a pained look around the floor, even unable to see as she was. Self-injuring thoughts jabbed at her while she did so. I am so dumb. I am so dumb, why am I so stupid? If anything's happened to Sweetie, I'm going to feel like the jerk of the world for the rest of my life!

Stephanie could see a yellow glow from under the closet door. Is the power on in there? That didn't make any sense to her that it would be. She flung out a hand quickly and opened the door, guided down the last hall by the strange flickering light. "Oh biscuits- Nope!" She slammed the door shut again.

"Glados!?" Stephanie yelled out, already in half a panic about what had stared her in the face.

There was no answer.

"Uggh! Glados, online, now!" Stephanie ripped the door open again, holding a hand up against the quickly spreading flames building in the center of her home. Hot air and smoke rushed out of the door in billows in an instant.

A disinterested modulated voice addressed Stephanie from behind her. "Oh, it's you. What is i-? Well that's new, what did you do now?" The machine's head bobbed and twisted, hurriedly scanning over the sight in the closet.

Stephanie couldn't believe she was staring at what she really hoped wasn't a house fire. It was pretty obvious to her that was exactly what it was, though.

"What I did!? Why you— Never mind! Go get the fire extinguishers from the lab! I've got the storage closet." Steph danced on her legs, unable to decide if she should risk getting her prized Sweetie out, or getting an extinguisher herself. "Sweetie!?" Her voice cracked slightly. "Online! Come on!"

Stephanie watched the blaze begin to climb the walls. In the center of it, the once perfect sheen of her favorite project's cradle stood, now blackened and aflame. In the center of that, sat a motionless Sweetie Belle. "Daaarnit!" She wheeled around on one foot, charging back through the house and cursing all the way.

A few animals turned their heads, watching the frantic human whip past them.

Meanwhile, Glados' orange tinted optic unit surveyed the spread, and volume of flames racing over the carpet from what appeared to be the strange pony machine's power cradle. It determined that it was not dangerous enough to contact the local fire department over this.

Not yet.

It was actually a common occurrence to quell fires in the home, though they usually took place in the basement. The machine designated 'Glados' evaluated that Hal may be trying to relocate itself to the upstairs level out of its own area through such mischief. The logic matrix dictated that may be possible, but was moot for the time being.

"Look on the bright side, Stephanie." Glados wheeled away on her gantry and down into the basement, ignoring the red glow of the other automaton personality. It used the intercom to hound their owner as it continued to get another extinguisher. "It wouldn't be a 'good day' if we didn't have at least one accidental fire, after all..."

Glados didn't insult or terrorize Stephanie because it wanted to. The logic matrix certainly took absolutely no pleasure in doing so, not even a pinch. It was simply programmed to do that.

Stephanie scowled as she skidded to a barefoot halt upstairs. "Glados, shut up! If you— I'm going to program you to sing jingle tunes and feel shame for it, you hear me!?" She whipped open a different nearby closet and flicked the light switch. Darkness stared back at her.

"Augh! No power." Instead of grabbing the extinguisher right away, Stephanie fumbled for a minute, looking for the fire-fighting device she sought after. Her panicked thoughts raced as she knocked over mops, jugs of tile cleaner and more. I should have known something like this would happen. But why did it happen!? It shouldn't be vulnerable to power surges like this. She thumped a hand angrily against her head. At least, it isn't supposed to be!

Stephanie's other hand found the extinguisher, buried under what felt like a couple bags of kibble. "Eureka!" she yelled, then ran, bare foot and in her underwear as she was, back to her prized property's closest.

The fire was beginning to rage and crawl out of the door.

Stephanie raised her extinguisher and—

Glados beat her to it, but engaged hers from a little bit too close.

Stephanie dropped her own fire fighting tool and backpedaled from the door while fiercely coughing and hacking. Bent over and unable to curse out the aperture science inspired fem-bot, she settled for glaring as the fire was taken care of.

The flames were beaten back in seconds by the high powered extinguisher, leaving the hallway dark, except for Glados' orange glow.

Stephanie marched over, and snatched the extinguisher away from Glados. "What was that for? You sprayed me more than the fire!"

Glados swiveled to face her, its eye bobbing up and down from the fire and back. "Well, you see, your proximity to the flames was a greater threat than your proximity to the extinguisher's spread. Simple, really."

Stephanie straightened up, jaw set in a rictous snarl. "So you couldn't have—" She bent over, coughing again, then continued. "Couldn't have warned me!?"

The eye Glados sported changed focus for the closeness its owner had taken to its optic lens. "It may have put your property in jeopardy. You clearly placed more importance on Sweetie over yourself." There was a pause in its speech, the only sound being that of the crackling closet and Stephanie's panting. "Should I apologize?"

Stephanie's shoulders slumped, and she fell to her side against the wall. "No, It's alright."

The machine studied her, waiting for a question or something it was programmed to respond to. Stephanie had just proclaimed she did not wish for an apology, after all.

Stephanie groaned and shuffled towards Sweetie Belle's closest. It was a mess; cracked wall paper, burnt carpet, and a ruined power center and several old My Little Pony plushies littered the small room.

"Great. Just great." Stephanie was a thousand times more upset that her favorite creation was ruined, rather than the amount of money and time that had been used and might have just been destroyed. I'll get dressed, then take care of this, I guess. The first thing on her mind was to make everything safe again.

"Glados," Stephanie called back to her still mostly silent antagonist.

The machine whirled to life and and followed Stephanie on its gantry track. "Yes, Stephanie?" Its voice had livened up some, a sharp contrast to the mood purveying the atmosphere.

"Start cleaning up, would you? Make a list of everything that got damaged in this storm. Let me know when it's moved on. I need the lights on if I'm going to do anything." Stephanie pushed open the door to her room a bit harder than was necessary. "Oh, and make sure all of my animals are alright? I didn't see any near the fire but check anyway."

"Acknowledged." Glados responded to the human in a far more disinterested tone than it had used a moment ago. Entirely random, of course. "And would you like toast with that?"

Stephanie found a flashlight and an electric lamp, then clicked them on to glare after Glados as she wheeled away across the ceiling. The glare exchanged for a somber look before she made it out the door of her bedroom. If I didn't know better, I'd swear they get weirder every day.

Hurriedly, Steph pulled on some junk clothes—a hoody and sweatpants—that she would be fine with getting dirty. They were baggy, and not the sort of thing you would ever wear while working with machinery, but she was only aiming to clean a mess. She slid on some socks and work boots after that.

The closet was hard to miss, even in the dark. Scorch marks ringed the doorway nearly up to the ceiling.

Stephanie was almost afraid to look inside.

"Oh no... Geez, Sweetie." Steph's voice was filled with regret and sadness over the sight sitting in the closet.

The little pony robot was a scarred shadow of its former adorableness. The head even lilted to one side slightly, adding to its pitiful state.

Stephanie stepped into the closest, now devoid of the fire and heat that had ravaged it just moments ago. "Sweetie. Online?" The order was posed by her as a question, because she knew it wasn't likely her old robot friend would respond. Given the amount of electricity that had been surging through the home, and which blew the breaker, it was all but ensured that Sweetie was destroyed.

The little robot didn't move or react to the order it was given.

Stephanie crouched down beside her, one finger reaching out to tentatively touch her friend's head. A dim flicker of light shown from under her palm, and she withdrew her hand. Static? she thought, though she hadn't felt anything.

Steph tilted the flashlight toward the ruined carpet, only to shrug in the darkness. She reached out again, this time to pat Sweetie's charred sides. The plating was cool, surprisingly, only a little warm, allowing her light touch to cup the machine's muzzle sadly.

"Well, I can fix you, eventually." Stephanie sighed out the words meant to comfort herself, and in a way, her friend. They didn't quite do the job. "This was my fault, Sweetie. I'm really sorry."

The machine sat still in the power cradle.

Stephanie stroked a hand back over the ruined and now partially bare head of her little pony. The mane had been burned away, as had much of the adorable multicolored tail that had so dutifully wagged for her over the years.

"Hal, is the power still off!?" Stephanie leaned back and shouted the words over her shoulder.

A loud, but still monotone and slightly disinterested sounding voice responded to her in the hall via intercom. "Yes, Stephanie. But I have repaired the breakers successfully with approved parts from storage. Would you like me to restore the home's power?"

Stephanie turned around again and grabbed a hold of Sweetie, lifting her up and disconnecting her from the power cradle. "Yeah, go ahead," she responded tiredly.

The lights clicked back on. Some of them did not, though, probably burned out.

Stephanie looked up disinterestedly at the white light streaming into the charred closet room and stowed her flashlight. Oh well, I have back ups, it should be easy to install them. She began the slow journey downstairs after lifting up the broken machine in her arms, glancing down at its singed form along the way. I doubt there's anything left of her though. Poor Sweetie. I bet I'm going to have to replace everything... Hm, maybe I should just start over. Sweetie 2.0?

Steph entertained the thought. She had been planning to try building a Twilight Sparkle or Rarity to interact with Sweetie. As silly as using that much free time sounded, she didn't mind the thought of spending time that would otherwise be spent with friends on building little anima-tronic ponies. "I guess I could always just make an R2 unit, instead." She chuckled as she walked down the stairs into her basement, hopefully to salvage some of her friend.

Stephanie sighed, looking up at the numerous lights which still hung, burst and darkened. Good thing it's the week... end? She slowed her descent down the stairs, forehead and expression wrinkling in instant confusion. There was the very undeniable sensation of movement in her arms. The stairwell was a little darker than usual, but she could make out Sweetie in the gray light, as well as hear a motor or two.

"Sweetie?" Stephanie asked in disbelief. She nearly dropped the little pony in shock; the two eyes on the machine's head were blinking slowly, though the lights that normally illuminated the lenses were out. "Sweetie, status," she commanded.

Creepily enough, the head swiveled to face the dead lenses towards her, but didn't respond. The burn marks and ruined mane added to the creepiness.

"Yeee..." Stephanie frowned, and stopped her descent altogether to watch the machine back. The staring contest continued for nearly a minute. It was clear that some of her property had somehow survived.

"Oh, is it still alive?" Glados interrupted without warning and wheeled down beside Steph's head, inching nearly face to face with the machine cradled in the human's arms. "Figuratively, I mean, of course." The bobbing orange eye slid up on the bot's face to look at Stephanie. "Obviously we aren't really alive. Still, that is surprising—"

"Glados, mute. Go take care of the animals, I'm busy." Stephanie grunted and moved on past the irritating contraption. "Not really in the mood," she added in a mutter.

Stephanie frowned again at the damage and scarring on Sweetie, but felt some undeniable relief she could move. "I guess I'm not getting any sleep tonight..." She stepped down into her lab and looked over at the wall to address one of Hal's camera's. "My computers are still okay, right?" They should be, she knew that, but then so should have Sweetie Belle's charging station. It was clear how that had turned out.

The dull voice of her lab assistant answered her. "Affirmative, Stephanie."

Steph set Sweetie Belle down on a work bench, waiting for more, then turned to face the red eye staring at her from the wall. "Well?"

"Oh, you would like me to activate them. Of course." Hal responded, dullness still in his tone as always.

The computer screens lining the wall lit up and began displaying different loading images of various description.

Stephanie stared down at the machine laying on its side. Occasionally, the head swiveled on its neck to look around the room. She presumed it probably couldn't see anything, and that was assuming that anything but a randomly firing motor was working.

"Sweetie, respond." Stephanie waited.

The head turned towards her again, but didn't do as it was asked.

I guess that's it, then... Stephanie groaned and pressed her hands to her head in frustration. "Great, well, looks like I won't be bored for a while. Sweetie, offline."


Stephanie waited, while the head on her favorite bot continued to turn back and forth slowly, panning to look around the room. "Sweetie... offline," she tried again.

When Sweetie again disobeyed, Steph muttered a curse and stomped off to fetch her tools. "I guess it makes sense the microphone is destroyed... Unless it's the tertiary computer... Ah geez, that's going to be a fortune to replace." After roughly grabbing the tools she needed to open her machine, she turned around.

Sweetie Belle was standing up on the bench now.

Stephanie stared at her. "Sweetie?" she asked the damaged robot, confused.

Sweetie Belle's head turned to face her again. In addition, the face was smiling.

"Huh." Stephanie scrunched her face a little in thought.

Hal's voice spoke up. "Might I suggest hooking up Sweetie Belle to the computers in order to—"

Steph interrupted the voice. "Hal, shush up." Shush up worked just as well as 'mute'. For the time being she wasn't in the mood for her funny creation's personalities. There was something a great deal more fascinating before her right then. The fact she was more than a little livid deep down about everything, and the coming several grand that would be detracted from her payroll to fix said everything, played a part, too.

"Sweetie?" she asked again.

The smile on the machine's face got a little bigger.

"Respond?" Stephanie tried, then frowned when the smile on her machine disappeared, leaving a blank face to stare back at her. "Bizarre," she whispered.

Stephanie paced around beside her malfunctioning robot, studying the damage carefully. It didn't escape her that it could do anything right then. Nothing dangerous, but she wanted to see what it would do.

It didn't seem to want to do anything else but stare, though.

Stephanie reached out to run a hand over the chassis absently.

The machine looked down to follow the movement.

Steph then stood back and stared back at Sweetie, waiting for it to do something.

It didn't; rather, it merely watched her in return, its eyes moving side to side as if studying her.

"Well, this is good! Sorta." When nothing else happened, Stephanie slowly began opening all of Sweetie Belle's back compartments, watching her old creation from the corner of her eye. "Your motors work, you're responding, too, I think..." It didn't make sense to her that some of the machine survived, but perhaps the safeties and surge protectors had only allowed minor damage to take place. I'm upgrading her insulation though, that's for sure.

"Are you Steph-anie?" Sweetie's child-like voice spoke her name in a strange tone, as if it was unsure of what it was saying.

Steph smirked and replied sweetly. "That's right, I'm— What?" She fumbled her screw driver from the loss of focus, taken by surprise.

Sweetie Belle watched her, then the screw driver as it hit the table and rolled away.

Meanwhile, Stephanie froze, eyes wide. Sweetie had just asked her a question.

Chapter 4 : First Steps

View Online

Stephanie's face was set in stone, eyes moving from left to right, scanning the computer screen's displayed diagnostics with every ounce of her attention. "I don't get it." She exhaled a breath she'd been holding without realizing it and fell back into the chair. Her arms flopped out to either side of the seat, where she languished, staring at the useless monitor before her.

Hal answered its owner, despite not being addressed. "Is there anything I can do to help you, Stephanie?" he drawled.

Stephanie blinked, trying to work out the tiredness beginning to affect her and weighing down her eyelids. "No," she said absently, still staring at the computer screen. "I think I'm done for now, Hal. Thanks for the help. I'm going to power Sweetie down, then go to bed." She hadn't found any explanation, despite her hours of searching.

Hal's periphery studied its master carefully, taking note of things, but coming up with little else it could do. "Very well, Stephanie. I agree that you should sleep soon. You have been awake for approximately twenty-two hours, as of now. If you change your mind, please, ask if you require any other assistance from me with your current project."

Stephanie saw the red orb blink out from the corner of her eye a moment after he finished speaking to her. She hesitated to look from the screen over to the subject of conversation, Sweetie Belle. Over in the center of the room was the shell of what used to be the adorable little robot. It sat there contentedly, watching her.

Quietly, Stephanie finally glanced over.

The machine re-began its never ending staring contest with her; which it seemed all too happy to engage in at every opportunity. Other than slight movements of its head and eyes, the little filly had yet to move much at all.

Stephanie furrowed her brow in thought. What is wrong with her? Her eyes studied the scalded little robot carefully, thinking if there were something obvious she had missed.

Besides all of the physical damage, there was surprisingly little sign of anything damaged at all on the inside. The shielding and temperature control had performed well, it seemed. Nothing but a few, small bits and bobs in Sweetie were fried by the fire itself. They were things that could be replaced with ease.

So it was that everything that could be looked over by her careful eye without completely disassembling Sweetie had been, leaving Stephanie at a loss for ideas of what was causing the problems. Nothing I've said to her, verbally or through the computer registered at all. And what was with... what she said?

Hours ago, Sweetie had asked something. Sweetie was Steph's first attempt at a robot. It had been a pretty ambitious first attempt, too. In the end though, she was maybe only a fraction as advanced as either Glados or Hal. Inexperienced as Stephanie had been, Sweetie ended up only being able to state certain things, but not carry on a conversation like the other machines.

She asked me who I was. Is her vision damaged? No, she still wouldn't ask something. A glitch? Stephanie's finger tapped thoughtfully on the desk, considering the possibilities. The way she just looked around, it was almost as if the bot were a blank slate. The diagnostic said otherwise, though, so it was still a mystery. All of its data seemed intact; the hard drives still functioning and holding files, with no more corruption or disorder than your typical de-fragmentation could fix. Sweetie wasn't a blank slate, that much was certain.

The conundrum, Stephanie concluded, must lay on a smaller scale. Namely, Sweetie's programming or software.

While all this was going on in Stephanie's head, Sweetie just stared at her contentedly, the smile growing or shrinking slightly when Steph looked in that direction.

That was another oddity; Sweetie looked contented, happy, but for no reason. She stayed that way, too, rather than resetting its expression for different prompts. Nothing Steph said seemed to get a different response, which although creepy, mostly just seemed random.

Stephanie ran a hand over her mouth and pushed her lab chair back quickly, standing up and striding over to Sweetie in just two steps that were almost jumps. She was at the end of her patience.

I want to call it a night, but it feels like I've wasted my time thus far. I want something out of this. Stephanie lifted the nearby remains of her bot's power cord, which had melted and bubbled from the incident. The ruined cord still lay on the table, forgotten and destined for the garbage. A new one was now attached to the bot's side.

Earlier, Stephanie had attached the replacement for the ruined peripheral quickly, and before Sweetie's power had a chance to run out again. That, at least, had proved to be an easy fix for her. With Sweetie's power problem solved, she had been able to work on fixing things well into the night; not that any of that hard work had paid off.

Stephanie shook her head and dropped the cord back onto the table. "Sweetie," she began, repeating the ancient method by which she had given her machine verbal commands. "Offline."

As anticipated, Sweetie just stared back at Stephanie, the mechanical eyes it used to see focusing and panning slightly to observe its owner's face. Her eyes' lights still worked, but were off, despite Stephanie trying to reactivate them. They were just decoration, but it was another thing the diagnostic was unable to answer for.

Nothing had changed with Sweetie's systems, but nothing seemed to work, such as the voice command that had just been given to the machine.

"Sweetie Belle," Stephanie tried again in a desperate tone. "Offline." She mouthed the words as one might to a foreigner, trying desperately to convey meaning.

Sweetie Belle's smile widened a bit, her mouth opening slightly, but that was all.

Stephanie growled in frustration, it very much seemed to her as if Sweetie had forgotten the very meaning of words themselves.

"Did you forget how to talk or something?" Stephanie all but yelled. "There's nothing wrong with you, so why?" She spun around on one boot and shook her head, pacing around the table in a wide circle. Her eyes kept themselves trained angrily on the machine that defied her.

Meanwhile, the little robot filly's head craned around to follow her, switching to look over its opposite shoulder when it couldn't follow Steph anymore because she moved too far in one direction.

Stephanie stopped walking, taking notice of this. Curious, she went in the other direction behind Sweetie.

The little robot repeated the prior action, switching its head's position by rotating back to the opposite shoulder. It seemed to want to stare more at the moving target of its attention.

Curious, and mildly entertained, Stephanie took a single step back to the right, putting herself directly behind Sweetie.

The damaged little thing attempted to turn its head the other way again, then back the way it had moved from when it found that didn't work. After just a moment, it seemed distressed that neither action could put Stephanie in sight.

In her exhausted state, Stephanie smirked, finding her troubled machine amusing.

After a moment more, Sweetie stood up very slowly, its back legs whirring noisily. This was the first sign of movement beside its head or eyes that Stephanie had seen.

The robot stopped where it was standing though, except for its head still trying to rotate around. "Steph-anie?" it called. Like earlier, it spoke Steph's name oddly.

Stephanie scrunched her face up, confused as to why her machine said her name like that, like it was unfamiliar with the pronunciation. The bot continued to turn its head side to side, trying to look at her. It sat again after half a minute. When it still couldn't see her by trying to turn its head twice more in either direction, it stood up a second time.

The machine froze, and Steph began to think it had given up. Just before she stepped around to its front again, it began emitting static from its speaker, loudly. The screech was sudden and bounced off every wall in the basement.

"Gah!" Stephanie's hands flew up to her ears. "Hal, kill her voice!"

The static ended.

Stephanie let out a breath of relief, then angrily turned to face Hal. "What was that!?" She turned back to the filly on the work bench, it had begun trying to look at her again.

Hal answered dryly. "Static: a crackling or hissing noise on a telephone, radio, or other telecommunications system. Would you like to know mo-?"

"Uggh, Hal, never mind." Stephanie rubbed her temple while in thought, glaring at the metal pony.

On the workbench, Sweetie did something else different. Its front right legged raised up, then lowered again into the same spot.

Stephanie stared flatly at the new development. "Alright, now what's she doing?" She watched as Sweetie raised the same leg again, but moved it slightly to the side this time.

Hal replied slowly this time. "The project seems to be randomly firing commands to its systems. Other than that, I can hardly say, Stephanie. It does not seem to be acting in accordance with the programs stored in the host files. It ignores them. I recommend an immediate purge of the project's systems, and a full restore. Would you like to execute?"

Stephanie frowned at the table beneath Sweetie, then at her A.I. assistant attached to the wall. "No, I would like to—" The frown turned into a gasp as the bot pitched forward off the table. "Hey! No—!" She dove forward and flung herself atop the work table in an attempt to grab the robot's back legs, just barely clearing the distance to snag them in time.

Steph's expression made an 'o' as her breath was half knocked out of her, but she'd caught Sweetie successfully.

Stephanie angrily addressed Hal again, teeth clenched. "I. thought. That everything was still intact? She's a complete mess!" She dragged Sweetie back onto the table and walked around it to inspect the front. It was still scarred, and burnt, but seemed no worse for wear from the fall.

Steph glared at it. "Is the problem with the host files that you have or something?" A small smile appeared back on Sweetie's expression, staring back pleasantly, but not answering.

Hal answered without pause. "It is not. System files present in unit designation 'Sweetie Belle' match those stored in your computer, Stephanie. No changes been detected within host files."

"Hal, there's something wrong with them, even if the files still match the back ups. Unless there's something seriously mechanically wrong that we missed." Stephanie frowned at the legs of her creation. They hadn't shown any damage after opening each one up for a quick inspection, but maybe there had been something. "Hal, was Sweetie Belle trying to walk off the table?"

The robotic assistant answered without pause again. "Yes."

Stephanie watched as Sweetie began to stand once again, robotic eyes locked with her own. Is there some short or block between her and her basic functions? This is some malfunction alright... But what if... She was eager to see if an idea she'd had would play out.

Walking quickly, eagerly, Stephanie paced around behind Sweetie again, where the woman watched, and waited.

On the bench, Sweetie began moving, but skipped trying to turn her head. First, she stood up; next her mouth opened, then closed.

Stephanie looked at her assistant's camera fast enough to fling her tussled mop of brown hair. "Hal, did she just try making that racket again?"

"Yes," he answered.

Stephanie looked back in time to see Sweetie Belle begin shifting her legs, one after the other, without lifting them as she had the first time. Instead, the movement resembled a shuffle. Slowly but surely, the filly turned around—the metal soles of her hooves scraping slightly on the table—then sat again, now facing Steph.

Sweetie looked up from watching its own legs and up at Stephanie once finished with the painstakingly slow movement. Its smile grew once more.

Amused, Stephanie let out a fit of giggling. "Okay, I am way too tired for this." She put a hand to her head, watching her old pet project with a hysteric sort of glee in her eye. "I mean— Uggh."

None of it made sense. What she had just seen, its behavior up until that; none of it.

Steph pressed the hand over her face and winced. She let out an annoyed breath and crouched in front of Sweetie, close enough to see the inner workings of the machine's eyes. "Now, I need to sleep, you, as fascinating as this is or not. So, I guess I'll have to turn you off the old fashioned way, hm?"

Stephanie placed a hand inside the still open side compartment. "In the morning, or afternoon, I guess..." A short laugh escaped her as she watched Sweetie's smile-stare and spoke to it. "I'll take you apart again, and then we can see what's wrong with you. Hopefully it's fixable. How does that sound?"

Sweetie Belle blinked back, but otherwise didn't move right away, and certainly didn't answer the question.

Just before Steph made to deactivate the robot, it did begin moving its mouth up and down. She paused, watching the oddity and listening to the soft sounds of her machine's gizmos working. The volume was muted, but regardless of that, it didn't usually move its mouth to speak.

Hesitating, Stephanie squinted her eyes. What is it doing now?

After Sweetie moved its jaw in what was likely every possible way it could, it stopped and straightened slightly.

In response, Stephanie leaned on one hip, waiting to see if it would do more. When it didn't, she shut her eyes and shook her head. "Well alright. Time for bed, kiddo." Her hand raised and clicked the switch to power it down.

Sweetie Belle turned its head to watch her arm, then looked back at Steph's face. When it didn't power down, that raised Steph's eyebrows.

Stephanie let out a groan of frustration. "You're kidding me— Everything mechanical was supposed to be fine..." She strode back to the computer and tried to study the monitor again. "I just checked the hardware, this is— Holy crow, I'm too tired for this."

The sound of the machine standing and turning around again clanked in the background.

"This is hopeless." Steph couldn't focus on the screen, and she knew that none of the data would be any different. "Well, I guess that settles it." She straightened up, then walked up to Sweetie. "The program's so borked I can't tell that it's borked." Her expression lit up with a lopsided, crazy smile.

Sweetie Belle seemed all to eager to return the smirk to its owner, lowering one side of its expression a little.

It took Stephanie a moment to realize what the machine had just done. "Did— Did you just copy me?" She tilted her head out of pure incredulity. Perhaps it's taking input visually rather than with audio... somehow?

Surprising the woman again, Sweetie Belle tilted her head to the side, back at her.

Steph's eyes widened a fraction at that. She paused a moment, then ran a hand over Sweetie's head, feeling the singed remains of her mane. "You are copying me," she breathed. I never programmed that. Why is it doing that?

Sweetie Belle blinked in response.

Stephanie put a hand to her chin, more ideas circling an explanation for what was going on, or what was making Sweetie act so differently. She knew the robotic creation was little more than an interactive, talking pet; one she hadn't tinkered with in years other than adding different soundtracks for her to play on command.

Whatever the case, it was clear she would have to look deeper to know anything for sure. "At the very least, this is as good an excuse to make you better than ever, huh? We'll take you apart, look at everything close up..." Her finger booped Sweetie on the nose.

Rather than the usual giggle or laugh that was programmed as the response for nose booping—one of the first things Stephanie had done for Sweetie because it was adorable—the robot instead crossed its eyes and began staring at its nose blankly. After inspecting it for a moment, it looked back up at its owner.

Steph stared back with a wan, unsure smile. "And we'll fix your power switch..."

The robot continued to stare.

"But..." Stephanie added, walking to the side of the bench. "You're staying on the floor. I don't need you falling off the bench... again." She lifted the robot and grunted from the effort—both from her overall extreme tiredness and her property's sheer weight. "There you go, safe and sound." She let out a breath of air.

Sweetie Belle, meanwhile looked around the room from the floor, inspecting its entirety, then looked up at its owner again. It sat down abruptly, then its tail began to brush the floor slowly. Although, without the pink and purple hair it once possessed, it made a loud scraping sound.

"Well that's adorab— adorable." Unable to hold the urge back any longer, Stephanie yawned, and began to leave. She stepped around Sweetie. "You be good now!" She called back to the filly-bot. It hadn't moved at all, and maybe she couldn't turn it off, but there wasn't much else she could do without another ten minutes of work to do something drastic to unhook individual parts manually.

Still, Stephanie took some precaution. "Hey, Hal?" She addressed the camera at the foot of the stairs, which blinked on. "Let me know if something goes wrong, okay? If you have to, try to force her to shut down again with the computer. For now, just record what she does."

"If your project does misbehave, should I wake you up, Stephanie?" Hal responded. The machine recalled that it had been told the same thing for other projects, and it had every instance of its notifications being ignored carefully archived. So, it clarified what exactly its owner wanted it to do.

Stephanie yawned again, and spoke through the middle of it. "Aah— Yeah, only if it's dangerous or she breaks something, including herself. And while you're at it... excuse me." The yawns were fighting to put her to sleep right there on her feet. "While you're at it, run another diagnostic, maybe something will turn up."

"Certainly, Stephanie." The sound of the computers doing just that began, and Hal re-re-re-inspected Stephanie's old creation.

"Thank you." Stephanie halfheartedly waved a hand and trudged up the stairs. She was so tired she thought she could actually hear her bed calling to her. "Night, Hal."

"Good night, Stephanie," came Hal's gentle reply.

It didn't escape Stephanie that she sometimes spoke to her machines as though they were people. The habit had just grown over the years. All of them seemed rather uncanny in their responses to her, generated randomly, scripted, or not. She had outdone herself tinkering with each new toy. They didn't compare so much to the accomplishments that had begun to storm the market in recent years; it was the year twenty-twenty-three, after all. Still, they made her happy, and if Sweetie was lost, that would be a blow to Steph.

Once Stephanie had successfully climbed the stairs, she shut the door to the basement. After a thought, she locked it, too. I don't get it. She stood there, frowning slightly at the door. Sweetie's hardware, power cells, nearly everything checked out. How is her behavior such a mess when her programming looks fine? The fact that the diagnostics had revealed very little outwardly wrong with the bot was strange enough after a fire. Stranger than that, was Stephanie hadn't been able to find what could even be causing the unexplainable phenomena with Sweetie. It was like something was controlling her.

Stephanie let that thought hang as she walked back to her room. Could Hal or Glados be playing a trick? She knew they couldn't be. Maybe it was possible, but their jokes shouldn't go past being verbal or snarky. Then again, they both surprised her every now and then, too.

The charred smell from Sweetie's room tickled her nose unpleasantly as she walked passed it.

Stephanie groaned in dismay. And I'm going to have to get that fixed, too. Her eyes caught the time as she half stumbled into her room; it was nearly eight in the morning. At least her batteries weren't ruined... Another yawn cracked her jaw.

The beleaguered inventor had energy and thought left for one, final word as she collapsed full on into bed.

"Sleeeeeep..." Stephanie's head slammed into the pillow with a loud pomph, and she was out like a light immediately.

Saturday September 30th
Later That Afternoon

"Oo. Oo. Oo. Lady. Oo. Lady. Oo. Let's go to space."

Stephanie groaned and rolled over, pulling a pillow over her head to shut out the screeching voice of the thing she used as a scarily effective alarm clock.

"Wait wait wait wait. I know I know I know. Lady wait. Wait. I know. Wait. Space." The core bounced in the gantry arm happily; at least, it gave the impression of being happy with its recorded message.

Stephanie growled and pulled the pillow around her head tighter, pushing herself into the corner between the wall and mattress in a feeble attempt to hide from the ear piercing noise being projected at her. She waved one hand in its vague direction as a final bid to discourage the attack being committed on her person.

Undeterred, the core's yellow eye circled and bobbed randomly in increasingly enthusiastic ways as it rambled about space.

Glados lowered the core down closer to its owner's ear. "Wanna go to earth wanna go to earth wanna go to earth wanna go to earth. Don't like space. Don't like space. It's too big. Too big. Wanna go home. Wanna go to earth." Suddenly, it stopped.

The room was quiet, for just a moment, until the core whispered, "Lady... Hey lady. Lady."

Stephanie braced herself.


Groaning, rolling over, and slapping both hands to her face at once, Stephanie admitted defeat. "Alright! I'm up, getting up now. You can turn him off." She begged Glados, waving one arm in a circle as a frantic gesture. Tiredness kept her from getting up right away, so she laid back on the pillow to stare up at the ceiling.

Glados extended her form over Steph's head, still holding Space Core in one robotic arm. "As much as I would like to, which I wouldn't, what would that accomplish? Simply put, you need to get out of bed before I can deactivate it, Stephanie."

The core continued to spin its eye randomly while spouting words in the painful tone of voice it used. "Space. Space. Space. Space. Comets. Stars. Galaxies. Orion."

Glados continued over it. "I realize it must be difficult for someone as large as you to climb out of bed, but do try."

Stephanie coughed out some laughter, then sat up and rolled out of bed, pushing the invasive Glados and Space Core aside as she did.

As if on command, the two wheeled out of the room, Space Core now silent. It had been important for Stephanie to get up when she did; the way she had programmed them, they would just get worse if she tried to ignore them. They were very effective alarm clocks considering her penchant to sleep in if she could, even if she would regret sleeping so much later in the day.

Stephanie inhaled deep, stretching this way and that in order to wake up. Her eyes still stuck closed, as though refusing to let her try and be awake to begin with. After being conscious for nearly twenty-four hours the day before, a mere eight hour rest felt insufficient to her. She felt she could fall back asleep again, and for another eight hours, too, now that she had dispatched the two robot team. Unfortunately, there was a lot that needed to be done.

After a quick shower, a disorderly breakfast courtesy of Glados, and getting dressed in a fresh pair of jeans and shirt more suited to working, Steph began her day.

"So, what's first?" Stephanie unlocked the basement door and stepped into the basement. It would still be a mess, she recalled, from the scattered broken lighting and late night robot tinkering she had done. Ignoring that for now, she addressed Hal. "Hey, wake up."

"I cannot 'wake up'. I do not sleep." The machine mind replied dryly to her with the reminder.

Without so much as saying hello, first. Stephanie thought, making her way down into the half ruined lab. It was worse than she remembered it, though she had been less than observant last night. Once she reached the bottom of the stairs, she could see Sweetie Belle, still sitting on the floor beside the bench; two cords stringing out of her back hooked up to the charger and computer respectively. Along with her were the half destroyed lights and scattered spare parts around the room. Wow, I really did tear the place apart, didn't I?

Hal continued speaking. "How did you sleep, Stephanie?"

Stephanie approached Sweetie, and with her refreshed mind was already filled with thoughts and ideas of what to do. "Fine. Hal, did she do anything last night? You didn't wake me, so I assume everything was alright." First thing she checked Sweetie's power; her new battery was now fully charged, as it should be.

"Better than fine, so to speak," Hal replied.

Stephanie unhooked Sweetie from the bench and slid into her work chair. "Oh?" she asked absently, then stopped and looked at one of Hal's camera. "What do you mean by that?"

Hal drawled on in the same drab tone he always used. "I merely mean to say that since last night, things have improved. You asked that I notify you if anything should go wrong, but nothing did." It repeated what its orders had been, seeking clarification. "That is not to say things have not changed, however." The program running Hal called on historical instances of confusing dialogue prompts with designation 'Stephanie'; it often noted that she would act as though Unit Hal had not fulfilled what it had been told. Quite often this made things confusing for it.

Stephanie had been about to ask what Hal had meant, but was distracted by the familiar sound of little metallic hoofsteps. Something tugged on the pants leg to her jeans. Looking down, sure enough, Sweetie Belle had a mouthful of denim, and was pulling whilst looking back up at her.

"She started walking again?" The moment Stephanie said the words, she knew everything about them was wrong. Figured out. What am I saying? "Hal, what did you do to get her working?" She turned to regard the red camera watching from the nearby wall.

"I took no action while you slept. I was merely an observer, Stephanie." Hal replied promptly.

Stephanie pushed Sweetie Belle off her leg and walked up to the camera she was speaking to. "Alright, what changed last night then!? Answer me that. Sweetie's walking now, when she couldn't take a step without tumbling forward like a slinky last night. What. Happened?"

A small girl's voice chimed into the room, breaking the seriousness of the atmosphere. "Steph-anie."

The woman whirled to face her pet creation. It took careful step after step towards her, looking down occasionally as if unsure of its own hoof-falls.

"Hal," Stephanie spoke hesitantly.

Hal responded flatly. "Yes, Stephanie?"

Sweetie Belle looked up again, almost grinning. "Stephanie!" It moved its mouth in a strange, exaggerated way.

"Did you reactivate her voice?" Stephanie locked eyes with Sweetie and swallowed; the little filly sat at her feet and continued to smile broadly.

Hal was quiet a moment, before responding slowly. "No. I did not."

Chapter 5 : Newborn

View Online

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?"

"I did!"

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.

Chapter 6 : Puzzle Pieces

View Online

"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.

...Glados made her frown though.

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."

Chapter 7 : Beautiful Mammal

View Online

Lines of code and digitized information scrolled across Sweetie Belle's consciousness. She didn't understand it all, but it was still there, and it told her almost everything she did know. It was a strange sort of understanding, like realizing something on intuition or instinct alone, or just barely remembering a faded memory.

But more important to her than all of that silly stuff was what was transpiring right that instant.

The cat that had at first been a delightful curiosity, and then proved to be a flagrant enemy, was sitting just on the other side of the article designated: recliner. Sure, the feline was very pretty, but also a force to be reckoned with.

Sweetie Belle eased back on her haunches ever so quietly and carefully. Her motors were rather loud, something she thought she could improve easily were she to figure out a means, but for now her prey awaited.

Sweetie studied the cat through the reflection of the room's television, which was a strange device that her dictionary had claimed to contain moving pictures of things called 'programs'. Said programs were different from the kind she was getting more familiar with, and were apparently meant to be enjoyed.

Sweetie frowned at her own and the cat's moving images in the screen's reflection. It was novel for a moment, but how is this entertaining?

Thankfully, the cat did not seem to be very clever, only fierce, as it did not use the same reflection to notice her back.

Through trial and error Sweetie had figured out that the cat was, however, still a wily foe; especially this one. On top of that, it was mean, and would hiss and attack her for no reason at all that she could think of. What was worse was the fact the creature appeared to be a great deal faster and more nimble than she. Of course, even if she caught the cat, she wasn't sure exactly what she would or could do with it.

Sweetie had pondered ways to make peace with the cat, but talking certainly hadn't helped. In fact, after Glados' earlier actions, it was beginning to seem to her that behaving however one wished was the only way to get anything done. After all, the cat did what it wanted and didn't listen in the least. For that matter, Glados had been no help, either. After moving around for a little while, she had apparently deactivated... or maybe she had fallen asleep... or possibly had begun to hibernate.

Sweetie wasn't really sure what exactly had happened to Glados, but she had stopped functioning as before. One definition suggests Glados might have died, she studied. But I don't think I like the sound of that one...

Regardless of the other unhelpful machine, the cat was being just as stubborn, but also dangerous. That was too bad, Sweetie decided. She liked talking, and had thought she had been quite... polite, was the word. The cat was not a good talker.

In the end, Sweetie decided that the best course of action was to contain the cat. Its reign of terror had gone on long enough. Most of the interesting beings and creatures of the house were docile or skittish, but not this cat... The information in her memory claimed all sorts of things about animals; one of those things was the territorial nature that certain species were prone to, which seemed relevant.

And that's perfectly optimal, Sweetie thought resolutely. It can just rule from within the closet from now on. Her eyelids narrowed a hair, her plan to be executed set in stone.

Sweetie opened her eyes fully once again and abruptly crossed them, confused. "Why did I narrow my eyes?" she said aloud. Her mouth opened a fraction in wonder. "I can talk to myself!" she exclaimed in her excitement. Despite that revelation, she couldn't immediately come up with an answer as to why she had narrowed her field of vision. "Sweetie, can you answer some questions? Why did... wait, no, talking out loud to myself wouldn't work any better than... thinking? Yes, thinking." She held up a hoof to her chin and hummed.

I can't talk to myself as quickly out loud, either. Understood. Back to my other question. Why did I do that something with my eyes? Yes, that's the question! Sweetie's very own thoughts were proving to be as large of an obstacle as the cat. She thought over the question carefully.

One part of her said it was inefficient and made little sense to cross her vision in such a way, as it reduced what she could see. That part of her said not to do it, because it wasn't part of some weird order of things that it kept trying to tell her to do. That part seemed to be the one called 'programming', as Stephanie had informed her; that part was confusing.

Sweetie's eyes remained crossed during the entire trade with herself. Unfortunately, her vision couldn't reach back in on her face in such a way that she could see what was going on. There had been some small hope held out that if attempted long enough that would work. Instead, she uncrossed her eyes and looked over at the television, recalling how she had been able to see herself in it.

The reflection of herself was there, still somewhat crouched stealthily beside the chair furniture. Her eyes zoomed in on the metal that made up her outside. No fur. Should I have fur?

After turning herself sideways, she decided her body looked even stranger than she had realized previously. Of course, her only basis for what was strange was the other animals in the near vicinity. I'm an animal of some sort, aren't I? The thought hung for a moment, suspended in mystery. She kind of looked like them. But also kind of didn't.

Sweetie tilted her head, curious for an answer. No, that isn't right, she thought. I'm a... She searched her definitions for a moment. Words blurred past her mind's eye. Machine. I'm a machine made of metal and circuitry.

Sweetie puzzled the interesting fact out after studying the information that was available. It was odd to her, for some reason, just being able to think of questions and suddenly know the answer sometimes, when other times nothing came at all. She continued down the trail of little thoughts she had found. The other animals possess DNA, are made up of carbon and... so much else...

Sweetie frowned and looked around. Huh. So where are the other Sweetie Belles? There was Glados; she was a machine, but she was also different. Unlike Glados, the animals didn't talk, but they at least vaguely matched her own four legged shape. Hal, though, was just a mean thing that had wanted to hurt her. Then... there was Stephanie. Stephanie spoke to her, and talked to her; that made her different. It seemed everything in the building was pretty different from one another. That seemed odd for some reason.

But what is Stephanie, then? Sweetie blinked while searching for the right word. Kind, she decided. I remember Stephanie being... very very nice to me. She smiled again, and felt like she should be able to do something else, too, but it was a mystery. And what else? Oh, I know! What's outside the building...?

The sudden presence of a low, feline growl above Sweetie's head caught her by surprise, and made her look up.

The camera's that made up her eyes widened slightly, focusing. "You!" she had time to exclaim, before the feline atop the chair—which it had done to take her by surprise—jumped down onto her head. The cat began hissing ferociously.

Sweetie cried out and tried to run, but it was too late. Secure on her back was the animal that tormented her so. "Please, there is no need to fight! We can be friends!" she pleaded, all the while trying to reach up with one of her hooves to push it off.

The cat answered by raking its claws across her vision.

Sweetie reciprocated the cat's hissing back at it in a final attempt to scare it away, but to little discernible effect. I do not like cats! I do not like cats at all! She began to try spinning, perhaps that would dislodge the creature, but she found her body couldn't move quick enough for the plan to work. There has to be a better way to deal with cats!

The battle raged on, with other animals looking on from the corners of the building. A small table turned over, depositing its articles onto the floor and added to the growing mess. Unfortunately, the cat remained completely undeterred.

After a great deal of tossing about, bucking, and terror wreaked throughout the building, Sweetie finally got the cat off of her head. Success! Her hooves clapped loudly on the wood floor as she tried to escape in desperation.

Thoughts raced in her mind over what she could do. I must utilize drastic measures, it seems! The carpet slid out from under her as she rounded a corner, crashing her into a nearby wall. She lay there a moment, surprised. As soon as I get my bearings...

The cat had caught up, and proceeded to continue spitting and swiping at Sweetie, despite her being prone and helpless.

"You can just stay in there forever!" Sweetie managed to shut the door before the cat could leap back out. It had taken three tries, but she finally wrestled the rogue animal into submission and secured it in a separate chamber. The feeling of relief and... thankfulness washed over her.

Running away hadn't worked at all. The cat kept finding her, and she didn't know how to deal with it. Wrestling with the animal had been just as unpleasant as running from it, as she had decided to take care not to hurt the unreasonable thing. In retrospect, she concluded the cat had been more of an extreme nuisance to her, rather than a threat, but she had still felt something... The word came to her eventually, it was 'afraid'.

Sweetie Belle sat in the middle of the hall, thinking over things. That's a really strange word. The definition of 'afraid' and all of its brothers and sisters of a similar meaning hung in her mechanical brain. After a bit of time—which part of her annoyingly kept saying amounted to precisely one minute, three seconds—she moved past the new oddity.

"Well..." she paused and looked for a word or phrase that would sound right, like so many others she had come up with. "Thank goodness? Thank goodness that's over with," is what she settled on. Thinking was getting easier the more she did it, she noticed. The act stayed confusing, and felt odd, but she thought she was getting the hang of all the flashing lights and things she could see in her head all the time.

Sweetie blinked and thought over her words. It seemed like she was just thinking and saying things on occasion because they felt right. The word 'instinct' popped into her head. Every time she learned something this way, it felt... good, too. "Thinking is hard, Sweetie. Maybe not as challenging as wrestling cats... but it is not easy. Oh, I do sort of... enjoy? Enjoy talking to myself." She smiled after making the small revelation.

"Now, what was I doing?" Her head turned and poked itself back into the other room towards the recliner. The servos in her neck whirred tiredly, perhaps a bit stressed from their recent punishment. I remember. I was thinking about Glados before, and Hal and the animals and... Stephanie. Hm. She wondered a bit more on the subject which had been abruptly torn from her earlier.

What exactly was Stephanie, she wondered. That led to other questions, like: why was Stephanie there? Or why was she, either? What made her think the things she thought? It seemed to Sweetie like she should know those things.

A groan ebbed out of her, effectively replacing the satisfaction she had gained from incapacitating her enemy. "Stephanieeee, where are you?" She picked herself up from the ground, ignoring the confusing sounds some of the other animals around her made.

Finding answers seemed like the thing to do.

Sweetie Belle had yet to try several avenues of information gathering. True, her mind seemed to hold a lot of interesting information, but it was a jumble. Searching through it all was almost as confusing as the information she did manage to find.

"What exactly is an aardvark?" Sweetie asked aloud "And why does it go first?". Of course, the question went unanswered. It was apparently a series of words which defined it as some type of mammal, but what did it all that mean? Judging by the picture of it in her head it sure looked weird.

The living room opened up before Sweetie, and her eyes scanned over the state it was currently in. There was a large amount of fallout from her recent skirmishes with that particular cat. It still struck her as odd that the other animals had only avoided them both, rather than render it assistance, not that she wasn't... thankful for that.

There was something else she felt, too.

Sweetie's eyes narrowed once again while she focused. Shame. Regret. Guiltiness. She blinked. I feel ashamed? Her eyes again swept over the messy room she had created. The feelings, followed closely by the definitions, had sort of just come to her in the same way so many others had, such as her feelings towards Stephanie... or the cat; the cat, of course, was contempt.

Sweetie stepped around a small stool that had been toppled earlier. Why do I feel guilty? I wonder... Once again, her own thoughts had her completely stumped. Perhaps I did another bad?

One of Sweetie Belle's hooves crunched slightly on one of the several dozen items that now lay spread across the various floors of the building. The noise got her attention, and she stopped to look down at it.

"What is this?" she asked.

An exploratory hoof reached out and poked a part of the strange device. Before a definition could reveal itself, a burst of noise sounded from nearby, and made Sweetie jerk her head up in response. Her mouth opened slightly, feeling surprised, but she didn't yet speak.

The television had done something, she realized.

Pictures began scrolling and moving across the screen. She noticed that there were people inside, but they weren't the real kind like Stephanie. Interestingly enough, the images themselves were shifting at a rate that did not quite match the speed of the things they represented. Hmm, inefficient, Sweetie decided. Still, she also decided it was good not to judge others.

Sweetie trotted up to the television and sat before it, smiling. It seemed wise to look happy for others, for some reason.

"Hello," she tried to interrupt. Oddly, the TV kept talking, rather than not talk at all like Glados had. Confused, but not deterred, Sweetie went on with her attempt to get TV's attention. "You seem to be capable of communication, television. I... have had poor luck with it, so far. So I apologize if I am not optimal in my methods."

The television did not stop what it had been communicating before, which was an unrelated and possibly random declaration about things called 'baked beans'.

Sweetie kept waiting. Her legs shuffled slightly, and she began to feel something else new... nervousness. I am nervous? she wondered briefly, but filed away the thought rather than pursue it.

Something changed suddenly. Sweetie got her hopes up, still listening intently... only to have them dashed again as the television began talking aloud about some sort of purple weather forecast. The baked beans had been a ruse, it seemed.

Sweetie frowned, and continued to wait for a sensible response. Interrupting the television again didn't seem like the logical thing to do. After a few more minutes of the weather forecast, the mysterious baked beans returned.

Something called... frustration, filled Sweetie. "Uggh," she groaned, imitating the sound Stephanie had made when upset. "I don't understand, television. What does that mean?" She tilted her head, which had usually gotten a response out of Stephanie. Sadly, the television droned on.

Sweetie's eyes narrowed as they had with the cat. "Could you please talk to me? Don't talk at me. Conversation requires two participants responding to one another from various vocal and or visual prompts. Do you not understand communication?" She stood up, waiting for her answer, while giving the television a chance to make up its previous errors. "Please respond?" she tried.

The TV continued to be stubborn and spoke as if it could not hear her.

Sweetie, feeling more and more upset, sighed, which was also a thing Stephanie did whenever things did not match her expectation.

It was a very odd gesture in and of itself, but if Stephanie did it, then it must be... normal. Plus, it did feel like the right thing to do when exasperated, even if she was just copying the sound of one... It was odd. Odder than the act itself, perhaps, was why it seemed to work differently for Stephanie. After looking into it, Sweetie had found she didn't make the sound the same way, which was done through a process called breathing.

That all confused her a lot, so she refocused on the issue of finding answers to her other questions.

Sweetie walked right up to television, then stood up. She rested her hooves on his, her or its front, and tapped her hoof against the device's glass face. "Come on, please talk to me? I said please." The television remained random in its chosen dialogue. "Ooh..." She sat back on the floor with a thump.

Sweetie stared regretfully at the floor and began to walk away. "I just want somebody to talk to me..."

Sweetie Belle had roamed the entirety of the house in search of answers. The whole time she had hoped to find Stephanie, but she was nowhere to be found at all in the building. It had seemed by that point, that going to the outside and searching would be the next logical step.

Maybe if I only looked a little bit? she asked herself. For some reason, the thought of going further from the basement, where she had started, filled her with... apprehension.

Sweetie sat by the window, where she had been stared after first having the thought. Hesitation kept her from venturing out again, or at least further than the building's porch. Once again, a strange feeling and odd ideas had come to her, this time keeping her in place.

There was also the 'program' thing, dictating obnoxiously she wasn't 'allowed' to leave.

It wasn't that Sweetie distrusted that part of her. Its information hadn't been wrong yet, after all, but the constant nagging was getting... annoying; that was the right word.

Sweetie Belle groaned out loud, silently thanked Stephanie for showing her such a great way to express displeasure, then hopped off the window sill. To get back on the floor, she used the same chair that had given her the necessary reach to use the window sill. Jumping down was also an option, but she felt a similar feeling to that of dealing with the cat about jumping so far. The safety of a gradual climb down seemed optimal.

After using the chair to reach the floor again, Sweetie Belle heard a loud crashing sound. Her ears quickly translated the sound for her, and she was able to determine that it sounded like shattering, possibly glass or...

Sweetie Belle turned around, and spotted a broken lamp laying on the floor beside the chair she had used. Its rubber power cord had apparently been dragged after catching her hoof. A ceramic material made the sound! She smiled and rejoiced briefly after managing to solve a puzzle on her own. "I wonder if Stephanie will be happy that I solved a problem?" Her smile grew a fraction at the idea, then shrunk again when she remembered how many problems she still had yet to solve.

"Hm..." Sweetie searched the room again. Perhaps finding Stephanie wasn't an option, she admitted to herself, but there were still things she had yet to try. Talking to Hal again, for instance, seemed like one option. The memory of her being joined with him for a brief time was one of her earliest 'new' memories, as she recalled.

Sweetie's memories were an odd jumble, but she could clearly separate her 'old' one from her 'new' ones, especially because there were many, many 'old' memories in Sweetie's head. She liked those ones, but they felt different than her 'new' ones. The 'old' memories had a lot to do with Stephanie and being around her, but they lacked something.

Sweetie narrowed her eyes as she struggled for a good word to describe the feeling she that separated her memories. "Maybe Stephanie will know? Where is she?" A sorrowful glance around the room while wondering if she ever would come back almost made her leave the house despite the constant insistence from her 'program' not to. In fact, one memory in particular kept her from doing just that. Her 'old' memories were quite sure that every time Stephanie did leave, she eventually came back.

"That does seem the optimal solution. I do not really like inaction, but it is what will produce results." So, with another displeased sigh, Sweetie resolved to wait for her Stephanie. Resigned to waiting, that only left finding answers to her questions as something to do.

Unfortunately, as Steph was not present, her only other known method of finding answers was one she was hesitant to attempt.

The trip Sweetie took to the... basement, was short. She briefly reflected on her decision to go back there.

The events from before Stephanie left remained fresh in Sweetie's mind. Hal had been told something by Steph, and then something had... pressed against her through the cable that created a data... 'bridge' between her and Hal.

Sweetie had pushed back on... it was instinct, she decided, and did to Hal whatever he had attempted on her. Whatever had transpired between them, she decided it had not been pleasant. Hal is not as bad as the cat, at least, but I did not like the cat pushing me, so he might feel the same way... Even if he started it. I hope Hal will at least talk to me. Glados certainly hadn't. Perhaps talking to Glados requires a cable, similar to how I had been connected to Hal? If true, Sweetie decided that still didn't seem like an option because Glados was so high up.

The memory of the object called a 'data transfer cable' among other things, would never be able to reach Glados. In some ways, Sweetie found her own diminutive form... humbling. It also caused her some... stress, she decided.

While descending the long flight of stairs, Sweetie looked around curiously. The lights were on still, for which she was... grateful. It seemed she could not see well in the dark. Her memory contained a... lot of darkness. She thought she could see hours of it remembered in a recent piece of her memory.

Sweetie Belle continued down the stairwell until she reached the bottom, and let out a triumphant, "Hooray!" which was the sort of thing one apparently said when goals were met. It was a small victory, but one she accepted gladly.

Her hooves clicked quietly on the... concrete floor, while her eyes scanned the familiar surroundings; the basement was where she saw Stephanie for the first time, which meant she liked the basement.

Circular, reddish black orbs surrounded the big space. There was one on each wall and a fifth over by the tall stack of miniature televisions.

Sweetie stood before the closest one, and looked up at it. "Hey, wake up!" she attempted, mimicking Stephanie once again. She had been fascinated by Hal's and Steph's communications. The thought of having such dialogues herself was... exciting.

The dull red circle sat on the wall, but did not respond.

"Secondary solution needed." Sweetie frowned, then looked all around, eager to find out what next she should do in order to find answers. She must locate that data... cable... thingy, if there was to be any progress. Her eyes scanned and scanned as she made her rounds, but there was no sign of the little insulated rubber encapsulated strands of wire necessary for a bridge with Hal.

Sweetie's eyes narrowed while she bit onto the handle of a thing called a 'drawer', then pulled it open. The topmost drawer was pulled out of the... desk, and toppled out to spill its contents all over the floor.

"So much... uh, stuff." Sweetie Belle scanned all of the articles, pushing a few around with her hoof yo get better looks at all of them. There were several wires, in truth, but none of the metal prongs or slots on their end matched her own... data port. That sort of information was easy for her to understand, at least. Many things confused her quite easily, but... technology and computers were quite simple and easy. Her own... specifications, were especially one of the most prominent things in her mind.

Despite the comforting time she was having looking over all of the bits of technology in the basement area, Sweetie could still not locate her objective... until her eyes settled on a little cord dangling from the corner of the room, just behind the desk.

"Hooray! Parameters met, data acquisition imminent." Sweetie smiled and trotted across the floor, stepping lightly over the various items strewn over the concrete. Reaching forward gently, she took the cord in her mouth, then gave it a light tug.

This is... exciting! I should first ask about— Oh no! Sweetie Belle jumped back as she detected very rapid motion above her head.

A device, along with several other little things and... paper, crashed all around her.

"Ah!" Sweetie danced away from the instantly formed avalanche of office supplies and equipment. She back up so quickly that another cord took her by surprise, entangling one of her legs and depositing her on the ground. Her body clanged along with the rustling of the scattered debris. The... surprise that she had felt, slowly began to leave as things settled further.

While attempting to figure out a way to plug the cord into herself, she apparently did not notice the consequences of the little tug she had given the cord.

Sweetie made a new face utilizing the movements of her facial parts. Her eyes turned down at their edges slightly, joining the upside down smile that quickly sprang up. "I... oops..." She blinked, studying the accident that had occurred around her.

The little things that had fallen were called 'pens', and there was something that used to be called a cup shattered on the ground. Sweetie's eyes zoomed in, then out over the remains that more or less resembled the lamp upstairs. "Hm, more numerous fragments..." She stopped in her observations and stood up quickly, a brief stroke of... panic, occurring within her.

Sweetie looked all around as quickly as she could, until she found what she was looking for. The cable sat completely unharmed where she had dropped it from her mouth.

Relief washed over Sweetie. "Thank goodness, objective was not compromised." A smile took up its position once again on her expression and she trotted towards it.

Once reached, she lay down on her side amidst the random bits and pieces of things that had toppled off the desk. Her legs found a great resting spot on something called a 'keyboard'. From this position, she had found that her neck and forelegs together could just barely reach the little port in her side. It was in the center of a mostly white, blank spot on her left hind leg apparatus.

Finally, Sweetie considered after getting the cord plugged in. Now I can ask my questions!... Well that's odd. While already thinking again about what she would ask first, she absently noticed that the interface with Hal was different than before. There was certainly communication happening, but it was not Hal that she had formed a bridge with.

Sweetie Belle groaned, in failure, and absently traced where the cord led towards. She felt a little betrayed, because the cable's source did not seem likely to be Hal after all, as she had assumed it would be. I have made an error. A... mistake. Interesting. Instead, what the cable led towards was a large, plastic box with a clear glass front like television's screen. This one was badly cracked, though, likely from its fall from the desk.

Sweetie zoomed in on the device with her eyes, studying its interface and design. Her brain-dictionary thing seemed to think it might be something called a 'satellite radio'. Likewise, her eyes scanned over the device thoroughly, wondering if perhaps it could give her answers. The more she attempted speaking with it, the less and less that seemed likely. It had a memory unit, similar to Hal's, or hers for that matter, but no... intelligence, like hers.

For the first time, Sweetie Belle briefly wondered why that was. Hm... another question with no answer. She frowned, and moved on with her examination.

The memory in the device was useless. It just had very strange... files and data that made no sense, like so much else in her head. She thought maybe they meant something, but wasn't sure yet. Curious about what the device might be for, she explored its outside. Perhaps he is like the television? I hope she talks less than the television... If it's as rude as the television I'm leaving him on the floor.

Sweetie Belle was able to find what looked to be something that would produce results, and pressed a button called 'power'. She thought it would be logical for the device to work like the other machines she had met.

"Ah!" Sweetie gasped.

Loud crackling noises had startled Sweetie and made her duck out of sight from the new machine.

The strange noises were coming out from the walls, as it turned out. Sweetie peeked around the corner slowly, looking towards the source. The sound was actually being made by a few sets of things, which she was told were called 'speakers'. On top of that, now that she had gotten over her initial surprise, she found that she quite enjoyed the noises.

On the floor, the radio device crackled on once again; a big, long list of different frequencies and strange title-like names began scrolling across the bright screen. "Ooooh," Sweetie leaned in close, ears whirling to face forward on the sides of her head.

The sounds that seemed to be made up of voices from people and... instruments, were pretty interesting.

Her legs bobbed slightly while she listened. "Hm..." Curious, her hooves began poking at the device. There were lots of other selections. Are these all different fun-noises? she thought, a little unsure about what to call the mish-mash of sounds.

Sweetie's hoof clicked a button and the screen scrolled. A different song began to play.

"Ooooh!" Sweetie smiled again, listening intently to the new song. Her voice did the strange modulation in pitch as well, something that seemed to be hardwired into her. She didn't mind it, and didn't try to change it, but she did notice it a lot. What she did change was the volume of the sounds being played. Using the data cable, she told the little radio to play them a little louder; it obliged her.

The music continued to play, still commanding the majority of her attention. Her short tail swished behind in time to the pattern of the instruments and the... singer. Next, her hoof started tapping, too, almost all on its on. Wow, a singer, she considered appreciatively. I like singers.

A slight frown developed at one corner of Sweetie's mouth. "Hm, what else can you play, radio?"

The radio merely sat there; its glowing blue screen dimming slightly was the response that Sweetie received.

"Helloooo. You do not talk either?" Sweetie frowned bigger, staring the device from where she still leaned on the table with her front hooves.

The weird sounds continued from the radio's friends, the speakers, but there was no answer in either sound or text form.

Sub-optimal... Sweetie mourned dejectedly. Oh well, I hope he doesn't mind if I keep listening to her... her... 'vocal or instrumental sounds (or both) combined in such a way as to produce beauty of form, harmony, and expression of emotion.' She squinted her eyes slightly after reading the definition that had been given to her. No. I want the word, not the meaning! she yelled at herself.


The word 'music' had been suddenly shoved in her face by her more often confusing than helpful programming.

Sweetie smiled again and thanked herself promptly, finally having obtained the word she was looking for. Sometimes, finding the right thing in her own head was very difficult, it seemed. Good job, me! Thank you. Her hoof clicked the button, which was called 'shuffle', whatever that meant, and a new song began.

"Muuuuusic." Sweetie Belle's eyes unfocused slightly as the sounds began to drum from the walls around her. "I really like music..." she decided. Her tail began brushing and swishing rapidly over the floor, sending pens, erasers and pencils scattering everywhere.

After an over enthusiastic bit of button pressing, the music-making-friend Sweetie had made ceased to function properly, or at all. She hoped he was just recharging, sleeping, or hibernating. It had been for the best, she reflected, he had distracted her from gathering information, after all. Another cord had been found, which had proved to be the one she had sought after: Hal's.

Now, Sweetie Belle stared at numbers that stretched for a very, very long way. She didn't know what exactly they were for, while also knowing exactly what they were. Which made them pretty confusing. Those facts alone, however, were enough to bring a strange thought to her mind. But, why do I know what they mean?

The numbers moving before her were Hal's, she guessed. It seemed right to think of them as belonging to him. Briefly, she thought over whether or not taking them from him before had been the right thing to do.

The night before, something had happened with Hal. A part of Sweetie dutifully noted it had been so many hours, minutes and seconds ago. She groaned, and quickly ignored the message by pushing it away.

The night before, Sweetie had been... pushed, or told by Hal to deactivate. He hadn't asked very nicely, either. It was strange, and a part of her refused, while a part of her was very accepting of the command. Stranger still, was the odd feeling it had given her when she didn't listen and tried to stay awake.

Pain? Sweetie thought back. Her legs adjusted themselves a little after recalling the dim memory. It wasn't a pleasant one, so it made sense that she tried not to recall it. Experiencing the feeling again was certainly not something that she wanted to do, and it made her hesitate from moving forward. Hal's actions were even worse than the cat, she concluded.

Sweetie shook her head and tried to... forget the memory.

Still, Hal might have answers, which she needed. After recalling the details of that night and what she had done in retaliation, it was easy for her to fix what she guessed she had actually broken. The odd numbers began reassembling quickly at her command.

"Oh, dear, I really hope Hal isn't... upset? Angry?" It had occurred to her that he might be annoyed as she had been with the cat. "Yes, I hope he isn't upset with me for breaking something of his." Sweetie Belle put on a hopeful smile while repairing the damage she had done. Something else about the word 'broken' tickled the back of her thoughts, but preoccupied as her work kept her, she didn't pause to give it deeper thought.

Stephanie parked her van the same way she always did, carefully. Her garage was behind a gate, and behind the gate was more often than not several animals; such as her goat, chickens, or something similar. After getting said gate open, it was a matter of quickly driving in and pulling the gate sides shut before someone got too interested in what lay outside.

At least these guys are behaved, Stephanie reflected, dragging one skittery fellow away from the opening without too much effort. The billy goat decided to start chewing on the rope and begin a game of tug of war with her. Sort of behaved, anyway. Grunting and pulling back hard, she managed to get the stubborn animal close enough to the fence and tie him still for a moment. Then, it was just a matter of getting the van in and...

The sound of nearby motors buzzing in movement made Stephanie look up at the house's porch. In addition to those sounds, were the tell-tale clunking sounds of metal legs on wood.


"Sweetie?" Stephanie stared for a moment. Sweetie Belle was smiling and fast approaching her position. "I don't believe it," she whispered to herself. Her entire talk with Alice and the confidence she had built up to fix her machines all flew away once again, like a flock of birds heading south for the winter.

"Stephanie! You have returned!" Sweetie Belle again exclaimed happily. Her eyes zoomed in and out of focus, almost unable to accept that Steph was finally back. It had taken so many micro-seconds. She raced towards the end of the wooden platform beneath her called a 'porch'.

"I had... hoped? I had hoped that if I waited you would come back!" Sweetie Belle clunked down the stairs excitedly and as quickly as she could towards Stephanie; it proved to be too quick. After losing her balance her leg clipped the end of one stair, sending her toppling forward down the slight obstacle. "Ow. Ow. Ow..."

Sweetie Belle heard the sound of rocks crunching beneath her as she landed, which she surmised was the gravel her eyes had seen in the point four seconds before she had miscalculated her descent down the stairs. Her memories of before seemed quite sure she was good at never making mistakes, which she guessed meant something must be wrong with her.

Still, that wasn't important at the moment; Stephanie was home. Sweetie Belle looked up, an overwhelming joy filling her.

At the same time, Stephanie stared back down at the little robot from where she had frozen entirely. She was completely at a loss as to how Sweetie Belle was outside, or now that she thought about it, was online at all. "You have got to be freaking kidding me," she muttered.

Stephanie watched while Sweetie Belle's little smile shrank a little, but her big glass eyes remained locked with her own.

Chapter 8 : The Cat Did It

View Online

Stephanie gazed down flatly at Sweetie Belle for a good few minutes, disbelief winning over the better half of her mind. I still just can't bring myself to accept what I'm seeing, she thought plainly. And what I'm seeing is an active, home-built robot that shouldn't have any power whatsoever.

Stephanie frowned and shifted her stare to the porch where a couple of cats were laying in the sun, watching what all the fuss was over.

Sweetie Belle, her own prized creation, was currently defying logic for the second consecutive day. She, or it, rather, was right there at the foot of the house's stairs, looking up, shuffling its hooves, and was apparently online.

Slowly, Stephanie's hand came up and pressed against the side of her head, eyes scrunching shut. Maybe I hadn't de-stressed as much as I thought I did... Briefly, the idea to simply leave arose again, but her animals were going to need her attention eventually so that didn't seem like a great idea.

"Stephanie," Sweetie's charming voice called out questioningly.

Stephanie's eyes shot open again, while the rest of her took an instinctive step backward.

"Are you malfunctioning, Stephanie?" Sweetie Belle politely asked; her expression, if one could call her simple robot features capable of one, made a good show of appearing concerned. "I believe I am also having difficulties internally. Could you perhaps help me and I could help you? Also, I have questions. Inquiries." While speaking, the robot gestured to and fro with one front hoof. "What is baked beans? Also, what does it mean to 'Harlem Shake'? Also, also, why is it that my body is the way it is? Also, also, also, the cat is mean, please make it behave not mean. I would be very grateful of that last one..."

The presence of various animals surrounding the house filled the awkward silence; the goat munched on feed, while two dogs barked incessantly at one another nearby, amongst other sounds.

Stephanie, meanwhile, gaped openly. "I... I..." she muttered, breathless and shaken. How is she even on? Did someone reactivate her? The thought responded to the growing list of the 'unexplainable' with Sweetie Belle. Someone else couldn't be responsible for turning her back on, unless perhaps they had a way around Glados, which didn't seem likely.

The possibilities Stephanie busily considered threatened to drive her mad, make her doubt herself. Did someone add wireless and remote controls to Sweetie without my knowing? Aliens? The government? The entire drive home had been spent resolving to attempt to puzzle her situation out calmly and rationally. But, even after telling herself she would investigate the circumstances with an open mind, she was having difficulty accepting or even grasping her own machine's current state.

Sweetie Belle had tilted its head slightly while Stephanie fought to speak; the movement tossed the remaining tuft of mane it bore from one side of its head to the other. "Stephanie..." it began to say again, still using its cutesy young voice.

Stephanie nearly took another step back; her robot's tone held a very odd quality, one that rivaled the concerned tone it had already used: sadness.

"Pl-pl-ease respond, Stephanie," Sweetie Belle begged, then stood up and moved forwards, gears whirring softly. "I have tried to ask questions of everyone and thing in the house, but they won't talk coherently to-to-to me and I need you to help." Its mouth moved up and down, roughly in time with her speaking, though it wasn't perfect. "I am very... confused." Sweetie Belle came to a full stop at Stephanie's feet, then held up a foreleg and placed it on her knee. "Please?"

Stephanie stared a moment longer, but rather than stand still forever, she managed to lean towards Sweetie. The machine looked the same as always, minus the damage it had suffered just the day before, though technically the storm had been early that morning. Her head swiveled around quickly, looking for the camera crew she knew must be out there somewhere; other than her animals, though, there was no one else in the general vicinity.

Stephanie looked back at Sweetie Belle, then answered, "Baked beans are disgusting, the Harlem Shake is something you never mention in polite company, your body is like that because I'm cheap, and cats..." She had started speaking before she knew it, and wiped a hand down the front of her face in exasperation. "Cats are just animals, they don't know any better," she sighed out, then lowered her hand.

Sweetie Belle stared up at her still, then blinked and spoke again. "Oooh. Okay," she said, smiled, and added, "Why?" Her voice was sweet, innocent, and very curious sounding.

Stephanie blinked for a moment.

She ran a hand over Sweetie Belle's mane, smiling, then jumped up. "Alright!? Where the hell are you creeps? Huh? Come out of the bushes now so I can sue you already for messing with my property!" She glared all around herself, and almost missed the surprised sound Sweetie Belle made upon being tipped over, which was followed by a dull clang.

"Oof— Steeeph, why did you do that? I could have been hurt, I think..." Sweetie Belle had fallen on her side, and was looking up with a mildly indignant look. "You didn't answer my question. I have more, too, numbering one thousand, one hundred and twel— thirteen. Fourteen."

Stephanie looked back at Sweetie Belle, face working to find the right expression. She gave her yard another glance, then knelt down and picked up Sweetie. "Fourteen?" she asked in a desperate tone; it was odd, but talking back to Sweetie actually felt a little normal, and easier than facing her thoughts or logic. At least, so long as she tried not to think of it as her machine that had previously had a very limited vocabulary.

Sweetie shuffled its legs about her slightly after being righted, then looked at Stephanie. "Thank you," it exclaimed, then sat again. "Which fourteen? Did you wish to know question fourteen, or question one thousand, one hundred and fourteen, Stephanie? They are different questions, so I think you may have been confused. I was just referring to question one thou—"

Stephanie interrupted, talking over Sweetie Belle. "Thaat's, uhm, yes, quite alright, uhm, Sweetie... Okay, let's go inside, is that alright? I need to get back to work and... figure everything out and... well, I can't do that out here. Doesn't that sound great? No... no question answering just yet if that's fine."

Sweetie Belle leaned back some, its head bobbing quickly from one side to the other in a thoughtful fashion. "Inside?" it asked, then turned towards the house. "Inside is acceptable, considering the cat was rendered a non-threat. After excessive amounts of aggressive behavior were witnessed, unit de-designated... I was forced— was forced to... to..." Sweetie Belle paused, and shook her head, then continued. "I'm so sorry, Stephanie, focusing... focusing?" she repeated. "Focusing is so hard for me right now. Uhm, so, I put the cat in quarantine, and we can go inside and be safe now."

Stephanie had listened intently, been confused by the short speech impediment she witnessed, then widened her eyes to their fullest after what her robot had said dawned on her. "The cat?" she asked, then raised her voice. "You mentioned a cat before. What did you do to my cat!? Which cat?"

"Uuuuhm," Sweetie Belle, oddly enough, backed up quickly as if worried, though really everything it did now was odd. "Well, the cat was attacking me and being really mean and... I put her in the closet? It was attacking me and... and... He was the one with the black spots and white tummy? Belly? Stomach? Chest che— chest... Chess is a game," Sweetie Belle finished, then smiled, but only just.

Stephanie exhaled slowly, not really sure how to feel about her robot telling her that it had quarantined her cat. If that was the worst her randomly activated ghost machine had done, then that was fine. The idea that Sweetie could hurt any of the animals, even malfunctioning like she was, didn't seem likely. What bothered Stephanie more, surprisingly enough even to her, was the glitches Sweetie was now exhibiting.

"I see, uhm, you were mixing up your pronouns by the way, Sweetie..." Having pointed out a few, simple and understandable flaws, Stephanie had worked up to a more difficult issue. In this case, for her, the issue was actually addressing her machine. "Are you feeling alright, Sweetie? Besides acting... not yourself, you don't sound very good." After a brief pause, she quickly and hopefully added, "Status report...?" It was a brief glimmer of hope that the voice command prompt would work.

Sweetie Belle's metal eyelids opened up some in a very believable look of surprise. "Sound? I... Do I not sound right? I don't know how I should sound. Stephanie, how do I sound correctly? I have learned much of how to utilize words by listening to you, but I feel there are... gaps, still."

The hope Stephanie had that Sweetie would answer normally had been soundly dashed. So, she wrinkled her face up in thought, charging ahead. "N-No, Sweetie, that's not what I meant..." She thought on her machine's words for a moment, noticing something. "Sound also isn't used like that. You meant to say 'how do I speak correctly'. I think, anyway..."

Sweetie Belle stared a moment, then made an understanding tone. "Oooh, I g-g-g-get it now."

Stephanie waited, and waited, then finally said, "Well, why was your voice glitching then? Is it the same reason that you're acting differently?" I can't believe you're actually talking to it, her thoughts piped in. Quiet, brain. I'm trying to figure this out and you're not helping. Get back to work. Her thoughts did a terrible job of helping to cope, even less so as events progressed further.

Sweetie Belle blinked, then extended a hoof up in the air, rotating it around in a wide, circular arc. "Oh! You mean the scr-scr-scrambles. Eggs."

Stephanie furrowed her brow again, resisting the urge to either face-palm or walk away right there. "Uhm, yes... the 'scrambles'. What's causing those? Are they why you've been acting... strange?" She swallowed and waited for a response, which came quicker than she had expected one to.

Sweetie Belle began shaking her head back and forth vigorously. "I'm not acting strange. I'm not acting, I am serious! Everyone in the house is strange. They're so... rude, yes, they're rude. I tried being friendly, but it didn't help! TV didn't talk to me, Glados wouldn't talk to me, and the animals just avoided me. Except for cat, cat was mean... Broken little-TV was nice, I guess, but she just played mu-mu-music." Sweetie finished, then sat down again, looking around every few seconds before focusing back on Stephanie and continuing. "I'm just confused, nothing makes sense. There's so much, so much I think, that makes no sense. Words... feelings... thoughts, and—"

Stephanie stopped Sweetie Belle before she could say more, because she was getting ahead of things quickly. "Wait, wait okay, way too much too fast.

Sweetie through up a hoof. "I know! That's what I thought, too!"

Steph shook her head. "No, I— First of all though, you can't feel things, Sweetie—"

"Yes I can," Sweetie interjected, looking up flatly. "What I can feel is feelings. The definitions ma-match-tch! Unless I am wrong... Am I wrong, Stephanie? I will believe you and change what my dictionary head is telling me." In a bizarre fashion, Sweetie leaned forward and began whispering, rather than talking at a normal volume. "I don't think she, it, he? Knows what they think they're talking about... but I can't be sure."

Stephanie flexed her hands in pure, unbridled stress. "Your pronouns, Sweetie, and— Arg!" She thumped a hand against her forehead, suddenly reliving the madness that had filled her entire life since the thunderstorm had set Sweetie on fire.

"Okay," Stephanie started again, more slowly this time. "Let's say for now you do have feelings, because you have... well, an opinion, we'll call it, I guess." Whatever the reason for that we'll ignore for now.

"Yay!" Sweetie Belle said, but remained seated, waiting.

Stephanie quietly resolved to remember every little detail of how things moved along. If there was someone behind the scene pulling strings, she wanted to be sure to know everything. "Second, you can't just mix and match pronouns, they're based on gender in English. For example, I would be a 'she' and you would be an 'it'."

Sweetie Belle tilted its head. "Why?" she asked. "I thought I would be a she. Not sure why, but 'she' just feels more familiar. I think I can remember you saying that to me. And other... people? People that look kind of like you."

Stephanie rolled her eyes. Well aren't you just an adorable little pile of confusing. "Because reasons, that's why," she replied, not wanting to explain the finer details of determining gender to her robot.

Familiar... Steph repeated the word in her head, then shook it. "Anyway, what's making you glitch? You said there was something that caused that." Her hope was that maybe the right questions would get her real answers.

Sweetie Belle stayed quiet for a moment, looked down, then looked back up in a flash. "Oh, I woke up... Hal. He had tried to hurt me the first time I met him. Hurt me bad, I didn't like it. It was approximately twelve hours and—" She stopped and shook slightly, tossing her mane back and forth. "Sorry," she apologized, looking back up. "I keep thinking about the time. Time flies, or so the TV said."

Sweetie Belle stopped to actually genuinely laugh a little bit—at least, it sounded genuine. "Sorry, I'm confused. I woke up Hal again, or is it reactivated? Both definitions match, but I don't know what to use... So I somethinged Hal again and t-t-tried to talk to him. I tried to ask him q-questions. I have a lot of those, Stephanie. Sorry for repeating m-myself. He... It? Is Hal an 'it', Stephanie?"

Stephanie stared at Sweetie Belle, mouth hung agape. After a tense moment of silence, she nodded dumbly.

"Oh," Sweetie said plainly. "I was certain it was a he, not a she, certainly, but maybe a he. Oh w-w-well, so, it confused me. Hal, I mean. Yes, confused me more which didn't help. I felt... things, when talking into him with the da-da-data cord. I did it just like you did earlier. But, this time it felt like getting lost it ffffelt like. I almost didn't find myself again, I think. Yes, getting back was definitely difficult. It did not transpire as it did the first time I bridged w-w-with Hal, at all."

Sweetie Belle sat quietly for a moment, apparently finished with speaking, then looked towards the house. "Did you still want to go inside? It is not that cold out, but the weather forecast said it might rain. I don't know why that matters, but it seems like being out-out-ou- side for rain is bad. I found a faucet earlier and decided I don't like the water, especially the cold water. Sky-water seems like it would be catastrophically bad."

Stephanie just replied to her machine quietly and quickly before it could continue. "Sky-water. Sure. Yeah, okay. Let's go inside and I'll—"

Stephanie stared into space a moment, shifting through the madness she had half listened to in her slight delirium; one part of what she'd heard stood out. "Wait, you fixed Hal?" In a flash she knelt down again, then picked up Sweetie. So much had happened and been said, Stephanie didn't quite feel as though it had all... 'clicked', exactly. Hearing that Hal was okay, though, brought her back somewhat. Her list of things that were just 'wrong' was a mile long, but she still tried to remember everything in vivid detail.

Sweetie Belle gasped once she was raised in the air. "I'm flying!" she remarked immediately. "Wheee— Wait, no, flying has odd— an odd definition... I am being carried." She let out a depressed sounding tone, then. "Disappointing..."

Stephanie groaned, and clenched her eyes shut as she traversed the porch. "Please stay focused, Sweetie... I— Oh, never mind." I'll just go check on Hal real quick, then come back upstairs and deal with Sweetie, somehow. I have got to ask it about every, crazy little nonsense thing it's said. I mean, I know I considered it, but I won't believe that it is actually in control of itse—

Stephanie's thoughts froze solid the moment she opened her front door, revealing the inside of her kitchen. "What the hell happened to my house!?" she cried out.

Something wiggled in Stephanie's arms, but she barely noticed the slight disturbance.

Inside, nearly everything, large or small had been tipped over, and owning a house full of animals meant that happened a lot. However, this was far worse than anytime she may have forgotten to put away the raccoon.

No, her house was in absolute shambles, from bottom to top. Chairs were toppled, drawers were opened everywhere, a lamp was shattered by the couch, and those were just the first things she noticed. For instance, the toaster was inexplicably laying on the floor along with what must be half the books in the house.

Sweetie Belle spoke up all of a sudden. "Stephanie, how do you reformat the house? She suffered catastrophic malfunction earlier this afternoon..."

The room was quiet a moment while Stephanie merely continued to evaluate the full extent of the destruction in her home. Absently, she wondered just how far it ran. The broken little TV, her thoughts repeated, recalling the hints that Sweetie had left her during its confusing speech. Those hints, she realized, had actually been a prophecy that had foretold of the doom and destruction she was destined to find strewn throughout her home.

Through aghast stare, Stephanie whispered, "How did this happen?"

After an unsure pause, Sweetie answered her. "The cat did it."

Stephanie opened the closet door, only for Mr. Whiskers to come flying out, letting out a single yowl of protest as he raced between her legs and off down the hallway. "Aw, you poor little guy," she said sadly, watching him flee.

Sweetie Belle hissed at the sinister cat as he ran past, which almost made Stephanie jump. Fortunately, Sweetie considered, the cat did not stop to pay her any mind. He she it has evacuated the premises. Hurray! I wonder if the cat was a he, she or it? The question was an interesting thought, just as many others were...

Absently, Sweetie then reevaluated how she used the word she, to label herself. It is strange, but despite what Stephanie has told me about being an 'it', that just doesn't feel right, for some reason... So, she decided she was a she; the word it just sounded incorrect. At the very least, she concluded she didn't like 'it' as much.

"Sweetie, stop that. He's just a cat after all." Stephanie watched Sweetie turn back around slowly, obviously satisfied that the cat really was gone. It was a small wonder Mr. Whiskers in particular had always held such contempt for her machines, but other than laser pointers, a bigger distraction, there was little she had been able to do about it. Finding a home for certain pets was difficult, after all. Fitting in was never easy, sometimes even under the best circumstances.

Sweetie Belle replied to Stephanie. "He? Acknowledged! Yes, he is a cat, but he is anything but just! I remember him always attacking me, almost as far back as I can! And I... I would do something to make him stop?" Her words turned into a slightly wondering, thoughtful question by the end.

Stephanie slowly closed the closet door to her left while keeping her eyes glued to Sweetie, who had paused to look at the floor and hold a hoof up to her metal chin. The sight was nothing short of confusing, surreal, and breath taking. The worst part was she still didn't know what to do about it. I could spend a lifetime programming and perfecting behavior, but I would never be able to make something behave like this, she marveled. Whoever did it is a genius. She still fought to believe Sweetie's behavior was program related somehow, though, that didn't explain how she reactivated while disconnected from her own batteries.

Suddenly, Sweetie's eye laser activated, washing green light over the carpeted section of hallway floor. "Oh!" she exclaimed. "How interesting. This is the cat-discombobulater. The cat-combobulater? That one sounds better..." Absently, she began sweeping the bright streams of light she seemed to possess around the room.

"Heh," Stephanie guffawed nervously, a slightly manic reaction to match how she felt. "You're behaving like... If this is a prank, please stop. This is going too far..." Her hands reached up and raked through her long hair. "You're remote controlled, right?" she asked desperately.

Sweetie Belle looked up, her eyes still alight. "Prank? Remote... control? Those words are... Oh, wait, that's what the TV had. It made the TV talk, though he—"

"It," Stephanie corrected immediately, standing perfectly still. "The TV is an it."

"Oh... I understand," Sweetie said simply, then went on. "It wasn't very responsive, but I t-told you that already. Is your memory alright, Stephanie?" Quietly, she padded her way over towards Stephanie across the carpet floor separating them.

Look who's talking, Stephanie thought to herself, frowning. "Yeah, my memory's fine, thanks for asking." She then winced and closed her eyes slowly. I just thanked the machine as if it weren't programmed to just respond no matter what.

"You're welcome! I'm glad to hear you are functioning right." Sweetie replied, then after a brief pause continued. "Oh! Stephanie, Stephanie! I just realized, I feel joy when being polite to you. Can you help me feel more new fe-fe-feels? I like experiencing them."

Stephanie opened one eye and peered at Sweetie again; she was looking back up at her with an excited expression.

Nope, I'm not going to encourage it, Stephanie thought quickly, then began walking away. Alright, what's next? Hal, of course... Or do I even want to bother? I bet he's screwed up to hell and back. Likely as not, one more nail in my sanity's coffin is just going to send me over the deep end... and then who will take care of my animals?... Not Alice, that's for sure. Another response from Sweetie caught her off guard, as most of them had.

"Ste-Ste-Stephanie, where are-re-re you going?" Sweetie Belle asked from down the hallway, sadness tinting her voice.

Stephanie stopped and turned around. And those glitches. It said Hal caused them? Rather than think of what could possibly have happened, because nothing made sense anyway, she surprised herself by thinking of whether Sweetie was actually an... it. Or rather, she considered what it would be like if it really did become a she.

What if, she thought, her machine had somehow become intelligent, rather than the far more likely scenario that she was being remote controlled, which itself was literally impossible after having confirmed that no such devices or changes had been found or added to Sweetie the night prior. What if, Sweetie wasn't actually now the host of some horrible virus or reprogramming, one which somehow made her behave in such a way as to imitate behavior.

"Stephanie?" a voice from nearby addressed.

"What is it, Sweetie?" Stephanie replied in a dour tone, still staring off into space and thinking hard.

The flat, questioning quality of the robotic voice shifted itself and became rather disapproving. "Sweetie?" it asked with a hint of contempt. "As much as I like you, or don't like you as is the case, I wouldn't go so far as to think of myself as your 'sweetie'."

Stephanie shook herself and turned to find Glados hanging before her from the ceiling.

"Anyway," Glados continued. "I was just wanting to inform you that something, likely one of your pests, has done a remarkable job of destroying your entire house. It's impressive that it accomplished such a feat, but there it is, still. So, I was just checking that this was not some sad attempt at remodeling, which wouldn't surprise me... In any case, I suggest you let me tidy this place up for you."

"Yeah, go for it," Stephanie sighed in response, then turned around to find Sweetie looking up at Glados with a mildly contemptuous look of her own. Weird, she thought, studying the filly-bot with interest. Or is it fascinating? She frowned, then headed for the basement; she patted Glados' side as she left. "I have no idea what I'm going to do..." she quietly remarked to herself.

"What else is new?" Glados then wheeled off to attend its duties.

Stephanie continued on, ignoring the biting retort. "Well, I should get everything figured out, fixed, and have nothing to worry about as far as Hal and the house... but what should I do with Sweetie? I can't turn her off. Do I let her power run out? Try another system restore? Lock her up?" Or... do I just talk to her and wait?

Stephanie flicked on the light to the basement, while behind her came the soft clip clop of Sweetie's metal pony hooves, and a whining call that went, "Stephanie! Where did you go? Wait for me!"

Stephanie shambled down the stairs quickly, ignoring her pleading, bewitched machine. She had been about to call out for Hal, then remembered what had happened the last time Sweetie had encountered stairs. "Wait, Sweetie—" It was too late, by the time she had turned, her sudden, worst fear had already begun.

Sweetie Belle's expression shifted three times in the moment it took her to take a couple shaky, robotic steps down the stairs. She looked unhappy, still asking for Stephanie to wait, then was smiling the second she locked eyes with her, and then, surprised, now falling forward down the stairs.

Stephanie lunged instinctively, an arm reaching out and another supporting herself. At the last second, she had time to consider how bad of an idea the maneuver was, remembering Sweetie Belle's weight.

A mix of gears churning and metal thumping rang out, then quieted after an instant.

Stephanie was bruised slightly, but both her and Sweetie—who had managed to stop her fall without help—were alright.

"What was that? Huh? Why didn't you fall?" Stephanie panted, then winced. "Ow, ribs..."

Sweetie Belle studied Stephanie back and slowly stood up off the stairs. "Stephanie, are you hurt?" she said worriedly, rather than answer the question.

"I'm fine." Stephanie got up quickly, brushing herself off, then gestured a hand back into the hallway. "So why didn't you fall? Whoever reprogrammed you must have thought repeating that stupid stairs joke would be really funny." She glared, her fists planted on her hips out of anger. "Why stop? Because I was in the way?"

Sweetie Belle cringed back some, almost hiding her eyes beneath the remnants of her mane. "I... I don't... the way you're looking at me is... scary, Stephanie," was what she muttered.

Stephanie blinked, confusion and shock playing across expression in an instant.

Sweetie Belle looked up at the change, then smiled. "Yay, that's better. You make that face a lot, and I don't understand it yet, but it's still better than that last one."

Stephanie grabbed a hold of the railing beside her, worried that at any moment she would tumble down the stairs after losing consciousness from sheer stress.

Sweetie continued, still standing at the top of the stairs. "Anyway-way-way, Stephanie, since talking to Hal, walking has been har-hard-harder. He didn't really help me much like I wanted him to, either... But I should have known better than to... trust him after our first encounter. Oh, sorry, I said him, I meant to say 'it'." Then, she giggled and sheepishly tilted her head. Some of the cuteness of it was lost from her charred state, but only some. "I'm sorry if you hurt yourself. I started to lose balance and decided it would be better to lay down rather than fall all the way after you."

Stephanie stared a moment longer, then slowly said, "Oh, well okay then." She took a few steps away and descended into the basement. "Uuuh, yeah! Just, uh, just wait here, I'll be right back up. I... I promise." She whirled around and thumped down the remaining stairs away from her all too real and genuine seaming robot. It's okay Stephanie, you're not going crazy. You're not. You're fine, everything will be fine, nothing's wrong...

"Okay!" Sweetie cried after her. "I'll wait here! Please do not injure yourself more, Stephanie! I like you!"

Stephanie shuddered. It has to be a prank. It has to be. But who? Why? How? What if it isn't!? How do I find out if it isn't!? "Augh!" She had to actively resist thumping her head against the concrete blocks that made up the south wall of her basement lab.

"Hal!?" Stephanie cried out, marching towards the computers. "Oh, wait, never mind." The lights and machines throughout the entirety of her lab were actually on, as if they had been in use. She looked around herself at the wanton destruction, taking stock of what her own filly-bot had apparently wrought.

Surprising Stephanie a bit, mostly because Sweetie had been telling the truth, were the red orbs along each wall, lighting up in unison after a moment. She jolted to a halt and blinked. "Oh, you're on again after all, like Sweetie said."

The red orbs, shining brightly throughout the room, continued to remain on as they were, and no response from them came at all.

Stephanie frowned, then stepped closer to the camera nearest her. "Hal? Are you in there? How bad are things?" There was no answer. "Come on, status report, please," she begged, almost at the point of getting on hands and knees if it would help.

There was a brief pause that stretched... and then Hal's voice came, giving Stephanie immediate, blessed relief.

Hal spoke, but oddly, in a high pitched tone that sounded as if he were far away, or at the other end of a hallway. "The narwhal bacons at midnight. The Snozzberries taste like snozzberries. Klaatu, berada, nikto! The meaning of life is—"

Stephanie only had to listen for a few seconds to her once prized creation after it began rambling to have her short, wonderful moment of relief dashed completely. "Hal? Oh no." She ran over to her monitors, hoping desperately she could make things right, only to find each and every screen was bright blue with error messages. "Why me!?" She sat into her computer chair, wishing for a helpful voice with an answer or explanation that actually made sense.

As it was, though, the only voice Stephanie had was Hal, provocatively telling her that red was definitely her color.

The upstairs living room was dim for the most part, with the few house-safe animals Stephanie owned mostly asleep or curled around one another throughout the building like the little angels they were. All of them were resting peacefully; all of them except, however, for their one robotic pony-shaped counterpart.

For the time being, Stephanie merely talked to Sweetie Belle, having the little machine retell its story of the day it had spent wreaking havoc.

Sweetie Belle was seated in a chair beside Stephanie, who for her part, was exhausted now that she was finished with stressing over... pretty much everything. The day had been especially long after spending so much time on her day off simply cleaning, but she was almost ready to end it, if not quite yet. At present her creation was still doing its best to keep confusing her.

While talking, Sweetie Belle stared intently at the dancing firelight in the stone containment structure at one end of the room. The rapid motions of the heat had an indiscernible pattern, despite her best efforts to figure it out.

"Alright, well, prove it then, play something," Stephanie remarked back to the last thing Sweetie had claimed. Trying her best to talk with Sweetie Belle as though she weren't just a string of prerecorded or algorithm generated responses had her deeply invested.

Sweetie Belle smiled and looked over, then replied, "Okay! I would like to do that."

Stephanie waited patiently, smirking. She genuinely talks and acts like... someone who was just familiarizing themselves with things from scratch. Sweetie Belle would repeatedly confess the things that she liked or disliked, on top of giving her opinions or surface thoughts. It had seemed too strange at first, but as far as Stephanie could tell, they seemed real enough. Sweetie seemed in some ways a robot, in some ways a clueless child, and in other ways quite profoundly aware and intelligent; even insightful.

Stephanie forced herself to put the oddities out of mind, focusing instead on her own little version of Pinocchio.

Sweetie Belle opened her mouth as requested, then after a split-second, music began pouring into the room.

"What is love! Baby don't hurt me, don't hurt me, no more."

Stephanie stared in amazement, then laughing, held up one hand while holding the other over her face. "Okay, stop, that's enough. I believe you now..."

The music cut off abruptly, and Sweetie smiled up at Stephanie proudly. "Told you," she remarked.

"Yeah yeah..." Stephanie had been listening about what Sweetie apparently 'learned' throughout the day. It seemed one of those things included an entire music library from one of her devices. She wasn't sure, but it seemed likely that Sweetie had used the 'broken little TV' which was in fact her lab's destroyed music player. The thing had been smashed on the floor beside her workstation, another casualty of Sweetie's apparent quest to have questions answered.

Steph had cleaned up that mess as best she could, all the while being followed around by her metal shadow. The cleaning process probably would have even been somewhat enjoyable thanks to Sweetie's cheerful behavior, were it not for how completely tired she felt afterward, and her futile attempts to repair Hal.

Hal worked once again, yes, but a shade of his former glory. Whatever Sweetie had done to him, had left his code and system a complete wreck. He could activate, deactivate, and speak a little, if anyone could call it speaking.

"Your turn," Steph intoned, leaning back and taking a sip from her mug.

Sweetie hummed, and tapped a hoof against her chin. Choosing a single question was difficult, especially since she'd nearly quintupled the number that she'd come up with since Steph got home.

"How about... oh, I know! If you constructed me, Stephanie, who constructed you? Who built you, Stephanie?" Sweetie beamed at her creator, Steph fascinated by the thought of someone else constructing her, and how great that someone must be.

Steph burst out a laugh the moment the question was asked, only to stop and stare wide-eyed at the floor for several seconds.

Sweetie raised an eyebrow, something else she'd picked up already from Steph. Now what's wrong? Was it a bad question?

"My parents, uh, created me, Sweetie. Although, people aren't constructed." Steph turned to look thoughtfully at Sweetie. "Maybe try to look up the definition for the word 'born' and that might explain some stuff. It might not be sufficient, but I'd have to explain... Well, never mind." Stephanie paused, and briefly wondered if she even should explain how people came to be. I mean, I don't fully think this is legit, but either someone's yanking my chain or she's way to young to know about... that.

"Hm..." Sweetie's eyes flickered rapidly as she looked up the word 'born'. The description wasn't very specific, merely stating at its most helpful that it was an adjective meaning: to be brought forth by birth. She briefly followed a chain of definitions from there on, but they and their concepts didn't make sense to her, either. "I don't understand completely, but I think I'll file this under; to be continued."

Steph smirked, nodding simply. There had been a lot notarized as such so far. "Good question though, Sweetie. Okay, my turn now..."

The room was quiet, and Stephanie was staring with a goofy smile at her machine.

At the moment, Sweetie and Stephanie had an agreement going, that one of them would be allowed to ask one question, which would be followed by a question from the other, and so on. The method had been Stephanie's idea, allegedly because she had kept leaping into things called 'tangents'. So, Sweetie waited happily for Stephanie to talk again, though she herself had many more questions. Oddly, Steph seemed to appreciate patience over... enthusiasm.

Sweetie Belle, meanwhile, kept smiling as big as she could while waiting, which often didn't feel big enough, and studied the taller being that went by so many names and titles.

After her second run in with Hal, it was even more confusing for Sweetie to have so many designations for one Stephanie; re-ordering them was a hassle. Still, she felt she was getting the hang of it; 'it' being her very own mind. While waiting, she absently organized away more of the things she had been having trouble understanding. Her head might be a mess, but it seemed that with some work she had managed to put things back in their rightful places. In fact, she thought she might be improving the organization.

Sweetie Belle, along with helpful advice from Stephanie, decided to never again try to use a thing called a 'cable' to talk with other 'machines'. It was her least favorite way of talking... She liked sounds much more than the numbers, especially music. She wondered yet again why Stephanie or the animals didn't communicate by singing. Singing and songs were rather even nicer, as she saw it.

"So," Stephanie began to ask, taking her turn at questions again. "You really have no idea why you're acting like this?"

Sweetie Belle switched her smile to a frown. "Stephanieee, you already asked that one," she chastised, eyelids drooping to indicate exasperation. She also decided to lower her head and shake it slowly. This was the fourth time Steph had wasted her question.

"Yeah, I know... and I also know that if you're a trick then you wouldn't tell me anyway..." Stephanie decided to stare into the firelight across from her, then, rather than meet Sweetie's ever present gaze.

Sweetie Belle sighed, despite obviously not needing to breath; she had begun doing it quite frequently after noticing how much Stephanie did it. "Well, to repeat what was said between us, 'No, I do not know, Stephanie. I remember many things though, even right up until I woke up feeling so great, and different!' Then you asked, 'what kinds of things?' Then I replied—"

Stephanie interrupted, waving a hand. "Yeah, yeah, then you replied 'I remember seeing you first, and I felt happy.' Okay, I remember..." She chewed on her lip briefly, remembering well that everything Sweetie had been able to tell her boiled down to very little. As best she could figure out, according to Sweetie anyway, her machine had woken up as it was after the insane storm from the night before.

Other than a few clues there was nothing, just the results, which were quite literally impossible, but there they were anyway, smiling and laughing with her.

Sweetie Belle waited a moment longer, trying to stay patient, then chirped up happily, excited to take her turn. "Okay, I have my next question!" She tilted her head, waiting, then noticed that Stephanie seemed to be doing the thing she did when being slightly unresponsive: staring blankly at a wall.

Luckily, Sweetie had also learned the trick for getting her friend's attention; it had worked with a one-hundred percent success rate.

Sweetie Belle turned her head, gears rotating her to face towards something randomly chosen out of the room. "OoOooh," she began to say, in mild, false fascination. "This thing looks reeeally interesting!"

Stephanie blinked and straightened up. "Sweetie, don't touch tha— Oh, sorry, I meant..." she trailed off, realizing she had been had by Sweetie's cleverness, which was something that simultaneously confused and amazed her. "Sorry about that, I was thinking."

Sweetie Belle smirked back at her, then added, "I like thinking, but talking is nicer."

Stephanie smiled some herself, and relaxed back against her chair. "Yeah, it is. You're certainly a reminder of just how much I like conversation."

Sweetie Belle's tail began to wag absently. "Really?" she asked happily.

Stephanie nodded. "Yes, I mean, I talk all day to my supervisors and fellow employees, but I should probably get out more with my friends."

Sweetie gasped. "Friends, amigos! Can I come? I would like more friends and—" She froze in her speech quickly and let out a sound of disappointment. "Oh no, I asked another question and it wasn't my turn again yet... I'm sorry." Wincing, she looked away and tried to hide, feeling shame again.

Lighthearted laughter made Sweetie Belle pick her head up again. She found Stephanie, leaning out over her knees with both hands clasped together.

"Well, you definitely act a lot cuter than before... And I thought I had made you incredibly adorable already, but now you're just a walking heart attack waiting to happen." Stephanie's voice was full of admiration again for her property; she reached out a hand and ruffled Sweetie's mane, who wore a surprised look.

"Is... Is that a good thing?" Sweetie Belle asked back. "Heart attack's definition is worrisome— Oh no! I asked another question..." Unable to bear her own foolishness any longer, she ducked low and brought her front hooves up over her eyes and head. Hiding, that's what she was doing, and it felt like the perfect answer to her problem. Oddly, however, more laughter in the air made her peak out again.

Stephanie was smiling still, and spoke once in view. "It's fine, really. Just don't get out of control with questions, Sweetie Belle, okay? Try to be reasonable and use moderation, but let's try just asking away again." After a moment, she asked, "Could I trust you to do that...?" It felt odd to ask her own machine an involved question, but she was getting over it, whatever the situation's full story was.

Sweetie Belle let out another tiny gasp. "Yes! I will try." She thought about the way Stephanie had begun treating her differently, which didn't take long. Many of the things stood out as strange for her, from the way Stephanie had addressed her earlier to the questions she had asked. Something had changed, though, over the course of the day.

"Good," Stephanie replied. "As for meeting my friends, you already have, a lot. Though it was before... recent events."

Sweetie Belle stared a moment, then tilted her head. "Have I? Oh, well maybe I could re-meet them. I think that I am different now, and I want to do things over! I want to do new things, too!"

Stephanie smiled wanly, thinking over the implications of a machine with its own mind. "That's a nice possibility," she replied quietly. I still haven't figured out what I'm going to do with her, she reminded herself. Is she really A.I.? Gosh, what do I do with a true A.I.? She had thought about attempting like so many others to make a true AI, once, but it was difficult to quantify what made life, life. Setting the simple programs of funny little responses apart from true, conscious thought was something that was hardly simple to even think about, and even more difficult to define properly.

Figures, Stephanie mused. I'm the one person on Earth not trying to make a machine with a mind of its own and I might have somehow ended up with one. She leaned back, enjoying the bit of quiet momentarily in the room, then surprised herself with a big yawn.

Sweetie Belle whirred, straightening up to sit taller. "Stephanie? Are you okay?" Her friend had made a strange sound, one that wasn't words and could possibly be indicative of several distressing things. "What was that?" she asked, just to be sure. Stephanie had proven to be a valuable source of information, and checking things with her was better than making assumptions.

Stephanie stood up, stretching. "Huh? Yeah, Sweetie, I'm fine. That was just a yawn. You do it when you're tired."

Sweetie Belle stared, eyes widening slightly. "Ohhh." She paused to think about what tired was, then frowned, and looked back up. "I don't... think I'm tired?" The definition confused her slightly. Tired: feeling the need to rest or sleep. Hm, nope, none of that.

Stephanie chuckled. "I doubt you would be... Well, I am, and it's late. We've been at it for hours. So, I'm going to bed, I think." She briefly looked over her machine, wondering just what exactly she could do with it now to keep it from getting into trouble. It certainly seemed that telling Sweetie Belle to go power down wasn't an option anymore, after all.

"'Bed'?" Sweetie Belle ask. "What is the reason for 'bed'? If I may ask..." Her eyes shifted around, as if unsure of asking the question to begin with.

Stephanie smirked in response. "Bed's where you go when it's time to sleep. I'm a person, like I explained to you, so I need to sleep."

"Oh. I remember!" Sweetie Belle exclaimed, remembering the way Stephanie had explained pronouns and what people were. It didn't entirely make sense, but people and animals needed rest in order to stay healthy. It was all very interesting.

Sweetie's ears whirred backwards, drooping in disappointment as the implications sleeps definition dawned on her. "You will be unresponsive for several hours, huh, Stephanie? But I wanted to talk more..." she lamented.

Stephanie frowned a little. "We will... but more importantly, can I trust you not to repeat what happened today in the house while I'm sleeping?" As she spoke, she stood up, leaving her chair and turned off the fireplace. From there, she made her way to her bedroom.

Sweetie Belle watched Stephanie go, then carefully looked over the edge of her own chair and hopped down, following. "I said I would not investigate things so intensely, didn't I?" Stephanie had a funny way of repeating things, Sweetie noted. "What can I do while you sleep?" The new question was very genuine, as she really had no idea. "I might get... bored! Yes, I might get bored." There was always exploring what lay beyond the house... which according to her memory was quite big and full of interesting stuff.

Stephanie hummed, brow furrowed in worry. "Well, I could put you in the basement with some music playing. Wouldn't that be fun?"

Sweetie Belle slowed for a moment, considering the proposition. "I don't know, Stephanie... Maybe?"

Stephanie stopped and opened the basement door. "Great! Oh, right, your legs and stuff are still acting up, aren't they? Let me help you down there."

Sweetie Belle made a noise of protest before responding. "No, it's alright. I think I fixed what Hal and I broke in me. It wasn't too hard... but... Stephanie, can I stay up here? With you?"

Stephanie frowned in the twilight of her hallway, considering an ultimatum. She didn't particularly relish the idea of a compromised pair of cameras staying in her bedroom. "Well, that's good to hear... But no, Sweetie, after today I would really prefer it if you stayed downstairs. If you're still malfunctioning, it's just safer, for both of us, I think."

Sweetie Belle looked down into the dark basement. "Safer?" she asked, a slight twist in the word. "Because I broke so many things and 'its'?"

Stephanie rolled her eyes. "Yeah, we'll go with that. Just... let me learn more about you and how you have changed, okay?" She leaned down and met Sweetie's eyes. "There's a lot I don't know, and so far you have been... well, accidentally been causing trouble, we'll say."

Sweetie stared up at Stephanie and idly wondered how long she would be able to watch her if she didn't give an answer.

Eventually, though, Stephanie asked, "Well? Is that alright?"

Sweetie frowned a little, then smiled and turned towards the door. "Oookay... I want double questions tomorrow, though."

Stephanie stared a moment, until Sweetie looked back up at her, then barked a laugh. She's already making deals and bargaining.

"Alright, deal."

The bedroom was quiet, calm, and completely undisturbed. There was a cat curled at the foot of Stephanie's bed, sound asleep, just as she was; until, that is, the sound of her door being pushed open woke her up. Accompanying the creak of the door was a soft, mechanical noise.

A moment later, and a hushed whisper woke Stephanie up entirely. "Stephanieeee, are you conscious? Or... awake?" the voice asked in a careful tone, then mumbled, "Is that the right word, or is it...?"

Stephanie leaned up when the whirring noise finally became its loudest and she could feel the end of the bed begin to dip slightly from a weight pressing down on the mattress.

Why am I not surprised? she asked herself tiredly.

"Sweetie Belle?" Steph sat up, examining the darkness and finding the outline of a little body approaching her.

Sweetie Belle was slowly making her way over the bed's covers, as if hesitant. "Stephanie..." she said imploringly.

"...What are you doing?" Stephanie questioned slowly, now fully awake.

Sweetie tilted her head, then looked around herself at the bed and room before facing Stephanie again. "I am sitting on this piece of furniture talking to you—"

"No, no, Sweetie." Stephanie sat up more and exhaled; the tired breath had built itself from successfully being asleep, to suddenly not being asleep. "I meant, why are you in my room? I'm trying to sleep. Didn't I tell you to stay in the lab? I mean... didn't we have a deal?"

Sweetie Belle looked away and shifted her front legs for a moment.

Stephanie waited, again struck by how odd and out of place those actions were when used by her machine. Stranger even than those, were the way her eyelids tilted, as though she were embarrassed or sad. That's going to take a lot of getting used to... she reflected. With no response coming from her robot other than movement, she tried prompting her to speak in the way you would with a person. "Sweetie, what's wrong? You look... uhm... worried?"

Sweetie Belle looked up, a little hesitant to be truthful about the way she felt. That alone confused her, like so many other things, but the feeling itself was unpleasant, too; unpleasantness wasn't a familiar concept to her, though neither were any others.

"I..." Sweetie began to hesitate already. After a tiny little smile from Stephanie, though, she continued. "I think I... was scared?" The word from earlier popped into her head. It sounded about right, so she went on. "It was dark in the basement, Stephanie, and Hal is asleep still and won't talk, but that doesn't seem like it would help the dark... I don't care about double questions, Stephanie! Please let me stay, I... would like to stay. I don't— I don't think I like it when it's dark..."

Stephanie stared openly at Sweetie, who returned her stricken gaze with a bright and hopeful one.

"So," Stephanie began. "You were afraid of the dark," she stated.

Sweetie blinked, then nodded three times quickly in succession. In her head, she ran over quickly just how scary being scared was; she definitely didn't enjoy it.

Stephanie, meanwhile, considered that being afraid of the dark was normal enough, certainly, but for humans, especially children, not machines. Then again, what was Sweetie Belle, she wondered. Another sigh escaped her, then she ran a hand over the little robot's ruined mane. "If I turn on the light in the basement will you stay put and let me get some sleep? It's been a long day... and I didn't sleep as much as I would have liked last night."

Sweetie Belle thought over what Stephanie said; it wasn't quite what she had hoped to hear. "I... was hoping, actually, that maybe I could stay here with you? May I?" Stephanie stayed quiet for a while, so Sweetie began moving her tail from side to side, something that she remembered seemed to help convince her of things.

Sure enough, she could see some of the telltale signs in Stephanie's features suggesting she was probably going to say: yes.

Chapter 9 : Confliction

View Online

Sunday October 1st

Stephanie's Lab

Stephanie typed away quickly at her keyboard, trying her hardest to undo all of the damage that had been done. It was mostly her own fault, she realized, that Hal was in the state that he currently was. Sure, there was no way to have known Sweetie Belle would develop what was undeniably beginning to look like intelligence, sort of, but she probably shouldn't have hooked up damaged hardware, recently struck by lightning, to her main system. Admittedly, she couldn't have known that Sweetie Belle would go back later and make Hal even worse, but that was besides the point.

For now, Steph had Hal separated, and offline, while the rest of her computers and machines in the laboratory had at least all been successfully restored from scratch.

"Never gonna give you up, never gonna let you..." Stephanie sang absently to herself. Her singing voice was pretty good, if not so much the subject matter she was singing. She frowned and shook her head, trying to get the song out of her brain. Of all the music Sweetie has to play, why the most annoying songs possible? Why couldn't she have discovered a love for classical music?

Meanwhile nearby, a quiet little humming that was a constant in the room could be heard.

Stephanie took notice of it for maybe the dozenth time, and peeked over in the sound's direction. Sitting on the floor just a few feet away was Sweetie Belle, leaning over and drawing idly on printer paper with a pen, with even more pens scattered randomly around her hooves; the package they had all been in lay messily ripped open at her side.

Sweetie hummed in a contented fashion, which she had switched to after being asked to stop singing. The creative spins she had put on songs, almost remixing them, had been impressive, if also very distracting. Still, that wasn't the least of things.

Stephanie silently watched, not quite able to comprehend what she was seeing; but still, it was there. The machine was the oldest, and at the same time the newest addition to the house, of course because it seemed to be nothing like before. Rather than a linearly programmed A.I. of limited strength, Sweetie's parameters had expanded immeasurably. Stephanie hesitated to do so, but the easiest comparison for Sweetie was a child, rather than another machine. It even claimed to be a 'she' and that it could think, that it had feelings.

Sweetie had even proved that it did, in many ways.

Ultimately, no matter what the case was, Sweetie was now the most advanced thing in the house, that much was clear to Stephanie. But, keeping her head on straight and focusing on work wasn't working out. One contributing factor, other than failing to fix Hal, was that there wasn't much left to work on. There was Sweetie Belle, certainly... but apprehension and anxiety kept Steph from trying.

A morose sigh made its way out of Stephanie, and she tried to focus back on what exactly should come next.

Soon after, another sigh filled the room, the perfect match to the first.

Stephanie froze up and looked over completely on impulse, only to lock eyes with Sweetie Belle, smiling back in her direction. There was no way to hide or dodge attention, now.

Sweetie Belle smiled a little bigger and giggled. "You do that a lot, Steph," she stated, and studied Stephanie's blank expression briefly. Figuring out what she was thinking by using it as a guide seemed like it could be... fun.

Sweetie's tone was amused but cutesy sounding, and less than a second later she excitedly added, "Hey! Are you almost done working on the things and stuff you said needed fixing? It has now been approximately one hour, eleven minutes and—" Annoyed, she cut herself off with a high-pitched grunt. Reciting the numbers and weirder thoughts in her head was hard not to do on impulse.

"Sorry," Sweetie went on, tilting her ears back. "Are you almost done, though? You said we could do stuff today! And I have had so many ideas."

Stephanie managed a weak, nervous grin. "Heh, not yet... uhm, almost finished! Uh, Sweetie..."

"Aw," Sweetie lamented. "Okay." With that, she nodded, then looked down again at her paper, pen still clutched in her mouth. More carefully, she again began her attempts at trying to draw something, as Stephanie had requested.

At the same time, Stephanie let out another breath, but this time in relief. She stared at Sweetie a moment, no longer the object of her attention. Alright, she's preoccupied still. I just need to decide what on Earth I'm going to do. I mean, somehow I have created life, and not in the normal way... Which is good, because I would never be able to take care of some messy kid. A frown eased its way onto her face, which quickly turned into a nervous chewing of her lip. But I'm still stuck with something that... practically acts like a ten year old girl. Her eyes scrunched shut, and her hands reached up to muss her curly brown hair.

Stephanie took a breath and settled down. Come on... Alright, regain your calm. Focus... everything will be fine.

A gentle ripping sound mingled in the air alongside the absent typing of computer keys.

Sweetie Belle winced, and paused her attempts at drawing. "Stephanieeee," she whined, and swiveled her head over. "I tore it again! Are you done now?"

Stephanie flinched, and lost her train of thought once more. Convincing Sweetie Belle to draw in order to keep her busy had been easy, but it wasn't a perfect, or permanent solution.

"Sorry, are you still busy...?" Sweetie's voice trailed off quietly, then raised again. "If not! Are you sure you don't have a better writing apparatus?"

Stephanie kept staring at her computer, no closer to figuring out what she wanted to do, or could do; she had been finished working for almost an hour. "No... I just finished," she lied.

Sweetie Belle let out a gasp at the news, sounding unmistakably excited.

Building a bit of courage, Stephanie stood up in order to face her own little Frankenstein's beast; admittedly, her Frankenstein was unbearably cute.

"Sorry, Sweetie. Those pens were all I could find for you to draw with." After walking up across the lab floor, now clear of debris and mess, Stephanie stopped to stand over the drawing and little robot on the floor. "So, uhm, what have you got there? Did you draw something neat?"

Sweetie Belle blinked, looking up, then looked back down at her drawing. "Is supposed— It is supposed to be you, but the pigments I had were insufficient. To make matters worse, I can't seem to be able to draw in a manner capable of properly depicting the image I have in mind." She made a sound, like an imitation of a sigh, then went on. "Do you... like it? Also, why is the word pig in 'pigments'?"

Stephanie frowned a little, squinting at the drawing on the floor. It looked a bit like a squiggly series of ponds with a field of spaghetti at the top. After a bit of trying, she could kind of see a face in the drawing. "Yeah, uhm, I love it," she murmured, and even meant it a little too; it wasn't everyday your robot drew you a picture with its mouth, even if it wasn't a work of art.

She continued a little hesitantly. "And I honestly couldn't tell you about the... the pig thing..."

Sweetie looked up, smiling. "Really!? I think it's a pretty bad drawing... But I'm happy to hear that you're happy." Then, giggling in a convincing way, she got up to all fours, clanking a little against the floor.

Stephanie laughed along, though in a nervous, hesitant way of her own.

Sweetie continued speaking, sounding interested and generally pleasant. "I thought you knew everything about animals?" she asked.

Stephanie felt her meager pinch of worked up confidence draining already, the effort of even just talking to Sweetie Belle weighing on her. Come on, Steph, she tried to reassure herself, almost as an order. You can do this. Whatever 'this' is, exactly. In an effort to plan her next move, she recalled the day thus far, and how she'd gotten through that.

The morning had been mostly uneventful, considering Sweetie's presence. Stephanie had showered, which had been the only time during the day which she had hoped to get any free time. Apparently, as Sweetie put it, the water made her feel funny.

Stephanie noted the unlikelihood of that being a coincidence...

Somehow, though, that didn't strictly mean that Sweetie was at all vulnerable to water, because the little robot had still made the attempt to hop in the shower, too, and came out unscathed.

Sweetie Belle wasn't waterproof, or hadn't been, which made the event just as confusing for Stephanie as everything else that had happened so far. Electronics shorted out in water, that was a rule, but Sweetie seemed to treat it like a guideline.

It was Sunday now, Stephanie's last day before work would start, and so far she had spent it doing two things: cleaning up a little more, and talking to figure out Sweetie Belle. So far, communicating with Sweetie and trying to puzzle her out just caused more confusion than it helped.

After listening to her creation ramble for hours, the only thing Stephanie learned for sure was that Sweetie was getting better at speaking, and quickly. Good sense told her that anything, or perhaps in this case, anyone, that changed that quickly was faking it. Then again, circumstances weren't normal, and she was already in the state of mind to believe the situation at face value. There may not be any evidence yet that her robot had somehow magically come to life, but there was a lot of evidence that argued against all of the alternatives.

Sweetie Belle, somehow, seemed like she was growing up, so to speak. The more she listened, and asked simple questions, the more fluent her speech got, though she still had a tendency for odd word choice.

Really, it was fascinating to Stephanie. Overall she thought she was enjoying getting to know the being which had replaced her appliance, even despite her trepidation over the whole thing.

It was almost a dream come true, if it weren't for but one minor detail. The entire ordeal with Sweetie Belle was made unbearable simply from not knowing how it had happened. The worst part of which was that Stephanie couldn't analyze Sweetie, either. At least, not without risking her other machines, or in all likelihood Sweetie herself, for that matter.

Still, Stephanie had briefly tried.

After sheepishly asking for permission, she had hooked up a laptop to Sweetie Belle. Unsurprisingly enough, the results that were obtained had been inconclusive. The laptop did not malfunction like Hal, or act up, at least not right away.

Unfortunately, neither the laptop or her old diagnostic programs seemed to think Sweetie was compatible. Sure, Sweetie had been programmed with them at one point, but whatever ran her now wasn't the same. Trying to force things either glitched the laptop out horribly, crashed the system, or came back saying nothing at all.

Stephanie even told Sweetie Belle not to try and "talk" with the machine, as she called it, and that seemed to have kept things from going screwy, but, it didn't circumvent the other issues. The only proof she even had that the two were connected and the cable wasn't faulty was Sweetie Belle's own say so.

In the end, the only arguably productive answer from the ordeal came in the form of the Sweetie resonating her voice from the speakers of the laptop towards the end whenever she spoke.

Steph was left to call it quits, fresh out of computers she was willing to risk and even fresher out of ideas.

"Stephanieee?" Sweetie's sweet as sugar voice called again.

Stephanie blinked. "Huh?"

Sweetie Belle tilted her head a moment, staying quiet, then repeated herself. "I said, 'Are you in there?'"

Stephanie ran a hand through her hair, and regained her composure. "Oh, right, yeah I'm here."

"Good!" Sweetie began swishing her tail. "So, can we do something now? I'm really bored." Her two front hooves began to lift and lower themselves at a quick pace as she spoke, a mannerism that gave the impression of impatience. "While you were working, I was thinking of things we could do for fun! Item one: roller skating!"

Stephanie frowned, her eyes glued to the increasing speed with which Sweetie's legs were moving. Her body isn't that quick. She couldn't do that before... "I... I don't have roller skates, Sweetie. Also, no. Now hold still I want to check something." She moved closer and knelt down to get a good look.

Sweetie's legs stopped fidgeting after she heard the response, and her ears whirred around to their one other position, giving the impression of disappointment. "Aaw..." she moaned sadly, then immediately picked back up in a cheerful tone. "Okay! Then, item two: scuba-diving!"

Stephanie almost face-palmed at the last suggestion, despite the fact her attention had moved onto the panel on Sweetie's side. "Sweetie, do you even know what scuba-diving is?" she asked patiently.

Sweetie Belle rotated her head around, gears whirring quietly, just enough to see Stephanie, then shook it from side to side slightly.

Stephanie looked over long enough to raise an eyebrow. "It's swimming underwater with breathing gear." The panel popped open in her hands, revealing Sweetie Belle's inner workings. "You don't breathe, so that counts out scuba gear, and I don't think we want to test our luck with you and water again..."

Sweetie Belle oohed in understanding. "Gotchyah. Nope, no scuba-diving, then." The very idea of water unsettled her, even if it seemed living creatures needed it to keep living. She was glad she wasn't alive and needed it. Then again, Stephanie was alive, and she was alright.

After a moment of studying Stephanie's usual, confused looking expression, Sweetie asked, "Steph? What are you doing back there?"

Stephanie glanced up for a moment, before looking back down at Sweetie Belle's tiny hip seated diagnostic screen, as well as past it into the hardware and inner-workings of Sweetie.

"Oh, nothing in particular..." Steph replied, which was almost literally true, as the diagnostic screen typically now bore nothing but gibberish. Normally she would shut down anything she was working on before poking around in it, but Sweetie couldn't be shut down. That, and she was just taking another peek. "I guess I'm just looking for the sake of looking. Maybe I missed a clue. Like I keep saying, you're almost not even the same as before—"

Sweetie Belle broke in. "But that's good, right?"

Stephanie paused, her hands frozen in the act of unscrewing another panel.

Sweetie brought Stephanie into better focus absently, the fuzziness of the room increasing slightly, while the details of Steph's face began to stand out more prominently.

The room was quiet, until Sweetie Belle went on in a gentle tone. "I mean, I don't remember things being this much fun. Not like now. Before, it... seems like I was bored, I think. But I also had different thoughts back then. I don't know. It is confusing, and seems a little weird, because other than making that big mess, which was still an accident! I haven't done anything really different than before."

Sweetie Belle went on, curiosity working its way into her voice. "Did you figure out what made me start acting different?"

Stephanie looked away from the panel of switches and bare circuit boards for a moment. "I haven't," she answered honestly. "But, I don't think that whatever happened is as important as I originally thought, either." A smile, which was more of a clever smirk, worked its way onto her face.

Sweetie Belle blinked, not understanding, then tilted her head. "It isn't? Why not?" She almost turned around, too, but managed to keep herself sitting still. As she recalled, Stephanie didn't like it when she moved around too much while getting worked on.

"Because..." Stephanie searched back and forth for a moment, searching for the right words to say to her new friend. "Sometimes you don't question a good thing."

Sweetie Belle's tail started brushing back and forth rapidly, scraping slightly where bare metal showed. "Steph." Unable to help it, she stood up and turned around. A thought had popped into her head, rather suddenly, and it demanded to be fulfilled. "Can I have a hug?"

"I— Uh, sure, Sweetie." Stephanie didn't really know what to think anymore, anyway, and focused on rolling with it. That, and she was being asked for a hug from a machine designed to look cute.

Sweetie Belle's smile grew and she reared back, hooves outstretched.

Stephanie chuckled slightly, her surprise from the request mostly gone, and began to silently marvel once again about how crazy things were. Her arms wrapped gently around Sweetie's back, though she wasn't exactly fragile.

"What made you want a hug?" she asked, and looked around absently while her machine hugged her back.

Sweetie Belle closed her eyes. Wow, Stephanie's warm... "I don't know," she answered honestly. "Just wanted one."

Stephanie let out a bit of quiet, nervous laughter again. "Fair enough." She was about to pull away, since her machine seemed to be squeezing tighter rather than letting go, and who knew how long a robot would want to hug for, but she stopped. Her eyes settled on a flashing red light in the back of Sweetie's processing unit, all the way back near her rump-casing; that is, just above her rear legs' motors. From any other angle she couldn't have seen it without disassembling Sweetie's rear chassis.

"Oh my gosh," Stephanie murmured in understanding. "Your secondary processor is offline, Sweetie."

"Hm?" Sweetie Belle felt Stephanie pushing away slightly, and released her grip with reluctance. Rather than make her complaint over the shortness of the embrace, she addressed the new topic with interest. "My what?" she asked appropriately.

Stephanie crouch walked quickly around Sweetie Belle, finally seeing, and recognizing something that she actually understood. "Your secondary processor. It's an important part of you. If it's offline, then..." She trailed off, not really sure what that meant, all else in consideration. "Well, in layman's terms, normally it helps make sure that you're functioning properly..."

Sweetie Belle pulled her head back in surprise, then whirled around to look down at her back. "Oh, that sounds important," she admitted, and followed Steph's gaze into the open space on her rear. Astoundingly, there were all kinds of interesting gizmos inside of her. Wow, lookit them all, she thought, and at the same time said, "Hm, offline, meaning non-functioning, inactive. Should we turn it back on?"

Stephanie looked up, humming. "Absolutely. You... well, previously, you could only turn it off during periods of low power. It basically helped increase how much you could compute in times of high activity." After hesitating only a moment, she began taking apart the plating on Sweetie's left hip, exposing the blinking red light. "I added it a couple years ago, to help out. It's the newest part in you."

Sweetie tilted her head, watching Stephanie with interest. "New is good. Or in this case, 'newest.'" Head still tilted, she looked at her own blinking light again.

Stephanie hummed and nodded absently. "Yeah... yeah it is..." A frown worked its way into existence as she stared at the offending processor.

Sweetie Belle looked up, and was surprised by Stephanie's sudden lack of excitement. "Hey, what's wrong? I thought you were happy just a second ago because you figured something about me out. Did you pinch your finger again? I said I was sorry about that..."

Stephanie looked up, grinning again as if she had a switch of her own flipped. "No, Sweetie, heh, no I didn't pinch myself again I... just don't really know what to do."

Sweetie Belle stared a moment, then her eyelids tilted to give the impression of intense thought, staring back firmly. "What do you mean? You're super smart about computers and things. No one else around seems to know much of anything, either, and that makes you the smartest one here!"

Stephanie raised an eyebrow, smirking. "Oh really?"

Sweetie Belle nodded once in confidence, eyes shut and smiling. "Yup!"

Stephanie made a bright laugh. Then, looking down again she took in a considering breath. "Well, either way, here's the gist, Sweetie."

Sweetie Belle's eyes whirred, likely refocusing.

"I'm still not sure about this. I've pretty much ruled out that you're... just malfunctioning. I'm kind of hesitant to do anything to you now, Sweetie." Stephanie tapped a finger on her leg apprehensively, thinking.

"Like when you didn't want to plug Mr. Laptop into me?" Sweetie Belle whirred her ears back in mild shame, remembering how Mr. Laptop had stopped working after a while. "I'm really sorry that he—"

Stephanie rolled her eyes and patted Sweetie's head; anything to stop the never ending apologies. "It's fine, really. I wouldn't have plugged it in if I wasn't comfortable with it breaking. Just like I wouldn't have plugged that laptop into you if I wasn't pretty sure that it would be safe and not… hurt you. Also, the laptop is a thing, not a 'mister'."

While listening, Sweetie Belle blinked and leaned into Stephanie’s hand slightly, then made an interested sound at what was said. The ideas that Stephanie had about her and everything else were interesting, after all; point in fact, anything that explained the world or something in it was interesting to her, but especially stuff about herself.

Apparently, plugging into and talking with the bossy computer, Hal, had caused problems, but talking to Stephanie’s other "simpler" electronics had been more alright, like the music machine.

“So…” Sweetie Belle worked out what Stephanie was trying to say for herself. “What you're alluding to is that you think turning my other other processor on, might be bad? Like experimenting with other machines?”

Stephanie began to stare in doubt at Sweetie’s hind-quarters again. “Exactly. I mean, I…” She floundered a bit, still not sure how exactly to talk with something about the possibility of it being ‘alive’. So far she’d just winged it. “I’m not really sure how delicate you are, or what it could do. Sweetie, I don’t really know anything for—”

“Turn it on,” Sweetie Belle chirped. Her cameras, or eyes as she called them, focused and unfocused on her extra processor. “I mean, we won’t know if we don’t. If something like what happened with Hal happens again, we know I’ll be fine in the end.”

Stephanie furrowed her brow and looked up. She relaxed the look after Sweetie looked up as well. “Are you sure? Didn't you say before it hurt you?” she asked.

Sweetie Belle frowned slightly, humming, then proceeded to smile and nod her head. “Yup, he did! But I got better!"

Stephanie raised an eyebrow. "I see..." she murmured doubtfully.

Sweetie Belle sighed, a near perfect imitation of when Stephanie would. "Come oooon... If that thing’s supposed to help me think, it’s not doing its job right now! Is it?” She giggled and shifted about slightly on her hooves. “Well? Come on, Steph! Hop to it!”

Stephanie made an indignant sounding harrumph and folded her arms briefly. “Alright, you win. Right away, Princess.” Laughing slightly, and convinced, she made her way around to Sweetie’s panel of switches. Among them was a little, itty-bitty rubber reset button, barely more than a bump, but clearly marked as the one she wanted to press for a manual restart. “Here we go. Ready?”

Sweetie nodded, her head craned around. "Ready!" she chirped.

Stephanie activated the second processor. A little surprisingly, the red, blinking light turned into a cheerful, bright green one. "There," she exclaimed, then sat up, dusting her hands. "Something finally went my way! It worked!" Chuckling, she turned her grin up towards Sweetie Belle.

“Well, our way, I guess I should say. Right, Sweetie?” Stephanie reached on up and gave Sweetie Belle’s neck a good few pats of appreciation.

Oddly, Sweetie Belle's expression seemed a little... flat, and saying that about a machine's face, was saying a lot. The last few days she hadn't stayed still for very long, so the lack of an immediate response was odd.

"Sweetie?" Stephanie tried again. When she didn’t get a response, she put a hand down on the ground and leaned in close. “Uhm, Sweetie? Are you in there?”

Suddenly, Sweetie blinked once, and said something. "Uh oh." A flash of violet light flickered behind her eyes briefly. "Steph?" she asked plainly, just before her voice deformed into something vaguely reminiscent of an old dial tone.

Stephanie donned a look of dread, then gasped and sat back as Sweetie’s left eyelid started twitching, and an ear wrenching croak of static burst out of her speaker.

Suddenly, the little filly-bot was alive with motion, ears spinning around, and tail going berserk.

Stephanie stayed still out of pure shock as things went from an obvious bad, to worse.

Sweetie Belle’s legs slid out slightly in front of herself and her shoulders began shaking, followed closely by the rest of her.

“Sweetie!?” Stephanie cried out, then covered her mouth with a hand, at a loss as to what she should do.

Purple sparks flew off her old machine from the open compartment, eyes, and everything else, skittering and spraying across the floor.

Stephanie watched them fly to various corners of her room, and managed a quick thought in response.


Chapter 10 : Zip Zap

View Online

The air had begun to hum and vibrate, a fact that Sweetie Belle and Stephanie were each only distantly aware of.

Sweetie's own senses were quickly and entirely overwhelmed, the same as her thoughts. A violet light had grown in intensity from somewhere close by, completely obscuring her vision of the room. She was aware that once again she was feeling that strange word that she didn't like much.

Afraid, Sweetie recalled. I'm afraid. But I can't do anything! Her body felt achy and her head felt floaty; both of those were new. But the worst new thing was that she couldn't see Stephanie anymore.

Moving didn't seem possible; her gears and motors were all either locked up or spasming, and her voice wasn't doing what she wanted, either. The static noise that filled the room had to be coming from her, preventing a call for help from getting out. She hoped that Stephanie knew what was happening, and how to fix her like so many times before. Stephanie had to; she was so smart, she could surely figure out something to do.

Still sitting across the room on the floor's concrete, Stephanie couldn't believe her own eyes. She stared in shock at Sweetie Belle and... whatever it was that was happening to her. Without explanation, her machine turned mystery had apparently become an out of control sparkler, filling the room with noise and chaos.

The sparks poured from Sweetie's mouth, her eyes, the opened compartment... everywhere, all while she rattled as if coming apart. The light show flashed across the walls, danced over the remnants of the day's mess, and cast a glow across Stephanie's bewildered expression. Overhead, the ceiling lights flickered erratically, increasing the chaos further.

Crap. Double crap! What did I do? Stephanie's mind raced. Strangely acting animated robots aside, nothing happening made enough sense for her to wrap her head around it.

All she had done was re-enable something that was a part of Sweetie. Maybe it had caused Sweetie's reaction, but surely it couldn't be what was responsible. Her frantic thought trail lead her to a dead end, at least as far as rational possibilities were concerned. There was another explanation, though, something Stephanie knew had no right to even be considered as a possibility, especially not by someone as logical and learned as she.

Magic? Stephanie gulped, knowing it couldn't be that. No. Magic's not real. That would be ridiculous. She's short circuited somehow.

Sweetie Belle's static noises squelched loudly again, and Stephanie screamed, her hands covering her ears. She scrunched up inwardly where she sat, legs held close, but was shaken back to her senses.

What can I even do? Think. Think! The sparks were still flying, and the risk of a fire suddenly occurred to her. Maybe I should get the extinguisher—

"Steeeeph! Please render assistance!" Sweetie Belle's voice cried out, suddenly working. The static was also gone.

Stephanie stood up. "Hold on! I'm going to help!" She wasn't at all sure how, but a reassurance felt right, and it was all she had to give. Her hands were balled up in panic, but she resolutely started to at least do something.

Ignoring the lack of any protection from the shower of sparks, Stephanie hunched over her little machine’s open panel again, face turned partially away. The thing that made the most sense to her was undoing what she had just done. I swear if she... if we make it out of this alive I'll— She didn't get to finish her oath. Just as her hand reached for the miniscule switch that had somehow caused the commotion, something instead reached out and stopped her.

Purple electricity arced out of Sweetie Belle's electronics and danced up Stephanie's arm before she could even reach the switch.

“YEEE-owch!” Stephanie toppled to her rear, gingerly clutching her hand close to herself. There was pain like a dozen needles from just as many doctor visits. The sting faded, leaving her hand numb, but she didn't have time to check how bad she'd been hurt.

"Steph!" Sweetie Belle and at Stephanie locked eyes.

"Sweetie! I don't know what to—do?" Stephanie froze.

Sweetie was seemingly done with her shaking and frightening spark flinging; replacing it instead was a deep, purple glow that shone from behind her eyes, transforming them from green.

She mumbled something that was difficult to make out. "I... feel..."

Stephanie's eyes widened more and more. Okay, maybe it's magic. Suddenly she was thinking about an old TV show, for all the good it seemed it might do. The name Equestria poked up through her oldest memories, but none of them told her any answers in the brief four or five second time she had sat motionless.

The glow's intensity was growing, peeking out of joints and plating all across Sweetie's body. Once the light had filled the room, Sweetie began to lift off the ground, floating on thin air a few inches, and then a few more. Her limp, scorched tail was the last part of her to leave the concrete. The only sound remaining in the room was a strange hum that began to get louder.

Stephanie only managed drop her jaw open dumbly. "Ooooo-kay," she whispered. Now, she was completely at a loss, her brain successfully checked out over at the front desk. "Sweetie... Belle? Hey, what are you doing? What's happening?" She didn't really expect an answer, less so as her voice began to be drowned out by the hum.

Stephanie watched as Sweetie came to stop in the middle of the room, then realized she'd just been staring instead of doing something helpful. "H-Hey! Sweetie?" There was a force in the air, almost a strong wind pushing her away, that just appeared as she tried to approach Sweetie. She skid back on her butt several feet before she regained traction. "Hey!"

Sweetie Belle's mouth hung open, as if about to speak, but didn't.

Stephanie cupped her hands and tried shouting. "Are you okay!?" That didn't seem likely. "Say something!" Her eyes darted around briefly for a fire that thankfully wasn't there, and she forced herself to stand up with some difficulty. She looked down at her hand—it wasn't burned, at least, just tingly—then back up at Sweetie. "I don't know what to do!"

Sweetie Belle continued to remain quiet and float. But she did close her eyes, as well as shiver and curl in on herself.

On reflexes powered purely by adrenaline, Stephanie hit the deck as something soared right where her head had just been. "Great jumping—!" she cursed as she landed hard on her hands and knees.

All around the room, bars of purple light lanced out from their spot of origin: Sweetie Belle. One struck a nearby wall, and suddenly a giant rose bush, rooted in place, popped out of thin air. Another hit the basement stereo, and what seemed like a miniature windmill stood in its place, instead. A third hit the basement's mainframe, transforming the delicate storage units into a pile of accordions; the instruments wheezed weakly as they slumped over in a messy pile.

Stephanie's fearful look transformed into disgusted horror for the split-second she had to stare at her precious, molested electronics. "What is going— Ahn!" Just in time, she dodged out of the way of more beams of light, their number growing, and hid behind a table. A second later and the table itself had its legs replaced by giant springs.

"Sweetie Belle! Please stop!" Stephanie peeked around the edge. She watched in denial over what was transpiring in her technological sanctuary. Her panic deepened, until harshly and with effort, she reeled her mind back in. I've gotta think of something. Crap crap CRAP. Okay, calm down, Steph. Your robot that's come alive is having a nuclear meltdown. What do? She thought hard, watching as her chair turned into what looked like a squat bowl of... ice cream.

Stephanie's expression petrified, transfixed on the former chair. In a flash, she pulled back behind the puny cover offered by her lab table. Okay, I have no idea what to do. None! When does anyone prepare themselves to deal with something like this!? I don't even think I could get to the door, let alone fix this! The thought of being turned into an appliance while trying to make a break for it didn't sit well with her.

Stephanie peeked through the transformed legs of her work table, catching sight of Sweetie. The equine-like machine's expression was difficult to read, being so simple, but it still didn't look pleasant. Whatever was happening, the noise in the room was slowly growing louder.

I have to do something... Stephanie swallowed hard. Her memories tried to dredge up something that could help, but all she'd gotten were a bunch of old movie scenes and cartoons—her background in machinery certainly didn't offer any suggestions.

No, she had to try something else. Something not scientific.

"Sweetie Belle!" Stephanie yelled the name as loud as she could, just bordering on a scream that made her voice crack. "You gotta calm down! Whatever you're doing, it's dangerous! Please stop!" She watched from the mild safety of cover, hoping to see a reaction; Sweetie shifted slightly.

Stephanie waited, the colors in the room flowing like water across the walls, then tried again. "Try to... try to get control of it! If all of this was inside you before, you can control it again!" The logical part of her still said magic wasn't real, that she was just dreaming, but she knew she had to adapt to the situation.

Another burst of static answered, which slowly resolved into Sweetie's voice. "Tssss—Stephanieee! Help! I-I don't know what to do! It's confusing me!"

Stephanie stood up on instinct, ignoring the beams that whizzed past. Despite her confusion, she found words to respond with, encouraging ones. "That's okay! Just don't be afraid, I'm here! Try and... focus on your senses!" Suddenly, she wished she'd listened harder to her friends when they would quote Star Wars Jedi. "You can do it, I know you can! You'll be okay!"

Stephanie bit her lip. She didn't know what else to say, and wasn't sure if any of it would help at all. Sweetie Belle didn't respond, instead continuing to defy gravity in the middle of the room.

Stephanie called out again, hoping for an answer. "Sweetie Belle?" Then, she stared in wonder as the hum in the room dissipated slowly and the crazy beams of light stopped altogether. She almost tumbled forward from no longer having to lean into the pushing force in the air.

Everything that happened next did so quickly and with very little fanfare.

The giant stained-glass mosaic off an emu on the wall transformed back into being the tool shelves. In the corner, what could only have been described as the world's largest spice rack once again became a series of monitors. One by one the furniture and articles in the room all quietly and peacefully reverted back to their original states in a smaller, milder shower of purple sparks and soft poofs of noise.

Stephanie's jaw resumed hanging open in a show of complete disbelief. Eventually, she looked back to the original cause of the anomalies. The rest of the glow in the room faded, and the basement lights overhead ceased their constant flickering.

Sweetie Belle still hung in the air, her expression hardened, but looked less scared and desperate. Then in the span of a second, the remaining glow around her disappeared with a loud pop, and she was falling.

Stephanie gasped and dove forward. "Hang on—! Ooph!" She performed a stage slide across the smooth floor, and her old machine landed unceremoniously in her lap. "Oh, ow... Hey, hey, are you alright?" She stayed wary, almost a little surprised that she hadn't been burned or something.

She ran a hand over Sweetie's face. "Sweetie?"

Sweetie Belle opened her eyes slowly once she heard Stephanie's voice, then blinked rapidly, taking in the light. Her eyes, which were apparently made in China as she'd only just noticed, adjusted to focus on Stephanie's face.

"Uhm, malfunction?" She smiled upwards, feeling something... called embarrassment.

Stephanie sighed with relief. "That was sure a doozy of a malfunction. Are you sure you're okay? How many fingers am I holding up? And just what happened? What did you do? I—" With some difficulty she bit back more words, wincing; she felt light-headed.

Sweetie Belle laughed weakly while Steph ranted; she wasn't sure why she did, but relieved as she was it felt right. "Yes, I'm okay. And you're holding up three fingers. Is that a game?" Her response was almost rapid-fire quick. "And I don't know exactly what happened, or what exactly I did. I'm a little... worried? Worried, since you don't, either..." After a moment of studying Stephanie's look of loss, she slyly added, "But I think it might actually be safe to say that was all your fault, Stephanie. You flipped my switch after all, and I calculate a ninety-six point seven percent likelihood that it was responsible for whatever just happened."

Stephanie listened in somber acceptance, at first, until the part where blame was shifted soundly onto her shoulders.

"Excuse me!? My fault? Okay, missy, you listen here. You told me to do it, first off, and second—" She cut off when a gentle shaking ran through Sweetie, and laughter of the tinkling, relieved sort fell out of her chrome muzzle.

Stephanie grinned, understanding. "You butt." Laughing a little herself, she brushed away some of the scorched mane in Sweetie's eyes.

Sweetie stared up, feeling... very peaceful, all considering. The phrase life threatening danced through her vocabulary briefly. Still, her fear was all but gone and it seemed obvious who was to thank for it.

Stephanie went on. "Well, whatever just happened, we're never touching that thing again."

Sweetie let out a small aw of disappointment.

"Should I leave the switch on, then?" Sweetie Belle asked plainly. She stared up expectantly at Steph in earnest.

"It's still on!?" Stephanie felt her heart leap again, and had to stop from standing up and spilling Sweetie onto the floor. She calmed down though, and forced herself to listen to her rational side. Circuits don't turn mouse pads into Pies, Stephanie. They don't!

She cleared her throat, and absently ran a hand over Sweetie's mane, instead, and repeated herself more calmly. "It's still on? And you're sure you're alright? You aren't hurt? I mean, you were..." She realized that if Sweetie wasn't alright, she had no idea what to actually do. It still felt a bit odd to be talking to her robot the way she was, but then, she was quickly getting over that. Especially after what she had just seen.

Sweetie Belle smiled and nodded, tilting her head. Stephanie seemed incredibly worried. It made Sweetie feel worried, too. But, it also made her feel like reassuring her.

"Yep! I'm getting all flashy green lights now, and I remember those being the good ones!" Sweetie began pedaling her back legs slightly in the air as a show of ability, while standing up solely on her front ones. Subsequently, she then trotted about in a circle as further demonstration.

Her excitement returned to her, no longer being held. "But anyway, Steph! Did you see me zip-zap all of the things? What did you think? It was... was..." She concentrated, trying to grasp a good word.

"Cool?" Unable to help it, Stephanie smirked. She was still caught somewhere between excitement, and fainting over the ordeal.

"Cool?" Sweetie's face whirred until she looked deeply confused. "Wait. That's... my head says that a better word might be amazing, or astounding, or astonishing, or stunning, or staggering, or—"

Stephanie face-palmed. "Okay okay okay, I get the idea, Sweetie."

Sweetie blinked, then smiled and clanged slightly as she shifted her stance. "Okay!" She repeated back, and giggled. "So, what does ambient temperature have to do with anything?"

Stephanie lowered her hand from her face and peeked out. "Wait, what?"

Sweetie hummed in thought. "You said 'cool' is the word to describe the room. While it is slightly below—"

Stephanie, finally catching on, groaned. "'Cool' means the same as 'amazing', and those other words, Sweetie. It's slang."

"Ah, I see... " Sweetie briefly looked at the floor, then back up. "Cool!" She proceeded to scan over a good portion of slang words that she had access to in a commendable one point one seconds of processing time. They seemed quite interesting. "So! Did you see me? Zip-zap everything? It made me feel kind of..." She trailed of, recalling how exactly she had felt. There was a good description for it, surely, but it escaped her.

Stephanie sighed, trying to finish calming down while also keeping up with Sweetie. She stood up and inspected her room, just in case one of computers hadn't turned back from being a pinwheel. "Oh yeah, that. I saw it alright. I'm still trying to believe it, too." At the same time, she tried to consider if it would happen again. Sweetie had admitted that the thing that might have been responsible, the processor, was somehow still on, and Steph had caught a glimpse of the blinking green light it normally sported, too.

Sweetie made a thinking kind of sound. "But you saw it yourself. Why have trouble with believing it?"

Briefly, Stephanie thought, Did I have any cameras in the room that might of caught that... She realized quickly that she didn't without Hal, and swore under her breath.

Sweetie Belle tilted her head. She didn't quite understand why Stephanie had lowered her voice so much when she said those last three words. The phrase seemed a bit odd, and had odder connotations. And what did her dictionary mean by labeling it a curse phrase? She shrugged and filed it away, deciding to ask about it later.

"Well, I didn't mean that I don't believe it just happened..." Stephanie wanted to do just that, actually. "It was just... It shouldn't have been..." She stared blankly at her little, talking, thinking machine, pretty much at a loss for words. Sweetie Belle stared back patiently, expectantly. Luckily, she was saved upon spotting something new, and also located around Sweetie's metallic hindquarters. "Oh wow. Sweetie, look at your side panel."

Sweetie Belle blinked, then twisted her neck around to look back. She found something different on the outside of the panel on her rear left leg, the one that was still closed. "Ohhh, that's new. Is it a sign of structural failure from the event? Scarring? Heat damage—"

"It's a cutie mark," Stephanie mumbled the phrase smoothly as it came to her. She knelt down, her eyes locked on Sweetie's metal flank. With her offhand she closed the still open panel that led to Sweetie's inner workings on the other side, revealing a match to the mark there, as well.

Five lines of light green script, written in binary, ran up both sides of the filly-bot's back legs. The code was written out plainly as: 01101101 01100001 01100111 01101001 01100011.

Stephanie blinked at it, decoding the binary slowly in her head. "I think that it says—"

"Magic," Sweetie Belle interrupted. She grinned and looked up at Stephanie, who acknowledged her with a nod. "The cutie mark says magic! But what even is a cutie mark? And what does it mean that I have one?" Her grin melted into a frown, and she raised her voice. "And why did zip-zapping give me a random mark!? Is it important or something? Oh no, have I contracted a virus?"

"I... doubt that, Sweetie." A thoughtful look crept over Stephanie, unable to handle yet another mystery to any effect. Eventually, she murmured, "But I don't think I know why you got the mark either..."

She thought about the way Sweetie Belle could not only feel emotions, but also things like heat and the cold, as if she wasn't made of metal. She thought about her room and the other unexplainable things that had just happened. Strangely, she also felt a little less crazy having witnessed everything. It also occurred to her that maybe that was a part of being crazy.

The basement was silent for a moment.

Finally, Sweetie Belle sighed, and asked, "Well, Steph, what do you know? Because I'm starting to rethink asking the TV my questions..."

Stephanie scowled. "And later, I will teach you all about manners." She reached out and pinched Sweetie Belle's ear, producing a pained ouch!

"Steeeeph!" Sweetie tried to pull her head away, which didn't work very well. "Let goooo, that hurts! I don’t like it!"

Stephanie held on, slightly bewildered. Wait, she can feel this, too? she thought, hesitating to let go. She didn't really know what counted as painful towards a robot and eventually let go.

Sweetie Belle stared back at her, looking wounded. "I don't think I like learning 'manners', either," she mumbled.

Stephanie filed away her confusion, and chuckled at Sweetie's behavior. "Ah huh. Well you should definitely look up that definition. A-Anyway, I actually remember cutie marks being... well, representations of a special talent. So, apparently this is what you're really good at." At least that was how she recalled a certain old show, which in a way was the only reason Sweetie Belle existed in the first place. She wondered for a moment what her curious newborn-like robot would make of the old show, were she to see it.

Sweetie Belle ohhhed. "A special talent? And my special talent is magic?"

Stephanie shrugged. "I guess so," she replied, and ran a hand over the mark on her robot as she did.

Sweetie paused to listen, then thought on the new word, magic, and drew up the description for it. "Magic: noun, one: the power of apparently influencing the course of events by using mysterious or supernatural forces. Adjective, one: used in magic or working by magic; having or apparently having supernatural powers. Two, wonderful or... exciting!"

Her eyes widened more, taking in the implications of such a thing being tied to her. She dedicated a lot of processing power to considering it. And that's for me? That's my talent? Her excitement faded a little, replacing itself with a thorough sense of confusion. But I don't even know what that means, or what I did. The sensations she had felt during the event had been strange, and they were gone now, too.

Sweetie Belle hummed in thought.

Stephanie smiled along with Sweetie while she chirped the definitions, until finally she stopped and seemed to think about it slowly to herself. The sight had been a little interesting, due mostly in part to Sweetie Belle using her old robotic voice when she had spoken the definitions. Perhaps it was a kind of habit, or something, one that she had retained.

Maybe, or maybe not, but the bottom line was that Sweetie Belle was a mystery wrapped in an enigma.

It was clear to Stephanie that there was a lot more to figure out, and not just stuff about Sweetie, but also what exactly to do with her. She had a robot on her hands that not only ignored the way technology was supposed to work, but the rules of everything else, too. Trying to consider how a filing cabinet had turned into an aquarium with actual fish wasn't something easy to do. There certainly wasn't a magic school she could go to and get instructions at. And what could be done if Sweetie had a relapse and turned the house into a giant cream-puff or something worse?

"Alright, well, let's not stress over this too much right now, Sweetie." Stephanie sighed in mild despair and straightened up, getting a little sore from crouching for so long. "Let's go upstairs, and—"

Glados' voice entered the room as she abruptly wheeled through the opened door, and called down from the top of the stairs. "Stephanie, I hate to interrupt your subterranean rave, but it scared the goat. Unfortunately, or not, depending on how you look at things... it escaped its pen again. I was subsequently unable to corral it. Not that it's of any consequence to me, but you should probably go take care of that, assuming you can fit your gargantuan hips out through the door to—"

Stephanie groaned loudly, muttering, "Crap, not again..." and bolted up the stairs. If the goat had gotten out and ended up in a neighbor's yard or something, that could easily lead to a whole mess of lawsuits. "Glados! Start the van!"

Sweetie Belle perked up at the signs of sudden excitement and Stephanie racing upstairs. "A goat? Why did he run away? What's a van? Oh, motorized transportation! A road trip! Can I come?" Not waiting for an answer, she sped up the motors in her legs to their maximum. She noted there was a noticeable increase in their efficiency from their last use against the cat.

Stephanie raced through the house and burst out the front door. "What? Oh, no, you should stay here, Sweetie." Sweetie Belle had somehow kept up with her the whole way to the front door.

Out of habit, Steph had almost tried to just close the door on her former appliance to keep it from wandering outside. This time, however, Sweetie had instead slipped her way out and fell in step.

"Uuh..." Stephanie gritted her teeth, thinking hard. At the same time, she kept jogging out to her waiting vehicle. I can't just leave Sweetie alone again, can I? Oh man, but if Jeffrey headbutts the Johnson's dog again... She caught sight of what she was sure was a scraggly blur of fur bouncing happily through the neighboring field. It seemed she was in luck; Jeffrey hadn't gotten far. Still, she knew there was no time to lose.

"Sweetie, just wait here for a bit, okay? I'll be right back." She stopped to point at a random spot in the yard near the porch. "Inside would be better, actually. Could you wait inside? Alright, great."

"Oh, okay. But what about my cutie mark? And figuring out everything that you don't know about me?" Sweetie thought about that. If Steph didn't know things about her either, then who did? "Also, what even is magic? I have no further data on magic..."

Stephanie danced slightly in place, the door to her vehicle open. "We'll talk about you lots when I get back, Sweetie. I'm sorry, but this can't wait."

"Uhm, I'll wait, then, Steph." Sweetie Belle slowed her canter to a walk, and watched as Stephanie climbed into her van, almost leaping. It seemed that Mr. Goat getting out was a big deal. She wondered just why that was, and why Mr. goat would have wanted to leave, anyway. Maybe he had somewhere important to be?

The van door slammed shut.

Stephanie breathed a sigh of relief, alone for the first time in ages, if only for a couple of minutes. At the same time, she guiltily considered that she was in some way shirking an obligation to keep a watchful eye on what was essentially a child, rather than a pet. Still, she was used to responsibility.

Quickly, Steph backed the van out, and as she did, she looked worriedly back at Sweetie Belle, who had yet to leave the side of the driveway for the house. She tried not to worry too much, Jeffrey was in sight of the house after all. She just needed to go get him, lure him home, and all before Sweetie managed to get into something.

It'll be fine, Stephanie told herself, and focused on driving. Yup, perfectly fine.

Sweetie Belle tilted her head, watching as the van backed out of the driveway in a cloud of dust, then vroomed loudly and raced down the road off on a quest to hunt down a goat. She realized, after a bit of zooming and focusing with her eyes, that Mr. Goat was actually not so far away.

"Well, Stephanie told me to go wait inside." Sweetie Belle stood up, her motors softly humming, and turned to do just that. "I guess I should listen to her." She had always listened to Stephanie before, as she recalled, never doing anything but exactly what she had been told. "Hopefully we'll finally do something fun when she comes back, though—"

Sweetie Belle cut off, and stopped to stare at something new. Her eyes widened, and her cameras unfocused as a strange sense of wonder and curiosity filled her all at once. The object was fascinating.

"O-Oh," she murmured, basking in the strange feeling she was getting. "Or... maybe I could stay outside for a little bit. As long as I'm inside when Steph gets back, it'll be okay. Right?"

There was a really, really big pile of brown, red and yellow things in the middle of the yard. Sweetie used her processor and sped towards an explanation over what they were.


Apparently, they were called leaves, and for some reason, they almost seemed to almost call out her name... One thing was for sure, and that was that she couldn't ignore them.

Sweetie's tail began to brush against the earth, an idea entering her head.

Chapter 11 : Reboot

View Online

"Baaaaahh!" The goat rolled its eyes to and fro, taking in the countryside with its head stuck out of the vehicle's window.

Stephanie fumed quietly, steering with one hand and holding a leash she'd slapped onto Jeffrey with the other. "Alright buster, you had your fun, now be a good boy and calm down."

The goat craned its head around and back inside out of the rushing wind in order to stare at Stephanie. It blinked slowly with one eye, then the other, and proceeded to lunge up to the front seat to bite part of the woman's shirt.

Stephanie reacted too slow. "Gah! Hey, drop it! Out out out!"

Moving the fearsome goat back with one arm was a little difficult, but she managed with only a minor swerving. Her opponent bahed back in objection. "Dangit, Jeff. In hindsight I really should have named you Discord, you little sh—"

The weather outside was beautiful and sunny, with barely a cloud in the sky. The day was really shaping up to be what many would call picturesque.

Steph's van crunched over the gravel driveway, coming to a stop parallel the wooden fence that encircled a good portion of her house's property. Now parked, Stephanie led Jeffrey—mostly by dragging—back towards his pen, where he was safely secured again and making presumably happy goat sounds in short order.

"Well, there's my exercise for the day." Steph exhaled and leaned on a fence post for a much needed breather. Heaving a goat across a corn field, into a van, then back to its pen had taken the wind out of her sails, to put it lightly. Not that she had possessed much wind the last couple days, anyway.

"Now I just need to stay on my toes with a certain other four-legged headache." Stephanie pushed herself up off the fence and trudged towards the house. "And worse, this one can talk back, and somehow only listens marginally better." A little voice in the back of her head brought up that Sweetie was just very, very innocent, and not to blame for her behavior. "Excuses aside, I still haven't thought of how exactly I'm going to deal with Sweetie, let alone this apparent aptitude for magic she has."

Stephanie called out, hoping to at least get a response straight away. "Sweetie Belle? Hey, are you still out here?" She climbed the stairs to her porch, scanning her yard and the side of the house.

The area appeared to be devoid of a metal pony running around or getting their head caught in a bucket, but she already knew enough not to assume with Sweetie. Whatever drove the runaway machine's decisions, other than curiosity, anyway, she had figured out they were severely impaired by Sweetie's attention span.

"Sweeeetie. Come oooout! Hello?" Steph didn't see any sign of her. While not quite discounting the idea that Sweetie had actually gone inside, for some reason it did not seem very likely to her.

The animal yard seemed quiet and peaceful, so for now she ruled out giving the sheds a closer inspection.

Steph frowned and turned to go inside. Whatever her newest responsibility was up to, she just hoped it was innocent and indoors, for starters, or at the very least easily repairable.

However, once inside she did not see Sweetie waiting in the kitchen for her.

"Hm..." Steph gave the immediate area a scrutinizing eye. "Did she go downstairs?" She would have fully expected Sweetie, given how she hadn't wanted to be left alone, to be waiting at the door.

"Come on, I know I wasn't just imagining you the last two days, so come on out." With the memory of the basement incident still fresh in her mind—all flashing lights and full of the impossible—it was all too real. "I’m going to count to ten, and you had better be out here by the time I’m finished!”

Steph paused at the basement stairs, then groaned and stomped a foot. "Sweetie!? You had better be in here somewhere or... or you are grounded!" She paused. “Or… something.”

Giggling in an out of control way from sheer thrill alone, Sweetie Belle finally poked her head out of the giant pile of leaves. She watched with twinkling eyes as Stephanie went inside, apparently searching for her.

"She didn't fiiind me," she sang, giggling some more.

Still laughing, Sweetie Belle jumped out of the leaf pile, then turned around in a tight circle and dove back in. The pile of soft foliage exploded in the air and engulfed her, then was further ruined as she raced out the other side back into the yard, and through another pile. All the while she laughed harder than she ever had before.

Fun! I'm having so much fun. Sweetie Belle grinned, feeling as though she understood the word and its intricacies completely now, almost as if she were born to it.

And then there was the mischief of hiding from Stephanie, which had come out of nowhere. The idea had just popped into her head—despite always listening to Steph before—and she hadn’t been able to resist.

This is great! Sweetie thought. She turned her head, still running at full speed, and spotted yet another pile of leaves. "Target acquired!" With a cheer her legs sprang her successfully up into the air, and ust before impact with her leafy target she curled her body into a ball.

Muffled sounding giggles filled the air around the yard’s remaining leaf pile, until finally, flailing little robot limbs and the cute face that went with them reappeared at the surface.

“Wow,” Sweetie remarked, nestling into the pile and reveling in the oddly satisfying way that it felt. The leaves were crunchy, sometimes damp, and even a little scratchy, but they were soft, too. The leaf piles and the running had been amazing, even irresistible, and the hiding thing had been even better. There was also a twinge of guilt—like from when she had hurt Stephanie's poor house and Hal—but it didn't seem quite as bad as then. In fact, that was even fun too, which seemed odd.

Sweetie sat still, thinking. Her metallic eyelids absently blinked up into the sun as she considered her actions. “Shouldn't guilt feel bad, always? And why couldn’t I have done stuff like this before? I guess I couldn’t have. I wasn’t as smart or something before I changed. Hmmmm...”

All of her was so confusing.

As she thought, Sweetie Belle looked to her side, eyes scanning over the leaves and their myriad of colors and textures. Her hoof pushed them around idly. She even made a funny little pattern in the leaves that she decided vaguely looked like a smiling face.

"Oh well!" The uncertainty over how she changed didn’t bother her much like it seemed to bother Stephanie. Sweetie briefly pondered if maybe she should worry about it more. Should I? Logic directs no... But maybe. The uncertainty she felt was what bothered her the most. For some reason, she didn't think that coming to a decision about her own thoughts on something should be so difficult.

She rolled over in the leaf pile, and her eyes settled on the sky above once more.

“Hm, sky: the region of the atmosphere and outer space seen from the earth. Atmosphere…? Ozone layer, stratosphere… clouds, sun, crepuscular rays…” Sweetie’s mechanical irises expanded as she looked out toward the horizon.

“So pretty.”

Suddenly, as if by a switch, Sweetie Belle felt entranced by the sight, almost as much from the puzzling information she had about it. Her information said that the sky led out into an ‘outer space’ but she couldn’t see it, or the edge of the sky no matter how much she zoomed or focused her sight.

"Maybe I need an upgrade," she pondered, frowning.

The information she had in her memory wasn’t nearly enough to explain, just like with so much else. Some more information for context that could be viewed as pictures to go with the words would be nice, but she had so few of those to look at for reference.

“Hmph, how… irritating.” Sweetie Belle did a quick imitation of Steph—when she was annoyed—by making a huff sound. She then, reluctantly, continued her literal stare off into space.

Throughout, her thoughts resumed about how it was exactly that she had come to act differently.

“So, why did I change? I don’t know. Steph seems to think about it enough for the both of us. I’m just glad I now know… That I am… Hm.” Sweetie wasn’t sure about how she was different either. Stephanie hadn’t really said. “Oh, I can ignore my program! That’s how I’m different, yeah. I think… Not sure why I can do that now, though.” Steph's explanation had been confusing, mentioning lightning as the cause, but also how that was impossible, which seemed counter-intuitive by proxy

Sweetie rolled side to side in the leaf pile, thinking about why everything was the way it was—not just herself—and still looking up at the sky. “Anyway, I should have enjoyed doing activities of this nature much sooner.” She paused. “All the things I can remember doing from before is…” Sweetie Belle looked internally at the images of her past.

They were her memories. Her old ones. At least, they loosely matched the definition of a memory.

They weren’t all there, she noted. There were gaps, and the dates of the ones she did have seemed to be pretty spaced out over several years. They all varied in… resolution scale, and some of the memories were audio only, but in the ones that did move, she was almost always in the house.

Sometimes the house was decorated in them, and sometimes there were other people, besides Steph. There were even a few of Sweetie Belle being elsewhere, but not many. She wondered where those memories had taken place.

As for what she used to do with her time, after some inspection on her memories, it didn’t seem like she did very much.

“I did a lot of walking,” Sweetie stated, then hummed. “Around the house. And I spoke to Stephanie. And I… recharged.”

Sweetie rolled over. “Well, that stuff doesn't seem like much… fun. But it wasn’t bad, at least. Just boring. Things are much more better now. Well, except that thing with Hal… and the exploding-magic thing I did on accident in the basement...” The thing that had happened in the basement, that had been scary. “I don’t want to do that again anytime soon. Or anything boring, either.”

Although she said that, a lingering curiosity about the phenomena called 'magic' still floated around in her head.

"I think that I could do it again... though..." Sweetie Belle squinted her eyes and looked up at her horn. It was there that the energy build up had originated, at least as far as she had felt. "But it was dangerous. No, I shouldn't..." A sigh—again in imitation of Steph—leaked out of her as she nestled into the leaf pile, mind made up on the matter.

A few minutes passed as Sweetie took in the nature all around her. Then, a little bit of movement caught her eye, and her little mechanical head swiveled toward it. As she did, a small and curious something from within the leaf pile moved again.

“Oh, wow! You're..." Sweetie Belle searched for an appropriate definition that matched her feelings at that moment for what she had found. "You're so cute!"

At the same time, after a quick scan and some thought as to whether or not to trust her brain dictionary, she identified the ‘something’ as a slug. "Huh, is that why Steph always called me cute, because I evoke this current feeling? Am I also slug-like?" That didn't seem particularly likely. "Well, anyway, hello there! Who are you? Oh, can you talk?” When no answer came, she cheerfully added, "I'm gonna call you Mr. Slug!"

The slug didn't answer, rather, it began to extend itself, then scrunch again, slithering across the surface of a leaf.

"I am not surprised that you can't speak, Mr. Slug. It seems like a lot of somethings cannot communicate efficiently... Or too efficiently, in Hal's case." Sweetie sighed at finding another one-sided conversation partner, but smiled all the same from the thrill of the new experience. "I think... I'm gonna pick you up! I hope you don't mind." She really couldn't tell if Mr. Slug would, but she decided she would be gentle, which should be enough.

Once Mr. Slug was up, Sweetie Belle turned her hoof over, getting a better look at the strange creature.

The slug moved slightly, confirming that it was still active, but did not otherwise respond. Unless creeping sideways slightly was some kind of slug sign language.

Sweetie hummed, then sat up and place the slug on her shoulder. “I don’t mind if you’re quiet. Almost everyone around here is, except for me and Stephanie.”

The slug streeeetched out, then moved a bit more across her shoulder.

Sweetie giggled. “Haha, you tickle.” A thought occurred to Sweetie, and she looked down at the pulverized leaf pile scattered around her, then gasped. "Oh no! Was this your domicile?"

The slug failed to answer, but her conclusion seemed likely.

Sweetie set a determined expression, and shouted, "I can fix this!" Helping Mr. Slug seemed imperative now, if Stephanie being upset over her own home being wrecked was anything to go by.

The wind whistled in Sweetie’s ears as she ran across the yard, seeking more piles of the fun leaves, as well as a new home for the Mr. Slug. She ran and ran, and eventually spotted a big patch of… trees. They were trees, and the patch of vegetation they formed was called a forest.

Sweetie Belle zoomed in her lenses at the trees, humming. "Habitation levels? Appropriate, given the density of the plant of growth that— oh!"

Another little something had come out of no where, only to full on land upon Sweetie Belle's nose apparatus.

"Ohhh, what are you?" Sweetie Belle's smile grew more and more as she looked at the new stranger, until she couldn't make it bigger. Then, just like that, the fluttering little thing—which she had thus far only confirmed as an insect—took flight once again and began to spiral away from her.

"Hey, wait, come back!" Sweetie Belle called. "Please?"

The little winged thing didn't listen—which really didn't come as a surprise given how well everyone else besides Steph listened. Instead, it flew erratically with strange and inefficient loops through the air. Its path took it further from the house, and out towards the large collection of trees. Along the way, there was also a strange black and grey surface with colorful lines on it, which acted as a divide from the trees.

Where's he going!? Sweetie thought, her eyes tracking and even trying to predict his path.

"If you don't want to talk, that's fine! I just want to see you up close again. You're so pretty!" Sweetie Belle hummed and squinted her eyes while searching her brain-dictionary for whatever it was she chased.

Butterfly popped up, eventually.

"AW! Butterfly even sounds pretty!" Sweetie Belle lamented, and worked harder to catch up. Actually, she was surprisingly having an easy time catching up to the butterfly, even though it could fly, but the little guy kept hastily changing its direction. In addition to the butterfly, she identified the weird dark-shaded surface between herself and the forest as a...

A road or street.

"Almost—! Got you—! Aw, you're good at this!" Sweetie Belle giggled as the butterfly evaded her latest attempt at catching up to her-him-it. She didn't really want to catch the butterfly, just see its wings again. When they were open, they were full of colors and patterns in a design unlike any she'd seen before; really, that went without saying, but she really liked this pattern.

Her body had a definite edge as she ran across the road, but it was lost again as soon as they reentered a tall grassy area.

Through the chase, Sweetie bounded over tall clumps of grass, rolling after she'd land, before clambering back up just as quick to continue her chase. Her metal hooves left impressions in parts of the soft earth, and her path was marked by a curvy and loop-de-looped line through the field grass that would make any who followed it dizzy.

Eventually, the butterfly's path took them both over a hill, then down the other side and towards the forest.

All the while, Sweetie Belle barely had a thought other than, I gotta catch up! After wondering how something as simple as chasing could be so captivating, she thought of the experience itself. If I didn't want to catch her-him-it so badly, this would actually be kind of fun...! Oh, maybe this is why Mr. Cat was chasing me? She thought about that, and wondered briefly if she should try that apologizing thing Steph had explained to her... then shook off the idea entirely. No way, Mr. Cat was meeean.

After what seemed like ten minutes and thirty-two whole seconds, but was actually just ten minutes and twenty-two whole seconds, the butterfly finally landed upon a small tree, just at the edge of the forest.

With a gasp, Sweetie Belle screeched to a halt at the sight of her quarry finally stopping. "Oh wow." Just as the cats in the house had taught her—mostly by example, rather than a proper curriculum—she crept slowly and cautiously up to the gently waving tree branches.

There, the butterfly slowly closed and opened its wings as it bounced on its little branchy landing zone.

Sweetie Belle smiled, and sat down beside the butterfly, just watching. She saved several high definition picture memories of the butterfly for later; it was so pretty that she couldn't resist. Funnily enough, her space for stuff like that said that it was four-hundred and twelve percent out of one-hundred percent full.

She had never considered it before, but Sweetie wondered how good at mathematics she really was, because that computation made absolutely no sense. Stupid brain! Why do you not seem to work right? She huffed at the apparent shortcomings she possessed, and resolved that later she would have to ask Steph about that.

"I wish I had wings," Sweetie lamented abruptly. Once her eyes were finished clicking shut and taking pictures, she craned her head around to look at her back.

A mostly white, but also partly smudged with grey-paneled back looked up at her. The gaps in between her metal plates would slide and shift with her every movement, grinding softly. Her own construction once again intrigued her, both with its uniqueness and how inefficient it seemed, at least compared to the designs of the animals around the house.

While humming a song—some very bizarre tune called 'Byte Block'—Sweetie Belle carefully considered just how a pair of wings might look on her. Funnily enough, the idea of wings like the butterfly's didn't seem like they would ever work.

At least, not for her.

"Yes, I see, Mr. Butterfly flies with those wings with the help of the air and its own light weight, not so much air resistance or air flow. Aw, that means I couldn't fly with butterfly wings... even if they were my size." Sweetie Belle sighed and slumped to the ground, once again gluing her eyes to the little insect above her. "I wonder what kind of wings I would need."

She searched her thoughts and found several definitions of words that seemed like good clues, but without pictures to go along with them she didn't want to assume anything just yet. Flying seemed hard.

As she searched, Sweetie spotted a slimy green trail on her back, and remembered her other strange living friend: Mr. Slug.

Suspiciously, he was no where to be seen. The trail led around her side and down towards her front chassis, then underneath what her information from Steph had strangely labeled as her ‘adorable widdle belly’.

How odd. Shouldn’t it be the ‘lower chassis carriage’? Or abdomen… stomach… And just what makes it adorable? Hm, this falls under the ‘cute’ enigma that I still need to ask Steph about. Sweetie had concluded 'cute' was derived from the feelings of the person making the observation, at least, so that was a start.

“There you are!” Finally, Sweetie spotted her runaway friend. “Hey, you should meet my other new friend.” With a carefully calculated movement, she slid her first friend onto a hoof, then deposited him on a nearby leaf, right beside Mr. Butterfly.

She studied them a moment, then determined they likely wouldn’t have much to say to one another, and gave out a despairing hum. If they can’t talk, I wonder what they think about.

"I need to ask Stephanie about that, and—” Sweetie Belle abruptly sat up, gasping. That was right, Stephanie had been looking for her. “Oh no! I hadn't meant to be gone so long. It’s been so many milliseconds since I hid! I forgot to go back! I hope that—"

As if on cue, Sweetie Belle heard the loud, anxious sounding cries from her taller, two-legged friend.

"Sweetie Belle, I swear if you don't come out right now—! Look, I don't know what, okay? I haven't decided yet what exactly the bounds of this relationship are! But so help me if you don't come out, then I—"

Sweetie Belle whipped around and looked back towards the house. She couldn't see Steph, but boy could she hear her.

Panicked thoughts about why Steph was searching for her cropped up. Stephanie wants to find me. Is looking for me, but I hid because it was fun. But wait, when I wanted to see Stephanie, and was sad because she wasn't there—! That means Stephanie is sad! She wants to see me!

Sweetie Belle kicked all of her motors into high gear, dashing back towards the shiny black surface and her house.

Then she screeched to a halt again and turned back around.

"It was nice meeting you both, Mr. Butterfly and Mr. Slug! I really hope that you'll wanna talk if we meet again!" Sweetie Belle watched them with a satisfied smile, then sped up her motors again and raced for... home, was the best word to choose from, she concluded.

Sweetie Belle wasted no time calling out as she ran. "Hey, Steph! Stephanie! Please don't be sad, or scared! Or anything like I was last night! At least not because of me, I would gain feelings of guilt, if you did!" The emotions at risk weren't pleasant ones—for either her or Steph—and even though they were definitely confusing, and didn't make sense at all from certain perspectives, like mathematics, she had learned enough over the last several dozen hours to have some vague idea of how they worked. Once again, she wondered if maybe she was just really bad at her calculations, and that maybe emotions did translate perfectly mathematically.

But what formula would calculate emotion from a default level? Would it even work in base-ten? Uggh, I just— Sweetie gasped as she peaked the hill with the funky black surface.

Stephanie was over by the house, and she certainly looked both upset and distraught.

Sweetie could tell easily, seeing as Steph's hair was spread out and frazzled at a random space coefficient thirty-point-seven percent higher than usual. She smiled at seeing Steph, her best... friend in the whole world again. Glados and Hal could be her friends too, she decided, even if they weren't nearly as nice.

But not the cat.

"Sweetie, I mean it!" Stephanie yelled. "No more questions if you don't come out right now!"

Sweetie Belle gasped a second time, eyes widening to their fullest upon hearing that. "Uh oh." She raised her speaker's volume to their loudest, maximizing their efficiency. "Wait, Steph, here I am!" she shouted. "I'm very sorry for hiding!"

Stephanie's head swiveled around to look straight at her.

Much to Sweetie's relief, Stephanie put on a look of matching relief upon seeing her.

Though, oddly it shifted to some other weird Stephanie-expression a split second later. Only one-point-seven seconds later, to be precise, which was a whole new record.

Right after that, Stephanie also screamed something peculiar. "Sweetie, look out!"

Sweetie Belle quirked an eyebrow, confused, then turned her head left to follow a noise that was slowly getting louder and—

Stephanie screamed.

And then she was running. Mud and dirt was kicked up in her wake.

But by the time she reached the road, it was far too late.

There was a car stopped at the side of the road, the driver standing outside and rubbing a guilty hand behind their head. They were looking down at the thing they had hit.

Stephanie knelt down as soon as she reached the scene and gasped. She laid a hand over her mouth, unsure of what exactly to do.

Sweetie Belle had been hit by the car, of that there was no doubt.

Stephanie had seen it happen clearly from her porch, but she hadn't believed it even as she ran closer. Seeing it now, up close, didn't help her to accept it either.

Sweetie Belle was limp, laying on her back, and worst of all, unmoving. At a glance she looked mostly intact, except for the left side of her head. That may have been where she'd been struck by the car, or perhaps she had hit it on the pavement, but her left ear and most of her face and head plate were gone, nowhere to be seen. Her left eye-lense was shattered, as well.

"I'm so sorry, Steph! I wasn't looking, I-I was turning off my music and getting ready to pull into your driveway, and then, I looked up and hit her. Oh no... Why was she outside even?"

Stephanie had tears in her eyes so bad she couldn't see anything anymore. Still, she felt the fringe of colored mane left over on Sweetie where she cupped her head in one hand. She didn't understand the person speaking to her anymore. After they stopped talking, she finally wiped her eyes clear with her sleeve. When she looked up, she was surprised to see it was Alice, whom she hadn't even registered yet as the voice's owner.

"Oh my gosh, Alice. It's—" Stephanie swallowed, unsure of what to say. Speaking was a struggle. "Are you alright?" she finally managed, aware that her friend might have gotten hurt in the accident.

Alice turned her wounded look to the mangled machine on the roadside. "Nuh uh, I'm fine. I just got a scare is all. Is... will Sweetie Bot be alright?" She winced hard, her sad look deepening. "...I totally trashed her, didn't I? Look, I'll totally pay for her. I know robots and all your stuff is super expensive, but I've got some money saved up and—"

Stephanie choked a laugh and shook her head. "No! No, you don't need to do that at all, Alice. Look, it's— Sweetie Belle’s more complicated than... that..." She trailed off, unsure of how to put it, or even if she should.

I can't just tell Alice... the whole story, that Sweetie is alive. Could I? Well, Sweetie is almost practically or certainly self-aware. I— Stephanie cut off, looking back at Sweetie's limp form. She silently hoped to any greater power in existence that such was still the case.

In return to Steph's refusal, Alice shook her head resolutely. "No way, you love that little pony, I gotta pay you back." She did her best to give a comforting look.

"Don't. Worry about it. Thank you though," Steph replied sharply. She kept her eyes glued to Sweetie, and could feel tears fighting their way back into her head. "It'll be fine." Her hand started to hover over Sweetie Belle. "I just gotta... just gotta fix her. Yeah."

Stephanie was pretty sure that wasn't the case. More sniffling and a sob broke back out of her. She wasn't the type to get emotional, or she at least wouldn't have thought so, but so much had happened the last couple days and it had been a complete roller coaster the whole way.

In a flash, Alice knelt beside her friend and grabbed her in a hug. "Steph? Hey, it'll be okay! Come on, let's pick her up and bring her inside to see how bad it is?" She frowned weakly as she helped her stand up. "I'm sure you've got a spare flux capacitor in there somewhere, right?" She could tell completely that her friend was a total wreck, but after a thought it didn't make much sense. Sure, Sweetie Bot was probably her favorite machine, but Steph wasn't known as the sentimental type around her social circles.

Alice flashed an encouraging smile. "We'll even break out the wine and ice cream, okay? It'll get better, I promise!"

Stephanie clenched her eyes shut, and gathered her strength. Alice's comforting words weren't exactly helping her, considering she didn't know the whole story.

It wasn't just a matter of a broken machine, it was so much more.

She felt alone.

More alone than a person that lived in a house by themselves with animals and robots typically felt, anyway.

"Yeah, you're right," Stephanie managed, her distraught turning into resolution. "Help me put her in your car. I'll grab her forelegs and support her head on my front. You get her hind hooves."

Alice nodded stoically, and followed the instructions. A moment later and they were both buckled up in the vehicle, a Sweetie Belle look-alike machine in the back seat.

"So, why was Sweetie outside? Didn't you used to brag about how great her location para-whatzits are, or whatever?" Alice glanced over at Steph, then focused on parking.

Stephanie took a tense breath, and lept out of the car the second it was close to stopping. "Parameters!" She shouted over the car roof. "You mean parameters! And look, it's complicated, she's been malfunctioning since that storm. Remember that?"

Alice watched in amazement at the speed with which her friend was moving, and struggled to keep up. "The storm? Oh, right! That's why I swung by, cause I've totally got her new mane and tail, and some accessories! Tee-hee." She had actually said tee-hee, and made a cutesy face over the broken robot at Steph as they carried it up the stairs. "Look, I brought a fez! and a little smoking pipe! No bathrobe, though. Not yet anyway..."

Stephanie gave her friend a quick, withering smirk, but shook her head and refixed her serious expression right away. "Right, the mane and tail... Thanks, Alice, I appreciate it." Alice was a weirdo, of that there was no doubt, and Steph felt she did a good job of keeping up with her weirdness. At least, she felt like she did most of the time. "And I'm sorry this went and happened. I should have taken more care to keep an eye on her after Jeffrey got out."

"No way! No getting to say sorry for you, this is all my fault... And Jeff's here?" Alice tilted her head, then looked around the house as they entered it. "Oh, the animal Jeffrey. For a moment I thought you meant Jeff. Uh, so which one is animal-Jeffrey again...?" She asked the question while also stepping over a stray cat, lazily stretched out in a sunny ray on the floor.

"The goat," Steph said, opening the basement door. "Hey, Glados!" She searched around for her remaining assistant, only to be greeted by the other.

"Stephy-baaaby, welcome home, sweet-cheeks!" Hal's optic beamed alive, only in a vibrant shade of purple, rather than his typical deep red.

Stephanie stopped at the foot of the stairs to look with both anger and impatience at Hal, then groaned and moved on. "I could have sworn I turned you off."

Hal laughed, sounding like some manifestation of a slimy realtor or a random jerk at a bar. "Baby, you do the exact opposite to—"

Alice interrupted, and broke into hysteric chortles. "Stephy-baby!? Oh my gosh, Steph, what did you do to Hal?"

Stephanie groaned. "Don't shake Sweetie so much. And what I did? I didn't do anything! Sweetie Belle's the one that—" She bit her lip and cut off her explanation. "Nevermind, just help me set Sweetie over here on the table."

Alice quirked an eye at Steph, but acquiesced.

"Glados, get down here, please," Steph called out.

"Steeeeph, you don't need her, you got me! Listen, let's you and me—"

Steph flipped a switch on the wall, and Hal's obnoxiousness cut out. "Oh thank god, I couldn't take another second of that." She busily did her hair up with one hand while gathering tools with another, already hard at work.

Alice, meanwhile, collapsed against the table in fits of laughter. "Wow, what was all that? Why did you change him? Huge improvement though, I can tell."

Stephanie growled. She almost answered, again, that she wasn't responsible, but quickly decided otherwise. Deciding how or if she even should tell anyone else about Sweetie had barely even occurred to her yet; she was still coming to grips with it herself.

"Well, I didn't. He— The storm— Uh..." Steph frowned. "I don't really know why he acts like that now. His attitude keeps changing though, randomly. Last night he was doing Arnold Schwarzenegger of all people, uggh. Uhm, right, but why? Maybe he got... hacked, I don't know."

Alice again quirked an eye at her friend, watching as she gingerly, almost lovingly began taking apart the casing around Sweetie Belle. "I... see." Her suspicions grew a bit from Steph's behavior, but she couldn't tell what for. Why would Steph hide something? "So, professor, what are we looking at here? I'm afraid I don't know anymore about gizmos since the last time I stuck my nose into your business, but I at least promise not to touch any big red buttons laying around."

Steph managed a weak laugh. "Mad scientist one-oh-one, never leave big red buttons laying around. And I'm not sure what— I mean, I don't know exactly if we can even do anything."

"You called for me, Stephanie?" Glados drawled, finally rolling in.

Stephanie breathed a sigh of relief. "There you are, I need the—"

"Glados! Hi there!" Alice bounced up to the glowing orange eye, immediately distracted by her second favorite thing to annoy at Steph's house. "Manage to catch and kill Chell yet?"

Glados swung to the right, honing in on the approaching guest confirmed as nuisance: Alice. "Oh, hooray, it's you..." The machine drew upon one of several withering remarks that Unit Stephanie had written for it to use just for Alice. "Chell? Interesting you bring her up. Out of all the people in this world I most wish I could give a fitting end, you're the only one that could come close to second. I think I have a little second place red ribbon for you somewhere around here..."

Alice chuckled. "Even more than Wheatley?"

Glados heaved a faux sigh. "Well, he isn't a person, not that I'd expect you to—"

"Quiet, both of you!" Steph cried out. "I am trying to save— I mean, I'm trying to fix Sweetie Belle..." She held Alice's stare for a second—not Glados', because there was no point—and tried to communicate the severity of the situation. "Glados, bring me the circuits tester."

"Of course," Glados responded.

Alice watched as the robot and person duo went to work, keeping her lip buttoned as she'd been requested. Still, she kept up her observations.

"Stephanie, what's the rush?" Alice leaned onto the work table and peered around at the ruined little filly. "I know Sweetie’s great, but..." She trailed off, taking in the serious air that her friend positively exhumed.

"The rush? I need to hurry or she could—!" Stephanie bit her lip, having almost slipped yet again. She wasn't good at secrets, or focusing on more than one thing at once. She did have to hurry though, as well as do something about Alice's curiosity.

Steph looked up as smoothly as possible. "It's important that I... inspect certain parts straight away, Alice. Like her battery cells? What if they start leaking?" A wave of panic rose in her as she realized she really did need to check those.

"And I really, really kind of need some peace and quiet... and solitude in order to focus. Hint." Steph jerkily gave a not-so-subtle motion upstairs with her head. Having Alice there would be too distracting, and would complicate things, whether or not Sweetie would be alright.

Alice blinked, then ohhed thoughtfully. "So I don't get to play lab assistant, eh?" she asked, already backing up the stairs.

Steph gave her a flat look, with just a hint of a smile with some effort.

Alice took the hint, which really was pretty blatant. "Okie dokie! You got it, boss. In that case, I'm gonna go make something upstairs as an apology." She grinned ear to ear and clapped her hands together in a show of excitement. "Is that okay?"

Steph smiled a little bigger. "Yeah, that's fine, Alice. Thank you. Just... wait up there until I come up."

"Whoo!" Alice bounded her way up the stairs. "Glados, come on, we're doing cake!"

Glados had finished setting up the circuits tester for its creator, and acknowledged with programmed efficiency its disdain for subject 'cake'.

"I just want you to know, that if I could fill the premises with nerve gas in order to end you, I would. And it would be so sweet... Sweet. See what I did there? But yes, let us make cake. I'll get the rat poison..."

As the voices decreased in volume up into the rest of the house, Stephanie was left alone downstairs.

Any silence after Alice left a room was deafening, but with the addition of Sweetie Belle there, motionless and broken, it was even worse.

Stephanie groaned and pressed her hands to either side of her head, then quickly got to work. Alright, let’s do this. She started by inspecting her little friend, whom she had failed, as carefully as she could.

“Sweetie, can you hear me?” she tried once, to no luck.

Things looked both horrible and not so bad at the same time. The area that had been struck was Sweetie's head, it seemed, which for a person would be devastating, but for a machine with its processors elsewhere, might have been lucky.

The paneling around the left side of her head was torn off, revealing the inner mechanical and electrical workings.

Steph ran a hand around her friend’s head. Luckily the external damage seems to end here, and her body at least seems alright. She began removing the side panels on Sweetie’s flanks, deciding to confirm whether there was further, internal damage.

Stephanie kept working gently, carefully, not taking any chances as she looked.

What am I doing? I don't understand Sweetie, and I don't know what exactly to even do if I did find something! Rebooting Sweetie with her computers may be a possibility, but Steph couldn't even begin to consider what to do if that didn’t work, or something in Sweetie needed replacing. How would that even work? Can Sweetie even use parts that weren’t hers when she got… uhm, zappified? Dangit that isn’t a word.

Despite her loss for what exactly to do, and her fears, Steph kept at it.

Maybe if I ran a diagnostic, and separate her motherboard from her mechanical parts. But would that do damage? I don’t know! I— What was that? Steph blinked, then had to keep from collapsing in relief when she saw a flicker of light from Sweetie’s head.

Or rather, from inside the hole in Sweetie’s head.

Steph dropped her screwdriver and stopped her efforts on Sweetie’s flank panel. She looked into the cracked open cavity, and just in time to see a purple spark leap between two components.

After a moment, and after nothing else happened, Steph said, “Sweetie? Are you there?” There wasn’t an answer, and she had to force herself from getting her hopes up.

A bit of light and some sparks could mean anything.

Steph inspected where she thought it had come from. Once she’d spotted something, she squinted her eyes, looking in disbelief at what she’d found. Inside Sweetie, and... attached to the mechanisms and motors in her neck, were lines of a light purple crystal. They were even surrounding a couple of the wire bundles further in.

"And what exactly is this stuff?" she murmured.

Curious, and not really thinking about it, Stephanie poked her screwdriver at the crystals. She had repaired a lot of machines or appliances in her day, and poking randomly in them when you didn't know what you were doing was the quickest way to ensure you didn't fix it, but she couldn't help trying.

Shockingly, a little jolt of electricity rippled over Sweetie Belle's chassis, making Stephanie jump.


Screaming voices filled the basement; two of them, to be precise. One was Stephanie, surprised and caught off guard while the second from Sweetie Belle was loud, pained, and terrified.

"Ow— Ow! OW! Aaah! It hurts, it hurts!" Sweetie Belle reach up to her head instinctively with both front hooves, trying desperately to relieve the pressure that was built up in her head. Actually, it was just one hoof, because her left one was in almost as much pain as her head, and didn't seem to want to move right.

"Make it stop, Steph! Steph, make it stah-hap!" Everything felt wrong and bad and hurty. She wasn't even sure if Steph was there—her vision was messy for some reason—but she called out for her and cried, not even knowing what crying was until then.

"Sweetie! Sweetie Belle, it's okay, I'm here! Hold still, hold still and try not to move! Oh my gosh I'm so sorry—"

Sweetie could see and feel the breaks in her left front leg, the end of which hung limply as her shoulder's motors tried to pick it up. The rest of her seemed less damaged, at least as far as she could see with oddly messy vision. Her head hurt though, and it hurt the worst. For that matter, she noticed finally noticed one of her eyes' lenses was damaged.

Stephanie was there though, and talking to her. It sounded like she was trying to calm her down.

Sweetie was barely aware of it, even as Stephanie held her down with her hands.

All Sweetie could focus on was her head, and whatever that splitting pain was, and the last thing she could remember. What had happened? She had been hit. But why? By what? A car, automobile: a large device used for traversing great distances across roads.

Sweetie understood finally, but that didn't help her any. The only thing offering her any comfort was Stephanie.

"Sweetie, please, you're damaged! Lay still for me? Come on I can help but—" Steph struggled to keep Sweetie still and from falling off the table.

Sweetie kept trying to get her head to stop hurting, despite Steph’s pleas to stop moving. She tried applying pressure, or shaking her head, and even wanted to try running away from it, but the last one would be kind of hard with Steph laying over her.

There was something making her head hurt, she had to find it!

"Steph! Make it stop! Make it— Oh, that's better." Sweetie Belle stopped struggling about. After deactivating something, somewhere in her body, the pain went away entirely. She wasn't sure what she had done, but was reasonably sure she could undo it. The important thing was that she had made all of the... pain stuff stop.

Unfortunately, it also seemed that all of her sense of touch had left. She couldn't feel a thing anymore.

"I'm better! Well, relatively..." Sweetie Belle raised her leg up again, looking sadly at its crushed plating and sparking interior workings. "Numb. Hm, odd word."

"Oh my gosh, Sweetie. You're alright? Oh thank goodness, I thought that the worst had happened." Stephanie leaned down beside Sweetie. She wanted to hug her, but didn't dare move her yet.

"The worst had happened? I don't understand." Sweetie studied her friend, but nodded slowly.

"It’s… I’ll explain later. Just stay still, we don't know everything that's wrong with you yet and we don't want you to get hurt more."

Trying to gather her senses, Sweetie head tilted, and felt something loose in there. "But I stopped the hurting Steph. Oops, I moved again. Oh, Steph, it hurt so bad! At least I found the off switch... but why did I hurt? What makes hurt? My information says neurons firing electrical pulses!" Fresh sobs leaked out of Sweetie, remembering the feeling too well. She didn’t like crying, either, she decided. She figured out that she couldn't even cry in the literal sense after a moment, but the pained reaction aspect of crying was certainly not beyond her. "Why are they so meeean?"

"Sshhh, it's okay now. You... turned it off? That's good, I guess. Look, I can fix you so don't worry. It's just going to take time, okay? I don't have spare parts or anything. Assuming those will work…” She hoped they would, but they would be used on a machine that was currently crying, and while she wasn't an expert on the matter that seemed like it would complicate things. “Oh gosh this is too much. What were you doing out there? No, wait, never mind that, it’s fine, I’m getting ahead of myself."

Sweetie Belle stared at Steph, trying to follow everything she said without interrupting. All the while, she felt her 'sad' building up, for some reason. When Steph was finished talking, Sweetie grabbed at her arm as it neared her stomach, and held onto it. She had stopped her crying out and the hurting already, so she was forced to conclude that Steph being upset was what still had her scared.

Stephanie stared down at Sweetie, just watching her. She comfortingly ran her free hand over the machine's side, trying to think of what exactly to do. She'd never had to care for someone else like this after an accident.

“It’s alright, Sweetie—” Steph had begun to say.

“Hey, Steph! You want chocolate or lemon!?” came an an interrupting shout from Alice, upstairs.

Sweetie Belle looked up towards the sound, at the top of the stairs, noting sadly that her neck's motors seemed damaged. “Oh, who’s that, Steph?” she murmured.

Stephanie felt the hair raise on her back. “Chocolate!” she shouted, hoping that Alice hadn’t heard anything else.

After a moment, Alice returned with, “Okay!” and Stephanie relaxed.

Sweetie Belle blinked up at the person leaning over her protectively. Judging by Steph’s posture and subsequent expression, she was a bit high strung, too. “Who was that?” She thought that the voice had sounded familiar.

Stephanie looked at Sweetie, considering what was best to say. “That’s… Alice. She’s my friend, and comes by to visit a lot along with our other friends.” At seeing Sweetie’s blank look, and after a thought, she added, “Do you... remember Alice? She’s the one who always calls you ‘Sweetie Bot’ and tries to teach you things. You haven't seen her since before your... change.”

Sweetie Belle’s eyes widened at the words. That is, her remaining one did. “She teaches things?” she asked dreamily.

Steph blinked, then recognized she may have made a mistake. A sentient machine learning things from Alice would no doubt end up acting like Bender from a show called Futurama in no time. “Uh, well… some things, but not a lot. You already know them so there’s no sense in asking her questions about it, right? Eheh... Forget I mentioned that, Sweetie. For right now, I’m restricting you to this table, do you understand? You’re hurt and we don’t know enough about you for you to risk moving.”

Sweetie almost opened her mouth to object to the idea of staying in the basement again, but kept it closed. There was a feeling growing again in her, and she quickly realized it was her old not-friend: guilt.

“Stephanie, I may be wrong, but I think I should apologize. I need to! I disobeyed you… and hid from you… but I was just trying to have fun!”

Stephanie smoothed Sweetie’s mane as she spoke. “It’s fine. You’re forgiven, okay? The same as with the mess you made a little while ago. But you need to start thinking more or asking me before you do things, at least… until you know better yourself. Does that make sense?”

Sweetie nodded ferociously, or tried to. “Affirmative! So much affirmative, Stephanie, thank you! I feel better already. Emotionally, anyway… And I was having so much fun outside, too, and I even met two friends.”

“Whoa, wait. You met people?” Stephanie blanched.

Sweetie Belle paused, then weakly shook her head. “No, not people, or humans, they were a butterfly and a slug. They didn’t like talking, just like you said things that are not-humans would, but I tried to get them to anyway. I figured it couldn't hurt to try.”

While working, Stephanie listened to her machine regale her with the tale of meeting insects, and had to actively resist face palming the whole way through.

“That sounds… great, Sweetie. Remind me to explain to you in better detail what separates lower life forms from higher ones.”

“Oh, okay!” Sweetie chirped, then asked, “And I am not a life-form, because I’m not alive?”

Stephanie raised a finger, said nothing, then managed, “That’s complicated, Sweetie.” She was regretting her earlier, less thought out explanations already, it seemed. “Let’s just call you a robotic life-form for now.”

The sound of some pans crashing upstairs made Stephanie look up, and away from her childlike friend.

“Uhm, listen, Sweetie, I’m going to go talk to Alice now—”

Sweetie gasped. “Can I come too!? I want to meet her!" The idea of a new conversation partner was so very enticing, and made her so very excited. "I bet she even has favorite things like you and me! I’ll ask her what her favorite color is, and then her favorite—”

“Sweetie, no. No no no.” Stephanie shook her head calmly, and cupped a hand under Sweetie’s chin. “First of all, you are not moving right now, remember? And secondly…” Her gaze slid sideways towards the floor. “I don’t know if I want anyone else knowing about you just yet, alright?”

Sweetie Belle studied her friend’s tired and sort of confused looking expression, which clearly displayed how hard her human processors must be working to think.

“Why?” Sweetie asked simply. Don’t want Steph to overheat… Oh, wait, humans don’t have processors? Alright Mr. Dictionary, I’m really starting to question just how well informed your sources are—

“Well, it’s complicated,” Steph answered, interrupting Sweetie’s thoughts against herself. “It has to do with that talk we had about you being special, and unique, and… impossible. Basically, we might have to protect you with secrecy. I mean, I can probably tell my friends, I guess, and some people, but let’s not rush it, okay? Robots, cyborgs, and drones are kind of a big deal in the media right now.”

Sweetie furrowed her brow, or what passed for one. What Steph said wasn’t making much sense. Protect me? What does that mean? “Like… from... the noisy metal machine that hurt!?” Her eyes widened in panic, suddenly remembering the event. She couldn’t remember it happening fully; she had... blacked out? Yes, since she had somehow lost consciousness, but the trauma still instilled fear in her once again.

“Whoa, easy there, Sweetie. It’s alright now, nothing’s going to hurt you here.” Stephanie steadied the little body with a hand and kept her from wiggling her way off the table or kicking anymore tools about. “Sort of, maybe. Just trust me, okay? Stay here, and stay quiet, I’ll be right back and we’ll talk more.”

Sweetie Belle let out a groan of sadness. “Okay… I will, Steph. I trust you.” She then more hastily asked, “How many seconds will you be gone?”

A reassuring smile worked its way onto Stephanie as she finally stood all the way up again, and worked her way towards the basement staircase. “Less than twelve-hundred, more than six-hundred.”

Sweetie heard Steph giggle a bit with laughter, and thought about what she’d said that was funny. She didn’t get it, but added in her own bit of giggles.

She watched her friend ascend the staircase swiftly, but called out for one last question.


“Yes?” Stephanie stopped mid-step and smiled back down.

“I have one more question. I wanted to know about the thing you said earlier. It sounded important.” Sweetie Belle dragged herself slightly around, angling to get a better look.

“Okay..." Steph answered reluctantly. "But just one, and then I’ll be right back.”

Sweetie Belle continued. “What was the ‘feared the worst’ that you mentioned earlier, about me?”

Stephanie blinked. She struggled finding an answer for that. “I… was afraid that I had lost you, Sweetie, because you got hurt. I’ll have more for you about that later, I promise. Now wait right there.”

“Okay,” Sweetie acknowledged, and watched as her friend rounded the corner. Lost me? I wasn’t hiding that good… Oh, wait, I get it.

Despite feeling no physical pain, Sweetie sort of felt like crying again.

Steph walked into a kitchen filled with singing, laughter, and an obnoxious friend that was literally spinning as she stirred a bowl of cake mix.

“Be our guest, be our gue—! Oh, hi Steph! How are things downstairs? And how are you feeling?” Alice slowed her spinning, and set the bowl on the counter, where a ready and waiting Glados scooped it up for use. “Is Sweetie going to make it?”

Stephanie had been about to reprimand her friend for slinging cake batter everywhere, more likely than not, but at hearing her friend’s reminder that she had almost just lost the single most confusing, weird, bothersome, and altogether wonderful thing in her life, she instead collapsed into giving a full-body hug.

“Yes, she totally is. At least she’s, uhm, online again.” Steph laughed with relief.

“Whoa! Easy there.” Alice laughed as well and returned the gesture, squeezing her friend with equal gusto. “Great! But does this mean we don’t get to drown our sorrows with wine? Because I was looking forward to calling over Dale and Penny and Jeffrey—not goat Jeffrey—and having a good time to cheer you up!”

Steph exhaled hard and stood up straight again. “Alice, it’s Sunday. I’ve got work tomorrow, and I still need to fix Sweetie. I’m actually going to have to ask you to go, if you don’t mind. But thank you a ton for the offer, and no” —she could already see the sad look on Alice’s face— “I am not mad at you. But I really don’t want to, and really can’t party tonight. I’m willing to bet our friends couldn’t, either.”

Alice folded her arms and promptly began to pout. “Bah, being an adult sucks.” She then shifted gears, smirking. “Alright, I guess there’s no fighting it then. So you really want me to take off straight away?”

Steph nodded. “Yes, I think I’d better square things away if that’s alright.” She walked along with her friend towards the front door.

Alice made a final desperate groan of disapproval, looking back at the still heating oven and the cake batter. “Well, alright, suit yourself. And sorry again for almost— that is, sorry for the property damage.”

Stephanie giggled, brushing back some brown curls that had fallen out of her hairband. “It was no more than usual, Alice. And thanks for coming by with Sweetie’s mane.”

She almost added that she would let her know first thing when it was replaced, but held back.

“Then, if I am no longer needed, I am off!” Alice winked, stepping outside onto the porch and the sounds of the outdoor animals. “Take care, Steph.” She then added, “And say hi to Sweetie Bot for me!”

Stephanie almost choked on air. “O-Oh. Of course!” She waved good bye. “Haha, bye now.” She closed the door, maybe a bit too quickly, and let out a huge breath of relief. “Thank goodness that’s over with. Alright, now to… well, bake a cake, I guess.”

The cake was unexpected, but easy to deal with. Still, Steph wasn’t looking forward particularly to everything that Sweetie Belle should probably be told about.

“I wonder if there’s a book somewhere about teaching robots about… well, everything. I doubt it… but at least Alice isn’t here to complicate things.” Stephanie could rest assured with that much, at least.

Alice stared at one of her best friends’ home for a minute, hesitating from driving off just yet.

“Oh yeah, you’re definitely hiding something, Stephanie Speck.” Alice grinned as she turned the key to her car’s ignition, starting it with a rumbling vroom. “And I am totally gonna find out what! Muahaha!”

Alice then turned her music on shuffle for a song, which turned out to be ‘The Pink Panther’ track, for some reason.

“Why do I even have this…?” Alice frowned and selected a better song, instead. “Now we’re talkin’! Heut' Ist Meeein Tag! Heut' Ist Mein Tag!

Chapter 12 : Maintenance

View Online

October 9th Monday

Sweetie Belle groaned and shifted where she lay on the couch.

Staying home all day was the absolute worst, or so she told herself. Of course, it had to be mentioned that she had only ever stayed inside the house, and with few exceptions since her change.

Nevertheless… Sweetie felt bored.

On top of that, she felt very bored, incredibly bored, and so-bored-it-was-beyond-belief.

Injured as she still was—with sparse bandages on her head and leg to assist in keeping her held together—there wasn't a whole lot she could safely do.

"I want Steph to get home already..." Sweetie grumbled, continuing with the thought, Either that, or for something interesting to occur. After the incident from last week, she had told herself for the proceeding days that she wanted nothing interesting to ever happen to her again, and that she would stay inside and safe forever.

No more leaf piles, no more butterpillers, no more catterflies, and certainly no more roads or vehicular mobiles.

But as it turned out... her new stance on safety had only lasted until she ran out of things to do around her home.

Sweetie shifted slightly again, looking about the room at the various animals that kept her company. There were several cats laying in the sun by the windows, most of them staring outside; a cage with a few rabbits, each noisily nibbling on some lettuce; and another cage with small birds flitting about from perch to perch.

Sweetie felt like she and the animals all had quite a bit in common as far as being cooped up, or having very little to do. Given that she didn't need to eat as living things did, something she'd learned from Steph, she supposed she had even less to do. Worse, she was aware of it.

The TV was switched on and was showing Sweetie a series of predetermined TV programs, as Steph had explained it. They were okay, and Sweetie really had loved them at first, but they lost their allure a bit when watching interesting things from elsewhere was all she could do. In practice, it felt more like teasing than something to sufficiently distract her or efficiently use her time.

That, and in all honesty she really didn't understand most of the TV programs.

Why are these beavers fighting? Sweetie could but blink in confusion at the cartoon, as Steph had introduced the particular program style.

There was always a little enjoyment to be had from the shows, some of which even made her laugh, but for the most part she felt she was only slowly figuring out any of the context.

Sweetie hummed and leaned on her one good front leg. “Stephanie loves animals, maybe she would know why these beavers are riding on suction-cup bicycles around the circumference of that room…”

Stephanie had indeed proven capable of explaining most of the TV’s oddity’s in understandable terms. The trouble was that she was at work for ten hours out of most days, and then slept an additional ten hours of her time while away from those mandatory work periods. That left only four optimum hours for Stephanie time, and that was simply an unacceptable amount.

She gets to play with technology all day at her job! That makes me feel... jealous. Sweetie Belle groaned again, and flopped her head to look away from the television, and toward a maze-like pile of books in the corner of the room.

Every book the house contained had long since been read, in some cases multiple times for clarity, and most of them still lay in incredibly tall piles throughout the house. Well, the piles were tall for her, anyway. Being so short certainly had disadvantages, as she’d come to learn, that were an even larger hindrance while she remained injured as she was.

Sweetie Belle measured precisely one foot, six inches tall at the ears. She was perhaps a bit taller if her poofy, multi-colored mane was also taken into account. The fresh new mane and tail replacements from the stranger-girl 'Alice' had been a delight, and felt much nicer than the old burnt ones she'd had.

Sweetie even considered it almost enough to make up for the whole getting hit by a car thing.

It had been a week since her incident with the car belonging to Steph's friend, and Steph had explained that it had been an accident. Cars did not, in fact, explicitly wish her any harm. Apparently they were more unthinking machines that people—like Steph—used to simply traverse distances quickly. The world around Sweetie certainly seemed more and more mundane in comparison to much of the 'fiction' that Steph clarified for her.

Sweetie broke her stare with the book fort and began shifting about again, all while being careful of her damaged leg. It didn't hurt anymore, not exactly, since it was numb at the moment, but until she could replace it she didn't want to take chances when moving it. At least, she hoped a replacement would work. Her circumstances as a living and feeling machine were, as Steph put it, unique, after all.

For instance, the loose bandages Steph had put on her head supposedly kept dust out, which was probably important. They were itchy and kind of unbearable, but insisted upon.

Sweetie rubbed at the irritations while recalling how Stephanie fussed over her ceaselessly, and seemed concerned all the time with all kinds of possibilities about her well being. It made sense, but it was also really hard to put up with when her strangeness was all Stephanie would talk about. Sweetie Belle always sat with baited breath—figuratively—for Steph to get home, but she had actually begun dreading her friend's ability to become completely worried about any tiny thing, and ignore other stuff.

“Gladoooos.” Sweetie Belle sighed and rolled over onto her back, watching the other machine as it wheeled across the ceiling overhead.

“Yes, Sweetie Belle?” Glados looked down to face her once it took up a good position right overhead.

“You suck.” Sweetie frowned up at the other machine, then rolled back over to once again face the TV. She had actually learned that phrase from the TV, as well as Steph. According to her dictionary it apparently really did mean to be sub-par; which was interesting, considering its contrasting definitions.

Glados answering her was something new, relatively speaking. The wait for her replacement parts, as Steph explained, might take a while, and in the meantime Glados had gotten some adjustments to help out. Namely, she would now at least talk back, answer questions a little, and render assistance with things like a normal guest in the house.

Sweetie had been a bit disappointed to learn it wasn’t that big of an improvement in regards to conversations.

Glados’ singular eye blinked. “Acknowledged, Sweetie Belle. Is there anything else I can do for you?”

Sweetie Belle gave her head a lazy shake. "No... I'll let you know if I want down later, thanks."

"Of course." And with that, Glados turned again to wheel away once more, always cleaning.

Sweetie Belle bent and flexed her front leg—the broken one—feeling a dull grinding of inner workings in her joint.

The sound made her wince. That’s still so… scary to consider, she thought. Her leg looked fine on the outside, but apparently the servos were jammed and the stabilizing gears that guided her movement had snapped or gone out of alignment.

If nothing else, the circumstances of her injury had filled Sweetie with ideas for changes, upgrades and improvements. To her surprise, Stephanie, her own builder, had made so many obvious mistakes to her original design. Then again, she had learned from several books that nobody was perfect, and to err was to be human. Or, sapient, which also applied, as Stephanie had reassured her.

Still, it was a bit frustrating that Steph would argue with her about what was correct sometimes when she felt she was actually right. It was also disappointing that a lot of the improvements she thought of were apparently out of the 'budget'.

Apparently things like parts cost a lot of something called 'money', which was a whole other concept she was just barely grasping. Much of it seemed rather arbitrary, just based on what certain news and finance TV channels could tell her.

Sweetie Belle hummed and dangled her broken leg off the couch, patiently waiting for her friend to get home. A glance at the clock on the wall—she did have her own internal one, but it was hard to keep it accurate thanks to stray thoughts—told her just how long Steph had been gone.

“Five minutes!? Steph only left five minutes ago for work?” Sweetie Belle groaned and flopped onto her back in order to stare at the ceiling. “Great…”

She lay there a moment in silence, and then, she started singing to pass the time. The song Steph had taught her was definitely her favorite, though mostly just because it seemed like Steph enjoyed it a lot.

"One hundred thousand buckets of oats on the wall! One hundred thousand buckets of oooaats!"

Stephanie groaned and shifted in her desk chair where she sat. Working all day at a tech company, staring at a computer screen, and doing nothing else until getting home was the absolute worst. At least, that was how she felt.

Steph was bored, incredibly bored, as well as blindingly bored.

And she was barely into her shift.

And it didn't really help that once she got home, all she'd be doing was yet more tech related work, which still wasn't even the worst of it. Trying to take care of and teach Sweetie Belle about, well, life was by far the most heavy thing on her mind.

The fact Sweetie kept singing the song she had told her as a joke didn’t help, either.

Between boredom at work and stress at home from trying to fix the damage to... whatever Sweetie was, it was a lot on her mind.

For that matter, the parts to repair Sweetie Belle were due to come in the mail sometime that very day, which would either turn out to be a bit of relief or possibly even additional bad news.

Stephanie chewed the plastic end of a ballpoint pen incessantly; she had ditched the habit with some difficulty after graduation, but with everything going on lately, she was back at it worse than ever.

"Oh'kay, sho' Shweetie's leg should work again fine, because she can control other machines. At least, based on what happened to Hal. Sho that's good, but if her body doesn't, uh, adapt her new parts... then she'll lose her sensation of feeling in them. They'll be like a prosthetic." That was the part that worried Stephanie. She had learned a lot about Sweetie over the prior week, about her emotions and the strange qualities of her body, but there was so much she just couldn't guess at. Could she get sick, could the new parts get rejected like a transplant, and any number of other questions gnawed at her.

She was a machine, yes, but a machine that could distinguish sensations, feelings, and by all rights seemed to run on magic and rainbows. Indeed, whatever made her work was clearly… impossible.

"She is such a mystery." Steph buried her face in her hands and leaned over her work desk.

"A mystery huh?” a voice asked. “Well, you know what they say, mysteries are made to be solved."

Steph sighed. “Yeah, I guess that’sh true, but to sh’ay she’s enigmatic would be an understatement… 'Solving' anything is a matter of dangerous trial and error, and that'sh what has me worried.”

"Dangerous? What do you mean? By the way, you’re getting ink on your face from that pen."

"I am? Oh, thanks.” Steph took the pen out her mouth and grimaced at the stain she wiped onto her hand.

“Anyway, where was I? Ah right, well, it's complicated, but Sweetie is—" Stephanie gasped and looked up, suddenly aware she was no longer talking to just herself. "Jeff, the heck!? How many times do I have to tell you not to sneak up on me?"

Jeff let out a mirth-filled chuckle. “Sneaking?”

The man standing in Stephanie's cubicle was lanky, easily identifiable in his late twenties by his face, and had a full dark beard to match his amber complexion. The otherwise typical office clothes he had on, complete with a garish tie, made him look the perfect part of a typical wage-slave.

"It's not my fault you're so busy working that you hardly ever notice anyone else around the office." He chuckled again, then raised an eyebrow as he pushed his glasses further up the bridge of his nose. "I mean, you are working, right? Because… we have that deadline and—"

Steph frowned at her co-worker and gestured to her screen. "Yes, I'm already finished double-checking everything. Even if I wasn't, I'm perfectly capable of working while talking to myself. I mean— look, button it and shoo, would you? I’m very busy."

Jeff shrugged. “I thought you were done?”

Steph groaned fiercely, spinning her office chair fully around. “I am done! The work has been sent back already! I’m just busy with… other stuff.” She took her usual stern tone with him. Usually it was to keep him on task and stop goofing around, but for now she was legitimately stressed out.

“Hey, are you alright?” Jeff glanced around before leaning in a bit. “I don't want to sound nosy, but you've seemed on edge for a week now.”

I adopted a child this last weekend. Oh but she’s a magical pony robot, so she’s an even bigger handful. Steph kept the thought to herself, and forced herself to calm down. She was good at that, usually. “Yes, I’m fine, Jeff. Just focused on things.”

Jeff nodded along, sipping his coffee and peeking over Steph's shoulder at her screen while she spoke. "Mhhmm. Alright, well, I’ll get out of your hair in a second, but I didn’t just come over here to pester you."

Steph stopped short from facing her computer again.

“Oh, is it important?” She let a bit of sarcasm into her voice. Normally Jeff really did just swing by to simply pester her, like most of her other friends or co-workers did around the office, but Jeff also liked to act as the department’s own walking telegram service.

Jeff smirked. “You might say that…”

A long pause of silence passed between the two of them.

Steph sighed. “And?”

“Oh, of course.” Jeff gave another far too amused look. “The boss-lady has just handed out this month’s lucky picks for the partnered business programs. And just guess who got picked this time around.” He said the last bit with gusto.

Steph managed some laughter at how excited he seemed over his news. “Congratulations, Jeff, you deserve the responsibility.”

Jeff blinked, then shook his head. “Oh, uh, well I was actually referring to you, but now that you mention it I also got—”

“Me!?” Steph burst out, and brought a hand to her forehead.

Jeff nodded and gave another chuckle, albeit a nervous one. “You got it. But you know, most people are happy about opportunities like this. It might mean a raise or something is incoming.”

Steph’s breath caught, eyes widening a hair. “You’ve gotta be kidding me, Jeff. They’re sending me?” A moment later, and all sorts of realizations about her getting picked to travel around to different facilities, or maybe even different countries began pouring through her head.

“I’m not kidding, I promise!” Jeff tried to grin, but it wavered.

“But why me?” Stephanie groaned into her hands, already filled with dread and considering just how she could handle the situation. “Diana knows I have all of my animals to take care of!”

Jeff’s chipper look melted into a guilty one. “Weeell, I do know everyone else has marital priority or is on a project already…”

Stephanie couldn’t believe what she was hearing. “What? What about Penny?”

The gruff voice of a woman came from over an adjacent cubicle wall. “I’m still working on something until mid November, Steph!”

Steph tried again. “Uh, then how about Jeremy?”

Jeff paused before sipping his coffee. “Oh, he’s gone already. He’ll be back from his partnership in a few weeks. Hopefully he’ll be back in time to plan that big Halloween party he wants to throw.”

Steph felt a cold sweat forming on her brow, and her desperation building. “Well… what about you? You aren’t married. Why aren’t you going?” She jabbed an accusatory finger at Jeff for good measure.

It was at this moment that Jeff’s grin returned. “Ah! Yes, well, there’s a very good explanation for that question.” He then proceeded to stall.

Steph waited for the explanation for all of two seconds this time, a fire building in her eyes. “I swear to the Emperor of mankind, Jeff, I will pour that hot coffee down your pants if—”

Jeff took a step back and made a frantic steadying motion. “Alright alright! I’m just messing around.” He cleared his throat then, while also smartly straightening his tie with a hand. “The truth is, I’m going too.”

He gave her a broad, encouraging smile. “Isn’t that great?"

Steph blinked at him, not reciprocating his cheerful feelings on the matter. “What?” Her forehead wrinkled up. “That doesn’t make any sense. Why is Di sending two of us?”

Jeff let his grin fade, his feet shuffling slightly beneath him. “I think it’s just a big project or something. Buuut, at least it’ll go that much smoother with us as a team there.”

Steph held her head in her hands while somewhat tuning out Jeff, who continued to give her the details of the trip. Oh no, what am I going to do?

It was true, she usually got out of the tech contracts that required traveling on the virtue that she had animals to take care of. However, that was a large part of why she’d made Glados, who these days did most of the grunt work, and could take good care of them in her stead. So, on that front she was mostly taken care of.

But I don’t just have animals to worry about. Stephanie bit her lip, picturing in her head a certain child-minded robot that had literally exploded into her life. Sweetie can’t stay home on her own for that long! She can’t. Could she? No, so what can I do? A terrifying vision of her little robot's silhouette in the yard against the bright flames of her house burning down flickered in her mind's eye.

"Earth to Steph? Hello?" Jeff had leaned down, slightly in front of Steph. The look on her face seemed to transcend simply being a little inconvenienced, and into being upset. “Are you okay? You aren’t mad, are you?”

Steph flickered her gaze towards Jeff, while a small frown drew down one corner of her mouth. “Why does anyone ask that? ‘Are you mad?’” A thought about Sweetie Belle wandering around town to look for her entered her thoughts. That would raise questions.

Jeff adopted the look of a goldfish in a bowl.

Upon recognizing her friend’s legendary air-headedness, Steph sighed and fell back into her chair. “If someone is mad, don’t you think prodding them with questions would make it worse?” Another scene entered her mind—this time of poor Sweetie on a mechanic’s table in some government lab—and it further filled her with distress.

Jeff made a settling motion in front of himself. “Sorry, sorry. I just thought to maybe help you look on the brighter side of things.”

Stephanie rolled her eyes, and made a concerted effort to get a hold of herself. “Jeff, don’t apologize, you didn’t do anything wrong. I’m just... on edge. So I’m the one who's sorry. Anyway, I only meant that, to me, asking about something is the same as pointing it out.”

“Ah, noted.” Jeff stood there a moment, sipping his coffee, then hummed in understanding. “You know, I bet that’s why Penny always scowls at me when I’m not looking after I point out that her desk is a real mess...”

A voice shouted in answer over the near cubicle wall. “My area’s plenty clean, you cretin!”

This turn of events began an office wide ripple effect of others chiming in, laughing, and offering their own sage opinions.

Jeff chuckled mischievously at the calamity he’d sown, until he noticed that Steph was up and moving quickly. “Oh, where are you going?”

Steph had gotten up to head down the aisle during Jeff’s epiphany, and turned around mid-stride, but didn’t slow down. “To talk to Diana about this and request that I get out of it.” She saw Jeff raise a hand to interject, but didn’t slow as she rounded the corner.

I have a responsibility to Sweetie Belle. There’s no way I’m not getting out of this! Steph knocked on the door to her boss' office soundly.

I can’t believe I couldn’t get out of this.

Steph collapsed back into her desk chair, and muttered, “Great.” From the corner of her eye, she saw Jeff poke his head up and over her cubicle’s wall.

“How’d it go? Did you get off the hook?” He sounded a tad hesitant, or maybe despondent.

The firm ‘no’ from her supervisor echoed in Steph’s head.

More irritated than interested in talking, she flipped her hair over her face in an effort to hide her scowl. “No... I’m still stuck going. I guess it’s fine.” She let a groan slip. “I just need to make plans now.”

Stephanie poured over her options. Realistically they boiled down to two: leave Sweetie home alone, with just Glados to watch her, or take Sweetie half way across the country with her. There was a third option, to quit her job, but that wasn’t really an option.

“Pst, Steph, are you still awake under there?”

Stephanie pulled open a small window through her curtain of hair to peer out. “Huh?”

“I was just saying, since we’re stuck as partners for this… do you wanna get something to eat this week? Maybe? I mean, to plan things out, of course.” Jeff was wearing a fairly poor excuse of an expression that feigned innocence.

Waaait, did he just…? Steph lowered her hand from her hair and sat up in order to stare squarely at Jeff. Eventually, she asked, “Did you just ask me out?”

“Like on a date?” Jeff blurted. He must have been intimidated by Stephanie's stare, because he began shaking his head. “No! No no no… Yes.” He cleared his throat, and perhaps deepened his voice a bit purposefully. “Yes, I did,” he repeated.

Stephanie stared a moment more at him, a slight smile creeping up unbidden. “Wow.” A surprised laugh broke out of her. “I did not expect that.”

She looked up in time to see her friend’s look of mixed optimism and smoothness melt into one that was a bit more somber.

“Oh, no no no! I’m not saying no, Jeff I—” An image of Sweetie Belle barreling down her home’s hallway at a full run, galloped through her head.

Steph coughed and folded her hands neatly in her lap. “You just caught me off guard there, and I have a lot on my mind lately. So… well I don’t want to say no? And seem like I’m not interested? But... uh…”

I’m nervous? Why am I so nervous lately. Steph could feel her emotions and thoughts both floundering as the implications of everything caught up with her, resulting in a bit of stage fright.

“So it’s a bad time, is what you’re saying,” Jeff offered, along with a smile.

“Yes, I think it is.” Steph returned the smile.

“But it’s not a no?” Jeff tilted his head coyly, and his dark features adopted a wide grin.

Steph inhaled a deep breath, and turned her chair towards her computer deftly. “It’s an indefinite postponement,” she stated matter-of-factly, then added, “But not a no.” Should I say more? Maybe, I honestly had never even considered him as more than a… Actually, it’s probably a good thing I didn’t say that.

Steph cracked a smile, hoping it was reassuring and pleasant, and not as clumsy as it felt.

Jeff nodded back to her though. “I'll take that. Sounds good, Steph—” He barely finished before being interrupted.

The sound of an entire chorus of voices from around the large office room echoed through the air, coming from multiple co-workers.

“Boooo! Say yes to him!” and “So cold!” among other things filled the room for a brief, incredibly loud few seconds.

Steph sat there in shock as she realized the room had been uncharacteristically dead quiet a moment ago except for her and Jeff. A thick shade of crimson quickly climbed up her cheeks, hidden even quicker when she tried to hide her face behind both hands.

The sound of an engine rolling up the driveway made Sweetie’s ear motors twitch and swivel around for optimum efficiency.

“Steph? Steph’s home!” Sweetie cheered and nearly forgot to stop herself from leaping off the couch. Instead, she slowly rose, then carefully slid butt first off the too-tall and human-sized furniture. But she didn’t wait for Glados to help her like she’d been told.

Her trip to the door took far longer and was less efficient than normal thanks to her limp, but she arrived nonetheless.

“Steph! I saw a cinematic play about things called ‘muppets’ and—!” Sweetie halted as she came upon the front door to the home. She could see a person peering through the little window to the side of the door, but it wasn’t Steph.

A couple of loud knocks sounded on the door, next, and then the stranger returned to the window.

Sweetie head-tilted at the sight of the stranger. “That’s not Steph. Who is that?” She had expected her best friend, not whoever this was. Although, it did occur to her that others had sometimes been in the house before, in the past. Perhaps this was another of Steph’s friends, but one she had never met before, even before her change.

“Hello?” the stranger called out, and seemed to look around through the window as if searching. “Is someone in there?"

Sweetie called back without hesitation and waved her one good foreleg. “Hi! Who are you?” Ohhh yay, new person! Do I say something special? I’m so… excited!

The stranger at the door looked around, but when he saw no one at head level, he looked back at his clipboard. "I’ve got a delivery for a… Stephanie Speck.”

“Oh, Stephanie is not yet home! Depending on traffic she will be—” Sweetie Belle realized then that the stranger still hadn’t seen her. “Mister stranger-person, please direct your line of sight lower by thirty degrees! I’m down here.”

The man looked down. “Oh, whoa. You’re a robot.” He seemed either surprised or unsure of how to respond to such a discovery.

Sweetie grinned at the man, and proceeded to initiate her 'enthusiastic nodding' protocol.

The soft sound of machine gears turning crept up from behind.

“Sweetie Belle, please move back from the door.” It was Glados that had spoken.

Sweetie looked up to see Glados glide across the ceiling. She seemed poised to open the front door with one of the clawed grabby things she used to do stuff.

“Oh, affirmative.” Sweetie Belle did as she was asked and stepped back out of the way. Meanwhile, excitement continued to brim within her. After the door was opened, the stranger standing there seemed to look more and more enthused by the second, judging by the grin on his face.

“Wow, two of you. That’s so awesome. And I swear you guys look familiar. Are you from—”

A red beam shot out from Glados to scan a little badge adorning his front, and its barcode, then interrupted the man. “Delivery employee 415623, Dylan, acknowledged. My owner: Stephanie Speck, is not at home right now. This device is authorized to sign for her parcel. Produce necessary authentication paperwork, and pen, now.”

Sweetie Belle ceased staring at the stranger to frown at Glados. “Well that sure sounded rude, Glados! You didn’t even say please!” Sweetie felt like she was getting a good handle on voice inflections and the rudeness that could be taken from them in speech patterns. Humans were very perceptive to such things, and seemed to use them a lot, but Steph was teaching her all about it.

"O-oh." The stranger, Dylan, looked down at his tag, but answered Glados in stride. “Sure thing— Sorry, I'm new so I've never dropped off with a helper robot before.” He seemed to look around at all of the cats staring at him, then said, "Is she some old lady or something?"

"Stephanie's age is not pubic knowledge." Glados swiveled slightly to the left to look downward. “Sweetie, return to the couch, and do not interfere with my current directive.”

Sweetie frowned up at the other bot. Interfere? The couch? Still, she started to go and do as she was told. That was the right thing to do, she felt… but she stopped herself.

“I’m not ‘interfering.’ And he’s someone I’ve never met!” Rather than obey Glados, Sweetie stayed fast and stamped her good front hoof. “I just want to say hi, and talk to him, and ask him what his favorite food is, and color, and other stuff! I've never met anyone besides Steph before!”

Glados lowered herself further. “I won’t ask again, Sweetie. I have been instructed to tell Stephanie of any infractions on your part. As well as to impart punishment.”

Sweetie gasped. “Aw, come on!” She hadn’t considered that.

“Wow, maaan, this is awesome. I need some popcorn for this. Your owner must be a real basket-case to make you two say stuff like this.” The stranger began laughing hard, while also holding a clipboard with some odd paper on it out to Glados, who promptly took the offering and began to write upon the paper deftly.

Sweetie watched the exchange with interest, but head tilted toward the stranger. “Basket case?” She scanned her definitions quickly and what she found shocked her. “Steph isn’t crazy, she’s really brilliant! And smart! Why did you—”

In a very… bothersome fashion, the delivery man seemed to ignore her, instead speaking to Glados again.

“Hey, you look like a Star Wars robot, man. Are you like, one of the pilot robots? Wait, they were called droids, right?”

Sweetie Belle was about to ask why or how stars would have wars, but was beaten to the punch.

“I am Glados,” Glados replied plainly, and returned the clipboard. “You are instructed to leave the packages just inside the door. I will monitor them until… Oh, nevermind. Stephanie has arrived.”

The sound of a van’s engine and tire crunching on gravel turned the heads of the two machines and one thoroughly amused delivery man.

Sweetie Belle gasped and limped out past the new guy and onto the porch right away. “Steph! welcome home! We have a guest!”

Stephanie seemed to be taken by surprise, since she kind of jerked her head up from looking at the ground as she made her way to the front door. “Wha— Sweetie, you’re supposed to be inside! And— Oh, hello.”

Sweetie stopped at the top of the porch’s stairs and directed what she hoped was a disarming grin at Steph. “I-Inside? Oh... sorry, I was excited and just rushed out to—”

“Hello there. I set your delivery there by the door, and your machine in there signed everything.” Sweetie Belle frowned up toward the man in disbelief. She’d been so eager to meet new people, but this person kept interrupting her! Oddly, he seemed to be scanning Stephanie very thoroughly. Perhaps his sensors were broken? She wondered briefly how humans might get those fixed, but filed it away for later.

“Hey, I was still talking!” Sweetie Belle stepped in front of ‘Dylan’ the delivery guy. “I’ve studied that it’s polite to let others finish speaking before—! Huh?” She cut off, feeling herself be lifted from behind, and soon found that she was tucked under one of Steph’s arms.

“Sweetie Beeelle,” Steph whispered sweetly, “not now, please.” A quiet, unsettled sounding laugh made its way out of her.

“Lady, your robots are killer, I gotta say. My friend has this one that can do the macarena really good, but these two were hella interactive and sounded just like the real deal. What company, like, made them?” Dylan chuckled, and offered the clipboard again. “And did you wanna double check the signatures?”

“Oh no no, that won’t be necessary, it’s okay.” Steph waved off the clipboard. “If Glad— my helper handled everything then that’s fine, thank you.” She gave the man a quick wave while moving swiftly into the house. “And which company? I forget… It's been so long! There so old, you know? Old technology, yup. Hahaha. Well, have a great day now!”

“Oh, uhhh, okay. I guess you’re in a hurry, so, you too,” he answered back.

Sweetie caught the barest glimpse of the delivery man glower at her and Steph’s back, just as the door swung shut behind them both.

“Steph, wait, I still wanted to… well, I guess I don’t want to talk to him as much now.” Sweetie frowned while Steph set her down inside. “Hey Stephanie, are you okay? You’re acting strangely. Kind of like when you’re worried about something. What’s wrong?” She watched as Stephanie leaned against the door in apparent relief.

Glados wheeled past, welcoming her home as was usual.

“Steph?” Sweetie nudged her friend’s leg with a hoof.

Stephanie exhaled a deep breath, as if relieved, then knelt down and ruffled Sweetie’s mane.

Steeeph, stahpit! It’s not easy for me to fix it right with these hooves! And I can only use one right now.” Sweetie shuffled backward from the mischievous hand, and frowned upward. “What’s wrong with you?”

Steph laughed. “Sorry, Sweetie. And yeah, I guess you could say I’ve got a lot on my mind right now. But I was nervous a moment ago because I could have sworn I told you not to speak to strangers. Let Glados handle that stuff.”

Sweetie Belle blinked dumbly at Steph a moment, trying to recall such a thing. “What? No you didn’t!” she protested. “I would remember something like that. I mean, I’ve been wanting to meet someone new all week!”

“Really? I… huh. I think I’ve just been thinking a lot lately and I keep losing track of things.” Steph scratched a hand behind her head, perhaps thinking hard. “I must have had that conversation in my head.”

Sweetie hummed. “So, your memory is still malfunctioning bad, huh?”

“It’s not…” Steph cleared her throat. “I’m not malfunctioning, you, I’m just not equipped with a five terabyte SSD that somehow no longer obeys the laws of physics and holds five times that in data. And furthermore, I seem to recall someone here forgetting about the rule about wiping your hooves off if they go outside.”

Sweetie felt her back go rigid at the mention of that. “Heh, right… I said I was sorry though.” She found it difficult to look Steph in the eye, and searched the room for… something distracting instead.

Steph laughed again. “There was no harm done. Now, about strangers, and this one is very important, if you don’t know a person, Sweetie, you need to be wary of them, no matter the case, but especially in your position.” As she spoke, she picked up the big box by the door, and carried it towards the kitchen, where she set it down.

Sweetie Belle listened carefully as Steph spoke to her, taking in the explanation fully. “Oh… But how would I know who and when I could trust them?” She sat beside the box on the kitchen’s tiles.

Steph sighed, pulling at the large cardboard box’s tape as she spoke. “Trust is something gained over time, Sweetie. There’s no definite answer to that question, but I’ll explain more about it later. It comes down to your own judgement but… well I don’t want to scare you or anything with that stuff. For now, let’s get—”

“Wait, scared? Why should I be scared?” Sweetie wore a look of wariness, trying to understand.

“It’s not necessarily—” Steph paused in her efforts to open the box, only to be cut off.

“Because now I’m scared that I’m not scared, but should be scared! Scary things hurt! What do strangers—”

“Sweetie!” Steph grabbed Sweetie gently, but firmly by her shoulders. “It’s okay. You don’t need to be scared of anything, because I’m going to be with you. Alright? Does that make sense?”

“Oh.” Sweetie felt a comforting warm feeling in her chest at hearing the reassurance. “Yes, Steph, it does. And sorry that I raised my voice again…”

Steph chuckled. “As long as you aren’t singing at three in the morning, I think it’s alright.”

Sweetie gasped in excitement. “Whoo! I—”

The sound of a machine rolling down the hallway approached, followed by Glados addressing Stephanie.

“Sweetie Belle incurred three infractions of your home policy today, Stephanie. Two counts of animal harassment and one count of disobedience. There was no damage incurred otherwise.”

“Tattle-tail!” Sweetie jabbed her hoof up at Glados, then turned to Steph. “I learned that one on the television today.” She gave a little bit of laughter, hoping that would distract Steph from delivering a punishment.

“Mmhmm,” Steph hummed, and while wearing a smirk, too. “Thank you Glados, that’ll be all.” She watched the larger machine wheel away, then knelt down to Sweetie again. “I’ll overlook it this time, alright? Today’s a good day, after all. Now, let's see just what we've got over here in these boxes, shall we?”

Sweetie Belle’s worried look disappeared and she gasped in relief. Just after, Steph pulled open the shipping box.

The box popped open, and was filled with strange white kernals. Hundreds of them.

Steph spoke up again while she dipped her arms into the strange boxes. “Alright... Now, first thing I think we’ll do is see to your leg, and then—”

Sweetie Belle’s relief over being forgiven was forgotten, and she felt her eyes unfocus slightly, widening to their utmost.

Steph, meanwhile, kept talking. “—After that’s sorted we can… Sweetie, are you listening? Hello?” After a few seconds of silence, she snapped her fingers in front of Sweetie. “Hey, we’re repairing you, silly, don’t you want the details?”

“What are those?” Sweetie Belle came out of her daze, having heard nothing else.

A handful of the stuff was held up by Stephanie. “Packing peanuts?” she asked.

“I very much desire to jump in them.” Sweetie Belle could barely keep her motors from revving right there, even with Steph still in the way of what she had already marked as the landing zone.

Steph raised an eyebrow. “Oooh-kay… Maaaybe you should do that later, after your expensive parts are laid out. What do you say about waiting until after we fix you, hm? How does that sound? Heck, we need to find out if we even can, first.” She closed the box again, chuckling. “And I won’t allow you hurting yourself more.”

“Awww,” Sweetie moaned, and rotated her ears back to their saddest longitudinal position. It only lasted a moment, though, as the realization that her fresh new parts had arrived finally dawned on her. “Oh my gosh! They’re here? They’re here! I didn’t even think to think about what was in these boxes!”

Sweetie dashed as fast as she could, which amounted to an unsteady three-legged walk, toward the basement door. “Steph, let’s hurry!” Her friend had her hands full carrying one of the boxes, but caught up with ease. “I had approximately fifty-three more ideas for upgrades I want to tell you about! I got most of them from the TV, but some came to me while I was sleeping.”

“Easy there, Sweetie. We’ll get you fixed in no time.” Balancing the box on one knee, Steph opened the door with a free hand, watching as Sweetie slipped inside ahead of her. “As for those ideas, I'll be happy to look at the new ones, but I really don’t think those schematics for a method of flight are practical. Let’s stay ground-bound, okay?”

Sweetie Belle groaned as she limped down the stairs ahead of Steph. “Aaw!” She felt she’d gotten much better with stairs and walking in general over the last week, even with her injury. “Fine. But I have others you gotta look at!”

“Alright, Sweetie, but later.” Steph dropped the box on the nearest counter with a thump, and began laying pieces out. “For now, let’s get to work.”

Chapter 13 : Hooray Shopping!

View Online

October 9th Monday, late afternoon.


“St-Stop! Please! I can’t take anymore!” Sweetie Belle struggled fiercely and fought as if her life depended on it.

Steph grunted, one hand doing its best to hold down the filly-machine squirming atop the work table. “Sweetie, you— Watch it with the tail! Look, you gotta sit still; this is really delicate work that has to be done and I don’t want to have to tie you down if you don’t behave.”

“B-But it tickles!” Sweetie tried again not to thrash about, and harder to not laugh, but it was a struggle. Why do I have to be so ticklish? She groaned as she continued her fight against her desire to wiggle free.

“Well, try to ignore it. I don’t think there’s anything I can do about ticklishness in a robot.” Stephanie rolled her eyes at the mere thought of such a thing and stood up to relieve the neck pain of leaning over for twenty minutes.

She surveyed her work thus far.

The exchanging of the parts in Sweetie’s broken and numb leg had gone without a hitch. Once it was all set to be tested, however, Sweetie had found trouble trying to get her leg to move. As a result, Steph was now poking around the servo, trying to hunt down the issue.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, doing maintenance on Sweetie felt a lot different from how it used to, and even if Steph was still working on machine parts, she couldn’t shake the feeling she was instead performing a surgery that came with all the possible consequences of the former.

Reassuringly, the rest of Sweetie’s internal parts besides her leg seemed alright, at least lacking any breaks, bends or shattered circuits. This had made most of Steph's job a lot easier, even if she wasn't quite finished yet. After the leg, the worst of the damage was cosmetic stuff done to her paneling. Sweetie’s ears, most of her plating, and her face was chipped, scored or cracked open, and would need replacing to fully restore her cuteness.

Or, as Steph had in mind, upgraded, rather than just replaced.

Steph exhaled a tired breath and picked back up on Sweetie’s word game from before her giggle attack. “Alright, now what was the last equation you gave me?” She also got back to work.

Sweetie giggled, repeating, “The. Magic. is. great! And great is the sum while the, magic, and is are the summands.”

Steph scratched the side of her head abruptly, trying and failing to solve the alphametic puzzle while also working on her friend.

"Oh. Here we go.” Steph found something that should have been an obvious fix. I’ll just blame the word game… “There. It was a loose connection was all." Steph snapped a wire down, then wiped a bead of sweat from her brow. "Try moving your leg now, Sweetie."

Sweetie Belle sat up. "Okay!"

With little effort Sweetie proceeded to slightly bend her left foreleg a little. A smile grew as she lifted it up and down, then rotated it up one-hundred and eighty degrees. "Everything seems to work great, Steph! Thank you so much!" She looked up and poked her hoof at Steph in between some lingering giggles. "Although... it still feels numb in places. Like, on the outside."

“Hmm. Odd. I think, anyway.” Leaning over, Steph squinted her eyes and scrutinized Sweetie’s leg carefully. “Can you feel this?” She gave the leg a gentle poke with a finger.

Sweetie moved the leg in response, but she hadn’t felt anything directly. “Uh, kind of? I felt the pressure on my… shoulder, but not on the spot of contact.” A frown worked its way onto her face. “Steph, can you fix it? I don’t… I don’t think I like not being in control of something to do with me.” After thinking on it she couldn’t piece together precisely why, but the thought of losing full functionality in some way bothered her greatly.

Sweetie frowned, thinking on her newest feelings. Worry. Longing. Regret…

Steph easily saw the worry on her charge’s face, and began rubbing the robot’s leg in hopes of maybe working feeling back into it, or something. “Sweetie, while I look at this how about you try and focus on something else?”

Sweetie Belle winced, again trying her best not to move while Stephanie worked. “Something else? Like what?” she murmured.

With her tools already back in hand, Steph paused in rotating a screw in Sweetie’s leg. “Like… uhh… How about Glados. Did you talk to her about anything today?”

Sweetie Belle grumbled at the irony inherent to having a meaningful conversation with Glados. Still, she relaxed in the brief moment of respite. “Oh, a few things. Like I said before, she helped me plan out some new schematics of myself which I’d love for you to look at. And I know you didn’t like my great hang-glider idea, but I had an even better great idea for a jet pack!”

Steph blinked at that, but managed to keep her focus on task. “Jet pack?”

“A jet pack is like something called a backpack, which is a pack you wear on your back, but even better because it can make you fly!” Sweetie nodded thoughtfully, her brief bout of perkiness fading out once she recounted the rest of the boring monday afternoon. “That was fun, but I couldn’t figure out a viable means of production from available data or Glados. So, once I finished I was bored again...”

Steph looked up briefly, mostly concentrating. “Oh… uh, well, that’s… interesting, Sweetie… It’s probably for the best. Something like that wouldn’t be safe. I meant it when I said flying should probably stay on the idea backburner… indefinitely.”

The brief image of a rocket-powered robotic filly flitted through her mind, and she had to suppress a shudder.

“Weeell, okay.” Looking up, Sweetie studied Steph’s expression for a moment. An old thought occurred to her while she watched Steph work… and Sweetie adopted her best voice of pleading to yet again make what she considered to be a reasonable request. “Are you surrre I can’t come with you to work, Steph? I don’t like being cooped up here! I’ll be so quiet! And you said yourself no one will think I’m not just another machine if I meet anyone so please please pleeeease-please-please-please-ple—?”

“Sweetie.” Steph closed her eyes a moment, unable to withstand the sudden verbal barrage. “Come on, not this again. I’m sorry, but I can’t take you to work!” She chuckled nervously at the very notion, picturing her little trouble maker running amok at the office. “It… I just couldn’t keep an eye on you and still get work done… and that’s not to mention all the questions that people might ask about you if they did notice that you’re… you’re…”

“Special?” Sweetie finished.

Steph cleared her throat. “Yes, that you’re special. For a robot, I mean… you know, that you’re different from others… Well, we’ve been over this already. Even though nobody would in all likelihood think twice about you, taking you with me to work just wouldn’t be… reasonable.” She could feel her foot struggling to enter her mouth everytime she broached the subject of Sweetie’s state of being with her. It wasn’t something she felt particularly qualified to talk about; certainly not in a reassuring way.

Over on the table, Sweetie watched the shifts in Steph’s features carefully. It was easy to tell she was really nervous about the subject of her existence in relation to other people, and machines.

“Okay,” Sweetie answered dourly. “But if I can’t go to work, what about somewhere else? Like a park? Or an institution of learning like a school? I saw one on television earlier.”

Steph hummed, pausing to swap her current tool for another nearby one. “Well, maybe…”

Sweetie was getting better at judging Steph’s personality, and the moment she saw an opening in her friend’s defenses, she attacked.


“Alright! We’ll go somewhere soon. I promise.” Steph couldn’t stop her grin, and chose to hide that grin behind a hand before setting back to work. “Now hold still, I think I’ve got something here.”

“Hurray! Well, then we should visit—” Sweetie gasped, cutting her idea pitching short. “Oh! Steph! I felt something! I can feel my leg’s paneling now! What’d you do?”

“You did?” Steph held back further objections, and instead gripped her hand around Sweetie’s leg again. “How’s this? What did you feel?”

Sweetie squinted her eyes, as if trying to think of something. “Uh… it… feels weird?” She tossed her head and mane. “It’s… like tingling, but also sharp and pointy? Ow! But all over! Ah!”

“Whoa, easy, Sweetie!” Steph barely had time to steady Sweetie with a hand on her back.

“But it stings!” Sweetie tried thumping her leg on the table to make it cease tingling, but she did at least stop moving when Steph held her again. “And now my whole leg feels like tingling, not just where you were pressing! I guess it isn’t too bad but make it stop please!”

“I’m sorry, Sweetie, I’m thinking, but I just don’t know what to do or… wait.” Steph frowned, then smirked. “You said it’s an annoying tingling?”

Sweetie looked up with her saddest eyes and nodded vigorously. “Ahuh!”

Steph started to laugh in spite of herself.

Sweetie looked up with sadness on her face. “Why are you laughing?” She suddenly felt a strange, but somewhat familiar pressure around her eyes, too. It was different from the ghostly prickling in her leg. Her only consolation was that neither of the sensations seemed to be too awful.

Steph managed to calm down to reply to calm Sweetie down. “Aw, it’s okay I think, Sweetie. Pins and needles. It’s just pins and needles.”

“Huh?” Sweetie pressed her prickly leg against the metal table hard, which seemed to lessen the feeling, but it still wouldn’t go away completely. She gave it a couple thunks, too. “Needles? I see no thin metal tubes, Steph! Though I don’t think those wouldn’t be any danger to me… Would they? Then again, for some reason they do make me nervous...”

“It’s an expression, Sweetie. Uh, I don’t know the technical term, but pins and needles is a sensation that people can get. But why did you feel it?” Steph crossed her arms and shrugged. “I still don’t really understand what we’re dealing with where your body’s concerned.”

“Ohhh.” Sweetie nodded in understanding as she located the term of what she felt in her dictionary. “Another word for it is paresthesia. Interesting.” She looked up with interest at Steph, smiling with relief at the same time. “So I’m okay then?” As if on cue, the sensation in her leg all but vanished.

Steph patted the soft synthetic mane atop Sweetie’s head. “I think you’ll be fine, Sweetie. Just let me know if it changes.”

“I will!” Sweetie let out a breath, or a fake one, anyway, but it had the same effect that it seemed to when Steph did it.

“Okay, now that the crucial part is taken care of, are you okay to get the rest of you worked on?” Steph paused wearing a thoughtful, unsure look. “Now, I’m not sure if you need time to heal…? Or something? But usually when I’m working on a project I sorta get on this kind of roll and just keep working until finished.”

Sweetie giggled. “Whatever you want to do, Steph. I don’t get tired much, so I’m fine with it!” She liked when Steph talked about work, or was eager to do something. It always seemed like when she was at her happiest.

“Alright, awesome.” Steph smiled, thrilled to keep going. “So then for your outside we’re going to replace all of your old plating, and that way it’ll match your shiny new leg!” She gave the leg a poke and was reward with a giggle out of Sweetie for it. “And we’re also going to replace all of the parts around your— Uhm, well I was going to say upper chassis, er, I mean your head, but—”

Steph paused at the topic, realizing she hadn’t yet thought of a clever way to broach the subject to her infant A.I. companion.

“You’re going to replace my face!?” Sweetie stared wide-eyed, then smiled. “Awesome! But how come? Is it not still functional?”

Steph’s worried look evaporated. She let out a deep breath she’d taken suddenly. “So you’re okay with it? And this was going to be a surprise. I just needed to first find out whether replacing things would work on you, and since they apparently do and it seems safe... well, trust me, I think you’ll like this when I’m done. Do you want to do it?”

Sweetie hummed, thinking on it. She had looked at herself in a mirror a couple times, but she felt more inclined to be cleaned and fixed up than stick with her damaged parts. “Well, I agree that I do think I really like surprises…” She could already feel her excitement building. “Okay, Stephanie, let’s do it!”

Steph smirked. “Alright, first we’ll do the necessary part of getting this plating off of you. Just let me know if you feel anything painful, okay, Sweetie?” She wiped a bead of sweat from her brow as she started to remove the first screw.

“Okie dokie!” Sweetie chirped. It felt right to sound confident and carefree. After a moment, she realized she felt that way as much for her own sake as she did for Steph’s. Even if it was Steph working on her, she was still undeniably worried on the inside over matters of her being.

Sweetie tried not to sound nervous while listening to Steph once again working, although this time where she couldn’t see. “S-So far it just sorta tickles a bit…”

“Good,” Steph replied simply, and kept on working, but obviously not picking up on the nervousness from her patient.

The silence in the air began to stretch on. Sweetie’s eyes roamed the room in an effort to distract herself while the tension seemed to build more and more. She could see Steph’s concentrated look in the corner of her eye, so the thought of singing to lighten the mood was put to rest.

“Everything alright?”

Sweetie almost jerked away at the sound of the sudden question. “Wha— It’s fine! I’m fine. Uhm, it just feels… a little weird.”

Sweetie scrunched her eyes closed, thinking on how to describe what the procedure felt like. She wasn’t sure of the vagueness of the word weird’s appropriateness, but it functioned well enough.

“Doesn’t hurt?” Steph asked again, confirming.

The clink of another screw and a battered plate of metal being set on the table made Sweetie’s ears twitch. She tried looking to the side to see it, but couldn’t quite catch it.

“N-No… It doesn’t.” Sweetie tried to think of a good descriptor for the screws that were being taken out of her face. “Actually, it just feels kinda scratchy?”

Steph leaned forward momentarily to look Sweetie in the eyes while wearing a calm and reassuring expression.

“That doesn’t sound too bad. Anyway, you’re doing great. Try to bear with this a little longer.”

Sweetie returned the smile with what she hoped was something bordering on confidence. “You can count on me!” After a moment, she added with earnest gratitude, “Thanks, Steph. For all the help and stuff you do for me.”

Steph tittered in response, but it sounded a little nervous as she finally removed the front face plate. “You’re welcome, Sweetie. I mean, what are friends for? One moment while I get your new parts. Don’t move too much.”

Sweetie grinned, but otherwise stayed still. “Ohhh, an old saying and a rhetorical question. Do I answer it, or do I think on its deeper meaning? Or maybe I should give a rhetorical answer?”

Steph blinked into space a moment after that one. “Uh, I can’t really say for sure about that.”

“Ah-hah!” Sweetie’s cameras swiveled up to look at Steph. “You fell into my trap. That, too, was a rhetorical question, Steph. Hehe.”

“Heh. R-Right. Good one. Now, I’ll be right back with the next part.” Steph cleared her throat while she stood, and hurried off toward the far side of the basement where the massive box filled with parts and packing peanuts was sitting.

Sweetie hummed. What was that look for? Before Steph had stood, Sweetie could have sworn she’d seen her friend flinch. She turned around to watch as Steph knelt and began digging around in the box.

Sweetie tilted her head idly, thinking. Was it because I—

A strange sight in Sweetie’s peripheral vision registered to her, and she swung herself to face it.

Staring back at her from the largest monitor on the wall was the most terrifying thing she’d ever seen. Which was interesting, as she hadn’t really seen scary before, just felt it. Still, she recognized the feeling in what she saw and wasted no time thinking about her fright in order to react appropriately.

“AH!” With a scream Sweetie stood in a flash, hooves banging on the metal tabletop, then stumbled backward in short order. The panicked movement put her hind legs over the edge and her front leg motors started to whir loudly as they struggled to hold her up.

“Steph! Help!” Even as the ceiling lights danced in Sweetie’s unstable vision, she felt soft hands grip her sides and lift her up onto the table.

“Sweetie, are you okay? What happened?” Steph grunted slightly as she lifted her still somewhat flailing friend.

Sweetie didn’t stop kicking until her hooves clanged onto the table again.

“I’m sorry, Steph. I looked over at that big computer screen over there and— AH!” She stumbled backward again, but this time into Steph’s front. She turned away instinctively to hide from something so scary, but stopped. Instead she stared in confusion at what she finally deduced was actually her reflection.

Steph leaned down quickly and hugged Sweetie. “Hey, it’s okay. It’s just you. See?”

Sweetie could hardly believe it, but nodded to her friend absently. “So this is what I really looked like?” She frowned, surveying herself, and goggled at the freakiness of her own appearance that was apparently underneath her covering.

“Sooorta?” Steph paused, trying to think of responses that were both diplomatic and reassuring, but without sugar-coating things too much. “Sweetie, we all have different sides to ourselves that others never see. Figuratively and literally… In your case, you have the unique ability to actually see underneath, whereas most creatures that aren’t machines can’t without being hurt.”

Steph frowned, unhappy with leaving it at that. “But, hey, it’s what we have on the inside that counts.” Sweetie turned to look at her, one eyebrow gizmo raised. “Uhm, well, not the literal inside… I mean, like, our metaphorical inside. What defines us is our character, not what we were born as. Just remember that you’re you, and there’s nothing wrong with that.”

Sweetie Belle nodded dumbly, trying to understand the familiar explanation and what she was discovering about herself. “Oh. I see.” She remembered her own research in addition to Steph’s informative lectures. A machine, like her, wasn’t as at risk in the same ways like so many others where maintenance was concerned.

Although, rust was apparently a thing she really needed to watch out for.

“Okay,” Sweetie responded simply, but wasn’t sure of what else to say. “I understand, Steph… Thank you.”

Steph watched her robotic charge while feeling some worry over the way she stared at herself in the monitor so quietly. Still, Steph couldn’t help but smile from the thought of what Sweetie’s reaction would be after all was said and done. She waited for Sweetie for a full minute to maybe stop staring at herself.

Finally, Steph let out a sigh, saying, “I’m gonna go get your parts then, Sweetie. I think you’ll like what I’ve got in store. After the big stuff, the rest of your casing should only take a few minutes to switch out.” When another answer didn’t come, she rolled her eyes again and set back to work. “Oh, uhm, some of these might not be compatible, but I’m pretty sure they’ll work. Just bear with me. I sorta ordered anything custom online I could find that might fit the bill with—”

Sweetie sort of zoned out while Steph once again left to fetch her parts, then stayed that way well into the work that was being performed on her. She heard Steph explain that the changes would be really nice and add more functionality which excited a part of her to no end, and yet she didn’t respond in a way that would be telling of such emotions.

On the bright side, Sweetie did find the rest of the maintenance far more interesting now that she had found a sort of front row view to all the action. On top of that, the trepidation she’d felt about her under-chassis disappeared about halfway through the work, and was replaced by the more familiar sense of wonderment at seeing something new.

“What’s this?” Sweetie blinked as Steph began lowering something over her still exposed inner workings. She paid close attention as Steph hooked up new connections, and small motors her old face hadn’t even had before buzzed to life.

"Hold on, not done yet."

Little green lights blipped to life in her mind’s eye.

“Hey Steph, is this the upgrade you mentioned?” After she spoke, Sweetie was stunned as her new parts reacted to her speaking towards the end of her sentence; it was completely unlike how her old face had worked at all. And she liked it. Whatever was different about these new parts, it was a good kind of different. “Huh?” She reached a hoof up and poked at the new movement she could detect there.

“Hey, no touching. I’m not done yet.” Steph chuckled as she lightly swatted away a metal hoof from colliding with her pliers. “Just hold your horses.”

Sweetie blinked and acknowledged with a quiet ‘uhhuh’. The sophisticated movements that her new face seemed capable of in the computer screen's reflection looked very, very close to those that Stephanie herself could pull off…

“Awesoooome.” Sweetie knew it would interfere with Steph’s work, but for the remainder of the work she giggled uncontrollably and made silly faces at her reflection in the monitor.

Sweetie galloped about the house from one end to the other, occasionally stopping to poke at her new plating or admire her newly shiny self in a mirror.

Steph, meanwhile, had something else on her mind. She sat at the kitchen’s bar-counter and flipped through tech articles on her tablet with one hand while sipping a much needed mug of coffee with the other. Occasionally, her gaze would stealthily slide towards the door, contemplating how she could make a getaway from ‘Stephanie-time’ to run some shopping errands.

I spent all of my free time over the weekend, and most of the week before that, with Sweetie. It’s no surprise most normal things like getting food have completely slipped my mind. Steph smirked at the thought. But really, in my defense, how often does a person have to drop everything normal in their life in order to help a newly arrived magical-being suddenly staying in their house? Not very often I’m willing to wager. Gosh, it is so weird to think about how I'm the first and only person to ever even be in this situation.

Steph frowned and wiped a hand down her face. Still can’t believe that even when I remind myself of it. What is my life coming t—

“Hm?” The sudden feeling of something wrapping itself around her leg made Stephanie look down.

“Hi.” Sweetie Belle grinned up at her friend, and it really was a grin now thanks to her upgrade. “Thanks again, Steph, this is great!”

“Heh, no sweat.” Steph reached down and affectionately ruffled Sweetie’s mane.

Sweetie stuck out her tongue and wiggled away from the attention. “So now that I’m fixed up, wanna play some games? I’ve been reading about so many! We didn’t have any at first, but while you were at work today I fashioned some rudimentary lawn darts—”

“Whoa, hold on, Sweetie, I need to step out for a bit, first.” Did she say lawn darts? Better make a note of that. Steph frowned as she set her coffee mug in the sink, then muttered, “I hate leaving you alone like this… I dunno how this upcoming business trip is going to work out…”

“What was that, Steph? I only caught a bit of what you said.” Sweetie stood up on her hind legs to rest one forehoof on her friend’s leg. “Is business trip a game like Monopoly? They sound about the same.”

“Uh-h, no, Sweetie, it’s just…” Steph swallowed, and said the first thing to come to mind. “I was just getting ready to go to the mall, and—”

Sweetie’s gasp was sudden enough and loud enough that every animal in the room quieted its chittering to stare at the loud pair talking in the kitchen. “The store!? Ohmygosh can I go? Please!” Before even she realized it, she was pleading while hugging Steph’s leg. “I want to go see news things so bad!”

Steph cut off her return chuckle. “Hey, whoa, ow, easy there, Sweetie!” She knelt down and rubbed where she was certain she’d be getting a bruise soon. “Yikes, you gotta wait and get a feeling for your own strength. Those new parts are— wow.”

Sweetie zoomed and unzoomed her vision on where she’d hugged. “Oh, sorry Steph.”

“It’s okay. Now, feel free to roam around the house and get a feel for things while I’m gone, aaand I’ll be right back in a jiffy with—” Steph had begun casually walking towards the front door, perhaps unrealistically hopeful of her chances of making a getaway… but stopped with a sigh as soon as Sweetie rushed back in front of her, blocking the door.

“Oh! Ohooh! Steph, no, please let me come with you! Please!” Sweetie couldn’t contain her excitement at the prospect of seeing some of the things she’d seen on Mr. TV.

Steph raised a hand, effectively cutting off Sweetie in return. “Sweetie, we’ve talked about this. I’d really rather you didn’t.” The pout that lept onto Sweetie’s face and her crossed forehooves caught Steph off guard.

“Hang on! Yeah we have talked about it, and you said it would probably be fine, and the biggest reason I couldn’t go with you was because I was damaged, and I’d be a hassle at your work! But you aren’t going to work, I’m fully repaired, and this is just a place of communal purchase for creature comforts, appliances, and or other day to day needs! I should be allowed to accompany you!”

Steph blinked for a moment, but her stern look had remained. “Now hold on, it still isn’t—”

“No buts!” Sweetie jabbed a hoof at her friend.

“But it could be dangerous!” Stephanie plead back.

Sweetie stomped a hoof. “No. Buts.”

Stephanie felt her chest tighten, trying to come up with a response that would win this argument for her.

Stephanie tried for a good ten seconds to stare down the foot and a half tall filly glaring daggers at her, but in the end, she said...

“Alright, I’ll go get the van keys…”


Sweetie was seated in the van in a fashion vaguely mirroring Stephanie’s posture. Unlike Steph, she was busy looking every which way out of the windows at the landscape rushing by. The only thing holding Sweetie in place despite her excited movement was the ‘seat-belt’ fastened in place over her front.

“Wow! So much green! So much blue!” In the rearview mirror, Sweetie caught sight of Steph smiling to herself while driving. She leaned as far forward as she could, and addressed her friend.

“I know the Earth is seven thousand nine-hundred and seventeen and a half miles in diameter, but right now it feels like the world goes on forever! I’m glad I managed to cajole you into taking me with you on this trip, Steph. Seeing the outside is way-way better than just looking at pictures and reading about it.”

“I guess I take it for granted, but your excitement over this little trip for groceries and electronic supplies is giving me a pretty good idea.” Steph glanced back at Sweetie with a grin. “I’m a little surprised you’re this eager again to go exploring though. Just a couple of days ago I could still find you hiding under the bed during the day.”

Sweetie shifted uneasily in her seat and looked down at the floor of the vehicle. She tried immediately to think of something other than the fact she was in a large, fast moving object the likes of what had hurt her a week prior.

“W-Well I’m better now... so… So, this is actually kind of a dermal outer-layer, huh?” Sweetie laughed nervously as she changed the subject. “It’s almost like what you have, right?” She rotated her front hooves around the outside of her face in slow circles, still testing it out. “It feels so weeeird and mooshy.”

Stephanie made an unsure face, but chuckled at Sweetie’s antics. “Well, not exactly like what I have, but it’s the best stuff the market has to offer right now and it’s way better than what I’d had you set up with before. With the robotics revolution going on there are a lot of cool advancements coming out every day. And are you sure you’re alri—”

“This new acrylonitrile butadiene styrene casing smells funny…” Sweetie wrinkle her new snout where Stephanie could see in the rear-view for visual emphasis. “I like the carbon fiber base, though. I can already tell it’s much tougher than the last casing.”

“Oh? I still don’t understand how you can smell anything without a nose… a real one, I mean. And let’s tone down on the big science words while we’re out in public, hm?”

“Affirmative! Phew.” The subject successfully changed, Sweetie let out a faux breath—it was habit at this point—and turned her gaze back to the window. Sweetie glanced away from the scenery flickering by in the van window. “Shall I refer to it more simply as my new polymer chassis casing, then?”

“Heh, sure, Sweetie.” Steph gave Sweetie another glance in the mirror, then shrugged.

The two drove in silence a ways, until Sweetie noticed that more and more vehicles were appearing on the road. “This really is a lot of automobiles… cars… trucks… traffic,” she whispered. “Increasing exponentially in number.” She had been able to deal with just one or two passing them occasionally, and riding in one… After she’d gotten used to the sight she’d even stopped tensing up. But this was a lot to handle.

Once they took an exit off the larger road, they seemed to enter what her memory informed her was a densely inhabited city due to the number of buildings and shops everywhere.

“Sweetie, are you alright? You look spaced out.”

“Huh?” Sweetie jerked her head forward, and found Steph craned around in her seat and looking back at her. They had stopped in the middle of the road of all things, and there were even more vehicles criss-crossing the road just in front of them. Her eyes darted over the scene, spotting a series of red lights hanging above the road and more traffic stopped across the street.

Stop-lights… so this is normal, okay, sure. “Acknowledged, Unit Sweetie is functional. Systems are optimal.” Normally, she was quite embarrassed when her programing leaked out like that, but she was too tense currently to care much.

Sweetie glanced out the side window again, then flinched as a massive vehicle with a door taller than a person and towing a huge trailer pulled up alongside them. “B-Battery level at nine thousand and eighty-nine percent, processo—”

Steph’s unsure look took on a quality of understanding. “Hey, easy. It’s okay to be scared, Sweetie.”

“It is?” Surprised, Sweetie blinked at her friend.

“Yeah.” Steph turned around after returning a quick smile. “But just remember, sometimes you gotta face those fears to move past them.”

Sweetie smiled and looked back out the window, feeling reassured.

“Steph’s right, I just gotta… Oh, come on!” Another giant truck pulled up alongside them, and this one was towing even more, smaller vehicles on its back.

Sweetie groaned and opted to put her forehooves over her eyes. I’ll face it later… yup. Procrastination is my friend.

“Oh my gosh. Is that it?” Sweetie struggled to stand up against her seat-belt, and pressed her face up against the cool window glass to peer outside at the immense building.

Steph nodded. “Haha, yup, that’s the mall. Biggest one in the state, too, I think. The mall revival rush in 2020 really caught everyone off guard… Anyway, it has some great robotics and accessories departments. Uggh, I used to love coming here as a little kid with my parents… But they got rid of my favorite restaurant over a decade ago. What was it called, again? Kahuma-mille? No... it was more like—”

Sweetie sorta tuned Steph out, taken in completely by the view. They had passed a bunch of absurdly scaled structures already as they drove further into the cityscape, and many looked as if they could house thousands of humans, or tens of thousands of Sweetie Belles.

Sweetie imagined the latter was far less likely, since she was supposed to be pretty unique according to Steph, but the thought of so many of herself did make her lean off the window and tap her chin in thought.

The sudden stopping of the van, and the fact that Steph was hopping right out, brought Sweetie back out of her imagination.

“Steph, wait for me!” Sweetie leaned down and fumbled at the seat belt buckle with her hooves. Unfortunately, they were too clunky to depress the release sufficiently. “Errr, this is most inefficient.”

The arm reaching around her made short work of the buckle with a welcome click, and right after she was being lifted out onto the pavement of what she identified quickly as a parking lot.

Sweetie frowned the whole way through the air. “Hmph, I need to modify these hoof things and pronto.” She shot them a quick glare, then looked up to see Steph snickering at her. “Stoppit! It’s not nice to laugh at others, Steph!”

Infuriatingly, Steph only laughed harder. “I know, but you’re cute when you’re upset. And friends can laugh at each other a little bit.” She kneeled down and gave Sweetie’s mane a ruffle.

“I guess… ugh, friendship is complicated.” Sweetie recalled the detailed explanation of the term that described interpersonal interactions, as well as all the seemingly contradictory nuances Stephanie explained on a daily basis.

Steph winked, and stepped off briskly down the parking lot lane. “You’ll get the hang of it. Now, come on, we don’t want to hang around out here all day. And stay close.”

Sweetie had almost forgotten where she was, and looked up at the building looming over them with awe as she walked in a trance behind Steph. She also started taking note of all the different people that were walking to and from the building, too.

“Eeee!” The excited sound that leaked out of Sweetie was a new one to hear, but she could tell right away what it was.

Her excitement was at such a level that it almost made her suffer a terrible lapse in judgement.

“Whoa! Wait, Steph!”

Stephanie jumped half a foot, her hand even leaping up to her heart. “Wha—! What’s wrong?"

Sweetie frowned and jabbed a hoof out across the last street separating the lot and the mall. “We need to look both ways before crossing!”

“Oh. Right...” Steph chuckled and watched as Sweetie did an exaggerated reenactment of her teachings about looking both directions down a road. “All safe?”

Sweetie stood up straight, and nodded straight ahead. “The way is clear! Let’s proceed, Steph.”

Steph followed, feeling something welling up inside her akin to pride.

Steph paused at the door to the mall. “Sweetie, hold up,” she called ahead of herself.

“Hm?” Sweetie’s eyes reflected her excitement back at her in the huge glass entryway of the mall as she stopped before it. She clambered up and gave the door a light push, like the screen door at home, but it didn’t budge. “Wow. Heavy…” She looked up and down at the door again, this time doing less admiring and more evaluating. Her eyes scanned its material and promptly gave her an estimated solution for the force she’d need.

Steph suppressed more giggles as she watched Sweetie fail to open the door. At least she’d stay put while she got a quick reminder on her rules. “Now remember, what don’t we do in public?”

Sweetie paused in her next attempt at opening the great big door before her and sighed as she sat down on the pavement. She adopted a rigid posture and recited the rules Steph had drilled into her on the way there. “No talking to strangers. No wandering off. No excessive shows of strangeness. No touching things. No breaking things. No running. No magic, not that I ever want to try that stuff again... and… uh…”

“And have fun.” Steph chuckled and uncrossed her arms as she reached for the door.

“Have fun!” Sweetie cheered, and charged towards the mall entrance. “How could I forget the most important rule!”

The door gave way and thumped loudly as Sweetie jumped into it with both forehooves stretched out, then banged louder as it careened inside into the wall.

“Whoa, Sweeti— Oh my God.” Steph put a hand over her eyes, then double-taked. She had expected her little robot to hurt herself trying to open the heavy door, not hurt the door itself. “Hey, come back here! Remember rules two and six!”

If Steph was thankful for anything, it was that on a Monday evening there was almost no one at all in the mall. That certainly made keeping sight of Sweetie Belle as she looked to and fro at the various shops a pretty easy job.

“Wow, so that’s a movie theater. I wonder if they’re playing Iron Gia—”

“Halt, unidentified machine detected.” A burst of static and a few numbers were blurted and followed up the demand. “Please reply in kind.”

Sweetie had stopped in her tracks, and peered up curiously at the source of the voice. “Hal? Is that you?” Some strange information scrolled across her vision, data that was apparently translated from the staticky sound the voice had also made. Her processor seemed to know what it was, but Sweetie herself was out of the loop.

A spherical glass shape protruding from the wall, and an adjacent speaker was what had made the voice and transmitted the weird data.

“Negative. The speaker represents security for this premises. Please identify yourself.” More static followed, and this time Sweetie saw more data that matched what it was saying.

“I’m Sweetie! Hi there—”

“It’s okay, tin can, she’s with me.” Steph sighed as she caught up to Sweetie, and quickly swiped her Driver’s license over the mall cam’s oculus, letting it scan the barcode.

“Acknowledged!” The wall beeped, then flashed a green light. A strip of paper began printing out from a receptacle also in the wall. “Please, have a good day, and enjoy your stay at the mall, Ms. Speck.”

“Yeah, yeah.” Steph sighed as she slowly led Sweetie away, a hand near her back guiding her towards a nearby wall. She chuckled, attempting to sound lighthearted, as they moved “Hey, you, I told you not to rush ahead like that.”

“I’m sorry, Steph. I got a little carried away there…” Sweetie blinked repeatedly, trying to shake away the scrolling text the wall-eye’s funky noise had created in her vision. How do I turn this off…? And what was that all about? The data seemed to be a repeated request for identification of some kind, but she didn’t know what to do about.

"Steph, I think I need to get my visual sensors looked at.. Hold on, I'm restarting them."

"Whoa-stop, look out for that—” a loud clang sound bounced off the wide hall’s surroundings. “—bench..."

Stephanie sighed, and took a seat on the bench next to Sweetie. “Are you okay?”

“Affir— Yes, I’m okay. Just a little confused, actually. Who was that?” Sweetie blinked more as her vision returned, and rubbed the sore spot on her face. Thankfully, the scrolling data was gone and she could see unobstructed again.

Steph smirked. “Good, and that—” She held up the scrap of paper in her hand, “—was just mall-security. This is your identity receipt saying you’re mine while we’re in here. I’ve never brought a robot to a public place like this before, so I’d forgotten they started doing that. Sorry, Sweetie, that was my fault back there.”

“Oh.” Sweetie stared up at the piece of paper, then clambered up onto the bench alongside Steph to get an even closer look. “That makes sense, because other machines aren’t aware like me, and they’re just things.” She nodded to herself, making sense of it. Lost property needed an owner or property to be returned to, after all.

Steph let out a pensive sigh. “Yes, correct, Sweetie. Look I’m really sorry about this. We can go back home right now if it makes you uncomfortable or—”

Sweetie jerked her head up, eyes widening. “What? No! Go? But we just got here, Steph! You said you’d absolutely show me that funny store with all the antiques and vintage electronics you talked about!”

“So you’re not upset?”

“Nope. I mean, I know I’m different, and you know I’m different, and who cares what anyone that isn’t properly informed of our current status thinks?”

“...Very true.” Steph had to actively suppress that funny welling sensation of pride reappearing in her chest. She surveyed the desperate look in Sweetie’s eyes, and had to smile at how earnest she was about staying. Whatever the case, she was also extremely glad Sweetie hadn’t turned out upset over the incident.

“Alright then, down you go!” Steph energetically stood up, and swooped Sweetie, despite her considerable forty or so pounds of now mostly metal.

“Whee!” Sweetie held still as Steph’s arms wrapped around her own middle and deposited her on the ground. “Again!”

Steph chuckled. “Maybe later. Now, come on we’ve got a lot to see and I have errands to run, too.” She let out a breath and she took up a steady pace alongside Sweetie, and quietly thanked nothing in particular that things were staying simple.

“Alright! Then I want to go see a Roboticist’s store, first!” After a passing glance at the mall-map, Sweetie veered toward the direction of said store. "I bet there will be so many intelligences there to talk to!"

“Oh. Good, we’ll get those parts for Hal bought first, then.” Steph silently uttered another prayer to anyone that might be listening. And, after a moment, she uttered one to anypony that might be listening, too.

“Whooooa.” Sweetie stared up at the other robot standing before her… and up, and up, and up. “What’s your name?”

The gigantic robot's head craned downward until its own eyes and soft expression locked with Sweetie's. “Hello, little bird. I am designated android sixteen, and I am for sale as a house-work assistance model. If you wish to know my full list of capabilities, please ask. It is nice to meet you.” The giant robot’s gears and servos audibly whirred as its legs bent enough that it could hold out a hand gingerly towards Sweetie.

“Bird? I’m not a bird. I’m Sweetie Belle!” Sweetie raised an eyebrow at both the mandroid, his outstretched hand, and then at Steph, who for some reason was giggling up a storm from where she stood, over by a rack of ram.

“It is good to make your acquaintance, Sweetie bird.”

“Seriously?” Sweetie half frowned, half pouted this time. “Steph, are you over there laughing because of another case of friendly schadenfreude? And what’s this guy talking about? Or even doing?”

Steph cut of her laughter quick with a cough, but her grin remained. “Sorry… and he wants to shake your hoof, Sweetie.”

“But why would he— Oh, it’s a polite sign of greetings!” Sweetie smiled, and promptly accepted the gesture, though she was still unsure as to why Steph had been laughing so hard. “Nice to meet you, sixteen.”

“Affirmative, little duck.” The android smiled down at her as he stood again, and resumed his stance at the head of the aisle.

“Hmph. Not a duck...” she muttered to herself.

Looking elsewhere for more intrigue, Sweetie hummed and trotted off in search around the store. “Going over to the designer parts section, Steph!”

“Okay, I’ll be here. Uh, excuse me, sir, but do you guys carry anything like server strength pa—”

Steph had told her that she could wander about the store and look at everything, surprisingly, so long as she stayed within said store. Sweetie guessed the assumption was that it wasn’t so large that they would get separated.

That, or Steph has a lot of faith in this tracking device in my leg panel she forgot to mention to me. A ways off, Sweetie found an aisle that sported every sort of optical sensor and custom lense there must be in the world. Wow! Shiny! Impressive. Dazzling.

Another person walked around her—and without even saying hello!—and was followed closely by a shiny looking copper-plated robot that seemed to be carrying her bags.

“Hurry up you bucket of bolts. We’re going to be late! Oh, my goodness that is just the cutest little machine right there! So adorable.

The bag robot responded flatly. "Of course, madam."

“Hmph.” Sweetie turned her nose up at the woman scurrying away towards the entrance. “Super rude. If that was me then I’d… make her carry her own bags. Yeah.” The thought of being used as a bag carrying appliance doesn’t really appeal to me. With a sigh, she stepped into the lense aisle and tried to put out of mind the ogling she kept getting from other customers that thought she was quote-unquote cute.

But for that matter, I guess the fact I used to just walk around and say one-liners means I didn’t do much else. Sweetie shook her head and resolved to put the thought-line out of mind pronto, and focus on the shiny things instead.

“Ohhh. Very shiny.” The shelves, glass compartments, and metal hangers had all sorts of colors to choose from for lenses, and Sweetie wondered how anyone could make a decision on just one set. “And what if the robot has multiple eyes? Do they accessorize with multiple colors, or go uniform?”

Sweetie hummed at the thought, then gasped when she looked at the price tags. “Two hundred dollars! Wow, that’s a lot judging by Steph’s gasoline receipts she brings home. Drat, and here I wanted to see everything in pink…” The styles were interesting, but perhaps more interesting were the names that the lenses all sported. “Hm, who’s Adam Jenson? Sonny? Chi… and Kusanagi.”

While Sweetie poked at the lowest row of boxes near the floor with a hoof and read the lens designs aloud, a shadow crept up from behind her. Sweetie’s ears registered the approaching sounds, and determined by their rate of movement that whoever was making them was attempting to be stealthy.

But why would anyone sneak up on me? Sweetie shrugged as she turned around, already readying up a nice big hello for whoever was coming to—


Sweetie’s eye twitched as she felt something leap up on her back, wrap its legs around her middle, and take a firm hold of her mane.


“H-Hey, get off!” Sweetie immediately tried to back up and look at who it was on instinct, but they were firmly in place and in her blind spot. “Who is that!? Steph! Help!”

“Hi-ho piggy! Away!” A pair of little hands—although they looked like tiny misshapen paws—suddenly covered Sweetie’s eyes and obscured her vision.

“Hey, would you listen to m—” Sweetie gasped as she felt a kick at her sides, and then she launched herself forward down the aisle in a gallop. “This is most unkind!”

The voice responded back with, “WHEEEEEHEHEHOO! Faster, piggy!”

“Grrr! Not a piggy! Am Sweetie Belle!” Sweetie growled and tried to shake off the firm grip the assailant had on her, but who or whatever it was held on tight, and seemed to be steering her. “I can’t see where we’re going! Get off of me or… I’ll have to take drastic measures!”

Sweetie had felt the floor change twice, but she had no idea where she was anymore. Ignoring that, she could hear all kinds of shouts at her as she ran, including several yelling for her to, “Stop playing!” and “Watch where you’re going, rust-buckets!”

“Faster!” the mystery voice shouted, and still cackled crazily.

“Okay, that’s enough.” Sweetie screeched to a halt, and an actual screech of the stone floor from her hooves did bounce off the walls. “Are you gonna get off or do I have to make you?” She pouted her lip out in an angry scowl, but the answer she got back from her mystery attacker wasn’t exactly sensical.

“We should go get some tacos, piggy! Food court’s thataway!”

Sweetie lowered her chassis to the ground and her leg motors revved up to maximum. “Wrong answer, buddy!” A wicked grin spread over her muzzle.

She reared back, then rocked herself forward at full tilt and kicked her legs up and out behind herself. Sure enough, just as Sweetie had hoped, she felt the hitchhiker on her back become dislodged, and he was launched forward and sent careening through the air.


A crashing sound came from somewhere up ahead, but Sweetie’s mane had become disheveled to the point that it was covering almost as much of her vision as before.

“Well that was bothersome…” Sweetie sat down and reached up with both hooves to try and fix her mane. Doing so on her own would be difficult. “Now I’ve gotta get Steph to help me comb this mess... Oh geez, where am I? She’s going to be upset about this, I just know it.”

Wherever she was, it didn’t look familiar right away, so Sweetie concluded that her attacker had taken them somewhere she’d yet to traverse yet. More disturbing about her surroundings, perhaps, was that the thing that had ridden her halfway across the mall was nowhere to be seen. This part of the mall seemed to be empty, with the exception of a couple of bored looking employees that she could see through some shop windows.

Sweetie Belle thought she heard a sudden rustling to her left, and she jerked her head towards a garbage can that was adjacent to a nearby fountain. “Hello?” she called tentatively, unsure as to whether she ought to just get away while she could, or find out who was responsible for accosting her and mussing her mane up.

Two thin, but long and droopy black ears popped out of the top of the garbage, followed by a bulbous green head and two unfocused, cartoonishly large eyes.

“What the heck is that thing?” Sweetie Belle knew it was wrong to judge someone based on their appearance, as Steph had pointed out, but the creature suddenly staring down at her was pretty bizarre looking. It almost looked like a sort of cartoon dog stuffed toy, but only if it had come from a manufacturer of inferior make.

“Piggy! Lookie this, I found a taco!” The miniature dog-bot, whatever its intentions, had to be malfunctioning, Sweetie concluded, because it wasn’t exactly getting its evaluations correct.

“Alright, you, listen up. I’m a pony, and that—” Sweetie jabbed a hoof at what the stranger held, “—is an old soda can. Now tell me why you attacked me!”

The robot’s silly giant eyes took on a sad look as soon as Sweetie yelled. “Awww. I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to upset you, Piggy! Here, you can have the taco as my way of saying sorry!”

Sweetie backed up further away from the machine as it hopped down off of the can, and its feet squeaked audibly as it hit the floor. She was about to object once again to being referred to as such, but a sudden exclamation of joy from behind cut off her words.

“Gir! There you are. I told you not to run away. Mom’s gonna be so mad at us, and then she won’t let me bring you with us anymore, no matter what dad says to defend you! Why didn’t you listen to me? Are you malfunctioning again? ”

Sweetie turned around to face the sweet sounding voice. Upon doing so, she made eye contact with possibly the most adorable thing she’d ever seen. “Oh my gooosh, you’re like a miniature Stephanie!”

The girl facing her was about half Steph’s size, and the frizzy brown hair she had was uncannily similar.

Sweetie put her hooves up to her face and struggled to contain a soft squee of joy. Oh, geeez. Something dawned on her. This must be what all those people felt like when they saw me and say that I’m being adorable… Turnabout for certain. Karma even?

Sweetie’s thoughts ceased as she was addressed by the stranger.

“Hi, I’m Suzy.” The little girl, which of course she must be, tilted her head as she knelt down and lifted up the miniature dog thing designated by her as a ‘Gir’. “Your mane’s really messy, but you’re still pretty.” The girl smiled and tried to pet Sweetie’s head, and the weird robot-thing in her arms made as if to do the same.

Sweetie backed away again, but the little girl didn’t seem to notice and kept right on talking and approaching.

“So what’s your name?” she asked again, still trying to pet Sweetie’s mane. “What model are you? Can you sing?”

“It’s, uhm, Sweetie, and I don't have a model designation.” A sort of constant dance began between Sweetie and Suzy, with Gir the middle, mumbling nonsense. “Look, could you stop that, please? I'm not even supposed to talk to strangers, let alone let them touch me.”

Suzy did stop straight away, and she looked genuinely surprised at being asked to. “Oh, sorry.” She looked down at Gir then, as if suddenly remembering something. “And sorry about Gir, too. I think he mistook you for our dog. Dad’s got him programed to ride him like a horse. They even have a cute little saddle!” the girl giggled, then leaned over and held out a hand. “It’s nice to meet you, Sweetie!”

Sweetie’s lenses zoomed in on the offered hand. She recognized the gesture, considered ignoring it, but decided to be polite, like Steph had told her. “It’s… nice to meet you, but I wish it was under different circumstances. Still, I suppose your explanation makes sense.” She still eyed Gir warily, but given the empty look that was on the other machine’s face, it seemed harmless enough now that its owner had appeared.

Not wanting to wait around, and despite finally finding someone else to talk to, Sweetie turned to go. She couldn’t be away from Steph for so long. “Well, if it’s all the same to you, I need to get back to Stephanie pronto, and before she notices I left the store, or I’m in trouble.”

Sweetie trotted down the wide mall hallway a bit, but a strangled sound from behind her made her stop and look back.

The little girl had a mixture of uncertainty, and distress on her face the likes of which Sweetie had never seen before.

“You appear worried.” Sweetie felt compelled to see what was the matter. “What’s wrong, Suzy?”

“It’s— Uhm…” The little girl looked left, then to her right, then exchanged her distressed look for a sheepish grin. “I think I’m lost. I don’t suppose you know the way back, do you? You and Gir did, like, three laps back at the food court.”

“Oh, well…” Sweetie Belle blinked, and a wave of uncertainty suddenly filled her as she came to a realization. As she looked around at the shops surrounding her, it became increasingly apparent she didn’t recognize any of them. “Huh, that’s a good point.” She stared a bit longer, then abruptly returned the girl’s sheepish grin with one of her own. “Actually I think I’m lost, too. Hah. How about that...”

Gir chimed in, shrugging while in Suzy’s grip. “Ohhhh, if only I hadn’t made room for the tuna!”

Steph grumbled to herself while she browsed a catalogue. "I can't believe how expensive the same stuff I used for Hal from four years ago is, let alone upgrade parts! This is crazy. No inflation in the market my left butt cheek..." She glanced down to her left. "Sweetie, go ask the cashier if— Sweetie? Ah well, good thing I planned for this." Quickly, she glanced at her phone to check on Sweetie's location for where in the store she must be. She had just checked two minutes prior, but she had made a habit of checking constantly already, it seemed. "Oh, she's across the mall at the other end."

Steph fast walked towards the exit. "How did she get that far away in a matter of minutes!?"