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Do Sweetie Bots Dream of Electric Sheep?

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Free the Tantabus
Hi guys! This is my first fic, length = 3709 for Act One, =5306 for Act Two. Any feedback is welcome and appreciated! seriously plz PM me I need to know if it sucks I'll be adding an Act Two and Three later.

Act One
Prologue

If you asked her where it all began, she’d have trouble answering because there were so many right answers. Was it the day she became what she is? Or the day when she realized it? Or when she first came to terms with it? A hard question, indeed, for a young robot. Not that she likes being called that, mind you, and in Equestria you tend to indulge things like that if it’s not harming anyone, and this certainly isn’t, but that’s not the point. So what?, you ask, unsure of why any of this matters. I’ll tell you why: because this story is about what it means to be a person, whether human or equine. Because people have souls. And, if you asked Sweetie Belle if she has a soul- well, she’d get flustered because that’s not a polite question to ask, but she’d say yes. And she might even tell you that it all started one rainy day…

Scene 1

A soft rain fell on the fresh spring grass, gently massaging the earth as it dripped ever down. It also fell on ponies’ manes- well, not Rarity’s. She never let her exquisitely styled hair get wet if she could avoid it, hence the collection of umbrellas in more shades of every hue imaginable than even royalty had. It was one of these umbrellas that was unceremoniously plonked on Sweetie Belle’s back when she left for school that day, and despite her grumblings her older sister couldn’t be convinced otherwise.
“But it’s just rain! It’s not like it can hurt me or anything.”
“Nonsense, darling, it could hurt your look! And who would ever risk that?” Rarity cooed as she fussed over her sister’s hair.
“Everypony except you, Rarity.”
“Well, it might not hurt you, per se, but it certainly isn’t pleasant to be rained on, is it? Now hurry along darling, or you’ll be late for school!”
I wouldn’t be late if you hadn’t spent thirty minutes fussing over the curls in my tail, Sweetie Belle thought to herself. She rushed out the door, alarming several ponies who had been waiting outside for the boutique to open. Sweetie Belle weaved through the crowd expertly before breaking into a canter down the dirt road. It wasn’t long before she arrived at the Ponyville schoolhouse, an aging structure whose flaking red paint belied the quality of education foals received from Cheerilee, who had been the teacher for as long as anyone- Granny Smith included- could remember. Not that she looked old, not by any stretch.
“Hey Sweetie Belle!” was all the warning to be heard before Apple Bloom landed square on her back, knocking over the umbrella Sweetie Belle had been wearing. Her legs buckled, and the two fillies fell onto the muddy ground. “Guess what?”
“What is it, Apple Bloom?”
“Guess!”
She sighed. “Applejack got called to a map mission?”
“No! Guess again!”
“Did you have a really good apple pie?”
“No. Well, yes, but that’s not what you’re ‘sposed to be guessin!”
“You should probably get off her back, Apple Bloom. You’ve kinda pinned her down.”
In the periphery of her vision Sweetie Belle could see Scootaloo, standing no less than three yards away- the minimum safe distance when dealing with an excited Apple Bloom.
“But she’s ‘sposed to guess what’s so exciting first!”
“How is she supposed to know?”
“That’s why I told her ta guess. If she knew, I wouldn’t’ve asked!”
Sweetie Belle rolled her eyes, and decided to indulge the hyped-up earth pony. “Did you discover one of your friends has a really cool hobby you didn’t know about?”
“No!” Apple Bloom took a dramatic pause for a deep breath. “We’re going to be the new vice headmares at the School of Friendship!”
“What?! Who made that decision?! We haven’t even finished high school!”
Apple Bloom jumped off of Sweetie Belle, eliciting an “oof!” from the poor filly. “Starlight said she needed a vice headmare when she became headmare, and she doesn’t know anypony more qualified than us!”
“Says a lot about Trixie,” Scootaloo whispered into her ear. Sweetie Belle giggled and stood up.
Searching memory banks for- Sweetie Belle stopped cold, trying to figure out what had just popped into her head.
“Sweetie Belle?” Apple Bloom asked. “Are you okay?”
She shook her head. “It’s nothing, just a strange feeling. So, what are we supposed to do? Rarity would kill me if she found out I’m not finishing school!”
“Starlight said we’d finish learning from her,” Scootaloo said. “And it’s not like we were learning anything important anyway.”
And, as if on cue, a pleasant “good morning!” from Cheerilee made Scootaloo’s eyes go wide. “What’s this I’m hearing about school?”
“Scootaloo was just talking about how surprised she was that what we’re learnin is so useful and important outside of school!” Apple Bloom lied smoothly. She was really good at it.
“Well, I hope you fillies enjoy being the vice headmares over at the School of Friendship. We’ll miss you in our classes!” The maroon mare gave a warm smile before continuing. “You three have been some of the best students I have ever had.”
Processing- compliment detected. Running gratitude routines. And there it was again, that strange line of thought that seemed to be like a second voice, giving her commands from the deep recesses of her mind. Sweetie Belle smiled, hoping her uneasiness wasn’t showing- she didn’t want to come off as insincere, after all. But her face made the right emotions, and her voice was as sincere as ever when she said “aw, thanks Ms Cheerilee!” But it felt false, like she wasn’t in control, as if something deep in her heart was taking over. It made her frightened.
“Well, since you three won’t be taking classes here anymore, you should probably go see Starlight so she can help you settle in to your roles before their semester starts.”
“Thanks Ms Cheerilee!” was the chorus’ response as the three fillies sped off. “Isn’t it amazin? We’re going to be vice headmares!”
“We’ll get to run the school and make the rules and help everyone learn!”
“And we’ll get to help the students’ find their purpose in life!”
“Weren’t we already doing that? It’s kinda our job.”
Scootaloo’s thoughts paused before she responded to Apple Bloom. “Yeah, but… we’re going to be paid for it now! Right, Sweetie Belle?”
“Huh?” Her mind was still working over the voice in her head from earlier.
“We’re going to be paid, for doing what our cutie marks tell us to do!”
“Oh yeah! That.” Sweetie Belle nodded. “I think we’ll be paid.”
The other two suddenly stopped, and Sweetie Belle had to dig in with her hooves to slow down before she ran into her friends. They turned, with wide smiles on their faces. The chant. We’re doing the chant. And then: Activating exuberance- STOP! she told herself. What is going on? She snapped back to the moment, only barely getting her hoof up in time for the brohoof.
“CUTIEMARKCRUSADERSWORKINGATTHEFRIENDSHIPSCHOOLYAY!” they all yelled at once. As always, it was a little too loud, and some heads turned. It didn’t bother them anymore, but it was a little silly for three ponies who were just shy of being full-grown adults to be doing something so childish. The moment passed, and they continued at a trot to the School, adjoined by Twilight’s castle.
“Am I the only one who always thought that castle looks ugly?”
“Sweetie Belle, everyone thinks that castle looks ugly. I’m pretty sure the Tree of Harmony itself thinks it’s the ugliest thing it’s ever seen.” The country accent rolled off Apple Bloom’s tongue like molasses, and was just as slow, too. By the time she had finished her sentence, they were at the bridge to the School.
“Not that the Tree thinks much anymore, since, ya know, it kinda got destroyed.”
Scootaloo punched her friend on the shoulder. “There’s no need to bring it up!”
The two started squabbling, so Sweetie Belle took the lead and opened the doors with her magic. But her aura felt different, almost more artificial and machine-like. What is happening to me?

Starlight Glimmer was waiting for them in the atrium. Her blue “friend” was next to her, not wearing her cape and hat in a rare turn of events. The two mares waved at them.
“Hello, guys! I’m so glad you could make it today.”
“Starlight said I had to help, so I guess I’m glad too.” This earned Trixie a nasty glance, but a touch of mischievousness was enough to satisfy Starlight.
“Hey, Starlight. What do you need us for?” By unspoken agreement, Sweetie Belle had become the speaker for the trio.
“Well, I think we all need some time to prepare ourselves for our new jobs. I wanted to help you guys get started with orientation and everything. Now, with Twilight’s help I’ve made a basic how-to guide on running the School,” she said as she floated over three small books, “but really what’ll help you three is a short briefing on what’s actually changed about your roles her at the school. You’re already teachers, but being vice headmares is a different job-”
“The bored and impatient-”
“I’m getting there, Trix.” A small “hmph!” and accompanying pout nearly made Sweetie Belle laugh, but she stopped herself before being so rude. “Anyway, I’ll spend most of the day getting Trixie ready to be guidance counselor, so all you three need to know is that you’ll be responsible for the day-to-day running of School activities, such as procuring materials for classes and running the logistics behind student residences and the dining halls. Since there’s three of you, it shouldn’t be too hard.”
And it was then that it happened. To this day, Sweetie Belle couldn’t tell you what exactly it was Trixie said when she started showboating, but some fireworks were lit. Up and up they spiraled to the ceiling, where one got caught in a crystal chandelier. In the most brilliant lightshow she’d ever see, it detonated, scattering light and fragments across the room. For a brief second, the shattered remnants acted like hundreds of tiny prisms, scattering rainbows across the open space and painting the walls in a dazzling display of light and color.
And then one of those prisms came close. Too close. Before she could react, one whizzed right at her. The last thing she remembered was the sight of it, right in front of her left eye.

Scene 2

_Warning- optic lens damaged. Running diagnostics…
Running diagnostics…
Running diagnostics…_
“Sweetie Belle!”
_Diagnostics complete. Damage report as follows:
Shattering of port-side optic sensor covering._
“Sweetie Belle, are you okay?!”
_10% loss of use in port-side optic sensors. Engaging repair nanobots.
Warning: potential threat to social camouflage._
“Sweetie Belle! There’s something wrong with your eye!”
Reengaging optical sensors- opening shutters.
Sweetie Belle opened her eyes- both of them. Something was wrong. She could see it in the faces crowded over her, all staring at her. She moaned in… pain? But she didn’t feel hurt, did she? She opened her mouth to speak, but Scootaloo covered it to stop her.
“Sweetie Belle! We’ve got to get you to the hospital, you’ve been hurt! Your eye looks bad.”
Apple Bloom kneeled down to put her hoof behind her head. “Don’t worry, okay? You’ll be fine. We’ll get you to the hospital, and they’ll fix you right up.”
“Why is your eye glowing?”
Sweetie Belle’s breathing stopped. What was it Trixie said? Replaying memory: “Why is your eye glowing?” Tears began rolling down her face. She heard sounds, but they seemed to all run together. She felt a sensation throughout her body, every nerve suddenly reporting in to confirm that they were not right. She felt paralysed- she needed to get up, to find a mirror, because that couldn’t be right, could it?
She looked around. Starlight seemed to be mad at somepony- Trixie, of course. Who else? Scootaloo and Apple Bloom were right above her, the concern on their faces so sweet and touching. Behind them was the purple ceiling, painted by Twilight Sparkle herself. The room had six corners, and six beams arched up towards the center, which was out of view and behind Apple Bloom’s head. In each section there was a small fresco depicting some aspect of friendship- giving to others for generosity, a group standing together for loyalty, a party for laughter. Sweetie Belle hadn’t noticed the meticulous detail before- funny how the world changed when you were flat on your back.
But then she felt hooves beneath her as her friends picked her up. No, no, I have to know! She twisted herself away, landing on one side. She rolled over, and got up- and broke into a full gallop, but it felt so slow, each second agonizing as she felt every joint gradually play its part. She skidded around a corner, her manicured hooves searching for friction on the polished floor, before running through the door to her sister’s office- because if anypony would always have a mirror handy, it was Rarity. Sweetie Belle leapt into the chair, spinning to face the desk while she frantically opened drawers. One two three- there! She lifted the mirror with her aura, holding it in front of her face.
And there it was.
Her eye.
Glowing green.
And not just that- it was almost segmented, an apparatus almost like a camera’s shutter. Her eye, green all through, except for the black pupils. A shimmering ran through it, like a screen of sorts. Her jaw dropped, and she could’ve sworn she heard the servomotors whir as it did. What am I? The mirror fell and shattered, just as she slipped from the chair and fainted.

A beeping. Repetitive, cyclical. An EKG monitor. Why was she hearing that? Right, the hospital her friends had probably taken her to. Would a hospital be able to help? Why am I thinking like that, of course! I’m a pony, hospitals are for ponies!
But wait.
That’s right. Or was it? She couldn’t remember clearly. She heard a familiar voice, complete with the posh affectation even in this moment of crisis.
“Sis? Are you there?” she asked weakly.
“Sweetie Belle, darling!” A tight hug threatened to restrict her breathing. “I was so worried about you!”
“What happened to me?”
“You’re okay darling, you’re okay. It’ll all be fine. The doctor said-”
“What’s wrong with me?!”
Rarity was startled by the volume of the question, briefly loosening her grip. “Darling, it’s- it’s nothing.” A nervous laugh. “Nothing at all. You’ll be out of here in no time.”
Sweetie Belle pulled out of the hug- or tried to, only succeeding at drawing back a little. “I’m almost an adult, Rarity, don’t lie to me! What’s wrong with me?” she demanded.
A tinge of guilt followed as Rarity started to cry. “Sweetie Belle… it’s… it’d be best if somepony else explained this to you. I’ll… I’ll go fetch the doctor, just stay here, okay?”
Sweetie Belle nodded, panic growing at the back of her mind. No… it can’t be… She fell back onto the pillow as Rarity left. What am I? She tried to reach into the depths of her mind, finding… Access denied. These memories are not yet available at this stage in your mission.
Screaming? No, not that, if she had screamed in the hospital it would’ve drawn too much attention. But maybe she should’ve, maybe there should’ve been orderlies and medic and nurses all over her, trying to figure out what just happened. But she didn’t. Instead, she tried denying it. There was no way, that wouldn’t make any sense, would it?
Apple Bloom and Scootaloo came in first, followed by Twilight Sparkle, Starlight Glimmer, and Rarity. Once they were in, Nurse Redheart followed, with Trixie sneaking in at the last second before the door closed. All but the last came to the bed, surrounding it. Rarity took one of her hooves in her own, while Scootaloo took the other forehoof. Redheart was at the foot of the bed, a grave look on her face.
“Sweetie Belle,” she began, “I want you first to know that all your friends and family here will always love you, no matter what, okay? Do you understand?”
Sweetie Belle was too scared to speak, so she nodded instead. She noticed four other ponies come into the room- the Element bearers. No… please, no…
“Okay. I’m not going to beat around the bush on this one, Sweetie Belle- you’re not a pony.” Redheart stopped to make sure Sweetie Belle was staying calm before continuing. “You’re a robot. Do you know what robots are?” A nod. “Good. Now, we’re not entirely sure what this means, and we’re working closely with experts across Equestria, but you need to understand this.” She nodded towards Twilight, who levitated a mirror in front of Sweetie Belle. She saw her eye again, so undoubtedly artificial. “You are not flesh and blood. You’re a machine.” Nurse Redheart quickly switched to a reassuring voice while Twilight put the mirror away. “This doesn’t change anything about you- you’re still the same pony you were when you woke up this morning, with the same friends and talents and favorite foods.” Rarity’s grip on her hoof tightened. “You’re still you on the inside.”
Nurse Redheart’s mistake was relying on the EKG readout to tell if Sweetie Belle was panicking. A robot obviously does not have a heart rate, so she missed the panic attack until it was too late. Not that sedatives would’ve done any good, because robots don’t have bloodstreams or veins, but still. Sweetie Belle screamed, hyperventilating, tears pouring from her eyes with little warning. Hooves landed on her chest, and desperate cries to calm down were heard, but Sweetie Belle passed out before they could make a difference.

When she woke up, only Twilight Sparkle was in the room. She glanced over before getting up from the couch she had been lying on, setting aside a book. She gently trotted over, unbothered by Sweetie Belle’s pathetic gaze.
“How are you feeling, Sweetie Belle?”
“Where’s my sister?”
“Rarity had to go to the boutique to close it down for the day, she’ll be coming back. You were out for about an hour, in case you were wondering.”
“Why are you still here?”
“I wanted to talk to you about something, but it can wait.” She opened a bag and pulled out some small purple shards of something. “How are you feeling?”
“I’m scared. I don’t know what else to think.”
“It’s a pretty big thing to find out so suddenly.” The Princess of Friendship softly smiled, years of practice helping put Sweetie Belle at ease. “But I’m sure you’ll get used to it in no time.” She moved the shards over her body, her head slightly cocked to one side after they started glowing. “After all, it’s not like anything’s changed, right? You’re still Sweetie Belle, founding member of the CMC who loves to sing!”
Sweetie Belle smiled and nodded. She felt more comfortable when somepony said it like that- she was the same pony who she had always been.
Twilight put the shards away. “Wait right here for one second- I’ll got get you something to eat. Roses or tulips?”
“Tulips, please!”
“Sure thing! I’ll be right back.” One final smile that seemed to fade, and she was out the door. Voices came from the other side. Sweetie Belle strained to make them out.
Increasing aural sensitivity. Before she could react to that, she heard things much more clearly, distracted by her earlier desire to hear the conversation.
“I think we shouldn’t do anything different from what we’d normally do- she’s still the same Sweetie Belle we know and love!” said Fluttershy’s voice.
“I don’t know ‘bout y’all, but I think we should at least be ready.” Applejack remarked. “If what Twilight’s sayin’s true, then it might not be the same Sweetie Belle.”
“We don’t know how long this has been going on,” came Twilight’s voice, “for all we know, Sweetie Belle’s been like this for most of her life!”
“I think if we throw a party, it’ll all get better! Parties make everything better!”
“Well you know what I think?!” Rainbow Dash yelled. “I think we shouldn’t take our chances, and get rid of it before it hurts Rarity!”
Her reaction was instinctual. She leaped from the bed and hit the ground running, tears streaming down her face as she raced for the window. Five voices all at once protested in varying degrees of panic as Rainbow Dash broke down the door, Harmony magic surrounding her. Sweetie Belle looked over her shoulder as her eyes met Dash’s, and she was horrified by the fire that she saw there. She leapt through the window as a beam of magic caught her. A burning sensation enveloped her as she realized she had been on the fifth floor of the building, and she spent a few eternities in freefall before landing badly on her front left hoof. It hurt, but there was no time for that, she had to run, to flee, get out of there before the Elements of Harmony vapourized her like they did to King Sombra. Sweetie Belle ignored the limping and pain and fled into the nearby Everfree Forest, the cold evening air on her skin.

Scene 3

The rain became a storm that night. Cold. Alone. Frightened.
Whirring, grinding, pain- her left leg was damaged, but what could be done?
Betrayed. Abandoned.
Unloved.
And, in that moment, Sweetie Belle felt something calling to her, a dark force stirring deep within her heart. It told her to fight- no! She wouldn’t do that. But she had to follow something that led her deeper into the Forest, beckoning her onwards. Her hooves, one at a time, over the sodden ground. Past the Castle of the Two Sisters and the stupid clubhouse inside. Past Zecora’s hut. Past the Mirror Pool. Deeper and deeper, into the heart of darkness.
A voice.
Evil, but there was nopony else.
Scary, but less than everything else.

“Are you lost, child?”
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Moderator
Free the Tantabus
Act 2
Prologue

Running again. Away from him. That monster, that madman, that villain.
That stallion who had built her.

Scene 1

“My name is Curtained Machinations. I’m a roboticist. Do you need my help?”
He wasn’t particularly tall, or particularly menacing. He wore a pair of nearly triangular glasses that only covered a small part of his steel gray eyes, set in a slightly lighter coat. He spoke with a soft voice, which lacked the malicious edge he otherwise affected- no, he needed it to like him for the plan to work.
“What can you do?”
“Why, I can fix you, of course! Get that eye back up and running, then patch up the synthcoat- why, it’ll be impossible to tell this ever happened after I’m done. Come this way, child.”
And what else was she supposed to do? The earth pony seemed nice enough, and she was alone and afraid. She followed him into the trees, weaving between the trunks in the dark night. She felt the normal sensation of rain running down her sides, but on certain patches of skin there was something… off, like the water was sharp and tingly. Sweetie Belle ignored this and focused on not running into trees, something made suddenly easier by something that wasn’t quite a voice in the back of her mind, suggesting a path through the forest. It had to be some deeper programs or subroutines, she decided, and just enough time had passed since that morning for her to be comfortable enough with the truth so that these didn’t bother her.
The forest gave way to a small clearing with a hut in the center, which Machinations opened the door to. Inside was circular metal platform, which Sweetie correctly guessed was an elevator. It sunk down into the earth, the narrow tunnel confining them to its surface until it opened up into a massive cavern, lit by soft green lights. Almost five hundred feet high and twice as much across, it was an impressive room. Scattered across it was machinery, lit in the glow.
“What is this place?”
“My workshop, of course! But this isn’t where we’re going, not for you. You need more than these simple machines can offer.” He led her off, hugging the side of the room until they reached a tunnel. The two entered it, stopping at a wooden like the front door from the boutique. “This will be your room. For now, I’ll fix you up then let you rest.”
Sweetie Belle opened the door to find a cozy room with a fairly large bed, flanked by dressers and a respectable mirror. The decor was uncannily similar to Rarity’s tastes, right down to the patterns of gems inlaid on every surface. Even frightened and alone, Sweetie was nopony’s fool.
“What is this? Why is it decorated like this?”
“Why, however do you mean? Is this not in the mode right now? Why, I’m terribly sorry if it’s out of date.”
He seemed honest, but… “Sorry, it just seems very similar to the Carousel Boutique.”
The roboticist laughed. “Why, isn’t that to be expected? Rarity is the most fashionable pony there is, of course the stylings would be similar. Now, why don’t you take a look in the mirror? You should probably see this now.”
She filed away his dodging of the question for later, only to feel a jolt of pain in her mind for it. She kept trying to remember the moment specifically, but something tried to stop her.
“Sweetie Belle?” It stopped, finally letting her add the moment to her recollection. “Take a look.”
She looked into the mirror, and saw her face. When Rainbow Dash had attacked her, more of her coat had been burned off, and patches of her metal body were exposed. Running down the sides of her face were black lines that were interrupted by two screens meant to be her eyes, with similar ones running down her legs and chest. Her joints were metallic, the neatly manicured hooves just covers for metal treads. Oddly, her mane was intact enough, suggesting it to be part of the design itself. Wait! If I don’t have my coat, then… a spark of panic rose, then subsided when she saw she still had her cutie mark even where there was only bare metal. She was still her.
“And you’ll fix all of this?” she asked with a tint of doubt.
“Why, of course! Not by hoof, so it strictly speaking won’t be me, but it will be my creations. Nanobots will do it using magic- just lie down in the bed and sleep. You’ll be fit as a fiddle tomorrow morning!” Machinations started to leave, but stopped to add something. “And try not to dream. You’ve had a bad experience today, I wouldn’t want you getting nightmares.”
He shut the door behind him as he left, leaving Sweetie Belle to wonder why he would say that as she drifted off to sleep.

As asked, she had passed the night without dreaming. She woke up in the not-her-room, still eerily decorated as though it had been by Rarity’s own hooves. Sweetie Belle stretched and yawned- the voice in her head said something about diagnostics. Funny how fast she had gotten used to it, wasn’t it? The test turned up nothing, so she guessed that meant everything had been healed. A bit more stretching, then she got out of bed and trotted over to the mirror, pausing before looking at her reflection.

“You LIED TO ME! You said you would fix it!”
“Why, dear, I did!” Sweetie Belle lit up her horn with magic- she was furious. Looking into the mirror showed her without any coat at all, just a sleek metal body marked with black lines, joints, and odd lights on her horn. “Now, let me explain myself. I realized when I looked at your design that there was so much you could do that the coat prevented! Why, some of these systems still amaze me, like-”
“Still? It’s only been a few hours.”
“Wh-why, th-that’s a long time, don’t you know, dearie? Now, as I was saying,” the roboticist went on, “you have amazing potential for all sorts of things. Did you know that you can fly?”
This caught Sweetie Belle’s attention. “Fly?”
“Yes, fly.” Machinations gestured to the open air of the cavern. “Just think about it, like you’re pushing off with your hooves.”
“And why should I trust you? You lied about fixing me.”
“Then don’t trust me, try it for yourself.”
Like pushing off with my hooves? Okay… The idea came into her mind, and with a moment’s concentration she felt little jets of energy stream out of her hooves, lifting her off the ground. She looked down in amazement at the four green jets of pure magic, then foolishly shifted her weight, making her slide around a little. She stopped herself before hitting anything, then gently set herself down on the ground again. “How did you know I could do that?”
“I had to program the nanobots to repair you, so I took the liberty of running some system evaluations. I should’ve asked first and I apologize, but what little I found is amazing.” The earth pony shook his head. “There’s not enough space in here, we should go outside so you can practice.”
“I think I’d like to go home. My sister is going to be worried about me. Thank you, but I really should-”
“Nonsense! Why, there’s so much more you could learn about yourself here! At least for the morning, no?”
Sweetie Belle was going to say no, but the jolt in her mind started again. It was only there for a brief half of a moment, but it was enough to force her to reconsider. “Okay. Just for the morning.”
Machinations led her to the elevator back up to the surface, and one trip later they were standing in the small clearing in the Everfree Forest. Without having to be asked, Sweetie Belle tried to lift off again, this time more sure of herself and willing to experiment with it. She got a few feet off the ground, then tried to move to one side, then the other.
“You’re doing it wrong.”
“Excuse me?”
“Why, don’t you think whoever built you went ahead and just programmed in flight subroutines? You don’t have to invent the method, just find the files. Why, I’d imagine it’s like relearning how to fly a kite!”
She shrugged and decided it was worth a shot. System processing- searching for flight algorithms. Processing… processing…
And like a crack of lightning, it was there. With only a fragment of a thought, she was shooting into the sky, doing loops and spins with hardly any effort. This is amazing! She rocketed higher, breaking through a cloud and continuing until she began to see stars. She stopped climbing and hovered, her four hooves supporting her via the energy jets. She could see what seemed like half of Equestria! Over there was Canterlot, its towering palaces glittering; and there was the Everfree beneath her, sprawling for miles upon miles in every direction; and there was Ponyville, so small it was hard to see from that high up. Home… she felt a longing. She could return home, right? Surely things would’ve settled down by then. But the jolt in her mind was there again, this time bringing a suggestion- she should at least thank Curtained Machinations for helping her, right?
So she flew back down, landing in the clearing. “Thank you, Curtained, but I need to-”
“Look out, timberwolf!”
“Huh?” Sweetie Belle turned around, only for the wolf to jump on top of her, pinning her down. Activating self-defense mechanisms. Her vision seemed to turn red, and time almost slowed down. The jets in her hooves shot out a burst of energy, sending the timberwolf flying. Sweetie Belle scrambled onto her hooves, and felt something come out of her back and sides. According to a heads up display that had just appeared in her vision, it was two energy cannons on her sides and a pair of missile pods set higher and more centered. Targeting systems turned on automatically, and the cannons each fired a shot, scattering the pieces of wood making up the timberwolf. Threat neutralized. Returning to default mode. Her vision cleared up, and the weapons folded back into her body. The tense fighting stance she had ended up in was relaxed, and Sweetie Belle took a deep breath.
“What just happened?” she asked with a broken voice.
“I don’t know, I wasn’t aware of those systems.”
“I- I had no control over it, they just…”
“Sounds like a self-preservation system. I’d imagine one would be automatic to make sure you don’t get hurt- by the time the thinking part of your mind had made a decision, it could be too late.”
Sweetie Belle sat quietly, unsure of what to think. A lot of thoughts raced through her mind, few of them good. There’s something deeper going on, but I’m not sure I want to know what it is…
“I think I’ll go home now. I-I need… time to process all of this. Thank you for everything.”
Machinations nodded, and Sweetie Belle began to walk back through the forest. It was a long, slow walk, and she had to make the path as she went. It was shortly after noon that she heard voices.
“Do you think she came this way?”
“How would ah know? She ran off in sucha hurry, I don think anypony knows!”
Sweetie Belle perked up. “Apple Bloom? Scootaloo? Are you there?” She ran forward, but came to a stop when she saw a shape in the darkness. Shapes, plural: timberwolves, moving towards her friends. Surrounding them, getting ready to pounce. She knew what she had to do, issuing a silent command to herself:
Activate combat algorithms.
The weapons came back, her sight turned red, but this time she tried to maintain at least some control over the process. She had some success, and was witness to her subconscious planning out the attack- a jump here, spin, fire off a few missiles… perfect.
She leapt into action, both cannons firing while the missile pods emptied themselves. Five timberwolves went down in three seconds, and Sweetie Belle began the fancy footwork to turn and face the rest. Energy beams crisscrossed the air as her horn’s magic was used to augment her arsenal. Just one left, right behind her friends. A beam just down the middle would do it…
She leapt into the clearing at an angle, her left cannon carving a line through the dirt right up to the creature’s muzzle and beyond, cutting the thing clean in two. She hit the ground, and looked at her friends, and spoke. Or tried to, but a jolt blocked her, so instead she stood there, in the shadows, while smoke drifted up from her weapons.
Apple Bloom and Scootaloo were speechless. They couldn’t see Sweetie Belle clearly and so didn’t know it was her. They slowly walked backwards, whispering to each other, then screamed. They turned and galloped off, just as Sweetie Belle found her voice.
“Wait, guys, it’s me, Sweetie Belle! Your friend! Stop! Please…” her voice trailed off, and tears fell from her eyes. No… please, not this…
“Such a shame, isn’t it? That society rejects those who do not perfectly fit its image of ponies. You and I are freaks, Sweetie Belle.” She was rooted to the spot, she wanted to run but a hard clamp on her mind stopped her. “I was cast out for being too brilliant- I invented something that could solve the problems every earth pony and pegasus had. But no. That wasn’t allowed- it would upset the order of things.” His voice had an icy edge, cold and cutting, that struck fear deep into her heart. “I’ll show them. With you, I can prove to our overlords in Canterlot that we don’t need them, that everypony can have their magic. And you’ll help me.”
She didn’t want to help, she wanted to run. But she found her own body beyond her control, that she was just a spectator. Her hooves followed him back to the cavern, away from the light of day.

Scene 2

Several nights later, Sweetie Belle was dreaming. Which was odd, she hadn’t done that since she got there. It was a happy dream- she was there with all her friends and family. She looked at her legs and saw the soft coat that had always been there, and felt a weight lift off her shoulders. Even if it was a dream, it was reassuring.
But then a darkness came, swallowing up the dream. She tried to run, but it just sucked her in. It was the cold, calculating subconscious that supervised her every action, that stopped her from having free will. Sweetie Belle tried to scream but couldn’t as she was dragged into the darkness, light draining from the world around her. The world turned dark except for a crescent moon in the sky, then nothing.

She bolted upright in the bed, breathing heavily. And then she felt it. A draining feeling, like something was being sucked out of her soul. She jumped out of the bed, feeling the center of drainage shift- she could tell it was beneath the mattress. With her aura, she flipped the bed over. She had to stop herself from screaming.
Magic. Her magic. In massive tanks, glowing green. Being sucked out of her, every night. But why?
She then noticed the trapdoor where the bed had been. Taking the obvious course of action, she opened it, revealing a staircase that led down into the stony depths. Filled to the brink with trepidation, Sweetie Belle took the first step down. Down, down, down, she went, into the cold stony heart of the robotics lab. After what seemed like an eternity, the staircase opened into a chamber, lined with massive tanks of magic that flooded the room in a green light. Packed tightly and neatly, dozens upon dozens of them. Sweetie Belle walked into the maze, trying to see if any of them would tell her something. She wandered aimlessly, careful to keep track of her path, until she saw a door. She pressed her ear against it, and heard singing. Beautiful singing, with complex melodies and a beautiful range, backed up by the sweetest voice she had ever heard.
Her own.
What is going on around here?.. She cautiously opened the door, and sure enough, there she was, using her magic to lift tools being used to build a robot. Her mane and tail were cut quite short, and her coat was crisscrossed with scars. Her voice was filled with pain as she sang a song Sweetie Belle would never forget:
“It has been many years
Since I was first locked in here,
Alone and without hope,
I must shed no tears.

For it is in this cave,
That I find my place,
There waits for me the sunny days,
When I won’t be disgraced.

For years now I’ve been alone,
In this world I can’t call home,
But if it shall not learn to love me,
Instead I shall teach it to fear me,

With my legions of cold steel so gray,
I’ll make them bow and pray
To their ruler who will be known
As cold as ice and hard as stone!”

And with that, one bot was finished, then the next started.
“You’ve got a beautiful voice.”
“Huh?” She spun around, her eyes filling with fury when she saw Sweetie Belle. “YOU! You took my life from me! Made me live here in the cold and dark!” She started shooting magic beams at Sweetie Belle, who desperately blocked them with a shield. “I’m the real Sweetie Belle, not you! I deserve a cutie mark! I should be beloved!” She began throwing tools and parts, her voice harshly echoing off the walls. “Instead, I have you! The imposter! The favorite of the oh so great Curtained Machinations, who treats me like a machine and you like a pony!” She had gotten close enough to start striking with her hooves while Sweetie Belle tried to retreat. “For my whole life I’ve suffered down here, just so you could steal the magic!”
“I’m sorry! I’m sorry! I have no idea what you’re talking about!”
The other stopped for a moment. “Oh, so he hasn’t told you his genius plan? Well guess what. Both of us lose in the end, but of course it had to be me who was picked to be replaced! If you weren’t so important, I’d-”
“Enough!” She was lifted into the air and dragged away by a gray aura. Sweetie Belle glanced up to see Machinations wearing a strange headband which emitted the aura. “You should know your place better than that. Your continued existence is at my desire for it, do not jeopardize it now.” He threw her down, then turned to Sweetie Belle. “And what are you doing up at this hour?”
Sweetie Belle had regained her composure enough to know it was time to ask her own questions. “And why should I answer your question now? I have several for you with more pressing answers.”
“Fine, I suppose I do owe you some explanations. Come with me.” He led her into a new chamber, smaller than the others. The most prominent features were blueprints and a heavily marked map of Equestria. “In case you haven’t realized yet, I built you. In fact, I know you nearly figured it out because I can see everything you think. So yes, that’s why I know so much about you. Before you ask why, there’s something else.” He lifted a photo of himself when he was younger, probably in his mid twenties. “My past. I was a brilliant engineer. I sought to fix all problems ponykind had, and wanted to do it by controlling pure magic energy with machines so anypony could use it. I was able to design the machines to use the magic, but they needed so much of it that almost every unicorn in Equestria would have to give up their magic to make them work. I tried to sell the idea to Princess Celestia, but she said the problems were better solved by unicorn mages using spells. I became a laughingstock, and was driven from the scientific community.” He paused. “But then I found something out here in the forest.” He produced a diagram of a tree with five branches, marked with six circles. “The Tree of Harmony and the associated Elements of Harmony. Harmony magic is mind-bogglingly powerful- it permeates the whole universe, allowing ponies to do everything we do. It’s in pegasi’s flight, earth ponies farming, in our cutie marks and how we get them. Just one Element would’ve been enough for me to power all of my creations!”
“But there was a problem- the Elements had been lost for centuries. However, like any good scholar, I did some research, and I found out that the Elements were mere catalysts for Harmony magic! The six elements are so strong that they must make themselves crystallize in something, but not just anything- in ponies. The Royal Sisters were them first, but after Nightmare Moon was banished the Elements needed new bearers. There were always six, and they were always near the Tree, so I knew I could find them in Ponyville.”
“And? How is this relevant?”
“Because this is where you come in. I built a device that could harvest and store Harmony magic in huge quantities, but it had to be in proximity with an Element bearer to work. So I hatched a plan: put it in a robot that could replace a bearer’s close relation, guaranteeing proximity! A sibling was the obvious answer, and only Applejack and Rarity had any, and I wasn’t keen on trying to replace any foal of Bright Mac’s- if I had known he would die only a few months after his youngest was born, well, I wouldn’t have chosen you, but that doesn’t matter. I built you, and foalnapped the real Sweetie Belle, and nopony ever knew. You’ve spent your whole life collecting a trickle of magic from your sister, sending it here in your sleep, for your whole existence. Because of you, I now have the power to build an army to overthrow the unicorns who won’t share their magic, then build a better world on top of the old one! All thanks to you.”
Running again. Away from him. That monster, that madman, that villain.
That stallion who had built her.
But she couldn’t. The vice in her mind clamped down hard. “And don’t think about turning on me, I control your subconscious. You’re my slave, bot.” An malicious chuckle. “Bot. Not even a real pony, just a soulless automaton I built for my own ends. Your continued existence is at my pleasure, I don’t need you. I need you, bot, even less than your flesh and blood counterpart. I’ve plenty of energy. In fact,” he chuckled, “I can begin the plan. Come with me.”
The mind vice forced her to follow him, her horror growing as she saw where they were going.

Scene 3

Ponyville lay before them. Sweetie Belle felt a deep, dark despair in her heart. No, not this, anything but this!
“Beautiful little town, isn’t it? And such a nice sunrise, too. Shame it won’t be here to see the sunset.” Machinations indulged himself in an evil laugh. “Come, I’ve got a speech to give.”
They walked into town while the sky turned red, meandering through the streets until they reached town hall. Dozens of ponies were gathered there, including the Element bearers and Sweetie Belle’s friends. Mayor Mare was giving a speech about not giving up the effort to find her, the bitter irony being about all Sweetie could think about. A gesture stopped her behind the crowd while Machinations went to the stage. He walked up the stairs, then to the podium, pushing aside the confused mare.
“Ladies and gentlecolts, I am Curtained Machinations. You don’t know me, but I know every one of you. I’ve come to take what’s mine. Sweetie Belle?” He gestured to her, the crowd gasping when they saw her. “Kill them all.”
“No, I wo-” And then darkness, cramped and cold, as her subconscious took over. In her mind, she cried. She knew what was happening, imagining the sight of her robot self using those horrid weapons to raze her home. She imagined Rarity crying as her friends dragged her off, she saw Apple Bloom and Scootaloo pleading with the uncaring machine and getting cut down… her heart collapsed, the cold and dark rushing in to fill the void with despair.
And suddenly, a light. The warm light of the crescent moon. “You are not alone, Sweetie Belle! We will save you! Don’t give up!” The darkness burned with rage, charging to snuff out the voice of the night itself. “I will come back for you!” The moon vanished, leaving Sweetie Belle in the dark, afraid, but not alone.

She next came to in a dreamlike state, seeing herself in Ponyville. She instantly knew what she seeing- what she saw when she destroyed the town. It started so simply- the missiles went first, then came the cannons. Things were already burning. Scootaloo tried to stop her, Rainbow Dash scooping her up just before an energy beam would’ve killed her.
No, no, stop! What are you doing?! Stop!
But there was no stopping the torture. She watched as the whole town was reduced to rubble and ash, ponies fleeing in all directions.
But there was an oddity.
Despite the orders given to her, Sweetie Belle didn’t think anypony had actually been killed. And just as odd, she had left the Carousel Boutique standing.
But the rest was carnage. It was all over in thirty minutes. Machinations had her land, then they walked back into the forest. It was at this point that the replay stopped, and Sweetie Belle regained full consciousness.
“Enjoy the show, bot?” Tears were streaming down her face, but Machinations and the other Sweetie Belle looked on without pity. “That was you, you know. Everypony in Equestria hates you now- trying to kill the Princess of Friendship! Why, you’re public enemy number one.”
“Actually, that would be you.” Everyone jumped a bit, then turned to look at Discord. “I’m afraid that you’ve severely underestimated the Royal Sisters, especially Luna.”
“But what can they do?” the other Sweetie taunted. “Even if they do know it doesn’t have free will, they can’t do anything about it.”
“Well, I could, but where’s the fun in that? It’d be unsporting to put a murderously angry deathbot in this room with you. Really, I came to ask what can you do? You burned down a village, but overthrowing the diarchs is a much harder task.”
“Why would I reveal my plan to someone on the other side?”
“Oh, you’re no fun at all, are you? Every good villain reveals their plan to the good guys before setting it in motion, that’s why they loved me!” Discord giggled, then snapped his fingers. A thought jumped into Sweetie Belle’s mind: get to Luna. A flying wrench appeared at the same time as a diversion, then Discord said something about being late for tea and vanished.
“What a jerk,” other Sweetie said. “Didn’t even think to bring the bot with him.”
“Indeed. Anyways, the next step of the plan is to attack Canterlot itself, and fast. We don’t want to give them any more time to prepare than they’ve already gotten.”
“Please… no… I can’t do that to them…” He was arrogant, so Sweetie Belle tried to goad him. She pushed her plan out of her mind for safety.
“Oh, but you can! And you will. Go perform recon, bot, and tell me who’s at Canterlot I might have to fight. Me and the real Sweetie Belle will stay here and prepare.” He left the room, and Sweetie went to leave but was stopped by the other one.
“If you’re as smart as you seem, the rear armor over the core is too thin. Forget that.” Sweetie Belle had hardly heard it before she did as told, then left for recon, spectating as her subconscious led the way.

Canterlot was at full alert, as was to be expected. Sweetie Belle hovered a ways off, her body using various zoom functions to closely inspect the defences. For a reason she was choosing to forget, Sweetie knew she had to get into the throne room to talk to ponies there. If nothing else, that would give her a better report on the most powerful ponies there. With that thought, control was returned to her, and she flew in to land in the throne room. She weaved through the fans meant to keep pegasi out, then crashed through a window and landing hard on the stone floor.
Celestia, Cadance, Shining Armor, Discord, Flurry Heart, Element bearers, Starlight, Starswirl, and… Luna. She completed the tally in her head, then waited for somepony to speak.
“Are we speaking to Sweetie Belle?” Luna asked.
“Depends. She can’t speak freely, if that’s what you mean.”
Twilight took over. “The how do you mean?”
It was obviously planned- they knew Sweetie Belle was in there, they just had to figure out how to liberate her. “Her actions are free up until they interfere with the plan, at which point deeper programming takes over. Her consciousness is sent into a pseudo-unconscious state, like a cramped dream,” she said with subtle and careful emphasis, “in which she cannot even observe her body’s actions.”
She dared to glance at Luna, whose visage changed slightly. Twilight continued. “Would she describe it more as being replaced or as something else taking control?”
“Like something deep inside was seizing control, a deeper-”
Darkness. She had gone too far, and control was taken. But she hoped it had been enough. It had to be.
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Free the Tantabus
Act 3
Prologue, and a note from the Storyteller

I think, therefore I am. A translation of something Descartes once wrote. It means that even in the face of radical skepticism, one can be sure of their own existence because they are thinking about it. But what does it mean for artificial intelligence? “Can computers think?” is a devastatingly complex question, because if the answer is yes then our own existence is cast into doubt because the computer’s existence is artificial.
But that’s a load of crap. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that the computer humans built is capable of intelligent thought- would that make it a person? Not a human, as a nonliving object will never be part of the species homo sapiens sapiens, but a person in a more abstract sense.
And on that thought, we return to our story.

Scene 1

They sat in a room, looking at each other, each gazing into a pair of eyes identical to their own. When their focus wandered, they’d see a nearly perfect copy of themselves- the same white coat, the same pink and purple hair, the same slightly rounded horn. The most distinguishing feature between the two was their flanks: one’s was as blank as the rest of her coat, the other’s was emblazoned with a colorful shield.
One had found their place in the world.
The other was trying to rediscover it.
“It’s odd, don’t you think? That you kept your cutie mark even without your synthcoat. Machinations clearly planned for every event.” Sweetie Belle just nodded, not saying anything. “Those are supposed to be tied to the very essence of who you are, but despite you not being real, you’ve kept it anyway.” Another nod, this time more downcast. “And I don’t have mine. Funny, isn’t it? You’re supposed to be a perfect copy of me, right down to the tongueprint. But you got something I didn’t. Why?”
Silence.
“I don’t know. I got it when my friends did, ours are all similar.”
“So why do you still have it if it’s fake?”
Tears began to fall on the cold stone floor. “I don’t know.”
More time passed in silence as Sweetie Belle silently weeped for her lost soul. She thought of her life up to that point, and all the cherished memories she had. She remembered the happiest moment of her life, when she and her friends had all found their purpose in life and got their cutie marks. She could recall every detail- the warm sun on her back, the soft summer grass under her hooves, a gentle breeze in the air. And the joy, the pure happiness that ran down their cheeks in tears while they embraced each other because they had finally done it. But now it was all meaningless, wasn’t it? The pony who had done those things didn’t exist, did she?
“How does it feel, bot? Losing your life to a falsehood, your existence adding up to nothing. I’ve spent my whole life watching you live in my place, witness to every ounce of affection meant for me that I never felt. Every lost moment a tear running down my cheek, lost to the cold rain of lies. I’ve built so many robots the sheep I dream of run on electricity. Do you understand why I hate you? Tell me, bot, what do you feel right now?”
“Li- like I miss my friends, and- and if they were here, maybe everything would be okay.” More silence, lasting for what seemed like forever, punctured only by hushed sobs.
“He told you they stopped looking for you. He’s a filthy liar.” Sweetie Belle looked up. “They’re here everyday trying to find you. The incident with the timberwolves only cemented their resolve.” The other Sweetie stood up, and began leaving the room. “Thought you might want to know that.”

The legions were surprisingly small, totalling maybe five hundred robots altogether. Sweetie Belle was standing next to Machinations, who surveyed his army with satisfaction.
“This shall do nicely, won’t it? Perfect for overthrowing the pretty little princesses. Why, we’ll knock Canterlot off the mountain when we’re done! Just to be sure none survive.” A malicious chuckle as he indulged himself a little. “And these aren’t even the best part. My magnum opus puts it all to shame.”
He was referring to a quadrupedal war machine that sat in the center of the main chamber. At least seventy feet square and forty tall, it was an impressive piece of engineering, and armed with enough firepower to raze Equestria to the ground. At the center was the control tower, with the heaviest weapons being mounted on it and facing one direction.
“And then there’s you. When they see you, a soulless automaton, ripping through the Royal Guard without hesitation, their resolve will snap like a twig. It’s beautiful, isn’t it? There’s nothing they can do about it. Their magic isn’t concentrated enough to get through the armor of my machine, making me invincible. And, once I’m done and the fighting is over, there will be nothing left for either of you but service to me, the new ruler, of Equestria!” And then he cackled maniacally, the sounds of his villainy reverberating off the cave walls. “I will rebuild the world as my perfect vision, a phoenix rising from the ashes of the one I burned!”
It was a nightmare in the waking world. The only thing Sweetie could think of was how he would end everything she had ever cared about, a disturbing vision she couldn’t stop. This is how it all ends, she thought. And it will all be my fault.

Scene 2

The march up to Canterlot was damning. The rain fell in a downpour, an obvious attempt to counter the robotic army. Sweetie Belle was forced to lead the metallic column, with Curtained Machinations following behind. She rounded the last bend, seeing the main gates ahead of her. The Guards were present in full force, with dozens of archers lining the walls with spear carriers mixed among them. The main gate was reinforced and shut tight.
And, with the twanging of a hundred bowstrings, the Third Battle of Canterlot began. Arrows sailed through the night sky, and Sweetie Belle felt her own armaments fold out from their holds. The cannons began charging for a heavy shot at the main gate to break it down while she kept marching forward. Arrows pinged off her face and sides, but still she was forced to keep going. Two volleys, then a third, before the unicorn mages began hurling beams of magic at her. Her horn lit up to raise a magical barrier to protect her as she plodded ever forward, waiting for the cannons to charge. The missile pods over her back began seeking targets, locking on to fourteen targets for fourteen missiles. They leapt off with a woosh, her magic replacing them with fourteen more. The batteries for harmony magic built into Sweetie Belle had been fully charged, meaning she could fight all night if need be. More arrows fell, now numbering nearly a thousand as it became clear that all the levies and allies had been called up, putting the opposing forces near five thousand ponies-at-arms.
And finally, the two cannons fired massive beams of energy at the gates, blowing them to pieces. The ramparts above were heavily damaged, and soldiers began fleeing. Along the walls, shapes vanished as forces withdrew to a secondary defensive line. Behind Sweetie Belle, five hundred robot ponies lifted into the night to fly over the wall and flank them. Her job was to walk in through the front gate and engage the Element Bearers, who were surely at the front of the army.
She walked through the ruined gates while the legions flew over her head. The rain started to come down even harder. The smoke obscured her vision, but one of the benefits of having artificial eyes was the ability to see beyond the visible spectrum. The infrared sensors turned on, and she could see quite clearly. And sure enough, directly ahead of her were the six ponies whose magic was unparalleled in the whole universe. Behind them were two alicorn princesses and the elites of the Royal and Crystal Guards, led by Shining Armor himself. Hang on… Double checking confirmed it: Luna was nowhere to be seen.
But Sweetie Belle had more important issues at hoof. Discord was also not accounted for, and even though she personally was on his side she didn’t want to risk the wrath of his chaotic powers. She scanned the battlefield, using the other robots to track him down. This was a mistake- she hadn’t been ready to see the devastating effects of the legions, and the shock paralysed her. Unable to move or think, she couldn’t even panic when she heard Discord beside her.
“Send Luna my love, Sweetie Belle. Good night!”

The strains of a piano filled the darkness. Darkness… I’m unconscious. The vice on her mind was as tight as ever, but the triplet notes of the instrument grew ever stronger until a white light filled the void. A crescent moon appeared high overhead, casting its light into infinity and starkly silhouetting Princess Luna. And in her presence, Sweetie Belle felt at ease, as though the soft moonlight itself was caressing her into a deep sleep. The vice on her mind fought hard, but with her horn ablaze Luna banished it forever.
And Sweetie Belle was free, free in her thoughts and mind. She felt the sensation of flying as the stars shone above her, the liberation working into her soul. But then she stopped.
“Your majesty, I… I’m not the real Sweetie Belle. Why would you do that? I’m just a machine. Not a pony. Even my cutie mark is fake.”
“That is presumptuous of you, Sweetie Belle. But if you are worried about your cutie mark, I’m not the pony you should ask. But I know who can answer your questions.”
She felt the dream begin to end, and watched as Luna ascended into the moon. “Princess Luna, wait! I’m not ready! Please, I need answers!”

“Sweetie Belle! Sweetie Belle, are you okay?!”
“Please, wake uhp, Sweetie Belle! Can you hear us?”
With a ringing headache, Sweetie Belle opened her eyes, to find Apple Bloom and Scootaloo standing over her. She nearly cried when she saw them.
“Sweetie Belle! Yer awake!” Apple Bloom squeezed her tightly. “Ah was afraid you’d never come back.”
“Did it work?” Scootaloo asked. “Did Luna fix you?”
Tears began running down her cheeks as she hugged Apple Bloom back. “Yes, I think it worked. I’m back, guys.” But the joy began to ebb when she remembered. “Well, not really. I’m not who you think I am. I was built to help that guy take over the world. I’m not even sure if my cutie mark is real.”
Apple Bloom pulled back to look her in the eyes, then down at her flank, then back to eye contact. “Then why is it stil there?”
“Were you always like this? Even when we first met?” She nodded, then Scootaloo breathed a sigh of relief. “Well, then it’s obviously real! Why else would you still have it? And if it was all fake, why are you crying now?”
“But… I’m not the real Sweetie Belle. She was foalnapped when she was only a few months old, and I replaced her.”
Apple Bloom raised an eyebrow. “Wouldn’t that make you the real Sweetie Belle? Since, ya know, yer the one everyone knows n all.”
Sweetie Belle was taken aback by the statement. After a few moments of stuttering, she returned to being downcast. “I guess it would, but what does that change? This is all my fault, and there’s nothing I can do about it.” And then a memory popped into her head: “The rear armor over the core is too thin.” “Well…”
Her friends’ eyes lit up. “So there is something you can do!”
“Me? I’m not a hero like our sisters! I’m just a young pony, barely old enough to maybe be called a mare instead of a filly! I’m just Sweetie Belle!”
“An mah sister’s just Applejack most of the time, ain’t she? She’s only a hero sometimes.”
“How many times have they saved the world? Ten times in as many years?” Scootaloo put a hoof around her. “That means they’re only heroes once a year! That’s not a lot, is it?”
Sweetie Belle felt it in her heart. Not a spark of hope, but a raging inferno of determination. “No, it isn’t.” With a thought she turned on her weapons, hearing the servomotors whir as they extended into place. “I can do something. I can do it.” She took a deep breath, feeling her friends drape their forelegs over her withers. It was Scootaloo that said it.
“You can be a hero.”
And with that, Sweetie Belle lifted off into the stormy night.

Scene 3

She found him quickly, the large mech being hard to miss. He had the Bearers cornered, and was charging up weapons to end them. She heard his malicious voice through the noise of storm and battle.
“And now, it ends. Your precious elements are useless against me, and the only being who can stand against me is nowhere to be found. Nopony is coming to save you now.”
“Not if I have anything to say about it!” Oh sweet Celestia that was corny. Sweetie Belle landed dramatically in between him and the six ponies, her weapons at the ready and her horn aglow.
He laughed. “You? A bot? Against me, your creator? Ha! Don’t make me laugh! What can you do?”
Sweetie Belle fired all her weapons at once and bolted into the air, angling over him as she defiantly yelled “try!” She weaved through the air, focusing on avoiding his weapons and getting behind him. Her horn tried to slash across the rear plating, but it didn’t do anything. Sensors, analyze armor strength! The report came back quickly enough: it would take everything to bring it down. So, she arced into a long loop to give her weapons time to charge, but a field of aura caught her and dragged her down. Her legs were pinned to her sides, and she struggled as Machinations brought her down to face him, an evil smile on his face.
“Oh, isn’t that adorable? It thinks it can get through the armor. Listen to me, bot. You’re nothing, a disposable piece of equipment that has long since served its purpose. I won’t even waste the energy on actually disposing of you, I’ll let the rain do that.” And suddenly a massive wave of magic squeezed in on her, and she felt an awful crushing sensation. Warning: waterproofing compromised. Serious potential for short circuiting. “Who knows? Maybe your black box recorder will give me useful data on catastrophic failure.” He threw her to the side with a great amount of force, sending her crashing into a wall. Her horn automatically lit up a shield to protect her from the rain, letting her lay there, paralyzed with pain.
“Sweetie Belle!” Her friends ran over, instantly hovering over her to see if she was okay. Sweetie Belle just groaned in pain. She noticed that the other Sweetie was standing nearby, looking on with disappointment.
“That was the best you could do, bot? I’ve spent my whole life in a cave and I’ve seen better. I can’t even imagine how you could be so foolish.”
She knew what she had to do. Tears began streaming down her face as she embraced each of her friends in turn. “I’ve seen things you wouldn’t believe. The Harmonizing Heights alive on the slopes of Mt Eris. I watched cutie marks glow on the flanks of foals near the Appleoosan Ridge. All those precious memories are going to be lost, like tears in the rain.”
The other Sweetie Belle nodded, and Scootaloo and Apple Bloom stepped away with looks of apprehension. Sweetie Belle stood up, and began charging her weapons. She slowly took off, angling herself so she only needed her rear hooves to fly, allowing her forelegs to be used as cannons. She flew up to altitude, firing off the missiles first, before doing a graceful backflip while dropping her shield. The rain crackled off her skin, and sparks flew as electronics short circuited.
Warning: waterproofing compromised. Short circuits possible.
When she was facing her target, she let loose with four cannons and her horn, all focused on one point. She nudged herself a bit to give herself some lateral motion, and as she fell a huge gash was torn into the rear of the mech. She heard Curtained Machinations scream curses while she ceased fire. She got her hooves beneath her and tried to stop her fall, but activating the thrusters caused major failure.
Warning: serious water damage.
She fell into a spin, losing control of her flight, sailing over the walls and into a freefall.
Warning: integral systems shutting down. Catastrophic failure possible.
Her vision started to go black as she tumbled through the night air, tears and raindrops on her cheeks.
Warning: core systems failure, activating auxiliary systems.
And on her face, was a small smile. Because she had won.
Auxiliary systems failed. All systems are failed. Warning: catastrophic failure imminent.
As the world went dark, she knew who she was, and that she had done the right thing.
_Warning: critical systems failed.
Warning: critical systems…
Warning: critical error.
Warning: cr-cr error.
Warning…_
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Free the Tantabus
Act 4
Epilogue

Sweetie Belle woke up in a hospital, her vision hazy. She saw orange and yellow shapes above her, and vaguely heard voices. In another moment, she could recognize Apple Bloom and Scootaloo, who began to cry tears of joy and hug her tightly. There were no words for several seconds.
“How? How did I?..”
Rarity answered her question. “We found you, at the bottom of the mountain, looking much worse for wear. We were afraid you wouldn’t make it, but she saved you.”
Rarity gestured at a pony with a white coat, criss crossed with scars. On their flank was a cutie mark showing a wrench and a gear, in colors that nicely matched the pink and purple of her stylishly short tail and mane.
Sweetie Belle was confused. “Why? Why did you save me? I thought you hated me.”
The other Sweetie Belle looked at her for a moment before looking away. “I realized it wasn’t you I should hate. You and your friends helped me realize that animosity wasn’t going to help me any. First it was when you broke down crying over your friends. But what sealed it was when they came to me, tears in their eyes, your body draped over one’s back, begging me to save you.” She paused for a moment. “I was so touched by how much they cared for you, in a way nopony had ever cared for me. I threatened to kill them with the robot legions for bothering me, but they persisted.” She looked at Sweetie Belle again. “I’ve never seen anything like it. I couldn’t bring myself to destroy the very thing I wanted more than anything else, so I took parts from the bot soldiers to stop you from dying. Your own repair nanobots will handle the rest.”
“Thank-”
“Don’t thank me. I didn’t do it for you, I did it for your friends. They helped me find out who I am.”
“Your cutie mark?”
She nodded. “Building bots for somepony else felt different when I did it of my own free will. I’m going to set up a workshop in the Everfree forest- well, takeover Machination’s workshop. I’ve got some assistants. We’ll figure out how his tech worked, then seal the blueprints away somewhere nopony can find them.”
“So we’re both going to be Sweetie Belle, then?”
“No. You’re Sweetie Belle. That name doesn’t fit me.”
“Then who are you?”
“You can call me… Sweetie Bot.” She paused pensively. “It fits. You’re going to need to rest for at least a week for repairs. Your friends here will keep you company.” She walked over to the bed, then extended a hoof. “Till we next meet, Sweetie Belle.”
Sweetie Belle shook her hoof. “Until then, Sweetie Bot.”
And then she left, leaving the pony with all the time in the world to figure out what it meant to be a robot.
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