Minuette's Lesson

by Airstream

Chapter 1: A Question

It was nearing three o’clock as I finished my work, took a step back, and admired. Brushing my mane out of my eyes, I nodded appreciatively. The product of two weeks of hard labor, late nights, and endless revisions was at last before me, complete and resplendent. One might even have gone so far as to call it beautiful. I redid my ponytail as I took my commission piece in. Not my usual, but…I was proud of the result.

The microchip was beyond state of the art, clocking in far beyond my client’s expectations and mine. It could, if it had the mind to, scan and store the entire contents of the town library and later recall it perfectly. It performed advanced math with ease, had simple facial recognition if hooked up to an optical crystal, and it could be trusted to run an industrial automaton with a ninety-four point eight percent dexterity rating.

Of course, it wasn’t going to be doing any of that. I had designed this chip for one purpose, and one purpose alone. Carefully, oh so carefully, I picked it up and slotted it into the drive where it belonged. The mannequin, wearing a simple white shift, began to dance to unseen music, joints clicking as it powered up and ran diagnostics. This was always a touchy part, the new environment for the chip. There was a slight chance that the chip would reject its surroundings, attempt to do something it really shouldn’t, and thereafter wreck itself. And then it would be back to square one.

However, my work was different. The three gleaming crystals on my flank proclaimed that. I was the first to realize that magical animation was more easily done with crystal components than metal, and upon completing my first simple automaton, my Cutie Mark had appeared in all of its splendor. And to think that I had once frittered away my time with fabric and frills! As the mechanism twirled and spun with increasing grace, I found myself drawn back down memory lane.

I remembered my debut in Canterlot, where my singing gems had astonished the elite and secured funding for years to come, and the audience with Princess Celestia to offer her a jester made of clockwork and amethyst, wearing her colors. Her initial hesitance had faded, and I can claim to be at least partly responsible for making the Princess laugh. That was all the reward I had truly needed, though the large commission hadn’t been turned away. That came with an interesting string attached, however.

Twilight Sparkle had helped me with this one. I made a note to talk to her at my earliest opportunity. That mare had some incredible ideas, and she had even helped me with some of the trickier mechanisms in this one. She had followed me back to Ponyville, on orders from the Princess to make some friends of her own. She had built up a thick shell around herself, and I couldn’t help but think that she had been bullied quite frequently in school. It had been by that simple order that I had started on a new and exciting chapter in my life. After we had defeated Nightmare Moon, and I had received the Element of Inspiration, I had immediately rushed home.

The dancing pony finished its movements, and bowed to me. I checked the clock, realizing that Sweetie Belle was going to be home soon. I smiled to myself. Mother and Father had no objection to her staying with me for as long as she wished, and tonight she was meeting with her group of friends to go crusading for their Cutie Marks. For a new addition to her schoolhouse, Sweetie Belle had fit in remarkably well. I was proud of her. It had taken quite some doing to convince her that school was a good thing for her.

I began busying myself with the cleaning up. The diamond dust I had been forging into wires was gently swept up and put away, my soldering tools and magnifying glasses were stored in their respective drawers, and the ceramic I had been using to plate the dancer was neatly stacked in one corner. Waste not, want not, after all.

It was a short walk from the schoolhouse to the shop, and so I expected Sweetie home somewhere between ten minutes and a quarter past the hour. I checked the calendar. She was spending the night with Scootaloo and her family, as Applejack was busy with the cider pressing and unable to watch all three of them. And I was expecting my client tonight for a full demonstration of the dancing pony.

Sure enough, the door to the shop creaked open at twenty minutes past, and I could hear the familiar and delicate footsteps of Sweetie Belle as she trotted inside, closing the door behind her. However, something was just a bit…off. Her usual cheerful greeting remained unsaid, and her hoofbeats were uneven. Curious, I poked my head around the corner door.

“Sweetie Belle? Are you alright?”

No sooner had the words left my mouth than I realized that she was not, in fact, alright. Her eyes welled up with tears as she and I locked gazes, and a small whimper escaped her lips. Her coat was matted and dirty, her mane unkempt and tangled with twigs and other detrius, and she lifted one leg to reveal that she was hurt. Extremely so.

Without another word, I rushed forward, pulling my workcoat off of its hook and slinging it over my back. Quickly, I lifted her up and carried her back into the workshop. I set her down on the floor. “Don’t move.” I pulled open one of the drawers, grabbing Sweetie’s kit. I examined the damage.

Oh, whatever had done this to my sister had really caused some damage. Her circuitry was clearly exposed, and I could see the little sparks running under her skin with frightening clarity. I seized my cutting tools, and pulled back the skin on her foreleg, examining the damage.

Of course I thought of her as my sister. I considered it no less than divine inspiration, the idea that had struck me on that night. Sweetie Belle was special in ways I could only begin to guess at. She had started as just another machine, but I could tell as soon as I saw her lying there, eyes closed and waiting to live, that she would be different. And I was right. She wasn’t just a machine. She talked, laughed, had good ideas (and some bad ones), and generally acted like just another filly. And that meant that she could hurt herself, if she wasn’t careful.

I looked her in the eyes, still wet with tears. “What happened?”

Sweetie Belle looked away. “I…fell. Down a hill.”

Not only was it a horrible lie, it was implausible. The road from Cheerilee’s schoolhouse was one she had walked a hundred times, and was also completely flat. And Sweetie Belle had exceptional balance. I’d seen her walking fences more times than I cared to admit, no matter how I scolded her for it. But there was no use pushing her on it now. I sighed.

“I see. Is anything else hurt? Or is it just your hoof?”

Sweetie Belle shook her head. “Just my hoof.”

I nodded and started to begin removing the impurities with some compressed air. She flinched a bit as the dirt and grime was lifted off of her circuits, but otherwise she kept a brave face on. I examined the rest of her forelimb. One of her power lines had been nicked, and so I applied a bit of diamond dust mixed with the necessary copper blend to ensure that she didn’t conduct too efficiently. I looked at her.

“Sweetie, this is probably going to sting a bit. Do you want to hold my hoof?”

After a brief moment, she gave a quick jerk of her head in affirmation. I smiled and extended one hoof, feeling her smaller one wrap around mine gently. Without wasting any more time, I soldered the nick shut. She yelped, and her hoof tightened on mine involuntarily, but it was quickly loosened as the pain of the burn faded.

“That was very brave, Sweetie Belle. Good job. Almost done, alright?”

I lifted a new piece of “skin” over the hole. Normally, the material I used, magically treated and resilient, would heal in a few days, and expel things like water and dirt. But every material had its breaking point, and this was no exception. I gently affixed it to the upper part of her leg, folding it back as I watched the material fade from grey to white. “Can you move your leg around for me?”

Sweetie Belle flexed her leg, rolling it around and bending at the knee and hooftip. She lifted it over her head with some difficulty, and lowered it again. She held it out for me to examine it once again. I took a screwdriver from my toolkit, and began to adjust one of the screws, part of a set I noticed had come ever so slightly loose.

“While I have your attention, would you care to tell me what really happened on the way back from school?” Sweetie Belle’s head shot up. Clearly, she hadn’t anticipated me seeing through the lie. “Don’t look at me like that, Sweetie. The road home is flat and paved.”

Sweetie bowed her head, and mumbled two words. “Diamond Tiara.”

And just like that, everything made sense. Filthy Rich, while not a bad sort, had a daughter. And while he was perfectly supportive of the admittedly controversial issue of Sweetie Belle, I had feared that the bad-tempered brat he was raising would not be so forgiving.

Sweetie Belle continued. “I left my pack in the schoolhouse, and when I came back out to get it, Scootaloo had gone. I walked after her, but Diamond Tiara and Silver Spoon were waiting with some of the older colts. They pushed me into the bushes and pulled my mane, and I cut myself running away.”

“Did they do anything else? Did they try and hurt you seriously?”

My sister shook her head. “No. Just called me names. Sweetie Bot, crankflank, that sort of thing.”

I could tell she was holding something back. “And that’s it?”

Sweetie Belle sighed. “They said…” her voice cracked. “They said I wasn’t really a pony. That I wasn’t even alive at all.”

I kept my tone neutral. This was a sensitive subject. One for the scholars up in Canterlot, even. Sweetie Belle was my sister, of that there wasn’t any doubt, and a citizen of Equestria. Princess Celestia had seen to that. But there were some who thought, despite the Princess’s endorsement, that she was just a fancy toy who thought herself a pony. “And what do you think about that?”

Sweetie Belle looked at me, really looked at me, for the first time since she had arrived at home. And the look on her face said it all. She was frightened. “I don’t know. I mean, I think that I’m a pony, and I think you do too. But what if I’m wrong? What if I’m just supposed to think that I’m real? And how could I tell?”

I had been dreading this conversation. There was no easy way to confront the fact that Sweetie Belle wasn’t alive, at least not in the traditional sense. I couldn’t lie to her about that. But at the same time, I knew that she was special. More than special, she was a gift.

“Sweetie Belle, I have a question for you. Why does it matter?”

My sister looked at me, confusion shining in her emerald eyes. “What do you mean?”

I smiled. “Why does it matter if you are or aren’t real? You think that you are, don’t you? And you know that you think about that sort of thing?”

Sweetie Belle nodded. “Right. We learned about that in school. Ponies are different than other animals because of something called…self-importance?”

“Self-awareness, Sweetie Belle.” I corrected her. “It’s called self-awareness. And yes, we ponies are one of a very few species that possess it.”

“But what does that have to do with…this?” she asked, gesturing at herself. “Didn’t you program me to be that way?”

I shook my head. “I tried to make the closest thing to real that I could. I came very close, I think. But never in my wildest dreams did I imagine that you would sit up on my table, look right at me, and smile. I did make you, Sweetie Belle. I’m not sure what I originally intended to do with you, but you’re not just another toy. Anypony with eyes can see that. There’s something inside of you, Sweetie Belle. Something I didn’t program in.”

I picked up my brush from a nearby table, and started to comb through her mane, working out the tangles and burrs. It gradually began to straighten, and I felt Sweetie Belle relax into me. “What’s that?” she asked.

“You.” I said simply. “What I had hoped for was maybe something like the baby dolls you see foals playing with. Perhaps a bit more complicated, able to speak and babble and coo and cry. But something told me to build bigger, and better. So I did. I was inspired, and soon enough I had a brand new sister. Not a toy, but a real sister, one who laughed and talked and had ideas and drove me a bit crazy at times.” I bopped her gently on the nose, eliciting a small giggle.

That faded, however. “But what if you’re wrong?”

I pursed my lips. Clearly Diamond Tiara had gotten to her. I really would have to talk to Filthy Rich. I thought about that for a moment, before settling on my answer. “I could be. But I don’t think I am. Either way, it isn’t my opinion that matters, Sweetie Belle.” I laid the brush to the side, picking up a small wire brush and working in her signature curls. “Only you can ever know for sure that you are real. It all depends on your perception, and what you think. There are many things that don’t think at all. And those are really the only things we can be sure aren’t like you and I.”

She pondered for a while, long enough for me to finish curling her mane. “So….what you’re saying is…I think…therefore I am?”

I blinked. “Goodness. You’re starting to sound like an Academy scholar! They love statements like those. Yes, Sweetie Belle. We can assume that because you think, you are real. The rest, as they say, is a matter of perspective. Take that to Twilight. She’d spend hours wrapping her head around it.”

“But I know that I’m not real. I was made, everypony says so.” Sweetie Belle said.

I shrugged my shoulders. “Legend has it that Celestia and Luna made the first ponies out of clay, clouds, and stars. How do you think the first ponies felt, seeing their fellows being formed right in front of them? If you believe that, then every single one of us is the descendant of something that isn’t real, just dolls made by the Alicorns. But you don’t see ponies running around screaming about being real. It isn’t worth it; we have far too much to do.”

Sweetie Belle smiled a little at the thought of ponies everywhere suddenly curling into quivering balls because of an existential crisis. I had to admit, the idea was amusing to me as well. She took after me in some ways. “Would you like to see the difference between what I can make and what you are?”

Sweetie Belle nodded. “Yes, please.”

I gently lifted her off of my workbench, leading her into the room where I had stored the automaton. She stood shakily on her own four hooves before taking a few tentative steps. Satisfied with her repairs, she began to walk with more confidence, following me into the next room. She gasped when she saw the dancer.

I had built her to be beautiful, the dancer. She was a first model, from which two sisters would be cast, but I thought then that I would still like her the best. She was tall and graceful, like a Saddle Arabian or perhaps the smaller form of Princess Luna, though my creation was nowhere near as tall as Princess Celestia. Her neck was delicately arched, and her mane flowed like silk in shimmering midnight waves down her shoulders as she swayed to music only she could hear. It should have. It was silk, after all. The ceramic gleamed in the afternoon light of my shop, and gave her the appearance of a flawless coat of white, though she had yet to receive any sort of covering. Her features, though fine, possessed the same blankness of a particularly well-formed porcelain doll. And really, she would never wear anything more than that expression.

“She’s so pretty, Rarity!” Sweetie Belle cried, taking it all in. “What’s her name?”

I paused, considering the automaton. I hadn’t thought of naming it, seeing as it wasn’t really mine to name. Then again, it was my creation, and I did have the right to give it a temporary designation.

“I hadn’t thought of one yet. Do you have a name in mind?” I asked her.

Sweetie Belle’s eyes were wide. “You want me to choose one? Really?”

I smiled. “Really.”

Her gaze shifted back to the dancer, who had just completed her dance and stood perfectly silent and still. A silent shift into the next dance was completed, and she began to move once more, performing a slow and graceful dance that reminded me a bit of the stately glide of a swan. She dipped, bowed, and rose on winged hooves before executing a dainty half-spin and promenading the length of her impromptu dance floor.

“What dance is that?” Sweetie Belle asked, awe in her voice.

“That’s called a minuet, Sweetie.” I replied calmly.

A smile crept across the little mare’s face at that. “That’s a perfect name. Minuette.”

“Then Minuette she is. A lovely name.”

We sat in companionable silence for a while more, watching the newly-christened Minuette spin and twirl gracefully. My work was good. She was a joy to watch, and I had no doubt her two counterparts would perform just as well, now that I knew she worked. As she spun to a halt once more, I spoke.

“Performance Unit model eight, stop.”

She froze right before she would have begun her next dance, a sort of flamenco. Her optics focused on me, and she spoke, her voice only nominally female. “Unit awaiting orders.”

I made sure to speak clearly and enunciate every word. A misunderstood command would only confuse the poor thing. “Programming root protocol edit; temporary unit designation change. Respond to name Minuette. Acknowledge.”

There was a click and a whir as the automaton processed the information. “Acknowledged. Unit designation Minuette. Further orders?”

I grinned at Sweetie Belle. “Activate protocol forty eight, designation Pinto Doble. Upon completion, resume testing phase.”

Without a word, the automaton sprang into action, hooves rat-a-tat-tatting on the wood of the floor in a complex pattern as Sweetie Belle giggled. She liked Palominan dances and culture, even going so far as to beg me for a traje de flamenca a while back, which I had seen no reason to keep from her. She wore it rarely, and never out of the house. I suspected she did so not out of neglect, but more a sense of reverence.

Sweetie Belle looked at me with a smile, and I realized that this was an excellent time to make my point.

“Do you know the difference between you and Minuette, Sweetie Belle?”

She shook her head no. “I mean, I can guess, but it just seems like really obvious stuff. She’s a really fancy doll, kind of. And I’m more complex.”

I nodded. “Exactly! You’ve got it exactly right, Sweetie. And let me explain to you why that’s so important. Minuette is empty inside. She has no preferences, no thoughts of her own. She accepted the fact that her name, a very important thing to you and me, was changed without a fuss. She didn’t tell me she didn’t feel like dancing, she just hopped right to it. She’s a dancer, and that’s all she will ever be. She’s not a pony who’s a dancer; she’s not a pony at all. You can tell just by looking at her.”

She looked at the dancer, who was moving into the bridge of the dance. “I don’t understand.”

“Sweetie Belle, are you a student?”

My sister looked at me strangely. “Yes, I am.”

“And is that all you’ll ever be, forever?”

Her eyes lit up. “No. And that’s what makes me different from her!”

I drew her in close. “Almost. You’re different because you can choose to be different from her. You could choose to be a doctor or singer or a teacher if you wanted. So could Minuette, but there’s a difference there. She can’t choose that on her own. I would have to choose for her. I could tinker with her, install a few new parts, but in the end, she wouldn’t be quite the same, would she?”

Sweetie Belle shook her head. “No, she wouldn’t.”

“Sweetie Belle, you are alive, because you possess something that none of my other creations have ever had, ever. You possess the ability to recognize yourself, and to try and change yourself. I’ve built ponies to pull carts or do heavy work. I’ve built ponies that can sing in Gryphic and Draconian and Taurish and even Old Eqquish. Some machines I’ve made can paint perfectly whatever is in front of them. But you are different in that you can create things from scratch. Minuette isn’t dancing because she feels any connection to music, she’s dancing because I’ve taught her how to move her body, and that’s all she will ever do. She isn’t aware of herself, Sweetie Belle. And you are.”

Sweetie Belle was quiet, thinking it through. “So I’m alive, because I can change myself?”

“Yes. You can. I don’t know how, or why, but you have as much choice in your life as any pony. You are full of potential, and you can use that potential in any way that you see fit. I have no say in the matter, and anypony who says differently about your ability to choose is wrong. And they’re wrong because you can choose whether or not you want to listen to them.”

I realized a few things as I said that. Sweetie Belle was a miracle, one in an infinity. I doubted that I would ever be able to make something like her again. And that was alright with me. But the fact that she was questioning the fact that she was alive and sentient proved that she was. Any intelligence with the capacity to question whether or not it was intelligent at all had proved that it was. She would always be the pinnacle of my work, more than just a project. I had considered acting as a mother to her. But it wasn’t me that had given her life, after all.

She was unplanned, completely unexpected. She had been “born” with a vocabulary of about a hundred words, but had learned quickly. Never had I needed to teach her how to walk or bathe or eat (and yes, she did eat), and when things had gotten really rough, like explaining why she needed to go to school, it had been my mother I had turned to. It was easier to be a sister to her, more natural than pretending to be something I certainly was not.

“Rarity?” Sweetie Belle asked, looking up at me. “Can I ask you something?”

I gave her my best smile. “Of course.”

“If nopony can limit my right to choose, does this mean that I can use your makeup to get ready in the mornings?”

I laughed, lifting her onto my back. Sweetie Belle was back with me, the precocious little filly I loved once more. “Since when have you ever asked my permission to use my things, Sweetie Belle?” I asked.

Her laughter joined mine, and we both retired from the workshop, ascending the staircase to the restroom to bathe her for her sleepover at Scootaloo’s tonight.

Sweetie Belle may not have been alive in the traditional sense. She might not even have had her own thoughts, perhaps she really was just a very complicated toy. But she thought of herself as a pony, and I did too. She played and laughed and experienced the world with all the wonder and joy one could expect from a filly. And really, wasn’t that enough? For anypony?

Sweetie Belle is made of crystal, and wire, and ceramic. She runs on magic, she will never age or die. She can run miles without stopping, go without food and water. And she is my sister. And I love her. And now, thanks to a simple dancer, she knew that. And she loved me too. As years went by, she would meet new ponies, learn new things. She would remember new places, forget old friends, perhaps I would one day fade to nothing more than a distant and hopefully happy memory. But I knew that Sweetie Belle, my miracle, would never forget Minuette’s lesson.

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