“Robot Pony” is a short story I wrote after hearing a strange song on a Canadian radio station that involved space-age toys and was played entirely on a thumb piano.
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Amanda didn’t want another stupid doll for Christmas. She had too many dolls as it was— hundreds, maybe thousands, each with their own pair of un-seeing eyes that stared at her from their perch on her shelves or from inside of her toy chests or peeking out from her closet. And she never played with them— had never even asked for them for that matter. They were eerie, unnatural things that did nothing to stimulate any latent motherly tendencies hidden in the nooks of her heart.
Still, year after year, the dolls poured into her bedroom as unwelcome guests that she shoved farther and farther back into the recesses of her wardrobe. It was simply assumed that, because she was a young and proper girl, she would want to play with dolls. How plain— how ignorant the adults could be.
What she really wanted, and what she had asked for and prayed for and begged for and wished for all year long, was a pony. There was no excuse not to give it to her. They had the land, the space, and the money. Her family could not hide those facts from her— not with the clothes they wore and the food they ate, and the gadgets her father brought home from work to play with: new readers, pocket computers, wireless technology surpassing all that had come before. People on the streets would pay thousands of credits for those things, and her father handed them out to his children all year long as if they were nothing more than tin soldiers.
Her little sister Jennifer loved the strange gadgets their father gave them. It was all she ever asked for at Christmas, those new technological wonders that no one at school would have until late in the year. And father always came through for her. He always got Jenn what she wanted for Christmas, but never Amanda. It was always dolls for her. Boring, annoying, scary, robotic dolls with eyes that blinked and mouths that spoke. Why on earth would anyone want such terrifying mimicries of life?
So, for the past year she had made it very clear that she wanted a pony for Christmas. And here it was, Christmas morning, and there they all were, with a pile of sparkling gifts wrapped before them in ribbons of silver and gold. She did not see a pony.
And later, while Jenn was rolling in glee through a mass of shredded paper and bows, playing with some new game that sounded horrifically violent, Amanda’s parents pointed her in the direction of one last box, hidden behind the tree. It was rather large, and for a moment her heart contemplated skipping a beat, wondering if perhaps, inside, there was a leather saddle— or riding gear— or something to prove that there was a stable and pony being brought to their yard at that very moment.
She tore the wrapping from the box, paper crumpling beneath her frenzied hands as a fire burned in her eyes… A fire that was quickly extinguished when she realized what it was.
There was a picture of a pony on the box, and the picture looked as real as life. It was a picture of the pony that was inside the box, in mechanical bits and programmable pieces. It was just another doll.
“Not a doll,” her father explained, pointing to the diagrams on the back. “It’s a pony. A robot pony. You can ride it, and brush it. But it doesn’t need a stable, and it doesn’t need to be fed.”
The horror of such an unnatural thing, an incomprehensible, unfair imitation of her simple Christmas wish, made Amanda burst into tears and run up the stairs to her bedroom. She was inconsolable.
But Jenn tore her eyes away from her new things, and saw the box. She looked it over with glee and offered: “I can put it together for her. We’ll see if she doesn’t change her mind when she sees it come to life.”
Amanda didn’t change her mind. Even when all of its robot organs and robot limbs were in place, and it was covered with fake skin and nylon, dapple gray fur, and it was flicking its tail and following her around the room with its bold brown eyes, she wanted nothing to do with it. “You can have it, sister. It is an abomination,” she sobbed, hand to forehead, and quitted the room immediately.
Jenn quite liked the robot, though. It was soft and interesting, and smelled so real. And, it seemed to have become fond of her, if robots could become fond of their owners. She read the manual from front to back, and tried pushing all kinds of buttons on the control panel hidden beneath the fur on the pony’s chest. There was a second control panel hidden on the back of its neck, for when you are riding, but Jenn did not feel like riding. She felt like learning.
“What shall I call you?” she asked.
The pony tilted its head in a smooth imitation of life. “Whatever you wish, Mistress.”
Jenn frowned. “I wish to call you by your name. Do you not have one?”
“Not until I am given one, Mistress.”
“Call me Jenn, please.”
Jenn stroked her chin as she had often seen her father do while deep in thought. “I think I will name you Po. Because I like it. Do you like it?”
“I like it, if you like it, Jenn.”
Jenn smiled and laughed. “I like you very much.”
“And I like you, Jenn.”
And from then on, they were friends.
The ponies were a big hit that Christmas, an expensive gift for the child who has everything (except a real pony). But real ponies were not practical— they required too much care for the demographic that generally asked for one, and had no real use in the world that Jenn and Amanda lived in. They lived in a world of technology, where everything was automated and digitized and operated on wavelengths and wires. There were robots for farming, robots for cleaning, robots for plowing the streets after snow and robots for cleaning the air around factories. And at their father’s company, they figured there might as well be robots for pets as well.
Amanda immediately regretted letting her little sister have Po when she realized that all of her friends had robot ponies now, and enjoyed riding them around their manicured gardens together. She couldn’t join them when they went on expeditions to the corner market or through the woods. She was invited once or twice for pony-drawn sleigh rides, but those only happened every so often.
“I want it back,” she tried one day, a sharpness in her voice that let Jenn know she was prepared to fight for what she wanted.
Jenn had grown very attached to Po by then, and would have hated to give him up completely. But she loved her sister, and could not refuse her. “We can share him, Amanda. You can have him today, and I shall have him tomorrow.”
Po whinnied his consent, for he was programmed to always be quite amicable.
“Fine,” Amanda rolled her eyes. “Show me how to use him.”
Jenn pursed her lips. It was uncomfortable to hear her sister refer to time spent with Po as “using him.” But was it uncomfortable because it was wrong, or because it was true?
Po learned from Jenn to speak softly and with animation, especially when they read from books on adventure and peril. Sometimes they curled up together at night on the floor of Jenn’s bedroom, and she would fall asleep against Po’s hide, listening to the whir of the gears in his heart, talking about all the different things she wanted to be when she grew up. Po wondered if he could grow up at all. They walked together in the snow, and took turns reading stories, and theorized about the origins of stars. But that did not mean Jenn was not using him.
With Amanda, it was different. Po was a slave to her more than anything else. She rode him with her friends, and never bothered to brush him down or clean him when his fur became caked with mud or wet with slush and snow. She left him outdoors with the other ponies when she and her friends came inside for hot chocolate, and though robots were not said to be able to feel cold other than through their thermostats, Jenn did not like the idea.
“Watch this!” Meredith called out to her friends one day, riding strong and fast on her pony’s back. Her name was Sugar, and she was black as night. They galloped across the yard and in a single, swift leap, Sugar took Meredith all the way over the fence.
The other girls clapped and cheered, and Amanda, feeling that her pony should be able to do all that and more, pried open the top control panel with her gloved fingers and wondered at the buttons staring up at her.
“How do I do that, Po?” she asked the pony quietly.
“I’m sure I cannot tell you, Mistress,” Po replied, for Amanda had never given him permission to use her name.
“Silly thing,” she spat, and tested a few buttons.
Before she knew it, the horse was racing across the yard and Amanda was clinging to the reins for dear life. She punched the buttons furiously, screaming bloody murder, until Po came to an abrupt stop and she somersaulted over his head, landing on her back in a snow bank.
Po looked down at her with dead eyes, and whirred as his circuit board shut down.
The other girls laughed and pointed. Amanda, stifling her tears, growled “I hate you!” at the robot pony, before jumping to her feet and running home.
Jenn came with her father later that night to bring Po home. Together they reset his programming, and he came back to life. Po seemed happy to see Jenn.
“How was your day?” Jenn asked.
“My memory recall is imperfect, Jenn. I spent it with Mistress Amanda, is that correct?”
“You did. I think she mashed up your control board.” Jenn smirked and whispered. “She probably won’t be taking you away from me for some time.”
“I am delighted, Jenn.” Po whinnied. He pawed at the ground with his stainless steel hoof in a pre-programmed display of joy. There were no pre-programmed displays of unhappiness in that line of ponies.
Jenn spent the long winter with her friend, and together they enjoyed many adventures through the overcast, snowy days. They explored the woods behind Jenn’s home, and fought imaginary villains hiding in snow drifts. They raced the other neighborhood girls and their robot ponies, and with Jenn’s gentle urging and tender caresses, Po always won in the face of the other girls’ shouting and kicking. Po’s eyes were always brighter after a race, Jenn thought. In fact, the other ponies often looked quite dejected, if it was even possible for a robot to show emotion in its eyes.
Together they safely explored the streets of Jenn’s village, saying hello to the grown-ups she recognized in their cars as they passed. She went to the grocer for her mother, and he would give her two extra sweets, one for Jenn “and one for Po,” he said with a wink.
Po would thank him, and give it to his friend instead.
When winter melted into spring and small bright flowers began to burst from the thawing earth, Po and Jenn clip-clopped through the neighborhood together to meet and greet her other friends, many of which had recently returned from their winter homes.
“Oh Jenn, whatever are you doing with that toy?” Bethany wondered when the two of them came calling. “My oldest sister got one for Christmas, and she had to send it to be melted down. Those things are dangerous, and not to mention so last year.”
“Po isn’t dangerous, are you, Po?” Jenn insisted, looking up at her friend from her place beside him.
“No, Jenn. I’m your friend. Friends are kind.” Po cocked his head.
The gesture was eerily human. Bethany shrank back. “Well what are you going to do, Jenn? You will look silly with that pony now. No one has kept on with theirs. And in the Fall we will be starting junior high— you won’t be able to walk around with a toy pony then. And what about when he finally breaks down? Will you cry? It’s not as if he is alive, you know.”
Jenn flushed under the pressure of these remarks and gripped Po’s mane. He whinnied, short and low, and it almost seemed to Jenn as if he was sad.
“I won’t give you up,” Jenn told him on their way home, her hand laid safely on Po’s thick neck. “Maybe I can’t bring you around so much when I’m older, but I can still have you at home.”
Po took a moment before he responded. When he did, his voice was modulated to an unusually soft volume. “Do not worry about me, Jenn. I am only a toy.”
“Only a toy?” Jenn repeated. She supposed, if she set her imagination and her heart aside, that was true. But such could be said for anything when the heart is set aside: a mother is just a caregiver; a lover is just a body; a friend is just a way to pass the time.
“Oh, Po, I do not believe that, even for a second.” Jenn had made up her mind.
“But you must,” Po replied evenly, but too soon after she had spoken, telling of his own distress.
“I am a machine, Jenn. And machines cannot be like that which is alive.”
Jenn’s cheeks flushed. She didn’t like this, not at all. Had he taken Bethany’s words to heart? “Don’t you enjoy being my friend, Po?”
“And I enjoy your friendship. How can I think of you as a toy when we are so clearly friends?” She stroked Po’s mane.
Po could not find the correct words with which to respond. He whinnied instead.
The days wore on, warming by degrees to bring their small village out from under the muddy, frosty heel of March. Po had become quiet after the encounter with Bethany, but sometimes, in moments of mirth with his beloved Jenn, he would forget his contemplations and remember what it was to be among the living. But his computer brain was too fast to be out-thought, and inevitably his logic caught up and overran his emotion. He knew he was not living. And no matter how much he felt he loved Jenn, and knew that she loved him, Po could not ignore the fact that it was only a matter of time before his circuits failed, or his hard drive crashed, and he abandoned Jenn forever.
He did not want her to hurt when that day came.
But day after day they heard rumors of other robot ponies, ponies who threw their owners and were sent to be melted down, and ponies who were left to themselves after their mistresses and masters had grown weary of them, falling into a stupor before their hydraulic limbs squealed and locked, freezing up forever while their circuit boards fizzled and died. It sounded to Jenn that they had died of broken hearts— but to everyone else, they were just defective.
When Jenn and Po came home one afternoon that spring, her father was waiting for her with her mother.
“Jenn, we need to speak to you about Po,” father said, hat in hand.
Jenn did not like the look on his face— at once pained and firm, the face of a father who knows that his decision is what’s best, and that’s all the solace he may have for some time.
She left Po in the atrium with a gentle stroke of his nose, and walked into the drawing room where a fire was burning the last of the winter chill from the house. Her father stood by the mantle; mother rested in a chair, hands folded in her lap, smiling absent-mindedly.
“Yes, father?” Jenn ventured, clasping her hands before her.
“It’s about Po,” Father began. “As you know, the robot ponies that came from our factory this year were the first of their kind.”
“Well, there seem to be some kinks to work out,” he continued. “There have been too many reports of the ponies breaking down, or throwing their owners, or turning on them. I’m afraid my company has no choice but to recall the ponies.”
Jenn’s heart didn’t sink, as she had read hearts were wont to do at the revelation of a great disappointment. Instead, it seemed to swell, to fill her chest until she could hardly breathe.
“But,” she gasped. “But, father, Po has done no such thing!”
“Sweetheart—” her mother tried, revealing her position as damage control.
“Po has never been anything but gentle,” Jenn went on. “The only time he reared was after Amanda smashed his control panel, and you can’t blame him for that, he was only following the orders she input. Oh please, father, please!”
“I’m sorry, Jenn,” Father said. There was true compassion in his voice, but there was also a sternness that Jenn knew meant she could not argue him down. “Go on, you still have today. Tomorrow I will have to take him back to the lab.” The firelight cast grim shadows over his features as he frowned. He hated to see his daughters cry.
Jenn rushed out of the drawing room in tears. She grabbed Po’s reins and he followed her, out the back door, into their yard, into the woods, down to the creek, swollen and rushing with melted snow that cut them off from the woods.
Po wanted to nuzzle his friend, to cheer her up in any way he could. But it would only make things worse, he knew. So instead, he stood cold and aloof while she buried her face in his hide and bawled.
“Oh, Po,” Jenn sobbed. “It’s not fair, it’s not fair!”
“Do not cry, Mistress,” Po replied.
Jenn sniffled, and looked up. “Mistress?” she wondered.
“I am only a toy,” he went on. “And you will be a young lady soon, with no need for such a thing as me.”
Jenn shook her head. “No, it’s not true, Po!”
“I am mechanical, robotic, computerized. I have been shaped by engineers, programmed for many things: to be kind, to please, to preserve myself. But the engineers say my programming is flawed, and I need to be destroyed. It is just like any of the gadgets your father has brought home, only to return later.”
Jenn’s lower lip quivered, and she stepped away from Po, towards the creek. “No,” she whispered. “You can’t mean that.” She frowned. “Do you mean to say that these past months you have not been my friend? That you were only following your programming?”
Po’s programming refused to let him lie, but his logic card knew that a robot could not feel friendship. “I have not been your friend, Mistress. I have been your robot. I am sorry if I have confused you.”
Jenn took another step back, closer to the water. “Don’t say that, Po,” she murmured, heartbroken.
“I am sorry, Mistress.”
Jenn closed her eyes, tears leaking despite the fact, and moved to rub her eyes and turn away. But she did not see where she was stepping, and suddenly she found herself falling backwards into the icy water.
Po stared at Jenn, watched her slip and tumble into the creek, watched the water slosh up around her, and swallow her into its depths. Power surged through his circuits and he fully intended to dive in to save her, but for a moment he was frozen.
His programmers had designed him to preserve himself, and submersion in water would certainly be his end. But his end was coming either way, was it not? And so would Jenn’s, if he did not do something to stop it.
Something warm and swift flew through Po, as if the gears in his heart had burst into flames, and the blaze had caught in his circuits. The safety mechanism programmed to protect him from inflicting harm to himself dissolved in the heat of his intention, and Po jolted forward. He leapt, and plunked into the creek nearly twenty feet down from where they had stood, sinking like a rock.
Jenn collided with Po as the creek tried to drag her downstream. She clung to him, small fingers wrapping around his soggy mane. Po reached around with his massive head and bit her jacket, picking her up with his tremendous jaws, and put her on his back where she would be safe from the current. She was shaking wildly, shivering with cold and fear and the weightlessness of adrenaline trying to force her mind from her body, but she managed to lock her arms around Po’s neck as he climbed out of the creek and back onto dry land.
When the rushing sound of water was no longer filling their ears, a new sound had come to fill the space: the hissing and popping of Po’s circuits as water mixed with electrical input and began to fry his circuit boards. Jenn climbed down and looked him in the face.
“Po?” she asked.
“Yesss,” he replied. His voice was tinny and… robotic.
“You saved me,” she said. “A toy would not have saved me.”
Po cocked his head.
“Please, tell me the truth,” Jenn begged, shivering terribly. Her lips were blue, and her brown hair hung in strings plastered to her pale, pale face. “Tell me if our friendship was real.”
Po’s eyes flared and went out. He could no longer see his friend, and his joints and gears were losing power. His memory was crackling, blackening, turning to fragments. He did not remember who he was, or what she was, or what it meant to be real. He did not know what he would have said even if he could have mustered enough power to his sound cards before his motherboard fizzled out forever.
But what he did say was: “Jenn.”
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