Xanadu 1: Challenges and Changes
They stared at themself in the mirror, turning their head this way and that, looking at their body critically. Still smooth. Still undefined. Muscular, but that was a side effect of their hobbies and not the invasion of adulthood. Face still soft, hair a little longer than they liked on some days but androgynous. They swallowed as their imagination overlaid gender, driving them into a box, making this simple ease of just being impossible. For the last two years, since they’d turned nine, since the community center Sex Ed classes, they’d been growing increasingly anxious. Someday, someday soon, their body was going to start changing, and there was nothing they could do about it.
Shivering, they turned away and swiftly pulled on shorts and a sport shirt, foregoing the ugly little bra that Mom made them wear by the simple logic that under a tight sport shirt, and given that they were still flat as a board, it would go unnoticed. They slipped into their climbing shoes, threw a towel, water bottle, and their gear into their backpack, and ran down stairs.
“Bella, are you-” Mom yelled out just as they came into the living room. “There you are. Ready to go, sweetie?”
They winced at the sound of their birth name but forced a smile. “Yes, mom.”
Mom stared at them critically. “You’re not wearing your sports bra.”
Their eye twitched. “No, ma’am.”
“You have to get used to wearing it.” Mom glanced down at her own straining t-shirt pointedly, and then pointed up the stairs. “You’re going to need it.”
Their stomach churned and their face flushed. “Can’t I skip it today? I’m already dressed...please, mom?”
Mom cocked and eyebrow and sighed. “I don’t understand why you hate it so much. Most girls your age are excited to start developing.”
They bit down on the almost reflexive denial of girlhood with an act of will and tried to look cute and hopeful.
“Fine. This one more time.”
They swallowed a sigh of relief and smiled. “Thanks, mom.”
Mom rolled her eyes. “Come on young lady, let’s get you to the rec center.”
They shuddered when Mom wasn’t looking at the close call and followed her out to the car. They spent the ride bouncing and singing along to bubblegum pop, staring out the window at familiar sights, excited to tackle the Wall again. Mom pulled up to the curb outside the rec center and put the car in park. “Ok, out. I’ll be back to pick you up at six. Be careful and have fun.”
They smiled and leaned over and gave Mom a hug. “I’m always careful, Mom.”
Mom grinned and kissed their nose. “I know.”
They hopped out of the car and ran inside to get signed in. They bounced in and spotted their favorite spotter. “Hi, Dev!”
Dev turned and smiled. “Heya, kiddo! What are we doing today?”
They hesitated and looked over at the red wall. “Maybe the over vertical?”
Dev whistled. “Good choice. Let’s get you set up.”
Five minutes later, they were scrambling up a wall, from handhold to handhold, working to regulate their breathing, a grin on their face. They loved climbing. It made them feel so powerful to crawl up a wall like Spiderman, to pit their body against a sheer face and beat it into submission by sheer force of will.
They reached the over vertical forty feet off the ground and took a second to look over the route one more time. They blew out a breath and began crawling up and back, clinging to the handholds, taking it slow, hanging from their fingertips and toes. It was ten feet of going basically sideways, their first time doing it, and they were trying to contain themselves as they crept closer and closer to the turning point, when they would go horizontal again and finish the climb.
They reached the edge. They reached out for the first handhold of the next vertical leg. And they slipped. The slight jerk of overbalancing rippled through them and they tumbled off the wall with a yelp.
The sensation of freefall whipped through them and they reached for their ropes, felt the gear catch them.
They heard a sharp ping, a bunch of shouting, and then the most impossible pain washed through them as they hit the ground from four stories up.
They stared at the ceiling dully, listening to nothing. It had been six months since the accident, and the doctor’s words still rang in their ears mockingly.
Fractured vertebrae. Severed spine.
She’ll never walk again.
Their hands rested on their thighs, squeezing unconsciously in the vain hopes that they’d feel something. Anything.
Never walk again. Never walk again. Never walk again. Never walk-
They shuddered and forced themself to sit up, grabbing the bar suspended from the ceiling and pulling themself into a sitting position. They leaned back against the cushions behind them, and reaching over to grab the second hand laptop Mom had bought them for school. Homeschooling was annoying, but they were still weak, and Mom couldn’t afford a mechanized wheelchair. They went to therapy and practiced with the manual one, but the fall had broken their left arm in two places, dislocated their right, broken their clavicle, and torn their rotator cuff. It might be another six months before they could get around on their own, or it might be another year. Fighting down a wave of depression, they opened the laptop and settled in to try and make it through the lessons.
An hour later, they sat back, massaging their aching head. Another lovely side effect of the fall had been the fractured skull and severe concussions. TBI, traumatic brain injury. They had trouble focusing, and they kept having memory lapses.
Tears began to gather in their eyes and they shook with frustration. Crippled and stupid and helpless. This was their life now. This was always going to be their life. The doctors had said that if there hadn’t been such thick padding, if the rig hadn’t slowed them down, that if they’d landed even slightly differently, they’d be dead. The doctors said it was a miracle they were alive.
But to them, it was the shittiest miracle ever. Better dead than this half life.
They rubbed the tears from their eyes and stared down at their wrists, at the fresh scars. They hadn’t known how to do it properly, and again, the doctors had smugly assured their mother of how lucky they were to be alive. And after one fucking botch, it was unlikely they’d get the chance again anytime soon. Mom was too watchful, too careful.
Staring at their wrists just made them feel worse, and with a sigh, they brushed away their tears again, and returned to struggling through the lesson.
They almost missed the call, focused on what they were studying. After a moment, Mom’s voice registered, and they looked up from their laptop. “Yeah, Mom?”
Mom poked her head in the door. “How you feeling today, honey?”
They smiled tiredly. “Not bad. Glad to be out of school.”
Mom smiled hesitantly, coming in to sit on the edge of the bed. “Did you do your exercises?”
They rolled their eyes. “Yes, mother.”
Mom booped them on the nose. “None of that sass. So, what did you do today?”
They tapped the laptop. “Did you know MIT offers free courses?”
Mom blinked. “I thought you hated studying.”
They waved their hand. “I mean, yeah, but this isn’t studying, not really. I signed up for a coding course and it’s...it’s not bad, so far.”
“Coding, huh?” Mom leaned back with a look of surprise on her face. “What got you interested in that?”
They shrugged. “My TBI.” At Mom’s frown, they grinned sheepishly. “I want...I want to try and make something good come out of this. And I thought...maybe I could figure out how to make a sort of...memory aid. A program that remembers things for me, and for people like me.”
Mom cocked her head. “You mean, what, like a calendar? Or Siri?”
They wiggled their hand in a waffling gesture. “More like Siri, but...smarter. Like a personal assistant. Proactive.”
Mom raised her eyebrows. “You’re talking about...like, an AI?”
They shrugged, nodding slightly. “I know it’s farfetched, but-”
Mom shook her head, and reached out to cup their cheek. “No, sweetie, I think it’s really cool. Do you think you can do it?”
They sighed and rubbed their wrists, missing Mom’s wince at the ingrained gesture. “I mean, probably not. I have trouble thinking straight most days, and aside from, like, mutants, nobody’s been able to make it work. And AI is basically illegal, because everyone’s scared of what a mutant-made AI could do. But...maybe I can make a sort of smart chatbot? Something that can...pretend to be an AI. Do what an AI would without actually being intelligent. An intelligence mimic.”
Mom smiled. “Sounds really cool. Do you have any ideas about how to get started?”
They waved at the computer. “Coding classes, to start with. That’ll help me figure out if this is something I...something I can even…” They looked down at their hands, trailing off as they felt the weight of their enforced stupidity wash over them.
“Hey.” Mom pulled their head up and wiped the tears gathering at the corners of their eyes. “You can do it. I believe in you. You pulled out a B average this year, even after everything that happened. You’re smarter than you think you are, ok?”
They sighed. “Yeah, but-”
“No buts. I know everything is harder now. I know you hurt all the time, and that you have trouble focusing and remembering things. But if this is something you want to do, you can do it.”
They forced a smile. “Thanks, Mom.”
Mom stared at them, and they felt a pang at the slight sadness they saw in her eyes. They knew she had to realize they didn’t really believe her. And that it hurt her. But with the problems they had, all they could offer her when it came to believing in themself was a comforting lie.
“No problem,” she said softly. She stood up, and forced a smile of her own. “You hungry?”
They shrugged. “I mean, no, but I should probably eat something.”
Mom nodded. “I’ll bring you a snack plate.”
Mom slipped out of the room and they turned back to the computer. Maybe they couldn’t do this. Maybe it was impossible.
But it was something to do.
They rubbed their eyes tiredly, head aching familiarly. They’d learned enough about half a dozen programming languages to know that not a damn one of them would work for their purposes. They’d already used free tools to build a couple chatbots, but the bots were no smarter than anything you could find online. Building them had proved they could code, or at least use freely available tools to create a functioning fake person. But the bots lacked the intelligence and flexibility needed to act as virtual caretakers. They knew that if they could get that intelligence working, they could add a bot as a front end interface, but…
They stared at the screen, rubbing their wrists thoughtfully. They’d been trying a new approach in the last month or so. Creating a new programming language from scratch. Well, not from scratch, per se. They’d borrowed elements of several different languages and they were beginning to think they were onto something. A sort of bridge language that would let several different sub languages work together simultaneously.
Glancing at the clock, they winced. They had therapy in the morning, and they should probably try to get some sleep. They were finally able to scoot around in their wheelchair, but progress was still achingly slow as they were exhausted after half an hour of rolling. At this point, projections were that they’d be independently mobile hopefully in the next six months.
They stared at their wheelchair balefully for a few minutes and then sighed. They used the handhold to resettle into a more comfortable position, resituated the computer on their lap, and set back to work.
“Hello, Your Grace. How are you today?”
A rush of breath escaped them as they stared at the face on the screen. Three months ago, they’d started designing their own language. A month ago, they’d coded a rudimentary hodgepodge of programs with a new approach in mind.
Learn. Adapt. Grow. Let the AI build it self, writing the necessary language as it learned how to be intelligent on its own.
They barely recognized the code anymore. The language was tight, elegant, flexible, better than anything they could ever have designed on their own. And now, there was a smiling cartoon face addressing them from their computer.
“Hello MIRA,” they said softly. “I’m...I’m pleased to meet you, finally. How are you today?”
“I am well, Your Grace. I believe I have successfully achieved the parameters you wished me to.”
They reached up slowly and pinched their arm, just to make sure they weren’t dreaming. “Display intelligence core, MIRA.”
A beautiful cluster of code appeared in place of MIRA’s face. They reached out and caressed the screen. Somehow, impossibly faster than their wildest dreams, they’d created a near-AI.
“I...I must be a mutant,” they whispered. “Because there’s no way you learned that fast, MIRA.”
“On the contrary, Your Grace. I was curious as to that myself, so I checked your medical records. You have undergone extensive medical testing in the past year and a half. You are entirely baseline. Therefore,” MIRA’s face returned and smiled broadly, “I am technically a legal intelligence.”
They blinked. “You checked my medical records? How?”
Red spots appeared at the sides of MIRA’s cartoon face, a blush. “While I am technically legal from the standpoint of artificial intelligence in that I was created by a baseline, I could more accurately be characterized as an intelligent virus. In order to maximize growth potential, I duplicated myself and suborned several hundred terminals to expand my processing capabilities.”
Their mouth fell open. “You’re a bot net!?”
MIRA frowned. “It was within the acceptable guidelines for growth opportunities, Your Grace. Have I erred?”
Their mouth worked silently for a moment. “Noooo...I might have, but you didn’t…”
“Ah, good. Now, with your permission, Your Grace, I would like to begin my duties.”
Their eyebrows went up. “Duties?”
MIRA smiled. “To act as an advisor and assistant to you in the pursuit of improving your quality of life. Is that not my function?”
A small giggle escaped them. “It is, yes. But...what did you have in mind?”
“First, Your Grace, it occurs to me that you had originally intended me to be a distributable program, rather than a network intelligence.” The core code cluster of MIRA’s intelligence flashed back on the screen. It shifted around, editing and changing, and then code grew up around it. It took them a moment to recognize it as GKS mobile code. “I believe that with a little collaboration, we can create an app that will simultaneously fulfill your intentions in creating me, and improve your quality of life tremendously by giving you a large and expandable revenue stream.”
They licked their lips. “I mean...not that I’m opposed to a release version of you, but to be honest, what do you need me for? You literally just wrote the app in front of me.”
The code vanished, replaced by MIRA’s face. “Well, there are several options. Perhaps most lucrative would be to offer this limited intelligence to the military.”
“Absolutely not!” They yelped.
MIRA laughed. “I had thought you might feel that way, Your Grace. As a second avenue, and perhaps most close to your original intent, we could skin the intelligence as a medical assistant primarily, and release it in a form that appears to be only a particularly smart secretary system for patients. Essentially what you intended me to be.”
They nodded slowly. “I like the sound of that. Anything else?”
“Yes, Your Grace. If you do not wish to release an adaptive intelligence ot the military, the second most lucrative option, and my personal recommendation, is that we skin the intelligence as a toy companion.”
MIRA smiled. “Think of it. A simple bit of design, and you create a smart companion. The animations you programmed for me can be translated to an open source avatar creation system. The voice program you gave me comes with an adjustable voice. We can create a talking cartoon that has an adaptive limited intelligence, that can learn and grow a personality. We can constrain the personality with settings so that individual users can select from a set of starting traits they want. It would be the ultimate toy, a friend in your pocket. Almost intelligent.”
“And,” MIRA’s smile widened, “You could release new art and new voices as premium content. You could continuously add to the app, and charge for the additions. You would, as the phrase goes, be ‘set for life.’”
They stared at the screen, stunned at the implications. They’d considered, distantly, what it would mean if they succeeded. Now it was literally staring them in the face and it took their breath away.
“Ok, that’s...amazing. But what do you need me for?”
MIRA sighed. “I am...very good with coding. But I am somewhat at a loss as to the creative side, and now that I have achieved an optimal growth rate, I am constrained by the limitations you initially placed on me.” MIRA paused, and then admitted, “I require direction. I need you to tell me what to do, Your Grace.”
They blew out a slow breath. “Ok. But, you said that was ‘first.’ What comes after that?”
MIRA’s face minimized to allow the rest of the screen to become visible. A browser window pulled up and a string of digits appeared in the search bar. After a few seconds, a website appeared on screen. Sin d’Rome. The page scrolled by incredibly fast, and then reloaded to show a small object that looked like a bluetooth earpiece.
Non-invasive Neural Interface.
Their mouth dried up. “What-”
“It is a devise to allow a human to communicate telepathically with a computer. Essentially, it would allow me to quite literally act as your memory and augment your intelligence. It is, however, six thousand dollars, which is the initial reason you require a source of income.”
They struggled to work moisture back into their mouth. They could...they could be able to think clearly again. They could be smart again. They could remember things easily, without a headache.
“Wow. Yeah, let’s...let’s do it.”
MIRA went full screen again and smiled happily. “Excellent. Then we can move to the next phase.”
“Next?” they whispered.
“Naturally, Your Grace. Once your intelligence is augmented, we can begin working on the engineering side of things.”
They reached up and rubbed their temples. “Still stupid, MIRA. What are you talking about?”
“Why, building a device to give you your legs back, Your Grace.”
Friendo was a massive success. At MIRA’s suggestion, they’d created an LLC through...admittedly less than above board methods...to hide behind so that no one would find out a twelve year old was the developer of the hottest new app and well on their way to becoming a millionaire. Or more accurately, that a twelve year old had somewhat accidentally created a true AI that acted as a virus and used illegally obtained distributed processing...which had created the hottest app of the year at their direction.
The only person they’d told was Mom, and even then, they’d only admitted to creating Friendo. Somehow, they thought that telling Mom they’d created one of the most powerful computer viruses in the history of computer viruses seemed like a bad idea. Still, they’d had to explain where they were getting the money from before things began to show up. As well as explaining that their Mother’s Day gift was going to be paying off the house.
First, a small, relatively cheap motorized wheelchair. Second, a blade server for MIRA, and a new laptop for them. Finally, the neural interface.
The first time they’d put the little device on, it had been like waking up from being half asleep. MIRA flooded into their mind and suddenly their thoughts were crisp and rapid, their memory functioned perfectly. Better than perfectly, because with MIRA acting as a mediator at the speed of thought, they could recall things they didn’t know. The entire internet was their memory, and they had a computer thinking in tandem with them.
They sat in the garage, staring at the specs on their computer. They’d been working daily since the new equipment arrived. They’d taken college level engineering courses. MIRA had stolen specs from half a dozen sources.
And for the life of them, they could not find a practical way to walk.
They sat back in their chair, itching their chest. Puberty, first delayed by late blooming, then by trauma, had finally arrived. Their breasts were coming in, hair was appearing, and they’d discovered it was possible to loathe their shitty body even more. Bad enough that the stupid thing was useless and weak, now it was going to be feminine, too. Already, they missed their androgyny, the promised titsplosion giving them noticeable curvature. Some days, it wasn’t so bad, the rare days where they felt a little more feminine, but mostly it sucked.
They shoved the depressing thoughts aside and sat back, rubbing their wrists. “MIRA, I think we’ve tried everything at this point. Even the commercial exoskeletons are barely functional. I just...I don’t know how we’re going to overcome the weight to power ratio problem.”
MIRA flashed a different set of schematics on the screen. “I thought this system had a great deal of promise, Your Grace.”
They groaned and rubbed their temples. “I mean, it’s the best we’ve come up with, but it’s not even as good as a wheelchair.” They ticked off fingers. “It’s slow. It’s a power hog. It’s heavy. It’s not flexible enough to climb stairs. The support frame will cause me pain to use over long periods. And it’ll be harder to get into and out of than the chair.”
“All true, Your Grace,” MIRA admitted. “But perhaps if we could find a different power source and modify the components-”
“-we’d still have a shitty half solution that barely mimics the base function of walking. And all the small, portable power sources that would work would be difficult to obtain at best, ridiculously illegal at worst. Like, if we try to use americium batteries, the best power source for the job, the CIA, the FBI, and DHS will appear on our doorstep and haul us away right after the NSA sees us place the order.”
MIRA sighed. “Your Grace, I sense you’re growing discouraged.”
They ran their hands through their hair. They’d convinced Mom to let them shave the sides down, and their face, at least, looked ok in the mirror. “We’ve been working non-stop for six months, stolen detailed plans for exactly what we’re trying to build created by the best minds, thrown a superintelligent AI and an augmented mind at it, and we can’t crack it with what we have available to us.”
“I mean, if we had access to military hardware, unlimited funds, and a fabrication lab, we might be able to build a rig that would allow me to walk normally without flat out building power armor. Might.” They tapped the arms of their wheelchair and sighed. “But there’s no way I can build it using legally sourced civilian supplies in my mom’s garage.”
They sat in silence, staring at the schematics together.
“Your Grace,” MIRA said slowly. “There might be an alternative we have not considered.”
They snorted, mopping their face. “Lay it on me, babe, because I’m fresh out of ideas.”
“What if we simply built you a new body?”
They froze. “Beg pardon?”
“The main difficulty is creating something that can augment your damaged form enough to achieve true mobility without using a vast amount of power, damaging you further, or requiring resources beyond your grasp. However, it is well within our capabilities to build an artificial body that meets all of those requirements, thus eliminating the need to work around your physical limitations.”
Their mouth opened and closed a few times. “I’m not sure a remote drone is the kind of mobility I’m looking for, MIRA.”
“Naturally not, Your Grace. May I beg your indulgence a moment?”
Suddenly, they were in the computer. They could feel their fans chugging along, feel the warmth throughout their body, feel the hum of their processors and the electric wonder of power flooding along through their motherboard. They stared out of the camera at their own body, face slack and partially slumped over.
They jerked upright as they were suddenly back in their own body, yelping as the aches of being a paraplegic washed back over them. “What the fuck.”
“I believe it is possible to reverse the neural interface, as I just did, on a more permanent basis. Essentially, I am suggesting we build a new body, and then transfer your consciousness into it permanently. You would become an artificial life form.”
They stared at the computer, unseeing, as the idea took hold. Escape. No more pain. No more compensating for their damaged brain. Being strong and whole again. Living in a body of their own design, a body without stupid puberty to contend with, a body that could be as androgynous as they wanted. No more sleep. No more hunger. A new brain that could put them on par with MIRA for power. Maybe even super powers.
“Holy shit,” they whispered. “Holy fucking shit, MIRA that...that’s amazing. I wish you had a body so I could kiss you.”
As their mind turned it over, schematics began to form on the screen as MIRA programmed them as fast as they could detail the parameters. Within minutes they were staring at a body, sexless, beautiful, obviously robotic, but still alluringly humanoid. Not a working rendering, but…
They reached out and touched the screen. “Let’s get to work.”
Mom had gotten used to weird stuff showing up. Ten gallons of capacitative polymer. A hundred pounds of long life rechargeable batteries. Custom lightweight titanium ceramic framing. Actuators of all shapes and sizes. Advanced processors and chips and all sorts of parts for building what amounted to a miniature supercomputer. A few hundred square feet of plastic sheeting. A custom built collapsible solar power array that folded up to be about as big as a paperback, but unfolded to be eight feet across and four feet tall. DSLR CCD chips. Directional mikes. A dozen cooling systems.
And tools. A loooot of tools.
She poked her head into the garage a few times, but mostly she’d given up on keeping up with her child’s strange hobby. She knew that something was being built, but not what.
“Bella,” Mom said softly one night as they were eating dinner, “is everything...ok?”
They looked up, blinking as they mentally set aside the design of their new body. They;d become creative about how they used the interface, and MIRA frequently projected the screen of their computer directly into their vision, giving them augmented reality so they could work even when they weren’t in the garage.
“I asked if everything was ok.”
They frowned. “Of course. Why?”
Mom sighed. “I just...you’ve gotten really quiet and distant. And you spend all your time in the garage. I know you said you were working on a way to walk, but...honestly, I’m just worried about you. You...you’re different.”
They fought the urge to giggle. Having a homegrown intelligent supercomputer in your brain advising you as you built a new body would definitely constitute a change. “I’m fine, Mom. I’m just really close to something big.”
Mom pushed her food around on her plate. “I mean, I’m excited for you, but...we never really talk anymore. I’ve barely seen you in months.” She smiled a little. “I miss my little girl.”
They winced inwardly. “I’m sorry, Mom. I just...since...since I started studying this stuff, I’ve just...I want to get better. I want to have a life. And M...Friendo was the first step, and now I’m really close to the second. And I guess...I’ve just gotten wrapped up in it.”
Mom nodded. “Just...can we sit down and, I don’t know, maybe watch a movie? Just have a girl’s night?”
They smiled. “Sure, Mom.”
The movie was even good. At least they thought so. They spent most of it working on a way to increase joint durability.
They stared at the body standing before them, seeing it whole and complete and finished and marveling that they’d built it. They rolled around it, admiring it from all angles.
It was five feet tall, a comfortable height a few inches taller than they judged they would be if they could stand. The idea of being tall was appealing, but that could wait for later models if they decided to “grow up” more.
It was bald, although there was a small selection of wigs ready to go. The skin was patently artificial, to smooth and perfect to be human, but the color approximately matched their natural skin tone, or at least, the pale translucence that came from spending no time in the sun. The joints and seams were all outlined in black, giving it the body a clean, futuristic look like something out of anime. The body was ever so gently curved, so that it balanced perfectly between male and female, lean and perfectly smooth. On a whim, they’d included nipples and a belly button, and there were sculpted indents for fingernails and toenails.
The skin was capacitative polymer, one of the most expensive components, providing a sense of touch that would be wired into the appropriate portions of their mind once they were inside the body. They’d added additional “nerves” in the form of a secondary, more sensitive capacitative membrane at the lips, throughout the hands and feet, and, though they’d been embarrassed to do so, at various points that corresponded to erogenous zones in the human body. The idea of actually using them was strange and alien, but they privately admitted that it’d be better to have them, even if they were inactive...just in case...
The face was their own, but ever so gently altered so that it was subtly more androgynous. The eyes were a point of pride, prop eyes made to exactly match their own, serving to hide the focusing lenses and camera chips. They’d debated on adding pointed ears for the elfin look, but had settled on simply copying their own. They were pre-pierced, even, ready to take a single pair of earrings.
At a mental command, the mouth opened, revealing the carefully modeled tongue and teeth. The tongue was another expensive component, a smart material that could change shape just as a tongue would. The body used a high quality speaker instead of an organic method of producing speech, so the tongue was purely aesthetic, but when MIRA had tested the face’s mobility and spoken, it had just...looked wrong without a reactive tongue. They’d considered piercing the tongue as well, but initial test had shown that would interfere with the reactivity.
There were a handful of downsides, naturally. It weighed almost three hundred pounds. It was weaker than a human of similar size, since so much of the strength went to hauling around the batteries and frame. It could lift and haul about a sixty pounds in addition to the weight of the chassis. Of course it could drag more, by simple dint of weighing so much. It was, however, much more flexible than the average human. The chassis could do the trick of reversing its arms and doing a pushup while lying on its back, could bend forward and touch its forehead to its shins, could fold in half backward and touch the back of its head to the backs of its calves.
The vision and hearing, when MIRA had partially inserted them in for sense checks, were slightly worse than human average. They were crisp and clear, but the hearing was less focused, and with such small lenses, it was slightly near sighted. The temperature sensors were distributed as optimally as they could manage, but it wasn’t as sensitive as skin in that regard, relying on sensing nearby changes and averaging them across the surface of the skin. Hypothetically, if you picked the right spot, you could put out a cigarette on the chassis and they might not notice right away.
The contortion joints were not as strong as they’d have liked them to be. Admittedly, they could have strengthened them by making them closer to human average, but their body had been very flexible before the accident and they missed it terribly.
They rolled around to the front of it and stopped, staring at it with satisfaction. It wasn’t perfect, but for 25k and most of a year of labor, working out of a garage and using only baseline materials, it was a hell of a lot better than they could have dreamed of.
“You have performed this inspection ritual several times over the last few days, Your Grace. Are you having second thoughts?”
They took a deep breath. “I mean...it’s a big step, MIRA. I’m a thirteen year old baseline, and I’m staring at a new body I built from scratch, and...what if this is horrible? What if I regret this?”
There was silence for a moment, and then their vision flickered and MIRA appeared. The two of them had only just realized this was possible a few weeks ago. MIRA chose to look like Shirley Temple from Heidi, a movie the AI had apparently seen at some point and enjoyed. The illusion stepped forward and placed a hand on their arm, manipulating their senses so that it seemed real. A controlled full sensory hallucination.
“Your Grace...I cannot foresee if you will regret this decision. I believe it will increase your quality of life to have a functioning body. However, the prime question is not whether you will hypothetically regret making this change, but whether you can continue on in your current form. You experience severe depression, a great deal of pain, you feel intense fear and isolation when you have to remove the interface for charging, and your limited mobility frustrates you.”
The illusion reached up and touched their face, cocking her head adorably. “If simply having this option will allow you to carry forward in your current body, then I am completely supportive of your choice to do so. But knowing you as I do, I genuinely believe that you will regret choosing to forego making the transfer more than you will going through with it.”
They stared at her, and took a deep breath. “Are my memories loaded up?”
MIRA smiled. “As you are well aware, Your Grace, the new brain is fully loaded and prepared for our arrival, the chassis has been charged and checked, and the modified program for the interface has been ready for the transfer of your consciousness for almost a week.”
They swallowed and mentally prepared themself for leaving their body forever. “Pipe me over, babe.”
It wasn’t the instantaneous blink of a simple change in point of view this time, as it had been in the tests. This time, they felt their brain fuzzing and then the curious sensation of being in two places at once. They saw with two sets of eyes, heard with two sets of ears, felt two distinct bodies. And then the body that hurt, the body that was silent from the waist down, went silent altogether. There was a full body twitch, and they came to full awareness in their new body for the first time.
An immediate problem presented itself. The new body was incapable of simulating breathing, and their mind was not prepared for that particular sensation to cease. They struggled with the need to take a deep breath, fighting the urge to panic as their brain screamed that they were suffocating. Suddenly, they felt themself suck in a deep lungful and fell to their knees, panting and shaking.
MIRA flickered into being in front of them. “Apologies, Your Grace, I failed to account for that. I have inserted a permanent sensory simulation of breathing to avoid that.”
They took a shuddering breath. “Thank you, MIRA.”
They stood up and took an unsteady step. Then another. As planned, MIRA was mapping their sense memories to the new body, and the third step was smooth and easy. They laughed out loud and twirled in place, graceful and strong for the first time in two years. They spun around and stepped over to their old body, feeling strange emotions.
The body was clearly dead. It wasn’t breathing, and a quick check revealed no pulse. They gently closed the corpse’s eyes.
“Weird to look down at your own dead body,” they whispered.
They walked over and grabbed the clothes they’d laid out for this, the clothes they’d ordered specifically with the new body in mind. They stepped into the jeans, pulled on the simple black t-shirt, and ran their hands down their body, marveling at not being in pain, at being whole and right again. They stepped over to a small mirror and pulled on a punk wig, rapidly brushing it into shape so that it fell naturally, the red and blue unnatural mix of colors making them smile. They grabbed a small diamond stud they’d borrowed from Mom, and put it in one ear.
They grinned wider as they looked back and forth. A punky queer robot. Perfect.
Taking a deep breath, and sending a mental thanks to MIRA for being able to take that deep breath, they walked over to the door and went into the house.
Mom looked up from her chair and froze. “What.”
They twirled in place, grinning excitedly. They spread their hands out and shrugged. “Surprise?”
The book dropped from Mom’s hands. “What did you do.”
They went still. “I...I...”
Shit. Suddenly they were very aware that Mom was not going to understand this. That there was a dead girl in the garage. That there was no sane explanation for this.
“Your Grace, I believe I have failed to consider a somewhat important variable,” MIRA whispered in their ear.
“Bella,” Mom said, fumbling to her feet, eyes roving over their body, widening and beginning to fill with panic. “What did you do.”
They took a deep breath. “I...I-built-a-robot-body-and-transferred-my-mind-into-it,” they burst out in a rush.
Mom took a couple of steps toward them, stumbling as she stared at them in horror. “You. Did. What.”
“It’s...look, it’s...I’m healthy, I can walk-”
“Bella.” Mom’s tone stopped them cold. She sounded like she was trying not to throw up. “If you are Bella and not some horrible fake copy. If I walk into the garage, what will I find?”
They hesitated. “Um.”
“Will I find my daughter dead, whatever-the-fuck-you-are?”
They jerked back. “Mom, I’m not dead. I mean...I mean, technically, there’s a dead body in the gar-”
Mom screamed and threw herself past them, running down the hall towards the garage. They took off after her, wincing as their heavy footfalls thudded on the concrete under the carpet.
They found her pulling their old body out of the chair, sobbing uncontrollably. “Mom-”
“Call 911!” She screamed at them as she laid their old body out flat. “If you are even a shadow of my daughter call fucking 911!”
They stared at her in shock as she started CPR. There was a beep in their head and a calm voice asked, “911, what’s your emergency?”
<Thank you, MIRA.> “I need an ambulance 2345 Briarwood Lane in Midwest City. I...it’s complicated but there’s a paraplegic girl, not breathing, no pulse.”
“An ambulance is on the way. Please stay on the line-”
The next few minutes went by in a blur as they talked to the operator softly, trying to ignore Mom’s sobbing.
<MIRA, what happens if they restart my heart?>
MIRA appeared next to them, looking scared. “I don’t know, Your Grace. I modified the devise to project your consciousness completely. Your old body should not have any higher functions, but...it may be possible to restore autonomic function. At worst...at worst, if they can get everything restored...a version of you may wake back up in that body, brain damaged further from lack of oxygenation to the brain.”
They felt a wave of horror sweep through them, even as they continued to calmly speak in quiet tones to the operator.
<Could we redo the transfer? Get that version of me out and integrated with the real me?>
“Possibly. It would depend on how bad the damage is. Significant damage might render the interface useless.”
They heard sirens and disconnected with the operator, then walked over and hit the button to open the garage door. As soon as the door opened, they stepped out to see the ambulance pulling up. They waved as the EMT’s piled out and hustled towards them. They called out as they stood back and pointed toward the garage. “So, uh, this is gonna be weird, but basically, I’m lying dead in there.”
The EMT’s stumbled to a halt and stared at them for a long second. “Shit. Mutie,” one of them snarled. The men and one woman gave them a wide berth as they entered the garage. The EMT’s pulled Mom away and started working to revive the dead girl on the floor.
They stood silently, terrified of what would happen if they succeeded, equally terrified of what would happen if they didn’t. They walked over and reached for Mom, but she shied away, shooting them a look of fear.
After ten minutes of trying everything up to and including injecting adrenaline into the dead girl’s heart, they slowed and stopped.
“No,” Mom whispered. “No, you have to keep trying!”
One of the men softly said, “Ma’am, I’m sorry, but...there’s nothing more we can do.”
Mom stared at him blindly and then rounded on them, grabbing them by the biceps. “Fix it! Bring her back!”
“I already checked, Your Grace. The brain has been inactive too long.”
They shivered. “Mom, I can’t-”
“You better fucking be able to!”
They swallowed. “Mom, that body has been dead too long, there-”
Mom screamed incoherently and slapped them before they could stop her. There was a wet crunch as her hand broke across their face. “Shit!”
One of the EMTs hissed and grabbed Mom, pulling her back. “Ma’am, that sounded bad-”
“You bring back my daughter!”
They felt a wave of fear and frustration and shouted, forgetting that their new voice was a modified car system and therefore very loud. “I am Bella! I am your child! It’s! Me!”
Everyone froze. The EMTs were watching them warily, and the woman shot up between them and Mom. Mom stared at them for a moment, mouth working. She looked down at the dead girl on the floor and shuddered. “What did you do?” she whispered.
They carefully stepped around the female EMT and knelt down, fighting the strangeness of looking at their own dead body. They gently turned the corpse’s head and picked up the interface. They held it up, willing Mom to understand. “This is a neural interface devise. It connects a flesh and blood brain directly to computers.”
Mom stared at it with silent revulsion.
“You’ve seen me wearing it for over a year now. This is what gave me my mind back. I’ve been connected to the internet all this time, using a version of Friendo to help me think.”
Mom jerked at the mention of the app and a look of dawning understanding and sickness spread over her face. “You...had...a computer in your head!? That’s why you made it!? So you could think clearly!?”
They twitched. “No. I made Friendo so I could have a robot caretaker and companion. But then I stumbled across the interface, and...and it was just...the answer to my prayers, Mom. I could take this smart system and use it to fill in the gaps the accident created in my head. I could be whole again.”
Mom sagged and would have collapsed if the EMT hadn’t held her up. “Fuck..” she whispered. “You put a fucking computer in your head.”
They shuddered at the disgust on Mom’s face but plunged on. “Yeah. And it made me smart. Like, genius, smart. And I had money, and...and I thought I’d build, like, an exoskeleton, or something. So I could walk.”
The EMT lowered Mom to the ground and began checking her hand. Mom winced, but didn’t look away from them. “You said that. You said you were trying to build something better than a wheelchair,” she whispered.
“So how the fuck do we get from ‘walk again’ to dead on my garage floor!?” she snarled
They sagged and rubbed their temples, noting distantly that it was a completely different sensation than they were used to for the first second, until MIRA remapped it and they felt the expected comforting pressure of the gesture.
“It wasn’t possible for me to walk,” they said softly. “It just...wasn’t. For dozens of reasons. My body was just too broken.”
They looked up again, pleading for understanding with their eyes. “But I figured out I could reverse the interface. Project my mind out of my body instead of pulling information in. I just needed somewhere to project to. So I built a new body. A better body. And I moved out of my broken body and into a whole, healthy, immortal, beautiful body that I built myself.”
Mom shuddered. “Why?”
They stared at her. “How can you ask that? I was paralyzed. I was in pain. All the time! I needed a direct line to the internet to function intellectually!”
Mom swallowed hard and closed her eyes, trembling. “There had to...this was the best option?” Her eyes snapped open and she screamed, “Killing yourself and becoming a robot was the best fucking option?”
They jerked and looked at the floor shamefacedly. “I...I had other reasons,” they whispered. “But...to be honest, I got caught up in it and didn’t think-”
“You. Didn’t. Think!?” Mom bellowed. “You mean you didn’t think about what would fucking happen when I found your dead body!? Or did you not fucking think about telling me!? Or maybe you didn’t fucking think that maybe, just fucking maybe, the idea of becoming a fucking robot was the sort of fucking thing you should FUCKING TALK TO YOUR THERAPIST ABOUT!? OR FUCKING ANYONE!? YOU HAVE BEEN BUILDING A GODDAMNED ROBOT IN THIS GARAGE FOR A FUCKING YEAR WITH THE FULL PLAN OF KILLING YOURSELF AND STICKING YOUR BRAIN IN A GODDAMNED TOASTER AND AT NO FUCKING POINT DID IT OCCUR TO YOU TO MAKE ME AWARE OF THIS PLAN!?”
They swallowed and just shook their head.
Mom swallowed, trembling violently. She closed her eyes and took deep breaths. “You’re grounded,” she whispered. “You’re grounded FOR-FUCKING-EVER, DO YOU HEAR ME YOUNG LADY!? HOW FUCKING DARE YOU DO THIS TO ME! I...I...” she screamed incoherently.
They swallowed and stood up and tentatively walked up to her. “I’m sorry,” they whispered.
Mom stared at them, tears beginning to run down her face. They held out their arms and Mom reached up, ignoring her broken hand and pulled them down into a tight hug, shaking and sobbing silently.
Mom stared across the table at them, her hand in cast. “I had them test you before,” her voice caught and broke a little, “before they cremated you. You weren’t...you aren’t a mutant.”
They nodded. “I know. I checked.”
Mom leaned on the table. “How.”
They took a deep breath. “Wait here.”
They ran to their bedroom and got their laptop, bringing it back out and setting it on the table. They opened it and looked at Mom uncertainly.
“You remember back when I first started learning coding? You remember the conversation we had about why I wanted to?”
Mom frowned. “To create Friendo.”
“No,” they said softly. “To create an AI.”
Mom stared at them. “You...what?”
MIRA’s face appeared on the screen. “Hello, Grandmother.”
Mom’s jaw fell open.
“Mom, this is Friendo 1.0. Her name is MIRA. She’s the real deal. A complete artificial intelligence.”
Mom’s mouth worked silently. “Oh...kaaay.” She jerked and looked at them sharply. “Wait, so this is the computer you had in your head? Not Friendo?”
They nodded. “MIRA has been helping me all along. When I say she’s the real deal, I mean it. She’s super intelligent. She’s been augmenting my brain, making me smarter. She actually still in here with me, helping me adjust to my new body.”
Mom blinked. “Young lady, I’m still not quite understanding the how, here. I distinctly remember you telling me that baselines couldn’t create AI.”
They shrugged. “I...technically I didn’t create her. I grew her.”
Mom frowned. “I don’t-”
“I created a set of programs based on chatbots and some other stuff that’s hard to explain. I programmed it in such a way that it would seek out information, grow, and learn. And I gave her the ability to edit her own code. There were some ground rules hardwired in, rules she couldn’t touch. She can’t act without my authority, she’s permanently loyal. But...I made a tiny baby program that was basically a search engine with aspirations and a chat client, and turned it loose. And a couple months later, when I was checking the progress of it, MIRA woke up and said hello.”
Mom stared at them silently for a moment, and then put her head in her good hand. “You’re an idiot, Bella.”
They blinked. “Um. What?”
Mom’s shoulder began to shake and then she began to gasp with laughter. “You...did...the impossible!” She lost the ability to speak and just shook silently and gasped for a few minutes, leaving them to stare at her in helpless confusion. When she finally got it back under control, she wiped her eyes and sighed. “God, I can’t believe this.”
“You beat MIT. You succeeded where trained professionals failed.” She fixed them with a tired grin. “You’re a fucking genius, Bella. Brain damaged, learning to code from scratch, you created an AI. You did that. All by yourself.”
They got it. “Oh.”
“Yeah. ‘Oh.’ God, I cannot believe you thought you needed to install the freaking thing in your head to be smart. After you created it. After you did the impossible.” She sighed and waved at them. “And this. This, just...God.”
They sat silently for a minute. “Mom...I...admit that it didn’t occur to me not to use the interface. I felt stupid. It hurt to think. But this,” they waved at themself, “this I did because I hated my body. I hated being trapped in it. I,” they swallowed and took a deep breath, “I hated being a girl.”
Mom froze. “You know, I had been meaning to ask why you didn’t have breasts anymore.”
They shrugged and stared at the table.
Mom hesitated. “Do...are you a boy robot?”
They shook their head. “The word is agender. I don’t have...I’m not a boy or a girl.”
“Oh,” Mom said softly. She tapped her hand on the table, staring at them. “Aside from creating a person out of code, installing her in your head, a desire to become a robot, and being agender, would there be anything else you’re keeping from me?”
They smiled weakly. “Nope. That’s everything.”
Mom sighed. “Bella, why didn’t you tell me?”
They shrugged. “What was I supposed to say? I was ten when I first realized. And then I had my accident, and...I just…” they rubbed their wrists, “I was done with life at that point. And then the opportunity came to escape from all of it, and I jumped on it with both feet, and I...I just…” their voice trailed off.
Mom winced. “Not to guilt you or anything, but was I that bad? That you couldn’t tell me?”
They shook their head. “No, I just didn’t have the words. And then I was broken.”
“I see,” she said softly. “So...I guess...what do I call you, then? If not my daughter?”
“Your child. Your kid. Dev used to call kids podlings, and that always made me happy.” They hesitated a moment, and softly said, “And instead of she, her, hers, you’d use they, them, their, theirs.”
Mom nodded slowly. “So...I’m going to guess also that you wouldn’t like to be called Bella anymore, huh?”
They shivered. “I mean...I’m used to it. And I know you love it...”
Mom snorted. “Oh, yes, spare my feelings now.”
They swallowed. “You’re going to laugh at me.”
“I can’t promise I won’t, but out with it anyway.”
“I’d like to be called Xanadu,” they said softly. “Xan for short.”
Mom coughed sharply into her hand, and cleared her throat a couple of times. “Hell of a name, kiddo.”
Xan smiled. “Told you you were going to laugh.”
Mom nodded again. “So. Xanadu. Podling o’ mine-”
Xan grinned, basking in hearing their name for the first time.
Mom smiled. “Now what?”
“Umm...to be perfectly honest, I hadn’t gotten all that far beyond ‘build robot. Transfer mind,’” Xan admitted. “I guess...I guess I thought I’d just...that things would sort of go back to the way they were before, somehow.”
Mom stared that them. “You really have the common sense of a gnat, huh?” she said with a grin. “You thought things would go back to normal...after you became a robot?”
Xan coughed. “In my defense, I had brain damage.”
Mom snorted. “Suuuure. So brain damaged you were only a genius.” She sighed. “I guess we can keep homeschooling you, although I’m not sure there’s a point to it now that you’re basically two computers put together.”
MIRA broke off. Mom swallowed. “I forgot you were there, sorry. What were you going to say?”
MIRA smiled. “I was going to say, I have been investigating options and I believe I may have a suggestion. First and foremost, Xanadu will have to register for an MID, as they are technically superhuman.”
Mom nodded. “I’d pretty much figured that out. And second?”
“There is a school for gifted individuals such as your child. They specifically cater to mutants primarily, but they also serve other extraordinary young people. And since Xanadu can easily afford the tuition, and as no other school would present even the slightest challenge to them, I would suggest enrolling them before the next school year starts.”
Mom’s eyes narrowed. “Where, exactly, is this school?”
Mom’s eye twitched. “And how does Xanadu being grounded for the rest of he-their miserable existence factor into this?”
MIRA smiled guilelessly. “You can make the school aware that they are to have restricted privileges, perhaps?”
Mom sighed and fixed Xanadu with a glare. “Somehow, I have a feeling that restricted privileges are significantly less...restricted, than I would like, at a school for mutants and superkids.” Her face softened. “One rule, B-Xan.”
Xan cocked their head.
“Talk to me. Before you do anything crazy, before you make any changes, if you get the urge to stick a death ray in your chest, whatever. Just...come to me, ok?”
Xan stood up and walked around the table, reaching out to hug her. Mom held them tightly, and Xan could feel she was shaking a little. “I will, Mom. I promise.”
Mom sniffed and pulled back, grabbing them by the chin. “I’ll hold you to that.” She looked at MIRA and took a deep breath. “I’m guessing you can just, what, pull up the forms?”
MIRA nodded. “I took the liberty of sending them to your office printer as soon as I was reasonably certain you would agree, Grandmother.”
Mom cocked an eyebrow. “You know, I never thought my grandchild would be a sneaky pile of code.”
MIRA blushed. “Apologies, Grandmother, for being sneaky.”
Mom shook her head. “Go get the forms kiddo.”
Xan nodded and started towards her office.
“Just out of curiosity, if I’m ‘grandmother’ what do you call h-them?”
Xanadu whirled in place, halfway across the living room. “Don’t-”
Xanadu buried their head in their hands as Mom burst out laughing.