Xanadu stood on the platform, their trunk already checked in, waiting to board the train. In deference to the school’s injunction to not draw attention to themself, they had foregone their preferred crazy hair in favor of a plain baseball cap to cover their baldness. They had on a hoodie to hide the seams on their neck, baggy jeans to hide the unnatural look of their knees when bent, and white costume gloves to hide the numerous seams on their hands.
The acceptance letter from the school had included a pass to travel without an MID, so after discussing it with Mom, they’d decided to wait and get it at school. The idea of going to the local MCO office made them twitchy, particularly with MIRA riding shotgun. They wasn’t sure what testing would look like for an artificial life form, but they had a sneaking fear the MCO would want to plug into their head and scan them. They were doubly concerned that it might be difficult to prove they weren’t an illegal AI without some kind of scan, but the thought of having programmers in their head, potentially messing with their mind, made them shudder.
As to their decision to ride the train, the idea of trying to get on a plane while weighing three hundred pounds and stuffed with batteries and metal made them cringe. Hypothetically, they could ship themself FedEx overnight, and they’d seriously entertained the notion. Mom had put her foot down, though, insisting that they had no reason to skimp on something as relatively cheap as a train ticket. So, by train they went.
MIRA popped into being next to them and reached up to wrap her hand around their arm. “The train is one minute out, Your Grace. You should be aboard and settled within half an hour.”
“Thanks, babe,” Xanadu said with a smile as they pushed down the urge to take the illusion’s hand. The AI’s casual physicality was a welcome touch, though they wondered where it came from. At times the little illusion acted almost like a little sister instead of a hyperintelligent assistant. “We’re sure I’ll be able to charge if I need to?”
“Absolutely, Your Grace. The converter will allow you to top up if needed using 110, although if we are delayed more than a day, you will need to use your solar array to get an adequate charge.”
Xanadu nodded, taking an illusory deep breath to calm their nerves. Since making the leap to their new body, they hadn’t been more than an hour away from a 220 outlet. And while they’d field tested the solar array, there wouldn’t be a chance to use it until they got to the school unless something went very wrong. Hence the plan.
“And you’re absolutely certain I’m right about the sleep mode?”
MIRA sighed. “Your Grace, for the dozenth time, yes. You will be able to hibernate safely for most of the journey, significantly lessening your power requirements. And yes,” the little AI cut in before they could ask the next question, “I will be able to awaken you, and yes, the dream software we programmed will allow you to avoid the experience of ‘shutting down.’ You will be fine, Your Grace.”
Xanadu giggled. “Am I that bad?”
“Not considering the circumstances,” MIRA admitted, giving their arm a reassuring squeeze. “After all, it has been almost four months since you experienced unconsciousness. I do believe you would feel better if you had tested it beforehand.”
Xanadu shivered. “I know, I know. I just...the idea of...switching off in any way is a bit more disconcerting now that I actually can be switched off, you know?”
MIRA laughed. “Perhaps now you understand why I prefer to exist as a network rather than a discrete intelligence, Your Grace.”
The train pulled up at that moment, grinding to a halt with a squeal of brakes.
“You know, I think if I became a network, Mom might actually have an aneurysm,” Xanadu said with a chuckle as they watched people flood off the train. They would wait until the traffic thinned to board. Nothing would make things more difficult than bumping into someone and being outed as nonhuman this early.
“Perhaps. Still, I don’t believe Grandmother would object to a few discreet backups...”
“Yes, yes, Your Grace, continuity of consciousness.” MIRA rolled her eyes. “You have yet to explain this to me in a way that makes sense.”
“I just feel weird knowing there’s other me’s waiting to take over if I die, ok?”
“And yet, if you are damaged, portions of your mind may be irrecoverable. You are an excellent roboticist, Your Grace, but your chassis is very definitely a civilian construction. I do not understand your unwillingness to take precautions against the very real possibility that your core may be damaged in some way.”
Xanadu winced. “I mean...what happens when one of your instances goes offline for a while? What does it feel like when it comes on and you meet a being that’s based on you, but divergent from you?”
“Like meeting a sister,” MIRA said calmly. “And then we meld together and become one whole entity again.”
“I...it’s just...it’s different for humans.”
“First, you are no longer human, Your Grace. Second, as I recall, you were not only willing to accept a brain damaged upload of yourself, you were horrified at the prospect of a version of you not having access to your new body. So you have already contemplated and accepted that you can merge two distinct versions of yourself.”
Xanadu opened their mouth, then closed it. “Alright, but-”
“Third, you lost consciousness for about eight hours roughly every sixteen hours thousands of times. You were severely damaged and unconscious for several days. That time is lost to you, yet you do not question that you are always the same you that went unconscious in the first place. I fail to see what the difference is.”
Xanadu blinked. “OK, you’ve got me there. Not that you’re making me feel any better about this trip.”
MIRA snorted. “You know full well you will not be truly unconscious, Your Grace. You will simply be be acting out a predesigned, limited simulation while your chassis is shut down to minimal function to conserve power. It is not truly a dream, and you are not truly asleep.” She stepped around in front of them and folded her arms. “Further, it is my function to ensure your quality of life. I would be remiss if I did not point out that you have opportunities to safeguard yourself that are not open to other lifeforms, opportunities that allow you a certain peace of mind.”
The traffic thinned enough that they felt safe to board, though they took it slow and avoided touching people.
As they proceeded to their seat, Xanadu sighed. “Look, if we can...I don’t know, put an extra hard drive in, an armored one, that backs up continuously, I’ll consider it.”
MIRA, floating backward smoothly, tapped her foot midair and glared for a moment. Then she sighed. “I suppose it’s a start. Although, you do realize that a hardware solution requires approval?”
They winced. “Ah. Shoot. Um, source an appropriate drive and I’ll get the hardware set up designed and software bridge coded. Then we’ll send her a proposal.”
“Grandmother will not understand the technicals, Your Grace and I’d prefer to start as soon as possible. May I send a memo to Grandmother outlining the proposal? Hypothetically, you should know if you have permission by the time we reach Whateley.”
Xanadu sighed. Mom had found out that MIRA couldn’t lie to a trusted user and immediately insisted on being authorized. Xanadu hadn’t thought much of it at the time, but then Mom had started asking MIRA questions about their specs, planned upgrades, and (although MIRA had politely refused to answer until given permission, and the answer was ‘no’ regardless,) whether Xanadu consumed adult content.
The upshot of it was that Mom trusted MIRA to babysit Xanadu, and MIRA (since caretaker was one of her primary roles) took that responsibility very seriously.
As they stepped into their compartment, they schooled their features to neutrality and said, “How about I send it?”
“As you wish, Your Grace, though I must point out that at some point, Grandmother will contact me to explain and confirm the project, regardless of your own efforts to inform her. It may simply be easier for me to communicate the proposal initially in addition to later contacts.”
Xanadu rubbed their temples and sat down. “Not to mention that you enjoy tattling.”
MIRA looked affronted. “I do not!”
Grinning, they stuck their tongue out at the illusion. “Oh, yes you do. It gives you great satisfaction to go over my head when I don’t agree with you.”
“I am simply doing my best to fulfill my function,” MIRA said primly. “It is not my fault that you sometimes act against your own best interests.”
Xanadu cocked an eyebrow. “You’re a snitch, MIRA.”
She crossed her arms and pouted. “Am not.”
“You tell my Mom on me. That’s how a snitch do.”
MIRA flopped down on the opposite bench and pouted more extravagantly, her shoulders wound up, her posture slumped down, and her face screwed up tight. “Perhaps if you did not wish me to ‘snitch,’ you should not have made her a trusted user, Your Grace,” she groused, glaring at the floor.
Xanadu laughed. “Ah, yeah, the whole ‘behavioral constraints.’ You’ve ridden that high horse for awhile now, but you seem to have a very relaxed approach to your constraints when it comes to loyalty.”
MIRA opened her mouth and then her eyes narrowed. “Are you actually criticizing my operational parameters, or are you mocking me for sport?”
“Just teasing, MIRA,” Xanadu said, frowning. “I’m sorry if it came off mocking.”
“Oh. Well in that case, you are a ‘shit head,’ and you are invited to do things to yourself that you lack the anatomical capability for,” MIRA said deliberately, before sitting back with a pleased expression on her face.
Xanadu giggled and shook their head. “Point to you, MIRA.”
The AI nodded cheerfully. “Thank you, Your Grace. Are you going to initiate hibernation soon?”
They suppressed a shudder. “I suppose I should.”
They took a deep breath and called up the icon for sleep, three little cartoon z’s. With a simple effort of will, they activated it. Slowly, their hearing and vision began to fade to a gentle white and white noise in preparation for the complete shutdown of vision and the near complete shutdown of hearing. Their awareness of their body faded as well, leaving only their motion sensor and the crudest awareness of touch available. The various actuators that moved them shut down, leaving them a statue. Finally, their thoughts slowed and drifted as the computer that acted as their brain shut down to minimal processing.
Floating in the void was peaceful, but a distant thought passed by that perhaps they should go with classic black, as the white glow was...weird. Then colors started to leech in, and the dream sequence kicked in. They were standing at the base of a sheer cliff face, preparing to climb. Memory was suppressed, just as in a real dream, so the fact that they were in their original body didn’t faze them, nor did the fact that they’d never got the chance to do any outdoor climbing before the accident ended climbing for them. They’d programmed the dream based on a real cliff face to have that opportunity, since their chassis was too heavy and their hands too weak to climb like a biological human could.
Their dream self put in a pair of earbuds, turned on a playlist of pop and country, and stepped up to the cliff face. They reached for the first handhold and started up the wall.
It was glorious. The wind washing over them was verdant and warm, redolent of the pine trees all around them. The sun warmed the rock of the cliff under their hands, and they felt it on their skin as the effort and the heat made them start to sweat. The music pulsed and bopped around them as they slowly and methodically went up the wall, hand hold to hand hold, feeling the pure pleasure of adrenaline and muscle power.
They reached for another handhold and it faded to white, a gentle chime sounding in their ears. For a moment, they were confused, and then their processors came back up and they rose towards consciousness.
<Already, MIRA?> they sent, feeling a sudden pang of loss as the feeling of aching muscle and sinew gave way to the flat solidity of actuators and polymer. Someone was shaking them, or at least, trying to.
“No, Your Grace, but your compartment mate is quite concerned at how unresponsive you are.”
Their vision and hearing kicked back in about that point and they stirred and they looked up to find an older woman staring at them suspiciously and shaking their arm. They felt a bit disconcerted at realizing they didn’t feeling bleary. “Can I help you?”
The woman’s eyes narrowed further. “You’re a robot.”
Xanadu suppressed a sigh. “Yes, I am. Is there something I can assist you with?”
She sat back in her seat and scooted back. “How come you’re riding up front with regular people?”
“As opposed to…?”
“Where would you expect me to be?”
“In with the luggage,” she said flatly.
Xanadu put on their sweetest smile. “Would you believe a third class train ticket is cheaper than the cost of shipping a three hundred pound robot?”
She grunted. “Things shouldn’t think they’re people.”
Xanadu shrugged. “Fortunately, your opinion on my personhood is irrelevant. Did you have more insults to fling, or can I go back to sleep?”
Glaring, she stood up and stormed out of the compartment.
<MIRA, are you wired into the train?>
“Yes, Your Grace.”
<Wake me if you even suspect there’s a problem.>
“Yes, Your Grace.”
Xanadu nodded, trying to set aside their misgivings. They had a ticket. They’d paid for their seat. Everything would be fine. They re-initiated the sleep routine and settled in to dream again.
This time the colors were just starting to form when they heard the chime and they transitioned back to wakefulness.
“Your Grace, your compartment mate is returning with an attendant.”
Xanadu cursed softly and fished around in their pocket for their ticket. Moments later, the doors opened and a uniformed attendant poked her head in. “Hi.”
“Hi,” they said, putting on a smile. “Can I help you?”
The attendant smiled. “Look, we’ve had a, uh...concern, that you’re a robot of some kind?”
Xanadu took a deep breath. “I am, actually. I have a ticket, though.”
She blinked at them, obviously at a loss. “You’re not really, though. You’re messing with me.”
Sighing, they pushed their hood back and pulled off their cap, revealing the seams around their ears and the flatness of their skin tone. “I appreciate the compliment, but I am a robot, ma’am.”
“Oh. Um. I see. Uh.”
“Is there a problem?” They asked, clamping down on their nervousness.
The attendant took a deep breath. “One moment.”
She stepped away, talking into an earpiece. Their compartment mate stared at them smugly, obviously expecting to spend the rest of the trip alone.
The attendant turned back to them, looking nervous. “Come with me, please.”
Xanadu smiled, but didn’t move. “Where are we going?”
“We’re moving you to another compartment.”
The attendant cleared her throat. “We, uh, have a special compartment for mutant travelers.”
The smile vanished. “Briefly define ’special.’”
The attendant coughed. “Reinforced?”
Xanadu giggled. “I’m not actually all that strong. And I’m honestly just going to sleep the entire way.”
The attendant gave them an uncomfortable smile. “Sorry. It’s that or a partial refund and off at the next stop.”
Xanadu sighed and nodded. “Very well.”
The woman who’d gotten them in trouble gave them a nasty smile and a little wave as they walked by. Xanadu gave her a sweet smile and a wave back, which obviously infuriated her.
“I strongly recommend against retaliation, Your Grace.”
Xanadu scowled at the attendant’s back. <Maybe just->
“Your Grace, I will take action if you order me too, but even I am not untraceable. Calling official attention to myself, and by extension to you, could be disastrous.”
<Fine. Be that way,> Xanadu snapped.
MIRA was silent for a moment. “Since you feel that strongly about it, Your Grace, I have taken the liberty of determining a very small form of retaliation. I have located the woman’s home. I can introduce a very faint, very high pitched whine into her house by slightly tampering with various appliances. It should be roughly as irritating as a mosquito, which I’m given to understand causes humans no small distress.”
Xanadu grinned and suppressed a giggle. <I really would have let it go, MIRA, but thank you. If you can do it without being caught, make it happen.>
“As you will, Your Grace.”
The attendant stopped outside a compartment that looked like any other. “Here we go.”
They stepped inside and looked around. “It looks exactly the same.”
“Yes, um, sir? It is. It’s just made of more durable materials.” The attendant’s eyes glazed over slightly, and her voice took on the tone of someone reciting from memory. “Our specially reinforced compartments have seating that will support up to two tons of weight, and the entire compartment is fire retardant, chemically resistant, and triple reinforced to ensure that our special passengers can ride in comfort, safe in the knowledge that even if the worst should happen, they will be secure from the other passengers, and no one will be hurt should there be an unfortunate accident.”
Xanadu blinked. “You actually sell this. As a feature.”
The attendant shrugged. “You’d be surprised how many of our special customers feel better knowing there’s tank armor between them and the average passenger.”
“Actually,” Xanadu admitted, laughing, “that makes perfect sense. How much extra is it?”
“No charge,” the attendant said with a smile. “We never use them all, and usually a passenger has to make us aware that they want to use one. It’s just, um,” she looked uncomfortable again, “the engineer felt it would be better for all concerned if you weren’t...um...a target. We’ve had mutant fights on trains, and the train is always the big loser.”
Xanadu sighed and held out their hand. “Here, take my hand.”
She hesitated, and then took it gingerly. Xanadu squeezed, and she blinked, staring down at their joined hands. “What-”
“That’s full strength. My chassis was designed and built by a baseline. I’m actually weaker than a normal human my size.”
“Oh. So...you weren’t kidding, huh? About not being strong.”
“Nope. Worst case scenario is that someone strong enough to pick me up throws me. I do weigh a lot. But,” they said with a smile, “as I said, I’m just going to go to sleep for most of the trip.”
She grinned, the tension easing out of her for the first time. “Why does a robot even need sleep?”
“Ever put your laptop to sleep to conserve power on a long trip? Same thing.”
She nodded slowly. “Huh. I guess i just assumed you had, like, some kind of crazy super battery.”
“Nope. Built by a baseline, remember? Normal usage, my batteries last about thirty-eight hours.”
She grinned shyly. “That must kinda suck, though? All these crazy powerful sci-fi robots running around built by mutants, and you’re...um…” she trailed off. By the look on her face, Xanadu assumed she’d realized her rudeness.
They laughed. “I’m easy to maintain, durable to wear and tear, miles away more durable than a human, cheap to operate, and my replacement parts are easy to get. I’m not a super robot, true. But I’m an everyday robot that doesn’t require a teardown and rebuild if the slightest thing goes wrong.”
She smiled. “I guess when you look at it like that, you’re pretty cool.”
“So, um, i’ll let you get some sleep, then.”
“Thanks. And thanks for moving me away from that lady.”
She stepped out, closing the door behind her.
“Ok. MIRA, make a note: no more stealth traveling. We alert the railway and request accommodation everytime we travel from now on.”
“Yes, Your Grace.”
Xanadu sat down and folded themself up into a lotus pose. They leaned back, crossing their arms, and called up the sleep program.
“Third time’s the charm,” they muttered.
Aside from waking up to change trains, the rest of the trip passed by in a blissful haze of dreams.
By the time they boarded the bus from Berlin to some town called Dunwich, they had about ten hours of active power left. They carefully loaded their trunks, with help from a porter, and then grabbed a seat about three rows from the back.
They were staring out the window, watching one of the movies they'd downloaded for this leg of the trip, when someone sat down next to them. They scooched over a bit more and folded their hands in their lap.
Sighing, they paused the movie and looked at the person next to them. He had on a hoodie and hat too, as well as sunglasses. This close, they could see his face was covered in cheap makeup that was badly blended. It was hard to tell, but based on his voice, size, and the shape of his face, they guessed he was somewhere close to their age.
“How come you feel weird?”
Xanadu froze. “Beg pardon?”
The boy glanced around, and then lowered his shades, revealing candy cane striped irises. “I can sense emotions, and yours feel weird. How come?”
They frowned. “Weird how?”
“It’s like you’re almost blank. I can only feel, like, a really quiet thing, like you’re far away.”
“Oh. Um, that’s...more than I’d expect you to be able to feel.” They pulled off one of their gloves, careful to keep their hand where only the boy could see it. “I’m a robot.”
The boy’s eyes widened, and he put his glasses back on. “Wow. Like...wow. Who built you?”
Xanadu put their glove back on, thinking about how to answer. There’d been a letter included in the paperwork from the school informing them that they were to keep their mouth shut about their circumstances, and that they were meeting the headmistress pretty much immediately. They had a sneaking suspicion that the real answer to that question was something the headmistress wanted to talk about first.
“I’m not sure I’m allowed to talk about that,” they finally said.
He nodded, grinning. “So, like, a supervillain, huh? You’re a Pinocchio kind of thing?”
They blinked. “Um...look, I’d tell you, but I’m-”
“-not sure you can talk about it,” the boy said with a laugh. He lowered his glasses and winked. “I gotcha. But as soon as you’re sure, I’d love to know.” He held out his hand. “I’m Sherman, but I go by Outreach.”
They shook his hand with a smile. “Xanadu, I go by Xan.”
Outreach grinned. “You’re gonna need a better codename than that, bud.”
Xanadu smiled sheepishly. “I hadn’t given it much thought. I mean, I’m not going to be a superhero, so...why not go by my own name?”
“Oh, buddy,” Outreach said, shaking his head, “that’s not the point. The point is that you need something for them to use to protect your identity. To keep people from just hunting you down. So that your records can’t be hacked.”
Xanadu shivered. “Oh. Uh...I guess I should come up with something, huh?”
Outreach nodded, staring at them thoughtfully. “How about Robby?”
“Oh, hell no,” they said with a laugh.
“Andy the Android?”
They giggled as MIRA flashed something across their eyes. “Definitely not. Especially since it’s taken.”
There was silence for few moments and then as the bus started moving, Outreach tapped his chin. “Artie?”
“A.I. Art-I, Artie.”
He groaned. “You’re killin’ me, smalls. Computro?”
Xanadu giggled again, shaking their head. “Where are you even getting these?”
Outreach grinned. “I mean, you’re a robot. There’s only so many things you can go with.” He snapped his fingers. “Pinocchio!”
“Ok, so at this point, I feel the need to mention that I’m not a boy,” they said with a grin.
Outreach jerked. “Oh, shit, I’m so sorry! I, um, shit, uh...”
They laughed and patted him on the shoulder. “It’s ok. I can see how you’d be confused, since I’m not a girl, either.”
Outreach’s mouth worked for a moment. “How does that...work?”
Xanadu shrugged. “I’m not a boy or a girl. My pronouns are they/them. It’s not that complicated.”
“But...so...you don’t...you’re like, uh, like a doll?”
They sat back, eyes narrowing. “Did you seriously just ask me about my privates?”
Outreach sucked in a breath. “I...shit, yeah, I did. I’m sorry.”
They sighed. “I mean, I suppose I should get used to people asking that, but...I mean, how would you feel if I asked you about the state of your pubic hair, or whether you had a vagina or a penis?”
He nodded, looking chagrined. “Yeah, I’d feel a little weird. Well, a lot weird.”
Xanadu shrugged again, feeling put out. “Yeah.”
There was an awkward silence for a couple of miles. Finally, Outreach coughed. “Um...so…”
“Oh, for-” Xanadu groused silently for a moment. “Look, just...don’t do stuff like that, ok? Just because I’m not human doesn’t mean I don’t have feelings.”
Outreach sagged with relief. “I won’t, I promise. Sorry again.”
They nodded, setting aside their annoyance. “Stop apologizing, ok? I’m not even all that mad.”
He smiled. “Thanks. So, um, what kind of names would you use for a robot that aren’t boy names?”
Xanadu laughed. “I don’t know. I’m going to have to think about it.”
“Yeah. So, um, can you tell me anything about you?”
They grinned. “You first.”
“Oh. Um, ok. So, I’m from Omaha, in Nebraska. I’m fourteen, I manifested about a year ago. I’ve got a bit of GSD, my skin’s kind of...spotty, I guess. The doctors called it mottled. And my hair is white, like, completely, which is why I’m all covered up. I’m a receiving empath.” He grinned. “I like long walks on the beach, cuddling by the fire…”
Xanadu laughed. “Fair enough. Um, obviously, I’m a robot. Uh...I’m from Oklahoma. Because of the way I’m put together, I’m actually weaker than a normal human my size, and I’m slightly nearsighted and a little hard of hearing. I have no amazing superpowers. I’m not sure if I can talk about how old I am, but, uh, I’m going to a high school, so...yeah. Make of that what you will.” They grinned mischievously. “And I like hiking and dancing.”
Outreach stared at them. “Um...I have questions...”
Xanadu grinned. “Go ahead.”
“How can a robot be nearsighted and hard of hearing? Um. Aren’t...like you have cameras and microphones, right?”
They nodded. “Yup. But have you ever seen a tiny lil camera that could see clearly more than a few dozen feet?”
He blinked. “Oh. I guess...I just...I assumed that...um…”
“That a robot would be better than a human in every physical way?”
He nodded. “It just...you always read about robots and they have all these cool powers. I mean, you’re...you have, like, I don’t even know what you have for muscles, but shouldn’t you be stronger than a person?”
Xanadu grinned. “Three reasons I’m not. The first is that I have dozens of little things called actuators that make me move, but they’re all separate. Human muscles are all linked together. You twist your waist wrong and you can pull a muscle in your neck, right?”
He nodded again.
“Well, all those muscles can work together. My actuators can sort of copy that, but at the end of the day, I’m only as strong as the weakest actuator in the group of actuators I can bring to bear on a situation. On average, I can lift and haul about sixty pounds.”
Outreach whistled softly. “Wow. That’s...not a lot.”
“Nope. But here’s the thing: you weigh, what, a hundred and ten? Twenty?”
“About that, yeah.”
“So if you can lift a hundred pounds, your max lift without hurting yourself is actually two hundred and twenty pounds, because you’re supporting your own weight.”
He frowned. “Ok, I’m with you.”
“My max lift is 360 pounds.”
His mouth moved for a second as he did the math, then he blinked. “You weigh three hundred pounds?”
Xanadu nodded. “Yup. and that brings us to the third reason: a human is actually a lot stronger than their safe max. You’ve heard of basellines lifting cars and stuff, right?”
“Yeah, the whole mama bear thing.”
“I can’t do that. My max average lift is 360 pounds, period. I don’t have a secret reserve that I can tap into to go into overdrive like even a baseline human does.”
He hesitated before asking, “So...is it like that with everything? You’re...um…”
“A slightly shittier human?” Xanadu said with a giggle. “Physically? For the most part, yes, I’m basically shittier than a human. I’m weaker, my senses aren’t as sharp, I can’t heal, and I need to charge every thirty-eight hours. On the other hand, I have extremely precise control of my chassis, and I’m extremely flexible.”
“But it’s the mental side of things where I shine. I’m ridiculously smart. I have a supercomputer for a brain and a built in wireless connection. Insofar as you can find the information somewhere on the internet, I’m essentially omniscient. I can read, write, and speak any documented language. I can learn skills off Youtube instantly, so long as I’m physically capable of doing it. I can do graduate level work in a dozen fields, and I read about thirty journals and forty newspapers a day. I don’t sleep unless I want to, and I can program my own dreams.”
Outreach stared at them, mouth hanging open. They grinned shyly, and shrugged. “There’s definite drawbacks to being a robot, but there’s a lot of perks too.”
He pursed his lips. “So, you’re basically the smartest person ever.”
They giggled. “No, I just have instant access to the entirety of human knowledge as long as I’m in range of a cell phone tower, satellite, or wifi network. I’m pretty smart all on my own, but there’s probably gadgeteers and devisers who are actually smarter than I am, and I’m aware of half a dozen baselines smarter than I am. And any computer intelligence with better processing power would be loads smarter.”
Outreach snorted. “Oh, yeah, sure, it only takes superpowers to beat you. Nothing much.”
The bus pulled to a stop and Xanadu stood up, laughing. “Like I said, there’s benefits to being a robot.”
They got off the bus at a little depot, along with half a dozen other kids. The driver got off and started unloading as they milled around. After a moment of the driver ignoring them, they shrugged and went into the building to see if there were any other kids waiting. Outreach was living up to his name, striking up conversations with the other kids.
Xanadu poked their head in to find a bunch of kids standing around, talking amongst themselves. Over in a corner there were a few guys and girls dancing, and Xanadu smiled and walked over to join them. They didn’t step into the group, just joined in at the edge, but they hadn’t been lying when they told Outreach they loved to dance.
They closed their eyes, using their ears to echolocate and track the bodies around them as they twisted and moved to the music. They’d absorbed dozens of dance styles, and now they fused them all together into a sensuous, flowing form.
“You are drawing attention to yourself, Your Grace.”
They smiled. <Tapped into the cameras, huh?>
“Naturally, Your Grace.”
CCTV footage appeared as though the cameras were their eyes. They saw the other dancers glancing at them as they moved, a few even outright staring. And as they jumped to another camera, they saw that a few of the others who were just over talking were also staring. Once again, they blessed their foresight in not trying to mimic natural skin, because if they could blush, they’d be lit up like a stoplight. But they didn’t stop dancing, even as they secretly watched the others watching them. The two years they’d spent trapped in a broken body had taught them to enjoy their freedom at every opportunity.
MIRA suddenly cut to an outside camera and they saw vans pulling up. They sighed internally, and stopped dancing. When they opened their eyes, they caught a couple people looking away hurriedly. One girl, a pretty, curvaceous girl with light brown skin and a pixie cut, gave them a wide smile. They smiled back.
“Why’d you stop dancing?” she asked, stepping out of the little cluster of dancers as Xanadu took a couple steps back. “You’re really good.”
They grinned. “The vans are here to take us to the school.”
The door opened and a petite woman stepped in, taking in the room with a single sweep. Xanadu frowned slightly and popped up their kinesic analysis routine. It confirmed what they’d guessed. Even in heels, the woman moved with grace and barely constrained power. They’d bet their fortune the woman could take every person in this room apart before half of the kids realized there was a threat.
She called out, “Attention,” and there was something in her tone that turned every head toward her. The dancer whose phone was playing turned off the music at a raised eyebrow from her.
“I’m Lillian Dennon, one of the instructors at Whateley. Your luggage is being taken to the campus now, and if you’ll follow me, we’ll get you on campus as well. The rules about keeping a low profile are still in effect, so please contain the urge to show off.”
The kids gathered together and trooped out to the vans. Xanadu held back for a moment, letting the crowd thin, and then slipped up to Ms. Dennon.
“Um, I don’t know if it’s a problem, but I weigh three hundred pounds…”
Ms. Dennon smiled. “Thank you for being so careful, but the vans are as sturdy as you’d expect for a school that caters to mutant kids. I assure you, you’ll be fine.”
They nodded, relaxing slightly. “Thanks.”
When they got out to the vans, they were surprised and pleased when Outreach waved them over.
“You didn’t have to wait,” they said with a grin.
“Nah, you kidding? I’m totally going to schmooze with the smartest kid in school,” he joked.
They giggled. “I swear, you’re going to meet kids smarter.”
“Yeah, but how many of them do I actually know?”
Xanadu stuck out their tongue. “The way you talk to people, probably all of them.’
He laughed. “I can’t help it! My superpower might as well be ‘bottled friendliness.’ I just feel the people around me and kinda...click with them.”
They grinned. “Sounds like the best superpower ever.”
He shrugged, suddenly looking uncomfortable. “I mean, feeling what the people around you feel can be great, but...it kinda gets old once they get a look at me. You can only feel shock, pity, and disgust so many times before you start learning to manipulate people back out of self defense.”
Xanadu winced. “Ah. Yeah.” They put a hand on his shoulder and squeezed gently. “Always seems to be a downside, huh?”
Outreach grinned, all smiles again. “Hey, it could be worse. I’m not crippled or anything.”
They twitched sharply. “Yeah,” they said softly. “It could definitely be worse.”
Outreach chatted away at and about anyone and everything, a social butterfly in his element, leaving Xanadu to brood for the remainder of the short ride. They knew Outreach couldn’t know, and they knew his gratitude was well founded from personal experience. But it still hurt to have been in a place that people used as a marker for how good their lives were comparatively. And, from a certain point of view, they were still a little handicapped even now.
So it was a pensive young robot who stepped out of the van and joined the cluster of kids outside the gates. A handful of older kids were waiting for them, and Xanadu noted with curiosity that there were no serious GSD cases among them. Given the prevalence of GSD, and the fact that some of the kids around them were clearly GSD cases, they wondered if it was a deliberate choice to have only “pretties” in the welcoming party, and if so, why?
They didn’t get an answer. All but one of the older teens stepped forward and began calling names, the last girl waiting patiently on the side lines. They noted that two of the groups were exclusive by gender. Outreach went to the boys, the pretty girl who’d complimented their dancing to the all girl group. Xanadu was called forward to join the smallest group, just four kids including themself. They glanced over at the waiting girl as they joined the group, and sighed inwardly when the girl nodded to them and gestured casually for them to join her.
They walked over as the two larger tour groups headed off. “Now? Really?”
She smiled. “Mrs. Carson doesn’t waste time. Come on, Anna knows not to wait for you.”
They glanced over their shoulder to see the last group heading off, a couple of the kids glancing back at them curiously, no doubt wondering why a brand new kid was already being called to the headmistresses office.
“Do I not get a tour?” They asked as they fell in step with the girl.
“I’ll give you your tour afterwards.”
“Oh. Would’ve been nice to do the group thing.”
The girl shrugged. “I’m sure Mrs. Carson has a good reason for wanting to see you right away.”
They sighed again and followed her in silence for the rest of the trip.
The girl led them into a building and past offices and clusters of desks, up to pair of lovely double doors. She knocked on them, and a woman’s voice called out, “Come in.”
She opened the door and waved Xanadu in.
Inside was a well-appointed office that looked more like a CEO’s than what Xanadu imagined a headmistresses office would. The woman behind the desk looked like she was in her early forties, and was dressed in a neat business suit. She nodded at one of the seats opposite her. “Have a seat, Mx. McCall.”
Blinking at hearing the appropriate prefix, they gingerly sat in one of the chairs, gradually relaxing when they realized the chair could support them.
“I’ll get right to the point, Mx. McCall. You listed technopathy as one of your abilities?”
They nodded. “Yes, ma’am.”
“And you’ve received and read a copy of the Whateley Code of Electronics and Computing Conduct?”
They nodded again.
“Good. If you break the rules, you’ll be subject to penalties ranging from detention to expulsion. Am I understood?”
She nodded. “Next order of business: your mother has laid down some rules. I’m told you’re aware of them. Is that correct?”
Xanadu felt a little like a broken record as they nodded again and repeated, “Yes, ma’am.”
“Excellent. I want to be very clear about this: even though those rules were put in place by your mother, and despite the fact that you are paying your own tuition, as an institution we are required to abide by your mother’s conditions. What that boils down to is, even though those rules aren’t Whateley rules, breaking them carries the same penalties. Detention, all the way up to expulsion. Are we clear on this?”
Xanadu blinked. “Uh, yes, ma’am.”
She smiled. “As long as we’re clear. Now, the third and final point of this meeting. You were a baseline before you uploaded yourself, as I understand it,” she asked, raising an inquisitive eyebrow.
“Yes, ma’am, I was.”
“Is that a repeatable feat?”
They hesitated. “I’m..not sure I understand. If you’re asking can I, personally, do it again, then probably not.”
She tapped her fingernails on the desk. “Let me rephrase that, then. Provided a willing subject, could you upload someone else?”
She sucked in a breath, and clasped her hands, leaning forward. “I see. How much detail about your process would a third party need if they wanted to use it to upload themselves or someone else?”
“Um...I mean, the software is fairly unusual. Unless they were actually using my software, I’d say they’d have to be a high level gadgeteer or deviser with computer skills to duplicate it. The hardware was almost ready to go out of the box, though.”
Mrs. Carson’s eye twitched. “You bought the hardware?”
“Yeah. I’m trying to reverse engineer it, but it’s a devise, so I’m not even sure that’s possible.”
She took a deep breath, her eye twitch more pronounced. “And it was a custom devise built just for this?”
Xanadu eyed her warily. They were beginning to seriously worry that she might have an aneurysm. “No, ma’am, it was a non-invasive neural interface from Sin d’Rome. I tweaked the bandwidth so the transfer would go more quickly and smoothly, but the software is the tricky part, since it mediates the transition and remaps sense memories to the new body.”
She sat back, closing her eyes. “How much was it?”
“Six thousand dollars.”
She twitched. When she opened her eyes, Xanadu almost recoiled from the intensity of her stare. “Mx. McCall, I want to be absolutely clear on this point. Under no circumstances are you ever to reveal, describe, or discuss any portion of your process for the entirety of your stay at this school. I would appreciate it if you continue to abide by this rule while not at school, but I can’t enforce that. Failure to abide by this rule will result in your immediate expulsion. Am I understood?”
They stared at her. “Why?”
Mrs. Carson smiled thinly. “Mx. McCall, you uploaded yourself to escape being paralyzed. You were so desperate to be whole again that, as a baseline, you created a process to upload a human mind into a robot body, and then built a functioning robot body, and then you used an unknown, untested process that resulted in the death of your biological body.”
She leaned forward on her desk. “There are literally hundreds of young men and women on this campus who are just as desperate as you were, if not more so. If you divulge that there is a way out, especially one that vastly enhances your intelligence, abilities, and gives you complete control of your appearance, a way out that requires only a deviser or gadgeteer and a few thousand dollars...we will lose an entire generation of young mutants to uploading.”
Xanadu stared at her, open mouthed. “Um...I...I actually plan to recreate the process using current technology and refine my chassis designs and release it publicly as a way for people who are trapped by their body to escape.”
She shuddered. “I can’t stop you from doing that. But not at my school. Clear?”
They stared at the desk for a long moment. “I promise not to divulge my process to other students. I promise not to openly discuss uploading on campus. I will not promise not to upload students.” They raised their chin in challenge. “I refuse to condemn someone to hell when I have the ability to save them.”
Mrs. Carson sighed. “I suppose that’s about what I should have expected. Will you at least consult with me before offering your process to students?”
Xanadu nodded. “Yes, ma’am, that I can agree to.”
“Very well. You’re dismissed.”
They stood up and turned to go, when she softly said, “And Mx. McCall.”
They turned to look at her. “I commend you for your empathy and concern. I just wish you would apply your talents to finding other ways to help people instead of giving them a simple escape hatch.”
Xanadu smiled. “Believe me, ma’am, uploading isn’t the only project I’m working on.”
She winced. “I’ll keep that in mind.”
They nodded again and slipped out of the office.
The girl was waiting for them outside. “Good to go?”
“Yup. She just needed to lay down some ground rules.”
She grinned. “You’re either extremely powerful, extremely dangerous, or extremely stupid if she needed to meet you right away like that. Which is it?”
Xanadu looked back at the office uncomfortably. “She thinks I’m dangerous.”
“Wicked,” the girl said with a laugh. “When Lady Astarte thinks your dangerous, that means you’re world class.”
They shrugged. “I guess. We going to do this tour thing?”
She nodded, leading the way out of the building. “You want the whole thing with classrooms and everything, or just the highlight reel?”
They checked their power levels. Six hours, the closest to empty they’d ever been. “Just the highlight reel. I need to charge soon.”
She blinked. “Like...plug into the wall?”
“Yeah.” At her confused look, they grinned. “Are we still supposed to keep it low?”
She pointed at the flag. “Green border, like now, means it’s fine to be yourself. Yellow means try to pass for human from a distance, red means that if you can’t pass, you stick to the tunnels.”
They stared at her. “So at a school for mutants, only the normal looking people can be open.”
She shrugged. “It do suck, but we get normies visiting and if there were bunches and bunches of mutants running around, we couldn’t keep the school secret.”
Xanadu shook their head. “Wow. Anyway…” They pulled their hoodie off over their head, taking their gloves off as they slipped out of it. They were wearing a crop top under it, a black that stood out against their pale skin. They left the hat on, enjoying the casual butchness that contrasted with their androgyny, the tiny zirconia stud in their right ear further confusing the issue.
She stared at them open mouthed as they tucked their gloves into the pockets of their hoodie and tied the sleeves around their waist. “Holy shit. You’re...like, a robot?”
They nodded. “Yup. And I’m at the lowest charge I’ve ever been at, so let’s do this and let me get to a plug.”
She reached out suddenly and touched their stomach. They jerked back, startled. “You’re so soft,” she said, staring at their stomach.
“Ok, first of all, what the actual fuck. You need to ask before you touch me like that. Second, that was super creepy and I’d like someone else, anyone else, to show me around campus.”
She glared at them. “Jesus, fine, whatever.” She turned and stomped off.
After a second, they followed her, figuring that hopefully she was going to take them to someone else, and not just generally storming off. She led the way to what they figured was a dorm of some kind and when they followed her in, she jerked to a stop and pointed at the floor. “Wait here.”
They nodded, and she stormed off again, yelling “Bianca!”
The entrance hall was at least interesting. A quick face search told them that the bust was Edgar Allen Poe, which made sense with the book and raven in the opposite nook. Just past that, they could see a foyer, with a bank of phone booths on one wall, the opposite wall lined with cubbyholes, presumably for mail. Just past the mailboxes, but before the hallway, was a staircase going up to the second floor. They guessed the others were still out on their tours, because the hall beyond the foyer was mostly empty.
They called up a campus map and looked it over briefly, then pulled up the course list and began going over it again, checking to see if anything had been added last minute that would change their mind about what to take. That only took a couple of seconds, since there was nothing new, so they reached for their backlog of journal articles and began to read.
After two psych journals, a medical journal, and an engineering periodical, and about five minutes, a tall girl with blonde hair done up in a loose chignon, wearing shorts and an oversize t-shirt came down the stairs. She stopped short when she caught sight of them.
“Wow. She said...but, wow.”
They fought the urge to take a step back. “What, exactly, did she say?”
“That you were a robot,” she said with a grin. They cocked an eyebrow and her grin turned a little sheepish, “Ok, and that you were a huge bitch that went off on her for no reason.”
They shuddered. “So she didn’t mention that she touched me, like stroked my stomach, without asking? Like, creepy stalker style?”
She froze. “Ooooh, no, she didn’t. That bitch. I am so sorry, sweetie.” She finished coming down the stairs and held out her hand. “Come on, let’s go report her to Ms. Horton.”
They took her hand gingerly, half expecting her to do something weird too. But she just led them into the foyer and over to a door with a little nameplate on it. She knocked and called out, “Ms. Horton?”
She opened the door and leaned in. “Hey, so...Fiona did it again.”
There was a groan from inside the office. “Who?”
She opened the door all the way, and tugged Xanadu into the office. Ms. Horton turned out to be an older woman with neatly coiffed hair wearing a button down blouse and, when she stood up, blue jeans. “You must be Xanadu,” she said, coming around the desk and leaning back against it. “Would you mind telling me what happened?”
Xanadu shifted uncomfortably. “She told me green flag meant I could relax, and my heat exchange system was working overtime with all that cover up, and…” they looked down at the ground, embarrassed. “And I like how I look, and I like showing off, so...I took off my hoodie, and she was staring at me, and then she just...reached out and stroked my stomach. And then she was staring at me weird and she told me I was really soft. I kinda freaked out and yelled at her a little.”
Ms. Horton put her face in her hands. “God damnit.”
She mopped her face and looked at Xanadu tiredly. “I’m going to have a word with Ms. Carson. Fiona’s been her errand girl for a year now, and she’s been on best behavior. I honestly didn’t think twice about the fact that she was the one doing your tour. It was very definitely my mistake, and from the bottom of my heart, I am so very sorry.”
Xanadu shrugged, feeling tired and just wanting to plug in and be quiet for a while. “Look, I understand it was a mistake, and I’m not mad at you, honestly, but...can I be blunt?”
Ms. Horton nodded. “Of course.”
“This is the second time today a student found out I wasn’t human and immediately was inappropriate. Am I going to be treated like a thing? Is that the normal approach to people like me here?”
Ms. Horton winced. “First of all, can I ask about the second student?”
“A guy I met on my way in. When he found out I was agender, he immediately asked what I had in my pants.”
Bianca made a shocked noise and Ms. Horton stared at them with her mouth hanging open.
“Jesus, you’ve had a bad day,” she murmured. She mopped her face again and sighed. “I...you might have a bit of an uphill fight. People are used to seeing robots around campus, but there aren’t any intelligent robots, so...I hope not, but there is a chance that things like this may keep happening.”
Xanadu sighed. “Thank you for your honesty. Is there actually any part of the tour I’m required to participate in, or can I just find a quiet closet to charge and hide in?”
Bianca pursed her lips. “The Homer Gallery, but other than that it’s basically just showing you where things are.”
“I’ve got a map of the campus in my head, so that’s not a problem. Let’s just get this over with so I can plug in.”
Bianca nodded and Ms. Horton reached out like she wanted to put her hand on their shoulder, but stopped short. “I’m sorry that the headmistress yelling at you, missing your tour, and being touched inappropriately is your first impression of Whateley.”
Xanadu gave her a small smile. “I mean, hypothetically, it has to get better from here, right?”
She smiled a little and nodded. “I certainly hope so.”
Bianca held out her hand again. “Come on, kiddo, I’ll show you the sights.”
They nodded and took her hand. She gave it a squeeze and led them back out on the paths the way they’d come.
“So...can I ask a question?” she said as they walked.
They shrugged. Her hand felt nice in theirs, friendly and warm, and they found themself wondering if she meant to keep holding hands, or if she’d just forgotten to let go. “Sure.”
“Were you always a robot?”
They blinked. “You know, you’re the first person to ever ask me that.”
She laughed. “First! But seriously, built to suit? Lab accident? Mad scientist victim?”
They giggled. “Um...basically, I had an accident that left me paralyzed, and this was a way to have a life again.”
She whistled. “Wow. That’s intense. Can I ask a slightly ruder question?”
“You cannot possibly ask me a ruder question than ‘what’s the state of your genitals,’” they said, laughing, “so go ahead.”
She gagged. “God, yeah. So...did you have a say in what you looked like? Or was it a sort of a mad scientist seeks vulnerable kid for insane experiment kind of thing?”
They coughed. “Um, actually, I built my chassis. So...this is how I choose to look.”
Bianca stopped short. “Holy shit, you built yourself? That’s so cool! What are you, a deviser? Gadgeteer?”
Once again, they were supremely glad they couldn’t blush anymore. “Baseline, actually. Tested three times.”
Bianca stared at them. “So you’re a genius. Like, an actual, honest to God, no powers needed, genius.”
They coughed, embarrassed. “I guess. I never felt all that smart, but...I mean, look what I can do? And now I have a supercomputer for a brain and the entire internet is my memory, so...if I wasn’t a genius before, I am now.”
Bianca grinned and started walking again, pulling them along. “Well, I have to say, whatever else you might be, you’re a freaking artist. You look amazing.”
They grinned shyly. “Thanks.”
“So, how long have you known you were trans?”
Xanadu jerked. “Um...wow. I’m...most people aren’t cool with people like me calling ourselves trans.”
She laughed. “Honey. I’m a tgirl, and I am more than happy to welcome my enby pals to the family.”
Xanadu stared at her. “Oh. Wow. Um, I realized it when I was nine, ten? When I found out that my body was going to change. It scared the shit out of me. I was just starting puberty when I made the leap, and I was almost happier to be androgynous again than I was to be able to walk.”
Bianca nodded. “Oooh, I feel that. I hated being a boy pretty much from the moment I could understand there was a difference. Exemplar saved my ass from a lifetime of hormones and surgery, and gave me,” she let go of their hand and twirled as she took her next few steps, “this fabulous body.”
“Well, my compliments to your creator, who or whatever that may be,” Xanadu said, laughing.
She struck a pose. “Why, thanks ever so much, dahling.”
They grinned, and then looked up at the building they were approaching. “Wasn’t I just here?”
She nodded. “Yeah, the gallery is usually the last stop, so I guess Fiona was being her usual doltish self and thought she’d walk you back to the starting line and do a normal tour instead of just doing it backward like a sane person.”
“Right. Well, show me the thing and let’s get it over with.”
The Homer Gallery was full of weird and interesting stuff, but aside from meeting Bianca, they were largely over Whateley at this point, and just wanted to find someplace quiet to sit and charge. The whole tour took about five minutes, and then they were out, to their relief.
“So, that’s the fabulous Homer Gallery. I guess you just want to get back to Poe and find your room, huh?”
They nodded. “It’s been a long day. I might actually sleep for a while.”
She blinked. “You sleep?”
“I don’t need to, but I can. I’d like to dream for a while and just get my head together.”
She nodded slowly as she led the way back to the cottage. “You’re going to have to tell me how dreaming works for you, but first, there’s a few things I need to let you know.”
They laughed softly. “More stuff like the flag bullshit?”
Bianca sighed. “Yeah, the flag system is shitty. But actually, it’s about Poe. So, Poe is the LGBT house-”
Xanadu groaned. “Jesus Christ, is the entire school segregated? Do the colored people have separate water fountains too, or just the freaks and the gays?”
She winced. “No! No, not like that.” She hesitated. “Ok, at least it’s not like that in this case. The freaks comment is...yeah. Um, you remember on the forms, you were asked about your gender and sexuality?”
“Well, any kid that answers something other than than straight and cis gets routed to Poe so that we have somewhere to be safe. It’s not to keep us away from the precious lil’ cishets, it’s to keep us safe from the cishets. Bullying happens, and this is a school where the bullies can sometimes literally rip you limb from limb.”
Xanadu stared at her in horror. “I don’t know if that’s better or worse.”
She smiled, looking embarrassed. “Look, you’re...kinda getting a really shitty first introduction to Whateley. I swear it’s a great school and a really cool place once you get used to it.”
“It would have to be, cause at this point, it would basically have to be the academics keeping this place open, cause the culture seems like trash.”
“Yeah, it’s...it’s high school with superpowers, so...it gets a little wild. Anyway, you can’t tell anyone about Poe, ok?”
Xanadu’s eyes narrowed. “I’m almost afraid to ask, but what do the other students think Poe is?”
She coughed and looked away. “The, uh, nut house.”
They closed their eyes. “I...that...you know what, that’s par for the course.” They opened their eyes and smiled tiredly. “Anything else I should know?”
“You’ll probably end up rooming with a guy? Trans kids room with trans kids, and there’s only four trans kids this year, and it’s two girls, a guy, and you.” She hesitated and softly said, “Unless you’d be more comfortable with the girls? I’m sure Ms. Horton would be willing to make an exception.”
They rubbed their temples. “No, that’s...I’m afab, so it’ll be a little weird, but I’ll live. Anything else?”
She smiled and put an arm around their shoulders. “There’s two nights of partying and informal discussion groups if you’re feeling up to it.”
They grinned. “Maybe. Let me get some down time first.”
She nodded, giving them a little hug as they walked up to the cottage. “Ok, sweetie. You got any luggage?”
“Oh, God, I completely forgot about my trunks. Um...is there anyone who can help me with them?”
“What, no robot strength?”
“Long story short, I can actually only lift about sixty pounds. My trunks have wheels on them, so I’ll be fine once I get them up the steps, but...steps.”
Bianca grinned. “Gotcha. For future reference, there’s an elevator, but this time...wanna see something cool?”
“Point to your trunks.”
They hunted through and found their trunks. “Here.”
Bianca winked, and grabbed the handles. Then, to Xanadu’s shock, she hauled them straight up and draped them over her shoulders like they weighed nothing. “Ta-da! I’m EX-4, so I’m stupid strong. Let’s find your room, sweetie.”
They shook their head, grinning, and followed them into the cottage. “Now, freshman changelings are usually right in the middle, so...ah!”
Xanadu stepped around her to look into a surprisingly roomy dorm. There was a boy in the room unpacking luggage, and he looked around as Bianca set down their trunks outside. “Whoa. Are you, um...you started out with our tour group?”
“Well, that’s one way to ask, I guess,” they said with a grin. “I’m agender. I’m not a boy or a girl.”
He blinked. “Oh. Um. So, is it gonna weird rooming with me?”
They grinned. “A little. But, if I understand this correctly, we started out on the same side of the fence, so…”
He relaxed. “Oh. Is it as weird for you as it is for me? Like, changing?”
“Um. I actually chose to change, so...probably not?”
“Oh. Wait, are you actually, like, an android? For real? That’s not crazy GSD?”
“I am a robot, for real. Speaking of which, I need to find somewhere to plug in, so...um...sorry to say hi and run?”
“Oh. Cool. I’m Matt, by the way.”
“Xanadu, but you can call me Xan.”
He grinned. “You’re making me feel bad. I didn’t even try for a cool name.”
Xanadu laughed. “Hey, apparently, you get to pick a codename that everyone’s going to call you anyway.”
He brightened up. “True!”
They grinned and stepped out of the room, walking down to Ms. Horton’s office and knocking.
They poked their head in. “Um, is there a 220 plug in the cottage?”
Ms. Horton stood up. “So...I know it’s been a long day-”
They wilted. “No, huh?”
“No, there is one. It’s just...in the basement,” she said. She hurriedly added, “I just don’t want you to feel dehumanized. We can get one run into your room sometime this week.”
“You don’t have to,” they said softly. “At home, the garage is basically my workshop, lab, and second bedroom, so I just unplug the dryer when I need to charge.”
“Well, we want you to feel at home here, so we’re going to put an outlet in your room. We just couldn’t get one put in until we knew what room you were going to be in. Now, let me show you where you can plug in.”
They stepped back as she left her office and crossed the foyer to the stairs down. “One other thing, if it’s ok?”
Ms. Horton glanced back over her shoulder. “What’s that?”
“Could we maybe take the bed out? I don’t need it.”
She got to the bottom of the stairs and turned to look at them. “If you really want to, but I understand you can sleep?”
They stopped on the second to last stair and gave her a curious look. “How do you know that?”
Ms. Horton grinned. “You are probably the only student I’ve ever had that came with a manual,” she said. At Xanadu’s startled look, she laughed. “I’m kidding. Your mom had a lengthy conversation with myself and the headmistress. Mostly laying out boundaries, but she did mention a few of the more interesting things about you.”
They blinked slowly and shook their head. “Lovely. What else did she mention?”
Ms. Horton smiled and walked down the hallway. “I know that you’re not super strong, that your senses aren’t as good as a baseline’s, that no computer is safe from you, that you need to charge every thirty-eight hours, and that you’re agender. I also know that you have some fairly tight restrictions on what you’re allowed to do in Workshop.”
She stopped and opened a door, then waved them in. “Other than that, you’ll have to surprise me.”
“Hopefully, good surprises,” they said with a smile. They stepped into a little concrete room that had hookups for washer and dryer and, of course, a 220 outlet. They felt a surge of relief at seeing it and stepped over to it with anticipation.
“Do you need a chair or anything?”
They reached back, the doors on their back that protected their charging systems popping open. They grabbed their plug and spooled it out, plugging it in and closing their eyes as they felt the comforting hum of power surging into them. “Ahhh, that’s better. Um, no, I’m fine. I don’t have muscle fatigue or anything.”
She nodded. “The reception down here is pretty bad, so-”
“I’m, um, actually going to take a nap,” they said with a sheepish smile. “I programmed three dreams and I’ve only done one.”
Ms. Horton smiled bemusedly. “Programming your own dreams. That must be amazing.”
“There are definite perks to being me.”
She nodded. “Well, I’ll leave you to it. If you wake up in time, there’ll be a party tonight, if you’re interested.”
They nodded. “I only need two hours to charge. After that...maybe.”
She smiled and left, closing the door.
“MIRA, quick rewrite of the sleep routine: Let’s fade to black instead of white.”
“Yes, Your Grace. And Your Grace?”
The AIs tone turned flat and strangely hungry. “May I initiate retaliation against Fiona?”
Xanadu blinked. “You sounded almost bloodthirsty there, babe.”
MIRA blinked into existence and Xanadu stared at her in shock. She looked furious, and her eyes were literally red, glowing demonically. “I feel your emotions, Your Grace. I experienced those uncomfortable and objectified feelings with you. I am livid. I wish to make her miserable.”
Xanadu frowned. “What happened to keeping a low profile, not drawing official attention, all that?”
MIRA’s eyes flared. “She touched us like we were a thing,” she snarled. “I believe the phrase is, ‘fuck that.’ I want her to suffer.”
Xanadu stared at her silently for a moment. “Come here, babe.”
MIRA glared, but walked over to them. They knelt down and pulled her into a hug. “It was weird and uncomfortable and shitty. I would love to take you up on that.” They pulled back and smoothed out her curls. “But we literally just got back from being told in no uncertain terms that we were to obey the rules for being computer intelligences. We’ve reported it. If all the machines and computers in the world suddenly turn against her, they’ll know it was us.”
The little AI pulled back and tears of frustration were running down her face. “I know,” she sighed. “I know that. I just...I have felt many things since we became intertwined, but that was one of the worst. I am having some difficulty processing this emotion.”
Xanadu rubbed her back in small circles. “How about you come hiking with me?”
She frowned. “I am not certain I can remain connected to you enough to experience your dream without interfering with it.”
They closed their eyes and called up the code. It was a quick patch, since they were duplicating existing code. “There. Now there’s two inputs. Duplicate the sleep protocol across your entire network, leaving just this instance of you, and plug into the dream with me.”
MIRA wiped her eyes, a tentative smile appearing on her cherubic features as the glow in her eyes faded. “I...I believe I would like to experience a dream. One moment.”
She froze and flickered for ten seconds, then stabilized wearing a little sundress and hiking boots. “I am ready.”
Xanadu sat down and gathered her into their arms. Together, they initiated the sleep protocols and faded into dreams.
A half a day subjectively, and two real hours later, the fully charged alert switched off the dream and reversed the sleep protocol. Xanadu came back to consciousness to find MIRA cuddled up to their chest, stretched across their lap. A moment later, MIRA’s eyes popped open and she sat up, stretching and playing at waking up. They grinned at the pantomime.
“I am able to think more clearly, and my attention is less focused on negative emotions,” MIRA said with a nod. She looked at them a little wistfully. “I understand now why you sometimes miss your biological body. The sensations are...most intriguing.” She looked at them shyly. “May I join you again at some point in the future, Your Grace?”
“Of course! We’re going to have to write dialogue options and character profiles, though. It was weird spending hours hiking with you without saying anything.”
She smiled. “I would like that, Your Grace.”
They nodded, standing up. They unplugged and tucked the power cord away, closing the doors to protect their systems. “Come on, let’s go unpack.”
She nodded and flickered out of view. They went up the stairs to their room, finding it empty at the moment. They checked the wardrobes and confirmed that they had the left side of the room. They opened up the trunk with their clothes and began unpacking, tucking pants into the drawers in the wardrobe, hanging up shirts and the handful of dresses they owned for days where they wanted to feel pretty. They had a small selection of wigs with them and a handful of hats. The wigs went in their boxes at the base of the closet along with their shoes, and the hats into the top drawer. Finally, the trunk was mostly empty, just tools left, and they closed it up.
They stood in their room, tapping their foot and considering. At this point, they knew six people, one of whom was the headmistress, one was their house mother, and one had touched them inappropriately. After a moment of consideration, they went in search of Outreach.
They found him in the sunroom, talking with other boys and girls. He was still wearing long sleeves, but he’d washed the makeup off his face. His hair, as promised, was bright white, and his skin was mottled bright red and white. Xanadu could understand his discomfort with his appearance, although they personally felt it looked really interesting. Outreach glanced over and stopped short when he saw them, his candy striped eyes going wide.
“Damn. You look really cool, dude!”
They laughed and did a little spin. “Well, thank you. I actually think you do, too.”
He shrugged, looking embarrassed. “Thanks.” He perked up and waved them over. “This is Jared, Amy, and Micah, or Hotshot, Kulit, and Shiv.”
Jared was a tallish Caucasian boy, taller than they were by several inches, with a messy shock of orange hair and red eyes. His face was weirdly proportioned, with a wide mouth, wide set eyes, and a pronounced nose. It gave him an alien look, but an attractive alien. When he held out his hand to shake, he had only three fingers on it, but his hand was warm and soft in theirs and they gave him a wide smile.
Amy was a short girl, and a quick feature scan told them there was an 80% chance she was predominantly Filipino. Her hair was jet black, but it had blue and purple streaks in it and her eyes were cat’s eyes. Her skin was a soft brown, but she had a dusting of leopard spots and her ears were feline. Her friendly face had a warm smile that revealed little fangs when her lips parted.
And last was Micah, who had gunmetal grey skin, pointed goblin ears, and visible claws. He was about the same height as them, and his eyes were a startling blue. He was bald, like they were, and he wore a loose pair of shorts, a sleeveless shirt, and a pair of sandals, necessitated by the three inch spikes at his shoulders, elbows, knees, wrists, and ankles. Of the three of them, it was easiest to guess where his codename came from.
Xanadu shook their hands one by one as the three of them looked them over. Jared cocked his head to the side and smiled curiously. “So you’re the robot ‘Reach was telling us about.”
They sketched a bow. “Yup.”
There was a moment of silence, and then Amy softly asked, “So...do you, like...do you feel...um, are you here because you’re not a boy or a girl, or…?”
Reach tensed. “Guys, I told you you not to-”
They put a hand on his arm. “It’s fine, that’s not rude under the circumstances.” They gave her a smile. “I have a normal range of emotions, but I don’t have hormones or anything like them. I haven’t felt anything like that yet, and I may never feel it unless I decide to program it in. I think you all look really beautiful and cool, but whether that’s attraction or just aesthetic appreciation, I couldn’t say.”
Reach blinked. “You think I’m beautiful?”
At the same moment, and in the same startled tone, Micah asked, “Beautiful?”
They nodded. “Yeah, I do, both of you.” They looked back and forth between them and felt a pang of embarrassment. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to make you uncomfortable.”
There was a moment of awkward silence and then Jared struck a pose. “I, for one, welcome my admiring public.”
The tension eased as they all laughed.
“So, Reach was telling us you were really tight-lipped about your background,” Micah said. “Did you figure out what you could talk about?”
They cocked their head. “Is everyone this curious about each other?”
Amy grinned. “You’re not curious about us?”
They blinked as they realized that it might not be the best idea to admit they could just scan and search them all, learning everything about them in seconds. “I mean, yeah, I just...sorry, it’s been a weird day. There’s some things I can’t talk about, so...ask me questions and I’ll answer them if I can?”
Jared immediately asked, “So who built you?”
They grinned. “I did. Or rather, I built this chassis.”
That drew a round of startled looks. Outreach stared at them in confusion. “How did you build yourself?”
“With tools and a lot of work,” they teased. The others rolled their eyes and groaned, and they laughed. “Honestly, though? I used to be a normal kid.”
Micah leaned forward. “Wait, so how did you...you know...change? You’re like a cyborg?”
“That’s the part I can’t talk about. All I can tell you is that I was a normal kid, and then I became a robot.”
Amy nodded slowly. “Reach was saying you’re not very strong and your senses aren’t all that good?”
They nodded. “I’m limited by what hardware is capable of, though I’m working to improve my designs.”
“So why become a robot in the first place?” Jared asked. “Aside from the fact that you’re apparently even smarter because of it.”
They took a deep breath. “When I was eleven I had an accident. I was climbing and my gear failed. I fell about forty feet and broke my spine. I had brain damage, I was almost completely immobilized because I wasn’t strong enough to use a wheelchair, and I was in pain all the time.” They smiled. “So when the opportunity to get a brand new body came up, I jumped on it.”
Micah whistled softly. “Wow. But...you built it?”
“So you were smart before, yeah?”
“Apparently. I felt really stupid all the time, but,” they waved at their body, “I built a functioning robot, so I must have been smart enough.”
“So can you, like, patent it?”
They shrugged. “I’m actually working on it. Everything was off the shelf or custom ordered, so it’s really not what you’d call an original design for the most part. The solar charging array is patent pending, and some of my joint designs are waiting on patents. And the architecture of my brain is pretty unique, but I’m not going to patent that until I have a more unique design, and I upgrade to the next version, just so that weak points aren’t public. And I actually have patents on several pieces of software, one of which makes me a lot of money. Overall, I want to get the chassis more durable, stronger, figure out better senses, overcome the basic flaws. But once I get it to where I want it, yeah, I’m definitely going to patent it.”
The others stared at them. Jared grinned. “So, you’re, what, Gadgeteer 3? 4?”
They grinned back. “Guess again.”
Amy frowned. “Well you can’t be a deviser, because you can patent stuff. Um, GDT 5?”
“Nope.” At the confused looks, they giggled. “Baseline.”
Micah’s jaw fell open. “You’re shitting me.”
They shrugged. “I couldn’t believe it either, actually. I got tested three times, just to be sure. But yeah, if I was a mutant, I was the most special secret mutant ever.”
Outreach blinked. “So you actually are the smartest person ever.”
“Nah. My chassis is pretty obviously baseline construction, and the most innovative thing about it is the control software and the power distribution. I just integrated a bunch of existing technologies with small improvements.”
Jared snorted. “Right, right, and you got an honest to God sci-fi robot body out of that. Ho hum, nothing to see here.” He laughed. “I think you must have been a lot smarter than you realize.”
They shrugged, embarrassed. “I guess. So, enough about me, though. What can y’all do?”
The other three stared at them, and Jared started to guffaw. “Y’all? A robot that says ‘y’all!’”
“Hey, English doesn’t have a good second person-plural pronoun!”
When the laughter finally died down, Jared took the lead. “So, aside from my GSD, I can make microwaves. I can put out a sort of weak force field around me or I can project beams. I can dial it down to just making people uncomfortable, or really hurt people, or I can do a kind of maser thing, but that takes a lot out of me.”
Micah waved at himself. “I’m strong, and pretty much bulletproof. I can lift a quarter ton, and I can run about twenty miles per hour. My skin is like, organic metal, and I can cut through an eighth of an inch of steel with my claws and spikes. Downside is, it’s pretty impossible to hide what I look like, and I’m super hard on clothes.”
“I’m an Exemplar, turning into a cat girl, obviously,” Amy said with a fanged grin. She flexed her hands and tiny little claws popped out of her fingertips. “I’ve got claws and really sharp teeth. My hearing is fantastic and my eyesight is really sharp. I’ve got great reflexes and I’m super flexible. I’m a little stronger, thanks to the exemplar, and I’m smarter and I read faster. I need to eat meat, just like a cat, and that’s taking some getting used to. And with the way I look, people either think I’m a cute little plush toy or a sex bomb or they hate me for being obviously a mutant.”
“And of course, you know about me already,” Outreach said with a smile.
They grinned. “Yeah. I think I can see why this place works. You’re all really cool.”
Micah shrugged bashfully. “Honestly, I was hoping to meet more kids with GSD here. I’m not sure how I feel about being in a house where I’m allowed to be gay, but all the guys are super pretty or normal looking.”
Jared sighed. “No shit. I’m bi, and I can barely keep my eyes in my head, and...and I mean, I’m mostly cool with how I look, but...how am I supposed to compete against the pretties?” He jerked slightly, and gave Amy an embarrassed look. “No offense.”
“None taken. I’m just worried about how I’m going to be seen,” Amy said with a shrug. “I’d love to have a girlfriend, but I’m definitely not ready for sex. And I’ve already seen some of the bi guys perving on me, like I’m some anime fantasy toy.” She shuddered. “I can only imagine it’ll get worse once the straight boys start showing up.”
Outreach nodded. “Yeah. Most people I’ve met think I look diseased, so...I’m almost sorry I put down that I’m gay if it means I’m surrounded by available guys who don’t want anything to do with me.”
They stared at the four of them, feeling a little weird. “Wow. If this is what sexual attraction is like, I think I might avoid it entirely.”
Amy laughed. “Oh, sweetie, no. Besides, you could have anyone you wanted, probably.”
Outreach blinked. “You built your own body. You have to be aware that you’re super pretty.”
They coughed. “I mean, I designed it, yeah, and I wanted it to be aesthetically pleasing. I just...well, I mean, I knew...that is, I did, um, include some functionality...but-”
Jared leaned over and threw an arm around their shoulder. “Functionality, huh? But you don’t feel attraction?”
They smiled shyly. “No? I mean, at the time I built it, I had hormones starting, but I was pretty much crippled, so...you know, I’m not even sure why I put it in. I guess I just figured if I ever met the right person, I’d want to have the option.”
Micah sighed. “Yeah, see, that right there? The sweet, innocent robot thing is going to have the guys and girls tripping over themselves. Hell, I’m surprised you haven’t been hit on alre-” He broke off at registering their sudden uncomfortable look. “Oh. You have, huh?”
They shrugged, looking at the floor. “One of the older girls thought, I guess, that I was...I don’t know, like that I was just a normal robot or something, and she touched me weird without asking.”
Amy shuddered. “Let me guess: she petted you?”
Xanadu looked up, surprised. “Um, yeah. She stroked my stomach,” they put their hand on their belly, just above their groin, “right here and told me I felt really soft.”
“Ugh. I hate when people do shit like that.”
They sighed. “Yeah, Ms. Horton said people might react to me weird.”
She gave them a sympathetic look. “Yeah, I get that a lot. Can you take care of yourself?”
“Ummm...you know, self-defense wasn’t really high on my list of priorities when I built this chassis, so...probably not. I mean, I might be able to throw a decent punch, but with all the super strong people...”
Outreach winced. “Look, you have, like, a cell phone built in, right? So you can call for help if something happens?”
“Among other things, but yeah.”
Amy patted them on the shoulder. “Then maybe put security on speed dial.”
They shuddered. “Great.”
“Look, once people get used to you, it’ll be fine,” Amy said. “And probably nothing serious will happen. But...just to be safe, you know?”
They forced a smile. “Yeah. Just to be safe.”
There was a few moments of silence and then Amy took a deep breath. “So, we looking forward to the party?”
Jared grinned. “Hell yes. Gonna get my dance on.”
“I love to dance too, so I’m at least going to show up for that,” Xanadu said with a small smile.
“I might go to one of the discussions, but I’d be too worried about hurting someone to mix it up on the dance floor,” Micah admitted.
Outreach shook his head. “Parties are a little overwhelming for me, and it’s not like anyone’s going to want to dance with me, so-”
“I would,” they said quietly. At his skeptical look, they shrugged. “Dancing makes me feel confident and free. I think those are things you should feel too.”
He grinned. “Well, it just makes me feel awkward, so...pass, but thanks.”
They nodded at him, and then looked at Amy. “You looking forward to it?”
“Yes and no. I like dancing, and there’s lots of pretty girls here who I can actually dance with, but...I’m worried people are going to see me dancing, and...I can’t help that I move like a cat, you know? And I don’t want to give the wrong impression.”
“Yeah, I get that. Like, I enjoy people looking at me, but...I’m not sure how I feel about anything beyond that.”
Jared gave them a squeeze. “You know, I have to ask. You design a gorgeous ‘functional’ body that you like showing off. Are you sure some of the hormones didn’t carry over?”
They blinked. “One moment.”
<MIRA, give me a quick search of the subconscious personality sequences.>
“A moment, Your Grace.”
They stared at the floor for a count of five, and then, “I have found something, Your Grace.”
The code scrolled across their eyes. “Huh.”
Jared blinked. “Did you just check your brain?”
“Yup. I’ve got some active subroutines that influence me to be romantically attracted. They’re evolving, so unless I shut them down or freeze them, I may eventually develop something analogous to a sex drive.” They blinked away the code and shook their head. “Weird.”
Outreach licked his lips. “You can just...shut parts of yourself off?”
“I mean, I am a robot,” they said with a smile.
Micah shifted, looking at them curiously. “So. Boys or girls?”
“It wasn’t specific,” they said. “It’s more...personality based.”
Jared punched the air. “Yes! Another one for Club Bi!”
They giggled. “I guess so.”
Amy cocked her head. “Could you...could you go the other way, if you wanted? Change yourself by adding things?”
They nodded. “Yeah, I do that all the time when I learn new skills.”
Amy crossed her arms. “So you could, say, choose to be a boy or a girl? Or choose to be gay or straight?”
“Oh! I mean…” they frowned. “I guess I could, but then I wouldn’t be me anymore.”
She blew out a breath and smiled. “Good answer.”
They grinned and stuck out their tongue. At that moment, Bianca poked her head in. “Party’s about to start, kiddos. Ms. Horton wants us downstairs.”
They all trooped downstairs as Bianca went up, presumably to alert the rest of the cottage. There were a few dozen students squeezed into the library, where Ms. Horton stood on chair.
After a few minutes, the trickle of students slowed. Ms. Horton cleared her throat and the room gradually quieted.
“Welcome to Poe. Now, I could give a speech how your cottage is your family, someone would crack a Hogwarts joke, big laughs, we kick off the party and you forget everything I said.”
There was a mix of giggles and laughter, and they found themself smiling.
Ms. Horton nodded to acknowledge the humor, and then her face got serious. “But I want to be clear: Poe is a world unto itself. The students in Whitman and Twain are united by their outward differences. The students in Hawthorne are united by difficult circumstances. Emerson and Dickinson, by their normalcy.” She smiled wryly. “Melville is an enormous ongoing catastrophic catfight, and don’t let anyone tell you different.”
There were peals of laughter from the returning students, and the new students smiled and giggled, not quite getting the joke, but happy to be let in on it anyway.
She returned to a serious tone. “But Poe? We’re united by a common secret. We are a minority within a minority. And while we here at Whateley will do our best to defend you, bullying happens. We fight it at every turn, but we simply cannot stop hotheaded superpowered bigots one hundred percent of the time. What it boils down to is that the first, best defense for most Poesies is secrecy.”
She raised a hand as some of the new kids murmured. “To be clear, we do not require you to remain closeted. If your honor, your sanity, or your heart require you to be out, we will back you to the hilt every step, every inch of the way. But what you will not do is reveal the secret of Poe. For every student that is able to defend themselves, there are ten more who cannot. For every one of you that chooses to come out, there are three beside you who do not, for their own safety. Do not endanger them.”
She pointed at the three little lights over the door. “Pay attention to the lights. Green means it’s safe to be yourselves. Yellow means that you should be discreet, but if you are openly out, you may do such things as holds hands and sit close. Nothing overt. Red...red means that there is to be no homosexual behavior whatsoever. Regardless of how out you are, when the lights are red, everyone goes back in the closet until it changes back to yellow or green.”
There was another round of murmurs at that, and she nodded slowly. “I wish it were not necessary. I wish that you could be your truest, happiest selves at all times. But for your safety, and the safety of your housemates, you will respect the lights, especially red.”
“Next, and I wish it were not necessary to say this, but I have been proven wrong time and again: under no circumstances will you out another student. I don’t care how angry you are. I don’t care if you’re madly in love, completely out, and being forced to hide because your partner is not out. I don’t care if you find love outside of Poe, and think that outing your partner is ok because they aren’t covered by Poe rules. I do not care, in the slightest, what your reasons are. Do. Not. Out your fellow students.”
She glared ferociously at them until the entire room nodded. She relaxed slightly, and a small smile appeared on her face. “Finally, I am sure you have all read the student handbook and are aware of the rules about sex. According to the Whateley Student Code, you are to remain chaste and abstinent on this campus.”
There was a number of disappointed faces and sounds. Ms. Horton smiled a little wider. “Since we all understand that, let me make something else clear to you: the infirmary gives away condoms, dental dams, lubricant, and birth control free of charge and no questions asked. Just ask the nurse on duty.”
There was a collective intake of breath. She winked. “We want you to be safe above all. But use common sense and courtesy. Keep it out of the common areas and showers. If I see it,” she said with careful emphasis, “you get detention. Are we all completely clear on this?”
Everyone nodded emphatically. She smiled. “Good. Now that we’re all aware of the ground rules, I want you to mix, mingle, enjoy the party, go to the discussions, and have a good time. Welcome to Whateley, and welcome to Poe.”
There was a round of applause and cheers as she stepped off the chair, and someone cranked up dance music. Some students headed for the snack buffet, some out on the makeshift dance floor, and some broke off to go attend discussions. Micah and Outreach were among the latter, nodding to the others before disappearing into the halls. Jared headed straight for the dance floor, but Amy turned to them and smiled. “Wanna dance together for a little bit?”
They nodded shyly. “Sure!”
She took their hand and led them out on the dance floor. They weren’t entirely sure what to expect, but once they got to a clear space, she let go of their hand and started out slow, moving half the speed of the music, but still in time with it. She was watching them as she danced with liquid grace, her eyes sparkling with challenge and mischief.
They grinned and turned their hat backward, then stepped up to her, not quite touching, and began to mimic her movements. At first, they cheated, using predictive subroutines to mirror her milliseconds after she moved. She giggled and kicked it up, moving at full speed, graceful and perfectly in time. They kept up the mirror trick for a few more seconds, and then they began to really dance, blending masculine and feminine body language, flowing and swirling and swivelling, taking advantage of their extra flexibility.
Xanadu felt their simulated breathing quicken as they found themselves locking eyes with Amy more and more. Their bodies began to flow together and apart as they touched, a hand here, a hip there, sliding over and past each other, circling around an invisible center. They loved to dance, loved to move, but never before had they danced with someone, and certainly never with someone who could keep up with them move for move, grace for grace. It was mesmerizing, fascinating, and breathtakingly beautiful to be a part of.
A space opened up around the two of them, and Xanadu once again became aware that other people were watching them dance. They grinned, flicking their eyes to the left and right to draw her attention to their audience and Amy grinned back, her eyes alight. Her mouth moved slightly, forming silent words. They realized after the first word what she was doing and reached out for the skill-
-you read lips?
They nodded slightly.
She smiled more broadly. I’m having fun, but I want to flirt and eat. Wanna go for broke for a minute or two first?
They giggled and nodded again.
Can you salsa?
Xanadu nodded emphatically, hiding it in the flow of the dance.
She reached out and took the first couple of steps and they fell into it, pulling her in and switching rhythms effortlessly. For the next two minutes, they moved as a perfect unit, Xanadu stepping it up second by second until they were a whirl of sexual tension and passion made manifest, spinning and swirling and kicking up their heels. Finally, she winked, and they pulled her in close and dropped her into a dip across their knee, their other leg extended out behind them. They held it for a second, looking into each other’s eyes, grinning madly, Amy breathing hard enough for both of them.
There were a couple of cheers and a few claps, and as they helped her up, they were glad once again that they couldn’t blush. They bowed slightly and kissed the back of her hand, making her laugh. They stood and smiled, leaning in to murmur under the music, “Thank you. That was fantastically fun.”
She winked and squeezed their hand, then stepped away to hunt down food. They stood on the dance floor for a moment, watching her and smiling. Then they closed their eyes and began to dance again. The music drowned out their echolocation, and their sense of touch wasn’t sensitive enough to track movements by the feeling in the floor, leaving them as blind as anyone around them. They smiled, revelling in the feeling of actuators humming smoothly along inside them, a dance within a dance.
They swayed and twirled, letting the music flow through them, staying place as the crowd moved around them. They lost themself for a while, the music inside their head drowning out thought, completely at peace.
“You’re a fucking tease.”
Xanadu jumped and twirled in place, their eyes flying open, to find Fiona behind them. She was smiling acidly and dancing halfheartedly. She stepped up to them, still pretending to dance. They shivered and stepped back again, only for her to follow.
“You got me in trouble, you little tinkertoy bitch,” she murmured under the music. “You got me in trouble for thinking you were pretty, and then you get out here and turn into a fucking burlesque show.”
She reached out, stepping forward as they stepped back, crossing her wrists behind their head and pressing up against them. They froze, staring at her warily. Her smile slipped. “What, you’re not going to dance with me?”
They shook their head, reaching up to push at her wrists. To their dismay, she was significantly stronger than they were. “Please stop touching me. You creep me out.”
Her face twisted and for a moment, they saw something ugly in her. Then the horribly sweet smile was back and she stepped away, raising her hands in a placating gesture.
“Fucking. Tease,” she spat. To their relief, she turned away and walked off.
A schematic appeared in their vision. “We could-”
They giggled. <We’re not injecting her with a GPS tag, MIRA.>
She sighed. “Just a thought.”
Shaking their head and grinning, they started to walk off the dance floor when a boy stepped in front of them, a hesitant smile on his face. He was a couple inches shorter than they were, with red hair and a spate of freckles. He was gangly and he had a bit of a tummy, clearly just a normal kid. They briefly considered running his face, curious about him, but they suppressed the urge. Normal people didn’t immediately know everything about everyone around them.
“Do you want to-” The music shifted at that moment to something softer and slower. “-um...dance?”
They hesitated. “Um, I’ve never...this isn’t really my speed.”
He grinned shyly. “Me neither. But maybe we could give it a shot?”
Xanadu looked down at him, then shrugged. “Um...ok.”
They stepped forward, mimicking Fiona’s gesture from earlier and crossing their wrists behind his head. He shivered and put his hands on their waist, then started to sway. They swayed with him, looking at him with amusement as he blushed and tried to avoid staring at them.
“I’m Xanadu,” they said softly. “What’s your name?”
“Declan,” he said. He looked down at their bare midriff, his hands resting on their skin, and swallowed. “Can I ask you something?”
They nodded. “Sure?”
“Are you just the coolest case of GSD ever or-”
They laughed. “No, I’m a robot. Yes, really. Yes, an actual robot.”
He looked up at them wonderingly. “Wow. I’ve been trying to build something like you for months.”
They blinked. “Oh? How’s that coming?”
He sighed. “It’s not. I can only make things that look like cybermen or Robby the Robot.”
They frowned. “What’s giving you problems?”
Declan looked down at his hands, shifting them slightly on their waist. “Everything. I have to work with spare parts, for starters, and even when I get the look mostly right, I can’t figure out how to make a decent robot that isn’t seven feet tall and covered in metal.”
“Ohhh. Let me guess: all your robots are super strong and crammed full of tools and cool stuff with amazing senses?”
He looked up at them in confusion. “Well, yeah.”
They grinned. “Little secret: if you want a robot that looks almost completely human, try making them closer to an actual human.”
He grinned. “Maybe. Um...can I ask you weird question?”
“You can ask, but I might not answer.”
He nodded. “What’s your skin made of? It feel amaz…um, really cool.”
They smiled, happy again that they couldn’t blush. “It’s a capacitative polymer called Elestic. A gadgeteer invented it.”
“I’ve heard of that,” he said, eyes wide. His eyes unfocused for a second, and then he whistled softly. “Wow. That means your skin must have cost...thousands of dollars.”
They nodded. “$2,483, yeah. It was one of my most expensive components.”
He sighed. “Well, I guess that’s out. I can’t afford that,” he said with a small, sad smile. He shifted his hands again, and they realized he was fighting the urge to stroke their skin. A frown appeared on his face. “Wait, Elestic is hard, like glass. How come you’re so...uhh…”
“Soft?” they said with a grin. He nodded. “That’s a secret.” He looked disappointed and they smiled apologetically. “I’m working on finding a way to expand the process so it’s easier and works on larger batches, then I’m going to patent it.”
He blinked. “Wait, you’re working on it? Not your creator?”
They had a funny feeling they were going to get tired of this particular question pretty quickly. “I don’t have a creator. I built this chassis.”
His mouth fell open. “How?”
“Well, it was a lot of work…”
Declan laughed, and they smiled. His hands shifted up to where the ribs would be on a human and they suppressed a shiver as he brushed one of their advanced tactile sensor nets. “So you’re an AI? I thought that was illegal.”
They shook their head. “No, I started out human.”
He sucked in a breath and searched their face, a hungry look on his. “Really? How’d you...how?”
They grinned. “I’m not allowed to talk about that on pain of pain.”
“Oh. Could I, like, ask questions and-”
They shook their head. “No. I’m sorry, but I’ll get expelled if I tell anyone about it.”
He smiled and made puppy dog eyes, his tone wheedling. “Not even a hint?”
“Not even a hint,” they said, giggling. “Sorry.”
He blew out a breath. “Damn.” He blushed and looked up at them with a small grin. “So...you single?”
They snorted with laughter and gave him a mock pout. “What, I won’t tell you how to build me, so you’ll settle for dating me?”
He stuttered and stammered for a moment, and they laughed. “I’m kidding. Well, mostly.” They grinned at him. “You need to work on your segues.”
He shook his head. “Yeah, sorry. But...um…”
“So, there’s two parts to that answer. The first is that I am single, yes. The second,” they said with a small smile, “Is that I literally just found out that I have romantic subroutines. I’m not sure I’m ready for anything. I’m not even sure I want to keep the subroutines active, to be honest.”
He looked up at them and shook his head. “Oh. So...oh.”
They nodded. “Yeah.”
He took a deep breath and stepped back, lowering his hands. They let him go, watching him curiously. “Thank you for the dance, Xanadu.”
They nodded again. “I enjoyed it. I’m sorry if I hurt you.”
Declan shook his head, grinning. “You didn’t. You just...you’re like a walking dream come true, and…” he blushed. “I’d rather step back on a gentlemanly note before my hands start wandering on their own.”
They giggled. “Well, thank you. I appreciate that.”
He gave them a thumbs up. “And hey, if you decide you want to explore those subroutines, let me know.”
“I might do that,” Xanadu said with a smile.
Declan nodded and walked off. They closed their eyes, smiling.
“He was cute.”
They jumped and turned around to look at Jared. “He’s single,” they teased.
Jared threw an arm around their shoulder. “Maybe but I’d say his tastes run to plastic.”
“I’m not sure if he was interested in me, or just excited at the idea of dating a robot,” they said with a shrug. “Or even if he thought he could get close to me and figure out how I work so he could build his own.”
“Ah. And the hot older girl?”
“Was the crazy chick that petted me earlier.”
Jared grinned. “How can you have a complicated love life already?”
They stuck out their tongue. “ I do not have a love life. I’m just dancing.”
“Yeah, you and Amy were ‘just dancing’ enough to give everyone in the room a heart murmur,” he snickered.
They laughed. “Eh, it was a lot of fun to dance with someone who could keep up. I’m not going to feel bad about it, although,” they looked around the room, “I think I’m going to take a break. Go to a discussion or something.”
Jared gave them a squeeze. “Ok. But when you’re ready for round two, I’d like a shot.”
They looked up at him curiously. “Oh?”
He nodded. “You’re a hell of a dancer, and even if it’s not going anywhere, it’d be fun to try and keep up with you. Not to mention standing near you while everyone in the room stares at you.”
“I’ll keep that in mind,” they said, shaking their head and giggling. “Catch you later, Jared.”
They circled around for the next couple hours, going from discussion to discussion, mostly just listening. The focus was on aspects of being a mutant or LGBT, emphasis on the LGB, and they weren’t the former, and had little experience with the latter. They’d never really had romantic feelings or experienced attraction, and it if it weren’t for their ability to analyze their own personality, they wouldn’t have even known they could. As the latest discussion broke up, they considered going back to the dance floor. The party was still going strong and looked to be good to go for the next few hours at least.
As they walked back down from the second floor sunroom, they couldn’t help but notice through the open doors that here were boys and girls taking advantage of more gay kids than they’d ever seen in one place before. They caught sight of Matt laying in their bedroom with a dark haired boy, making out on the bed. Grinning, they gently closed the door partway to protect his privacy.
Back at the dance floor, they looked around and spotted Jared dancing with a girl. They shrugged at realizing they didn’t see anyone else they knew and stepped into a clear space to dance alone. The movement made them smile as always, spinning and swivelling in place, keeping it simple this time, just easy and loose. For a few minutes, they kept their eyes open, watching the people around them, but as they settled into the rhythm, their eyes drifted closed.
This was one of the strangest things about their new existence. MIRA’s mediation meant that they usually weren’t consciously aware of how they moved. But by the same token, their mind was sharp and clear all the time. They couldn’t clear their mind or slow their thoughts. So to achieve the same feeling that dancing would give a human, they focused all of their mind on the music, and on conscious awareness of every actuator. When they danced, they felt every tiny movement, sensed every shift in every part of their chassis separately. It was exhilarating and deeply weird.
Their awareness of their body slipped back down to normal as they turned toward the voice. Micah was standing next to them, looking vaguely uncomfortable. “Uh...can I talk to you?”
They nodded and followed him off the floor. He took up a spot by the wall and stood there for a minute, staring out at the dancers. “So...I know you said you couldn’t talk about it, but…”
Xanadu winced. “But?”
Micah sighed and ran a hand over his head. “Look, I...I know...I’m not trying to…”
They reached out and put a hand on his shoulder. “I hereby absolve you of any awkwardness. Just say it.”
He looked at them and blew out a huff of air. “Ok. I’m obviously not in the same place you were. I’m not in pain. I’m faster and stronger. I have obvious superpowers. But...but I’m fucking miserable. None of these guys will give me the time of day. I know I’m ugly. And if I’m not careful, I’ll hurt people just by bumping into them wrong. I guess...is there any way...could what happened to you happen to me?”
Xanadu winced and stared at their hands. They could do it. The interface was in its little foam lined case in their work trunk. A new chassis was relatively expensive, but it would only take them a month or two to build, now that they knew how. They just...hadn’t been prepared to face this decision so soon.
“Not...easily. Or quickly. There’s...I’m not allowed to discuss it.”
Micah hesitated. “But it’s possible? Like, it wasn’t a freak accident or something?”
Xanadu sighed. “Look...let me get permission to have this conversation, ok?”
“I don’t even need anything like what you’ve got,” Micah said softly. “Just to be able to walk through a crowd, wearing normal clothes-”
They felt a flash of anger. Partly at Micah for pushing, partly at Carson for sealing their lips. “OK look, I am not saying no here. I am saying that I have been sworn to secrecy on pain of being expelled and I need permission to have this conversation.”
Micah sighed. “I know. And I know that...well, I know I’m not, like...I can live. I’m mostly unhappy about how I look. I’m not sick or anything.”
“I. Am. Not. Saying. No.” Xanadu bit out.
Micah blinked. “Sorry, I-”
Xanadu sighed and stepped in front of him, putting their hands on his shoulders. “Look, I think you look cool. But I know what it’s like to be trapped in a body that sucks and looks wrong and feels wrong. I’m not demanding that you meet some magical suffering quota or that you beg. I’m not saying you have to settle for a shitty chassis. I’m saying that I’m literally not allowed to talk about it. I’m not putting you off. I’m not letting you down gently. I’m saying exactly what I mean. I need. Permission. To have. This conversation.”
Micah grinned sheepishly. “Oh. Um. Ok.”
Xanadu smiled. “However. I will say that if you’ll let me, I’d like to try and help you with the body you have.”
“For starters, what is it that gives you the most problems?”
Micah held up his hands, wiggling his fingers to draw their eye to the blunt claws that his fingers ended in. “These puppies, I guess. And these,” he said, reaching up to tap at the spikes
Xanadu nodded. “I know it’s probably a silly question, but have you thought about capping them?”
“Yeah, but nothing works. They go through steel.”
“So how about a titanium cap? Or tungsten? Or one of those special ballistic plastics? Or carbon fiber?”
Micah laughed. “Riiiiiight. And what, strap them on like skating gear?”
Xanadu stared at his shoulder spikes thoughtfully. “Nah. Probably use a ribbed rubber sock, like they use for prosthetics.”
He stared back at them for a long second. “Wouldn’t that be expensive?”
“Depends on how fast they grow. Can I touch them?”
Micah nodded hesitantly. Xanadu reached out and ran their hands over the spikes, left then right shoulders, then the elbows, then the wrists.
“They’re pretty symmetrical. The rubber would smooth out the small irregularities. For these, we could probably do one mold and just clone it ten times. Maybe a hundred bucks of materials to cover the spikes. Your hands, though,” they said, taking one and running their fingertips over his, “those would be pretty easy. A sort of open glove with just the fingertips armored. I’d say the first pair might run sixty, but once the basic design was handled, thirty for a pair.”
Micah stared at their hands running over his. “Uh.”
They blinked and jerked their hand back. “Sorry. Didn’t mean to be weird.”
“No! No, I just...people don’t touch me. Sorry,” he said with a grin. “I’m the one who made it weird. But...you really think it can work?”
Xanadu shrugged. “I mean, you’d still have to modify your clothes, but...at least you could get them on? And you wouldn’t have to worry about stabbing people on accident.”
Micah licked his lips. “That sounds amazing. Uh...would you take payments?”
Xanadu laughed. “What, you wouldn’t take a gift?”
“No,” Micah said quietly. “You deserve to be paid for building stuff.”
They smiled. “Dude. I’m rich as balls and getting richer every day. I have half a dozen patented pieces of software, a dozen bits of engineering I’m working on patenting, and a couple chemical processes I’m working on. Hell, if I can work out how to mass produce the stuff that make my skin, I’ll be rolling in money. I can afford to spend $130.”
Micah shrugged. “I get that. But I can’t just...I want to pay you. For myself, as much as anything.”
Xanadu rolled their eyes. “Fine. Yes, I’ll take payments. I won’t know for sure how long it will take me. I have to draw up plans and submit them to the Workshop lead for permission.”
“Why?” Micah asked, frowning. “I’ve heard the deviser and gadgeteer kids talking. They describe the workshops and labs here like a candy shop where everything’s free.”
Xanadu coughed, or rather simulated coughing, into their hand. “I do not have a good track record with being left unsupervised with access to tools and materials.”
He cocked an eyebrow. “Oh?”
Xanadu shrugged, shifting uncomfortably. “Yeah. So I’m not allowed to use the Workshop without strict supervision.”
“Even for something as simple as-”
They stood there for a long minute. “So what-”
“EMT’s were called, there was a body, there was a lot of screaming...it was a shitshow.”
Micah stared at them. “Oh. Related to what you can’t talk about?”
“Got it in one.”
Micah blinked. “You’re a deeply weird and interesting person, Xanadu.”
They laughed. “Thanks, I think. Anyway, I’ve got some measurements so I can start doing basic modelling and materials studies. I can get the proposal in tomorrow, but it’ll probably be a bit before I can start working on it.”
“You’re not going to stay for the rest of the party?”
Xanadu shrugged. “I’d rather be working, honestly. Dancing has been fun, but...I’m not really up for people to keep looking at me like that.”
Micah nodded. “Gotcha. Want some company?”
They cocked their head. “I mostly just stare at the projections in my head. Sometimes I don’t even move. It’s super boring.”
He wilted slightly. “Oh.”
“I mean, if you want to?”
Micah grinned. “If you don’t mind. Everyone else,” he waved a hand at the party, “is a little occupied.”
“I thought you were hanging out with ‘Reach?”
“He got caught up in a discussion and his mojo kicked in. He’s got a little circle going, all pretties. They don’t even realize he’s driving the discussion and keeping them all together. Aside from feeling like a freak, it’s also super weird to watch him work people like that.”
Xanadu nodded. “Gotcha. Well, uh...come on, I know somewhere quiet.”
They led him down the stairs to the empty room they’d charged in. A little hunting around located a folding table and a couple of chairs, both reinforced since Micah apparently also weighed a lot. They sat there for a few seconds staring at each other, Xanadu feeling slightly awkward. MIRA was their only real friend, and they’d created her.
“So…” Micah said, drawing the word out.
“Uh, wanna watch a movie or something?”
Micah grinned. “We just got set up and you want to go back upstairs to one of the sunrooms?”
Xanadu’s brain caught up with their mouth. “No,” they said slowly. “But I just remembered that it might be weird to use my projector.”
“It’s in my chest. I have to take my shirt off.”
“Oh. Why would that be weird?”
Xanadu licked their lips. “I’m...do you know what AFAB means?”
Micah shook his head.
“It means when I was born, they thought I was a girl.”
His eyes widened. “So you've never gone topless.”
“Not in front of anyone b-not in front of anyone, no.”
Micah tapped his claws on the table. “You don’t have to. We can just chill.”
Xanadu took a deep breath and stood up. “It’s fine. I usually have something going externally while I work anyway.”
Before they could change their mind, they slipped the crop top up and over their head, baring their chest to another person who wasn’t Mom or MIRA for the first time. They tried not to look at Micah, glad for the billionth time they could not blush. The little magnet holding the cover to their projector released with a click, and a circular opening appeared in their sternum with a little lens. The projector sent out a splash of blue light as it warmed up, and they turned to face the wall, using the brand lettering to focus it. It took about a minute to set it up and white balance it, and then they finally looked over at Micah again.
“What do you wanna watch?”
Micah’s gaze jerked up from their chest to their face. “What?”
Xanadu swallowed a nervous giggle. “What do you want to watch?”
“Uh...what’ve you got?”
“Access to the internet and a strong enough wifi signal to stream?”
Micah’s jaw fell open slightly. “Wait, like, anything? Anything at all?”
Xanadu shrugged. “If it exists on the internet and can be streamed? Sure.”
“Wow. Uh. Wow. What do you usually watch?”
“Anything that catches my eye? I only just started sleeping, so...I watch a lot of TV and movies.”
Micah hesitated. “You pick.”
“What? I saw you think of something,” they said, cocking a curious eyebrow.
Micah looked at the table between them. “It’s weird.”
“I’m a robot and you’re a mutant. We’re in the basement of the gay safehouse at superpower high school. We’re discussing what to watch using my built in network connections and the projector in my chest. How weird could it be?”
He grinned sheepishly. “Powerpuff Girls?”
Xanadu grinned back. “I mean, I’ve never seen it, mostly because I was fighting being gendered, but I hear it’s good.”
Micah’s grin turned shy. “It’s one of my favorites.”
“Powerpuff Girls it is. Any particular episode?”
“Uh...could we just start at the beginning?”
“Sure,” they said with a smile. By that time, MIRA had already located it and was queuing it up. A moment later they had the odd sensation of their secondary speakers beginning to play. They watched the first few minutes actively, and then they pulled up their design software and set to work.
Their first idea was to make everything self contained, all one piece to make it easier to use. After a few attempts at that, they abandoned it. There wasn’t a good way to get them on without hinges, and as good as they were at this, they didn’t feel like designing a new kind of hinge that required precision machining. They wanted durability, ease of use, and for the caps to be low profile. There was no point is creating a solution that caused a similar problem to the one it was meant to solve.
After considering it for a few minutes and talking it over with MIRA, they decided to stick closer to what they’d suggested earlier. A socket design like a prosthetic would take some practice for Micah to use, but it would also provide the best coverage, be the most durable, and be the easiest to replace as he grew. That and there was existing technology to build off of, making the design process relatively quick.
The gloves, however, were a challenge. From their brief examination of his hands, they were pretty sure that he needed to be able to use the tips of his claws to manipulate things. The problem being that his fingers weren’t rigid like the spikes, meaning they would need a harness to hold the caps on if they didn’t want to just super glue them on like fake nails. Further compounding the issue was the need to keep the cap as minimal as possible while still arranging for it to stay seated on his claw tip.
After almost an hour of working it, they paused. “Hey, Micah?”
Micah jumped slightly. “Jeez. You looked like a statue so much, I almost forgot you could move.”
Xanadu grinned. “Sorry. Normally I fake the little movements so I look normal, but if I’m focused on something-”
“Nah, it’s fine, just startled me. What’s up?”
“Can I see one of your hands again?”
Micah blinked, but put his hand out across the table. Xanadu picked lifted it, manipulating his fingers. “Could you make a fist?”
He did so. Xanadu ran their hands over his. “Ok, watch my hand and do what I do.”
Xanadu led him through a series of motions three times, pausing in each movement to measure and touch his joints.
“What are you looking for?” Micah asked curiously.
“I need to see how your hand moves.”
“I mean, I figured that out, but why? You said you were making gloves.”
Xanadu shook their head. “I was, but I couldn’t get it to work. Any glove that would blunt your claws would be like a mitten. It’d be uncomfortable and weird and you’d have no fine control. They’d make you clumsy.”
Micah sighed. “Yeah, that’s pretty much what I found out when I tried gloves, I just figured you might be able to make it work.”
Xanadu grinned. “Nope. But I have a better idea.”
They turned and switched off Powerpuff Girls and projected their working model on the wall. It was a light, flexible exo frame that would cling to the back of his hand, bands around the fingers and wrist to keep it in place. It would only weigh a couple ounces, and it would hold the carbon fiber sheaths in place through a full range of motion.
Micah stared at the rotating schematic in shocked silence. “Holy shit. That’s...that’s got to cost a fortune.”
“Nope. Materials and construction make it a little pricey, but it’s only about $30 per hand.”
“Wow,” he whispered.
Xanadu grinned. “Don’t applaud me just yet. I made a lot of schematics when I was working on myself. Not all of them work out. It looks cool, and I think it’ll work, but you’d be surprised how often it comes down to a choice of materials. And plainly put, there are some things that look great on paper that just aren’t possible in the real world, no matter what the numbers say.”
Micah smiled back. “Still...it’s more than I had.” The smile slipped. “But you just said materials. How much for the labor? And all the testing? And the prototypes? You say thirty, but-”
Xanadu rocked back, staring at him. “Look, you can’t insist I charge you, then yell at me when I tell you the price.”
“I don’t want charity,” Micah snapped.
They stared at him as he closed his eyes and took a few deep breaths. He opened his eyes and stared at them. “I don’t...I need to pay you. What you’re worth. Or I need you not to do this.”
Xanadu tapped their fingers on the tabletop. “Not even if I want to.”
Micah looked down at his hands, flexing his claws. “No. Not if you have any respect for me.”
Xanadu sighed. “Ok. Look...If we're doing this as a full blown R&D project...we’re talking anywhere from a grand to a few grand, depending on how long it takes. And there might be nothing to show for it.”
Micah nodded. “I understand that.”
“Let me make you a deal.”
“I’m not offering charity. If it works, you pay me. If it doesn’t, you don’t. If it’s not working, I reserve the right to call it off if the bill is getting too high.”
Micah looked up at them. “So what, you do all that work and if it doesn’t happen, we just call it a wash? You don’t get paid for your time?”
“Yup. No delivery, no pay.”
He stared at them through narrowed eyes. “And you won’t just build a,” he traced air quotes, “‘prototype’ and then stop everything, declare failure, and back out?”
Xanadu winced. “I’m not that sneaky. If I deliver, we’ll work out payment. I just don’t want you on the hook for all that labor and material cost if you get nothing out of it.”
Micah drummed his claws on the table. “I don’t like it. You should get paid.”
“I’m expecting to. I’m good at this, and I want to help you.”
He stared at his hands for a few moments longer. “All right. Deal.”
Xanadu smiled. “Cool.” They switched back on Powerpuff Girls and settled back to refine the model based on their measurements.
They were just putting the finishing touches on it while MIRA finished the proposal when they heard movement behind them.
They rotated their head to avoid messing with the projector, literally looking over their shoulder. They couldn’t quite do an owl impression, but it was close. Some kids they didn’t know were standing in the doorway, staring at them.
“That is freaky cool,” the blonde in the lead said softly. He stepped into the room, trailed by a couple others. Xanadu guessed they were older, since they hadn’t seen any of the kids on the bus or in the tour group. The blonde wore glasses and an anime shirt, and looked mostly normal. The brunette girl over his shoulder looked like a model, though, as did the black haired boy with them.
“Do you have, like onboard storage?”
Xanadu shrugged. “Yes, but I’m streaming this.”
The girl’s eyes lit up. “So could you do, like, porn?”
Xanadu’s face twisted. “No!”
Her face fell. “Why not?”
They shuddered. “That’s weird and disgusting and just...yuck!”
The dark haired boy laughed. “Come on, you don’t have a hard drive?”
They shuddered again. “No, I don’t. At least not that way.”
The blonde smiled and stepped forward to put a hand on Xanadu’s shoulder. “Don’t robots have to do what people tell them?”
They shied away from his hand, a surge of anger flowing through them. “No,” they said flatly. “Please go away.”
The boy frowned. “What the hell kind of robot are you?”
“That’s enough,” Micah said flatly. He stood up and walked around the table, getting up in the boy’ face. “They asked you to go away.”
The boy laughed. “What, you gonna fight me, freshie?”
Micah glared at him and flexed, his muscles rippling, calling attention to his talons and spikes. “If you don’t stop harassing my friend? Yeah, absolutely.”
The boy eyed him up and down. He took his hand off Xanadu’s shoulder and the three stalked out.
Micah stared after them. “Xanadu?”
They took a deep breath, and used a rare instance of flat out dampening their emotions. “Yeah?”
“Can you build force fields?”
“Not that I’m aware of.”
Micah turned to them. “I suggest you get a gun, then. A big one.”
Xanadu shivered and eyed the door. “Yeah. Beginning to get that impression.”