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Mar 18, 2019 7:35 PM
a Margaret in Whateley
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Whatever condition Margaret has, it isn’t pretty. The doctors give her six months to a year, but she can tell they’re just guessing.


She’s still in school, though, taking everything except gym. You never know, after all, there might be a miracle, she might make it from sophomore year to senior and die a high school graduate instead of a high school dropout. Anyway, she needs something to do other than think about it.


The school does know, of course, even if the other students think she’s just tired all the time. So when she drags herself to the nurse in the middle of English with a fever of a hundred and three, the nurse doesn’t hesitate to call her father and her father doesn’t hesitate to come and take her to the doctor.

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The doctor makes it clear that he appreciates their vigilance, because there are definitely circumstances under which this could be very dangerous. However, this is as far as he can tell a perfectly normal fever, so he sends her home to get fluids and rest.

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Rest sounds like a good plan. Margaret rides most of the way home with her eyes shut. On the way, her father realizes he's left his wallet at his work.

"I'm just going to swing by the garage real fast and look for it, okay? You can wait in the car."

"Mhmm. That's fine."

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The fever's been receding unusually fast through the car ride, and by the time she's shut in the car, Margaret is completely lucid. She's covered in sweat, but that's to be expected.

Her reflection in the mirror might catch her eye, once she opens them, because her eyes are now electric blue. That's much less to be expected.

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That's definitely weird, but at least it isn't actively awful like every other suprise her body's given her lately. This car is not really the best place to be covered in sweat; she thinks she'll get out and walk around a bit.

She's always loved her dad's auto shop; the smell of oil and metal, the cars in various stages of damage and repair, the neatly laid-out tools. But this time stepping in there is different. The cars are still there, but they're even more interesting. This one with its hood open, for example, clearly has a problem with its torque converter. Might as well save her dad some time and patch it up. That one over there has a pair of wires rubbing together that shouldn't be; yank and replace and that silly lying Check Engine light won't go on anymore.

This is fun. It would be even more fun if her hands weren't so weak. Those hydraulics in the good-for-nothing pile aren't good enough for a car anymore, it's true, but they'll make a workable arm brace, lend her some of the strength and steadiness that have been draining out of her all year. She just needs a couple of these cams to set up a negative feedback system so it will amplify but not over-amplify her motions . . . yes, that's much improved.

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At this point she's interrupted by her father, who has found his wallet and is glad to see her looking so energetic until he sees her eyes.

"What. What even. Your eyes are blue, they were brown a minute ago, this isn't normal. We're going back to that doctor and if he says "rest and fluids" again we're going to the emergency room. I don't know if this is your condition or something else but I don't like it."

Her vague protests that she feels as good as ever, kind of excellent actually, get sensibly ignored, but he doesn't ask for the hydraulics back. She returns to the doctor with the exoskeleton piece still strapped to her arm.

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The doctor is very, very surprised. He runs a blood test, and when it's done, he looks at the results and sighs.

"Well, I've got bad news and... other news. The bad news is that you're still suffering from your condition, and your life expectancy has not improved. The other news is, well... you appear to be a mutant. Based on the, um, symptoms, I'd say you're either a gadgeteer or devisor - one of the inventor-types. I don't really know what to say to this, and frankly bedside manner has never been my strong point, but... make the best of the time you have, I suppose."

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John Perry sighs. "It could be worse. I guess this doesn't change anything, really. We can get you a pair of contacts, at least get your eyes looking alright."

"But dad, I can use this! I can make things that will help me function better."

"Do you need crutches? We can get you crutches."

 

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The doctor can get them crutches.

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Margaret will take the crutches. They're structural metal, and that's a nice thing to have. She'll take the brown contacts, if it will make her parents feel better. She'll also start making plans, because clearly nobody else is going to.

Over the next days and weeks and months, a series of schematics comes together in her desk, and a collection of parts starts to form under her bed. She raids the scrap pile outside her dad's garage and the loading dock behind the school for as much metal and as many components as she can get.

As her design comes together, it gets more ambitious. What started out as a way to make her stronger, let her energy stretch farther, becomes a hope of saving her life. It's a gamble out of science fiction, but she can see how it can be made to work. The scientific principles are sound, it's just a matter of implementation. And of keeping herself together long enough to pull it off.

Her school has a robotics club; she was in it, freshman year, the last time she had long-term ambitions and the ability to act on them. Now she has both of those again, and they still keep their parts in the same place. They won't miss a few circuit boards and motors out of last year's project. And the local electronics store, of course, doesn't care what she wants these screws and electrodes for. She's falling behind in her classes for the first time in her life, but while her parents bite their nails they don't suspect anything other than the obvious reason.

The last step, the point of no return, is when she cannibalizes her laptop. The processor isn't the fastest and the hard drive could stand to have a lot more space, but she's done the math and they'll handle what she needs them to. Namely, herself.

A fully-functioning robot stands next to Margaret's bed. The limbs are thin, not much stronger than her fading muscles, and the head is just a box with cameras and microphones and a little speaker. But it's stable and sturdy and it isn't dying.

She arranges the elecrodes on her head and flips the switch. Her biological body collapses, its brain scrambled, and her camera-eyes open. A metallic voice says, "Eureka."

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Her parents don't handle it very well when she clanks downstairs to dinner. Probably worse because of the sudden surprise, really, but if she had told them they might have tried to get in the way. Eventually they're persuaded that yes, she really is still their daughter, and then the relief that she isn't sick anymore kicks in. Still, they insist that see a psychologist, because "she's clearly been through a lot". 

None of them raise the question of whether she's going back to school the next week. None of them are really sure where to begin answering it.

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Dr. Bennett is rather startled by a robot entering her clinic, but she handles it admirably. Soon enough Margaret is seated on the long couch with the psychologist sitting in an armchair across from her.

"Now, this isn't the most traditional start to a therapy session, but I'll explain in a minute - I suspect you need this more than regular therapy. First, do you still have the knowledge that allowed you to construct your body? And I don't just mean your own specs - could you build a laser gun, or a supercomputer, or some other strange device?"

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"I could definitely do this again, I actually have a lot of ideas on how to improve myself once I've saved up for parts. A laser gun shouldn't be too difficult if I had the right crystals or gases. A supercomputer would be harder, equipment-wise, it'd be easier to design the chips and get them etched at a professional facility. Ooh, now that you mention it, custom chips that suit my particular brain architecture could speed up my cognition by as much as 46 percent!"

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"Well, you're definitely still a Gadgeteer," Dr. Bennett laughs. "And you certainly sound like you can pass a Turing test. So, here's the deal. I can give you all of the therapy you want, but you're still going to have a problem, and that problem is that you're a mutant in a robot body, trying to fit into a society made for baseline humans. Fortunately, I know a place that can help you with that problem. It's called Whateley Academy, and it's a school for mutants. They'll have the resources to teach you how to control and make better use of your powers, not to mention physical resources you can use to improve your body. I went there myself, as a young woman, and I firmly believe it'll be the best place for you."

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"There's a school where I can learn to do more with this? That sounds so much better than going back to my high school and trying to explain what I did fifteen hundred times. Is it academically rigorous? If it's academically rigorous my folks'll send me there for sure." If some of that certainty is because she knows they aren't sure how to cope with having a robot in the house, well, she didn't actually want therapy today. And it is at least 90% about the academic rigor.

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"It's very academically rigorous. Also, given your non-human body plan, you're most likely eligible for a substantial scholarship. I'll give you the application at the end of our session. But we do still have forty-five minutes, and you did in fact escape death by a very narrow margin recently, so I'd like to get into some of that with the time we have left..."

Dr. Bennett puts forth a concerted effort to therapize Margaret in the remaining forty-five minutes, taking into account the fact that her patient does not want to be here and will probably not be coming back. At the end of the session she gives her a packet of papers labeled WHATELEY APPLICATION.

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Margaret is sufficiently grateful for the unexpectedly useful advice that she'll tell the therapist about the relief of having a future again and how nice it feels to have a body that isn't betraying her unexpectedly. Then she'll start reading the WHATELEY APPLICATION like it contains the key to immortality. Which, in a way, it might.

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The WHATELEY APPLICATION has a number of perfectly normal questions - it asks her gender (with a wide variety of options, including a checkbox for "my sex has been altered by my power"), date of birth, current mailing address, et cetera. It also asks less normal questions, among which are "nature of powers", "date of manifestation", and a fill-in which requests that she describe any changes her power has made to her body.

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She ticks the checkbox for "altered by my power" but puts her gender as female; she's still a girl if it even makes sense to ask the question. "Nature of powers" gets "enhanced engineering knowledge and skills; ability to design and build things that work the first time from first principles". The body changes section gets "I have replaced my original body entirely with an android of my own design", plus a description of her general shape and dimensions and "blueprints available on request".

When she calls her mother back in, she indeed proves easily seduced by the description of Whateley's math and engineering curriculum.

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Once the application is posted, she receives a response within a few business days. The response requests that she report to a police station in a town a few miles away for "evaluation".

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Being asked to report to a police station for evaluation is kind of unnerving! On the other hand, mutant school! She shows up at the appointed time, trying to look like an unthreatening pile of mismatched metal tubing with black lenses for eyes.

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She meets with one Officer Delacroix, who informs her that he works with the Academy to verify that applicants do in fact have powers. "You're obviously not a baseline," he admits, "but we still wanna test your Gadgeteer ability." He places various broken machines in front of her, of varying levels of complexity, all the way from a broken pocketwatch to what looks like an oversized "fairy princess" wand, which pops open to reveal a forest of wires and circuits.

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The broken pocketwatch just needs this spring unbent and a bit of oil. The microwave has a capacitor that let the magic smoke out; she can rewire it to need one fewer capacitor and use the one thus freed up to replace the dead one (and while she's in there, she'll make the popcorn setting actually work instead of burning half the popcorn and leaving the rest as kernels). The roomba has its accelerometer miscalibrated; she'll recalibrate it. Various other gizmos are diagnosed and repaired.

The fairy princess wand is an extremely complicated piece of work; just understanding what it's supposed to do is a challenge. But eventually she figures out not only what it's supposed to do but why it isn't doing it, and she tinkers, and she fiddles, and not long after the officer starts tapping his foot she makes a pleased noise and waves it and a shower of sparkly lights comes out.

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The officer whistles. "You're the real deal, alright. Now I gotta send that wand back to get it broken properly again, they got a special way they like to do it."

He takes a look through her application. "Says here your physical sex was affected by your mutation - now, do you mean that in the 'used to be a boy' sense or the 'robots don't have a physical sex' sense? No judgment either way, just wanna clarify."

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Margaret would smile at the compliment, if she had a face capable of smiling at the moment. Instead she just thanks him.

"I started out as a girl, and I guess I'm either still a girl or else nothing in particular. I don't feel less girly than I did last week? I'd still rather be a "she" than a "he"? So I'd say I'm a girl without a physical sex."

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"Alright, good to know." He marks something down. "'Cause they're really lookin' for the first answer with that question, it just confuses some folks. There's some kids that get completely switched just as part of mutation, and there's some where just tryin' to figure it out would give you a headache. Compared to that, robot body with a girl inside is easy."

He asks a few more questions, then tells her she can go home and Whateley will contact her soon.

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