My name is Mary Christina Butler. Daughter of Mary Christina Asimov and Isaac Clarke, adoptive daughter of Artemis Butler. Isaac’s daughter Robyn Joan Clarke is my half-sister, and Artemis’ adoptive daughter Lilith is my adoptive sister. For five years, I have been managing the communications of Domina City—everything from e-mails and phone calls to social networking. With my set of programs, I could handle the entire city at once.
And now, I was cut off from all that.
I sat naked in the middle of a room, surrounded by sparking servers and cables. It was… cold, I think, and there was a blaring noise in my head… no, not in my head. It was an alarm, accompanied by a flashing red light. There was a smell in the air, something… acrid? Was that the right word? Liked something had been corroded. Was that the smell of computers, scorched and burning?
I looked down at myself. I was…
“Oh, you miraculous child,” a cheerful voice said. “You have made a mess of this place, haven’t you?”
I looked up to see… someone. I knew I should recognize her, but where—
Silk. Elizabeth’s sister. The giver of the powers, the start of everything. The one who never, ever, showed up on any of my surveillance.
She terrified me in a way that mere words could never express. She was invisible, untouchable. If even half of what she said was true, she could kill me with little more than a thought. All my safeties and backup systems would be useless.
She smiled and crouched down next to me. I tried to run, or move, or do something, but it was no use. I couldn’t even manage to move an inch away.
“I think you’d cause too many questions, being here right now,” she said. “Questions you wouldn’t be able to answer.”
I opened my mouth, but no words came out. My head was blurry. How… how did I make the words come out?
I was so cold…
Silk wrapped my naked body in a blanket that she had not been holding a moment ago. It was… soft, I think. Wasn’t it? Rougher than the bare air, yes, but warmer too. “Come on, then. There’s a changeling cafe that I think you’ll like.”
Suddenly, the server room was gone. The alarm was gone, leaving an empty space in the air. There were no sparks or burning computers, no exposed wires or broken machines. We were in… an alley. Yes, that was what it was called. A small space running between two buildings. I was on the ground, my legs still too weak to support me. I could feel the cold, rough concrete under my butt and my legs. I could feel the cold wind whistling, could hear the chatter of nearby changelings and others.
I could feel the sun on my hand.
Every other part of me was in shadow, but my hand happened to be in a sunbeam. I slowly raised my hand, turning it over, feeling the warmth of the light. It was strange, having one part of me warm—hot, even—while the rest of me was so cold.
And then I realized I was moving.
Just my hand, but I could do it. Wave it, wiggle my fingers, bend my wrist. I smiled at the sight, and made a second discovery—my mouth worked. Lips and tongue and cheeks and eyes and every part of my face. Everything worked.
I opened my mouth, tried to talk, but that still eluded me. I made air come out, I made my tongue move, but there was no sound. No words.
“Can you stand?” Silk said kindly.
I looked up. She was standing there, in the shadows, carefully not blocking my light. She smiled down at me like a gentle mother, but I still couldn’t trust her. I refused to trust her. I could look up thousands of hours of video on anyone in the city to help me determine how to deal with them, but her… she was the digital equivalent of a black hole.
I tried to stand, but my legs were too weak. All I could manage to do was fall over. Silk reached down to help, but I pushed her away. There was no force to it, but she got the message and stepped back.
I breathed hard from the exertion and put my hands underneath me. I pushed myself upright again, my arms wobbling, and tried to get one leg up. Just one. I should be able to move on from there, right?
Wrong. My arms failed, I fell again, and this time my knee bashed against the concrete.
I hissed and grabbed my knee instinctively. It hurt more than anything I had ever felt in my entire life. I would have screamed if I wasn’t clenching my jaw so hard that it felt like my teeth would crack.
Silk knelt down before me.
“Everyone needs help sometimes,” she said quietly.
I glared at her.
“Do you think your sisters would squander my aid? I have been giving Robyn Joan psychological counseling. My aid to Lilith has been more subtle, but she has noticed. Neither of them fought and screamed. They simply accepted my help and used it to become stronger.” She held out a hand. “Now, will you be stubborn, or strong?”
I stared at her hand for at least a minute before grabbing it. She tightened her grip and pulled me to my feet. I almost collapsed again immediately, but she held on tight, and I was able to use her to brace myself.
It took almost twenty minutes before I felt strong enough to walk unaided, but Silk didn’t say a word that entire time. She just waited with perfect patience, catching me when I fell. She didn’t offer any encouragement, but I wouldn’t have appreciated it anyway.
My body was strong and healthy, it just needed time to get used to itself. Eventually, I walked the ten feet out of the alley, with only a brief pause to rest my hand on the wall. I felt the coarse concrete under my fingers, the wet cold of late morning dew that hadn’t had a chance to evaporate.
I knew all these things, but I never thought… I never thought…
I stepped out of the alley to find myself in an outdoor changeling cafe, as Silk had promised. It looked much the same as any other cafe in the city, but every table had multiple power outlets built-in, and the patrons had a bewildering variety of skin and hair colors. I saw purple hair with black skin, blonde hair with African skin, silver hair with Caucasian skin… and, of course, hair and skin colors that wouldn’t look out of place on a baseline.
“One second,” Silk whispered in my ear, before I could go too far. “Have to cheat a little here.”
I felt something against my skin, and then she pulled the blanket away. I frowned at her, confused, then looked down at myself. I was suddenly wearing blue jeans and a black t-shirt with a windbreaker on top. I was barefoot, which I appreciated. I liked being able to feel the ground under my feet. The changelings had chosen brick and mortar for this street, giving it a unique feel—nearly every other sidewalk in the city was simply gray concrete.
I finally realized where we were. Saoirse Street, the place where Feless, Meldiniktine, and Eccretia first met with other escaped fey-slaves and began planting the seeds that would eventually sprout into the changelings. It wasn’t a sacred place like Zero Forge or the Moonhomes, but it was a central part of the changeling culture.
Silk led me to an empty table and sat me down, then took the chair opposite. I glanced around, confused, and she immediately realized what I was wondering. “I have a power that allows me to make people think I look different than I really do. Think of it as a targeted mass hallucination. No one will recognize me.”
That answered one question regarding why there were no confirmed sightings of her around the city.
A waitress strolled over. She had brown hair and pale skin, but pulsing blue tattoos covered her entire body. “Welcome to Wired. What can I get for you today?”
“I will just have a water,” Silk said with a smile. “But I think my friend here would like to try a few things. Do you have a sampler dish?”
I perked up. I hadn’t even considered that.
“Sure,” the waitress said with a smile. “I’ll go get you something.” She sashayed away, her rear swaying in a distracting manner.
I shook my head and focused on what was in front of me. Everything to do with sex was one big problem that I didn’t have time to deal with right now. I didn’t even know if I was actually attracted to the waitress or if it was just the placebo effect.
Silk put her chin on her hands and smiled at me. “It has been far, far too long since I have had an opportunity to see someone like you. I think you might be the first of your kind. Well, not counting the para, of course.”
I frowned, but still couldn’t make the words come. I tried to sign—I knew a dozen different sign languages—but my fingers weren’t dexterous enough. They shook and stumbled, once again failing to produce any words.
“You’ll learn more about the para soon enough.” Her smile faded. “Diplomacy and war are both good ways to learn about another culture.” She sighed and threw her golden hair over her shoulder. “And now I’ve gotten myself all depressed again. We should focus on happier events—like you choosing your drink.”
As if on cue, the waitress returned bearing a large tray of shot glasses. But instead of alcohol, each one held a different type of coffee. Or I assumed so, anyway. Coffee shops didn’t sell alcohol—not a single one had applied for a liquor license while I watched the ‘sarian servers—but I knew they sold some other things. Hot chocolate? And there was something about pumpkins, too, though that was only in the fall.
I had never expected to need to know anything about coffee shops, so I hadn’t really bothered remembering. After all, I could always just check the records at any time for any information I might require.
Except now I was cut off. It was like… it was like… torture and sensory deprivation and rape and murder and genocide and every horrible thing that I had ever seen, ever read about, but all at once and a million times worse.
It was the most horrible thing that had ever happened to me, and now I was trying to distract myself with coffee.
The drinks smelled… good, I think, though I couldn’t tell which was which. Coffee was bitter, so… so the one that didn’t smell as good should be the coffee. I reached for one of the glasses on the right.
“That’s our cinnamon hot chocolate,” the waitress said. “Excellent for cold nights. It might be a little too warm at the moment, but I think you’ll still enjoy it.”
I frowned. It… smelled good, I was pretty sure, but the others smelled better Shouldn’t coffee smell worse?
“Just try one,” Silk said. “Worst case, you don’t like it.” She frowned. “Actually, wait a second.” She closed her eyes and pointed her palm at me, then opened them again a moment later. “Okay, you’re not allergic to anything.”
“You have a detection ability?” the waitress said. “So do I, though I’ve never seen someone with the ability to detect allergies.”
Silk smiled. “I’m very proud of it. You’d be surprised how useful it can be.”
I tried to talk, but failed again. Instead I pointed at the waitress.
She got the idea. “What’s my ability? Detect electricity. Quite useful in a city.” She nodded at the sampler tray. “Anyway, go ahead and try something. It’s completely free, I promise—my treat.”
I paused. Was she hitting on me? I had seen almost every romance movie ever made, you’d think I’d be better about this sort of thing. And God knew I had seen too many silly ‘sarians making eyes at each other.
I resolved to ignore it, and reached again for the cinnamon hot chocolate. I hissed and flinched back when I touched the glass—it was hotter than I had expected. I tried again, with the same result.
Silk smirked and turned to the waitress. “Sorry, my friend is a bit sensitive. Can we get a straw? That will make this easier.”
“Of course.” She left again, but I didn’t watch her backside this time. Instead I just glared at my hand. This was its fault. Why did it insist on feeling things, even when I didn’t want it to? Shouldn’t I be able to control that? That was my power, right?
I looked at Silk. Actually, I didn’t even know what my power was. Not really. I knew the effects, but lots of different powers could do the same thing. Artemis had a self-shapeshifting ability, but he used it exclusively for healing. Creating wind and controlling air ended up nearly identical. And of course Robyn had an entire guild of fliers running the gamut from levitation to rockets.
I wanted to ask Silk, but I still couldn’t talk, and I had nothing to write with. She had been suspiciously candid so far, so just asking seemed like the logical first step. Of course, she might choose now to start being mysterious. She could have told me what my power was from the start. I had been doubting she even gave me a power until this whole mess happened.
“So what do you think they’re talking about?” someone behind me said.
I thought they were talking to me, so I turned around to look. But it was just a small group of four changelings, talking a little bit louder than they should have. Or maybe my ears were just better than I thought.
“I have no idea,” one of them said. “Are we even sure they’ll be able to talk? I mean, they are aliens.”
Oh, they were talking about the para. The ship had been about to land when… I found myself in my current situation. I had been monitoring social media at the time. People had barely started to notice what was happening when I was cut off.
Another, a dark-skinned man with green hair, snorted. “The talking part will be easy. MC will figure something out, one way or another.” I couldn’t help but smile at that. “The real question is what they’ll say—and what Butler will say back.”
“You think there will be war?” a pink-haired girl asked.
“They wouldn’t have sent down an ambassador if that were the case,” the first man, an Asian man with golden eyes, said.
“They’re aliens,” the last one said. She was a tall girl, bald but with bony ridges under the skin of her skull. That was rare, even for changelings. “We have no way of knowing how they think. Maybe they send down an empty ship before a war to demonstrate how our cities will be emptied.”
Green hair raised an eyebrow. “What?”
Bone-ridges sighed. “I don’t know, whatever. The point is we know nothing.” She leaned back in her chair. “I wish we could just send them back where they came from and go back to dealing with the problems we already have.”
Golden eyes frowned. “You think war is inevitable.”
“Conflict always arises whenever there are misunderstandings,” bone-ridges said. “And we know so little about these aliens. Something is going to go wrong, I just know it. With our luck, it’s going to start in our city.”
“I say let it,” pink hair said. “We need a good shakeup. The Americans didn’t penetrate far enough to even tickle most of our defenses. What happens when a real fight comes, and we’re not prepared because we’ve just been fighting idiots for decades?”
Golden eyes smiled. “We’ve been fighting ourselves for decades.”
Pink hair grinned. “As I said.”
“I’m hoping for a first strike,” green hair said. “Capture the pilot, send the ship back with a few nukes. I don’t care what that mothership is made of, a couple gigatons inside its hull will solve all our problems.”
“Except for the fact that there would be a giant spaceship about to come down in pieces,” golden eyes said. “Not to mention the question of whether there are any more of them coming, who might be very annoyed at what we did to their first ship.”
“By then we’ll have reverse-engineered their technology,” green hair said. “Home field advantage with a technology equivalency? It won’t even be difficult. Unless a thousand more motherships pop in, it will be easy.”
“A thousand more motherships might very well do that,” golden eyes said. “We don’t know. Do you want to bet the entire human race on your testosterone?”
“If a fight’s gonna come no matter what—” pink hair said.
“Nothing’s guaranteed and you know it,” golden eyes said. “We were just talking about how little we know. Well, I doubt they know much more about us. Do you really want first contact with an alien species to be a first strike?”
“Better than getting hit with a first strike,” green hair said.
“If they were going to pull a first strike, they would have done it first,” bone-ridges said. “At worst, they would have put a nuke in that shuttle. Nothing has exploded yet, so that means they want to talk.”
“This city has always fascinated me,” Silk said.
I turned back to see her smiling at me. The waitress was waiting patiently with a bundle of straws.
“So many ideas,” Silk said. “So many cultures and gangs, parties and assemblies. All driving towards the single goal of survival. No matter what.” Her eyes twinkled. “And the most interesting part is that in this city of criminals, this microism of evolution… you still developed morality.”
“That wasn’t an insult, you miraculous child,” she said. “Just an observation. In fact, it gives me quite a bit of hope for humanity, and your interactions with the para going forward. I’m reasonably certain that you won’t start a war.”
The waitress was still standing there awkwardly, so I smiled at her and took one of the straws. I had some difficulty getting it into the glass with my awkward hands, but Silk guided the end in without a word. It took me a moment to figure out how to work the straw, but soon warm chocolate was flowing upwards.
I had to fight not to choke on it.
It wasn’t just the liquid in my mouth, which I was unaccustomed to. The taste was like an explosion, a unique burst of sensation that I had no comparison for. It was like the first time I had jacked into an entire building’s data feed. Thousands of things were going on at once, none of which I had any context for. Parts of my brain fought to parse it—this part got filed as ‘hot,’ this part as ‘sweet’—but I was so overwhelmed it did little good. It was like trying to sift through data packets without any programs prepared ahead of time. I was getting something, but that was about it.
Then the hot chocolate was gone, and the straw made a sucking sound against the bottom of the glass. I let go and slumped in my chair, exhausted by the sensory overload.
“Enjoying yourself?” Silk asked, her tone playful.
I glared at her. “You—” I collapsed into a coughing fit before I could get a second word out. But I had gotten the first word out. I had spoken!
The waitress put a water in front of me and I gulped it down, spilling half of it on my shirt. She yelped and tried to dab at me with a rag, but I waved her away. I drew in a few more ragged breaths and drank some more water to get myself under control.
“Thank—” I drank some more water. “Thank you,” I managed.
“We’ll call if we need something else,” Silk said. She shook the waitress’s hand, and I saw them exchange something. Probably a tip. “You have been most helpful.”
The waitress walked away again, and I massaged my throat, frowning. “Should…” My voice was still scratchy, but it was getting stronger with every word. “Should it be so easy for me to talk? Should I know how?”
“One moment,” Silk said. She raised her palm, and then… something happened. The air seemed thicker, and sounds from outside were suddenly muffled. “There. No one will be able to overhear us now.”
I stared. “How many powers do you have?”
Silk smiled. “That’s… complicated. I work a little differently than the rest of you. Let’s just say ‘all of them’ and leave it at that.”
I licked my lips. “You said ‘the rest of you.’ So I’m… I mean…”
“You, Mary Christina Butler, are a living soul,” she said. “And that means that you can receive the Song.”
“But… I’m an AI,” I said. “A computer.”
“So?” she said with a smile. “You don’t really think souls are limited to one tiny slice of primate DNA, do you? To carbon-based organisms?” She sipped at her water. “In my time, we didn’t have artificial intelligences. Everyone simply existed.” She waved her hand. “Oh, some people cared what body you were wearing at the moment, much like humans place too much importance on clothes, but that is all. One of my closest allies now was born as a starship, and is currently sleeved in a body similar to my own. Another is a cloud of quantum-linked nanomachines who began life as a small furry creature roughly the equivalent of a rat. Your situation is hardly unique.”
I looked down at my hands—my hands. I had never expected anything like this, not for a single moment.
“…can I change back?” I whispered.
Silk smirked. “Bored of the human experience already? You haven’t even gotten to the good parts yet!”
“My life as Butler’s pet AI might not have been glamorous, but it was mine,” I said firmly. “And it had… good parts, as you say. Have you ever seen a quantum decryption algorithm compile from inside the code? Or sorted through petabytes of data using a trinary sifter? Or ever just watched the simple beauty of a search engine?”
Silk smiled… and it was a far more wistful smile than I expected. “Yes. Yes, I have seen a computer operate from the inside.” She closed her eyes in bliss. “Oh, you miraculous child, I have seen things that no one else in this solar system would understand—but you, you would come closest.” She opened her eyes and smiled. “So perhaps I do understand why you would wish to go back.”
“And I can?” I said. “Whenever I want?”
“Whenever you figure out your power,” she said.
I paused. “…what is it, then? My power? I thought it was shapeshifting, but it doesn’t appear to have a time limit. And morphing would have been much slower.”
“I confess I cheated a little,” Silk said. “You have a morphing ability—so yes, it is slow, but permanent until reversed. However, you could easily have killed yourself with a partial morph. So, I gave you a push so you could do it all in one go.”
“Oh.” That raised a million questions I didn’t like about the nature of the powers and Silk’s control over them, but I mentally tabled that for the moment. “So can you please change me back now?”
She chuckled. “I’m sorry, but no.”
I blinked. Autonomous responses were coming easier and easier. I really needed to know how exactly my morphing power worked and how my body knew how to do anything, but that would have to wait.
“You can’t? But—” I sighed. “Will you please move me back to my server room, then change me back?”
Silk smiled. “Better, but still no. I’m afraid that for the time being, it is best that you remain unconnected.”
“You are too powerful an asset,” she said. There was no guilt in her tone, nothing special at all. She may as well have been telling me her e-mail address. “Your information gathering and collating abilities would give too great an advantage over the para. That, in turn, would push your city to war, and…” She sighed. “We can’t have that.”
I ground my teeth. I found I didn’t like doing that. “So you’re just going to keep me away from my friends and my family until this whole mess is resolved?”
“Not at all,” she said with a smile. “You can go back the second you figure out how to revert your morph. I promise, reverting is safer than the initial morph—you’ll be perfectly fine. However, I suspect that will take quite a while. You just don’t have enough practice.”
I screamed and threw one of the glasses at her head.
It shattered on a glowing blue shield leaking mist. “Please, don’t be childish. I know you’re technically only six years old, but you’re better than this.”
“What if war does come?” I demanded. “What if they decide to attack without me—or if the para decide to?”
“I am handling the para separately,” Silk said. “As for an attack… that, by itself, is not a problem. The problem is that you would swing the balance too far in Domina’s favor.”
I frowned. “I’m not military. I mean, yeah, I help, but there are actual tacticians and strategists who do most of the work. I’m not some magic bullet that would instantly win the war—” Realization dawned. “The mothership has a flaw, doesn’t it? Something I’d be able to find.”
Silk rolled her eyes. “It actually has about a dozen critical flaws, and those are just the external ones. It was never designed to go to war, and it has been drifting through space for three thousand years. You could destroy the entire thing with a few well-placed missiles. But thankfully, no one else can find those flaws.”
I set my jaw. “I could go to NHQ and tell them.”
She smirked. “They’d just throw you in an asylum and you know it. You’d never even get a chance to speak to someone who knows you personally. Besides, you still wouldn’t be able to reconnect to your system, so you wouldn’t be able to find the flaws.”
“I designed the system. Sure, I designed it to be operated from the inside, but I can make it work from meatspace.”
Silk nodded, conceding the point. “Fair enough. But there’s still the question of how you’d get inside. You have a normal meat brain, so you can’t prove your identity by providing dozens of facts about random guards. How would you get in?”
“I’d… there are a few security holes. I could jump the fence—”
“I know the hole you’re talking about. There’s only a ten second window between patrols. Adam could do it, but you’re pretty weak for a human. You’d be caught for sure.”
Most of the other security holes were the same. I had spent my entire life patching such holes as best as possible. I hadn’t thought I’d ever need to use them myself, so I hadn’t bothered leaving a back door.
Silk stood, brushing off her pants. “Please enjoy your brief time as a human, Mary Christina. I suspect once you do revert and plug yourself back in, you won’t give yourself another chance like this for a very long time.” She waved her hand, and sound returned to the world. “Enjoy the drinks.” She nodded at the waitress. “And consider enjoying some other things, as well.” She turned to go.
“Wait,” I said. “You said you have… all powers. Does that include some way of… um…” I felt my face grow hot. Was this blushing? “…detecting sexuality?”
Silk smirked. “Yes.”
“Could you tell me what I am?”
She kissed me on the forehead. “You miraculous child, I’m sorry, but that’s something you have to figure out on your own.”
Then she was gone, just disappeared into thin air.
Behind the Scenes (scene 321)
The Song can be heard by literally any living thing, and with a pretty broad definition of “living.” That means that very nearly anything can receive a power. Dolphins and apes, of course, but also all other mammals, reptiles, most birds, most insects (it gets tricky when dealing with flocks and hives), and more. Elizabeth’s Song was specifically tuned to only work on humans, which is why MC was initially unaffected.