My first week being human was the worst experience of my life.
It wasn’t just that I was alone, away from a million datastreams. It wasn’t just that I had to sleep in one of the ‘sarian homeless shelters as just another anonymous transient. It wasn’t even the biting cold or the constant hunger gnawing at my belly.
It was everything. Yes, it was cold, but I shouldn’t have been able to feel cold. Yes, I had no food, but that shouldn’t matter—I had never had food before. And the sore muscles and constant exhaustion and the screeching noises of traffic…
And the bodily functions. Oh, in the name of everything above and below, how could humans live with inconsistent bladders? And that was the easy one. It took me nearly eight hours in the bathroom to make my bowels function properly, at which point I received another terrible reminder that my nose didn’t have an off switch.
On the seventh day, the 15th of January, I had my first period. That was when I decided enough was enough. I was going to get my real body back.
I abandoned my meager belongings at the Necessarius safehouse and walked straight to the Servants. Even though I had been staying as far away from them as possible, they had many chapter houses around the city. It only took half an hour to find the nearest one.
The chapter house was small and austere, with white walls and rounded edges. It stood out starkly in the dirty, grimy mess that was the rest of Domina City. The only decorations were a few screens embedded into the walls, showing relaxing vistas like schools, parks, and the city skyline. There was no flag or emblem anywhere to be seen; the perfectly clean aesthetic was more than enough to identify the place.
The entrance wasn’t very big, just enough for a woman behind a desk and a small waiting area. She smiled as I entered, apparently unconcerned with my grimy appearance, tattered clothes, and the horrific smell I carried with me.
“Welcome to the Five-Hundred and Eighteenth Chapter House of the Servants of the Lady,” she said. “We are here to assist you with anything you may need. Food? Water? Even just a simple bed to lay your head for a few hours? The Servants are always at the disposal of anyone in Domina City.”
I knew the speech—I had certainly heard it often enough. Every inch of the chapter house was covered in cameras and microphones. There was a single obvious camera in the corner, but this room alone had a dozen hidden eyes. The wall-screens were recording everything, just for a start.
While the Servants had always kept their places under heavy surveillance and given me the data feeds, in the first few weeks of operation, they had tried to keep that fact private. It was only after a few groups like the Nessians tried to take advantage of their hospitality that they had made it public that I would be watching everything. That had certainly cut down on the robberies and worse.
I took a deep breath—ugh, breathing—to steady myself. “I am MC. I need to be taken to NHQ right away.”
The receptionist didn’t so much as blink. “Of course,” she said with a smile. “Right this way, ma’am.”
I frowned, but stepped through the doorway she indicated into a pristine white hallway. There was a man standing there, and he frowned at me in return.
“Who are you?” His tone was more hostile than I expected from a Servant, but he had a shoulder patch with their emblem on it—a circle of wires. The man looked past me. “Who is this, and what is she doing here?”
“She says she’s MC,” the receptionist said. “Would you please get her situated?”
The man’s face cleared, and he smiled. “Of course. Right this way, miss.” He gestured for me to walk further down the hall.
“I have to say, you’re all taking this much more easily than I expected,” I said.
“We feel it is best to be prepared for anything. This door here, miss.”
I opened the white door and found myself in a simple white bedroom with a white table, two chairs, and of course a white bed. There was a box of brightly colored children’s toys in the corner, but that was all.
I frowned and looked back at the man. “The Quiet Room?”
He looked surprised. “You know it?”
“Of course. I approved the work orders.” I walked over and looked through the box of toys. “A lot of non-standard toys in here.”
“Yes, well…” I glanced over to judge the man’s reaction. He seemed a bit embarrassed. “Kids can play rough at times, and we didn’t want to bother anyone by asking for replacements, so we just… found replacements.”
“That’s fine,” I said. “Excellent use of initiative. Good work.”
He looked uncomfortable. “Yeah. Of course.”
“I’ll need a ride to NHQ,” I said. “Something simple and unobtrusive. You have a motor pool?”
“Just two vans. Listen, I’m not sure—”
“I’d also like a computer while I wait,” I said as I sat down at the desk. “I’m in a hurry, but it’s not an emergency. I just want something to keep myself busy.”
He looked like he was struggling with something internally. “Well, you see…” His face cleared. “Both vans are undergoing repairs at the moment. And I hardly think calling a cab would be appropriate. Why don’t you just wait here, and I’ll find someone to come talk to you?”
“That would be—” I froze. “Wait. You mean you’re sending a psychologist.”
He forced a smile on his face. “Your mind is extremely valuable, miss. It’s just a precaution.”
“No, it’s standard procedure for dealing with a non-hostile guest of uncertain sanity.” I glared at him. “You think I’m crazy, don’t you?”
“We don’t like using that word.”
I sighed. “Of course. I knew this was too easy.” I rubbed my forehead. “How many people do you get who think they’re me?”
“How many think they’re MC, that is.”
He shrugged uncomfortably. “Two or three a month. Across all our safehouses. Just wait for the doctor to get here, and we can—”
“No,” I snapped. “No waiting. I’ve had enough of living in this miserable meatsack, I’m not putting it off for a few weeks while I get poked and prodded.” I held out my hand. “Pad.”
He blinked. “What?”
“Your pad,” I said, slower. “I need to prove I am who I say I am.”
He smiled slightly, then handed me his pad. “Are you going to use your secret back-door access to take control of the building?”
“Of course not,” I said. “I’m not stupid enough to put back-doors into everything.” I typed at the pad with clumsy, inelegant fingers. “Whenever I found a hole in Servant security, I immediately patched it.” I smirked. “What, you think half a dozen patches a week were just my way of keeping you on your toes?”
The Servant kept a neutral face. “Of course not.”
I kept trying to type, wincing every time I had to back up because I had made a mistake. “For what it’s worth, I understand that this whole situation is weird. If I were in your shoes, I wouldn’t believe it.”
“Why don’t you tell me what happened?” the man said soothingly. He might not be a trained psychiatrist, but all Servants were friendly as a rule. You didn’t get a job helping people every day unless you liked people. “How did you end up like this?”
“Silk gave me a power,” I said. “Morphing, apparently. And then she forced me to morph so that I wouldn’t be able to interfere with something that’s going on right now.”
“And what would that be?”
“Sorry, can’t say. Operational security.” I cursed and rewrote another line of code. “Damned meatsack can’t even type properly.”
The Servant sighed. “Miss, I’m not sure what you’re trying to do, but if you’re having trouble—”
“I’m trying to prove who I am!” I snapped, slamming the pad down on the desk. “But I can’t do that because this stupid body is optimized for grabbing things and eating them, not writing code!” I stood up and started pacing. So odd that I found the action soothing, when I had never done anything like it before I got this body. “I need a data link. Something that will let me write code like I’m used to.”
The Servant flinched in shock, looking at my arm for some reason.
“No data link means this is going too slow,” I said.
“It’s like trying to push the ocean through a straw.”
“Maybe if you bring me a programmer, I could say the code fast enough for—”
I stopped and stared at the Servant. “Excuse me?”
“My lady Domina,” he said quietly. His condescending kindness was gone, replaced by desperate obedience. “Please, look at your arm.”
I followed his gaze. It took me a moment to realize what I was looking at.
Right there, on the upper side of my arm a few inches away from my wrist, was a USB port. Just sitting there in the middle of my flesh, as if there was nothing odd about it at all. What’s more, I recognized it. It was one of the ports on my main ‘body’ when I was a computer. It had been in sight of one of my cameras for years. There were a few scratches from where a drunk programmer once had trouble plugging something into it.
Without saying a word, I pulled the pad’s USB drive out of the bottom, where it was still connected to the pad by a wire. I plugged it into the port on my arm.
And the world opened up to me.
I could see the code—no not even that, I could feel it. Every line and word, every executable and every program, all the way down to the individual silicon bits flipping between zero and one.
I released a breath that I felt like I had been holding for a week. It was like a weight the size of the universe had stepped off my chest.
In moments, I had hacked the pad’s security, and from there the rest of the safehouse. I tested the lights in the Quiet Room, then moved on to the rest of the building. There wasn’t much interesting, but there was one thing.
“Servant Nikolaj,” I said. I had found his name on an employee registry.
“Yes, my lady Domina?” he asked.
“Take me to the data center,” I said. “And have security meet us there. I don’t want any surprises.”
“Yes, my lady Domina.” He pulled out his phone and started typing furiously. Through my connection to the pad, I could read it before he even sent it, but I only watched for a few moments. I knew he was following orders.
Finally, finally, I felt alive again.
Behind the Scenes (scene 330)
“My lady Domina” translates approximately as “my lady who is the mistress of this city.” A bit redundant, but it’s a common form of address the Servants use for MC. “My lady MC” just doesn’t have enough gravitas.
As for the USB port thing, that’s something specific to MC since she’s a machine, rather than something any sufficiently skilled morpher could do. The only reason it appeared with such relative ease is because morphing back is always easier than morphing into something.