"It's okay, you can ask."
"How did you—?"
You smirk. "This?" You point at your face with your hand; as you move it your luminous skin seems to squirm and shimmer, as if it was liquid roughly following your position. "Oh, it's a good story. I was fourteen—"
You were fourteen when the white mechs jumped from the coast and pushed inland and clashed all around the villages; you were fourteen when the mech crashed and its core broke and the splash of liquid nano and vapor all over did something to you, but that's not how you transcended yourself. Not yet.
However — after you were in a coma for three days, after the cries and the pain and after learning to walk again — you could hear the voices in the ground, the little pieces on the battlefield, the larger ones in the junkyards, and their incessant call.
You woke up. Every day like clockwork at five, you would wake. You would take your breakfast and say good morning and groom and lie to your mom when you told her that you were going to school.
You would leave, and then you would immediately take a hike up and make the short walk to the ridge and then the massive drop just past the border to the Sacred Nation, following the very narrow pathways dug in the rock, all the way down the gorge and into the massive junkyard where they threw all the stuff from the war. And you would spend hours there, following the calls and the pleads in the language you didn't speak but could comprehend anyway: bring us together, bring us together, bring us—
You hold the Core in your hand and it feels like it's doing something and that you shouldn't touch it with your bare skin; when you found it, it was inside a hollowing, the metal and plastic junk and the ground around it made into weird and brittle red dust clumps. You hope the border guard doesn't see it as you hold it behind your back.
"You, kid!", the guard shouts shout.
You say nothing. Hold the core tighter.
"What were you—" But they're interrupted.
"Officer Heft!" the other man shouts, coming by. "Lieutenant, I—", the guard stammers, but the lieutenant strides with their usual jovial stance, the tingle of the sideways cross pendant hitting the beads of the rosary — pious soldier they are, they're wearing both at the same time. "Heft, this is just the Carver kid, let them go, okay?" And then, to you: "Kid, are you scrounging again?" (You shake your head.) "You know I don't mind you around, but it's not really allowed, okay?" The lieutenant smiles, bright as day. "Let's just get you back up into the pathway."
And he escorts you up and never sees you quietly slipping the core into your schoolbag.
You have enough parts in the basement now that you can grab your work tools — the ones you use to help your mom in her artificer workshop — and solder together a suspension field that catches the core before it can touch anything else; your bag already eaten from the inside, red powder everywhere. You look at it: it's a solid thing, like bismuth crystals if it had lost all colors for shades of gray and shining black, and you can swear you see the ridges move and reconfigure if you stare long enough.
Also, it talks to you.
You inherited the shop, and that slowed you down some, but you already had the bulk of what you needed anyway. It took years, but you solved the problems, one, by one, by one, smuggling newer parts to fix what couldn't work, with night forays into the junkyard when you were too old to be just a curiosity for the lieutenant, with a determination that you always possessed but only made sense when you heard the whisper:
"Who are you, really? Who do you want to be?", said the core.
You connect the power. You diverted from the derivation, but it will not take long — even if they find out what you did, when you do, it will be too late.
"I want, I need, to transform things", said the core.
You double-check all the junctions on the old mech parts and the glass paneling. The core — you hope it hasn't gotten too close to sprouting — has already started to alter it, the edges of the glass rewearing like butterfly wings on the mech's sides. You switch it on, and the power-on test shows all green.
"Can I transform you?", said the core.
You hop aboard.
You arm the switch. You hit the go button. It counts down, just in case.
They still talk about it, about the implosion and the fact all tech in a three-block radius just stopped working as the condensers just attracted all the nano in the vicinity that could be captured and then condensed it in the makeshift infusion chamber. It splashed on you again, submerged, then turned volatile, and you — the shapeshifting, shining new you — were a single upward flash of light, you and your mech leaving the plate.
"… and that's how it went," you tell your soon-to-be employer. "As for my rates…"
You look at her. She looks at you like you aren't real, like an impostor took the place of a human that should've been there.
You don't care; you've never really felt human anyway.