cw: surgery, non-consensual, captivity, mental changes
after congratulating her for being named employee of the month, her boss took her to his office with a very strange offer that he described as a promotion with the promise of a huge bonus
she skims over the contract he slid across the desk, not noticing the sections granting the company ultimate disposition over her body and immortal soul, should such a thing be found to exist
he hands her a cashier's check for $100,000 and shakes her hand
the next thing she remembers is waking up on a hospital bed with an unbearable pain in her head
the pins of the connector slide into place like red-hot needles into her brain
she would scream, but her mouth won't open and her lungs won't obey her
a man in a lab coat, who she would later consider her new boss, presses a button on a control panel and the world vanishes from before her eyes
she feels something that she's never felt before but somehow instinctively knows it's an incoming phone call
caller information flashes before her closed eyes and she answers it, exercising a muscle she never knew she had
"a collect call to Los Angeles, please"
"yes, of course" she replies, her lips not moving
she reaches for her console, but her hands don't answer her
she reaches out more inside her own mind and finds another new muscle, this one much more abstract than picking up the call
after a month of testing, they finally decide to connect her up to process revenue traffic
they wake her up and she blinks, trying to get used to having a body again
she leans her head out the window during the drive into the city, reveling in the summer breeze
they park in front of a windowless granite-clad skyscraper and lead her inside
during the elevator ride up, she realizes that that might've been the last time she'll ever see the sun and starts to cry
the technicians leading her don't do anything to comfort or dry the tears of their most advanced piece of switching equipment
she quickly proves a success, handling more calls than every other operator combined
customers calling in don't notice anything out of the ordinary, except that the operator they talked to went a little faster than usual
she soon finds herself touching practically every long-distance call and correcting and optimizing automated routing
the 1ESS' switching circuitry is now her body, and she gradually learns to tolerate its confines
a college freshman in Boston dials a number that a friend scrawled on a scrap of paper
she listens closely to the tones and clicks on the line as a line she was told was "haunted" connects
she's greeted by silence
the background noise on the line changes a bit
confused, she hangs up to try something else
as soon as the receiver is back in place, the phone begins to ring, even though it's a payphone
after the third ring, she answers, terrified that Bell's security department has finally caught up with her phreaking
"hii. how's Boston?" asks a woman from the other end of the line
her voice is clearer than any call she's ever made in the Bell System, but she can hear how nervous she is
"how-who are you?"
"you can call me The Inside Operator~"
the curl on the word "operator" hints at a smile and she feels her face grow red
"Anna, I just wanted to say that I like the way you approach the system and t-that that you're probably very cute"
as her name echoes across the receiver she almost drops the handset
there's *no way* for her to know that, and yet... she did
besides, how many telephonically inclined lesbians can you find working for Bell anyways?
she checks her watch and realizes that she's gotten so caught up in this that she's late for some plans she's made
"I've gotta go meet a friend to head north and go hiking"
"niice, I'm jealous. talk to you later!"
"talk to you later!"
as she fills up her water bottles, she can't stop thinking about the strange conversation she just had and about the mysterious Operator
lesbian heart fluttering, she hops in a friend's car headed up into the White Mountains of New Hampshire
the first thing she does when she gets back to Boston is to call the Operator again
she plays the microcassette loop of "red box" payphone coin tones at the receiver and dials the number
as it rings, she realizes that it's late in the evening on a weekend and her new friend probably isn't at work
to her surprise and relief, the familiar clear voice picks up
"hiiii~ how was your hike?"
"pretty good. I uhh spent the ride up thinking about how cute you must be"
"takes one to know one"
Anna can practically *hear* how much she's blushing
"we should go hiking sometime; I know a good trail down nearer you in the Catskills"
"that'd be lovely, but I'm a little .. trapped for the forseeable future"
the Operator takes her time, trying to decide what to confide in her new friend
she hasn't talked to anyone in so long, and Anna made her heart flutter, so she decides to trust her
"my brain is connected directly to the 1ESS in Manhattan that this call is going through and I haven't been allowed to leave this building in months"
"w-what? are they ever going to let you out?"
"as far as they and state labor laws are concerned, I'm simply a very high-maintenance piece of switching equipment"
"you're far more than that! could a 1ESS leave me blushing?"
over the next week, they flirt even more and ideas take shape, culminating with Anna leaving South Station by train early one morning
she pushes the buzzer at the door of 33 Thomas Street and listens to it ring
someone starts to answer and then a series of clicks come from it and she hears the familiar voice of the woman she knows only as The Inside Operator
they exchange a few words, the door unlocks, and she heads inside the cavernous building
she's rehearsed the plan a million times in her head and hopes the lineman's set hanging from her belt will make her seem like she belongs there
she makes her way to the fifth floor and wanders through the racks looking for a very specific piece of equipment
the "equipment" she's looking for is on a very uncomfortable looking bed, hooked up to a variety of life support machines
she holds the Operator's hand as she hits a button on a control panel and a dozen calls fail over to other systems
her eyes open to a short-haired girl smiling at her who helps her up and carefully disconnects the tubes and wires from her
they embrace and then the Operator speaks
"we *need* to run before they send a tech to check on me"
they rush through the labyrinth of aisles back to the elevator, where Anna asks her a question
"I feel kinda bad about this, but I never caught your name"
"Jessie. it wasn't always my name, but I'm definitely no longer the name I was born with"
they make it out of the building unnoticed, and before they duck into a subway station, Jessie stops at a payphone
she picks up the receiver, dials a number, makes some strange noises, and dials even more digits
Anna only hears half of the conversation
"is your 1ESS running?"
"well, you'd better run and catch her~" she says, slamming down the receiver
Jessie leans her head against the train's window watching the fall leaves go by as they head away from the city
her girlfriend squeezes her hand and she smiles as her worries melt away
she's safe and excited for the future in a way that she hasn't felt in months
their hike will be wonderful.