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Rete mirabile

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        “Hydrogen, helium, and a lot of silicates,” she says at last with her eyes closed, the readout glowing above her palm.

        “Showoff,” he says to let her know she’s right. “What about carbon?”

        “Trace. Scroll down. There is a little but less than the metals.”

        “Huh,” he says, having largely exhausted his knowledge of what he was supposed to be made of. He reaches out and scrolls down the list, which has been facing him. This was a courtesy on her part: as though he would be able to make sense of it. “Am I radioactive? Like, do you need a stack of lead aprons before you start feeling me up.”

        She takes her hand off his wing, reminded, which was not what he meant. “No. I mean, yes! Very. But I am too so I don’t think we need to worry about it.” She has flipped the list around and is frowning at it. “Oh, I missed the pure strontium, it’s probably important, though I got all the isotopes…”

        The projection is transparent; through it he can still read, backwards, the entry currently highlighted. %Sr: 1.201 x 10-9. “Yeah,” he says, straight-faced. “Can’t think how. Sloppy work, Harley, slipshod.” This rolls off her like mercury off a duck’s back, as usual. She’s not even listening; she’s comparing the first list, kept in her head, with the one in her hand. This second list is projected by her wristwatch computer from data sent from her spectro-ecto-scope, which she fed one of his feathers a half-hour ago before beginning her own review, by hand. Recently she has taken to doing chemical analysis by inspecting one atom at a time, for fun. She counts the protons on her fingers: flick-flick-flick-flick-flick, sudden fist, flick-flick-flick-flick-flick. Mendeleev would plotz.

        It is frankly a surprise to him that he misses his legs more than his dick, but although he would as a matter of form deny it, the former saw more use. The thudding, maddening solidity of running, the scuff of a sneaker turning a corner and almost an ankle. It was a liability once. He used to imagine jumping and never landing, like every kid does.

        When he jumped into the kernelsprite he emerged in a new skin, like a snake: he’d prefer to have the scar on the heel of his hand back, the pockmark above his brow. It even straightened his teeth, which he finds kind of patronizing. His voice and, when he has occasion for it, his laugh are harsher, a crow croak. (“Do you think you have a bone in your tongue?” Jade says once out of absolutely fucking nowhere. “No,” he says after biting it, baffled.) His breath no longer fogs a window. Anything he eats or drinks is apparently incinerated. Jade’s hypothesis is that the water molecules in his blood are assembled on an as-needed basis at the wound sites.

        His lower half ends in a long wisp of cool fire that he can pass his hand through; as he moves the hand up there’s an increasing weight, a drag, a profoundly uncomfortable sensation where his stomach used to be, or perhaps still is. Pressure on or up into the no-man’s-land between ghost and flesh increases this to a pulverizing nausea instantly recognizable as the feeling of being kneed in the nads. This is encouraging: perhaps he still has them.

        When he sleeps, which entails consciously setting a timer and clicking yes somewhere behind his eyes, settling down to a level that nearly touches the floor, and fading to 75% opacity/saturation, he doesn’t think he dreams at all: but Jade says he gestures and lashes his tail sometimes, like Bec in his sleep chasing things. “You watch me sleep, Miss Universe?” he says sardonically, and to his surprise, she glances away. “I just know where things are,” she says, the understatement of the year.

        His sprite knowledge is by now largely obsolete.

        Once she has the ingredient list she begins the wing the next night. There are diagrams and notes all over the floor, highlighted in lime-green: supracoracoideus, scapulotriceps, other shit that sounds like dinosaurs. “It’ll still work if I don’t read the manual, right,” he says, hovering above her as she rolls up her sleeves. “Lazy,” she says, and then “Yeah, you can be ignorant if you want. Just sit still.”

        That first night she never touches him: her hands drift in a pattern above his back, mirroring his intact wing, and a translucent skeleton forms from the marrow out. She calls atoms and they come. Heel, sit, stay. After an hour she says her eyes are blurring but that the hardest part is done. He eels out from under the armature and comes around to look at it, and it shimmers and vanishes. “Hey,” he says, surprised, but she says “No, it’s fine. I just saved it as a file. I didn’t want it lying around where things could bang into it! It’s pretty fragile at this stage.” This with perfect assurance, like she’s a fifth-generation feathery asshole spare parts artisan.

        In a few more sessions the .wng is close to finished, one feather drawing other feathers into existence, like a seed crystal. Past a point it seems almost to build itself and they spend most of the time talking, while she keeps an eye and a few fingers on the construction. She has made more wing than necessary, so that it will overlap with the remnant he has.

        She is inspecting the place where this remnant is attached to his back, pushing it gently back and forth, asking him to tense it or relax, when she curls it into an odd position and the sharp shaft of a sheared feather pierces into a raw muscle, open to the air. He could have managed the pain if he had expected it, it is not like losing the wing: but he hisses and clutches at her and his hands are claws, talons, plated like armor and curved like fangs, and two claws sink into and almost through her narrow forearm, which for an instant is a dog’s sinewy leg. For a long second they flicker and crackle between human and animal, guilt, antipathy, fear, and he is horrified to find, when they stabilize, that he can feel the fading presence of a phantom beak, weighted for a strike, though he doesn’t think he ever had one.

        There is a hole, where there was a sword, where there was his heart, but something in the region is battering nonetheless. “Shit, Jade, I’m sorry!” he says, aghast, when he can. Her dog-ears are flattened back and her face is expressionless, her eyes dry. “I didn’t know we could do that,” she says after a pause, sitting down, her palm pressed over the punctures. “Are you OK,” he says, at a loss for how else to apologize. His hands turned back clean and that’s almost worse. “Yeah,” she says and takes her hand away. It is not a sight to reassure. A bubble of blood rises and bursts in one of the holes. She licks the area clean and sucks at each wound, stilling it, before turning, wholly unselfconsciously, to spit: unselfconsciously, except that the gobs of bloody spit vanish before they hit the floor. But when she looks up she is almost smiling.

        “God Tier, remember!” she says. “Watch.” She holds out her arm and without thinking he takes it, one hand supporting her elbow, the other holding her wrist with the delicacy of remorse. Inside of five minutes her fine brown skin has closed over like water. He has not touched her before. He gives her wrist a squeeze and lets go, against the danger that she should be the one to move first.

        “I’m sorry too,” she says, “for hurting your wing.” Her ears are back up; perhaps it’s all right. There is a smear of blood at the corner of her mouth. He used to imagine, in Austin, that if he were in the same room as her, he’d always be able to tell what she was thinking: but it’s not like that at all.

        Where the damaged wing is, when she finally tries to overlay it, she gets an error message: The file 0046732790172[…].dvs already exists. Overwrite copy or save as new? She has to click Yes, Replace, Are you sure? This cannot be undone!, Yes, monotonously, for each pixel, until several hours later 50% of the wing has been overwritten, at which point she is finally given the option to Overwrite All. This does not hurt, but it comes as a crawling wave, a wash of infinitesimal prickling, over the whole of the wing. It tickles unspeakably; he has to bite his lip to keep still. Anything healing itches.

        At about the limit of his endurance there is finally a kind of jarring, reproving chime and Jade, starting, clicks Save Changes. His wing flashes and fades to baseline glow.

        He knows how to do this; he learned from the animes. He’s had his head bowed, his wings half furled, altogether drawn-in, and he rises up to Jade’s eye-level slowly, knowing she’s watching, though he is careful not to check. Rose would appreciate this like no one else, and for a few seconds he misses her terribly, every one of her. When he’s reached the right altitude, he tenses the wings and with a starch-crisp snap flings them out to full extension, stiff and haughty, like a salute. He’s thrown his head back at the same time, and his arms, a little, palm-out: he brings his arms in and his chin down slowly, heavy-lidded, part Squaresoft villain, part archangel. He doesn’t know if the light’s right for her to see through his shades but it’s worth a shot: he tries to open his eyes suddenly, like with some kind of shining pinging noise.

        Their eyes meet: she claps her hands together and, clasping them, grins. She is cute as a fucking button. “Oh, wow!” she cries, jubilant. “What a total ham you are!”

        He and Jade and John spend a lot of time strifing, for business and pleasure. It’s penny-ante stuff in regards to EXP but when they check their stat screens afterwards their Agl and Spd have gone up every time, sometimes MgDef or Evd, Hit% when one of them lands a blow. They also play, quite sincerely, tag and hide-and-seek, games which become worth playing when the players can all teleport and fly. Early on they find what appears to be a ballroom (not a standard feature of a battleship as they understand the concept, but neither are ramparts or a labyrinth, with both of which their vessel is equipped), eighty by sixty, with a sprung floor and six immense chandeliers which are hella sweet to shatter: a natural arena. Whenever they leave the room and come back it resets, every circuit, every facet hanging immaculate. Sburb is good to them sometimes.

        In the three-way strifes they use non-weapons, mostly edible or plush, but Jade wants to learn how to use a sword – she’s inherited a rapacity from Bec that is on one level unsettling, and on another kind of hot – and she teaches him to shoot, at which he is less worse than he expected. (They tacitly agree not to mention this to John, who thinks they’re macking when they lock the doors; they can hardly say No, better than that.) Sometimes they trade weapons, the rifle loaded with baton rounds, the katana left in the saya, and go for it in earnest. Sometimes they don’t even swap. He held back a little until she shot his shades off his face. Girl gets back on the fucking horse, he’ll give her that.

        “I am not the one who has to be careful!” she says, which ruffles his feathers, as she is right.

        Twenty minutes later, correcting her grip on the hilt, he says, deadpan, “OK, put your feet like mine,” a little spitefully; but they both crack up when she glances down. A half-hour after that, as he’s taking aim at an X scored into the wall, she says “Put your weight more on your back foot,” and he thinks this is revenge, but she says “No, just imagine it!” and when he humors this, he actually feels something shift in his stance, something align, and he fires. She has put some kind of cute, idiotic practice fireworks ammunition in, and it crackles and showers like welding sparks, pink and blue, burning itself out on the wall at the center of the X. Jade Harley: will pull the goddamn rug out from under you, every time, and you will thank her, in the end.

        When they finally leave, disheveled, bruised, pleased, they are only a few steps down the hallway when she turns back, not waiting for him to follow. “I want to try something with the Luck,” she says when he flits after her. In every strife they get a few luck points; when the bar is filled, it seals and glows, and they can do a Special Attack. It feels like you have soda pop for blood, ticklish, euphoric, hard not to deploy immediately. She’s best of the three at hanging onto it for later. Her bar has been filled for more than a day; every so often a silver glitter, a ripple, will pass over her, a reminder.

        They drag one of the tall doors open and close it behind them. Inside it’s brightly gleaming, the walls and floor uncharred, undented, new-made. She walks around a little, gazing up at the chandeliers. Then she comes back near the doors, sidesteps carelessly into a bladed stance and, closing one eye, brings down all six in five shots; the last severs two chains. It is like being inside a kaleidoscope fixed on an explosion. The ballroom strobes with white and gold noise for a glorious moment and then the light’s down to what’s left from the sconces, cozy, meant for waltzes. There is more crystal dust in the air than he would want to breathe if breathing were still a thing he strictly needed to be doing. Small shards slip and plink in the settling wreckage. Jade, who has been admiring the spectacle with the unalloyed holy joy of fucking shit up, turns to him now with the rifle slung back against her shoulder, her other hand dangling thin-wristed and gawky, patting a cheerful pattern against her thigh. In the dim light her smile is very white in her dark face, her glasses reflecting points of light like little low stars. She flips the safety and unloads without needing to look. She is fourteen, bucktoothed and has two separate sets of ears, and there is no one he would not cut in half for her.

        The hole from the sword takes a while to figure out. Jade fills it in twice – quick work compared to the wing – but both times, after a few hours, her work disintegrates into cold fluorescent blood in his chest, and runs out again. She experiments also to see if she can restore him to a human shape, though they both know, sprite knowledge, it won’t work. When she tests the patch overlay on a few pixels of what would be his hip there’s a buzzing that rattles both their teeth and a paper-thin window shivers in the air for a moment: INSUFFICIENT SOFTWARE CHANNEL ENTITLEMENTS. Jade growls the thick low growl of a dog that outweighed her and he puts up a hand. “Not tonight, Josephine,” he says. “Told you, that’s for the closing credits.”

        Neither of them have any idea whether this is true. He used to think that if they won, if it’s possible to win Sburb, to really finish, that he and his younger self would automatically fuse like Jade and Jadesprite. He used to think that this was the best of a bad lot of options: he’d forget nearly everything but he’d have feet, like the Little fucking Mermaid.

        He would not give up his voice now, but then it may not be up to him.

        Jade proposes that the problem with the sword is that a trace, a particle or two, of Bec Noir was carried with it, and remains somewhere inside him, a last malice. When this particle reacts with the construction she puts in it starts some kind of chain reaction that disassembles all the new bonds. She thinks there must have been similar traces on his wing, but that being more exposed they had been washed out; certainly the wing had bled him almost dry. She wants to try to get that contamination out, “like washing the glassware,” she says, “or, actually, sort of like picking up shrapnel with a magnet.”

        “What does that mean?” he says, pausing mid-unwrap, one blood-soaked layer of gauze still stuck to his back.

        She picks up on the apprehension in his voice: “Oh, no, not like a MRI!” she says, sounding shocked. This does not actually clear things up for him, but then she says, “No, look,” and picks up the apple juice he’d been drinking, drops a pencil into it and screws the top on. (He was not done with that juice; this is sort of rude.) She tosses the bottle into the air and catches it without touching it, so that it hangs between her spread hands. She closes her eyes and there’s a span of wavering in the air between her hands, like a heat mirage or a slow river, and then she’s got his juice in one hand and the pencil in the other. The pencil isn’t even wet.

        “Like that,” she says. “I know what one of them is made of, I mean they’re both pretty simple, and what the other’s made of, and then when they’re in the same space, I just pull, and…! But with you I want to just cancel it out, or take it back, because I’m part Bec too.”

        He gestures for the bottle of juice, she tosses it to him and he catches it left-handed. He turns it over a few times: no leaks, label still says everything it used to, looks fine. He unscrews the top, drinks it down, recaps the bottle and pitches it onto a table. He reinforces his poker face and yanks off the last strip of gauze.

        “Welp,” he says, “go for it.”

        She takes her time positioning her hands around him: then, without asking if he’s ready, she lets the current go, and he lights up like a wire loop held in a flame. If he has ever wondered what she thought about him, he doesn’t now. He is blazing from the inside out, flashes and flares of gold, orange, green, nearly blind with it, but he catches a flicker of her intent, abstracted, fierce face, her teeth set in her lower lip. There are tiny electric crackles in his chest where something is being burned out, painful almost to the point of ecstasy, purifying. The love coming off her is appalling. There is no living up to it. For a moment he is afraid he will dissolve, or evaporate. If he does, he thinks, she will boil him down and reconstitute him, molecule by molecule. He will be in her hands, wherever he is. There is nowhere outside them. He closes his eyes.