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Debugging (Or: Working Out the Kinks) [Pt. 3/?]


Via

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So I've been sort of splitting my attention between like 5 different fics lately, but this one seems to be the clear winner in terms of keeping it! it’s about cyberpunk lesbians bonding over some initially-unexplained sneezing and features Sev, who is Very Smart and Very Overanalytical, and Crane, who doesn’t like asking for help. They're in the same merc group together and this is what happens on their offtime. I hope you guys enjoy!

1.

Crane flouts her name in exactly one way: she fights with her hands.

And they're gorgeous hands too; all smooth and slender, good nails, and her implants make vibrant blue spiderwebs across the flesh near her knuckles, pulsing like veins—sometimes when she moves it's so fast I swear I can see light trails. She's self-conscious about them, I think, as self-conscious as Crane can ever be, buthonestly if Death tap-tapped me on the shoulder right this very second, all businesslike, "Come on Sev , get in the bag," I'd point to those hands and depart this mortal coil with them gently squeezed around my throat. Pretty suboptimal pickup line, I guess—"hey babe, I don't want anything else to kill me but you~"—but I feel like she'd appreciate the thought? Not that I'll ever get a shot, anyway, not when even thinking about saying anything gives a nice dose of that cozy 9-volt-wrapped-in-foil feeling…but okay, okay, enough. Avert gaze from navel, call cops on pity party. Back to Crane.

I nudge the opacity on the holo, just enough to almost-sorta see her through it without looking up from the DB of unsecured corpnet access points I've been idly building in between bouts. The Black Kites, like most lowriser merc squads, sort of fragment in between contracts—we've all got our hobbies, our downtime stress relief. Zaimont's got his finance gig, Beebee juices the fuck out at whatever AR club hasn't banned her, Glitter…coiffs his hair, probably, fuck if I know and fuck if I want to, then and then there's Crane, with 'her' dojo. She doesn't technically own it, but when people ask who runs the place no one points them to the landlord. She's the center of gravity here, the effortless leader, the one you look up to because it feels natural, it feels right. It's a far cry from yours truly, Total Shut-In, Drifter Extraordinaire, and currently Live-In Tech Support for the dojo and the surrounding buildings. It's a pretty cushy gig: keep the HVAC network running, patch the smart recycler whenever the latest update inevitably trashes something, and a hundred other stupid little things—and I can do almost all of 'em from right here in the dojo, in my little nook off to the side corner. Right here with Crane.

Hands aside, the handle fits: tall, lean, long limbs, breath-catch graceful—and capital-P Pretty. Like, really pretty. Like, "Sev's fucking gay now I guess" pretty. Copper-bronze skin, corded muscle in all the right places (there are no wrong places), strong jaw, great lips, and her hair, even now, slicked with sweat and all spiked out, her fucking hair—so help me god she doesn't use anything on it but a pair of scissors how is it so fucking dark and smooth and full—

"Again. Count of three, ready?" come the words, spaced between deep, even breaths. She's pacing on the mat, drawing nice tight circles, eyes back-and-forth between the two guys she's sparring, tracing their orbits. Decent-sized dudes, maybe an inch or two on her, kinda samey face. Brothers, maybe, with matching taste in shitty hair dye: chrome blond on one, crash red on the other, and that classic first-timer scowl on them both: half scared, half pissed, that why can't we land a punch, what are we doing wrong look, making them all tense. Never seen it last more than two sessions.

"One."

My eyes flick up from the DB screen, where I haven't touched a single cell since the session started. A whole six characters in the query bar, though. Lightning speeds, considering the circumstances.

"Two."

Crane's voice is—shocker—hot. Just as hot as every other part of her. There's this kinda raspiness to it, the good rasp, not like some wheezy pack-a-day chromeboy or poor bastard with vent lung—just natural richness, all warm and crackly. Makes me think of salted caramel.

"Three."

She breathes in, relaxes. Blondie looks amped enough to start punching himself, but Red's moving in. He feints left, right, throws a hook—but Crane's not there, she's spinning past him, eyes on Blondie as he lunges, tracking his fist, catching it, jerking at his elbow and tagging a pressure point. "Better," she says, nodding as he gasps and yanks at where her arm used to be. "Less weight on your right next time." She ducks Red's kick, lashes out a snakebite at his ribs that almost drops him even through the sparring gloves. She pauses, looking down. "Yeah, that was good. You're noisy, though. Too much shuffling." From behind her, Blondie's getting up—and then suddenly he isn't, dead-fishing on the mat and clutching his shoulder while Red shuffles closer with a burst of punches, bam-bam-bam. "Sloppy. Don't show me your corners like that," Crane murmurs, but she humors him, parrying open-palmed, forearms moving with the flow. Four, five, six impacts, brushed aside as he leads her to the corner of the mat, more feet than she's given up this whole session. What's she waiting for? No, wait, she's—something's wrong. I blank the holo and lean in, and I can see it in her face, the way her brows knit, jaw twitching. Crane never, ever stresses when she fights. Just doesn't. Closest she gets is a kind of lasery glare, like she's reading the real good part of the book, but this isn't—no, holy shit, she actually looks annoyed. Red's next swipe gets dodged, not parried, and I hear her vent a quick breath out through her nose, looking like she's gonna say something but doesn't, getting ready for the next one—he puts his weight behind it this time, bearing down, his hand meets hers, her implants glow, she grunts and sidesteps and then whoosh, Red's spinning, up, over, out, spread-eagled with half his body off the mat. He groans. but I'm not watching him, I'm watching Crane, as her forehead creases and her nostrils flare and her dark eyes flash up at the ceiling, lidding over, lips parting, a sudden sharp inhale—

"hhh...HUEHSHOO!!"

The sound echoes through the dojo, shotgunning the floating dust motes that wink in and out as they catch the orangey light. It's loud, even with out the dojo's prefab sheet metal walls giving it a bad trashpunk band's worth of reverb. Blondie looks up. I look up. The other guys in the dojo snap out of that Watching-Crane-Spar trance like their VR cortex plug just got pulled. They blink, and they look up too, staring at her for real this time. Join the club, dudes.

I've never seen Crane sneeze before.

That thought along with a couple hundred others all crystallize and decompress at once, fighting for space and making it hard to follow what happens next. Crane's breathing hard, sniffling briefly, sharply, and helping up the downed Blondie and Red. They shake hands, and words are exchanged that might as well be in Portuguese. She eases into her stretches, limbering up before the next session, but I'm still busy. Stack overflow. That millisecond slip had jolted something in me like a wire to the temple and I'm running rings around myself trying to figure out why. I blink-blink and call up the holo again, just enough to pretend I'm still focusing. I watch her through it, studying with a hyperfocus all my first-and-only-year tech school profs would envy. The focus in her eyes, the muscles in her jaw, the curve of her neck, up her mouth, her lips, then the crest of her nose. Every now and then it twitches. Has it always done that?

I'm fooling myself, obviously; I already know the answer. Along with every curve and contour, all her mannerisms and little behavioral creases, all the idiosyncrasies and details that make her who she is. It's all very neatly catalogued—not like, stored anywhere for real, that'd be some degree of fucked, but it doesn't need to be, lucky lucky me. I named it Creepy Sev, in freshman year—the part of me that stores every little piece of everything I care about. Nusun Uni, 2231, every single deskmate or study buddy: Oooh, Sev, you're so organized! You're so logical! I wish I could be like that! Sometimes I wonder how they'd feel if they knew that like 90% of those amazing Powers Of Tabulation are spent filing details on Hot Person Of The Month Slash Week Slash Day Slash You Get The Idea. Neurostims might be a scam (I've tried them; don't try them), but just be a sexually frustrated sort-of-lesbian with more words-to-date typed into a shell prompt than spoken to people and you'll be nailing those tricky multimap modeling problems in no time! Terms and conditions apply.

Anyway. Crane. Next bout's already started, and I watch, chin mushed against my hands, but I'm not really keeping up with the moves. It's another pair this time, a girl and her friend who's so sleek with neon skinware I can't tell who or what they're supposed to be. Probably the angle they're going for, honestly, but all the neon in the world can't distract me from the way Crane's narrow nostrils flare with her inhale-exhale, moving like sine curves, the barely-there hint of redness under the skin. The rhythm of the fight stutters—I don't see what's going on really but I can just tell, anyone could, because the way she fights is so smooth and quick and musical that any kind of stumble feels like a sour note—and then she raises a hand again, looking away with a flash of apologetic irritation and and and—

"HuhheESHOO!"

If God paused the Earth right here, crystallized this moment, and asked me What The Fuck Exactly my business is ogling this poor girl's suffering—okay maybe ogling is kinda strong but I'm short on synonyms here; 90%, remember?—I don't think I'd have an answer. I can't explain the thrill that rises in my chest as I watch it take her, every impulse of hers working in concert to deliver a sudden violent rupture of that mercury-smooth persona. It sounds vindictive when I put it like that, but it's not, it just feels raw. Like this is closer to her core than anyone's ever allowed to get, ever allowed to see.

The 10,000 pound anvil of self-awareness that drops, slo-mo, as I realize I'm waxing poetic to myself about my crush's respiratory system shakes me back to what's actually happening. Crane's already apologized at least a few seconds ago—"Sorry. I'm good," comes the instant mental replay, courtesy of Creepy Sev—and now they're back in the thick of it. She's teaching them how to roll someone when they overextend, use their bodyweight against them just like she did with Red; Neon looks like they're getting the hang of it but the other one—Tats, I nickname her, for the snake-and-chain winding down her arm—keeps practically throwing herself. "You're overcorrecting," murmurs Crane, guiding her through the motions. "Don't push into it so much. They'll push for you." She sniffles, and it's not the same jolting seismogram spike as the Main Event but it's still enough to make my stomach tight. What the hell is getting to her? She's not the type to get sick, and with the mods she's got under the hood I doubt she can, but there's gotta be something, right? Gotta be something. People don't sneeze like four times in fifteen minutes Just Because.

"hhh…hheeEHSHOUH!"

Five times. Jesus christ.

Creepy Sev starts cross-indexing the possibilities, laying out each cause and effect: bad reaction to a regulator drug, some kind of modvirus, something venting through the fans, previously-unknown allergy to shitty hair day and/or neon skinprints—I weed them out as fast as I can think of a reason why. Reg drugs cause shit like seizures, not sniffles. Her mods are all aftermarket; viruses don't go for those. Fans, let's see—nope, HVAC console's a-okay, smog index low.

I'm deep in the process of getting absolutely nowhere when Crane's sixth and seventh sneezes taser-prod me back to reality. In the tiny emotional crawlspace left over from the sudden wash of whatever-the-fuck-I'm-feeling, I let myself sulk a bit. Stop overthinking it. Just watch. Enjoy this while it lasts, for whatever fucked-up reason you do.

The next few minutes don't disappoint. It seems like every time Crane's about to catch her rhythm, the sneezes throw her off, making her snap forward in a barely-restrained whipcrack of force—I imagine her abs clenching with the sudden motions and have to crank the opacity higher to hide my blush. But even through the haze of whatever-the-fuck-it-is that's making me stare at her, I can feel a pattern, slowly building, unfurling its points and paths in the same overactive partition of Brain de Sev that wakes me up at 3am thinking about binary trees. It never happens when she's talking, when she's going slow. Helping Neon through a high kick, fine. Counterbalancing Tats' throw, showing her how to stay on her feet, nada. But then when she goes to demonstrate, when the dull glow around her knuckles flares to azure—

"hh...hh-hHUUESHOO!!"

Bingo. No way that's coincidence. I tear myself away from Crane's face—the slight bleariness in her eyes, the tiny bead of wetness clinging to the tip of her nose—and tap-tap my glasses, turning on the active lenses. The holo goes to private mode, flickery-green for anyone outside my comfy bubble of customized AR. Paranoid, sure, but that's basically my job description—not that what I'm about to do is anything remotely work-related. A few searches and some split windows later, I'm eyeball-deep in studies and diagrams on wetware nerve interference, how certain mods can crosstalk with others and shoot impulses where they aren't supposed to go. It's all stuffy academic shit—all the good info on mods is in private channels, but I'm not horny or impulsive enough to try those from anywhere but the untracked connection in my room—but it doesn't really matter. I know enough about mod tech, and enough about Crane, to realize the only way I'm getting anything on the real problem is to test the signaling manually. AKA, using a cortex jack and diagnostics. AKA, a cable you have to stick inside the cortex itself after 1) finding it and 2) verifying n+1 different failsafes designed to stop brainjacking. AKA, rest in fucking pieces my dreams of swooping down in a halo of light with some shiny new driver code to fix the issue, because the only my pent-up ass is getting anywhere with this is with her explicit permission.

AKA, I need to actually talk to her.

God fucking help me.

--------------------------------------------

Crane drops out of the dojo early. Not that anyone's surprised. Once Neon and Tats are done, she goes for two more spars—one solo, one group of three—before she's gasping for breath in between each intensely itchy-sounding, unrestrained release. They get more and more frequent as she goes on—Creepy Sev wants to say louder, too, but I don't take her word for it. Still, though, by the end of round 3 (technically round 7, but everything before that first sneeze has sorta been shoved into a bulging cabinet marked 'FILE LATER') she's the closest to a mess I'd ever dare to call her: reddened nose, streaming eyes, near-constant congested sniffles synced with the subtle twitches of her overworked nostrils. Some of the regulars murmur apologies at her back, which she catches with a nod. Hasn't been talking much, these last few bouts—when she does, her voice is husky, the highs in its natural warm arc muted by congestion. It sounds…kinda hot, honestly. Like she means Business. Thinking about hearing more of it is almost enough to make me stand up and catch her myself, but then comes the mental image of her still vaguely itchy and exertion-flushed face looking right at me, eyebrows raised, waiting, and hoohh god did you know it's possible for your knees to get weak when you're sitting down?

So I keep sitting. And I wait. And I watch, as she walks, with long, fluid strides, right up to the dojo's back door and up the stairs, AKA the Insurmountable Void, because if there's one thing even less remotely possible than me holding a coherent conversation with Crane, it's me doing it in her god damn room. The idea alone makes Creepy Sev have some sort of minor aneurysm. There's just—there's just no goddamn way I can talk to her or watch her listen to me without folding up in on myself and crunching into a singularity. None at all.

And maybe it's the ridiculousness of it, the sheer pipe-dream insanity, that lets me stand up, fold my holo, and start walking.

The dojo is maybe thirty feet long but it could honestly be triple that; I'm barely paying attention to it, or the people around me, or, oops, literally anything at all besides the overclocked pulse racing through my chest.I don't consciously move forward so much as just drift through space; but at some point I reach the back door and open it. Then I start up the stairs, left foot, right foot. The corridor is low-ceilinged and smells like smoke and disinfectant. At the top, I hang a left, and then proceed to almost bash my head against a narrow, honest-to-god real-ass wooden door, not even a padlock. It's not marked, but it doesn't need to be; no one but her has that kind of quiet confidence. I stand there for a few seconds, try to take some nice calming breaths—

"hh…huhh…hhHUESHUH! Uhn..."

OR I could throw all that to the fucking wind, raise my hand up and knock, three quick raps, before I literally disintegrate into a puddle on Crane's doorstep. It feels so loud; was I too loud? I don't know, I can't know. Everything feels amplified. I count the second with my breaths. One, in. Two, out. Three, in...

There's a careful click from the other side, and then Crane is there, inches from me, one gorgeous hand pinching and rubbing at her nose. She blinks—her brand of abject shock. "Sev. Hey." The slightly-stuffy tint to the words sends little static prickles through my whole body. "What's up?"

What's up is that you are the most impossibly attractive person I've ever interacted with and every time you sneeze I have to reevaluate my kinks, personality, and general life decisions, and also I would like you to beat me up and maybe spit on me, I think? But like hey no worries we can unpack that later, for now oh god it's been like four seconds Sev you need to SPEAK you need to say something say something SAY SOMETHING—

I take a deep breath.

"Are you... are you okay?"

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This is absolutely amazing~ I adore your writing style so much!

The humour you interject into your writing is fantastic, and your descriptions are so vivid it's like I can see everything so clearly in my mind, and I love that when I read fics. I could honestly sit and read your work for hours, even if it isn't sneeze-related. It's just that good. (I also agree with Sev, Crane is damn fine, hoooly shit :dribble: )

I really do hope you continue this~ I will be eagerly awaiting an update >w<

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Thank you all so much for the incredibly kind words! I'm not sure if Part 2 will live up to its predecessor, since it has a (gasp) relative lack of sneezing, but I hope it's still enjoyable in spite of that. (Don't worry, though, this isn't going to be a running theme; part 3 is going to be absolutely jam-packed but it needed this intermission to tie things together) Anyway, without further ado.

2.

It takes Crane a little bit to answer, which is Surprise Number One. She doesn’t seem uncertain, just, like, pensive, but maybe ‘pensive’ is uncertain here; I haven’t seen her like this enough to tell. Seems like a good guess, though—you can read most people like books if you know what to look for, but sometimes the book is a foreign-language dictionary where everything cross-references something else so you have to piece together what’s actually going on with context clues and, y'know, a little tiny bit of obsessive personality, just a pinch—

“Been better.” She sniffles again, two fingers idly grazing the underside of her nostrils. “Zai send you to check on me? Tell him it isn’t serious. I’ll work it out.”

Surprise Number Two. Crane, admitting weakness. 'Been better,’ from the chick who took a bullet in the middle of a smuggling run and didn’t let Glitter patch her up until the next fucking day. I guess on-the-job is different, but still. The fact she’s opened up at all, to me no less, is enough to spike my blood pressure a few points.

“Ah, yeah, uh…no! No, it’s not Zai. I didn’t rat you or anything.” I give my best still-uncomfortably-fragile smile and almost manage to actually stare her in the face before my eyes drift somewhere back behind her left ear. I can see the smooth wooden walls behind her, a simple shelf, a desk, everything with simple sharp angles and warm, flat colors. “Swear to god.”

Crane takes another little bit to mull that over. “So, just you.” Her lips twitch, just the slightest curl at the corners like she’s remembered something vaguely funny. I stand there with my legs tensed tight and silently thank God et al. that I’m not the fainting type. “You worried about me, Sev?”

“…I mean, not worried worried. You’re older than me, you can take care of yourself, right?” Holy shit, full sentences! Gold star for Sev. I can feel the panic swelling in my gut, but watching that almost-smile burns it away before it can choke me out. “But I guess I was gonna ask if you, uh, maybe… wanted any help? Or like—I think I might know what’s going on, and I’m pretty sure I can fix it. If I’m right, I mean. Which I don’t know yet, but—”

Crane raises up a hand, and it catches the dirty light bleeding from the hallway LEDs above us. Her skin looks even warmer, and the metal spines and ridges of her implants glitter silver. It’s enough to shut me up. “I’m sick. That’s all. I need a day to refresh, and if it gets worse I’ll call Glitter.” Five fine fingers settle on the doorframe, tap-tapping. She waits. I wait. It’s a long few seconds.

“I-I mean, are you sure?” The Sev Of Yesterday would already be moving, staring at the rust-flaked stairs and throwing every curseword she can think of in ugly Pollock splatters against the inside of her brain—but The Sev Of Now feels something flare inside her. She doesn’t roll over. She pushes back. “Like, do you feel sick? Sore throat, fever, chills, anything?”

Five fine fingers rise from the doorframe and slide away as Crane fold her arms. The smile phases out. “…No. My nose itches. That’s all. Like I said, I’ll work it out.” Maybe it’s wishful thinking, maybe it’s adrenaline amping everything to the stratosphere, but those words don’t sound as rock-solid as I’m used to. She’s shaking her head, but she’s not looking at me, and I jump in again before I can psyche myself out of it.

“Right, yeah, Exactly. Your nose itches. But you aren’t sick, smog’s low today, and I mean, you aren’t even on immunosuppressants anymore, right? Bloodbots basically never throw false positives, so any allergies you would’ve had would’ve been ironed out when you got the infusion. I mean, I guess something could be spoofing them, but I don’t even think they have the frequency access to force the histamine response; if something did fuck with 'em you’d probably go into anaphylactic shock or somethi—”

“How much have you thought about this?”

The question hits like bam, like a chunk of cinderblock, and the stream of nervous bullshit dries right up along with the entirety of my mouth and tongue. I stretch out an “uhhhhhh…” for way longer than you’re supposed to before it morphs into a deeply unconvincing “hhhhI mean, not that much, honestly! Like, you know me, Crane. I’m like this all the time.” The laugh I force out after sells it even less than I thought it would. “Everything’s gotta be a spreadsheet. I just—” And here the emotions start leaking through, and I can feel the heat rising to my skin as I laser-bore my eyes into the wood varnish. “I usually just don’t open my dumbass mouth.”

Crane nods. I watch the subtle flex of the muscles in her neck. “Yeah. That’s why I’m listening.” Her lips don’t quite move but I can see her face change: cheeks relaxing, eyes getting deeper-darker, warming back up. I’m so busy staring that Creepy Sev forgets to parse what she’s actually said until it’s almost too late.

“What do you mean?” The question comes out pretty level—thank you, years of instinctive social disaffection—even though right now my head feels like a rock tumbler. What’s she getting at? Is that supposed to be like, a compliment? Is she saying she trusts me? Does that mean she—

She chews that over, brow creasing. It’s the same look I’ve seen on the mat, in the alleys, in the megacorp exec’s penthouse, fingerblades shining red. Her Fight Look. I wonder if she has to judo-throw her own thoughts as much as I do mine.

“If you were someone else, I would have shut the door,” she says finally. “A lot of people care too much. It’s their job to care too much. The second you aren’t perfect, Zaimont sees you as an anchor, dragging down the team. He wants you fixed. And Glitter just needs his fingers in everything. He wants an excuse.”

This is, to fucking date, the longest uninterrupted chain of sentences Crane has ever said to me. Creepy Sev is running out of storage space, and Real Sev is feeling kinda lightheaded, flushed and frozen-trembling all at once. I try counting the layers of woodgrain in the wall to ground myself as I listen, indexing the words on autopilot.

“But you don’t work like that.” The ghost-smile is back, praise fucking be, and I swear to god I can feel my molecules drifting apart as her eyes meet mine. “You don’t say things until you already know you’re right. And you don’t backtalk unless you think it’s important.”

“I-I mean, I dunno if I’d go that far!” Does this count as important? I mean sure, the Black Kites don’t want Crane taking contracts in her current state, (the thought of her hand pressed fruitlessly to her nose in some cramped dusty alley somewhere flashes up from nowhere, and I kick it away before I have a fucking muscle spasm) but even though I am in fact Legitimately Concerned about her well-being—because she’s jaw-dropping; who wouldn’t be?—it’s definitely pretty far down the list of motivations. (Numbers one through three on that list are some arrangement of 'holy shit another sneeze’, 'please leg sweep me’ and ’g i r l s’, but Right Thing Wrong Reasons is like the motto of the 23rd century, isn't it?). “I just, I don’t want to bother people, y'know? I’m the techie! It’s my job to put my head down and get shit done.”

Crane actually smirks, and a couple hundred neurons in Brain de Sev short like a bad breaker. “The last time you argued with any of us was Nevada Skyrise. We would have walked into that elevator and died before the doors shut.” The memory snaps into focus: me yelling at BeeBee, voice cracking, gesturing frantically to the door with one hand as the other highlights the countdown code on the holo, code that had no fucking reason to be there unless something was rigged to the elevator driver—something that ended up being a blueshift bomb. “If you say I’m wrong, I’ll listen.”

Take the compliment, you fucking ass. Take it. Takeittakeit—

“…Yeah. Yeah, I guess that’s fair.” I exhale, trying and failing to pull off an easygoing grin. “But like, this really isn’t a huge deal or anything. It’s not like that.”

“Maybe it isn’t,” Crane says, “but if you have an idea, I want to know.” She steps back in one smooth motion, easing the door back a little wider. “Inside, though. Sound carries through the hall too much, and you’ve had your knees locked since we started talking. You’re going to pass out if you don’t sit down.”

I blink, and the world takes a little longer to refocus than it should. My legs are prickling a little which is probably a Bad Sign but it’s kinda hard to focus on my imminent unconsciousness when Crane has just fucking invited me inside. I can feel my breath going shallow and it’s getting hard to swallow. So much for not the fainting type.

“I mean, if you’re sure I’m not intruding, or anything…” I give a weird desperate little shrug, fidgeting my hands down by my chest. My hands are gross, by the way. They’re all pale and you can see the tendons because of how much I type and I think the last time I did anything to my nails was like sophomore year of high school? And now that I’m a little over a foot away from Crane and her beautiful beryl-seamed pianist’s digits, they feel even more inadequate—

“No.” Crane shakes her head a little, and I’m so woozy and so focused on the shadows and lines of her face that I don’t even see her arm reaching up to grip my wrist, still warm from exertion and strong as layered alloy. She tugs me gently forward and even though I’m fucking reeling and completely unable to process any of the last few seconds, I actually make it two or three steps before—

—before I’m sitting in a chair at a prefab table, my holo case in front of me, like things just… skipped. Crane’s room is small but looks surprisingly lived-in, with empty take-out bags and clothes scattered on the bed and a few books lined up carefully on one shelf. Not messy, just homey. I take it in all at once, trying to splice together where I am now with where my brain says I was. It’s a weird, disorienting feeling, and I can’t help a shudder as I settle into the threadbare padded cushion. Gotta be more careful next time I get invited in by an impossibly hot girl, I guess. And, speaking of.

Crane’s standing a few feet away, her back mostly to me, the lines of her body framed by the orangey coil lights stretched across the ceiling. She’s getting something from the food synth, and as I stare—because what the fuck else am I gonna do—I see her strong shoulders tense, tugging up her tank top just enough to show a sliver of her trim waist. Her arms grip the table for support, muscles standing out as she fights it with every single fiber of her body, head tilting, hand rising to her face just in time to barely catch the “hhHUHEESHOO!” in the crook of her arm. It’s more hygienic, maybe, but does absolutely nothing to muffle the sound—her room is so small and tranquil that the sneeze feels even louder and more disruptive in here than out. She sniffles loudly, taking another bowl and holding it under the synth, and I curl my toes inside my beat-up sneakers and try to think of something distinctly unsexy. Warts. Car crashes. Hairless cats. Factorials. It’s actually working pretty well until Crane turns around, one hand scrubbing at the bridge and tip of her broad nose. I can see the thin sheen of wetness on her right arm, the way she still looks vaguely irritated, vaguely itchy, like whatever coaxed out that sudden explosion isn’t done with her yet…

Of all the fucking times to get a new fetish. Of all the FUCKING times—

“Here.” Crane’s voice and the familiar smell of synth noodles are enough to snap me out of whatever Escherian turn my sexuality is taking, at least for the moment. “Get some blood pressure back.” I take the steaming bowl gratefully and start sucking them down. The broth burns the roof of my mouth something nasty, but I haven’t eaten since a protein bar at 7am so I’m entitled to my masochism. Crane goes for hers more delicately, fingers carefully lifting a few noodles to her mouth at a time. Her nose is still twitching.

“Thanks,” I murmur, gingerly prodding my scalded palate with my tongue. “I, uh, I wasn’t out long, was I?”

She shakes her head. “Thirty seconds, maybe. You just needed some time. How do you feel?”

Now there’s a fucking question. “Fine!” I blurt, chipper as I can manage. “No, I'm—I’m totally good. Don’t worry about me, I’m supposed to be asking you.”

Crane’s eyebrows arch a little but then she nods, as if to say fair enough. She takes another stupidly-precise bite of noodle and leans back in her chair, completely at ease even with my fidgety unstable borderline-hyperactive self just inches—inches!— away. God knows how she does it; I certainly couldn’t. I stare into my bowl, terrified I’ll have to say something first, but then she clears her throat.

“So,” she says, leaning forward and laying her arms on the table. I let myself get lost in them, tracing the patterns of muscle and metal and light. “What was your idea?”

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Just realized I forgot to update the title, whoops! Fixed now, along with a few other lingering typos and grammatical oddities.

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This fic is fantastic! I love the inner monologue, it's very realistic (and relatable.) I'm totally intrigued; I can't wait for the next update! 

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15 hours ago, Subsiss said:

Her arms grip the table for support, muscles standing out as she fights it with every single fiber of her body, head tilting, hand rising to her face just in time to barely catch the “hhHUHEESHOO!” in the crook of her arm.

I really enjoyed how you described this sneeze building, and her efforts to stop it :D Looking forward to part 3!

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On 18/11/2017 at 2:49 AM, Subsiss said:

There's this kinda raspiness to it, the good rasp, not like some wheezy pack-a-day chromeboy or poor bastard with vent lung—just natural richness, all warm and crackly. Makes me think of salted caramel.

So this was about the point where I started to get properly jealous. This is super well written.

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  • 1 month later...

I just want to thank all of you for your feedback and praise, and ask that you bear with me for this part, which was originally supposed to be much longer and thus doesn't have much snz in it—I ended up splitting it in half so I would have something to post. It's been a hectic few months, but hopefully I can get back into the writing groove and keep things going soon!

3.

"Right. Yeah. Uh, okay, so..." I take one more slurp of my too-hot noodles and just launch right the fuck into it, before whatever tiny shard of self-confidence I have left shatters like riot armor under Crane's fist. (And like you'd assume that mental image is just wishful thinking on my part but no, I've literally seen her crack a paracop's chestpiece open like a fucking crab shell).

"So we've already weeded out organic causes—bio suites don't cause symptoms like this if they're doing their job, and an overactive artificial immune response is something you'd notice right after you got the implants, not just now. That leaves three things that I can think of: modvirus, nanojackers, or interference. Now, none of your shit's off the shelf, I know that much, and like—a lot of it's refurb milspec, right? Cut outta SWAT squads and reverse-engineered." Crane nods serenely, like my nervous torrent of words is just washing right by. I can tell she's paying attention but she's just so cool about it, so mellow and nonjudgmental. Creepy Sev, take some fucking notes. "Right, yeah. So you aren't really the primary demographic for your average skiddie, and even if you were, who the fuck is gonna write something that punches through military-grade mods to make y—" I realize the verbal corner I'm backed into exactly one and a half words too late, and swallow the rest of the sentence along with a spontaneous spoonful of noodles. Some of the broth splatters on my shirt. Smooth as silk.

"...to, uh, just to give you an itchy nose?" And there's the recovery, perfect form; Sev advances to the semi-finals. Saying those last few words feels like something hot and prickly is hollowing out the space between my stomach and my throat, but it's doable, unlike anything related to the Main Event. "So modviruses are out, and Nanojackers have pretty much the same arguments against 'em, but those fuckers work fast-- I bet most of your stuff is self-hardening so worst case you'd just drop a couple links and your redundancies would kick in, or I guess if they hit enough you'd go into a coma. Either way.." I can feel myself dialing up the speed as I talk, throwing all my desperate mental clawing to keep it casual under a street compactor, but let's be real, 'stop and acknowledge what you just said' Is Not Happening at this juncture. Might as well just run with it 'till I collapse from lack of air or break the finish line.

"Either way, that's not what's going on. Which m-m-means—" I bite back a sharp, venomous sigh as the stutter punctures my sentence—nearly a decade of classroom humiliation and self-taught speech therapy vs. one(1) sexy martial artist is apparently No Contest—and force myself silent. Refresh, refocus. Take two. "Which means the only viable cause left is interference, and that actually makes a lot of sense! It's not super common, it's hard as fuck to track, and it can have all kinds of weird-ass symptoms that can look like other medical stuff if you don't know any better." I suck in a deep breath, belting out the home stretch. "And, more importantly, your, uh, your s-symptoms only happen when you use a certain muscle group, which is a dead fuckin' giveaway. Any time you have more than like four or five neural chains running at once, you're gonna get some crosstalk, but it usually just gets filtered out at the firmware level, keyword usually. I'd bet money one of your motor drivers has been sending junk impulses to the trigeminal nerve since you got it installed, but one day maybe a buffer overflows and tags on some extra requests, maybe your signal heuristics change, what-the-fuck ever, and now suddenly your cortex thinks those junk signals are legit. So it fires 'em through, and every time it does—" I trail off sharp as a paper cutter, praying with every atom I won't have to finish that sentence.

Crane, amazingly and terribly, gets the hint. "...I sneeze," she says, looking thoughtful. She raises a hand to her nose again, running her fingers up and down across one side. Almost casual. I stare intensely at my noodles. "How do you know so much about this? I thought you didn't work on wetware. "

"Oh, I mean, I usually don't! I looked up a bunch of stuff like an hour and a half ago, ran a couple sims, and the data structures they use aren't super different, just pared down, so most of it clicked pretty easy. I'm a fast reader." I'm so wired up and breathless that the words burst out before I realize how they sound. Crane blinks, taken aback, and I imagine a beautiful future where my bowl of noodles slowly subsumes me into the brothy abyss—

But then she laughs, and I feel real again. It's soft and rich and so fucking genuine, her smile so subtle but so bright, and with any other person I'd get that split-second stab of panic, of they're laughing and the joke is you— but not here. Not her.

"All that in an hour and a half." Crane shakes her head in half-disbelief. "You're always a surprise, Sev. Always. You joined the Kites...2 years ago?"

"One year eight months," I say, on instinct. I have the days and weeks too, but Research Has Shown that people get weird at you when you give them more than two degrees of precision. Crane wouldn't get weird, Creepy Sev whispers seductively, but I'm sure as fuck not about to test that theory now.

"One year eight months," Crane repeats, with a little of the laugh still in her voice, and like my cheeks are on puppet strings I'm suddenly smiling too. "That long, and every time I think I know you, you prove me wrong." She takes one last bite of her food and sets the bowl aside. The little dnk of plastic against the table feels like a gunshot. "Not a lot of people can do that; keep themselves a mystery. It says something about you, I think. Something good."

Uh. Uh. How do I—how. How? h

"...Anyway." Like an angel from above, delivering me from the abject hell of trying to respond to her compliment, Crane breaks the silence again. (That was a compliment, right? There's, like, no other way you could take it without some Olympic-tier mental gymnastics that I'm obviously doing anyway but at least have the presence of mind to dismiss as Bullshit). "So, what now? You know what's wrong. How do we fix it?"

I know the answer to Crane's question but the syllables don't want fit together right. We! Since when is it we?!Creepy Sev is working unpaid overtime and loving every microsecond.

"....uhm. Hm. I guess... I've got a mod suite on my holo, and a decompiler, and the impulse library, so uh, I guess if you weren't busy, I could just…I mean I could set up a test suite and do it manually? Maybe?" My voice cracks on the 'maybe' and I want to fucking scream but I force myself to keep talking so I can't—"Or Glitter probably knows a bunch of techs who specialize in wetware, so if you wanna just go and ask them you could definitely d-d-do that too. I mean, they're your mods, so it's totally up to you."

"...you can do it yourself?" This is the most eyebrow-arching I’ve ever seen Crane do in one sitting and I’m not sure if I should take it as a Bad Sign or a Badge of Honor. I guess those aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive? "You don't need wetware tools?"

"Nope! It's not even a physical problem," I babble back, shaking my head and trying to stop my hands from clawgripping the table. "Crosstalk happens at the digital level so all I need is access to your cortex jack and the stuff in my holo. Finding the bad impulse might take a while but that's kinda mod stuff in general, you can do it fast or do it safe and I-I…I wouldn't want to fuck something up and hurt you because I was trying to be all efficient.”

“All right,” she says. There’s only a millisecond of hesitation, but just like that, my stomach starts crunching itself into a little ball. “If you’re sure.” If you’re sure. If you’re SURE because you can’t be fucking trusted with anything and why would anyone assume you can do ANYTHING right the first time, so they have to be sure, if you’re fucking SURE—

“I...” I suck in a slightly strangled breath and almost shake my head, but the Sev of Now is a girl possessed. Thoughts bubble-bubble-burst up to the surface, bottle-rocket style, and with a massive wrenching surge of willpower I just start talking, letting them tumble out before I second-guess myself into girlfriend-free oblivion—

“I’m not like you and Zai and everyone. I know that. I get it. I’m not confident, I’m not cool, I talk too fast and cry when I eat spicy food and I’m terrified of rustmoths and don’t like leaving my room and I dropped out of a full ride to Nusun freshman year because—because I don’t know but it doesn’t matter, I’m sorry, the point is—the point is that this—” I drop my fist on my holo case, too-hard-too-fast. Crane’s table shudders a little. “This is the One. Goddamn. Thing that I’m honestly, actually, really-for-real good at.” I squeeze the holo-case hard, flashing her a cracked-mirror grin. “I minmaxed life, Crane, and this is where all my skill points went. So if I say I can do something, I can fucking do it. I promise you.”

There’s a long, hellish silence after that. Crane stares, and for once the Feelings ricocheting through my head and down my spinal cord are gone. Numb. Like I’m on anesthesia, waiting for the needle prick to take me under. Drifting. Limbo.

“...I’m not doubting you, Sev. You’re the best techie I’ve run with, and probably the smartest person I’ve ever met. If you say you can, I believe it.”

Crane’s hand reaches across the table. I watch it find mine, real slow, like it’s moving through water. The warmth starts at the back of my knuckles and prickles up my arm and rises out and up and everywhere, until it’s lighting up my whole body from inside, and I feel terrified and perfect and giddy and On Top Of This Wonderful Fucked-Up Earth.

“Before we start, do you want a drink?”

Call me melodramatic (I am calling myself melodramatic right now, right this very second, because I am the performative muse of a fucking Oldworld Broadway stage actor transplanted into a dweeby 22-year-old’s body) but Crane’s voice feels like it’s breathing life back into me, syllable by syllable. “A—like, alcohol?.” Friends drink with each other all the time, dude! It’s a normal thing for normal humans, AKA people who have lives that aren’t 12-hour shifts of coding and sleep. Congrats on your assimilation.

Crane shrugs, oblivious to my inner monologue. Thank god for that. “That’s one option.”

“You—” I sputter, almost laugh. “You’re gonna let me debug you drunk?”

“You won’t get drunk from one can of terrible beer, which is all I have.” She pauses, thoughtful. “Actually, you’re skinny. You might. So no alcohol.”

“I’m not a total lightweight.” I mutter, only half-jokingly. It’s complete bullshit, obviously—yours truly can, has, and will get irredeemably trashed off a couple sangria wine coolers—but a girl’s gotta defend her pride, and I’ll take any excuse to keep Crane talking I can get.

“You also aren’t the one getting your mods tinkered with.”

“I mean, fair.” I relent with a sigh. “All right, d’you have any energy drinks? Red Neon, Kancaf, whatever?”

Crane wrinkles her nose a little, which I try very very hard to parse as something normal. “I never liked those. Feels like you’re drinking sugary servo oil.”

“God, I would like get an IV if I could!” I laugh, and it feels freer somehow, so much easier than a few minutes ago. “You don’t drink it for the taste anyway. But uh, water’s fine then, I guess. Lemme start setting up.”

“Go ahead.” She starts opening cabinets, ting out a pair of glasses and a filter pitcher from the fridge, and I start poking at my holo, setting up my shell’s test environment like I’ve done it several thousand times--and I mean, I have. Not with parameters like these, though, that’s for fucking sure—

As the self-tests ping 'OK' in a neat line of uninterrupted green (like they'd ever be anything else with how tight I keep my rig, honestly, but paranoia's paranoia!) I watch Crane get the water, an oldworld souvenir glass her left hand and the polycarbonate pitcher in her right. She could crush them if she wanted, Creepy Sev happily provides, making me tap the next few setup prompts just a little bit too hard. Yeah, she could, but somehow watching those hands, those Weapons Slash Tools Slash Instruments of Techie Lust, do something so mundane, so delicate... it's just as mesmerizing as when they're making people dance for her on the mat. I lean in a little as she raises the pitcher, one finger brushing across the filter button. So light, so precise. Always the exact amount of pressure, not a single Newton more. Efficiency is its own beauty and Crane makes it into art.

She tilts the pitcher and pours, the blue behind her knuckles rising to a soft glow as her hands distribute stress, optimize muscle engagement, compensate for the changing weight and volume and god fucking knows how many other things, all behind that gorgeous curtain of alloy and light. They're dead silent too, never noticed that until now; the only thing I hear is the water filling the glass--

Crane's grip on the pitcher tightens. She's got her back to me but I can see the muscles tensing in her wrists, the sudden swell of blueness in between the silver ridges, the way her shoulders square off, go tense, fighting, preparing, jesus fuck here we go again--

"Hh--! HUUHSCHHOOUH!"

Water arcs from cup and pitcher in twin parabolas as Crane's hands no wait arms no wait entire body (holy shit) jerk forward with the sneeze. She recovers like bam, stopwatch-fast, but the damage is done; I can see the dark spots on her tanktop and the drip-drip down the side of the fridge.

"Ngh." She makes a soft, dissatisfied sound somewhere below her layrnx, grabbing a rag from by the sink and wiping the worst of the spill. That shouldn't have happened, her body language says, tight and restrained. I can't help a twinge of voyeuristic embarrassment—this is Something No One Is Supposed To See. But here we are.

"You should pour your own, I think." Crane murmurs wryly. She tosses the rag back on the counter without looking back—thank god, since I'm in absolutely no position to handle eye contact right now—and glides over, setting glass and pitcher on the table. I squeeze, pick up, pour, watch the water glug-glug down. Sev in her Natural Habitat would've just chugged straight from the pitcher, but, y'know. Appearances. I gulp it down and immediately pour another, because wow my mouth is fuckin' arid all of a sudden, can't imagine why...

Two glasses and one bad-swallow-turned-coughing-fit later, I've lived to tell the tale and am ready to Get Things Moving. Well, not Ready ready, but statistics aren't on my side here—the longer I stall, the more the 'LIKELIHOOD OF CATASTROPHIC FUCKUP' meter inches toward a clean 100. I nudge my glasses back up my nose and nod, oh-so-suavely avoiding eye contact once again. Shell prepped, knuckles cracked, palms clammy, hormones running a record high—it's like the fucking VIRT480 midterms all over again. Time to dive in and pray.

"So, um. You ready? 'S'all prepped."

Crane nods, smooth and easy. "It's your show, Sev. Just tell me what to do."

WELL for starters with what I know about hardbody synchronization and milspec implants I'm pretty sure you can lift me with one hand but why don't we test that theory, just for fun—

"Uhuh, yeah. Okay." I take a deeeeep breath, dredging myself out of the dam-break deluge of Impure Thoughts currently boiling down my neurons, and trace my fingers along the braiding of the cable running off my holo frame. "So, where's your cortex jack?" The default spot is back of the neck, but I don't even need Creepy Sev to know that's not where Crane got hers—running around with a naked jack is like a neon KICK ME sign for any enterprising techie, but swap the childhood humiliation for All Your Nerves Are Dead Now. Not worth the risk. "Armpit? Chest? Hip?"

There's a rustle of fabric—Crane tugs her loose grey climber's pants up and over, past the knee, then higher, bunching them near her waist and exposing the smooth taut coppery-caramel expanse of her right thigh. I can see the little silver nub peeking out against the skin, nestled in her adductor magnus—adductor longus? Glitter would know, who gives a shit—and oh god I have in fact been staring at her inner thigh for like four seconds at least, haven't I?

I flick my eyes up and gingerly hand the cable over, course-correcting before I can throw myself into a goddamn nosedive. "All right, so just, uh, hook yourself in whenever you're ready, and we'll get started!"

Crane takes the cable, pressing two fingers against the jack itself to let the biometric reader embedded in the metal do its thing. She starts to screw it in, then glances up. "You sure you're good, Sev?"

"Yeah!" I titter back, too high, too fast. "For sure. Like, okay, kinda nervous too, but when am I not, right?"

"...Right." God, that fucking half-smile could KO a city block. "But I'm not. I know you'll figure it out. It's what you do."

"I-I, I mean, I try my best!" I smile frantically as my brain, in true Sev fashion, goes absolutely clean-slate blank on any kind of even remotely meaningful response to that—but then the jack clicks in flooding my holo with the blocky logic structures and beautifully-ugly symbol chains of decompiled modcode. Freedom. I exhale through my nose, skimming through the sectors as they populate the screen, and then pick one at random. Time to earn my keep.

 

 

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God, I absolutely love this, as ever. Your writing style is so compelling. Can't wait for part 4!!!

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