They saw the smoke before they saw the house. In the midst of the forest, right where their home had been, a pillar of smoke rose high above the canopy, lazily billowing through the air, fading away as it reached the altitude of the clouds. Even from a great distance away, the mother-daughter pair could see a ring of black, charred forest that spread out from the base of the smoke pillar. A flicker of orange amidst the black indicated that something was still burning. Needing no directions from Lily, Prei immediately sped up, pushing her large body to its limits.
They landed with a crash, rather than with a touch. Moving far faster than she was accustomed to, Prei was unable to slow down in time, crashing headfirst amidst the forest which surrounded their home, tumbling forward among the black trees. The impact threw Lily off of Prei’s back, but Lily quickly rolled forward and broke into a run while Prei rapidly morphed into her human form so she could more easily break her fall. Lily did not have to search for Iris – the girl was lying on the ground, unmoving, right in front of them.
Lily ran up to Iris’ side and knelt down next to her wife, panic overtaking her.
“Iris! Oi! Iris! Wake up!”
The android’s eyes opened slowly, her face slowly changing into a smile when she recognised the presence standing over her as Lily. Her eyes, beautifully mismatched, one red as a rose and the other green as grass, were shimmering and distorting, her green eye rapidly refocusing and defocusing. Her voice, soft and strained, sounded from her lips, passing through small movements in her mouth.
“Lily… You made it. I knew you would. I… waited.”
“Of course I made it. I’m a part of you, you’re a part of me. We are one. Remember? That’s what we promised on our wedding day.”
While Lily spoke, she quickly scanned Iris’ body for the damage. It did not take her long to find the problem – a large hole had been blasted cleanly through Iris’ chest, exposing her core. More precisely, it exposed a part of her core – a large section of it was clearly missing. The crystal of amber that was made of pure, condensed mana had a hole blown through it, and wispy strands of amber magic were now flowing outward from it, dissipating into the air. A gasp from behind, followed by rapid footsteps, signalled that Prei had righted herself and caught up to them. However, Lily had no time to attend to her daughter at the moment. She quickly threw out her arm, causing a compartment to slide open, revealing a wide array of tools. Emptying it on the ground, she spoke to Iris while probing the damage with a gentle finger.
“Don’t worry, Iris. I’ll fix you. It’ll just be a while, but I’ll fix you.”
Iris shook her head.
“No, Lily. There’s no fixing me. The damage is too extensive; not even you-”
“Shut up and let me fix you.”
Lily reached toward Iris’ core and grasped the strings of magic in her hands, carefully reading the magic. What was the damage, what was missing, what had to be replaced. She had to find out all of this, and quickly. Iris continued to attempt to dissuade her.
“Lily, stop. There’s no-”
In their long relationship, Lily had never once spoken so curtly to Iris. But she did so now. There was too much at stake to care; she could apologise to Iris later, after she had been repaired. But first she needed to make these repairs. Iris, knowing fully well how stubborn Lily could be, sighed and stopped resisting, letting Lily make her own judgement.
Delving into Iris’ core protocols, Lily quickly identified the missing component – Iris’ intelligence core. The component that granted her sentience and intelligence. This was what made Iris, Iris. Without it, she was just a collection of parts. Lily cursed. Of all the components to have been damaged, this was the worst possible outcome. Loss of the other components could be worked around – most of them were not vital to survival. But the loss of her intelligence core was akin to death. She would have to re-synthesise the core from scratch and use it to plug the hole in the system. Lily scrutinised the rest of the core, reading it with a focus that she had not known she possessed. She read every remaining line of ManaScript, trying to understand how the original core was formed, trying to find what she needed to do to make it whole again. She noted every hanging variable, every half-completed string, every line of code that called a method that corresponded to nothingness.
Having noted these, she began to concentrate, holding out her hand. Ordinarily, she would have written the code with a finger in the air, to minimise the likelihood or error, but there was no time for that. To account for the higher likelihood of error, she simply made no error – so deep was her focus. She spontaneously generated blocks upon blocks of code, the methods and variables and logic trees overlapping in the palm of her hand, a glow emitting from it as she poured her mana into her hand and the mana began to condense into an amber ball of highly condensed script. When this was done, Lily hurriedly brought this ball next to the hole in Iris’ core, watching anxiously as the small lines of incomplete, damaged code reached out and probed the surface of the new code, latching on to variables that they sought but could no longer find. Once each small tendril of code found something to latch on, the ball glowed a bright red and disappeared before Lily’s eyes. It had been rejected.
Sparing no time for emotion, Lily quickly dove back into the depths of Iris’ core, analysing everything again, trying to find what she had missed. Beside her, she vaguely registered Iris speaking to Prei, while the dragon freely cried, but she paid it no mind. She had a task to complete, and she was determined to finish it. She finished her analysis, then condensed a block of code again, including all the improvements or fixes she had identified. Again, it disappeared in a flash of red. She made two more attempts, and both were promptly rejected.
Screaming in frustration, Lily punched the ground, sending tremors through the area directly beneath them. She punched the ground again, and again, and again, and then sank back on her knees, tears streaming from her face. What good was all her knowledge, all her learning, all her supposed talent, if she couldn’t do anything for the woman she loved, at this moment when it mattered the most? What good was being able to manipulate magic, if she couldn’t use magic to save the woman that had saved her? She allowed a groan of despair to escape her, clawing at her eyes with her fingers, sobbing into her hands. She felt so powerless.
She felt a finger brush across her thigh. Looking up, she saw Iris looking at her with a look of pained resignation. Iris turned to Prei and nodded, causing Prei to turn around and walk some distance away, wiping tears from her eyes. She then turned her attention to Lily, giving a weak smile.
“See? I told you… you couldn’t do it… You’re a genius, but you’re not Liliana. You learned magic… She was born into it… maybe if you had several hundred more… years…”
Lily gave no response, choked up by a sob. Iris smiled weakly, her hand lifting up slightly.
“I can’t… fully move my arm… I think my motor processes are starting to go… I want to… touch your face… Help me?”
Lily said nothing and placed two arms under the body of her lover, lifting her up while staying in a kneeling position. She took Iris’ left arm and raised it to her face, resting it lightly against her cheek. Iris’ fingers moved slightly, wiping away her tears.
Iris began to speak.
“Looks like you… were right, Lily… Vessel was after me…”
Lily choked as a fresh batch of tears flowed. She didn’t want to be right. Not about this. Not this time.
“I’m… glad you left me behind… If you had been here… she might have killed you too…”
Lily’s arms shook, trembling with regret. She should have taken Iris along. She should have brought Iris to the front. Then she might have been able to protect Iris, might have been able to stop this from happening. Iris’ body flickered, briefly returning to the completely metallic appearance she had borne the first time they had met.
“Ah… Looks like… my time’s almost up… I’m going to lose this appearance soon… But I’ll still be here… for a while. I won’t be able… to speak or… move… but I’ll be aware… Until the glow fades… Until then… please don’t… leave… me…”
Lily nodded slowly, closing her eyes in grief. Iris’ fingers moved again, caressing Lily’s cheek and face. She placed her thumb on Lily’s lips.
“Come on… Don’t let… the last thing I see… be your grieving face… your closed lids… Let me… see your eyes… and your smile… one last time…”
Lily forced her eyes open and looked straight into Iris’ mismatched eyes. She tried to tame her lips into a smile, but it was impossible. There was no way she could smile in this situation. She choked out an apology between her sobs.
“I’m- I’m s-sorry, Iris. I love you too- too much.”
Iris showed Lily a resigned smile.
“I… thought so… that’s… what I wanted to… hear. I’m sorry… for… being selfish… I love you… as well… I.. love you… so… very… mu…-”
Iris’ human appearance abruptly disappeared, leaving behind a girl, made of metal, glinting in the orange light cast by the setting sun. From the hole in her chest, a soft amber light pulsed, a warm light that grew dimmer by the second. Clutching the body in her hands, Lily brought the cold body of her lover close and released a howl of grief that shook the forest.