— 32 TICKS TO ENDPOINT — JANUARY 20XA —
I was in the High Chapel of the Temple Tower, when they struck hardest, and I was praying. Praying like aunt Ala taught me, kneeling at the statue of the Subtle and Fine, human-visaged but of empty eyes, in the company of Sa-keni and fiery redhead Alhambra and gentle Tana and the muscular one they called Hand of the Fair and Glorious, whose name I never managed to learn. Not then, not now or ever.
The topside of the temple, marble, painted atop shining white, was burning — like cardboard, consumed by a fire that was also water and metal, corrugating before turning into ash and droplets of thin mist. How— they had never gotten so close to the Temple; they must’ve breached Earth airspace like they did in Europe…
The siren blared, a voice commanded over the intercom: “Red alert. All units at post. Blasphemy Unit launch in 5 minutes. Red alert. Red alert. All units…”.
I was already running. Under my breath, I chanted the rest of the devotion, fearing the repercussion of the Forms, the gods-of-humanity that we worship: the Subtle and Fine, the Fair and Glorious, the Severe and Mysteric, the Loving and Lustful, the Ascetic and Stalwart, and the minor deities… the pantheon was so full, but we celebrated all the ascended gods, the pure Forms, to anchor us in our fight against that which is inherently inhuman. Non-Euclidean. Sentient, for sure, deadly just as much, and as such not just obstacles or perils but enemies here for us, enemies for the better part of a century.
They had never managed to reach so close to our core.
We all ran through the corridor. Sa-keni, slender and tall and graceful, actually passed me, but didn’t gloat at the hangar entrance like they used to every time they beat me to it — they just sprinted toward the end of the ARMOR bay, where their mech awaited. I did too. Mine was the closest, directly across from the hangar entrance, and I was on the elevator platform putting on my gloves just as the minute-to-launch signal blared in the whole hangar bay, ready to meld with my ARMOR.
Our enemies had tried to become more and more like humans to understand us. They shifted their forms, awkwardly imitating us at first, but little by little finding better mimicry, then understanding, throwing us off guard and thwarting our best-laid plans for attack. Humanity decided to strike back the same way: building ARMORs out of tech and the non-Euclidean matter of the enemies’ corpses, shedding some of our humanity to better witness and affect them. Few people — very young, very motivated — were able to withstand the process of riding within an ARMOR. I was able, barely. Last of the class.
But still in the class.
I entered the cockpit and as my body shifted into the restraints, it came into contact with the rest of the non-Euclidean material. It confused the senses — soft and hard and flowing and tight and repelling and attracting at the same time. And as I touched, the net patch in my neck blared to life, connecting to my ARMOR’s, carefully, and then into full comms.
“… Alhambra checking in. Clear.”
“Green, Alhambra, copy.”
“Green Sa-keti and Tana, copy. Hand, please come in.”
A beat of silence. I took the line as soon as I could think clearly again. “Hera, coming in. All clear”, I said, glancing at the diagnostics.
“Green Hera, copy. Hand?”
Their deep voice filled the cockpit. “Hand of the Fair and Glorious checking in. We had a yellow with a solve, all clear.”
“Green Hand. Green Blasphemy Unit. All copy. Launch is go in… minus twenty-eight seconds, now.”
“Copy”, we all answered like a disorderly choir.
I took the control levers and pushed on the pedals. The movements of my body mapped weirdly to the ARMOR’s — it vaguely resembled a human shape, but it didn't quite move how I’d have expected a human shape to move. I touched through it my Knife and the barrage pack connected to my back, ready to channel the non-Eu munitions through conventional magrail. I could feel it on my back, as though it prickled into my body. I could feel the Knife as if it were my own hand.
I tightened my grip.
At the signal, I launched.
The sky over the city was dark and full of unnatural red lightning. People were running in the streets, a flow of antlike trails down below. I looked at them as we moved through space in the way no person feels they should have any right to. An amorphous blob of non-Eu material that looked like obsidian and glass bubbled above us, releasing almostshapes that quickly coalesced into triangles, darts meant to imitate terrestrial shuttle fighters.
“Formation!”, someone shouted into my mind. It was the Hand. I detested them. I detested them so much. But they were the best of the fighters, the first of the class to be able to offer away their name to the gods as a battle oath, and I had to respect that. I held tight, gripping the Knife and locking onto the darts, waiting for the signal, waiting, waiting…
We dove. The closer to human-things like shuttle fighters they were, the easier they were to damage. I punted into a side dart-shuttle full speed, sending it off route. It veered, subject to gravity. I knew it had a choice to make: get out of phase with Eu-space and become even more vulnerable to the Knife, or remain subject to its laws and crash. I plunged into the dart-shuttle with the Euclidean handle of the Knife to try and break its wing while it was metal and tangible, but it veered and slammed me off with a maneuver that would’ve killed any biological shuttle fighter pilot.
It swarmed off and rejoined with the units that Sa-keni was busy trying to divert. I engaged the barrage pack, but they were too fast. And they pointed their way toward home.
Not just to the city or the country or the planet; precisely to my home, where parents and Keni and Layer were, where my not-quite-abandoned crush diary about Sa-keni was, my childhood room and my first swingsim and my old toys. I knew its direction; I could see it from the windows in the temple dome, up two hundred and eighty floors aboveground in the city at hangar level. I looked at my hand. Something — they ate a bit of the ARMOR when they swung me off. They must’ve—
“Hera!”, Tana screamed. “Hera, they’re—“
“I’m on it.”
I broke from the unit. Sa-keni and Alhambra were on my six readying their Staff and Emitters and their barrage packs. When I scanned for Tana, I couldn’t find her — then I did, diverted by two different swarms of what looked like drone-orbs. A new form. Her hands were full.
Tana’s parents lived across the street from mine, too.
I accelerated. Straining the tie between ARMOR and their patron Form, losing the human parts of it little by little, I became unaffected by gravity and friction, against the warnings of Temple Control and of the Hand blaring somewhere in regular space. I strained and reached for the front unit of the swarm and plunged the Knife into it; it was insubstantial enough to penetrate it like butter and cut a swath that bled into the trajectory, a wound that stretched into thin globular matter even as it dragged and pinned the Euclidean parts of the dart into a fiery explosion. As I struggled to summon my humanity — my ARMOR’s humanity — again and return to Eu-space, I braced for the attack of the rest of the swarm, engaging the barrage pack and hitting another…
just as I saw Sa-keni, their side wounded, plunge in front of me.
“Sa-keni? Where’s Alhambra—“
and then I scanned and couldn’t dodge fast enough the dart-shuttle that had just bisected Alhambra’s ARMOR, and was heading full speed into me.
I felt weird and free. Free of my body, free of my self, free of my dysphoria and my needs. Free of my ties. I felt them distant, like I never existed but for myself and in myself. I spoke an eerie language of vibration and pearlescent matter, orbiting through me and around me. I was the ARMOR. No. I was them, for a long, powerful moment, and I was no longer human.
My lips moved. (They existed still. They just weren’t part of my housing anymore.)
They intoned a prayer,
to the Subtle and Fine, whose symbol, the Knife, I carried, asking with fading intensity to get back to humanity.
Just a reflex. By the end of it, I wasn't sure I wanted to.
But then, IT answered.
END OF EPISODE 1:
AT THE BEGINNING, AT THE END, A FLOWER BLOOMS, A PARASITE SPECIES: HERA THE PILOT AND THE SIGH OF THEIR FLESH.
Episode roll: ⚁ — the next episode is (episode 1 + 2): Episode 3.
Protagonist roll: ⚅ — the protagonist came back from the dead.
ARMOR roll: ⚅ — the ARMOR is a piece of GOD.
IN THE NEXT EPISODE OF PLOT:
(shot: Hera landing with their ARMOR; the shot is them in the cockpit, still bandaged from the hospital. The back of their ARMOR is darkened, as if Rorschach-test blobs were swimming through it.)
Sa-keni: “Why did you do that, Hera? Why did you… eat… that ARMOR?”
(shot: Alhambra’s ARMOR, transfixed by a spear that has grown out of the blade of Hera’s ARMOR’s Knife, limp, into scaffolding, missing much of their torso and legs from just above the knee down, observed by Karol Tkan, Temple Superior, and his lackeys.)
Hera: “There is a secret in the non-Eu matter, Sa-keni. I saw it! The ARMOR…”
(shot: Tana kneeling in despair in front of the crashed dart-shuttle that devastated her neighborhood, her parents beside her, one of them touching her shoulder)
Hand: “You have violated the sacred tenet. You have almost awakened IT. (A beat.) Awakened GOD.”
(shot: Hera brandishing a scalpel while in hospital robes, shaking, as the Hand confronts them and knocks them to the ground.)
All together: “In the next episode of PLOT: THREE: THE NAME WE WILL NOT UTTER.”
(title atop shot: the control room at Temple Control, white marble intersected with dark circuit-lines throughout, one giant screen in the middle indicating: “HERA — ARMOR — SPECTRE OF SILK”, “FORM HOLDING: 62%” beside a live feed of Hera’s ARMOR going berserk and destroying the camera.)
Hera (frantic): “You don’t understand. I’ve been chosen. I can be the DEMIGOD!”